Evensong at Southwark Cathedral – Saturday 26th February 2011

Posted on March 6, 2011


There was a distinct medieval flavour to our approach to Southwark Cathedral, perhaps due to the bustling Borough Market next door. We pushed past crowds of tourists who were gathered around stalls inspecting the lunchtime offerings. The air was filled with sizzling sounds and steam from food being prepared on hot plates. Southwark was the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and while our band of churchmen were (as far as I know) not nearly as ‘colourful’ as those infamous characters, there was very much a pilgrimage spirit in the vestry. The unfortunate and untimely illness of many of our own number – and the demands of the canticles we were to sing – meant that the ranks of our choir had been swelled by friends old and new, many of whom (although seasoned singers) had not sung Choral Evensong before.

The Choir of Christ Church Southgate at Southwark Cathedral

Joining us on the organ was David Stevens our former Director of Music, who was characteristically relaxed – even after discovering that the Royal College of Organists were holding a conference nearby, which would conclude just in time for delegates to attend Evensong.

After being fed and watered in the refectory, several members of our own congregation took their seats in the cathedral, including Sylvia Keck and Winnie Maynard, both veteran choir ‘roadies’.  We were delighted that the whole proceedings were captured on camera by Philip Way, who called on the nimble fingers of churchwarden Dr Ronald Lo, to assist with his equipment during the wide-shots.

The Choir of Christ Church Southgate - with Pilgrims!

Aside from the setting of the Psalm (Bairstow) and the Responses (Leighton), all the music for the service was by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Described as “the greatest contributor to the music of the Anglican Church in this century” by his biographer Paul Spicer, Howells composed eighteen different settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – more than anyone before or since. Howells was fascinated by cathedral buildings and often the particular acoustic properties of each building would influence each setting. For Evensong, Harvey Brink had selected the great St Paul’s Service which, like the building, is Howells at his biggest, as described in his own words;

“Of the series of canticle-settings, this is the most extended in scale. With the great spaces of St Paul’s in mind…Prolonged echo, notable in St Paul’s, would dictate a less rapidly changing harmonic rhythm…harmonic and tonality changes are built more slowly. But with these conditions there comes a heightened volume of sound, and a tonal opulence commensurate with a vast church.”

Extended in scale” is rather an understatement – at eleven and a half minutes this setting is about forty per cent longer than the ‘average’ evening canticles! For a try-hard amateur like me, the idea of slow harmonic and tonal changes are quite scary – because this means a lot of very deep breaths and also considerable concentration to ensure tuning is correct (bum notes being far more noticeable during a long sustained phrase!). The tenor part also has some fabulous, but rather exposed, entries during the middle of the Magnificat which need ‘oomph’ for emphasis; “He hath scattered the proud”, “He hath put down the mighty”. Singing the canticle is exhausting!

The Magnificat begins in unison, where it remains for the most part until verse 50 of Luke’s text, when the narrative of the Song of Mary changes from the first person; her thanksgiving following the Visitation, to the third; a description of God’s greatness, which Howells scores through the male voices in unison; “And his mercy is on them that fear Him.” There follows some wonderful staggered phrases, rising up from the lower voices and developing slowly to crescendo; “He remembering his mercy.” The Nunc Dimittis is set at the same pace, but unlike the previous canticle, is in harmony from the start – the parts soon developing into rippling waves of sound which weave together in a way that is ideal for carrying through the cavernous spaces of a cathedral.

Next we sang the Anthem “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks,” a setting of the first three verses of Psalm 42, in which the psalmist likens his need to find God to a male deer (the hart) searching for water in the desert. The piece was written by Howells in a single day, whilst London was under air assault and the airwaves were buzzing with news of the Allied capture of large numbers of Italian forces in the Libyan desert (8th January 1941). Like as the Hart is one of the “Four Anthems” and, despite the simple name, biographers know from his writings that Howells conceived these as anthems ‘in time of war’.

The piece opens with the male voices singing the well known melody, with “quiet intensity” – the full choir joining at the plea; “When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”. The emotion is at its peak with the impassioned; “Where? Where is thou, my God?” In the second part of the piece, after an organ interlude, the melody returns, this time with the sopranos singing a countermelody above. Despite the anguish and soul searching, the piece ends on a more hopeful note –the anthem is in an ‘edgy’ minor key until the last chord, which resolves to a more positive major, carried through the final, sustained organ chord.

Finally, we sang the hymn, All My Hope on God is Founded to the setting ‘Michael’,  written by Howells in memory of his son, who contracted bulbar polio and died in 1935 at the age of nine. The illness was quick to take hold; Michael fell ill on 4th September in Gloucester and died on the night of Friday 6th after being rushed to hospital in London. An iron lung could have saved him, but at that time there was only one, located on the other side of the city. In an interview many years later, Ursula, Michael’s sister, recounted how doctors had explained to her parents that even with the iron lung, Michael would be completely paralyzed and was unlikely to survive into adulthood. While they were deciding whether to send for the iron lung, Michael died.

What grief must have engulfed the family at that time – the self-doubt and the ‘what if’ pervading every minute of every day. How this must have tested their faith. Some months later, it was Ursula who suggested that her father should face their grief through composition – this hymn, along with Hymnus Paradisi “An English Mass” were composed at that time. All My Hope on God is Founded continues to give hope to those in despair or who have suffered a personal loss.

Exhausted but exhilarated after the scale of the expansive St Paul’s canticles and following the emotionally charged pleas of the anthem written in the midst of war, Howell’s memorial to his son was not just a conclusion to Evensong, or the end of a musical tribute to this fine composer, but a journey of faith in song between two extremes of scale – from the ethereal and wondrous to the raw and personal.

 “Christ doth call one and all. Ye who follow shall not fall.”