Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Sergei Rachmaninov - To Thee O Lord

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a celebrated Russian pianist, conductor, and composer who was one of the last Romantic artists in Russian classical music.

Coming from a musical family, his mother gave him piano lessons beginning at four, but after his talent became obvious his grandfather insisted that he receive formal piano training. His earliest compositions were written while he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1892. Rachmaninov suffered a significant period of depression following negative criticism of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897, until the positive welcome Symphony No. 2 received in 1901. Initial compositions showed the strong influence of Tchaikovsky, but Rachmaninov quickly developed his own style. Following the Russian Revolution his family fled Russia in 1917 and spent a year performing in Scandinavia, eventually coming to the United States where they settled in New York in 1918. His final years would be artistically and personally fulfilling.

Musicologist Joseph Yasser highlighted Rachmaninov's use of an intra-tonal chromaticism that stands in notable contrast to the inter-tonal chromaticism of Richard Wagner and strikingly contrasts the extra-tonal chromaticism of the more radical twentieth century composers like Arnold Schoenberg. This means that rather than using two groups of tonal chromaticism he used one within another. Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale for "Colour" (chroma is greek for colour). So Rachmaninov cleverly embedded his chromatic embellishments within diatonic tonal harmony rather than in contrast to it.

Rachmaninov was blessed with an uncanny memory - he could hear a symphony and play it back the next day, in true savant style. He was widely believed to be the greatest pianist of his time, helped by large hands which went with a marfanoid habitus - visual markers for Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. (He certainly suffered ailments associated with connective tissue disease including premature arthritis.) His left handed playing was notably strong, with clear definition often lacking in right handed pianists.

Choral Works
Rachmaninoff always based his musical interpretations on the belief that each piece of music has a "culminating point." Regardless of where that point was or at which dynamic within that piece, the performer had to know how to approach it with absolute calculation and precision; otherwise, the whole construction of the piece could crumble and the piece could become disjointed. Thus superficially straitforward choral pieces such as "Bogoroditse Dyevo" and "To Thee O Lord" require an inside understanding of the whole work to produce the intended performance.

To Thee O Lord is an excerpt from a larger work, his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, also known as Tebe Poyem. This movement was published in the UK with English Text around 1915 and was included in Francis Jackson's "Anthems for Choirs". It is written in Old Church Slavonic which is similar to Russian. Available to download on PDF here our choir are recording it this week remotely. For now, here is Guildford Cathedral's recording from 1968 under music director Barry Rose.

To thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.
My God, I trust in thee.
To thee, O Lord, do I lift my soul.
My God, I trust in thee.

Тебе поем,
Тебе благословим,
Тебе благодарим, Господи,
и молим Ти ся, Боже наш

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Vivaldi's Gloria

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was an Italian Baroque composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher and Roman Catholic priest. Born in March 1678 in Venice, Vivaldi's health was problematic as a child. It is now believed that he suffered from asthma, and prevented him from learning to play wind instruments. However he learned to play the violin, and at age fifteen began training for the priesthood. Not long after his ordination, in 1704, he was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass most likely because of his ill health and Vivaldi appeared to withdraw from liturgical duties, saying Mass as a priest only a few times though he remained a member of the priesthood.

In 1711 Vivaldi begin work at Ospedale della Pietà in Venice as Master of Violin. An all-female orphanage, music school and convent Vivaldi composed most of his work whilst there, writing concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for them. These sacred works number over sixty and include solo motets and large-scale choral works for soloists, double chorus, and orchestra. Vivaldi had to compose an oratorio or concerto at every feast and teach the orphans both music theory and how to play certain instruments.

Venice in the early 18th century was the cultural centre of Europe, and a visit to the opera was part of the court and social life of the city. Opera houses were however required to close for all important religious festivals, but Venetians still wanted to be entertained. Vivaldi’s all-female orchestras and choirs were legendary sensations, but the girls needed to be protected from noblemen and travellers to the city. To keep them sheltered from the corruption of the visiting public, the choir sang from the upper galleries of the church, hidden behind the patterned grills, which only added to the theatrical sense of drama matched by Vivaldi’s music.
"Those young men in Venice for a stop on the Grand Tour flocked to Vivaldi’s church to hear these mysterious women seen only in silhouette, but sounding like angels."
At the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty including the French court of Louis XV. Vivaldi's Opus 9, "La cetra" was dedicated to Emperor Charles VI. He gave Vivaldi the title of knight, a gold medal and an invitation to Vienna. It is also likely that Vivaldi went to Vienna to stage operas, especially as he took up residence near the Kärntnertortheater. However, shortly after his arrival in Vienna in 1741 Charles VI died, which left the composer without any royal protection or a steady source of income. Having squandered his fortune Vivaldi became impoverished and died during a pauper in July 1741, aged 63.

Gloria in D
Vivaldi's  Gloria in D is probably one of his best known sacred works, but it also reflects Vivaldi’s other skill as an opera composer which he regarded as a distraction from his day job at the Pieta.

The Gloria is Vivaldi's most famous choral piece, presenting the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in twelve varied cantata-like sections, ranging from festive brilliance to profound sadness. The powerful stile antico (historical composition style) double fugue on Cum Sancto Spiritu at the end is an arrangement by Vivaldi of the ending of a Gloria composed in 1708 by an older contemporary, Giovanni Maria Ruggieri. Vivaldi includes music which feels part concerto, part opera and the result is one of sacred music’s most uplifting choral works.

For two centuries after his death, the Gloria lay undiscovered until the late 1920s, when it was found buried among a pile of forgotten Vivaldi manuscripts.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Dr. John Sentamu, Vision and Change

In the middle of a pandemic, during lockdown; and over a weekend of protests, social disturbance and violence, we can be forgiven perhaps if the retirement of Dr. John Sentamu completely passed us by. And yet the timing of his retirement is striking in several ways. His voice is perhaps needed now more than ever - or have his vision and mission already initiated the change that we so desperately need?

"The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, accompanied by his wife, the Revd Margaret Sentamu, laid down his crozier of office on the high altar of York Minster on Sunday 7 June. The Dean of York, the Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Frost and Head Verger Alex Carberry were witnesses to this final act as Archbishop. (Music - Recorded previously by York Minster Choristers Psalm 150)"

The following biography is an abridged version of the information on Wikipedia, and other information published this weekend. I knew little and have learned much! There is also much on the Archbishopric of York website.

Dr. John Sentamu
Born in Uganda in 1949, Dr. Sentamu was the sixth of thirteen children. He obtained a Bachelor of Laws at Makerere University, Kampala, and practised as an advocate of the High Court of Uganda.

He incurred the wrath of the dictator Idi Amin, considered one of the cruelest despots in world history. Sentamu was detained for 90 days after refusing to overlook the crimes of one of Amin's family; he fled his home country to arrive as an immigrant in the United Kingdom in 1974.

Sentamu studied theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge and trained for the priesthood at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, being ordained a priest in 1979. He worked as assistant chaplain at Selwyn College, as chaplain at a remand centre and as curate and vicar in a series of parish appointments. Sentamu was consecrated a bishop on 25 September 1996, by George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, at St Paul's Cathedral.

During this time that he served as advisor to the Stephen Lawrence Judicial Enquiry, in 2002 he chaired the Damilola Taylor review - in both cases his personal experience of institutional racism proved invaluable. That same year he was appointed Bishop of Birmingham where his ministry, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was praised by "Christians of all backgrounds".

Sentamu has spoken on issues including young people, the family, slavery, and injustice and conflict abroad. He seemed to have a natural talent for highlighting social ills in an insightful yet tactful way which won supporters. Above all his career has been a constant campaign against injustice.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Florence Price

It would seem that Florence Price was just waiting for me to discover her.

On the RSCM Facebook group I am a member of I saw a post on the fundamentally important theme of #BlackLivesMatter linking to a performance of Price's "Adoration", in memory of George Floyd. I had already searched for a black composer of anglican music to include here, in some small way offering my own contribution to such an important movement - to no avail. But here I was being offered a perfect example, which has also proved wonderfully coincidental as well.

Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA on April 9th 1887, one of three children in a mixed race family. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and had her first composition published at the age of 11. by the time she was 14 she had graduated as top of her class, and went on to study music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, majoring in piano and organ. She achieved a level of renown which defied all expectations for an African-American woman in her day. Acutely aware of her heritage, initially Florence identified as Mexican to avoid prejudice for being African American.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Music for Trinity Sunday - Philip Wilby

Trinity Sunday
This Sunday, 7th June 2020 is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian liturgical calendar. Trinity Sunday celebrates the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the three Persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The triquetra (below) is sometimes used to represent the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a form of Celtic knot work and is sometimes shown with an interlocking circle, as well, as shown below.

Trinity Sunday is a Principal Feast in the Anglican Church, and marks the start of the second and longest section of "Ordinary Time" in the liturgical year. This period  continues up to the first Sunday in Advent. (The first is from Christ's Baptism to Ash Wednesday.) Trinity Sunday is the Sunday following Pentecost, and eight weeks after Easter Sunday. The earliest possible date is May 17 and the latest possible date is June 20.

Green is the liturgical colour for Ordinary Time, although white is used for Trinity Sunday as a Principal Feast. (An interesting topic in its own right, but worth a read if you are preparing for your Gold Award. It's all useful background knowledge!)

History note on Trinity Sunday in the Anglican church
Thomas Becket (1118–70) was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost (Whitsun), and his first act was to ordain that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honour of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of western Christendom.

Music for Trinity Sunday
A beautiful piece for Trinity Sunday is Victoria's "Duo Seraphim", you can download the music here. However I absolutely love Geurrero's "Duo Seraphim" which I was fortunate enough to perform in concert a couple of years back. Written for triple choir, this cleverly builds on the text to celebrate the Trinity. The music can be downloaded here.

Thursday, 28 May 2020


Pentecost is celebrated fifty day after Easter Sunday, and is also known as Whitsun. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks, as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Wikipedia says:-"The term Pentecost comes from the Greek Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē) meaning "fiftieth". It refers to the festival celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, also known as the "Feast of Weeks" and the "Feast of 50 days" in rabbinic tradition."

Pentecost thus falls ten days after Ascension, which is forty days after Easter.

The Jewish festival of Shavout or "Feast of Weeks" is the Jewish Festival of First Fruits, or their Harvest Festival. It is quite prophetic therefore that the followers of Jesus should receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at this time, a time which celebrated the culmination of hard work and labour, and the gift of a reward with an eye on the future. Indeed, the verb used in Acts 2:1 to indicate the arrival of the day of Pentecost carries a connotation of fulfilment.

Friday, 22 May 2020

The English Reformation and its impact on liturgy and music

A brief discussion on the impact of religious change in sixteenth century England on church music and liturgy, from a layman's 21st Century perspective!

The Reformation is a hugely misunderstood and underestimated period of flux in Europe and beyond over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I have long been intrigued by the way religion not only underpinned society at every level during the Early Modern period, but how those influences are still relevant today. Having studied this period of history in depth at university I believe there are two significant themes of the English Reformation and its impact on liturgy and music:-

1) The Reformation was not an event which occurred at a single point in time.

The Reformation was not an event, it was more an evolutionary phase which spread out from Henry's break with Rome in 1530 like a mycelium which infiltrated every aspect of English life - and then re-wove itself through again and again creating a vast web of differing experiences, opinions and outcomes. It was the all and everything for the English people for almost 200 years, whether they participated religiously or not. In religious life it encompassed "English Catholics" with their highly latinised services, and Quakers who worshipped in words and silences only.

Henry VIII lived and died a Catholic, his break with Rome was a matter of convenience only. Whilst the establishment of the Church of England was hugely significant nationally and internationally, the average parishioner would have noticed very little difference in daily worship during Henry's reign. For the common people, the dissolution of the monasteries would have had a far greater impact on their lives, since these institutions helped the poor and sick and were paid to sing masses for the souls of the dead. (i-see below)

Henry VIII
Whilst Henry VIII did indeed break with Rome in 1530 and become Head of the Church of England via the Act of Supremacy in 1534; Henry he remained a Catholic, taking the last rites on his deathbed. Indeed, on 11 October 1521 Pope Leo X granted Henry and his descendants the title "Defender of the Faith" in recognition of Henry's book "Assertio Septem Sacramentorum" (Defense of the Seven Sacraments), which defended the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the pope in defence of the ideas of Martin Luther. (ii)

Music and Liturgy after the dissolution
Most parish churches had been endowed with chantries, each maintaining a stipended priest to say Mass for the souls of their donors, and these continued unaffected under Henry. In addition there remained over a hundred collegiate churches in England, whose endowments maintained regular choral worship through a body of canons, prebends or priests. All these survived the reign of Henry VIII largely intact, only to be dissolved under the Chantries Act 1547, by Henry's son Edward VI.

Edward, Mary and Elizabeth
After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the new king Edward VI advanced the Reformation in England, introducing major changes to the liturgy of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer had significantly greater freedom under Edward and in 1549, Cranmer's new Book of Common Prayer swept away the old Latin liturgy and replaced it with prayers in English. Church choirs began singing some songs in English, eg Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s.  This brand new liturgy suddenly demanded that new music should be written for the church in English, and musicians of the Chapel Royal such as Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, and Robert Parsons were called upon to demonstrate that the new Protestantism was no less splendid than the old Catholic religion. Some composers also began writing in a more chordal style because it was argued that the words were easier to hear and understand that way.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

William Byrd

I find William Byrd fascinating. As a Renaissance composer in England during the sixteenth century he achieved what few other of a similarly high profile did, namely to remain in favour no matter which way the religious wind prevailed in England. Like Thomas Tallis (who is believed to have been his teacher at the Chapel Royal) Byrd managed to navigate the fall out of the Reformation in Elizabethan England and remained popular and published. More than that, sometime during the 1570s he became a Roman Catholic and wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life, whilst keeping his job, and his head!

Byrd's early years
In his will of 15 November 1622, Byrd described himself as "in the 80th year of [his] age", suggesting a birthdate of 1542 or 1543. However a document dated 2 October 1598 written in his own hand states that he is "58 yeares or ther abouts", indicating an earlier birthdate of 1539 or 1540.

There is no documentary evidence on his early musical training. His two brothers were choristers at St. Paul's Cathedral, although evidence suggests William was a chorister with the Chapel Royal where he was a pupil of Thomas Tallis. His first known professional employment was his appointment in 1563 as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral. Lincoln had a strong Puritan influence and in both 1569 Byrd was in trouble for both over-elaborate choral polyphony and organ playing during the liturgy. Perhaps then he realised there was a fine line to tread within the bounds of acceptability?

The Chapel Royal
Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons. Byrd was listed as "organist" but this was not a specific role in the Chapel at that time, he was merely most capable of playing it.

Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) was no Puritan, and retained a fondness for elaborate ritual. Many still presume Elizabeth held a "laissez faire" attitude to religious practise in her country but this was far from the truth. Whatever her personal preferences, she expected compliance and insisted upon it.

In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I of England issued a set of solemn Injunctions to strengthen the nation's Oath of Supremacy and its worship by the Book of Common Prayer. They specified that services should contain a hymn or song of praise to God, "in the best sort of music that may be conveniently devised." This phrase firmly ensconced choral music within the English church service and it helped establish the genre that would later be known as the anthem.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Gerald Finzi's "God is Gone Up" - an anthem for Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day, Ascension Thursday, or sometimes Holy Thursday, commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. In Christian belief Ascension is on the 40th day after his Resurrection (Easter being reckoned as the first day), this year falling on Thursday 21st May. Jesus' final moments with his disciples focus on the commission that will shape their lives as apostles, as they spread the gospel beyond those who encountered Christ in the flesh to those who believe based on testimony. This culminates in St. Paul using the term "the body of Christ" to describe the Church.

There are many well known anthems composed for Ascension, Stanford's "Coelos ascended hodie" is another favourite of mine, and our choir have recorded Byrd's "Non von relinquam orphanos" remotely this week. See bottom of this post.)

Finzi's "God is Gone Up" Op. 27b was written in 1951, the same year in which he learned he was suffering from Hodgkin's Disease, from which he eventually died in 1956. The text is taken from a longer poem by Edward Taylor (c1642-1729) and is the second of his three opus 27 anthems. It was written in 1951 for a St Cecilia's Day Service at St Sepulchre's Church in Holborn. This anthem has rightly become an integral part of the choral repertoire, and is probably Finzi’s most well-known piece of sacred music.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Twitter "World Cup" of Evensong Anthems

Twitter users may be aware of the recent hugely popular "World Cup" of Evensong Canticles, run by @TheEvensongCup account. The canticles cup was won by Howells' Gloucester Service (no, I didn't vote multiple times, nor bribe anyone!) but most importantly the process introduced many choral music lovers to canticles they had not heard previously, new composers, and of course gave us all a wonderful opportunity to enjoy and discuss old favourites at a time when most of us would cut off our right arm to be back in church singing them with our choirs....

The account is now hosting a "World Cup" of evensong anthems, and after much discussion and preliminary voting, the two page list below has been put together. Voting has (only just) begun, and there is a pinned thread to explain the process here. 

Because I obviously don't have anything better to do (what could be better than listening to hours of evensong anthems?!) I have put together a Spotify playlist of all but the most recent compositions which are yet to make it to Spotify. You can click the image below and it should take you to my playlist, which is public. I found most of the missing anthems on Youtube with little effort - I highly recommend Sarah MacDonald's "Crux Fidelis" which is on Soundcloud and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Heyr þú oss himnum á". 

Monday, 11 May 2020

Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn (born 31/03/1732 in Rohrau, Austria - died 31/05/1809 Vienna) was an Austrian composer who was one of the most important figures in the development of the Classical style in music during the 18th century. Haydn helped establish the forms and styles for both the string quartet and the symphony and is often referred to as the "Father" of both. He was also instrumental in the development of chamber music such as the piano trio. He was the principal engineer of the classical style.

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791)
Having exhibited an unusual talent for music at an early age, Haydn left home at 5 years old to live with his cousin who was principal of a school in Hainburg and a choirmaster there. He was never to return to his home except for rare brief visits.

Haydn's life changed decisively when he was eight years old and the musical director of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna invited him to serve as chorister in 1740, an offer which his parents accepted. He stayed at the choir school for nine years, acquiring an enormous practical knowledge of music by constant performances but to his disappointment he received little instruction in music theory. When his voice changed, he was expelled from both the cathedral choir and the choir school.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Music for Bank Holiday Stay at Home garden parties - and lots on Handel!

George Friderick Handel was born on 23 February 1685 in Halle, in Brandenburg-Prussia. He was a German (later naturalised British in 1727) Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London. Handel is well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, concerti grossi and organ concertos.

"Handel received important training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712. Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks remaining steadfastly popular. " Wikipedia

Handel's "Water Music" is a collection of orchestral movements, often published as three suites, which premiered on 17 July 1717, in response to King George I's request for a concert on the River Thames. It is frequently played at garden parties in "high society" to this day, and would in my view by a wonderful accompaniment to any "Stay at Home" garden parties planned for this Friday as we celebrate VE day. VE Day is not, as the jingoistic press would have us believe, "Victory OVER Europe", but Victory IN Europe, by a massive combined effort from the Allies against the tyranny of Nazism. VE Day should celebrate - and represent - the success of partnership and working together for the common good, something not only worth celebrating from an historical perspective but extremely relevant today as we battle together to fight COVID-19. Born a German and naturalised as an Englishman, Handel epitomises the fluidity of nationality, the need to adapt and the focus on end results rather than isolation and protectionism.

Messiah - originally written to be performed at Easter
On Easter Sunday our choir would have sung the "Hallelujah Chorus" as our eucharist anthem.
The Hallelujah Chorus appears in the baroque oratorio “Messiah” composed in 1741.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

May Morning - a history

Yesterday was 1st May and I thoroughly enjoyed the virtual "May Morning" recorded by Magdalen College, Oxford's choir. It was featured on the BBC here.

I had been aware of the tradition but had little knowledge of it's background. The event starts early at 6 a.m. with bells ringing, followed by the Choir singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Magdalen Tower. It's a tradition which stretches back over 500 years and is extremely popular within the city with bars and restaurants often staying open all night to provide refreshments for those choosing to stay up until 6am. Morris dancing and folk singing has also featured in Radcliffe Square as the choir "sing in" the Spring in this unique Oxford tradition.

The choir traditionally also sings a madrigal, "Now Is the Month of Maying" following prayers for the city led by the Dean of Divinity. Large crowds of both students and Oxford residents normally gather under the tower, along the High Street, and on Magdalen Bridge. Students and fellows of Magdalen College gather in the college cloisters and on top of the other towers within the college grounds. According to Wikipedia in 2017 the event took place during the Bank Holiday weekend, and a record 27,000 people gathered to hear the choir.

Yesterday the college celebrated virtually, releasing the video below:-

The origins of the May morning celebration date from around 1505 when the Great Tower at Magdalen College was completed. The event has taken place each year in its current form since the 17th Century when "Hymnus Eucharisticus" was written by Benjamin Rogers, 17th Century Magdalen Choirmaster, musician and composer with an interesting biography.

The last section of the climb to the top of the tower is reportedly only a ladder, and not for the faint-hearted! For this reason choristers only wear short surplices over uniform rather than cassocks...
There is more on Magdalen College's own website about their virtual May morning.

If you want to test your knowledge on May Day, there is a ten question quiz here on the BBC!