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Sounds Divine! The Art of Sacred Song

Since earliest times human beings have sung. Or so it seems: until recently scientists have been more prepared to discuss the evolution and purpose of birdsong than of its human equivalent. Birdsong, it appeared, was more straightforward: an aural equivalent of highly-coloured feathers or courtship dance. Even Darwin, though, struggled to suggest that human song was developed solely for the purpose of showing off and attracting a mate; (the modern phenomena of karaoke and talent shows might have caused him to modify his view). Writing in The descent of Man he supposed that song and vocalisation were the precursors to speech. More recently, the American scientist and rock musician Daniel Levitin has observed that, “Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communications and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.” I sing, therefore I am, perhaps. Or, as the Abba song puts it, “she says I began to sing long before I could talk.” If song predates speech, perhaps it retains the ability to link to something unsayable, something eternal.

Far from giving way to speech and shrinking, like a human tail, to some vestigial trace, song seems to have hung around for millions of years to enhance speech and give it fullest expression. There is an element of mystery about this: music is found in every culture and society, but it is non-adaptive: it serves no evolutionary purpose. Music, so often described as a ‘universal language’, is in fact neither universal nor a language, lacking in images, symbols or the ability to communicate exact meaning. For some scientists, including the very musical Steven Pinker in his book How the mind works, “music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” And many of the pieces in this programme can be enjoyed in such a way: sacred choral music has the ability to soothe and satisfy; its spiritual nature can often transcend its religious content. Some of the settings make their effect through the creation and manipulation of musical space and drama: Leighton’s Let all the world and O magnum mysterium create vivid sound-worlds that would be effective and enjoyable without their texts, as purely instrumental music; cornetts and sackbuts could take on the textures and rhythms of Gabrieli’s O magnum mysterium and produce a very satisfying instrumental canzona.

There are those who whish for more from their music, however, and there is much more to draw from the music in this collection. The poet Elizabeth Bishop declared, “I am in need of music that would flow Over my fretful, feeling fingertips, Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips, With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.” The focus on harmony and counterpoint of so many of the pieces on this disk throws the examples of melody into sharp relief: in Poulenc’s setting of O magnum mysterium, the treble melody floats above the incense-rich clouds of lower-voice harmony like hills rising above clouds on a spring morning; a similar effect, but with a less dark backing, is achieved in Richard Lloyd’s Magnificat from the St Hild Service. Bainton’s And I saw a new heaven, a favourite with generations of singers, succeeds partly because of the drama of its word-setting (take, for example, the rising phrase given to the basses on “and I heard a great voice out of heaven”, followed by the brass-like choral chords for “behold, the tabernacle of God is with men”) but equally because of the lyrical quality of its melodies, especially the unforgettable tenor phrase towards the end, at “God shall wipe away all tears”’ where the melody, at first setting the text syllable-by-syllable, returns twice to its initial pitch before finally breaking off heavenwards with a melisma on “away”.

Although words and music are undoubtedly effective each on its own terms, when well-matched they produce an effect that is more than the sum of their parts. The ‘meaning’ of such compound musical settings is complex and evades analysis. When the Overlords, those intellectual alien beings in Arthur C Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, pay a visit to an earthly musical concert, they listen politely, commend the composer’s ‘great ingenuity’, but leave puzzled, because music does nothing fro them. The neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book Musicophilia, imagines them returning to their spaceships, discussing the phenomenon they have just encountered, reasoning that it must have some unknown beneficial function for the humans. So music is in some way parallel to religion, necessary to many yet impossible fully to explain, a conundrum for the rational evolutionist. And it is in service of religion that music reaches some of its most profound expression. The pieces in this recital echo the eternal human and sacred themes of Advent: hope and expectation; wonder and celebration of new beginnings; and contemplation of our own end-time.

It was to bring together sacred texts and music that cathedral choirs such as Durham’s were first developed from rows of singing monks in the fifteenth century. The tradition has continued unbroken except for a few years during the Commonwealth, persisting against the odds because of its versatility and its dedication to the purpose for which it is so well suited, that of elevating the thoughts and prayers of individuals and communities,bringing them closer to a perception of something beyond the merely ordinary. The passionately atheistic evolutionist Richard Dawkins allows a grudging respect for this tradition when explaining why people chooses one religion over another (in A Devil’s Chaplain): “no doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit.” This recording captures some of the soaring acoustic of Durham Cathedral; few of the texts are narrative, but the combination of music and text creates sound parables.

All the pieces recorded here come from the modern daily repertoire of an English cathedral choir. As functional settings they use a conservative musical language and texts, biblical and devotional, which frequently predate the music by several centuries. Remarkably, none of the composers strives to be contemporary. Many of them, although writing at a (pre-antiquarian) time when there was little interest in earlier musical styles, have chosen to use established harmonic language from at least 50 years before the date of their compositions: Byrd (1605), Tallis (1575) and Handl (c1585) all adopt the contrapuntal style of the mid sixteenth century; Bairstow (1902), Bainton (1928) and Harris (1959) write in the mainstream European Romantic style of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps most remarkably of all Schütz (1648), who had studied with Giovanni Gabrieli from 1609 to 1612 and who had returned to Venice in 1628 to update himself with the style of Monteverdi and the early Italian baroque, falls back on a mixture of homophony and counterpoint more typical of Lassus a hundred years earlier. There are occasional elements of more modern music: Gabrieli and Leighton inject lively rhythms; Poulenc and Leighton employ some chromatic harmonies - as does Weelkes, with a lurch onto a sharper chord to paint the phrase “tune thy heart” - but all steer well clear of any sense of the avant-garde.

Composers may deliberately select a more archaic musical style partly as an evocation of the timeless: what’s up to date goes out of fashion quickly; a more classic style holds its currency. The timeless cycle of preparation, arrival, and waiting again that is the liturgical backdrop to Advent finds its musical equivalent here. The music is full of movements, often reflecting the excitement of anticipation, sometimes catching uncertainty, wonder and awe, couched within musical styles that are conservative yet not static. In this programme the pieces by the earlier composers Byrd, Tallis, Weelkes, Handl, Gabrieli and Schütz anticipate the birth of Christ; the most recent composers Lloyd and Poulenc celebrate the “now”, responding to the Incarnation with devotion and awe; and the works by the twentieth-century composers Bainton, Harris and Leighton look forward to the believer’s own death and Christ’s second coming. Like the tradition of cathedral music-making itself, Advent music looks both backward and forward, its devotional focus being an event anticipated in the Hebrew Bible and chronicled in the Gospels, and as that event is annually celebrated and renewed the music itself also timeless, binding text and sound together. It is at once both approachable and mystical. “The inexpressible depth of music,” as Schopenhauer put it, “so easy to understand and yet so in-explicable.”


Richard Lloyd: The St Hild Service - première recording

Dr Michael and Elizabeth Boyd, regular members of the congregation at Durham Cathedral, generously provided funds to commission the composition of the St Hild Service to mark their golden weeding anniversary in July 2009. Through the Durham Cathedral Choir Association, and following the advice of James Lancelot, Richard Lloyd, a former organist at Durham, was approached. This setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis is Richard Lloyd’s twelfth. Durham already has his Durham Service, written for the 1991 Northern Cathedrals Festival. In contrast to the rather grand Durham Service, the style of the St Hild Service was given at Evensong on 15 November 2009 in the presence of Michael and Elizabeth Boyd and Richard Lloyd. The performers were the men and boys of Durham Cathedral Choir, with Keith Wright (organist), conducted by James Lancelot.

© Andrew Fowler, 2010


The Organ music on this recording illustrates the enormous range of periods and styles which the magnificent Harrison & Harrison instrument in Durham Cathedral can not only play, but play very well indeed. Chameleon-like, the organ can one minute transport us to North Germany three centuries ago, and the next minute show its true nature in a blaze of nineteenth- and twentieth-century colour.

John Bull was a native of the Welsh border country, and received his early musical education as a chorister at Hereford Cathedral. By his early twenties he was both Organist and Master of the Choristers at Hereford and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and within three years was the subject of the first of many complaints, that he was neglecting his duties in Hereford. Further troubles in later life included accusations of fraud over the value of an organ he was attempting to sell, the fathering of a daughter out of wedlock, and adultery; in 1613 the Archbishop of Canterbury was moved to write of him: ‘The man hath more music than honesty’. The result of Bull’s many run-ins with authority was that he felt safer to emigrate to the Netherlands than to stay and face the music; he settled in Antwerp and became a celebrated member of the musical elite there, alongside other English composers including Peter Philips.This brief Prelude is one of only a small number by Bull not to be based on plainsong or other pre-existing material; it shows a restraint and sober dignity not often found in his keyboard works, where a desire to impress often swamps the musical content.

Reincken was associated with the Catherinenkirche in Hamburg for 68 years, as a pupil of, Assistant Organist to, and son-in-law of, Heinrich Scheidemann, and - from 1663 until his death -  as Organist. His reputation as one of the principal musical figures of the generation before J S Bach stems from three things: firstly, a fine painting of Reincken and Buxtehude making music together; secondly, stories of Bach’s visits to Hamburg, to hear Reincken play, and to study with him; and thirdly, reports (now known to be exaggerated) of his great age - he was long thought to have been born in 1623, and to have remained working until the age of 99. Only a small handful of Reincken’s compositions survive, and Bach was obviously an admirer, as he arranged some of Reincken’s pieces for harpsichord. The Fugue in G minor is a good example of a ‘perpetual motion’ fugue - a genre popular in the region at the time - with the unusual feature of a subject which includes the same note repeated 17 times.

Although now best-known as the composer of just one organ piece, the Chorale-Improvisation on Nun danket alle Gott, Karg-Elert’s training was principally as a pianist and harmoniumist, and he taught both instruments at the Magdeburg Conservatoire in the early years of the twentieth century before attempting to make his name (unsuccessfully) as an international organ recitalist in the 1920s and 1930s. His early works (of which Harmonies du soir is one - the Opus number is misleading) display a rich and chromatic approach to harmony which borders at times on atonality, in addition to a dramatic approach to expression which stems from the composer’s love of the harmonium, and its wide dynamic range.

Whitlock’s death at an early age deprived twentieth-century English church music of one of its most engaging characters. He was appointed Assistant Organist at Rochester Cathedral (where he had earlier been a chorister) at the age of 18, whilst a composition student under Vaughn Williams at the Royal College of Music. In 1930 he became Organist at St Stephen’s in Bournemouth, combining the dignity of high-church liturgy and ritual whilst displaying his wit and charm as a composer and performer. His wide circle of friends, and his mischievous sense of humour, are hinted at in such details as the dedication of his Organ Sonata, to both the author Dorothy L Sayers and her fictitious heroine, Harriet Vane. Whitlock’s obituary in Musical Opinion (June 1946) includes the delicious phrase, ‘he delighted in ancient and mellowed things’, and this is many ways sums up his music, which is always solidly-constructed and well-rounded, avoiding modernistic or jarring effects. The forthright prelude recorded here, based on the well-known tune to Ye holy angels bright, is an excellent demonstration of Whitlock’s ‘double life’ - the organist whose music tiptoes the border-line between church and concert-hall, serving both equally well.

© Keith Wright, 2010

Gloria.mp3

Gloria in excelsis Deo

DCP001

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Thomas Weelkes

Gloria in excelesis Deo

Thomas Tallis

O nata lux de lumine

William Byrd

Senex puerum portabat (4-part)

Thomas Tallis

Salvator mundi (first setting)

John Bull

Prelude

Jacob Handl

Omnes de Saba venient

Giovanni Gabrieli

O magnum mysterium

Heinrich Schütz

Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes

Johan Adam Reincken

Fugue in G minor

Richard Lloyd

The St Hild Service:

Magnificat


Nunc dimittis

Sigfrid Karg-Elert

Harmonies du soir

Francis Poulenc

O magnum mysterium


Quem vidistis, pastores?


Videntes stellam


Hodie Christus natus est

Percy Whitlock

Hymn-Prelude on Darwall’s 148th

Edgar Bainton

And I saw a new heaven

Edward Bairstow

Save us, O Lord, waking

William Harris

Bring us, O Lord God

Kenneth Leighton

Let all the world in every corner sing