Evensong at Gloucester Cathedral – Saturday 12th July 2010

Posted on July 12, 2010


Our trip to Gloucester was a wonderful climax to the year; Harry Potter connections aside, the cathedral, perhaps more than many, echoes with the history of so much of what we enjoy as a choir. Howells, Brewer, S.S. Wesley and Parry are among those who found work and inspiration within the walls of the magnificent building; the full list would resemble a Domesday Book of Anglican choral music (incidentally, it was from the same cathedral that the genuine article was commissioned by William I in December 1085). Our visit was a by-product of more recent history; arrangements were made with David Hoyle, former Vicar of Christ Church, while he was Canon in Residence at Gloucester. Our appearance at Evensong as part of a clutch of visiting choirs gave the cathedral choristers time to prepare for the imminent Three Choirs Festival – the oldest music festival in Europe (and well worth a visit).

We stood beneath the Great East Window – an amazing wall of glass stretching from the altar to the roof; the largest window in any medieval cathedral. Herbert Howells wrote of the ecstasy he felt at seeing light flood through it; no doubt the inspiration for much of his atmospheric choral work which is characterised by radiant and luminscent rays of sound. How fitting that his memorial is a stained glass window in the cathedral by Caroline Swash (1992) which illustrates settings of his music. As if on cue during rehearsals, the summer light flooded in.

For the introit we sang the first of Stanford’s Three Latin Motets, published at the turn of the last century. Justorum Animae is an a capella setting of the first three verses of Chapter 3 of the Book of Wisdom. You will have heard us sing all three motets in church, either at the eucharist or at evensong during the summer term (the text is not connected to the liturgy of a given day, making it suitable for use as part of any service – particularly useful in the weeks of ordinary time!) Without the support of the wonderful Gloucester organ (described by Simon Preston recently as the best cathedral instrument in the country) it was up to us to make the most of Stanford’s dynamics; which are many and varied in this short work. The choir splits in crescendo at the end of the first line; ‘Justorum animae in manu Dei sunt’ (The souls of the just are in the hand of God) before sliding to pianissimo in the staggered repeat phrase. ‘Et non tanget illos tormentum malitiae’ (and the torment of malice shall not touch them) is expressed as a ground-swell from bass through to the higher voices in sequence;  the ‘torment’ picked out by Stanford as a difficult ‘sforzando’ – an accented or forced phrase – a bit like flashing your headlights in sound!  The basses remain with the second line while the higher voices continue ‘Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori’ (in the sight of the unwise they seemed to die); before all parts begin the final line in a whispering ‘Illi autem sunt in pace’ (but they are in peace).

Harvey Brink pointed the first half of Psalm 106 brilliantly, creating a rich variety of cadences that made full use of the amazing Gloucester acoustic; (such as after ‘luck’ in: ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord : we hath wished you good luck * ye that are of the house of the Lord.’) It was really satisfying to hear the sound we made float up into the vaults of the roof; something that it is difficult for us to achieve in church.

The first direct link to the cathedral in our programme came with the Preces and Responses composed by the late John Sanders; Organist and Director of Music from 1967 until 1994. The responses commemorate the centenary of the death of Richard Wagner and are based on the Dresden Amen; a sequence of six notes which takes its name from its widespread use in churches in Saxony during the nineteenth century. The progression will be familar to those who know Wagner’s opera Parsifal where it appears and reappears as the ‘grail’ theme in Act I. It is also used by Mahler (the fourth movement of his First Symphony) as well as Bruckner and our own Stanford in his Bb service! In Sanders work, each response is based on the same theme with the original progression returning as the final, glorious, amen.

We went on to sing one of my favourite settings of the evening canticles by another former Gloucester organist; A.H.Brewer, who was knighted for services to church music in the year before he composed his Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis in D Major. Like much of his work, this was composed for performance at the Three Choirs Festival (in this case the 1927 gathering in Hereford). The organ gives two chords of only a crotchet each before the unison choir launch into the Magnificat; its allegro tempo not only seems entirely appropriate for a song of praise but also evokes a colourful picture of the roaring twenties – this isn’t just toe tapping stuff –  you can almost dance to it! The tuneful style is characteristic of later pieces by Brewer, whose obituary in the Musical Times likened his work to Arthur Sullivan. The beat continues at a pace until the end of verse 49 of the text from Luke’s Gospel, when the organ recapitulates the choir’s ‘and holy is his name’ with a change in tempo. The notes that accompany the score record that the climax of the piece is the high tenor ‘g’ at the start of ‘world without end’ (a fact which worried a considerable number of the menfolk) but it was a joy to sing (and, we hope, to listen to!) The tone of the Nunc Dimitis is, understandably, a complete contrast to the youthful style of the earlier canticle; much broader phrases and a slower tempo, with the gloria sung ‘nobilmente’ drawing the song of the ancient prophet Simeon to a close. Sadly, Brewer himself died suddenly, less than a year after these canticles were first performed.

An ‘anthem’ originally meant a choral composition to a religious text but now seems to describe any song of celebration from ‘Party Anthems’ to rugby and football chants! Perhaps either definition could be used for Bairstow’s Blessed City, Heavenly Salem (1914), which is a dramatic eight minute long setting of a seventh century hymn Urbs beata Hierusalem containing a fabulous organ crescendo in the middle. The men of the choir were asked to draw inspiration from the rugby terraces for their unison entry to the third verse! ‘Bright thy gates of pearl are shining, they are open evermore.’ Congratulations are due to Sarah Gomersal for her excellent solo.

The service closed with Dave Hinnit’s brilliant articulation of Dupre’s Prelude in B Major which drew out the best of the organ, refurbished ten years ago. The ‘roof’ of the organ was removed, allowing the vault of the nave to act as a soundboard. Beneath the echo of the voluntary, our dismissal outside the vestry and in sight of Bairstow’s memorial, brought to a close a very special day.