June 2018

English pastoral

My spirit sang all day
English sacred and pastoral music

Finzi                                     My spirit sang all day
Gibbons                               O clap your hands
Morley                                 Hard by a crystal fountain
Elgar                                     Op 71 songs
Parry                                     from Songs of Farewell
Vaughan Williams             The turtle dove
Holst                                     This have I done for my true love
Stanford                              Op 38 motets
Ireland                                 The hills

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) was a friend of Vaughan Williams, although his style is very different. His texts are simply set, faithful to spoken rhythm and guided by clarity and expressive emotion. My spirit sang all day is No.3 of his Seven Poems by Robert Bridges, and was written while he was courting the artist and violinist Joyce Black, whom he later married. It captures the emotional arc of the lover’s joy in just 44 bars of sublime music.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) is acknowledged as one of the foremost composers of his period. O clap your hands dates from 1622 and might have formed the composer’s DMus submission to Oxford University. Written in eight parts, it is a dramatic and majestic setting of Psalm 47 and is one of the most impressive anthems of a composer noted for his Anglican church compositions. He became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1623.

Thomas Morley (1557-1602) was one of the foremost members of the English Madrigal School. Hard by a crystal fountain is the composer’s own contribution to his anthology, The Triumphs of Oriana. There are numerous examples of word-painting, for example at ‘sleeping’ and ‘stilled’, and in the long note values and a dominant pedal at the refrain ‘Long (live fair Oriana)’.

The two Op. 71 songs, by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) to words by Henry Vaughan, are exquisitely written, deceptive in their relative simplicity. The first, The Shower, depicts a large cloud hovering motionlessly above before a ‘train of drops’ of pattering semiquavers. Elgar unleashes impassioned hope that ‘My God would give a sunshine after rain’ in a way that perhaps only an Englishman can understand. The second song, The Fountain, describes a stillness disturbed only by the fountain which ‘lent some use for ears’.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) sat the Oxford BMus whilst a pupil at Eton; he went on to study law and history at Oxford and, at his father’s behest, initially worked in the City. He was in his thirties before he became recognised as a composer. The best-known of his choral works were written in response to commissions for special occasions. The Songs of Farewell are a persuasive reminder of his significant contribution to the English choral tradition. The six Songs were composed during the Great War, when he was director of the Royal College of Music, and at a time when he knew he was at the end of his own life. They are not conventionally devotional works, rather expressions of personal belief, although he called them motets. The Songs steadily build in complexity: the first, My soul, there is a country, being predominantly chordal and for four-part choir, the third, Never weather-beaten sail for SSATB and the fourth, There is an old belief, for six voices and with considerable polyphonic interest.

The work of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was strongly influenced by English folk song. In 1904 he recorded on a wax cylinder the landlord of the Plough Inn in Rusper, Sussex, singing The Turtle Dove, also known as Ten Thousand Miles, and the present arrangement was made twenty years later. The turtle dove is a traditional symbol of constancy and faithfulness.

Gustav Holst (1874–1934) regarded This have I done for my true love as his finest partsong. It was written in 1916 for the first of the Whitsuntide Festivals that Holst organized in the parish church of Thaxted. Threaded through the poem is the symbol of dance as a means of religious ritual and praise.

Three motets, Op.38 for unaccompanied choir, by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) were published in 1905 but probably date from 1892; they are probably the most regularly sung of his works. Justorum animae takes its text from the Book of Wisdom 3: 1-3 and is in ternary form, the outer two sections reflecting the contemplative nature of the text and the central section a vivid depiction of malice.  Coelos ascendit hodie is an Ascensiontide motet, scored for double choir, and is also in ternary form, making much use of dramatic interplay between the two choirs. The superb final ‘Amen’ ascends by step the interval of a tenth to an exultant climax, concluding on a vibrant eight-part chord. The exquisite Beati quorum via, to a text from Psalm 119:1, is for SSATBB and is meditative in character, with effective contrast between the three upper and three lower voices.

The Hills, by John Ireland (1879-1962) was written as part of the 1953 Coronation anthology A Garland for the Queen, a collection of settings by 10 British composers of 10 contemporary poets commissioned to mark the coronation in June 1953 of Queen Elizabeth II. It is a deliciously beautiful setting of a text by James Kirkup.