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Vidi speciosam

Sacred choral music
The Bevan Family Consort, Graham Ross (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2022
St Mary and Holy Trinity, Buckland Filleigh (Buckland House), Beaworthy, Devon, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: May 2023
Total duration: 63 minutes 59 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph © Ben Stoney.

Twelve sacred favourites—and one of Victoria's most popular Masses—in performances of that direct honesty only to be gained through decades of fond familiarity.

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My enduring memories of uncle David from childhood are of long walks in the Somerset countryside before being treated to sausages on the settle at Mill View. In a family as big as ours, it’s often easy to forget there is another world out there—all my friends were my relations and everything we did was as a family. What better way to open an album then, than with the vespers hymn proper to the feast of The Holy Family (observed on the Sunday between Christmas day and January 1st), O lux beata caelitum.

Music was so pivotal to the older generation’s lives that none of us cousins needed to be pushed to pursue it. Some have taken it more seriously and turned professional, but all of us share an innate ability and a love of making music together. In a similar way, Catholicism is part of our shared heritage, and though some have drifted away from the Church, Mass is still a familiar point of reference and a frequent gathering place for Bevans.

After David and his family left Croscombe, my musical journey took a turn towards the dark side, and together with cousins Hugh and Benny, I formed a rock band. We achieved some success performing frequently in London where I reconnected with David and his children. When I finally left home in 2007, I was convinced that rock music would be my future, and though David clearly disapproved, he was always encouraging and even attended a few of our gigs. Edward and I started studying music at university together, and lived close to David so saw plenty of him. So appalled was he by the standards of our course, that he drilled us both in music theory after-hours and made us sit a Grade 8 Theory exam together (we both passed with flying colours, a testament to his teaching skill).

When teaching composition, David always pointed to Sicut cervus as the benchmark for imitative counterpoint. It is a setting of the first 2 verses of Psalm 42 (41 in the vulgate) and probably the best known work by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594), first published in his Motettorum quatuor vocibus, liber secundus (Milan: Tini bros. 1587). The text is proper to the rite of baptism for adults, and to the confirmation of baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil, describing as it does the yearning of one’s soul for salvation. It has been sung by family members at every Bevan baptism I can remember.

By this time David’s Parkinson’s was severely restricting his mobility, so he asked that I accompany him to Holy Redeemer every Sunday to help get cash out for the singers, fill his car with petrol, and retrieve piles of music from the choir library etc., a job I gleefully accepted as I knew it would mean a few pints after mass. He routinely turned up an hour early for everything, not the most attractive prospect for a lazy teenager, but a car journey with David was a hair-raising experience at the best of times, and a few minutes in the passenger seat with Bartók or Beethoven string quartets on full blast was always enough to wake me up.

As I was hanging around anyway, David encouraged me to join in with the choir rehearsals, even though my sight reading was atrocious. I’d be put on the same part as a competent regular to make sure nothing fell apart and gradually got enveloped by the Holy Redeemer family. My sight-reading improved immeasurably and within a few months I had worked out my preferred range (countertenor) and was able to hold an alto part by myself if the need arose.

Spanish polyphony was very popular among the choir, in part because of the church’s connection; the parish priest in the 1960s, Canon Alfonso de Zulueta, was among the first in modern times to unearth the music of the Spanish Golden Age. This music tends to favour top-heavy voice distribution which normally suited the makeup of the choir (not least when David’s four daughters were singing), and the masses of Tomás Luis de Victoria (c1548-1611) in particular are very concise—ideal for a choir containing hungover students with limited rehearsal time! Missa Vidi speciosam was a regular fixture, modelled on Victoria’s own six-voice motet which sets words from the Song of Songs proper to the feast of Assumption. It was first published in Missae…liber secundus (Rome: Coattino, 1592). The album also contains perhaps the most beautiful and best known piece from renaissance Spain, Versa est in luctum by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617), written for the funeral of Philip II in 1598, and published in his Liber primus missarum (Madrid: Flandrus, 1602).

David’s increasing lack of physical ability and general disdain for paperwork had meant that the library had become a mess, and often music he knew was there was impossible to find. After a few weeks I suggested we have a proper spring clean, and so we returned with a pile of plastic wallets and my laptop. This dive into the archives would end up having a profound influence on the rest of my life.

He sat in a comfortable chair while I gradually emptied the shelves, passing him handfuls of music to identify. After disposing of several bin bags full of scrap, duplicates, and rotten illegible editions, we started cataloguing the remainder. Works by Victoria and Palestrina took pride of place, composers most people are familiar with, and I recognised a few more obscure names that I’d heard talked about in hushed tones at family gatherings—Gabrieli, Lassus, Guerrero. With each stack, David’s eyes would light up as he imparted an interesting fact, made an analysis of the composer’s style, or reeled off a list of other works I should look up. The vastness and significance of this 16th-century repertoire began to make itself known to me through his obvious enthusiasm.

He was particularly enamoured with the music of Tudor England, especially the Catholic composers William Byrd, Peter Philips and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), whose O sacrum convivium was probably the most frequently sung communion motet at Holy Redeemer. This album includes a piece by another contemporary, Robert Parsons (c1535-1571/2) who was appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1563 but had been involved with the Royal Court for many years before this, possibly as the choirboys’ supervisor. He drowned tragically young, and left little music as a result, though was clearly regarded highly as a composer during his lifetime. His most accomplished works are settings of Latin texts, two of which were frequently on the music list at Holy Redeemer: the famous Ave Maria, a setting of the Hail Mary, and David’s personal favourite Credo quod redemptor, with words from the Book of Job used during The Office of the Dead. Like the majority of music from this period, neither of these pieces was published during the composers’ lifetime, but survive in several manuscript sources.

For the next 10 years or so, David would pick me up at the crack of dawn every Sunday and Holy Day (in later years having driven all the way from Somerset) and we’d discuss the peculiarities of the day’s mass, which visiting singers had checked in, and the music we had in the library. These conversations gave me an excellent grounding in music history, liturgy, and programming which has been an obsession for me ever since.

In return for this education, I gave David a basic introduction to the internet and together we dug deeper into the repertoire. We had particular fun programming the annual Holy Redeemer choir concerts, basing programme themes around a few pieces in the library and padding it out with interesting things we found online. 2010’s concert was particularly memorable: David had managed to secure the cooperation of His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts and wanted to perform some large scale polychoral works by composers of the Venetian school among excerpts from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in its anniversary year. I contributed some lesser known works by Willaert and Merulo, and David picked a few pieces from ‘the blue books’, a set of Ten Venetian Motets (OUP, ed Denis Arnold, 1980) we had in the library. One of these, a motet by Giovanni Croce (c1557-1609) took my breath away the first time I sang it and remains a favourite to this day.

Croce worked at St Marks for 20 years including as maestro di cappella for the 6 years leading up to his death. His music is quite conservative by comparison to his contemporaries, but masterfully composed. In spiritu humilitatis is a prime example, despite the fact that it is one of the few pieces not published during his lifetime. It appears towards the back of a book of motets by Alessandro Grandi (Venice: Vincenti, 1620) as a seemingly innocuous dialogue between two mostly homophonic choirs. The last phrase however, breaks into an 8-voice cascade, unmatched for effectiveness by any other piece in the renaissance repertoire, except perhaps the last Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s Missa Ut re mi (another of David’s favourites). The text is from the Book of Daniel and is one of the prayers every priest says over the bread and wine during mass. Taken out of this context, it is also a very useful generic text for any solemn ceremony, and as such has been sung at several cousins’ weddings as well as the presentation ceremony for David’s Benemerenti papal medal shortly before his death, and at his funeral at Holy Redeemer.

Discovering such a beautiful piece of music galvanised me to dig deeper still and as my knowledge and abilities increased, David encouraged me to find more and more obscure repertoire to challenge the choir—if I could find a renaissance composer he hadn’t heard of, all the better! This necessitated digging through primary sources and learning to transcribe mensural notation, and eventually led to the birth of The Polyphony Database in 2014, where my editions for all the early music on this album can be freely downloaded.

One of my favourite memories at Holy Redeemer was the Easter Vigil in 2015 when we sang one of my obscure finds: Victimae paschali laudes by Fernando de las Infantas (1534-c1610). David was by this time very decrepit and conducting from a stool precariously perched with its back against the edge of the choir loft. When we got to the huge homophonic Amen, he was so carried away with the music that he suddenly stood upright and thrust his arms out like Bernstein conducting the finale of Mahler 2. It brought a tear to my eye and prompted a few sopranos to take a step towards him in case he lurched back again and cartwheeled into the church!

Infantas was a Spanish nobleman who spent most of his working life in Rome. His magnum opus is a set of 4 books of motets and compositional exercises, Sacrarum varii styli cantionum (Venice: Scotto, 1578-9). The most recent piece of his I have edited, sadly not in time for David to cast his eye over, is Dignare me laudare te, a hymn to the Virgin for seven voices, recorded here for the first time. This is what David would have called ‘steamroller’ polyphony, featuring hints of naughty baroque harmony years ahead of its time.

This is followed by a plainsong Ave Maria, the Offertory for the fourth Sunday of Advent and a particularly beautiful tune. David was a very fine singer of chant in his youth, but his voice was the first thing to go as his illness progressed. He had an unsurpassed talent for accompanying chant, inherited from his father and shared by his brothers, and continued to practise this skill even in the late stages of his life when he could barely sit on the organ stool.

Among the piles of music in the library were more than 300 pastiche fauxbordon settings with assorted English psalms underlaid in David’s trademark illegible hand (written using his Parker Duofold of course) for use as responsorial psalms in the novus ordo mass. David had been writing these for decades, often signed with amusing pseudonyms, and notoriously could whip them up in a few minutes. One or two had become well known in church music circles, regularly sung during vespers at Westminster Cathedral and Brompton Oratory, as well as several Anglican cathedrals, as they were perfect for reciting the day’s psalms.

I saw commercial potential in these along with various other choral compositions of his we uncovered, and began to type them up while David considered how to spend his enormous expected income. When I had finished my degree I founded a publishing company, Presto Publications, specialising in sacred choral music as a vehicle to sell these and my growing collection of renaissance editions. While the company was ultimately a failure (David’s lack of interest in business admin having rubbed off on me somewhat) it was kept afloat for a few years by his Magnificat Omnium Tonorum, a collection of 8 of his best fauxbordons underlaid with the even verses of the Magnificat to be sung alternatim with the chant tones. One of these appears on this album in its first recording, Magnificat septimi toni, performed in the fluid spoken style upon which David would have insisted. It’s a quintessential David Bevan setting, with the chant tune in the baritone line and the glorious harmony woven around it.

Shortly before his death, he and his godson nephew, David Jnr, completed a similar collection for the Nunc dimittis, thereby providing a complete set of canticles for use by Anglican choirs at Evensong. For a bit of variety we have instead chosen to pair the Magnificat with a setting by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) as it gives an opportunity for our professional members to open up their big voices! It’s fitting that this Nunc dimittis (1915) was written for and premiered by Westminster Cathedral Choir (with whom our great grandfather Frank Baldock was singing at the time) under David’s predecessor, Richard Terry, though wasn’t published until its rediscovery by Holst’s daughter Imogen in 1979. We also include Gustav Holst’s setting of Ave Maria (1900) for 8 high voices, another long time family choir favourite.

Finally, we have included Beati quorum via by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), a piece that regularly appears at family weddings, and which was the highlight of our reunion concerts with our parents’ generation. It’s the last of Stanford’s Three Latin Motets (1905) and sets the first verse of Psalm 119. Apart from David’s own compositions, and a handful of well-known works by Poulenc and Duruflé, this piece was the only other work by a ‘modern’ (i.e. not Renaissance) composer I can remember ever singing at Holy Redeemer.

Francis Bevan © 2023

In 1975, the original Bevan Family Choir released their debut album on vinyl, featuring an eclectic programme of sacred choral works, Welsh folk songs, and piano music. The Choir consisted of 11 of the 14 Bevan siblings and was conducted by their father, Roger.

Later on the Choir was taken over by the second eldest son, David, who was to go on to become Assistant Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, an organist and composer of some repute, and eventually Choral Director at Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More in Chelsea, a post he held for 35 years. The Bevan Family Choir stopped performing in around 1984 owing to its members starting families and careers of their own.

The musical tradition continued to flourish within the family until, in 2013, some of the second generation of cousins decided to create their own version of the family choir, naming themselves the Bevan Family Consort so as to distinguish them from their parents’ generation. The Consort has since ranged in size from 15-22 of the 53 first cousins.

Many members of the current Consort spent much of their musical upbringing singing under David at the Holy Redeemer Church, in particular his five children Sophie, Mary, Henry, Anastasia, and Tess. The choir attracted a mix of professional and amateur voices, and since David encouraged full-throated singing with perhaps a touch more vibrato than is usually accepted in this repertoire (the ‘Gozo Cathedral style’ as he called it), the distinctive Holy Redeemer sound was created. The Bevan Family Consort has a similar setup, with 7 professional singers among them. We use a different conductor for each project, and for this album are honoured to have Graham Ross at the helm, whose experience with younger voices made him a perfect choice for high-pressure recording sessions with a relatively untrained choir.

To honour my father David and the influence he had over us all as musicians, this disc consists of music that was introduced to us by him during his years at the Holy Redeemer Church and that have since become beloved by us as a choir. This disc is dedicated to his memory (he died on 27 November 2021) and that of his close sister Rachel (who died on 9 October 2022, mother of Benedict and Hugh), who also had a huge influence on the younger generation of Bevans and was another of the few original ‘BFC’ members to make a career in the choral music profession.

Mary Bevan © 2023

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