Songs of Praise (Darius Battiwalla/ Halifax Choral Society/ John Pryce-Jones/ Michael Thompson) (Naxos: 8.553876)
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Songs of Praise
Popular English Hymnsand Anthems
In quires and places where they sing here followeth the anthem
With this instruction the Book of Common Prayer of 1622 motivatedseveral centuries of English composers to focus their creativity into the hugecollection of short choral works that are the English Anthems. A specificallyEnglish musical form, anthems are not part of the liturgy but extra-musicaladornments to the Anglican rite. Outside Britain a similar composition would bedescribed as a motet, an ancient form in which only a few composers workedafter the death of J.S. Bach.
This recording Songs of Praise is a sampler from arguably thegolden age of anthem writing, the Victorian period and early twentieth century.
Contained in it, beside the work of British composers, is that of two foreignmasters who served as r??le-models; Mendelssohn, the Victorians' most celebratedcontemporary musician, was almost an honourary Englishman; Mozart was anearlier source of inspiration for anyone aspiring to the heights ofspirituality in musical expression.
The Tudor period was the first high point of English church music, butlate Victorian anthems and hymns represent more than just musical achievement.
The Church of England is the established church of the country and to the latenineteenth-century population this was more than a constitutional irrelevance.
Church-going of all denominations was a vital part of many lives and theposition of the church in society was central. New churches and chapels were beingbuilt and old ones rebuilt to become a focus of civic pride. A flourishingmusical life was inevitably an important part of this.
What distinguished this new flowering of musical excellence from thosebefore was its downward reach. Previously elite cathedral choirs, imitated byaspiring parish churches, would have sung services in splendid isolation, thecongregation being allowed to chant a few musically unsatisfying psalms.
Country parish churches meanwhile had devised their own crude musical arrangements,perhaps with the help of an ad hoc church 'band' and the free churchessang rumbustuous, sometimes raucous evangelical hymns. By the end of thenineteenth century a musical consensus had been achieved. Good hearty hymnsinging had reached the established church and an energetic revival of anthemwriting had whetted the appetite of nonconformists for choral music on a higherplane. Of course, as now, peripheral forms of musical expression stillsurvived; the converted street songs of the Salvation Army contrasted stronglywith the ancient plainsong surviving in the extreme Anglo Catholic wing of theChurch of England. But, by the turn of the century, a remarkable unanimity oftaste extended all the way from Queen Victoria, a Mendelssohn devotee, down tothe humblest parish choir singing their hearts out in Stainer's Crucifixion.
Further enrichment occurred in the new century. New composers, Holst,Vaughan Williams, Howells, Walton, energised by the seriousness of purpose theyfound in the church and the force of the burgeoning English musicalrenaissance, injected a vigour and eclecticism into their compositions thatchanged the characteristic sound of church music for ever.
The hymns that intersperse the anthems and motets on this disc representthe rich variety of sources that combined in that worthiest of all Victorianendeavours Hymns Ancient and Modern. Praise to the holiest (tune: Richmond byThomas Heweis) and Immortal invisible (St Denio, a traditional Welshhymn tune) both marry 19th century poetry to simple music of a previous era. Praisemy soul (music: Sir John Goss) and Dear Lord and Father of mankind (music:Sir Hubert Parry) are fine examples of the new hymn-writing that was devisedlate in the nineteenth century to fulfil the expectations of the now musicallyenfranchised congregations. Strong shapely melodies that sound so well inunison contrasted with a florid and richly chromatic harmonization for choirand organ. Come down O love divine (music: Ralph Vaughan Williams) themost recent, shows freer rhythms, unusual phrase lengths and a modal tinge tothe harmony characteristic of one involved in the folk-song revival.
We hear the same modally derived harmonic side-slips in VaughanWilliams' anthem Let all the world in every corner sing and he continuesto look to England's past in his choice of words from the sixteenth centurypoet George Herbert. The piece is the last and only specifically choralmovement of Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs.
Mozart's Ave verum corpus was written in the year of his death1791 and its mere 44 bars of simple music comprise one of the most affectingand sublime expressions of spiritual aspiration ever composed.
Charles Wood (1866-1926) was a central figure in the reawakening ofEnglish music. His own output, small and confined to the church, belies hisinfluence. As professor at Cambridge he passed on his traditional craftsmanshipto some significant figures of the new century among them Tippett and VaughanWilliams. O thou the central orb is without a doubt a classic ofthe genre which defines in many people's minds the Anglican 'cathedral sound'.
Mendelssohn's motet Hear my prayer occupies a similar position inthe popular perception of ecclesiastical music. The tradition of having a smallboy piping the anguished words the enemy shouteth, the godless come fast;iniquity, hatred upon me they cast is one of life's treasuredincongruities.
Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), himself only a minor composer, was able,from his positions as organist at St Paul's Cathedral and professor at Oxford,to promote the renewal of church music and articulate the need for it to be ofthe highest quality. God so loved the world lies at the heart of hismeditative oratorio The Crucifixion.
The sacred music ofEdward Elgar, the major figure of this whole period, formed a large part of hisoutput. Give unto the Lord is an extended setting of Psalm XXIX. Theorgan voluntary, a treasured part of Anglican worship, is here represented bythe first movement of Elgar's Sonata in G, his only substantial organwork.
Gerald Finzi and John Joubert were both born in the twentieth century.
Finzi's spacious soaring anthem God is gone up is in that tradition ofmusic, so influenced by cathedral architecture and acoustics that it might be describedas English Perpendicular. Joubert's anthem O Lorde, the maker of althing is by contrast restrained and austere.
Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) is now known for very little otherthan his classic Evening Hymn. By contrast Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918)reached the whole nation with his great national hymn Jerusalem and hiscoronation anthem I was glad. This glorious paean is sung at thebeginning of the service as the monarch enters the cathedral by the west doorand passes through the nave and choir.
The Halifax Choral Society is one of the oldest in the world. Founded in1817, it has an unbroken record of perfoffi1ance and a reputation as one of thebest choirs in the North of England, a region well known for its long-standingchoral tradition. Over the years the choir has performed almost every majorchoral work, along with a series of other works now forgotten, representativeof contemporary t