About this Recording
8.572540 - Choral Concert: Choir of St. John's, Elora - TAVENER, J. / STAINER, J. POULENC, F. / STANFORD, C.V. (Psalms and Motets for Reflection)

Tavener • Stainer • Poulenc • Stanford • MacMillan


The Psalms have for long formed an important element in Jewish and Christian worship, from the chanting of Levites in the Temple and the continuing rites of the synagogue to the Divine Office of Catholic practice and the customs of Protestant churches and chapels. In the Catholic Mass, the principal act of worship, fragments of the Psalms appear as graduals and antiphons, while the Reformers of the sixteenth century tended to revert to a wider use of Psalms, following the apparent practice of early Christians. Musical settings of the Psalms in the Roman Catholic Western Church were largely plainchant, although texts from the Psalms also provided words for polyphonic treatment. In the tradition developed in the Church of England Psalms came to be sung to what became known as Anglican chant. The varying length of lines in the Psalm texts demanded a certain elasticity in the length of the corresponding music. This was met in Roman Catholic usage by a reciting note of variable length and in the Church of England either by a translation of Roman usage or by a harmonized single or double chant. It might be added that traditional musical training often involved a novice in the composition of single and then double chants, leading finally to the summit of such achievement, the hymn tune.

The sources of the translations of the Psalms used in the present recording vary slightly. Over the years there have been revisions in the Latin Psalms and changes in English translations, in Anglican usage between the Authorised Version of The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and subsequent adjustments. Metrical Psalms have had their own place and history, particularly in Scotland, where Calvinism dominated religious thinking after the Reformation of 1560. In whatever version, however, the Psalms remain a basic element in worship.

Psalm 47, O clap your hands together (Omnes gentes, plaudite) opens the present recording in a setting by William Crotch. He was born in Norwich in 1775 and in childhood was an infant phenomenon, his promise not fully realised in later life. He took his doctorate at Oxford, where he served as organist at the University Church until 1806, when he moved to London, still retaining his title as professor at Oxford. He became the first principal of the Royal Academy of Music in 1822, resigning ten years later, to enjoy retirement until his death in 1847. He did much to bring about a revival in English church music, and his compositions include oratorios, anthems and psalm chants, many of which remain part of English cathedral repertoire.

Johannes Eccard, born in Mühlhausen in 1553, served in the court chapels of Weimar, Bavaria and Brandenburg, finally as Kapellmeister in Berlin. His Maria wallt zum Heiligtum (When to the Temple Mary went) is a six-part motet, celebrating the Feast of the Purification, when Christ was brought to the Temple by his mother, to be greeted by Simeon, with the words familiar from the Nunc dimittis.

A New Song by the Catholic Scottish composer James MacMillan was commissioned for the choir of St Bride’s Episcopal Church in Glasgow. The words are taken from Psalm 96 and the meditative setting brings with it musical turns of phrase that suggest Scottish musical traditions.

Ivor Atkins represents Anglican musical traditions in his training and his compositions. He served his apprenticeship as assistant organist at Truro and Hereford Cathedrals, before appointment as organist at St Lawrence’s in Ludlow. In 1897 he was appointed to Worcester Cathedral, where he remained until 1950, closely involved with the Three Choirs Festival celebrated at the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford in turn. His commitment to the West Country brought collaboration with Elgar. Atkins was knighted in 1921 and is here represented by settings of Psalms 2, 96 and 107.

John Tavener has been strongly influenced by Eastern Christianity and became a member of the Orthodox Church in 1977. His setting of William Blake’s The Lamb was written in 1982 for the third birthday of his nephew. It gently matches Blake’s familiar words.

The French composer Francis Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (Four Motets for a Time of Penitence) were written in 1938 and 1939 after the composer’s return to the Catholic faith in which he had been raised. The death of a friend, the young composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident in 1936 contributed to this reconversion, together with a visit to the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame de Rocamadour, which had a more immediate result in his Litanies à la vierge noire (Litanies for the Black Virgin). The text of Vinea mea electa is taken from a responsory in the First Nocturn of Matins on Good Friday. Timor et tremor is taken from Psalm 54 in Catholic numbering, in the Protestant tradition Psalm 55.

The English organist and choir-trainer Barry Rose was appointed Master of Music at Guildford Cathedral at the unusually early age of 25. In 1974 he became sub-organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and later Master of the Choir, involved there with a number of important royal occasions. He resigned in 1984, served in Canterbury and then from 1988 to 1997 at St Albans Cathedral. His setting of Psalm 121 makes a particularly moving and effective addition to English cathedral repertoire.

The Anglican tradition is strongly represented in the setting of Psalm 145 by Thomas William Hanforth, who trained at York Minster, worked for a time in York and then took up an appointment in Sheffield at what was then the parish church. In 1914 a new diocese was created and the church became Sheffield Cathedral, with Hanforth continuing to serve as organist, as he had done since 1892.

The Australian composer Paul Halley takes us into a new and evocative sound world. Self-taught as a composer, he has drawn inspiration from a variety of sources, including the medieval and other musical traditions. His setting of Christ whose glory fills the skies, commissioned in 2005 by Noel Edison and St John’s, takes its melodic source from the Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn of 1524 by Johann Walter, the first Protestant work of its kind, issued with an introduction by Martin Luther, who made his own musical contributions to the new vernacular liturgy.

Music in Britain owes a great deal to Charles Villiers Stanford. Born in Dublin in 1852 into an Irish Protestant family, he made his career in England at Cambridge, where he served first as organist at Trinity College and from 1887 as Professor of Music, while in London he shared the position of Professor of Composition at the newly established Royal College of Music with Hubert Parry. Both were influential teachers and both were knighted. Stanford wrote a number of settings of the canticles used in Morning Prayer in the Anglican liturgy. His Te Deum in B flat was part of his Op. 10 Morning, Communion and Evening Services, written in 1879. Intended in the first instance for Trinity College, Cambridge, the whole cycle conceived on symphonic lines, the Te Deum was orchestrated by Stanford for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.

A chorister, as a boy, at St Paul’s Cathedral, John Stainer became organist at Magdalen College, Oxford, and University Organist, in 1872 moving to St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1888 he was knighted and the following year returned to Oxford. His compositions include oratorios, cantatas and a quantity of other church music. His oratorio The Crucifixion, written in 1887, retains a place in popular seasonal church repertoire and includes God so loved the world, a chorus often used in isolation as an anthem.

The prolific American composer Stephen Paulus wrote his opera The Three Hermits for House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with a libretto by Michael Dennis Browne. The approachable nature of the composer’s musical language is evident in Pilgrims’ Hymn, an extract from the opera.

Jonathan Harvey was among the leading British composers of his generation. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller, and at Princeton was influenced by Milton Babbit. His Remember, O Lord, was written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The lawyer and organist Edward Cutler represents the Anglican church music tradition in his chant for Psalm 27, as does the nineteenth-century English church musician George Cooper, who followed his father as organist at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, with his chant for Psalm 19.

Keith Anderson

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