About this Recording
8.557037 - Faire is the Heaven: Hymns and Anthems
English  German 

Faire is the Heaven

Faire is the Heaven

Hymns and Anthems

 

The setting is a magnificent Gothic cathedral. The organ thunders and the robed choir moves slowly in procession to its place either side of the chancel. The picture seems to epitomize the great musical traditions of the Anglican church, but like so many traditions this one is neither as long nor as unbroken as we might believe. Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the composer of one of the hymns on this recording and, in the words of a contemporary, “the most to be avoided man I ever met,” published a couple of pamphlets in the middle of the nineteenth century in which he made suggestions for much-needed improvements in cathedral music. Even allowing for his acerbic nature it is obvious that there was a great deal that needed fixing.

 

One Victorian development that had a profound effect on Anglican music, as it did on other aspects of worship, was the Oxford Movement. It was this that encouraged the adoption by parish churches of the robed choir, the organ and the musical traditions that went with them. Some of these ideas were spread particularly by the publication in 1861 of the hymn collection Hymns Ancient and Modern. It was through this hymn-book more than any other that the association of certain texts with particular tunes became common. A case in point appears on this recording, W. H. Monk’s tune Eventide as the undisputed music for Abide with Me. Monk was one of the editors of the collection. Scholefield’s tune St Clement for the evening hymn The Day Thou Gavest, belongs to the same nineteenth-century tradition, while John Ireland’s Love Unknown represents early twentieth-century efforts to provide hymns more in keeping with greatly changed times.

 

Whether in cathedral or parish church one of the principal rôles of the choir is to lead the congregation in singing the hymns. A natural impulse among musicians is to elaborate these fine, but straightforward tunes, and one simple and effective way this may be done without disturbing the congregation is with the addition of a descant. The term is an old one. It originally indicated an improvised practice, but nowadays it nearly always means an additional composed melody to be sung by part of the choir while the remainder sing the original tune. The hymns on this recording are enhanced with descants by the organist Paul Halley, and by Stephen Crisp.

 

The increased visibility of the choir led in many cases to their taking a more prominent rôle in the service. The Book of Common Prayer had already recognised this possibility when it included the rubric: In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem. The original intention was simply to allow the practice. It was now read more as an injunction, and with the cathedral choirs leading the way, anthems flourished. They ranged from the simplicity of modestly decorated hymn tunes to the festal splendour of works like Willan’s Gloria Deo or Harris’s double choir Faire is the Heaven. In addition the cathedral and collegiate choirs extended this musical dispensation to the great congregational songs of Morning and Evening Prayer, which were presented in elaborate settings for the choir alone. Howell’s Te Deum and Bryan Kelly’s Magnificat, both recorded here, belong in this category. They are in effect additional anthems.

 

The idea of the musical customs of the cathedrals spreading out to parish churches is demonstrated particularly well by the career of the Canadian organist and composer Healey Willan. Emigrating to Canada from England in 1913 he began his Toronto career at St Paul’s Anglican Church, but in 1921 he moved to the more modest church of St Mary Magdalene as organist and choir director.

 

Here, over the next forty years, he helped to build an integrated musical/liturgical environment second to none. Like a latter-day Bach he understood that his compositional gifts should be directed first towards supplying music for his own use, and he turned out large numbers of service settings, anthems, introits, hymns, and organ music. The three motets I Beheld Her, Fair in Face, Rise Up My Love are often grouped together, although that was not the composer’s original intention. The first two are based on Responsory texts from an Office of Our Lady, and while the last was intended for Easter, it too, with its text from the Song of Solomon, is appropriate for commemorations of the Virgin Mary. All three show signs of Willan’s lifelong interest in plainchant, particularly in the rhythmic freedom to be found in much of the melodic writing. Willan always enjoyed a challenge. According to his biographer, F.C.C. Clarke, the magnificent motet Gloria Deo per immensa saecula was an answer to a complaint from Drummond Wolff that nobody wrote choir music in five real parts anymore. The result is a contrapuntal tour de force, but it is also a work in which Willan’s unquestioned craftsmanship was allied with real inspiration.

 

Mozart’s setting of the hymn Ave verum corpus has found a place in the repertoire of all church choirs. It dates from the last year of Mozart’s short life and is therefore from the same period as the Requiem. In fact it is seen by some scholars as pointing towards that great, incomplete work, and representing a new direction in the composer’s work, a move towards “a transparent yet compact style”. Its popularity may have blinded us, according to Alfred Einstein, to “the mastery with which it is fashioned”. The Ave verum text has been a popular one with composers. The setting by the Canadian composer Imant Raminsh is particularly felicitous, with its imaginative exploitation of choral sonorities and its repetition part way through of the opening cry of greeting, Ave.

 

A good example of the way a simple hymn tune may be turned into an anthem is Paul Halley’s setting of Jesu, the very thought of Thee. The text of this well-known hymn is a translation by Edward Caswall from the twelfth-century Latin of St Bernard of Clairvaux. It is frequently associated with Gordon Slater’s tune St Botolph which appears here unadorned and in various choral textures, accompanied by an elaborate and at times quietly virtuosic organ part. The variety of approaches allows the meaning of the individual stanzas of text to be nicely pointed, and the chromatic harmonies, and unaccompanied choir for the fourth stanza, But what to those who find? stand out particularly. The piece is dedicated to Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers.

 

Mendelssohn’s Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich, although very different in spirit, also takes a hymn tune and elaborates it verse by verse. Mendelssohn’s original setting had orchestral accompaniment and there are short interludes between the stanzas of the hymn as well as an extensive instrumental introduction. The hymn melody is presented first by the choir basses, then in two parts, alto and bass, for the second stanza, and in full four-part harmony for the last stanza. This concluding version is indebted to Bach, whose music Mendelssohn did much to revive in the early nineteenth century.

 

As can be seen from the works on this recording, composers take their anthem texts from a variety of sources. One of the favourites is the book of Psalms, especially those psalms which contain musical imagery. The opening verses of Psalm 81 are a well-known example, and Sydney Campbell’s setting makes the most of the opportunities. Listen to the choir’s fanfares at make a cheerful noise, and their imitation of the merry harp, and, of course, what composer could resist repeating the wonderfully evocative phrase Blow up the trumpet at least three times.

 

Harris’s double choir anthem Faire is the Heaven is regarded as his best work. Edmund Spenser’s poem which supplied the text lends itself to musical setting, building from the quiet heaven, where happy soules have place, through increasing circles of splendour - Cherubim, burning Seraphim, which from their faces dart out fiery light, Angels, and then Archangels, finally sinking down in awe at the image of such endlesse perfectnesse. Harris’s music mirrors the arc-like shape of the text and makes wonderfully appropriate use of his two complete choirs, at one moment allowing phrases to echo from one to another, at another letting the two groups coalesce into one mighty sound.

 

Howell’s first professional appointment was as sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral. Ill health forced him to give this up in 1917, but he was to renew his connection with the church during the Second World War, when he deputised as organist of St John’s College, Cambridge. The Te Deum on this recording, one of a large number of church works that he wrote, was composed for another of the collegiate choirs, that of King’s College, Cambridge. A favourite with singers, Howell’s quirkily distinctive music exploits all the changing moods of this mighty hymn of praise.

 

The Te Deum is one of the canticles that form part of Morning Prayer. The equivalent in the service of Evening Prayer or Evensong is the Magnificat. The text, which comes from St Luke’s gospel, is Mary’s response to the Angel’s announcement that she is to be the mother of Christ. It is full of the kind of imagery that attracts composers, He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud, or Abraham and his seed for ever. Bryan Kelly, who was a composition pupil of Howells, paints this text with vivid music. At the same time he adds a dimension of his own, borrowing the rhythms of popular Latin-American music. Today this simply makes the music exciting to listen to and to sing. In 1965 it must have raised a number of eyebrows.

 

Traditions wax and wane. The one represented on this recording has recently come upon hard times in many places. What would S.S. Wesley have said if he had been told that a century and a half after his pamphleteering the tradition would be brilliantly alive and well in a small church in rural southern Ontario, St John’s, Elora?

 

John Mayo


Close the window