a Te Deum for 225 years

I’m not sure what the official name for a 225th anniversary is, if any, but my church reached that landmark this year. Probably not many churches are observing this particular anniversary as the 1790s weren’t I think a very active time for building churches in England, but there was a particular reason for setting up this one.

On the Sunday nearest the date of the dedication, normally overridden by All Saints or Remembrance, we had a more elaborate service, with the musical ‘extra’ being Howells’ Coll Reg Te Deum. I can’t remember when a Te Deum was last sung there, but it was thought appropriate as quotations from this hymn are carved on the window lintels all round the church. One problem with singing Matins (which some Cathedrals still ask you to do) is that there aren’t that many good settings you can use – and if you’re singing that much text, you want it to be set to worthwhile music. If not the Howells, it tends to be the inevitable Stanford in B flat or maybe Ireland in C, unless you can run to either of the Britten settings or even (my favourite) the Elgar.

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opposite the zoo

Bristol Zoo isn’t located in Clifton any more, but it seemed appropriate to be recording Rejoice in the Lamb with its menagerie just across the road from where it used to be, in the chapel of Clifton College.

Almost everyone I’ve met who attended this school has played the organ. This is only partly a reflection of the sort of company I keep; Clifton used to be very well equipped in this respect, with a Father Willis in the school hall as well as the Harrison organ in the chapel. (The former instrument, restored to the hall at the expense of an old member, was a few years later sent off to a church in Bridgwater.) The chapel has a handsome interior with a fine acoustic and it is a shame that only those who go to school functions get to hear music there, unlike (say) the chapel of Prior Park College which is used for other concerts. Usefully for recording purposes, the chapel is also set well away from street noise, although there were some gurgling pipes at one point.

Praise Him with Trumpets (Window, Clifton College Chapel)

So I’d never been in the chapel, or even in the main school grounds, although in the days of the Brandon Hill Singers we used to rehearse in a music block reached from the street. I was there for one day of Bristol Choral Society’s second recording with Delphian, having not taken part in the previous day’s recording with the choir.

Apart from Rejoice in the Lamb, we recorded two other pieces. The first was Praise Him with Trumpets by Judith Weir, which the choir learnt in lockdown. There are a couple of real trumpets in this, and the composer herself came along again to encourage us. The other was Elizabeth Poston’s Festal Te Deum (again involving a trumpet), which I sang in concert a couple of years ago.

Recording all day, as I have remarked before, is tiring, not just because you are on your feet a lot of the time but also because of the concentration required to try to produce the best performance you are capable of in every take. Despite the busy weekend of singing though, I still felt fresh at the end. The results will appear on CD in a few months.

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the first time on the road

Bath Abbey Chamber Choir has not sung outside the Abbey until now. An early promise of a visit to Southwark Cathedral when the choir was a few months old had to be withdrawn, and more recently a planned evensong at our sister foundation of Wells Cathedral was called off at short notice because of filming in the Cathedral that day(!) However, our excursion to Gloucester Cathedral for a Saturday half-term evensong survived. In fact I could have sung Evensong there the following day too, with members of Gloucester Choral Society (the next post will explain what I did instead).

After a brief stint in the Education Centre (now renamed the Learning and Participation Hub but the instrument in the rehearsal room has not changed!) we rehearsed in the Quire. Despite my familiarity with Gloucester Cathedral, I had spent little time there recently – just one evensong during 3 Choirs – but no differences except of course for the digital organ which did its best with Howells in G but didn’t really produce a true Cathedral sound. Perhaps I’d been spoilt by Canterbury’s the previous weekend.

It was a long time since I’d sung Howells in G, in fact my records say I’d only done it twice before although I find that hard to believe as I think of it as a standard setting. I’d sung Bairstow’s Save us O Lord rather more, but still not very often until I encountered it again with the Abbey choir. Our responses were Ayleward, which are the ones we know best.

There are prospects of more ‘away fixtures’ now that we have at last successfully completed one.

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I’m Canterbury Cathedral, who are you?

(Title adapted from Last Orders by Graham Swift.)

October’s weekend with the Erleigh Cantors was my first visit to Canterbury for a while. I have mixed memories of the previous one – with an under-prepared choir on what turned out to be my last weekend with them.

As usual at Canterbury there were restrictions on rehearsal time, this time to enable The Sixteen to rehearse for a Canterbury Festival concert on the Saturday evening. The consequences being an extended lunch break for us on the Saturday and enforced unaccompanied repertoire as our organist had not had a chance to set things up. So it was a case of reaching for that non-Tudor unaccompanied staple, Naylor in A, for the canticles, and Gabrieli’s 8-voice Jubilate Deo for the anthem, and Paul Spicer’s setting of the Responses.

Naked angel with plainchant

An unusual use for a scroll of plainchant (Canterbury Cathedral cloister)

There was more double-choir repertoire at the Eucharist, when we sang a mass by Gabrieli’s pupil Hassler, together with an Ave Maria motet by my lost twin Rihards Dubra, both new pieces to me. We saved the big sings for Sunday evensong: Wesley in E and Elgar’s Give unto the Lord. I really am in danger of getting Elgared-out this year.

The Cathedral, one of the warmer ones on previous visits, had risked not putting the heating on (the only other unheated October weekend I can remember was at Ely, where it is never turned on until mid-November).

A pleasant surprise was the knowledgeable regular congregation. Instead of the usual well-meaning but naïve questions along the lines of ‘I suppose you’ve been rehearsing every week for some months?’ we were told ‘Our own choir doesn’t do that Mass setting or Ave Maria!’ Actually the congregations were all very large, swelled by visitors from the diocese and from further afield.

We’ll stay in Kent for our next Cathedral, Rochester, which I have not sung in since the very early days of the Erleigh Cantors.

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Cimbalom for Peace

Gloucester Choral Society’s Concert for Peace unfortunately turned out to be more timely than intended. It matched a rarely heard work with one that has been extremely popular in recent years.

I looked for recent performances of Donald Swann’s Requiem for the Living, and found evidence of just one, given by a community choir in Scotland – as it happens, conducted by a friend of mine! Cecil Day Lewis hoped that Britten would set his words, but after Britten went for Wilfrid Owen instead, Swann took on the job. The poems allude to the movements of the Requiem Mass, but are agnostic and humanist in tone, written when the threat of nuclear war seemed very real; some are spoken over the music rather than set. Not many choral works mention whippets! The accompaniment is a chamber ensemble including a cimbalom.

People in the choir who sang in our performance found that it grew on them. A few entries took up a significant part of our rehearsal time, and I wondered whether the reason was that while Swann was very good at writing solo songs (we all know this), he was less experienced at composing for 4-part choir, resulting in some leads which were unhelpful to the singers.

One reason for choosing this piece was the centenary of Donald Swann’s birth, and his widow came to Gloucester to hear the performance. I’ll now go back to singing ‘Misalliance’ (another plea for living in tolerance and peace) at the bindweed in the garden.

The second half of the programme was Karl Jenkins’ Armed Man Mass. I had sung part of this before, and didn’t have much difficulty learning the rest. I’m not going to go far out of my way to sing this, but I’m happy to do it once in a while.

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another Christ Church

My action-packed October featured a musical event on every Saturday. On the first Saturday I wasn’t actually performing myself – I was in Oxford for a birthday celebration and then went to the installation of an old friend from my student days as the new sub-Dean at Christ Church Cathedral. This was the first Cathedral I ever performed in, though I have not done so for a long time. Priory Voices used to go there sometimes in August, but usually their voluntary choir (which I used to sing in) takes care of services outside school term.

The music was, I believe, requested by the sub-Dean and included Leighton’s’ Second Service (he is a Leighton expert) and Faire is the Heaven by Harris (a piece I first encountered singing in a choir with him). The readings were about Daniel in the lion’s den and Satan being cast out of heaven, the latter scene vividly depicted in a window in front of me. Inspecting the music list, I was a little sorry to see that the Cathedral no longer does the full BCP psalms for the day; it was the last Oxbridge College to do so. Under a previous DoM whom I remember, they were taken slowly and occupied a large part of the service, and the tale is still told of when Jesu Meine Freude was on the list for the 15th evening…

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the Abbey season begins

Bath Abbey Chamber Choir was quick to restart for the new season, with a conductor newly appointed to the Abbey’s music staff, and a midweek evensong livened up a September which was otherwise musically blank. And it wasn’t standard pieces either! Our canticles were mix’n’match: a four-part Magnificat on the first tone by Palestrina and a Nunc Dimittis by Victoria. The anthem was How beauteous are their feet by Stanford. What these all have in common is that I’ve only sung them once before (according to my records); in the case of the Palestrina and the Stanford, a long time ago! Ley’s Prayer of Henry VI and Ayleward Responses were rather more familiar.

I miss the next service in the Abbey but after a couple of false starts we have a Cathedral visit coming up.

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Poulenc through glass

I didn’t plan my Proms season, and my decision to go to the Glyndebourne Prom performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites was a spontaneous one made earlier that day. This opera (did any have a more offputting title?) is one of those works like Bach’s Coffee Cantata that really shouldn’t exist but does. I have wanted to get to a performance of it for some time and suddenly realised that here was my chance.

I decided to treat myself to a seat in one of the boxes, hoping to avoid the noisy eating, fidgeting and conversation that have blighted a lot of recent Proms concerts that I’ve been to – although perhaps there were fewer disruptive people at this Prom than at many others. I was in Loggia 07, Seat 8. This was at quite a sharp angle to the stage, but I knew this in advance and didn’t mind too much that I’d see the action almost sideways on. What I did mind was that there was a glass panel between me and the stage (and the orchestra). This blocked the sound and I felt that this seat should be charged less than others in the box for that reason. I suspect the panel is a relatively recent addition, decided on by someone with a tin ear.

The production retained (I’m told) much of the Glyndebourne staging. It was largely in period though with some 20th/21st century intrusions. (I noticed an iron with an electric flex) It was as well performed and as moving as I could have wished for. I won’t add to the glowing reviews cited below – this was generally agreed to be one of the best Proms of the season so I chose well – except to single out Karen Cargill’s Mother Marie, whose sternness thawed as the action progressed.


Seen and Heard International
The Classical Source
The Arts Desk

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Abbey round-up

I’ve sung a few services with Bath Abbey Chamber Choir in the last few months though not all (missed the ordination, for example).

For the Coronation weekend in May we had appropriately themed music: Purcell’s I was glad, and another Coronation piece, Confortare by Walter Parratt, though with the words neutered so we no longer had to ‘play the man’. Later in May there was a Eucharist with music by Palestrina including Dum Complerentur. I was surprised to find how long ago my only previous performance of the piece was, and yes, I hadn’t totally forgotten it!

In July we sang Evensong with David Bednall’s plainchant-based setting of the Evening Hymn (new to me), and O Lord, look down from Heaven by Battishill (with bowels though I think they just yearned rather than sounding). I did the solo part in the Magnificat of Gray in F minor, and found out just why it always sounds so squawky when I hear other people sing it.

Later in July there was another evensong pairing canticles I hadn’t previously sung: de Rore’s Magnificat on the first tone and Lassus’ Nunc on the seventh. Our introit was Byrd’s Prevent us, O Lord and the anthem Tomkins’ setting of When David heard. The final service of the season (although it can be a little hard to tell when the season begins and ends) was a Eucharist in August, with movements from Mozart’s Mass K194 (I did the solo in the Gloria) and Byrd’s Ego sum panis vivus, a new piece to me. There’s clearly a lot of Byrd around this year, but he wrote sufficiently many pieces that that there’s lots still to discover.

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Three Choirs 2023: the final evening

The Apostles – relatively rarely done because of the number of soloists required – was missing piece needed to complete my performances of the three great choral works by Elgar.

I remarked before that The Kingdom will do its best to convince you that God is an Englishman, but The Apostles, with its Hebrew melodies, quotations from the Talmud and shofar (we had a long trumpet rather than an actual ram’s horn) is altogether a bit more exotic. And that’s not all…

Mary Magdalen by Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s penitent Magdalen is rather more subdued than Elgar’s

An orgy scene in an oratorio by Elgar – who’d have thought it? Actually this was one of the trickier passages in the piece. Overall, despite its length, there aren’t that many showpieces for the chorus, a large part of whose role is interjections (probably because of all those soloists). Nevertheless, I would take it over The Kingdom in future. I was particularly impressed by the libretto and how well Elgar must have known his Bible to choose such appropriate texts from other parts of Scripture (and the aforementioned Talmud) to expand the Gospel narratives.


Reviews (and they were of the same concert!):

Bible quote in Gloucester cloister window

A text set in The Apostles (window, Gloucester Cathedral cloister)

Seen and Heard International

So 2023 was of necessity a somewhat austerity edition of the Festival, which made it logistically easier for me, at the cost of reduced opportunities to sing. I was impressed by the standard of the choir, which I felt was higher than in the previous Festival I sang in.

Singing in 2024’s Festival will involve weighing up the repertoire against the things which I could otherwise do which got sacrificed this year.

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