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A diverse selection of works, many written to commemorate state occasions in Westminster Abbey itself, by three composers who demonstrate a particular affinity for choral music.
A student at Cambridge University between 1977 and 1980, Jonathan Dove (b1959) studied composition with Robin Holloway. A fine pianist, Dove originally made his living as a freelance arranger, accompanist, animateur and repetiteur before establishing himself as a composer with a particular interest in the artistic potential of voices. Throughout his creative life, opera has been a central focus, and the number of works in this genre now amounts to around thirty, including Flight, commissioned by Glyndebourne in 1998. Like Weir, however, he has also demonstrated a major interest in choral music, as evidenced by two works composed for the Proms: A song of joys (2010) and Our revels now are ended (2016). Dove has written several works for the church, including The Three Kings, commissioned in 2000 by King’s College, Cambridge.
Vast ocean of light dates from 2010. Commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund (now Help Musicians UK) in the name of organist, conductor and composer Sir Thomas Armstrong, the anthem was inspired by the words of Phineas Fletcher, the prolific English Renaissance poet. Of Fletcher’s text Dove has commented: ‘Light, and the idea of light, has always been a source of inspiration to me, and the heavenly bodies often provoke a desire to create some kind of numinous music.’ It is this numinous aspect of Fletcher’s vision which informs the music’s impression of spaciousness, its ostinato figurations underpinning the mesmerizing changes in harmony.
Dove’s Missa brevis was the result of a commission from the Cathedral Organists’ Association and was given its premiere at one of their annual conferences in Wells Cathedral, on 13 May 2009, directed by Matthew Owens. The work is framed by the quietude of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei, which share a common drone feature of fourth intervals, though at the conclusion of the Agnus this ‘resolves’ to the more familiar and consonant fifth. The inner movements, on the other hand, possess a spirited elan in which (perhaps reflecting the nature of the work’s commission) the organ features prominently in its imaginative use of registration and tessitura. The Gloria is very much a lively dance with a Stravinskian tinge to its irregular metres. The Sanctus (contrary to the normative convention of the movement’s solemnity) is a spirited affair in which two climbing scales for the trebles (from E to high G) are the principal focus (‘Pleni sunt caeli’ and ‘qui venit in nomine Domini’), before all seems to subside, only for the final ‘Osannas’ to return as a strident paean.
The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey commissioned They will rise for the centenary of the formation of the Royal Air Force, with the first performance taking place at a service in the Abbey on 10 July 2018. In addition to the formality of the service, the occasion had a personal connection for the composer, whose uncle, Desmond Downer, a rear gunner in the Lancaster bombers, was lost in action in the Second World War; the anthem bears his dedication. The well-known text, closely associated with the RAF (‘they will rise, they will soar, they will fly up on wings like eagles’), was taken from Isaiah 40: 31. Like Vast ocean of light, the work provides a glimpse of the vastness of the heavens in its capacious choral textures and the flowing nature of the accompaniment’s undulations.
Born in 1954, Judith Weir was also a pupil of Robin Holloway at Cambridge, and later worked with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. After a period teaching in schools and in adult education, she taught at Glasgow University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where she began to develop her prowess as a composer of opera. During the 1990s, when she was closely associated with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, her attention turned to orchestral music, but more recently she has evinced an interest in choral music, of which her carol Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985), commissioned for the Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, has become one of her most popular vocal works. In 2014 she was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
With words taken from John’s Gospel and Psalm 107, The true light was commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, and was first sung at a service held in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 2018. Weir’s markings at the outset—‘sombre, pensive’—encapsulate the meditative mood of the first section, in which John’s famous words (‘The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth’) express a sense of universal solemnity in recollection of the ‘war to end all wars’. From the hushed nature of this opening paragraph, haunted by the organ’s cantabile ‘song’, a brighter section (‘O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious’) provides contrast before John’s words return in a more ethereal reprise (Weir uses the markings ‘celestial, translucent’), ushered in by a cadenza-like interlude for the organ, which continues to feature prominently in the closing bars.
His mercy endureth for ever was commissioned by Her Majesty’s Government and the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, and was first performed by The Choir of Westminster Abbey under James O’Donnell, at a service of thanksgiving held in the Abbey on 10 May 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of VE Day. Constructed in two parts, the piece begins with a text drawn from Psalm 136; built on a series of muscular pedal points, it is tonally based around G, though figuring significantly at its centre is a detour to E flat. It is this key that subsequently forms the foundation of the second section, marked ‘strong, powerful’, which is a setting of the ‘Prayer for Peace’ (‘Eternal God, in whose kingdom no sword is drawn’).
The anthem Truly I tell you, cast in a ternary form, was first performed by The Choir of Westminster Abbey at the Commonwealth Day observance on 9 March 2015. The first part of the chosen text was taken from verses 4-9 of Psalm 8 (‘When I consider your heavens’). This marks out the first important section of the anthem, characterized by the rising figurations of the organ accompaniment. It begins in E flat major, but its upward trajectory takes us to G major, and it is this key which underpins the largely homophonic gestures of the choir. As we arrive at the text taken from Mark 10: 15—and the crux of the anthem from which the work draws its title, ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God’—the tonality reverts to E flat major once again, now in a more restrained manner and for trebles and tenors. Verses 1-4 of Psalm 34 shape the reprise of the opening music, which again features the interaction of E flat and G, though it is for the former key to conclude the anthem with a telling reiteration of the text from Mark’s Gospel in a gentler prayer for unison choir.
Church music has remained an important pillar of Matthew Martin’s output as a composer. A former organ scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, Martin later studied at the Royal Academy of Music before appointments at New College (Oxford), Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral, Keble College (Oxford) and Gonville & Caius College (Cambridge), where he is presently Precentor and Director of Music. He has also composed for The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, and the Choirs of St John’s College and Clare College in Cambridge.
Taking its text from a combination of the sixth- or seventh-century Latin hymn Angularis fundamentum (a hymn often used for the dedication of a church in the Sarum Breviary and more commonly known in its English translation as ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’) and J Armitage Robinson’s 1888 hymn ‘’Tis good, Lord, to be here’, In the midst of thy temple was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to mark the 750th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey by Henry III (who had instigated its erection in 1245) on 13 October 1269. The piece was first performed by The Choir of Westminster Abbey at a service on 15 October 2019 under the direction of James O’Donnell. A challenging work for both choir and organist, the anthem’s ABA structure deftly harnesses the bilingual aspect of the two texts—Latin in the first paragraph, English in the second—while in the reprise, which includes a harmonically modified quotation of the final strains of Purcell’s immortal hymn tune ‘Westminster Abbey’ (itself originally from the closing ‘Alleluias’ of his verse anthem O God, thou art my God), the Latin and the English translation of Angularis fundamentum are interlaced.
In 2013 Martin produced his Westminster Service, a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, for the trebles of Westminster Abbey. A highly animated interpretation of the Magnificat, its essentially tripartite structure (in which the opening music returns in the Gloria) features an athletic and colourful organ part which reflects the energy of Mary’s agitated response to the Annunciation—a state of mind compellingly retained in the more tranquil closing bars. By comparison, the Nunc dimittis, Simeon’s song imparted at Christ’s purification in the temple, is, to use the composer’s markings, ‘gentle’ and ‘hypnotic’, its simple diatonic material for the trebles being set against a mantra-like set of repeated organ gestures (which only barely undergo small but effective modification in the Gloria).
An unaccompanied setting of verses 2-3 of Psalm 42, Sitivit anima mea (including the words ‘My tears have been for me bread day and night’, and based on text from the same psalm as Howells’s memorable anthem Like as the hart) was dedicated to Robert Quinney and the lay clerks of Westminster Cathedral, and dates from June 2002. Though much of the mood is sombre and contemplative, the motet reaches an intense peak of agitation before the dynamic recedes, the vein of lamentation combining with the more pressing appeal ‘Ubi est Deus tuus?’ (‘Where is your God?’).
O Oriens, one of the great ‘O Antiphons’ sung at Vespers during the last solemn days of Advent, was commissioned by the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral and first performed by The Choir of St Paul’s under the direction of Andrew Carwood during the Advent Procession in 2012. As the composer states in the score, the anthem ‘was written for the vast acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral with each part of the choir placed some distance apart’, where upper voices were located in the south transept and the lower voices in the north. With this special element in mind, the music, based on the well-known old French melody (and using words from J M Neale’s English translation—‘O come, thou dayspring, come and cheer / Our spirits by thine advent here’) and the traditional plainsong melody of O Oriens, makes extensive use throughout of antiphonal exchanges between the two vocal groups. Fragmentation of the plainsong melody in the trebles, combined with the hymn, leads to the latter’s climactic pronouncement in the organ before the atmosphere is becalmed.
The fiery, clamorous Behold now, praise the Lord, completed in Oxford in November 2015 (and bearing the dedication ‘In memoriam John Scott’, whose premature and tragic death was announced in August of that year), was commissioned by Help Musicians UK for the charity’s Celebration of Music 2015, and was first performed at St Paul’s Cathedral under Andrew Carwood on 18 November that year with the combined choirs of St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. A striking feature of the work’s tripartite design is the more serene central section (‘Ye that by night stand in the house of the Lord’). This is enclosed by outer sections characterized by irregular metres; the constantly active organ part reaches its own zenith in the solo flourishes of the coda, replete with concluding ‘forearm clusters’ and a dynamic of ffff.
Jeremy Dibble © 2022