February 3, 2013 - 5:00 PM
Choral Evensong
  • Introit: Leo Sowerby “Eternal Light”
    Preces: Thomas Tomkins
    Psalm 84, Quam dilecta! chant: C.H.H. Parry
    Canticles: George Dyson in D
    Anthem: Sowerby “Now there lightens upon us”


Today, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, follows by one day the observance of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, which takes place each year on February 2nd.  When, as Jewish law prescribed, Mary and Joseph brought the newborn Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, they presented him to Simeon, a righteous man of great age.  As the old man took the child in his arms, he sang the now-familiar canticle of hope, Nunc dimittis, ascribing the salvation of all people to the incarnation of this holy boy.

Epiphany has many markers and focal points, from the star-led Magi’s acknowledgment of the Christ child, to Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, to his miracle-working at the wedding feast at Cana, to his declaring himself to a skeptical congregation in Nazareth (recounted in today’s Gospel reading), to his blinding Transfiguration upon the mountaintop.  Uniting and illuminating these events is the revelation, manifested in Christ, that the darkness of this world is not all there is, because the Light that came into the world through his Incarnation has scattered that darkness forever.
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The Anglican Singers welcome as their interim director Jason Roberts, who comes with an impressive musical background.  Winner of several awards for performance, Dr. Roberts is organist and choirmaster at St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford.
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Tonight’s service of evensong is bookended by pieces of arguably the greatest American composer of church music, Leo Sowerby (1895-1968).  Several of Sowerby’s choral compositions have long been a staple of the group’s repertoire, from the lofty Service in E minor to the motet and anthem the choristers are reprising tonight, “Eternal Light” and “Now there lightens upon us.”

Leo Sowerby wrote over 500 works of sacred and secular music.  Called the “dean of American church music” by his contemporaries, he is best remembered for his remarkable compositions for choir and organ.  Winner of numerous awards, Sowerby was honored in 1946 with the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his cantata, “Canticle of the Sun,” based on the prayer-poem of St. Francis of Assisi.  Other recipients of this prestigious award were Sowerby’s contemporaries, America’s musical giants Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and Virgil Thomson.

“Eternal Light” is a four-part motet set to a poem by one of the greatest churchmen and scholars of the Dark Ages, Alcuin of York (c. 735-804), who, at the invitation of Charles, King of the Franks – later Charlemagne – cofounded the Carolingian School in the Frankish kingdom as part of Charles’ extensive program of educational reform throughout the land.  The contemplative “Eternal Light,” subtly textured in form and harmony, poetically and musically invokes the gracious elements of light, goodness, power, wisdom and pity.

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) was the principal transitional figure in the evolution of church music from English Reformation composers like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons to the early Baroque period associated with Henry Purcell.  Tomkins’ long life spanned interesting and dangerous times.  Born at the midpoint of the Elizabethan Age – when music enjoyed an unprecedented flowering – the height of his musical career occurred during the reigns of James I and Charles I, before his death toward the end of the Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth – when even sacred music was banned altogether by decree of that tyrannical old Puritan.

In Tomkins’ Preces and Lesser Litany, one sees the earlier, sparer musical style of the Edwardian and early Elizabethan period giving way to the more highly ornamented motifs and techniques that would find their full expression in the works of Henry Purcell a generation later.

English composer Charles H.H. Parry (1848-1918) was one of the giants of the revival of church music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose style greatly influenced Edward Elgar and later Ralph Vaughan Williams.  As well as serving as the director of the prestigious Royal College of Music, Sir Charles was the author of several books on music and musicians.  A number of Parry’s “tunes” are familiar, in particular “Jerusalem” and the hymn-tune Repton.  Parry’s setting of Psalm 84, Quam dilecta, is – like his choral anthems – sung regularly in cathedrals and churches throughout the Anglican community.

In addition to a career in composition, textbook writing (including one on the very non-musical subject of the military use of grenades during World War I), and conducting, Sir George Dyson (1883-1964) served as music master at several prestigious English public schools.  His Service in D comes trailing clouds of glory from his predecessors Stanford, Wood, Parry, and other titans of the 19th-century English music renaissance.  The Magnificat builds, layer upon layer, in intensity to the thunderous Gloria.  The Nunc dimittis, too, expands from its serene opening to the climactic “to be a light to lighten the Gentiles,” before subsiding with “and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”  The final Gloria of this canticle is beautifully simple and simply beautiful.

“Now there lightens upon us” reveals, in color and substance, the particular brand of 20th-century American music that was Leo Sowerby’s.  Like his other works, this anthem is rich with the influence of the collective American experience and bears the imprimatur of jazz and folk music.  Sowerby collaborated with the Right Reverend George Craig Stewart (1879-1940), Bishop of Chicago and poet, on this dramatic, exhilarating anthem, which was premiered at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on May 19, 1935.
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Epiphany, like nature’s seasons, is paradoxically linear and circular:  linear in its forward motion toward Lent and Easter, circular in its repeating cycles.  And behind this and every paradox shines the Light that both heralds and reflects the certainty of God’s eternal love.

Anne Carr Bingham