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Chichester Service

composer
author of text
Magnificat: Luke 1: 46-55; Nunc dimittis: Luke 2: 29-32

 
When Maurice Ravel came to London in 1925, he met Lennox Berkeley and encouraged him to go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. Berkeley did so for six years, of which Roger Nichols has written: 'If his studies with Boulanger taught him to be at ease with counterpoint, they also inculcated a love of ‘la grande ligne’, which Boulanger had inherited from Gabriel Fauré.' It was whilst in Paris that Berkeley became a Roman Catholic. He spoke of 'wanting to write music that would merge into the liturgy, and not create a violent contrast or cause too much distraction'. Like Duruflé in his Requiem, Berkeley writes liturgical music of intrinsic prayerfulness; the shared influence of plainsong and French Catholicism is no coincidence. Berkeley’s language is unique and highly original, despite being tonal and in no way avant-garde. Both melody and harmony are exquisitely crafted.

It was Benjamin Britten who introduced Berkeley to Walter Hussey. Hussey commissioned Berkeley’s Festival Anthem for St Matthew’s in 1945. Three times he tried to persuade Berkeley to write for him again, but—as with Walton—it took him 30 years to succeed! Berkeley’s The Lord is my shepherd was one of three musical compositions for Chichester Cathedral’s 900th anniversary, alongside the Walton canticles and a work by William Albright. Three years earlier Berkeley had written his Three Latin Motets for St John’s College Choir. In due course, George Guest was quick to incorporate the new canticles of both Walton and Berkeley into the St John’s repertoire.

John Birch had been appointed Organist of Chichester Cathedral in 1958, three years after Hussey moved there as Dean. The two men collaborated for nineteen years until Hussey’s retirement. Three years later Berkeley’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis were written for the Southern Cathedrals Festival (S.C.F.)—one of the last commissions that John Birch was to conduct there—and they are commonly known as the Chichester Service. They are challenging to perform, but not quite as difficult as the Harvey Magnificat and Nunc dimittis written for the S.C.F. two years earlier; what an adventurous and creative period for the festival!

Walton and Swayne, writing just a few years before and after, focused on concision and rhythmic energy. In Berkeley’s work, however, the central concern is creating a timeless, meditative atmosphere. Aesthetically it has more in common with Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat or the religious music of Berkeley’s pupil, John Tavener.

Berkeley’s organ part often consists of long-held chords, over which the choir spins a mixture of homophonic and imitative melodic lines. The sketches show the process of distillation and purification which occurred during composition. The opening, for instance, started life with four densely imitative parts before Berkeley alighted on a transparent 2-part texture. The organ part is reduced to create a clarity which never obscures the vocal lines. 'He hath shewed strength' is a good example; the imitative entries are simply accompanied by right-hand organ chords. Berkeley approaches the text in subtle ways. 'Throughout all generations' has charming musical repetitions. A similar passage of text at 'Abraham and his seed for ever' is treated with an imitative build-up, as one generation begets the next. I love the arch-shape of the music at 'He hath filled the hungry'. The hungry are tenderly lifted up, and the rich are gently put down; there is no grand standing, no drawing attention to one’s actions, just calmly making the world fairer.

Nunc dimittis opens with serene simplicity, very different from the Walton, and blossoms in a visionary way before retreating into private prayer as we prepare for the doxology (an expression of praise to the Trinity). The Gloria, which is the same in both canticles, evokes the monastic ritual of Gregorian chant in the Opus Dei. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are each sung once daily, whereas the words of the 'Gloria Patri' are used in worship many times every day. (I am using the term 'Gloria' for shorthand in these notes. Strictly it should be called 'Gloria Patri' to distinguish it from 'Gloria in excelsis Deo', the latter being part of the Ordinary of the Mass.) Berkeley’s Gloria is music of the utmost fluidity and delicacy. It makes me think of the flexibility and nuance of George Guest’s direction of plainsong, itself heavily influenced by the French Catholic monks at Solemnes. As Berkeley said:

No music has ever been more deeply religious than the plainsong chants—single melodic lines of magnificent shape and subtle expressiveness that seem eternal in their restrained yet unpredictable contours.

from notes by Andrew Nethsingha © 2021

Recordings

Magnificat, Vol. 2
SIGCD667Download only Available Friday 16 April 2021

Details

Canticle 1: Magnificat  My soul doth magnify the Lord
Track 8 on SIGCD667 [7'20] Download only Available Friday 16 April 2021
Canticle 2: Nunc dimittis  Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
Track 9 on SIGCD667 [3'53] Download only Available Friday 16 April 2021

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