- Introit: Hide me under the shadow of thy wings - West
Canticles: Geroge Dyson in F
Anthem: Blessed city, heavenly Salem - Bairstow
As the Church continues its celebration of the fifty days of Easter, the season of Pentecost nears, with Pentecost Sunday to be observed on May 24th.
Following the Resurrection, the disciples had been commissioned by the risen Lord to spread the Good News throughout the world. At Pentecost, Jesus’ followers were miraculously empowered by the Holy Spirit with the gift of tongues, able to preach in the various languages of all who were assembled in Jerusalem. It was this momentous event that marked the birth of the Church.
The symbols of Pentecost are flame (alighting upon the tongues of the disciples), wind (the Spirit literally in-spiring Christ’s followers), and the dove (representing peace, and a reminder of the dove that descended upon Jesus at his baptism).
As befits both Easter and Pentecost, the selections for tonight’s service reflect and emanate joy for the redemption of the world by the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.
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John Ebenezer West (1863-1929) was a lifelong resident of London. Though he was a distinguished composer, instrumentalist, teacher, and editor in England, he is little known in North America. For a number of years (until his sudden death), he conducted the highly regarded Railway Clearing House Male-Voice Choir. West was also an editor for most of his adult life at the firm of Novello & Co. In the latter capacity and as a composer, he is credited with nearly 500 pieces. Based on John West’s talent and prolific output, it is a pity he is not more familiar to church choirs on this side of the Atlantic.
The Singers are performing for the first time West’s motet, “Hide me under the shadow of Thy wings,” a stately yet tenderly expressive piece that brings to mind some of the works of his colleague, John Stainer (1840-1901), whose lovely Sevenfold Amen the ensemble will sing before the closing hymn.
The Preces and Responses of British composer Bernard Rose (1916-1996) are firmly fixed in the Singers’ repertoire. Rose’s ornamental and intricate style, as reflected in these versicles, was influenced in no small part by that of his musical hero, Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), whose work he studied, edited, and interpreted extensively.
Bernard Rose is remembered more as a giant of 20th-century English choral music than as a warrior, but during World War II, he saw action in North Africa and Italy, and at Normandy on D-Day, before being captured and taken prisoner by German troops. Interned as a POW in Germany for ten months, Rose was rescued by American GIs just before VE Day in May of 1945. Happily, he was able quickly to readjust to civilian life, and enjoyed a long and distinguished career of teaching, composing, and writing.
The choir is singing the first ten verses of Psalm 34 (Benedicam Domino) as set by Edward John Hopkins (1818-1901), organist and author, who wrote The Organ: Its History and Construction; the final verses and the Gloria were arranged by Ivor Atkins (1869-1953), choirmaster and organist at Worcester Cathedral from 1897-1950.
Sir George Dyson (1883-1964) served as a music master at several prestigious English public (private) schools, in addition to pursuing a career in composing, conducting, and textbook-writing. Like Bernard Rose, he wrote extensively for the English Church, and like Rose, he fought for his country–in his case during the Great War. Before being invalided out with shell shock, Dyson compiled a widely used training manual on the use of grenades on the Western Front.
In utter contrast to pamphlets on weaponry, George Dyson’s Service in F is beautiful and soulful, from the treble and baritone introductions of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis to their restrained choral conclusions. Never does the dynamic level of these canticles exceed a mezzo-forte.
The testiness of the celebrated organist and composer of church music, Edward C. Bairstow (1874-1946), has been alluded to in previous program notes (he famously snarled that he’d rather “go to the devil” than take a post on the this side of the Atlantic). Bairstow’s music, happily, belies his peevish nature, in the subtle tenderness of the motet “Jesu, the very thought of Thee,” and in the majestic grandeur of his signature anthem, “Blessed City, Heavenly Salem,” which the Singers are performing for the first time this evening. That work, arguably Bairstow’s chef-d’oeuvre, is built upon the plainsong Urbs beata. Contrasting rhythms, volume, timbre, and tempo provide a thrilling experience for both singers and listeners, and the parts Bairstow wrote for the organ attest to the fact that for this crusty old composer, the organ was king of the cathedral.
After earning a bachelor’s and a doctorate of music from the University of Durham, Dr. Bairstow held music-director posts at several churches before his appointment as organist at York Minster in 1913, a position he maintained until the end of his life. He was succeeded at York by his former pupil, the eminent musician Francis Jackson.
In an interesting aside to the stories of Francis Jackson, Edward Bairstow, and Bernard Rose, the Church Times published a piece on October 24, 2007, celebrating the 90th birthday of Dr. Jackson, in which the accomplishments of Rose and Bairstow were likewise highlighted. Jackson had “played at the funeral of his old friend and colleague, Bernard Rose. There he rounded off with Dr. Rose’s organ piece, Chimes, an astonishingly original work.” Later in the article, author Roderic Dunnett asserted that the York Minster girl choir’s performance of Bairstow’s “Blessed City, Heavenly Salem” (under Jackson’s direction) topped that of the boys’ performances of the same work, “…offering a super full sound for this seventh-century text, plus a gorgeously sensitive accompanying girl solo.” The battle of the sexes begins early, it seems, in the Mother Country…
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As the Singers conclude their 2014-2015 program year, they do so with heartfelt gratitude to the St. James family and to all those who have made evensong an important part of their lives. The ensemble wishes everyone a safe and happy summer and looks forward to the start of a new season in the fall.
Anne Carr Bingham