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With his complete setting of the Morning and Evening Services and Offices for Holy Communion in B flat Op. 10 (1879), written for the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Stanford developed a new, vibrant and original concept of symphonic church music (see Priory PRCD437). Already accomplished as a composer of orchestral and concerted chamber music, Stanford brought to the well-worn texts of the Anglican liturgy an instrumental orientation which at once superseded contemporary settings by Elvey, MacFarren, Hopkins, Garrett, Stainer and S.S. Wesley. In developing the ‘instrumental’ dimension of a liturgical idiom that, in order to emphasis the religious sentiment of the text, had until then always been primarily ‘choral’ (and deliberately archaic in style), he was frequently able to draw a parallel between conventional movements of the symphony and the choral settings of standard items such as the Te Deum (first-movement ‘Allegro’), Magnificat (Scherzo) and Nunc Dimittis (slow movement). Links between choral ‘movements; were also reinforced by the cyclical method of thematic cross-reference, a technique gleaned from the symphonic repertoire of Stanford’s immediate forbears such as Schumann and Liszt. In establishing audible connections between the various parts of the choral service, Stanford was also able to create the effect of musical homogeneity across the entire scheme of the Sunday liturgy, thereby enhancing the overall experience of the congregation.

It was with the success of this first experiment that Stanford embarked on his second major cycle, The Service in A major Op. 12, as the result of a commission from John Stainer. Stainer’s request was for a setting only of the Evening Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) which were to form part of the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral in May 1880. Since the forces at Stanford’s disposal for the Festival were orchestral, his initial conception of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were quintessentially orchestral ( a feature evident from the prominence and difficulty of the organ part). Completed in February 1880 both movements exhibit a consolidation and expansion of the symphonic dimensions of the B flat service. This is particularly apparent in the conspicuous role of the organ in the Nunc Dimittis (an archetypal ‘slow’ movement) which features a rich lyrical duet in the tenor register, originally conceived for divided celli. Together with the melancholy strains of the oboe in the central phase (‘which Thou hast prepared’), the heraldic scoring of ‘ To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and the affecting ‘hushed’ return of the opening material, this setting must stand as one of Stanford’s most fervent utterances in all his church music.

As the music lists as Trinity College, Cambridge show, the A major Evening Service was soon adapted for organ accompaniment and became a regular feature of the choir’s repertoire as did a number of Stanford’s anthems and introits. Moreover its passionate emotionalism and harmonic resourcefulness provided a significant paradigm for Stanford’s contemporaries such as Parry (notably his ‘Great’ Service in D major written soon afterwards in 1881), Thomas Tertius Noble, Alan Gray (both of whom assisted Stanford at Trinity College) And Charles Wood.

Such was the popularity of the Service in B flat that Novello succeeded in persuading Stanford to provide further settings of the Morning, Communion and Evening Services. In 1889 a Service in F Op. 36 was completed (with optional organ) and in 1895, three years after his resignation as organist at Trinity College, he composed the Morning and Communion parts of the A major Service. In the Te Deum Stanford composed one of his most monothematic and discursive movements drawing on quite new material. For the Benedictus, a dialogue based essentially between the basses and the rest of the choir, and the Jubilate Deo a link was forged with the Evening music by the use of the same setting of the Gloria. For the Communion Offices Stanford produced settings of all the choral parts of the liturgy (except the Benedictus qui venit and Agnus Dei); this included the Responses to the Commandments, the Gospel responses (not sung here) and the Sursum Corda. For the Credo the composer returned the the brisk ¾ Allegro temp of the Te Deum and Magnificat, and from the latter derived the main melodic material of the opening idea (an upward scale from A to E followed by a downward leap back to A). Like the Te Deum, the Credo is largely constructed on the one thematic element, an organic process of symphonic development broken only by the musical genuflection (‘And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost’) in F major. The use of such tonality, and its striking effect, was one already used in the Magnificat (e.g. ‘He hath shewed strength with His arm’). The Gloria in Excelsis similarly gravitates towards both C major and F major and moves flatter still towards the Neapolitan (B flat major) before its conclusion (‘art most high in the glory of Thy people Israel’).

For the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 Stanford orchestrated his Te Deum in B flat and the following year he orchestrated the rest of the service. During 1902 he also began work on the Morning, Communion and Evening Service in G Op. 81 which he dedicated to his one-time colleague at the Royal College of Music, Sire George Martin who was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral. It was published by Houghton & Co. In 1904 and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were orchestrated by the composer in May 1907.

The Service in G signals a departure both in its more intense symphonic handling of its material and also in the cyclic dimension. The opening of the Te Deum (‘We praise Thee, O God’) introduces an idea which is then taken up as the central theme of the doxology heard at the close of the Benedictus, Jubilate, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. This technique Stanford was to work to even greater effect in the Service in C major Op. 115 (See Priory PRCD 437). Allied with this increased sense of cyclic unity is a more organic method of development enriched by a wide harmonic vocabulary. Inevitably this gave rise to a more sophisticated attitude towards structure and tonality. This is particularly interesting in the larger movements such as the Te Deum, Credo, Gloria and Magnificat which Stanford confronted with his usual imagina-tion and flair, but the shorter movements, notably the Nunc Dimittis, also reveal a greater degree on involution.

The Te Deum, by far the most substantial of all the texts, falls back on the comparable plan of the Te Deum Op. 10. Here Stanford opts for a division of four main textual sections in which the last recapitulates and reworks material from the first. However, this ostensibly simple procedure is executed with great deftness, for in the third, appropriately more tranquil section (‘We therefore pray Thee’) Stanford sets this in doleful G minor which is carried through to the recapitulation (‘O Lord, have mercy upon us’) before reverting to the tonic major. The Benedictus, a modified ternary structure, it also concise in its handling of the text. Especially striking here is the rapid tonal divergence in the middle section (‘And thou, Child’) and the recovery (‘To give light to them that sit in darkness’) which restates the opening idea but in truncated form.The closing phrase (‘and to guide our feet into the way of peace’) is a gem. For the shorter text of the Jubilate Deo Stanford constructed a monothematic through-composed form whose interest lies primarily in its tonal explorations. Perhaps most distinctive of all is the climatic arrival on the Neapolitan (‘and speak good of His Name’) which subsides, tranquilly, on to the dominant G with the opening ideal sung by a quarter of soloists. For the communion Service Stanford provided different responses to all ten commandments and to the Gospel (the latter not sung here). The Credo, like the Jubilate,  is largely monothematic and features some of Stanford’s most experimental harmony, notably at the dramatic juncture ‘and the third day He rose again’. This moment is initiated by a telling reference to E flat major which appears again as the key of the Sanctus, a splendidly concise miniature with the most sumptuous closing progressions.

One of the characteristics particular to the Gloria in Excelsis is its emphasis on lyricism. Already there had been a hint of this stylistic penchant in the third section of the Te Deum (see above), but in the Gloria the emphasis on melodic writing goes much further as if to suggest the influence of the Lieder tradition (e.g. ‘O Lord, the only begotten Son’), an impression reinforced by ‘pianistic’ running quavers of the organ accompaniment. This and the felicitous antiphony of solo treble and answering choir (‘That takest away the sins of the world’) does much to anticipate the memorable and unique sound of the Magnificat, undoubtedly the best known and best-loved movement of the Service. Here the Schubertian image of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrad’ provides a compelling reinterpretation of the song of Mary. The Nunc Dimittis is equally inspired. Germane to its structure is a deftly simple cadential formula heard at the outset which is given textual identity at the end of the solo bass’s first strain (‘depart in peace’). Permeating the entire movement this brief idea is used to great effect in the closing stages of the Gloria not only at the final cadence (‘Amen’) but also, more subtly, in the exquisite wilting phrases of ‘world without end’. The assimilation of the Gloria into the Nunc Dimittis (and not merely as an appendage), the manner in which initial reference is made to the original ‘Gloria’ material and, most affectingly, the way in which former exultation is transformed into contemplation must lie amongst Stanford’s greatest musical achievements in church music.

© Jeremy Dibble

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Choral Works of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford Volume 2

PRCD 514

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A Op.12 & G Op. 81

A MAJOR SERVICE Op. 12

Te Deum laudamus

Benedictus

Jubilate

Kyrie eleison

Credo

Responses to the Gospel

Sanctus

Gloria in excelsis

Magnificat

Nunc dimittis


G MAJOR SERVICE Op. 81

Te Deum laudamus

Benedictus

Jubilate

Responses and Kyrie

Credo

Responses to the Gospel

Sanctus

Gloria

Magnificat

Nunc dimittis