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8.557681 - GIBBONS, O.: Hymnes and Songs of the Church (Tonus Peregrinus, Pitts)
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Hymnes and Songs of the Church

 

"Since my childhood I have been aware that the music that moves me most stems from chorales and hymns." So said Glenn Gould in an interview with Bruno Monsaingeon in 1979, "Indeed I always said the most fascinating beautiful little piece in all of music is a hymn by Orlando Gibbons, by the name 'Thus Angels Sang'. I couldn't count the times I've let these bars wander through my mind, or how often I've played them on the piano, or how often I've listened to the Deller Consort sing them – hundreds, probably thousands of times." This present disc is believed to be the first complete recording of all of the hymn melodies ascribed to Orlando Gibbons and included in [The] Hymnes and Songs of the Church published by George Wither in 1623.

1623 was also the year that John Donne wrote in Meditation XVII from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: "The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member". It is in the spirit of Donne's famous meditation that we have approached this recording, arranging the Gibbons melodies in eight short sequences that broadly cover the unfolding of the Church's liturgical year; each sequence is garnished with a recent musical offshoot of the English hymn-writing tradition, linked directly to the performers on this disc.

George Wither was a colourful character, and like Donne, distinctly English in tenacity and in the tension between worldly pursuits and spiritual devotion. Both men spent time in prison – Donne for secretly marrying his patron's sixteen-year-old niece and Wither twice for writing satirical material which upset the Establishment. Although Wither has neither the reputation nor the genius of Donne, he can certainly be celebrated for creating one of the very earliest prototypes of an English hymnal. The Hymnes and Songs of the Church, and Wither's own 1621 precursor to it, the Songs of the Old Testament, translated into English Measures, follow on from a Reformation-led interest in metrical versions of the Psalms in the vernacular; a famous English example from half a century earlier is Archbishop Parker's Psalter complete with Thomas Tallis's adaptable musical settings.

Hymns and "spiritual songs" have been part of Christian worship since New Testament times, specifically described by Paul in his letter to the Colossians (3:16) as two creative outlets alongside the (by then) one-thousand-year-old Jewish tradition of psalm-singing. Famous saints Ambrose in the fourth century, Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth, and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth have all written hymns that are still in use today (often in English translations by diligent nineteenth-century scholars and hymn-writers). Completely new texts, such as the hymn to the Holy Trinity that was discovered with musical notation on a papyrus at Oxyrhyncus, appeared from the first centuries of the Christian Era, while the primary source for much of the new poetry continued to be the Psalms and other Biblical texts; George Wither's 1623 collection combines both these strands of hymnody, as its full title explains: "The hymnes and songs of the Church diuided into two parts. The first part comprehends the canonicall hymnes, and such parcels of Holy Scripture as may properly be sung, with some other ancient songs and creeds. The second part consists of spirituall songs, appropriated to the seuerall times and occasions obserueable in the Church of England". And the connection to the Psalms was both historic and literal: Wither's publication was initially granted a royal monopoly to be "bound up with every copy of the authorized metrical psalms on sale" (in various printed formats), thus bringing together the Apostle Paul's three categories of musical worship in one volume.

The terms hymn and song, however, cause some confusion: Gibbons' tunes are known as Song 1 etc., yet we think of them as hymns. A distinction between public and private worship is hinted at by Wither, but in the blurred practice of the intervening centuries there remains little difference for us today, and for the rest of this text the terms are used interchangeably.

Orlando Gibbons was baptized in Oxford in 1583 and died in 1625 in Canterbury, a member of the Chapel Royal and Organist at Westminster Abbey. As well as being Glenn Gould's favourite composer of all time, Gibbons was a very fine organist (the "best finger of that age"), but his musical contribution to the Hymnes and Songs of the Church is extremely simple: fifteen or so tunes (depending on how you count them), made up from various overlapping formulae, and underpinned with straightforward basslines. The inner parts (if any) are left to the imagination of singers and instrumentalists. On this recording we have adopted a wide variety of approaches: from unadorned melody via pastiche to exuberantly postmodern counterpoint. We have also varied both the use of the bass and the organ (one of the earliest English chamber organs in use today), and of the acoustic; the recording was partly made in a parish church, and partly in the more intimate environment of a home, albeit a large one. The new hymns, by Alexander L'Estrange and myself, and two of my younger brothers, serve both to vary the palette and to show the continuing influence of Hymnes and Songs of the Church on hymn-writing today.

Songs of joy [Tracks 1-6]

The collection begins with a lively prelude based on one of Gibbons' most familiar melodies, Song 1 [Track 1]. The first major festival of the Church's year is celebrated in the closely-related pair of Songs 47 and 46 [2]: David Wulstan, conductor of the pioneering recording of Gibbons hymns with The Clerkes of Oxenford, suggests convincingly that Song 46 (Christmas Day) is Wither's own inept elongation of Gibbons' original Song 47 (A Song of Joy); here they are heard rejoined at the refrain. The Christmas theme continues with the Song of Angels 'Thus angels sung' [3], in a different version to that included in The Naxos Book of Carols (8.557330). A brief instrumental extract [4] demonstrates the relationship of the end of Song 13 to Song 34, and leads into 'Thine for ever', a joyful modern counterpart with florid inner parts [5].

Songs of love [Tracks 7-12]

The Song of Songs has long provided rich imagery for poets and composers, with its interlacing of simple, rapturous human love with intense glimpses of the divine who is Love Himself. Gibbons has responded to this series of canticles with the sublime Songs 9 'Come kiss me' [7], 13 'Oh my love' [8] and 18 'Who's this' [10]; in-between is Song 14 [9] whose paternity has been called into question by the most serious of scholars: here, however, its dramatic possibilities are highlighted with alternating soloists and chorus. After the desolation of the apparently abandoned lover at the end of Song 14, Song 18 [10] sounds a more urgent note, the first minor mode setting on this disc. Its deliberately tense and contradictory inner parts lead into John Pitts's setting of 'Thy way, not mine' [11] where chromatic hymnody is pushed to the edges.

Songs of sacrifice [Tracks 13-16]

The pattern of old and new is reversed for this sequence which begins with an alternative setting [13]-[14] of the famous hymn 'There is a green hill far away', written soon after the composer went up to New College, Oxford. It's followed by 'Take my life' / Song 13 [15], one of two examples on this disc of Gibbons tunes appropriated for more recent words.

Songs of lamentation [Tracks 17-21]

The real event of the Crucifixion and its metaphysical consequences are linked in 'Lord, who by Thy perfect offering', with music that deliberately echoes the sixteenth and seventeenth-century English tradition [17]. Gibbons' two stunning Lamentations refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar [18], and to David's loss of his closest friend Jonathan in the heat and turmoil of civil war in Israel [19]. Alexander L'Estrange's deeply nostalgic hymn [20] brings the first half of the disc to a fitting close.

Songs of triumph [Tracks 22-27]

The day of Resurrection is celebrated with the highly-charged words of the Song of Moses [22] to the tune of Song 1. A further musical echo is heard in 'Lord, who by Thy Resurrection' [23], and then the Songs of two determined, even feisty Old Testament heroines, Hannah [24] and Deborah [25]. This Easter sequence finishes with a nineteenth-century translation of a mediaeval, possibly Ambrosian Latin hymn for Ascensiontide, with new music by James Pitts bringing together traditional harmonies and a more exotic rhythmic lilt [26].

Songs of unity [Tracks 28-33]

The third great Feast of the Church's year, after Christmas and Easter, is Pentecost. Like the events of Easter, it is connected to a thoroughly Jewish Festival, but imbued with new meaning: in this case, the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Church ten days after the Ascension (some fifty days after Easter Day). Gibbons' Song 44 [28] & [30] is an extended version of Song 9 [17], and the same tune exists in an even shorter form as Song 34 [3]. In the middle of 'Veni Creator' stands Song 67 [29] which refers to the choosing of a twelfth Apostle to take the place of Judas Iscariot; this tune had appeared elsewhere before Wither's 1623 publication and in this performance contains an old organists' joke, as well as some word-painting in the newly-composed inner parts. The theme of unity in the Spirit continues with the second pairing of more recent words with Gibbons' melody, here Song 1 [31], and ends with the newest hymn of all, composed about three weeks before the recording, 'Hark, my soul!' [32]

Songs of faith [Tracks 34-39]

The "Voice of Jesus" is heard again speaking to the heart in 'Come unto Me' [34], followed by prayer and praise from Old Testament prophets Isaiah [35] and Habakkuk [36]; and the "Three Children" consigned to, but unharmed by Nebuchadnezzar's burning fiery furnace, call upon angels, saints, and all creatures to "bless, praise, adore, and magnify" the Lord [38]. Song 20 [35] has been given a new solution to the problematic bass part published by Wither, while Song 41 [38] is another melody which has had its authorship questioned, although it seems to do the job.

Songs of hope [Tracks 40-42]

All Saints Day brings the hopes and fears associated with the Last Judgement into sharp relief: 'Miserere Domine' [40] was written in response to an untimely death. King Hezekiah, faced by enemy invasion, prays to the source of his own earthly authority, the King of kings [41], and the Church's liturgical year turns once more into the season of Advent.

Amen [Tracks 6, 12, 16, 21, 27, 33, 39, 42]

Each of the eight sequences ends with a more-or-less contrapuntal variation on a simple tune: this 'Amen' was (and still is) sung with ad hoc harmonies by my family at the end of grace before mealtimes. Scores of these versions, and of all the hymns and songs, along with full texts, are available at http://www.tonusperegrinus.co.uk.

This might be an appropriate point to remember that Wither's collection caused some scandal: both with the Stationers Company who successfully objected to the printing monopoly and with those who disapproved of anything new in this territory. In The Schollers Purgatory (1624) Wither responded: "If they accuse me of ought wherein I am truly faulty; it shall I trust move me to a true repentance, begett in me amendment for the tyme to come; & through the shame of this life, lead me into the glory of the next", and "If any cryme be objected whereof I am cleare, I will remember that the world hath sometyme praised me more then I diserved, so (letting her praises & disparagments to ballance one another) will forgive her, & have as little to do with her, hereafter as I cann."

Antony Pitts


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