February 5, 2012 - 5:00 PM
Choral Evensong
  • Introit: Palestrina “Surge, illuminare”
    Preces: Neswick
    Psalm 34 Chant: Thomas Norris
    Canticles: David Hogan Washington Service
    Anthem: Craig Phillips “Morning Glory, Starlit Sky”


The liturgical season of Epiphany is an ancient one in the Church, first codified in A.D. 361.  While in the early (as well as contemporary) Eastern Church, Epiphany celebrated the Nativity of Christ, in the West the occasion continues to mark the manifestation of Christ-in-Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River and by his first miracle at Cana.  “Epiphany” derives from the ancient Greek word επιφάνεια, meaning “appearance” or “manifestation,” as in the revelation to the Magi of Jesus’ divine nature.  The culmination of this season occurs on the final Sunday of Epiphany (days before Ash Wednesday), when the disciples are initiated into the mystery of Christ’s divinity through the blinding vision of his mountaintop transfiguration.
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                Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) is arguably the most influential composer of Renaissance sacred music.  Cleaving for the most part to the strictures of the 16th-century Catholic Counter-Reformation, his numerous compositions (104 Masses, 140 madrigals, 300 motets, among others) embody the direction in which the Council of Trent “guided” Catholic musicians:  abandonment of “lascivious,” highly polyphonic music for a simpler, “purer” form.  Palestrina’s most famous work, Missa Papae Marcelli, threads a careful needle between severity and lushness.  Ironically, demand for musical simplicity placed on composers of the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic hierarchy was similar to caveats imposed by the Church of Rome’s arch-nemesis, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, on composers of music for the nascent Church of England.

                An example of Palestrina’s own innate conservative harmonic style is the 2-choir antiphonal motet, Surge illuminare Jerusalem, written to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  In this vivacious and charming piece, Palestrina deftly combines well-controlled harmonies and rhythms (no overwrought Baroque embellishments) and evinces his unforced balance and eloquent moderation.

                The Preces, Responses, Suffrages and Collects were arranged by a talented and acclaimed American composer, organist, and choral director, Bruce Neswick (b. 1956).  A graduate of the prestigious Yale University School of Music and a Fellow of the American Guild of Organists, Neswick has made his mark on contemporary American liturgical music.  His setting of the Prayers and Suffrages is bold and lively – and suggestive throughout of the influence of jazz.

                The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 34 (Benedicam Domino), was set by English composer Thomas Norris (ca. 1741-1790), who served as organist at St. John’s College, Cambridge University, and Christ Church College, Oxford University.  Psalm 34 is reminiscent of the Song of Mary in its invocation of praise and exaltation.

                The Anglican Singers are performing David Hogan’s Washington Service for the first time in many years.  Hogan’s life and promising career (1949-1996) were tragically cut short on July 17, 1996, when the plane on which he was a passenger, TWA 800, crashed shortly after takeoff into the ocean off Long Island, killing everybody on board.  He was returning to Paris where he had made his home for several years.

                It is hard to imagine a life more filled with musical accomplishments but also informed by enormous generosity for everyone who loved and was touched by music.  He was especially popular with young people.  Wanting to encourage musically talented youngsters, he co-founded the famous Walden School in rural New Hampshire.  Hogan’s talents were boundless – as a singer, pianist, organist, conductor and teacher, and composer.

                His Washington Service is one of only two that were commissioned for the dedication in 1989 of the completed National Cathedral in Washington.  The Magnificat, effervescent like sparkling wine, is pure celebration in the radiance of Mary’s response to God’s call:   not yet for her the sword that will pierce her heart.  The Nunc dimittis is a work of lovely simplicity, yet one infused with an elusiveness that haunts the ear and heart.

                Craig Phillips (b. 1961) is an accomplished American composer and organist, with many awards and commissions to his credit.  His setting of the tone-poem, “Morning glory, starlit sky,” is new to The Singers’ repertoire.  The unaccompanied four-part anthem was commissioned in 2006 by the Anglican Musicians Foundation to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Association of Anglican Musicians in Indianapolis. 

The profound text of this motet also appears in The 1982 Hymnal (p. 585).  It was written by W.H. Vanstone (1923-1999), theologian and for many years Canon Residentiary of Chester Cathedral.  The verses were set by Dorothy Howell Sheets (1915-2011) to a tune she named Bingham in honor of her patron and teacher, the American composer Seth Bingham (1882-1972).

                “Morning glory, starlit sky” is both an ode to nature and a paean, in the style of the metaphysical poets Donne and Crashaw and Herbert, to the unfathomable paradox of God’s transcendent grace:  that the omnipotent author of all should humble himself to become a weak vessel, emptying himself of power and glory – even to the final shame of hanging helpless and naked on a tree – that he might fill creation to overflowing.  Thus does the small space of six verses bear the uncontainable weight of God’s boundless, redeeming love.

                Although Dr. Phillips’ musical treatment of “Morning glory, starlit sky” is quite different in tone and tenor from Mrs. Sheets’, he employs his own irresistible magic to evoke the delicate textures and intense poignancy of that poetry.

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The final weeks of Epiphany, with its symbols of light and transfiguration, now move toward Ash Wednesday.  And as the penitential and anticipatory season of Advent is fulfilled in the joy of the Nativity, the somber weeks of Lent are completed in the greatest of Christian feasts, Easter.  Epiphany is the bridge between the two.

Anne Carr Bingham