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Easter Anthems

by on 15 May 2019

Cornucopia of Joy

Easter Anthems

music by G.F. Handel, J. Rutter, C.V. Stanford and S.S. Wesley

St Mary’s Extended Parish Choir, St Mary’s Church, Hampton, 12th May

Review by Mark Aspen

In a secular world, it is easy to forget that Easter is not a single weekend’s binging blast of fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs, but is a celebration that lasts the whole of Eastertide, right up to Whitsunday, nine days into June in 2019. How appropriate then, half way through Eastertide on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, to be celebrating the Resurrection with another blast, a joyous musical binge, from a cornucopia of outstanding voices, and majestic organ music.

First out of this cornucopia sprang Johann Sebastian Bach’s Little Organ Book, which was opened for us by guest organist Nat Keiller at BWV 630, Heut’ triumphieret Gottes Sohn (Today, God’s Son triumphs). Bach’s Orgelbüchlein is an anthology of short chorale preludes for organ, composed in Weimar while Bach was Capellmeister to his Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen in the early 1700’s. Albert Schweitzer described the Orgelbüchlein preludes as, “ … the most simple imaginable and at the same time the most perfect”. Keiller, an accomplished Royal College of Organists graduate, fulfils this description, and fulfils it … well, simply and perfectly. As an aside, Schweitzer also enigmatically describes Bach’s style in composing these preludes as “Dürer-like”. Perhaps he was likening them to the precise execution of an engraver’s artwork.

Then the extended St Mary’s Choir launched into the gist of the evening with This Joyful Eastertide, George Ratcliffe Woodward’s translation of an old Dutch carol, Vrüchten (Fruits) in an 1894 musical setting by Charles Wood. Joy is perhaps the overarching adjective for this service, and followed through the whole choice of the hymns and anthems assembled by Choir Director, David Pimm, who is building a reputation amongst music lovers and worshippers alike for his occasional series of choral music, requiems and oratorios. Another theme evident in Woodward’s carol that recurred throughout the service is the musical interaction of male and female voices, a natural complementation that enhances both the music and the concept of words.

This interdependency was clearly evident in Blessed Be the God and Father by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, where after muted opening phrasing, the second verse introduces men’s voices only. These are then displaced in the central section of the work, which is effectively a dialogue between the soprano chorus and a soprano solo. As the solo voice, Lucy Fernando was outstanding, her accurate bell-like soubrette soprano floating charmingly across the accompanying organ. The soprano dialogue is then underlined by the returning male voices culminating in ‘But the word of the Lord endureth forever’, before the drama of a fanfare on full organ announces the final fughetta for full choir. All this is impressively powerful stuff!

Samuel Sebastian Wesley wrote Blessed be the God and Father for the Easter Day service in 1832 at Hereford Cathedral, where he had just been appointed Organist at only 21 years of age. Only the boy choir was available and the Dean’s fishmonger was drafted in as the sole bass voice. The St Mary’s arrangement substitutes sopranos for the boy trebles.

(As an aside, there are a number of connections between Samuel Sebastian Wesley and St Mary’s church. The organ, built by J.C.Bishop in 1831, was a gift from King William IV, who as Duke of Clarence attended the church. The present church building was consecrated on 1st September that year, exactly one week before William’s coronation. The King was keen that the inauguration of the organ should be by some eminent organists and these included the composer Thomas Attwood, a pupil of Mozart, then the King’s organist; and 21 year old Samuel Sebastian Wesley, who had been regarded as a child musical prodigy while a chorister in the Chapel Royal. A few months later Samuel Sebastian was appointed the youngest ever Organist to Hereford Cathedral. There he later married the sister of the Dean, John Merewether. Merewether had been the effective priest in charge at St Mary’s during the twenty year incumbency of Dr Samuel Goodenough, who spend most of his time in Carlisle, where he was a canon and his father was bishop. Merewether was a polymath, had much practical involvement with the church rebuilding, and would have had close-hand experience of the musical skills of his brother-in-law to be.)

Apart from the musical interaction of male and female voices, Easter Anthems as a whole had another linking theme; that of reaching across time. The choice of Christ the Lord Is Risen Again is a case in point. Moravian pastor, Michael Weiße, a contemporary and supporter of Martin Luther, wrote Christus ist erstanden in 1532, based on an earlier Bohemian hymn. Catherine Winkworth translated it from the German in 1878, and in 1971 John Rutter composed the version sung by St Mary’s choir. It opens with a lively bouncy passage and then that discourse of men and women’s voice breaks in, rising to the crux line of the anthem, “Christ has broken every chain”. It is quite a whirlwind of a piece with a crisp finale.

In contrast Reginald Sparshatt Thatcher’s Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain is stately and measured in its opening, before it too uses the technique of contrasting the voices of the men and lady singers. This reaches even further across time as it uses the words (as translated by JM Neale) of St John Damascene, an eighth century Syrian monk, in a setting written during the Second World War: and is there a hint at conflict in the music?

The choral conclusion of our cornucopia was an excerpt from George Frederic Handel’s majestic masterpiece Messiah, appropriately that sublime climax of the central section of that work that takes the theme of Passion right into Eastertide, the Hallelujah Chorus. What an opportunity to fill the church with voice and organ music! From the back of the nave, one could see the congregation taking the musical grandeur into their very bodies. One was moved physically as well as emotionally by the sheer grandeur of the piece.

Nat at Organ 4A

But the organ had more to give. David Pimm had regaled us last year with the music of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and for Nat Keiller Stanford’s Postlude No.6, Op 105, gave an opportunity to show the capabilities of the Bishop Organ, and us an opportunity to admire Keiller’s skill. The opening is gloriously expansive, but about a third of the way it becomes very soft and gentle, opening into a lyrical almost bucolic theme. It appears to take an easy journey, light and joyous and its destination is triumphant, open and opulent. Its finale is a sustained and confident crescendo. It’s stirring and inspiring music.

Eastertide continues, but thankfully, by definition, a cornucopia can never be emptied. A full choral evensong is promised for mid-July and you can be sure that the music, the inspiration and the joy will continue to flow.

Mark Aspen

May 2019

Photography by Thomas Forsythe and Wiki Commons

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