Evensong at Winchester Cathedral – Saturday 6th April 2013

Posted on April 20, 2013


Winchester-Exterior“If a man would live again the musical history of a thousand years, let him sit in the choir of a cathedral and listen.”

George Dyson, ‘Of Organs and Organists’, 1952

Given the meteorological maxim associated with the shrine of St Swithin, perhaps it was not surprising that our trip to Winchester – our first with Richard Brain at the helm – was characterised by changing weather!

Mercifully, the hitherto tundra-like conditions (which had most unwelcomely characterised the second coldest March on record) suddenly melted away as we left Southgate in glorious spring sunshine.

Winchester-Norman TranseptMore surprising was the connection between Winchester and Sir George Dyson – the no-nonsense Yorkshireman (he “first heard Wagner on a brass band“) who led the Royal College of Music through the Second World War.

Born near Halifax, the son of a blacksmith, Winchester became his physical and spiritual home from 1924; the place where he was most active as a composer, including three settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, one of which we performed in the cathedral. His biographer, Christopher Palmer, said;

Dyson disliked the Gothic extravagance of Elgar; his taste was rather for Winchester’s Norman, with its massive solidity and strength.

Winchester-GormleyEntering the cathedral from the west, the low tower hidden behind the remodelled façade, the Norman parts of the cathedral are concealed from view – the nave was radically remodelled in the Perpendicular style between 1340 and 1420. It is not until you reach the transept that you encounter the robust Norman architecture.

Turning the corner at a memorial plaque to the organist S.S.Wesley, we entered the crypt – flooded due to the high water table – which houses the eerie statue Sound II made by (and from a body cast of) the acclaimed sculptor Antony Gormley. Enchanting!

Winchester-CantorisRehearsing in the Song School, in the oldest surviving part of the building, Richard described the programme of music as “muscular Christianity” and, true to his word, we began the service by singing the Preces composed by a choral ‘action-man’; Bernard Rose (1916-1996) the noted choir master who started training in nearby Salisbury (becoming the Assistant Organist there at the age of 15). He beat Edward Heath to the organ scholar position at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge and, after active duty in the Second World War in which he served as a Desert Rat and took part in the D Day landings, became Master of Choristers and Organist at Magdalene College Oxford – a position he held for nearly twenty five years. The Preces and Responses are considered a classic in the Anglican Choral repertoire and were composed for his choir in 1961. Like the canticles and the anthem we were to perform later, they are set in D Major – a ‘golden’ key considered ‘the key of glory’ in the Baroque period. The soprano line in the response “And make thy chosen people joyful” quotes the chime from the Great Tower in Magdalene College.

Winchester-QuireRose’s obituary describes his “almost Yorkshire plain speaking” and how “he could generate the most appalling tension in a practice, only to coax, minutes later in the service, the most surpassing, moving and committed performances.” Our own, ever polite, choir master didn’t resort to such tactics (this time?!) – in fact the only minor hints of tension arose over voluminous matters; firstly the magnitude of the organ accompaniment, with Richard declaring to his fiancée, the organist Kate Macpherson, who kindly stepped in to play for us; “I want it to be obscene,” followed by a polite exchange of views between Mr Lamprecht, who had joined us to support the bass section, and a party of chattering grockles, during our rehearsal.

We sang Psalm 145 “I will magnify thee O God my King” responsively, which gave us time to admire our beautiful surroundings – the oldest quire stalls in England to remain unaltered; their survival  through the Reformation arising from the lack of sacred iconography (those of a less liberal disposition might consider some of the carvings to be almost profane!); my colleague in the cantoris tenor section Mr John Hagon-Torkington politely pointing out some of the more interesting panels showing various animals ‘standing on top of each other’.

Winchester-DecaniThe chant was by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford who taught George Dyson at the Royal College of Music, Dyson later praising his “frank, forcible, explosive, exasperating yet fundamentaly kindly” style.

It was to Dyson that we turned for the music for the Evening Service – his Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis in D was finally published in 1924, the year he moved to lead the Music Department at Winchester College, having previously taught at Marlborough, Rugby, Wellington and the Royal Naval College, where he must have encountered the young Edward VIII and George VI. The clean, simple entry to the Magnificat, sung in unison before splitting at “God my saviour” perhaps indicative of a wish to write for the young – or amateur voices – of a school choir. There is certainly a ‘team spirit’ – almost ‘school song’ like character, set by the regular marching rhythm (Dyson played percussion in the Royal College  of Music Orchestra, conducted by Stanford), and the majestic key signature and  interweaving parts that get equal treatment in terms of their prominence throughout the canticle.

Winchester-NaveDyson was a stickler for clarity – later compositions were (at his insistence) marked in English rather than Italian, and accordingly, Richard directed the choir to emphasise each marking, each accented word; “behold”, “blessed”, “magnified”, and to respect the length of each note scored – no cheeky quaver rests allowed! The tempo is marked (in Italian) ‘lively, with spirit’ but reading Dyson’s biography, ‘with feeling’ would seem more appropriate – the composer believing that artistic expression can only be reinforced by the human experience; Dyson’s practical, down to earth nature revealed when he told his students; “You do not become an artist by withdrawing from the world.”

Despite his career in the top public schools, a distant, aloof academic Dyson was certainly not. Rising from working class roots to the highest echelons of musical society as Director of the Royal College of Music in 1939, he kept in touch with the caretakers, cleaning staff and porters there; helping to save the college from fire after a direct bomb strike. Dyson had seen active service himself during the Great War; honourably discharged with shell shock but not before publishing a best-selling handbook on Grenade Throwing – his son later remarking how ironic it was that a man of peace and goodwill was set free from financial worry by a 6d pamphlet on killing people.

A part time composer, many of his works are now being rediscovered after being written-off as ‘Parry-lite’ – Dyson had a fascination with all things English and was the first to set Chaucer to music; The Canterbury Pilgrims (composed for the Winchester Choral Society) is feted. Many aspects of the early canticles we sang can be heard in his later works – the clear and robust melody with voices building up from each entry is particularly characteristic as the bass line begins “He remembering his mercy..” as it is throughout In Honour of the City (1928). Dyson himself was given the Freedom of the City of Winchester in 1963 to mark his 80th birthday.

Unlike Jane Austen, whose last remaining weeks in a house next to the College are commemorated in stone, we could find no such memorial to Sir George Dyson – whose home illuded us – we will have to return to the city to find it!

Our anthem provided a condensed version of the Easter story – comprising two parts of the Messiah by G.F.Handel – a work so comfortably British that Dyson would most certainly have approved! What can one say about the most widely performed piece of choral music ever written? The task is made even more difficult when in the congregation one finds the Associate Director of the London Handel Festival, Adrian Butterfield!

The first section, Since by Man Came Death is from Part III of the oratorio and opens with an unaccompanied passage contemplating the death of Christ, followed by a faster paced (allegro) line focussing on Christ’s resurrection, with an instrumental accompaniment. For the second section of the anthem we sang the famous, majestic Hallelujah chorus, which closes Part II of the Messiah; “King of Kings” resounded around the cathedral, a building which owes its origins to the first Saxon kings of Wessex who converted from paganism to Christianity. We concluded evensong of by singing another Alleluia, in words of the Easter hymn “Good Christian Men Rejoice and Sing”.

Thank you to everyone at Winchester Cathedral for looking after us!

Thank you to everyone at Winchester Cathedral for looking after us!

We all thoroughly enjoyed our time at Winchester – the staff and clergy were all so welcoming. Thanks are due to Kat Gourd for her work organising the event and to Richard for leading us – and to his fiancée Kate for taking time out from her duties as Assistant Organist at Waltham Abbey Church to accompany us. Thanks are due too to the visiting members of our choir who helped to swell our ranks to cover absences (Adrian Hill, Howard Leithead, Henry Lamprecht, Val Naylor, David Toynbee, James Dixon, Garry Humphries and Elizabeth Gresser). We are all very much looking forward to our next trip – to Chichester Cathedral – on Monday 27th May, which we hope will be just as much fun!

Read more about Dyson and Handel from our trip to Newcastle Cathedral!: https://confirmedreports.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/may-the-force-be-with-you-trip-to-newcastle-cathedral-part-3/