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8.553876 - Songs of Praise
Songs of Praise
In quires and places where they sing here followeth the anthem
With this instruction the Book of Common Prayer of 1622 motivated several centuries of English composers to focus their creativity into the huge collection of short choral works that are the English Anthems. A specifically English musical form, anthems are not part of the liturgy but extra-musical adornments to the Anglican rite. Outside Britain a similar composition would be described as a motet, an ancient form in which only a few composers worked after the death of J.S. Bach.
This recording Songs of Praise is a sampler from arguably the golden age of anthem writing, the Victorian period and early twentieth century. Contained in it, beside the work of British composers, is that of two foreign masters who served as rôle-models; Mendelssohn, the Victorians' most celebrated contemporary musician, was almost an honourary Englishman; Mozart was an earlier source of inspiration for anyone aspiring to the heights of spirituality in musical expression.
The Tudor period was the first high point of English church music, but late Victorian anthems and hymns represent more than just musical achievement. The Church of England is the established church of the country and to the late nineteenth-century population this was more than a constitutional irrelevance. Church-going of all denominations was a vital part of many lives and the position of the church in society was central. New churches and chapels were being built and old ones rebuilt to become a focus of civic pride. A flourishing musical life was inevitably an important part of this.
What distinguished this new flowering of musical excellence from those before was its downward reach. Previously elite cathedral choirs, imitated by aspiring parish churches, would have sung services in splendid isolation, the congregation being allowed to chant a few musically unsatisfying psalms. Country parish churches meanwhile had devised their own crude musical arrangements, perhaps with the help of an ad hoc church 'band' and the free churches sang rumbustuous, sometimes raucous evangelical hymns. By the end of the nineteenth century a musical consensus had been achieved. Good hearty hymn singing had reached the established church and an energetic revival of anthem writing had whetted the appetite of nonconformists for choral music on a higher plane. Of course, as now, peripheral forms of musical expression still survived; the converted street songs of the Salvation Army contrasted strongly with the ancient plainsong surviving in the extreme Anglo Catholic wing of the Church of England. But, by the turn of the century, a remarkable unanimity of taste extended all the way from Queen Victoria, a Mendelssohn devotee, down to the humblest parish choir singing their hearts out in Stainer's Crucifixion.
Further enrichment occurred in the new century. New composers, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Walton, energised by the seriousness of purpose they found in the church and the force of the burgeoning English musical renaissance, injected a vigour and eclecticism into their compositions that changed the characteristic sound of church music for ever.
The hymns that intersperse the anthems and motets on this disc represent the rich variety of sources that combined in that worthiest of all Victorian endeavours Hymns Ancient and Modern. Praise to the holiest (tune: Richmond by Thomas Heweis) and Immortal invisible (St Denio, a traditional Welsh hymn tune) both marry 19th century poetry to simple music of a previous era. Praise my soul (music: Sir John Goss) and Dear Lord and Father of mankind (music: Sir Hubert Parry) are fine examples of the new hymn-writing that was devised late in the nineteenth century to fulfil the expectations of the now musically enfranchised congregations. Strong shapely melodies that sound so well in unison contrasted with a florid and richly chromatic harmonization for choir and organ. Come down O love divine (music: Ralph Vaughan Williams) the most recent, shows freer rhythms, unusual phrase lengths and a modal tinge to the harmony characteristic of one involved in the folk-song revival.
We hear the same modally derived harmonic side-slips in Vaughan Williams' anthem Let all the world in every corner sing and he continues to look to England's past in his choice of words from the sixteenth century poet George Herbert. The piece is the last and only specifically choral movement of Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs.
Mozart's Ave verum corpus was written in the year of his death 1791 and its mere 44 bars of simple music comprise one of the most affecting and sublime expressions of spiritual aspiration ever composed.
Charles Wood (1866-1926) was a central figure in the reawakening of English music. His own output, small and confined to the church, belies his influence. As professor at Cambridge he passed on his traditional craftsmanship to some significant figures of the new century among them Tippett and Vaughan Williams. O thou the central orb is without a doubt a classic of the genre which defines in many people's minds the Anglican 'cathedral sound'.
Mendelssohn's motet Hear my prayer occupies a similar position in the popular perception of ecclesiastical music. The tradition of having a small boy piping the anguished words the enemy shouteth, the godless come fast; iniquity, hatred upon me they cast is one of life's treasured incongruities.
Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), himself only a minor composer, was able, from his positions as organist at St Paul's Cathedral and professor at Oxford, to promote the renewal of church music and articulate the need for it to be of the highest quality. God so loved the world lies at the heart of his meditative oratorio The Crucifixion.
The sacred music of Edward Elgar, the major figure of this whole period, formed a large part of his output. Give unto the Lord is an extended setting of Psalm XXIX. The organ voluntary, a treasured part of Anglican worship, is here represented by the first movement of Elgar's Sonata in G, his only substantial organ work.
Gerald Finzi and John Joubert were both born in the twentieth century. Finzi's spacious soaring anthem God is gone up is in that tradition of music, so influenced by cathedral architecture and acoustics that it might be described as English Perpendicular. Joubert's anthem O Lorde, the maker of al thing is by contrast restrained and austere.
Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) is now known for very little other than his classic Evening Hymn. By contrast Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) reached the whole nation with his great national hymn Jerusalem and his coronation anthem I was glad. This glorious paean is sung at the beginning of the service as the monarch enters the cathedral by the west door and passes through the nave and choir.
The Halifax Choral Society is one of the oldest in the world. Founded in 1817, it has an unbroken record of perfoffi1ance and a reputation as one of the best choirs in the North of England, a region well known for its long-standing choral tradition. Over the years the choir has performed almost every major choral work, along with a series of other works now forgotten, representative of contemporary tastes. It has traditionally appeared in concerts with orchestras of the first rank and with soloists of the greatest distinction and attracted dedications by composers from Mendelssohn to Sir George Dyson. Parallel to concert performances, the choir has broadcast frequently and has a number of significant recordings to its credit.
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