The Tudor Consort, conducted by Michael Stewart, with Milla Dickens, soprano, and Richard Apperley, organ (As the leaves fall)
‘Music for Holy Week: Eternal Sacrifice’
Purcell: Hear my Prayer, O Lord
Parry: Songs of Farewell (Six Songs. or Motets, interspersed throughout)
Byrd: Miserere mei, Deus
Harold Darke: As the leaves fall
Gibbons: Drop, drop, slow tears
Weelkes: When David heard
Poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon
Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul
Saturday, 30 March 2018, 7:30 pm
As Michael Stewart explained in his pre-concert talk, in considering music for the yearly Good Friday concert, he had the idea of aligning music for Holy Week with music marking the end of World War I. Therefore he chose appropriate music written during that war, and interspersed it with music of earlier times written by English composers, and with poems written by two poets of the Great War. All this made for a very interesting programme.
Hubert Parry has perhaps tended to be regarded as a minor figure: very much of his age – late Victorian and Edwardian, and the composer of the famous Jerusalem (‘And did those feet in ancient time…’), the lovely hymn tune Repton (‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind…’), the anthem I was glad, composed for King Edward VII’s coronation, and other choral pieces well-known in Anglican choirs. Tonight was quite a revelation – of the range, skill, and modernity of his choral writing.
Parry became director of the Royal College of Music in London, and professor of music at Oxford University. Stewart (and Grove’s Dictionary) stated that Parry had revitalised music in the United Kingdom, which had reached a low ebb. He was involved in teaching, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, both of whom made a huge contribution to British music. Another claim to fame was his assistance to George Grove in 1877, in the compilation of the latter’s massive Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Given a small choir performing, able to use the resonance of the cathedral to its advantage, there was not the problem with clarity of words that there can be with a larger body of singers.
As one who had studied in Germany, to Parry, war between Britain and Germany was unthinkable. When it occurred, with its tremendous loss of life, including among music students of his, he was deeply shocked and horrified. This is reflected in the Songs of Farewell, written between 1916 and 1918, the year of his death, not least in the poetry he chose to set..
As usual, printed programmes were on A4 paper, with print large enough for the words to be read during the concert, thanks to sufficient lighting. Dates for all the composers and poets were given, and the words of the songs were printed. (Other choirs please copy these exemplary practices).
The opening Purcell Psalm verse was grave and quiet, with exemplary tone; dynamics were beautifully managed. The poem Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred (not Wilfrid) Owen was read immediately after, giving point through the well-known opening words: ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ And the last line: ‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds’.
The first two Parry songs followed, the first a setting of the wonderful poem by Henry Vaughan, one of the 17th century, metaphysical poets: ‘My soul, there is a country Far beyond the stars’, which I memorised when a student. Its emphasis on peace was very telling in this context. While the words have their own beauty, the unaccompanied setting did not take from this euphony. Especially at the beginning, the piece was rather typical English part-song – but no worse for that – the setting of words was very fine.
The next song, I know my soul hath power to know all things was attractive and expressive, in a homophonic setting, in contrast to the greater intricacies of the first song. It was followed by Byrd’s Miserere. (The more famous Allegri setting had been on the radio that afternoon, as had Tudor Consort’s Good Friday concert from 2017). The superb polyphony was brought out by the singing, nevertheless all the voices were skilfully blended.
Another Owen poem followed: ‘Greater love’, then the next Parry song Never weather-beaten sail, with words by Shakespearean-era poet Thomas Campion. The setting was appropriate for these words and their period. It differed in mood from the earlier songs, and featured lovely harmony. The second verse’s words about ‘high Paradise’ were set to soaring phrases; a glorious song.
The last work before the interval was the only one featuring extended vocal solo from Milla Dickens, and also organ, by Richard Apperley. Harold Darke, who died in 1976 after a long life, was a well-known British organist and composer. He is widely known mainly for his setting of the carol In the bleak midwinter. The poem As the leaves fall was written in 1916 by Lieutenant Joseph Courtney, as a very young man. Heart-wrenching it is, particularly in the words addressed to mothers and maidens, for the loss of the male youth. The song began with a long organ introduction. Throughout, the organ part was interesting and varied.
Choir and solo soprano alternated, and sometimes sang together, reaching a climax in the final section, triumphantly proclaiming confidently ‘There is no death…’. This was quite an unusual, lengthy work that had considerable impact.
After the interval, Gibbons’s simple but sublime Song 46: Drop. Drop slow tears was simply gorgeous. (There is also a beautiful anthem on these words by New Zealander Richard Madden.) It was followed by a tragic wartime poem by Siegfried Sassoon: ‘Suicide in the Trenches’. Back to Parry, and There is an old belief. This received a very imaginative setting, and gave the impression of being difficult to sing. While expressing hope in heaven, the nineteenth-century poet John Gibson Lockhart seemed unsure about the hope, ending his poem ‘Eternal be the sleep If not to waken so’ (i.e. waken in the creed of life ‘Beyond the sphere of Time’).