May 10, 2009 - 5:00 PM
Introit ~ Middleton, Let my prayer be set forth
Responses ~ Sumsion
Service ~ Howells, Gloucester Service
Anthem ~ Dirksen, Arise, shine
“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” These sensuous and symbolic verses from The Song of Solomon evoke a rhapsody of joy for the return of spring.
It is no accident that the season of Easter coincides with spring, combining and transforming into something eternally new both the pagan celebration (represented by the Germanic goddess Eostre) and the Jewish Passover (acknowledging God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt).
On the fifth Sunday of Easter, the Anglican Singers present, as their final service of Choral Evensong for the 2008-2009 season, a transatlantic program of English and American music, all from the twentieth century.
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Truro Cathedral in Cornwall was erected on the site of a sixteenth-century parish church, St. Mary the Virgin. Begun in 1880, the Gothic Revival cathedral was completed in 1910. Among its notable organists and choirmasters was the eminent composer Hubert Stanley Middleton (1890-1959), who served at Truro from 1920-1926. Among Middleton’s most beloved motets is tonight’s introit, “Let my prayer be set forth,” based on verses 2 and 3 of Psalm 141. “Let my prayer,” arranged for two choirs, is an exquisite vespers supplication.
The long life of Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995) was prodigious for its musical accomplishments, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Following an appointment at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Sumsion returned to his native Britain where he became organist-choirmaster at Gloucester Cathedral.
Herbert Sumsion’s most recognizable and performed anthem is “They that go down to the sea in ships,” whose text is taken from Psalm 107 – a piece the Anglican Singers have sung on several occasions. This evening they are performing Sumsion’s Preces, Responses and Suffrages, throughout whose musical lines much of the excitement and vivacity of his style is apparent.
New to the Singers’ repertoire is the British composer Herbert Howells’ (1892-1983) Gloucester Service (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis), written for the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester, in 1947. Like Howells’ other famous Service, Collegium Regale, this one is exceptional for its velvety mysteriousness and shimmering beauty.
A more complete contrast between these haunting canticles and tonight’s anthem is hard to imagine. “Arise, Shine” is a bold, brassy, bodacious statement – the musical antonym of Howells’ Gloucester Service.
Its composer, Richard Wayne Dirksen (1921-2003), was born in Freeport, Illinois; studied organ under Virgil Fox at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore; and served for four decades as assistant and then principal organist and choirmaster at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In 2006, the Choral Society at the Cathedral established in his memory an endowment to commission new Christmas choral music.
Dirksen dedicated “Arise, Shine” to Alec Wyton and the American Guild of Organists. Alec Wyton (1921-2007) was for twenty years organist and master of choristers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, serving concurrently as professor of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary. In both capacities, Dr. Wyton came into contact with the future composer Robert J. Powell (b. 1932) who was his student at the Seminary and his assistant at the Cathedral. As may be recalled, two years ago St. James and the Anglican Singers hosted Mr. and Mrs. Powell as the chorus premiered his Service in G minor.
The text of “Arise, Shine” is taken from the Book of Isaiah: chapter 60, verses 1-3; 11a; 14b; and 18-19. The entire Book of Isaiah is actually an amalgamation of three prophetic voices, with chapters 56-66 referred to by scholars as Trito-Isaiah. As a sequel to Deutero (2nd) Isaiah with its message of consolation to Israelite exiles in Babylon, the third voice addresses the repatriated Jews following their return from captivity. The rebuilding of God’s temple is of the highest priority, and the prophet promises God’s ultimate deliverance of and final victory for Jerusalem. So chapter 60 is a triumphant paean to Zion – and this jubilation is amplified in Dirksen’s exuberant musical panoply.
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As the Anglican Singers conclude their thirteenth year as artists-in-residence at St. James, they extend once again their thanks to the clergy and parishioners for their generosity to and continuing interest in the work of this ensemble. The Singers look forward with eager anticipation to their 2009-2010 season.
Anne Carr Bingham