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Magnificat, Vol. 4

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
Download only Available Friday 12 July 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Dave Rowell & Simon Eadon
Release date: 12 July 2024
Total duration: 79 minutes 42 seconds
The Canticles
If the psalms are the arteries of Evensong, the canticles are the lungs. This is not an image to be laboured, but it is a vital reminder that the daily liturgy of the Church has a dynamic life. It is not a static, fixed thing, whatever the intentions of Cranmer and his Elizabethan successors. The structure may be fixed—and in a rigorously simple way. Cranmer snarled wittily in the Prologue to the Book of Common Prayer about the Catholic edifice of daily prayer: 'Many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.; But what his structure allows is scripture to do what it does. It allows it because it is almost wholly built on biblical texts, used directly or by inspiration. And scripture being scripture, it will not be hemmed in or held back by any human imposition or artifice, even when constructed by an Archbishop of Cranmer’s literary genius. Those who experience the beauty and discipline of established liturgies are immersing themselves in the full spectrum of the Bible’s power: there is encouragement and challenge, joy and fear, conviction and mystery, story and poetry. There is very limited scope for choosing your favourite bits to suit your theological predilections: and especially when the canticles are simply compulsory!

Indeed, at Evening Prayer—‘Evensong’ when sung—while the psalms and Bible readings vary daily, usually according to a pre-determined order or ‘lectionary’, the canticles remain, unchanging. Cranmer re-worked the older services (or ‘offices’, as they are known in Church terminology) of Vespers and Compline (the evening and night offices) combining them into one. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis were the principal canticles at Vespers and Compline, respectively. Bringing them together in one service of Evening Prayer providentially gave a particular critical mass to the new office. They are ‘gospel canticles’, Bible texts rendered into liturgical song-form and with the pre-eminence of being from the gospels. That is why we customarily stand up for them.

There were canticles aplenty in the traditional daily offices, drawn from across the Old and New Testaments, and they were used in sequence with the daily provision of psalms. But the gospel canticles—the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in the evening—remained constant. Cranmer retained these, though with alternatives. In the Evening those are the Cantate Domino (Psalm 98) and Deus misereatur (Psalm 67), which have lived on in said Evening Prayer rather than in composed settings for Evensong. At Morning Prayer, as well as the Benedictus there are three other canticles: the Benedicite, the Te Deum laudamus and the Jubilate. Of these the Benedicite is perhaps the least often said or sung, if only because of its length and repetitive text. Interestingly the Benedictus has not achieved the sine qua non status of the evening gospel canticles.

A setting of the Te Deum is included on this recording. The Te Deum is an emphatically powerful song of praise, and not a biblical text. It is a Christian hymn from no later than the fourth century of the Church, and so began its life in Latin. Over the centuries it has been used not just in the daily office, but as a stand-alone central text of any special liturgy of praise and thanksgiving: say in response to a victory in war or a royal birth. Something of this kind is happening at the end of Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca, for example. It has inspired many musical settings, some as concert pieces of considerable magnitude.

Essays written for the previous St John’s Choir ‘Magnificat’ recordings by Rowan Williams, Mark Oakley and Lucy Winkett all give fascinating interpretive insights into the texts of the two canticles. You can find them online if you do not have the recordings—yet! Among other things they note in the two canticles the beautiful contrasts between a holy woman and a holy man, between a very young, pregnant country-woman and a very old priest of the Jewish Temple. They also note the very different characteristics of the two canticles: the Magnificat with its clarion, revolutionary passion and the Nunc dimittis with its gently content relinquishing of this life. A shout and a sigh, perhaps.

For Christians you might also say that the canticles tell us something about how to live and how to die. Both stories are from the earliest chapters of Luke’s gospel; but their resonance, their meaning, their application reaches through the succeeding narrative and into the life of the Church and of every individual Christian. Mary’s song moves from astonishment at the privilege which has come upon her, to a clear-eyed vision of what that tells us about God’s demands of human living. It harks back to the prophets’ denunciations of hard-hearted, legalistic religious observance: no amount of sacrifices can make up for disregarding the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. And it harks forward to a similar prophetic challenge in Jesus’ teaching.

Then Simeon’s song, with crystalline brevity, recognises what this tiny child will mean: a light for the whole world, and glory for the Israel who gave him to the world. That light and glory are only achieved at the other end of Jesus’ earthly story, in his death and resurrection, his glorification. It is in the light of that glory that we can live well enough to die well. At every Evensong we wait to hear that climactic word ‘glory’, sung with whatever coruscation of colours the composer’s twist on the kaleidoscope has yielded.
The Rev’d Andrew Hammond
(Chaplain, St John’s College)

Musical notes
The Magnificat recording project offers a unique window into the daily liturgical life of St John’s College Choir which it is difficult for other albums, with the possible exception of The Psalms, to achieve. Throughout this album series, we have surveyed many of the core works of the Anglican repertoire, and we continue that pattern here, but Magnificat 4 looks ahead more than its predecessors. Half of the composers who feature here are living, and we hear canticle settings by female composers for the first time. As we expand our repertoire further into the twenty-first century, we hope to show that the canticles show no sign of becoming stale, but that they continue to live and grow in musicians’ minds.

Anna Semple: Nunc dimittis (2020)
Semple wrote her imaginative, atmospheric Nunc dimittis for The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, when it was Choir and Organ magazine’s New Music partner institution. In Psalm 150 we are encouraged to ‘praise Him upon the strings and pipe’, and so we do with Semple’s inclusion of a violin part—played here by her brother Alexander, a bass in our Choir.

The music begins with a poised, searching violin solo. Discussing the haunting treble solo in Sir Michael Tippett’s Nunc dimittis for St John’s, George Guest wrote: 'Is it too fanciful to suggest that Simeon conceived [the words], was too weak to utter them, but that they were plucked out of his brain (by an angel), and articulated?’. In Semple’s setting, the violin seems wordlessly to play a similar role: perhaps through its big upward jumps we see Simeon’s soul leaping out of his dying body, dancing to its destination.

Semple uses aleatoric, or chance-based, composition. She writes boxes with a number of pitches within them, and instructs the singers to perform them in any order or rhythm. At other times, she sets a line of text under a single note, indicating that it should be delivered quickly and independently of other singers, ‘like a whisper’. There is an almost Pentecostal effect as the texture builds from a lone tenor intoning ‘Lord’ to all singers chanting out of time with each other. The shimmering sonorities Semple invites make the Chapel alive; the sound appears to emanate from the walls of the building.

This recording session was the first to include girls in the treble line, and we recorded one boy and one girl singing the final high treble notes. I wonder how many listeners will be able to tell with certainty which take we used in the end.

Judith Weir: St John’s Service (2011)
Judith Weir was spurred on in this commission for the College’s 500th anniversary by Tippett’s St John’s Service, which was written for the 450th. Weir’s setting is amazingly original, despite using apparently simple means. Robin Holloway, Weir’s composition teacher at Cambridge, wrote that her music is ‘made up of very spare, beautiful images, precise and delicate’.

She begins with an uncomplicated texture with the unusual sonority of two parts in interlocking octaves. Each canticle is in one simple metre and does not change time signature, but her use of rhythm is unpredictable, with hemiola effects and alternation between duplet, triplet and dotted quavers. She fills her scores with detailed, highly effective dynamics. Weir returns to E flat major at the end of every main section of the Magnificat, except for the final cadence before the Gloria, which is in C major, and the final ‘Amen’, which she sets to a sparse open fifth over C.

The Nunc dimittis is texturally and harmonically rich, with altos and basses both dividing in the Gloria. Like the Magnificat, the piece concludes on a soft bare fifth, this time over A. In each Gloria, the music folds in on itself: Weir allows the music to surrender to the silence that follows, which is then picked up by the next piece of spoken liturgy. Herein lies the quality of selflessness to which the best church music aspires.

Jonathan Dove: St John‘s Service (2022)
I recently worked with a composer who said that the mark of a good composition teacher is that their students don’t sound like each other: Robin Holloway taught both Weir and Dove, but these two sets of canticles contrast in most ways! Dr Kamal and Mrs Anna Ahuja, who commissioned these canticles, are loyal supporters of the Choir. This setting is dedicated to the memory of the late Professor Sir Christopher Dobson, Master of St John‘s College from 2007-2019, who was a beloved member of College and hugely supportive of the Chapel and its music.

Dove’s brief was to write a set of canticles that would be lively, popular amongst singers, and that would not demand lots of practice, such that cathedral choirs with little rehearsal time could use it. The glistening chordal opening creates a musical ‘halo’ like Jesus’ recitatives in J S Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The fizzing organ ostinato and dancing vocal lines that follow are similar to the Gloria from Dove’s Missa Brevis. Much like the Gloria, the Magnificat becomes calmer and smoother in the middle (‘he hath filled the hungry’), before the final section returns to the lively music of the opening. The Nunc dimittis is based on the same 2+2+3 ostinato as the Magnificat, but at a slower tempo and without constant quaver movement. The lilting rhythm and the rich, slow-moving harmony of this canticle rock Simeon into his rest. Reversing the structure of the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis reaches a very loud climax at ‘and to be the glory of Thy people Israel’, before returning to a gentle lullaby for the Gloria.

Herbert Howells: Te Deum Collegium Regale (1944)
Whilst he was Acting Organist at St John’s during World War 2, Herbert Howells was challenged by the Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, to write a Te Deum. He met the task, and his famous evening canticles for King’s followed shortly after. This precipitated a creative period of canticle-writing that saw his settings for Gloucester and St Paul’s Cathedrals, amongst many others. Milner-White wrote to Howells: ‘By these last two services of yours [the settings for King’s and Gloucester], I personally feel that you have opened a wholly new chapter in Service, perhaps in Church, music. Of spiritual moment rather than liturgical.’

The composer had an uncanny ability to respond to architecture musically. In his notes for Magnificat 1, Andrew Nethsingha describes how walking through Gloucester Cathedral and experiencing the light from the Great East Window is ‘perfectly replicated in the soaring arches’ of Howells’ Gloucester Service. This Te Deum vividly realises the grand sweep of King’s College Chapel, the glistening quality of light from its windows, and the spaciousness of its high fan-vaulted ceiling. Long, broad unison melodies, cresting higher and higher peaks with each successive phrase, run throughout the piece. The piano treble line in ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’ hangs high in the air like incense over the low organ notes. A tidal harmonic and dynamic build, that could only be by Howells, leads us into the blazing sunlight of the final declaration ‘let me never be confounded’.

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange: King’s College Service (2019)
Joanna Forbes L’Estrange’s setting was commissioned by Ben Parry for King’s Voices, the mixed-voice chapel choir at King’s College. Throughout this setting Forbes L’Estrange reveals her gift for melody, a musical parameter which has been undervalued by some musical commentators in the last few decades. In the rehearsal process, Andrew described how certain composers write tunes which encourage musicians to sing in a particularly warm, expressive way. The opening lines of Forbes L’Estrange’s canticles have this effect, and were a good vehicle for honing the Choristers’ sound. She sets ‘scattered the proud’ quasi-onomatopoeically: each voice part enunciates its ‘T’ at different times over four quavers. Her setting is appealingly undemonstrative, and the lilting syncopations in the organ part are reminiscent of Dyson’s Evening Service in F.

These rhythms return in the Nunc dimittis, though they are now funereal: slow and in the relative minor key. A plaintive tenor and bass melody precedes SATB singing over a circle of fifths; the inevitability of this harmonic sequence is reassuring and consolatory, as one might hope funeral music to be. She sets ‘and to be the glory’ in a musical sequence, the second iteration lower and softer than the first; the music turns in on itself before the Gloria returns to the lyrical opening of the Magnificat.

Adrian Cruft: Collegium Regale (1970)
Adrian Cruft’s canticles for King’s College, part of his large corpus of sacred music, were preceded by an earlier setting from the early 1960s. Cruft, a professional double-bassist, studied with his father Eugene, one of the leading bassists of his generation, though his earliest musical training was as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, where he was two years David Willcocks’ junior. Willcocks later became Director of Music at King’s College, in which role in commissioned Cruft’s Collegium Regale canticles.

The striking opening organ gesture pithily encapsulates the essence of what is to follow. The four-note pedal motif runs through both canticles from beginning to end. The semitone intervals of the four pedal notes are answered by bitonal chords in E flat and D. This unusual gesture is a challenging gambit compared to more lyrical, consonant settings, and emphasises the revolutionary character of the text. Bitonal interjections in the organ punctuate the Magnificat and Glorias. Cruft’s training with Rubbra and Gordon Jacob and the influence of other British composers, in particular Holst’s use of bitonality, run through the work.

Each composer finds a different way to structure the text. Cruft, who sang these words every day as a chorister, highlights the parallel between ‘and his mercy is on them that fear him’ and ‘he remembering his mercy’ with fluid polyphony. The false relations in the Nunc dimittis point to the importance of Tudor polyphony to his musical imagination—he was a chorister during the Tudor music revival.

Although the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes Cruft’s style as traditional and straight-forward, compared to other sacred music his musical language is rather less standard.

Herbert Howells: Service in E (1935)
This setting of the canticles is one of Howells’ earliest. It was dedicated to Ernest Bullock, then Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, where Howells’ ashes lie next to Stanford’s and Vaughan Williams’. Howells was one of Andrew’s predecessors at St John’s, and taught the late Lucian Nethsingha at the Royal College of Music.

In this setting for tenors and basses, Howells experiments with the musical language that would eventually define his most well-known settings. We hear gradual harmonic builds, his characteristic dotted rhythms, and lyrical, modal melodies. The work is rather fragmentary, with substantial gaps between sections which are uncommon in his mature settings. Howells expands and contracts the choral texture sensitively to complement the text, creating an unusual, expressive sound world of luscious divisi harmony at ‘shall call me blessed’ and ‘Abraham and his seed for ever’. The canonic beginning of the Nunc dimittis is sinuous and dark. We see Howells experiment with the large-scale crescendo structure which we hear in his St Paul’s Service Nunc dimittis (amongst others) later in his career: Howells builds unremittingly to the Gloria, where he reinvents the melodic material of the opening canon in confident unison.

Charles Villiers Stanford: Service in G (1902)
The Musical Times wrote that Stanford never adhered to the compositional school that tried to make voices work like instruments; this Magnificat is a clear example. The treble soloist soars above the intricate, rippling organ part which would be at home in a Schubert song.

In the opening verses of the Magnificat, the soloist sings the sections in the first person whilst the chorus responds with the third person text. Many settings of the Magnificat revert to full choir after a few verses of treble solo or upper voices only, but this setting keeps the treble soloist distinct throughout: Mary’s voice rings out above all the rest. This setting suggests the atmosphere of an intimate Evensong service with a small congregation: our treble soloist sings gently to himself, whilst the rest of us simply eavesdrop.

Stanford’s Nunc dimittis, in its simplicity and tranquility, is uniquely beautiful. The bass melody is perfectly balanced in its arch shapes. After Simeon’s final dying words, the choir then repeats his opening plea, recontextualised now as a prayer for his soul from those by his side. In the Gloria, a tender lullaby in triple-time, Simeon is carried away by floating angels. The same device used by Howells to portray the grandeur of King’s College Chapel, a unison melody, is used by Stanford in a totally different way to invite a precious quality of weightlessness. By the Gloria we are no longer on Earth, but instead join the departed Simeon’s soul in Paradise.

Herbert Murrill: Service in E (1946)
Herbert Murrill began his career as Organ Scholar at Worcester College, Oxford. After graduating, he worked as a school teacher and choirmaster, before leaving to take up work as Music Director of the Group Theatre in London, where he worked with notable creative figures like W H Auden and Benjamin Britten. He worked at the BBC from 1936, becoming Head of Music in 1950 before his premature death to cancer in 1952. Andrew chose this setting for his final service of Evensong at St John’s.

Murrill takes us flowingly and concisely through an array of moods and characters: from the confidence of the opening and the fragility of ‘and holy is his name’, to the prayerfulness of he remembering his mercy’. Some composers who do not often write liturgical music fall short when it comes to pacing the text. Murrill’s Nunc dimittis is masterfully structured, without being attention-seeking. After a sweeping opening, the organ begins to smoulder, leading us to C major for ‘to be a light to lighten the Gentiles’, before building yet further to ‘and to be the glory’ in E major. The unwinding of the music as Murrill repeats ‘Thy people Israel’ returns us to the prayerful atmosphere of the start, before unleashing a rejoicing Gloria. This first-rate structure appears simple, yet is difficult to achieve—it is easy to underestimate the skill involved in writing an excellent set of canticles.

Piers Connor Kennedy: Worcester Service (2015)
Piers Connor Kennedy wrote this setting whilst he was a Choral Scholar at Worcester Cathedral. Kennedy describes the ‘dark, moody intimacy’ of the Quire at the Cathedral as the atmosphere he seeks to evoke. There is a quality of timelessness in Kennedy’s music as he paints a picture of ‘clouds passing over the moon’ (his words). His simple melodies and unfussy six-part homophony are reminiscent of plainchant, as is the use of Latin and the rhythmic flexibility of his oscillations between triplet and duplet quavers. Regular rests, which Kennedy said should have a feeling of latent movement flowing through them, give the music a meditative rhythm; each vocal phrase after a rest feels like a new verse of a psalm. Kennedy understands the subtle beauties that different spacings of chords can provide: the stressed first syllable of the word ‘meo’ (‘my’) is a six-note chord with a glimmering cluster at the top, whilst the unstressed second syllable is set more thinly. Kennedy’s setting inspires a real feeling of worship and understatement; there is not one moment in these canticles where either he or the singers show off. It is clear that the feeling of daily liturgy and sacred spaces is under his skin. His music, like Weir’s, evaporates into the liturgical silence that follows.

Kennedy’s setting brings Andrew Nethsingha’s body of recordings with St John’s College Choir to a characteristically humble close: when I asked what organ voluntary Andrew would like for his final service at St John’s, he did not opt for a flashy toccata as some might, but rather for Bach’s short, quiet chorale prelude Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier. He taught all of us lucky enough to be his pupils that no individual is more important than the liturgy we serve. As Mark Oakley, our former Dean, put it, Andrew’s creativity ‘never points back at himself ’; rather, ‘he wants the music to pray, to voice the human heart’. Andrew inspires music and kindness in those who work with him, and has shown generations of his pupils at St John’s just how transformative daily sung liturgy can be. It is difficult to overstate the gratitude which all who have worked with Andrew have for him, and impossible to guess the number of lives he has touched with his gifts here.

George Herbert © 2024

Conductor’s reflections
For the last volume of my Magnificat series with St John’s College Choir we include a number of contemporary pieces. Piers Connor Kennedy was a member of the Choir early in our partnership with Signum. Anna Semple was recently a student at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Joanna Forbes L’Estrange was the founder of our all-women a cappella group at St John’s, ‘Aquila’. Every volume of this series has included a work written for St John’s; the present album contains two such commissions, by Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove. Each of the four volumes has included one of the twenty settings of the Evening Canticles written by Herbert Howells. I believe that this is the first recording of the original version of Howells in E (written for tenors and basses, but subsequently adapted by John Buttrey to include altos). It is the first of four settings by Howells that received first performances in Westminster Abbey, another having appeared on Volume 3. On this occasion we also include the most famous setting by Howells of a morning canticle. At the centre of the album is a group of three contrasting works all written for King’s College, Cambridge. These are followed by an iconic work by Howells’ teacher, C V Stanford.

It is now six years since we recorded the first volume of the Magnificat series—it has been created before and after the pandemic. The choice of works in Volume One had an autobiographical slant—all composers were associated with places where I had worked or studied. For this final volume I am pleased to include a particular favourite of mine, Murrill in E, which featured in my late father’s wonderful Argo recording ‘Sing joyfully’. That recording was chosen as Critics’ Choice in Gramophone magazine in 1965. The reviewer, Geoffrey Cuming, described it as ‘the most attractive post-Stanford setting I have yet come across, completely avoiding the Anglican smugness that Vaughan Williams so much disliked.’ I hope listeners might feel smugness to be absent in some other tracks as well! The series ends as it began, revelling in the extraordinary variety of approaches which composers have taken to two timeless texts—the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

This is the last of my own recordings to be released at St John’s. My successor, Christopher Gray, is already doing extraordinary work in taking the Choir to a new level. I want to say an enormous thank you to all who have supported me in the series of Signum recordings at St John’s. It is not possible to name everyone here, but both Deans of Chapel have been very great advocates of the recordings—Duncan Dormor and Mark Oakley—as have two College Masters, the late Sir Christopher Dobson and Heather Hancock. We wish Mark Oakley well as he embarks on his exciting new chapter as Dean of Southwark. When we started off with the Jonathan Harvey recording in 2015 it was an extraordinary privilege to begin a long partnership with two of the giants of the recording industry—Chris Hazell and Simon Eadon. I also owe a huge amount to Matthew Bennett and Dave Rowell. Steve Long and his team at Signum have been incredibly supportive—never saying ‘no’ to repertoire, however outlandish, and endlessly tolerant when I keep missing deadlines. Of course there are many generations of Choristers, Choral Scholars and Organ Scholars to thank, alongside Fellows and Staff of the College and the College School. Many have contributed articles and programme notes to the booklets, including another illuminating piece from Andrew Hammond in the present volume. My thanks go to George Herbert for his superb notes on the music of this album, and for the generous words in his last paragraph. People have worked very hard in the Choir Office to make it all possible. James Beddoe coordinated the production of many of our recordings, and he has more recently been succeeded by Joseph Hancock. Above all I want to thank Caroline Marks. As the indefatigable and self-effacing Choir Administrator, Caroline has been at the heart of the Choir’s life for longer than anyone since the great George Guest. Caroline is hugely loved and admired by all who have been associated with St John’s College Choir. She has recently taken her well-deserved retirement in which we wish her good health and happiness. I dedicate this final recording to Caroline, with thanks and admiration.

Andrew Nethsingha © 2024

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