St. John's Episcopal Church, West Hartford, CT
- Introit: Rorem “Sing, my soul, his wondrous love”
Psalm 114, 115 Chant: George Mursell Garrett/Gerald Knight
Canticles: Howells Sarum
Anthem: Ireland “Greater love hath no man”
It is no coincidence that the season of Easter coincides with the return of spring. From the dawn of human awareness, worshipers would beseech their deities each winter to restore light and bounty to the barren earth. In ancient agricultural societies, if a god withheld spring’s fertility and renewal, the people and animals would die. The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone illustrates early man’s terror of a jealous god’s threat to this cycle.
Even the word “Easter” has a pagan etymology: eostre, Old English for “spring.” For Christians this conjunction of spring and Christ’s Resurrection represents the saving act of a gracious and loving God. Like the green blade, Jesus rises from the earth, and in that rising restores Creation.
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The American composer and writer Ned Rorem (b. 1923) was apprenticed to Virgil Thomson and studied with Aaron Copland and Leo Sowerby. Musically eclectic, Rorem has composed in a number of genres. He wrote the charming motet “Sing my soul” in 1955 while he was living and working in France. The origin of the text is obscure; the 1940 and the 1982 Hymnals list it as “Anonymous.” However, the tune in both editions is the familiar and beloved St. Bees. Rorem’s fresh arrangement has given new sparkle to the poem.
Martin Neary (b. 1940) wrote his buoyant setting of tonight’s Preces and Responses on the occasion of the installation, in 1976, of Winchester Cathedral’s new Canon Residentiary. Neary’s accomplishments are manifold. He is considered one of Britain’s premier composers and church musicians, and has been accorded international acclaim for his own works as well as for his promotion of contemporary protégés like John Tavener.
The two Anglican-chant psalms appointed for this evening are Psalm 114 (In exitu Israel) and Psalm 115 (Non nobis, Domine). Their arrangers, George M. Garrett (1834-1897) and Gerald Knight (1908-1979), are notable for their service settings and Anglican-chant psalm tunes.
One of the most gifted and universally esteemed composers of church music, Herbert Howells (1892-1983) showed promise from early childhood. He started his musical career when he was fifteen, studying organ with the renowned Herbert Brewer. Five years later he began a lifelong association with Ralph Vaughan Williams at the premiere of Williams’ transcendent “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.”
Howells’ own career, and life, were almost cut short in 1915 when he was diagnosed with Graves Disease and given only a few months to live. However, he beat those odds by a long shot, living another sixty-eight years, for which the world of music is profoundly grateful.
Although he was not religious, Howells wrote extensively for the church, including an astonishing number of services (over twenty). This evening the Singers are performing for the first time his Sarum Service. There is a mystical, even spooky, luminosity to portions of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis – in contrast with the dazzling full-bodied breadth of other sections – that is evident in several of his canticles. This may be attributable to Howells’ lingering sadness over the death of his only son Michael, who succumbed to polio at the age of nine. His father never got over this loss, and it is said that much of Howells’ music thereafter reflects a kind of elegiac melancholy, in particular the poignant Requiem Mass Hymnus Paradisi, first performed in 1950 at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral. Howells also wrote as a commemoration the familiar hymn tune Michael to the text “All my hope on God is founded.”
Despite his name, John Ireland (1879-1962) was an Englishman, born and raised in Manchester. His professional career as organist, choir director and composer began after graduating from the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Charles Villiers Stanford. An early master of songs and chamber music, Ireland developed an “English impressionism” style, based on his study of and admiration for the impressionistic French composers Debussy and Ravel. His output of small, intimate works was considerable. He set poems of contemporary English writers like Thomas Hardy and Rupert Brooke (the handsome, doomed poet of the Great War). His most popular hymn tune is the moving Love Unknown (“My song is love unknown”), which appears in the 1982 Hymnal.
“Greater Love hath no man” is likely Ireland’s finest choral masterpiece. For text he chose six scriptural readings, carefully selected passages that, individually and collectively, illuminate the height and breadth of God’s grace. The verses are taken from both the Old Testament (the Song of Solomon) and the New Testament (the Gospel of St. John and the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Paul). Each “movement” tells its part of the story of salvation; and each integrates and upholds the musical architecture of the whole, whose soaring and receding phrases are vaulted like the arches of a Gothic cathedral. This superstructure rises on the assurance of love’s indestructibility, crescendos to an affirmation of justification by faith, and subsides on the summons to purity and holy service.
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It is indeed a privilege for the Anglican Singers to lead the service of evensong at the stately and venerable St. John’s Church, West Hartford, where for over one hundred fifty years this parish, through three physical incarnations, has contributed so significantly to the mission of the Diocese of Connecticut – throughout the state and beyond.
Anne Carr Bingham