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Church bells beyond the stars

Norman Harper (organ)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2019
St George’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Southwark, United Kingdom
Produced by Alistair Dixon
Engineered by Dave Rowell
Release date: July 2022
Total duration: 67 minutes 12 seconds

Cover artwork: The East Window of St George’s Cathedral – Crucifixion Scene by Harry Clarke

Norman Harper puts the 1958 Compton organ of St George's Cathedral, Southwark, through its paces in a programme comprising plainchant-infused works by Thomas Hyde, Timothy Craig Harrison and Peter Tranchell, a spirited toccata by Cecilia McDowall inspired by the metaphysical writings of George Herbert, and Alan Ridout's set of three Nativity Dances.

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This is the first solo organ CD to be made at St George’s Cathedral in recent years. The music has been chosen partly through personal connections, four of the works being previously unrecorded. All five are fine examples of British music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, each having its origin in a religious subject or plainchant melodies.

The opportunity to explore Cecilia McDowall’s organ and choral music arose through Norman Harper’s connection with Dulwich College Music Department, where Cecilia is composer in residence. Church bells beyond the stars was the first of Cecilia’s organ pieces he performed, and he also introduced her Missa Mariae into the repertoire of St George’s Cathedral Girls’ Choir. Church bells beyond the stars is particularly well suited to the organ of St George’s Cathedral, which is fully enclosed and able to reproduce the frequent dynamic changes, the two hands constantly a degree apart, without changing the tone-colour during the main sections.

Norman recalls hearing Alan Ridout’s Nativity Dances played by Philip Sawyer, the dedicatee and commissioner, in an organ recital at King’s College Cambridge. Philip was organ scholar at Peterhouse, where the Nativity Dances had first been performed. Norman obtained a copy of the unpublished score from Philip many years later and immediately made the dances part of his recital repertoire.

Peter Tranchell’s Sonata for organ was written in 1958 for Peter le Huray, and is structured melodically and rhythmically around the letters of his name. Norman studied composition with Peter Tranchell and organ with Peter le Huray during his time as organ scholar at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, though the opportunity to play the Sonata came decades later. Peter le Huray was a superb organist as well as a renowned academic and teacher, but it has proved impossible so far to rediscover recordings or other evidence of his performances of the Sonata. Norman began to perform the Sonata in 2005 as a result of an invitation to take part in a commemoration weekend for Peter Tranchell, held in Gonville & Caius College, and it remains a favourite in his repertoire. This performance in Caius Chapel was followed a few weeks later by a performance at King’s College, where Peter Tranchell had been an undergraduate. John Scott is known to have played the Sonata, possibly in the composer’s presence, allegedly commenting on one passage as 'Alban Berg meets Ivor Novello'. Tim Harper performed it in the 2010 summer series The Great British Organ Sonata at St Paul’s Cathedral, alongside the well-established works by Elgar, Bairstow, Stanford and Whitlock. Otherwise it remains a rarity in recital programmes.

Timothy Craig Harrison is a friend and colleague whose music Norman began to play during the 1990s, including his Carillon de Matin, which he played in a recital at Washington National Cathedral and recorded on the Cardinal label in 1996 on the classically designed Walker organ in Bolton Town Hall. The choirs of St George’s Cathedral have added Harrison’s music to their repertoire in recent years, including O praise God in his holiness and Jesus said to his disciples, motets for two-part high voices, and Missa Citharoedus Canorus for SATB and organ.

Thomas Hyde is a friend and former pupil, whose international reputation as a composer continues to grow apace. His compositions include That Man Stephen Ward, an opera based on the story of the Profumo scandal, set to a libretto by David Norris, and numerous orchestral, choral and chamber works. The Suite on plainchant themes began life as a commission for performance in a recital which Norman gave at King’s College Cambridge in 2005. Two other pieces were then commissioned, as described in Thomas’s notes, and Lucis creator is now the central movement of the Suite on plainsong themes.

Church bells beyond the stars Cecilia McDowall (b1951)
Church bells beyond the stars is in effect a toccata, evoking the sound of pealing bells, capturing the melodic changes and rhythmic irregularities which are characteristic of church bell-ringing. The music falls into three sections, the middle being a contrasting, gentle recitative with arpeggiated chords in between. The return of the bells culminates in a triumphant gathering of the notes in a dramatic downward peal, sustained on full organ.

Cecilia McDowall writes:

Church bells beyond the stars was commissioned by the Edinburgh Society of Organists and first performed by John Kitchen on 18 May 2013 at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh. It is the third in a trilogy of works inspired by the metaphysical poet, George Herbert. As with Sounding heaven and earth, the first of the trilogy, Church bells beyond the stars draws its title from George Herbert’s Prayer (I):
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.
Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear.
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise.
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Church bells beyond the stars is published by Oxford University Press.

Nativity Dances Alan Ridout (1934-1996)
Alan Ridout was a prolific composer of choral, orchestral and instrumental music, including ten listed works for organ solo. These include: The Seven Last Words, Two Pictures of Graham Sutherland, Resurrection Dances and Messe d’Orgue. The three Nativity Dances are not given individual titles, so any programmatic or thematic connections with the Christmas narrative are entirely up to the listener’s imagination. The first dance is a lively rondo, alternating 3 and 2 beats in a bar; the second a meditative, slow-moving dialogue between gentle solo lines and heavy chords played on the Great choruses; and the third a sprightly gallop, with a chorale-like theme in the middle section.

Philip Sawyer writes:

I commissioned the three Nativity Dances for an organ recital in the chapel of Peterhouse, Cambridge, as part of the Cambridge Festival 1971. Alan Ridout, who was my composition teacher at the University of Cambridge, said that some of the music was shared with what he referred to as a 'Christmas Oratorio' that had been commissioned for somewhere in the USA. Alan, who was unfailingly generous as a teacher, was also generous as far as the commission was concerned; he accepted my offer of £15.00! I have played these pieces in many places, and broadcast them on the BBC.

Alan Ridout’s Nativity Dances are recorded by permission of Philip Sawyer, the commissioner and dedicatee.

Sonata for organ Peter Andrew Tranchell (1922-1993)
The Sonata for organ by Peter Tranchell, a former Precentor of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, was written in 1958 for Peter le Huray, a fellow lecturer in the Music Faculty of Cambridge University, and Director of Music at St Catharine’s College. The music is closely based on the dedicatee’s name, and the third movement makes extensive use of the plainchant Antiphon Tu es Petrus. The title page quotes the Antiphon melody together with the Acrostic—an arrangement of the letters of the name Peter Geoffrey le Huray:


The first movement, Preludio – Allegro molto, is a toccata, with perpetuum mobile semiquavers in the right hand and mildly dissonant left hand chords in short crotchet and semiquaver phrases, suggesting the rhythms of Morse Code.

These are, of course, the non-pitch letters of the name Peter Geoffrey le Huray: PTRORYLURY. The top notes of the chords and the angular pedal theme which follows are derived from the pitch letters EEGEFFEEHA (H = B natural). The left hand then introduces a two-part version of the EEGEFFEEHA theme, continuing on to a new melody, based on the LH chords of the opening in arpeggiated form, together with more dissonant harmonies. This section forms the central part of an arch-structure, and the movement closes with a short coda, finishing on a highly-spiced E major chord. Throughout this movement the harmonic idiom is highly chromatic and often dissonant, though there is always an underlying sense of tonality. The rhythm of the name Peter le Huray is frequently projected.

Andante ostinato is imbued with feelings of longing, with two major climaxes, ecstatic or anguished, perhaps both. The opening three-part counterpoint makes extensive ostinato use of the retrograde version of the theme (AHEEFFEGEE), and this is in evidence for most of the movement. The predominantly dissonant idiom finally gives way to more romantic harmonies, ambiguously suggesting fulfilment or resignation, surmounted by the AHEEFFEGEE melody.

Tu es Petrus in fuga starts with a grand, richly harmonised statement of the Tu es Petrus melody (Tempo comodo ma non lento), before embarking upon a fugue (Allegretto con moto), based on EEGEFFEEHA as the main subject, and of extreme complexity, both contrapuntal and rhythmic. The time signature is 4/4 , but as often as not the effect is 3 + 3 + 2/8 , and the periodic appearances of the plainchant melody in this rhythm, over a somewhat irreverent oom-cha-cha accompaniment, recall Tranchell’s compositions for the theatre. The fugue ends with two further expansive harmonisations of Tu es Petrus, linked by a characteristically pianistic flourish.

There are hardly any indications of registration or dynamics, apart from a few crescendi and suggestions of balance, such as 'en dehors' and 'equal manuals'. The title page includes the instruction: Each movement may be played separately either loud or soft.

The present edition, the first of Peter Tranchell’s Sonata for organ to be published, has been type-set from the composer’s manuscript by John Gwinnell and published by The Peter Tranchell Foundation. The Sonata for organ is recorded with permission from the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Christe, qui lux es et dies Timothy Craig Harrison (b1962)
Timothy Craig Harrison writes:

During an open forum at the Annual Festival of New Organ Music in October 2006, we discussed the topic of collaboration between composer and performer. Later, at the evening concert, I particularly enjoyed a performance given by Emma Gibbins. I wrote to Emma straight away to ask if she would be willing to collaborate with me on the composition of a new work for organ.
Christe, qui lux es et dies is the result of this collaboration. The plainsong theme is one of Emma’s favourites and forms the basis of the composition. The work is made up of eight Versets, each of which reflects a different stanza of this fine Lenten hymn. In each Verset the plainsong melody is played complete, but always transformed. Only in the final statement of the theme (Verset VII) does the melody appear in its original mode.
I. O Christ who art the Light and Day
A figure taken from the second phrase of the plainsong gradually leads towards the Light and the first complete statement of the theme in the pedals.
II. Grant us, dear Lord, in Thee to rest
The plainsong is accompanied by delicate chords and later appears in canon with a gentle 4-foot pedal stop.
III. Still be the heart to Thee awake
The plainsong is highly ornamented in this more passionate Verset. It is played on a solo Clarinet stop over a gently rocking accompaniment based on the opening figure. The Verset ends with an echo of Verset II.
IV. The Tempter with his wiles
A scherzo and trio. In the scherzo the Tempter perverts the plainsong into a gnarly and snappy chromatic fugal subject and treats it to some devious contrapuntal and rhythmic play. The trio is the Tempter’s wild and obscene dance of triumph, contrasting the Tuba stop in the treble register with chords on the Swell Voix Celeste. The scherzo returns briefly with further contrapuntal manipulation and mocking figures, but is stopped in its tracks by …
V. Bid the powers of darkness fly
The Strong Defender comes to our aid with Tuba and Clarion call in the pedal.
VI. Remember us, dear Lord, we pray
Echoes of earlier material, over which the plainsong is presented as a gentle, dancing figure on a soft reed.
VII. Blest Three in One and One in Three
The triumphant final statement of the plainsong in its original mode and in canon with the pedals, with a running figure in the left hand, drawn from the very opening of the work.
VIII. Amen
A mighty climax leaving our prayer echoing into eternity.
The overall structure can be seen as being in four larger sections:
1. Verset I 2. Versets II and III
3. Verset IV 4. Versets V-VIII.
However, the work should be performed as a single, continuous movement, without breaks between Versets.
1. O Christ, who art the Light and Day,
Thou drivest darksome night away!
We know Thee as the Light of light
Illuminating mortal sight.
2. All-holy Lord, we pray to Thee,
Keep us tonight from danger free;
Grant us, dear Lord, in Thee to rest,
So be our sleep in quiet blest.
3. And while the eyes soft slumber take,
Still be the heart to Thee awake;
Be Thy right hand upheld above
Thy servants resting in Thy love.
4. Let not the tempter round us creep
With thoughts of evil while we sleep,
Nor with his wiles the flesh allure
And make us in Thy sight impure.
5. O Strong Defender, be Thou nigh
To bid the powers of darkness fly;
Keep us from sin, and guide for good
Thy servants purchased by Thy blood.
6. Remember us, dear Lord, we pray
While in this mortal flesh we stay:
‘Tis Thou who dost the soul defend;
Be present with us to the end.
7. Blest Three in One and One in Three,
Almighty God, we pray to Thee
That Thou would’st now vouchsafe to bless
Our fast with fruits of righteousness. Amen.

Suite on plainchant themes Thomas Hyde (b1978)
Thomas Hyde writes:

This work began life with a commission from Norman Harper to compose a new work for a recital he was playing in the chapel of King’s College Cambridge in October 2005. Lucis creator is a slow meditation on the plainchant theme in which ornate and decorated versions of the melody are projected against a slow-moving homophonic background. At the centre of the work is a series of ‘lanterns’, increasingly complex chords that ‘light up’ the musical textures. The general mood of expectancy was nicely described by my composer friend Hugh Wood, who said the piece gave ‘the impression of being a cactus which only flowers once every five years.’
In 2010 I received a commission to compose a work for Stephen Farr to perform as part of the BBC/EBU Christmas broadcast. The concert also featured the BBC Singers performing Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est nobis, so the same theme became the basis of my work. The resulting Improvisation turns the chant melody into a dancing compound-time idea, while other versions of the melody are stated in the pedals. The piece concludes with a triumphant G major chorale version of the chant.
The following year I received a commission from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. I knew at once that the new piece would also form the finale of a three-piece suite, and an Easter finale would balance the Christmas first movement. Two themes are used in the finale: the four-note (but two-pitched) motif, ‘Lumen Christi’ which is sung as the paschal candle is brought into the church at the start of the Easter Vigil, and the Easter dismissal, ‘Go in the peace of Christ, Alleluia!’. This second theme is heard on all 12 chromatic pitches during the piece. Easter Alleluyas is dedicated to the composer Tarik O’Regan.

Signum Classics © 2022

The organ of St George’s Metropolitan Cathedral
St George’s Cathedral organ was built in 1958 by John Compton for the newly restored cathedral, which had been largely destroyed by bombing in 1941. It is constructed mostly on the extension principle, and almost entirely enclosed in two chambers, each with sets of shutters on two sides. The imaginative use of extension and the position of the organ allow its warm, colourful sound to speak effectively into the chancel and nave, enhanced by an acoustic of 5 seconds’ reverberation.

1 Sub Bass 32 unenclosed
2 Sub Bass 16
3 Contra Bass 16
4 Open Metal 16
5 Contra Viola 16
6 Bourdon 16
7 Principal 8
8 Octave 8
9 Stopped Octave 8
10 Geigen 4
11 Octave Flute 4
12 Octavin 2
13 Mixture IV
14 Harmonics 32
15 Bombarde 16 unenclosed
16 Posaune 16
17 Hautboy 16
18 Posaune 8
19 Clarion 4

20 Double Dulciana 16
21 Open Diapason 8
22 Gemshorn 8
23 Stopped Diapason 8
24 Dulciana 8
25 Vox Angelica 8 TC
26 Principal 4
27 Stopped Flute 4
28 Dulcet 4
29 Nazard 2 ⅔
30 Dulcet Fifteenth 2
31 Flautino 2
32 Tierce 1 ⅗
33 Sifflöte 1
34 Acuta II
35 Clarinet 8
36 Contra Posaune 16
37 Posaune 8
38 Tuba 8 unenclosed
39 Tuba Clarion 4 unenclosed
40 Tremulant

41 Double Diapason 16
42 Bourdon 16
43 First Diapason 8
44 Second Diapason 8
45 Third Diapason 8
46 Hohl Flute 8
47 Stopped Diapason 8
48 Octave 4
49 Principal 4
50 Open Flute 4
51 Twelfth 2 ⅔
52 Fifteenth 2
53 Fourniture IV
54 Cymbale III
55 Contra Posaune 16
56 Posaune 8
57 Clarion 4

58 Contra Viola 16
59 Geigen Diapason 8
60 Viola da Gamba 8
61 Voix Celeste 8 TC
62 Harmonic Flute 8
63 Geigen Octave 4
64 Viola 4
65 Harmonic Flute 4
66 Nazard 2 ⅔
67 Fifteenth 2
68 Piccolo 2
69 Cymbale III
70 Contra Hautboy 16
71 Trumpet 8
72 Hautboy 8
73 Clarion 4
74 Tremulant

Couplers: Swell to Pedal; Swell to Great; Swell to Choir; Choir to Great; Choir to Pedal; Great to Pedal; Swell Octave to Pedal.

Signum Classics © 202

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