Without doubt, the conception of this recording and the concert that preceded it (East Carolina University Religious Arts Festival opening concert, January 25, 2007) was inspired by a shared affection for 20th century English choral music between me and my esteemed colleague, Dr. Janette Fishell, with whom I have the pleasure of teaching and collaborating at the East Carolina University School of Music. Blessed by the university’s close proximity and partnership with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Greenville, NC, with its resplendent acoustic and recently completed Fisk pipe organ (Op. 126), the lives of the university’s student organists, singers, and aspiring conductors have been tremendously influenced by the musical potential found within its walls. Delightfully “cathedral-like” in its acoustical and visual aesthetics, the environment of St. Paul’s, nestled, ironic as it may be, in rural Eastern North Carolina, is an extraordinary oasis, musically and spiritually, for the study, practice, and celebration of the Anglican tradition.
The repertoire presented here is selected from among the most celebrated and influential works of their time, written by some of England’s most respected composers. Featuring works sacred and secular, folk-influenced, and even from the African-American spiritual tradition, the theme of selfless love—human and divine—serves as the primary unifying element of the recording.
Herbert Howells’s musical style incorporates many disparate, but complementary, influences: English folk song, the choral tradition of the Anglican Church, the impressionistic harmonies of the early twentieth century, and the modal harmonies of the Tudors, along with his Christian faith all combined to form a truly unique musical personality. His two volumes of psalm preludes, written in response to the first and second World Wars, have much in common with his well-known choral music. Long, arching lines, colorful jazz- and modal-tinged harmonies, and masterful handling of the orchestral capabilities of the organ strongly evoke the psalm texts upon which these pieces are based. The Psalm Prelude Set 2, no. 3 which opens this recording is based upon Psalm 33:3, “Sing unto Him a new song. Play skillfully with a loud noise.”
Howells’s Requiem, written in 1936—shortly after his son Michael succumbed to spinal meningitis—was suppressed by the composer until 1980 for personal reasons. Scored for as many as ten mixed choral parts, and often in double-choir scoring, the Requiem remains among Howells’s most intimate and poignant choral works. The layering of these many soaring, singable lines into an often complex tapestry manages to eschew textural density in favor of a transparent, silken wash of choral sonority that evokes the generally sober texts. Written in six movements, the texts are drawn from the Psalms and from portions of the Missa pro defunctis, or Latin RequiemMass. Howells sets two movements of his Requiem (III, V) to the Latin Requiem aeternam text that appears in the Requiem Mass as the opening line of the Introit. Not given over to overt or dogmatic text-painting, the often-hypnotizing and bristling harmonic colors, with their non-chord-tones and extended triads, serve to illustrate a singular progression from grief towards heavenly intervention and comfort.
The nineteenth-century English composer Robert Pearsall actually spent most of his compositional years in Germany and Switzerland. An amateur composer, whose principle profession was that of a Barrister in Bristol, Pearsall left England following a small stroke in 1825 to seek recuperation abroad. Today he is best known for his secular part-songs and madrigals, many of which were written for the Bristol Madrigal Society with which Pearsall became acquainted on return trips on England. The Latin motet Tu es Petrus is a reworking of Pearsall’s most famous eight-part madrigal, Lay a Garland (1840), completed by the composer in 1854. Reminiscent of Antonio Lotti’s lush and suspension-laden Crucifixus settings, Tu es Petrus employs similar imitative and layering devices as well as spacious eight-part block sonorities which progress from pungent dissonance to harmonious repose.
Michael Tippett’s pacifist oratorio A Child of Our Time was written between 1939 and 1941 to his own libretto. Stylistically and structurally influenced by several known models, the work’s harmonic language is unmistakably twentieth-century with five elegantly arranged spiritualsinterpolated as scene-summarizing,universal statements in the tradition ofBach and his use of the Lutheran Chorale incantatas and passions. Like Handel’soratorios, which remained as an importantpart of the repertory of English choralfestivals, churches, and colleges, A Child ofOur Time is in three dramatic parts. Thesespiritual arrangements are as harmonicallysimple as their sources, but the ubiquitouslayered divisi, regularly orchestratedoctave-doubling, and the addition of 1-4soloists in each movement give these worksa textural density and a magisterial nobilitythat is ideal for the dramatic role they servewithin the larger oratorio. As excerptedminiatures, the works are delightful settingsof well-known melodies—elegantly clothedin lush English sonorities while retainingthe earnest intensity and rhythmicinexorability unique to the African-American spiritual.
Benjamin Britten is arguably the most versatile and inventive English composer of the twentieth century, with masterpieces in nearly all genres of Western classical music: solo vocal, instrumental, operatic, and choral. Rejoice in the Lamb, premiered in 1943, is among a number of particularly inventive and accessible choral works written by Britten in the early ’40s, including Hymn to St. Cecilia, A Ceremony of Carols, and Festival Te Deum. All of these works reveal Britten’s remarkable ability to infuse melodic novelty and contrapuntal clarity into traditional musical forms. Rejoice in the Lamb stands out among these works because of its imaginative text, written by Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century poet known for his religious conviction and unbalanced mind. The work is divided into ten short sections for soloists and choir. The second section, famous as much for its mixed meter conducting challenges (as evidenced by the innumerable undergraduate conducting finals on which it appears) as for its exuberant melodic appeal, reveals Smart’s penchant for encyclopedic lists, obscure literary and biblical references, and peculiar juxtaposition. The overarching theme of the poem and the music of Rejoice in the Lamb is the vigorous and spirited worship of God by all created beings, each in its own way. The simple, imitative “Halleluiah Chorus” that occurs as the third and the last sections displays Britten’s ability to clothe moments of musical poignancy and sophistication with an affect of child-like simplicity and naiveté.
John Ireland studied piano and organ at the Royal College of Music beginning at age 14, and later studied composition there with Charles Villiers Stanford. He eventually joined the faculty during which time Benjamin Britten was among his pupils. Often labeled an “English Impressionist,” Ireland preferred smaller compositional forms for voice, piano, and chamber music in a style that suggests more of an affinity for his French contemporaries than the folk-inspired flavor of his more famous countrymen. As a lifelong church musician, Ireland was not a particularly prolific composer of choral or organ works. His anthem Greater Love hath no man, however, has become a staple of cathedral and church choirs around the world due to its immediate accessibility, idiomatic organ writing, and its moving text drawn from Song of Solomon and John 15:13. Moving from intimately a cappella to soaring, richly accompanied choral unisons to festive eight-part blocks of grandiose resonance, Greater Love is an example of Ireland at his most sensitive and heroic.
The North Country Folksong Marianne that ends this recording was an instant choir favorite from its first rehearsal reading. Arranged by Philip Wilby (b. 1949), professor of composition at the University of Leeds, it is among few choral works in his opus, and even fewer that are secular. Wilby, known primarily for his brass band and wind band music, owes his interest in composition to Herbert Howells, whose composition classes he took while a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. His setting of Marianne is at once harmonically lush and melodically simple. Its verses trace the progression of a love affair between a nameless gentleman and Marianne, and the words of the poem are those of the male suitor who, in the first verse, bids farewell to his young lover as he departs for a sea journey. The second verse intimates a more seasoned and playful relationship between the two, before the third verse shocks the listener with tragic visions of the male suitor mourning the death of his beloved Marianne. The piece is marvelously melancholy, deliciously poignant, and exquisitely beautiful.
—Notes by Daniel Bara