Blest Pair of Sirens Hubert Parry
Faire is the Heaven William Harris
Come, my Way William Harris
O for a Closer Walk with God Charles Stanford
Justorum Animae Charles Stanford
Coelos Ascendit Hodie Charles Stanford
Beati Quorum Via Charles Stanford
Magnificat in G Charles Stanford
Nunc Dimittis in G Charles Stanford
I know my Soul hath Power Hubert Parry
Never Weather Beaten Sail Hubert Parry
There is an Old Belief Hubert Parry
A Song of Peace Charles Stanford
Come Down, O Love Divine William Harris
Bring us, O Lord God William Harris
Strengthen Ye the Weak Hands William Harris
Total playing time 72m 23s
In Tune with Heaven
In Tune with Heaven
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) and Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) rose above the insular mediocrity of the British musical establishment of the time, exemplified in cathedrals throughout the country. Their prodigious musical abilities, together with wide-ranging intellect, energetic personality and a cosmopolitan outlook fostered by study abroad, allowed them to escape from the shadows of Mendelssohn and Spohr and lay the foundations of British musical renaissance.
Blest pair of Sirens is one of the few of Parry’s works that has remained in the repertoire since its first performance, by Stanford in 1887. Setting Milton’s Ode at a Solemn Music the composer mirrors the poet’s three-part structure, and through his spontaneous and engaging lyricism creates a small masterpiece. The music is in perfect sympathy with Milton’s text and the tension between the opening section and the central passage concerning man’s discord (portrayed with a jarring change of metre and orchestration) is resolved at the last with one of Parry’s most exquisite melodies and a climax crowned with the return of the opening orchestral theme.
The six Songs of Farewell are similarly inspired. The four heard here date from 1916 and, under the clouds of war and the composer’s failing health, evoke a noble and elegiac tone that seems to recall the late masterworks of Brahms. In the first, My soul there is a country, Parry’s concern with ‘just and noble accent’ is paramount; whilst this setting of Vaughan’s text is the most sectional motet of the set, the congruence of poetry and music is such that this never detracts from the overall sense. The shortest of the six, I know my soul hath power, is lighter in tone, even sardonic at times in its acknowledgement of man’s transient nature. Never weather beaten sail and There is an old belief add an intense contrapuntal dimension to the melodic beauty. The initial weariness of the former is perfectly captured in the diminished fifth motif, as is the final consolation in the rising octave of ‘Glory there the sun outshines’. The six-voice setting of Lockhart’s poem has a wider harmonic range with striking chordal passages (‘That creed I fain would keep’ quoting a plainsong Credo intonation) following imitation similar to that in Never weather beaten sail. As in all of the songs, Parry has complete command of the expressive potential of the choir using melody, harmony and tessitura to profound effect.
Stanford, whose career followed a similar trajectory to Parry’s, is now regarded primarily as a brilliant teacher with a role-call of pupils including Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Bridge, Howells, Moeran and Lambert, and as a composer who reinvigorated the moribund cathedral tradition. His nine operas and seven symphonies are rarely performed and mainly unpublished, despite Vaughan Williams’ assertion that, had Stanford been German or Italian, his works would have been celebrated throughout his homeland.
The Three Motets (Op. 38) had been composed by 1891, and it is thought that they were written to be sung as graces on certain feast days at dinners in Hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he held the post of organist for nine years. The ternary form of Justorum animae contrasts peaceful outer sections with a harmonically restless central passage. The eight-voice Ascension Day carol Coelos ascendit hodie is also cast in ternary form. The antiphonal writing interjects the text with repeated Alleluias and the sense of ascension is captured in the Amen, expanding from a single note to the final resonant cadence. The setting of the first verse of Psalm 119, Beati quorum via, is one of the most beautiful pieces in the cathedral repertory. The voices interweave with an effortless fluidity that belies the tight sonata-like structure of the motet.
The transformation Stanford wrought in his settings of the communion service and the evening canticles was perhaps his greatest achievement in church music. The lovely Evening Service in G (1901) eschews the symphonic techniques he had employed in the earlier services in B flat and A in favour of a more intimate atmosphere. The Magnificat owes a certain debt to Schubert and, as is often commented, the treble solo and delicate organ accompaniment seem to evoke the image of Mary at her spinning-wheel. The overall mood of the Nunc Dimittis is appropriately valedictory, and personifies Simeon through the bass solo, with the choir making a telling contribution at ‘to be a light’. The restrained Gloria is built from the falling minor third theme of the opening, which is finally heard again in the closing ‘amen’.
In 1909/10 Stanford composed the Six Hymns and Six Bible Songs that make up his op. 113, suggesting that each hymn (set for full choir) be followed by the appropriate song, for solo voice. O for a closer walk with God is based on the familiar hymn-tune Caithness, here transformed into a gentle triple-time metre. A Song of Peace (written to follow Pray that Jerusalem may have peace) takes words from Isaiah, traditionally heard in Advent. This association is reinforced with Stanford’s use of the hymn-tune Veni Emmanuel as part of the movement’s second theme. With the Magnificat in G, the Bible Songs (still too rarely performed) confirm Stanford’s mastery of the romantic song and his achievement in introducing this to the ecclesiastical environment.
William Harris (1883-1973) exemplifies the process by which Parry’s and Stanford’s initially radical impact on English choral music eventually transformed into a highly conservative force in the musical establishment. Nevertheless, Harris, whose career as an organist eventually took him to St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, produced a number of fine works, among them two anthems that stand alongside the finest choral works of Parry and Stanford. Faire is the heaven (1925) has been described as ‘a worthy successor to Blest Pair of Sirens’ and is a cornerstone of the cathedral repertory. Setting poetry of a quality equal to that in the Songs of Farewell Harris shows a similar command of choral writing. The scoring for double choir exploits a variety of textures: the two choirs enjoy a rapt exchange of material in the contemplative outer sections while antiphonal effects in the central passage are an arresting depiction of the choir of angels. Bring us, O Lord God (1959) shares a similarly rich harmonic world and is an apt companion piece to Faire is the heaven sharing many of the earlier anthem’s characteristics, although the scoring relies less on antiphonal effects.
Strengthen ye the weak hands is an extensive festival anthem commissioned for the opening service of the 1949 Canterbury Festival, commemorating the science and art of healing. An imaginative response to the text, taken from Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah and the Book of Common Prayer, it stands in a long line of such works by English composers. A tenor recitative precedes the main theme of the piece (mirrored by the similar passage for full choir at the end) and Harris is particularly explicit in his setting of the words from Ecclesiasticus ‘Then shall the lame man leap as an hart’ both in the soprano and organ writing. The addition of the BCP text ‘O saviour of the world’ contains the heart of the work, adding the message of Christian salvation to the healing work of physicians and Harris responds with an intense yet subdued setting in stark contrast to the melodic sweep and excitement of the previous choral writing.
Come down, O love divine and Come, my way are smaller settings, typical of the well-crafted music heard on a daily basis in the cathedral world. Harris’ fine tune for the well-known Pentecost hymn has unfortunately been eclipsed by Vaughan Williams’ equally good Down Ampney. However, in this hymn-anthem, the four verses are set with a winning simplicity, in a style similar to Stanford’s O for a closer walk. Likewise, the setting of George Herbert’s The Call suffers in the shadow of Vaughan Williams’ popular version. Harris writes a short ternary setting for choir and organ and produces an effective work that might otherwise be heard more frequently.
Julian Thomas has been Assistant Organist and Director of the Girls’ Choir at Norwich Cathedral since September 2001. He gained his early musical training as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, and then as a music and academic scholar at Charterhouse, before going up to Jesus College, Cambridge, to read music as Organ Scholar. Whilst there he directed both the Chapel Choir and the College Mixed Choir, (including a CD recording of 20th century British choral music, and numerous foreign tours) and studied the organ with David Sanger. After graduating, Julian moved to Lincoln Cathedral to take up the new post of Second Assistant Organist, and in July 2000 he became a Fellow of the Royal College, gaining the Harding and Durrant prizes. He has appeared on both radio and television accompanying and conducting choirs in Lincoln and Norwich. In addition to his Cathedral duties, Julian teaches the organ, and gives regular recitals (recent venues having included Westminster, Blackburn, Salisbury, and Lincoln Cathedrals, and St. John, Smith Square, London). He has participated in a number of masterclasses with, amongst others, Naji Hakim and Nicolas Kynaston. He is a council member of the Friends of Cathedral Music, and is on the committee of the Association of Assistant Cathedral Organists. Julian is also Director of the Edington Music Festival (a Festival of Music within the Liturgy, which takes place in Wiltshire each August), and he is chorus-master for the U.E.A. Choir and directs the Norwich Cathedral Consort.
Thomas Leech arrived as Organ Scholar at Norwich Cathedral after graduating from Downing College, Cambridge, in July 2001. During his three years there as Organ Scholar he conducted Downing and Darwin College Choirs, as well as a number of major orchestral works. With Downing Choir he performed in Holland, Belgium, Hungary, Poland and the U.S.A, with Norwich Cathedral Choirs in Italy, Norway and Belgium, and he has also given concerts in France and Portugal. He has performed as a soloist in venues including Newcastle, Norwich and Winchester Cathedrals, Romsey Abbey and St. Michael’s, Cornhill, London, and his playing has been broadcast on BBC1 and live on Radio 3. He studied organ with David Sanger and in November 2002 studied in Germany with Johannes Geffert and at Klais Orgelbau with the inaugural Klais Organ Scholarship from the Eric Thompson Trust. He has participated in masterclasses and academies with many of today’s leading organists. Other current musical activities include conducting the Norwich-based Viva Voce Singers and private teaching. Thomas is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, winning the Durrant and Turpin prizes in the Fellowship examinations. He has recently been appointed Assistant Director of Music at Ripon Cathedral, a post he takes up in September 2004.
Recorded in Norwich Cathedral on 1st, 2nd and 4th March 2004, by kind of permission of the Chapter.
Recording, editing and front cover photograph: Lance Andrews
Choir Photograph: Jacqueline Wyatt
Producers: Andrew Carwood and Jeremy Summerly