September 28, 2008 - 5:00 PM
Choral Evensong
Pequot Chapel, New London, CT
Introit ~ Byrd, Sing Joyfully
Responses ~ Tallis
Service ~ Stanford, in C major
Anthem ~ Harris, Faire is the heaven


This evening – the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – marks The Anglican Singers’ twelfth performance of choral evensong at Pequot Chapel.  The tradition of launching each season at Pequot is one which the group continues to cherish.

            The program is an all-British one, from the birth of Anglican music in the mid-sixteenth century, as represented by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, to its revival in the late nineteenth and early-to-mid-twentieth centuries, reflected in the works of C.V. Stanford and William H. Harris.

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            William Byrd (c. 1543-1623), a lifelong Catholic in a predominately Protestant culture, is one of the greatest composers of English church music.  He was also a survivor, outlasting four monarchs (three of whom were converts to Anglicanism) and living well into the reign of the fifth – no mean feat during an era when to be of the wrong faith often meant death.  Byrd’s most influential teacher, and later colleague and collaborator, was Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), commemorated as “father of the music of the English Church”:  himself pretty adept at dodging political and religious arrows.

            Shortly before Byrd’s death, it was said of him by an admirer, “For motets and music of piety and devotion, as well for the honour of our nation as the merit of the man, I prefer above all our Phoenix, Master William Byrd.”

            The text of Byrd’s six-part motet, “Sing joyfully,” the service Introit, is taken from the first four verses of Psalm 81.  In keeping with the vigorous and exhortative motif of the psalm, the piece is concomitantly emblematic of the composer’s style:  ornamental, polyphonic, sprightly.

            The Preces, Responses, and Suffrages were set by the abovementioned Thomas Tallis.  Like Byrd an unwavering Catholic, he too lived to a great age and survived the storms associated with the founding the Church of England by Henry VIII.  These prayers and responses are typical of the chordal, non-melismatic style mandated by King Henry’s radically Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.  Let it not be supposed, however, that this spare model was Tallis’ only, or even predominant, one – as anyone who is familiar with his lush, forty-voice “Spem in alium” knows.

            Jumping ahead four centuries, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), a worthy heir of his predecessors and a titan in his own day, was instrumental in restoring to greatness the tradition of English sacred choral music that had declined since its acme in the time of Henry Purcell and G.F. Handel.  The Magnificat of Stanford’s vigorous Service in C soars, chorale-like, over the musical horizon, rising and falling in intensity toward a breathtaking climax at the conclusion of the Gloria.  The Nunc dimittis opens softly but accelerates, layer upon layer, to its grand recapitulation of the Gloria.

            This evening’s anthem, “Faire is the heaven,” is new to the Singers’ repertoire, as is its composer William Henry Harris (1883-1973).  Harris began his career at the tender age of fourteen as organist at St. David’s Cathedral in Wales.  Over his long life, he held many prestigious positions in the musical and academic worlds, including serving as organist of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle (where he taught piano to the little princesses Elizabeth, the future queen, and her sister Margaret).  Harris’ years were productive compositionally as well, his most stunning choral achievement perhaps being “Faire is the heaven,” which continues to be a favorite of collegiate and cathedral choruses.

            Written for double choir, this anthem, composed in 1925, is based on three verses of the poem “An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie” by Edmund Spencer (1552-1599), author of the monumental Faerie Queene.  Harris’ piece is richly romantic and thematic of Spencer’s prayer-poem, and is spaciously scored in a sort of A-B-A style to correlate the three verses it musically represents. 

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            At the commencement of their 2008-2009 season, The Anglican Singers reflect on eleven years of celebrating choral evensong at Pequot Chapel:  ever mindful of their commitment to carry forward the tradition of a venerable rite which has been a source of sustenance and inspiration for five centuries.

Anne Carr Bingham

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