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For the choir and the organ

29 June 2012

Ronald Corp reviews recent publications for church musicians

By Ronald Corp

JAMES MACMILLAN is inter­mittently composing a series, The Strathclyde Motets, no doubt with the aim of providing music for the entire church year. So far, these motets have been published separately, but now Boosey & Hawkes have gathered together two volumes of seven anthems (£11.99; ISMNs 9790060122958 and 9790060122965) each. I hope they find a place in the repertory of choirs up and down the country.

These works are suitable for concert use also, and have been written with the good amateur choir in mind. This means that, without compromising his personal musical idiom, MacMillan has written pieces with an awareness of the ability of amateur singers. The music is not as difficult as some of his other works, and the immediacy of expression makes them very attractive.

But the music is challenging. The opening motet in volume one, "Data est mihi omnis potestas", a communion anthem for Ascension Day, is scored for eight-part choir, and begins with a leap of a ninth for first sopranos (not so hard per­haps), but also includes melismatic writing (admittedly at a slow tempo), which would need to be securely sung to sound effective. Similar flourishes of small-value notes feature in "Factus est repente", a communion motet for Pentecost. The more straightforward "In splendoribus sanctorum" for mid­night mass includes a trumpet (or organ) obbligato, and suggests a performance embracing aleatoric elements.

Some of the music in Volume Two is more straightforward. The block chords of "Benedicimus Deum caeli" and the syllabic chordal writing in "The Canticle of Zachariah" reveal a more down-to-earth side of MacMillan's writing; and "O radiant dawn", an antiphon for 21 Decem­ber, sounds almost Victorian. A harp is called for in "Os mutorum", which is scored for two soprano parts. The final two motets bring us back to the complexities of an eight-part choir and more rhapsodic rhythmic patterns.

If you want to hear any of these motets, some of them have already attracted excellent recordings from the choir Capella Nova under Alan Tavener on Linn Records.

THE Missa Dunelmi (£9.99; ISMN 9790060123450) was commis-sioned by Durham Cathedral and had its première by the Cathedral Choir under James Lancelot in 2011. It is scored for unaccom­panied choir. The Kyrie is striking and beautiful, and held together by sustained hummed notes, which act as a kind of drone, over which the two-part treble voices sing ecstatic lines. The opening three-note- intonation that the priest sings to the words "Gloria in excelsis Deo" gives that movement its musical starting point, and provides a motif that informs the rest of the move­ment.

The Creed is not set. The Sanctus movement rejoices in hushed as well as fortissimo chords and flourishes, with a Benedictus section floating in (mainly) unison trebles over rich major chords. The Agnus Dei is marked "very slow", and is written in very long notes. Here, the chords are denser, the treble notes carrying the melodic line. This is a most attractive mass setting, and I hope it gets an outing in the concert hall, too, where it would make a wonder­ful item in a programme of sacred music.

Domine non secundum peccata nostra (£2.50; ISMN: 979006012-3238) was commissioned by the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge, to mark the 500th anniversary of the founding of the college. It is a setting of verses from Psalm 102 (Tract for Ash Wednesday), and is scored for choir with solo violin. The violin part is available as a free download. The choral writing is straightforward, with doublings into eight parts, and the juxtaposition of choir and violin is tellingly exploited.

I hope that musical directors will consider these various works, as they would each individually en­hance any concert programme or church service.

THE Church Music Society has brought out William Turner's anthem The Queen shall rejoice (£2.20; 978-0-19-395393-2) for the present royal Jubilee, and obviously hopes that choirs will take it up in this celebratory year and beyond. The anthem was sung at the corona­tion of Queen Anne in 1702, and it is just possible that this is the same anthem as was heard as "The King shall rejoice" at the coronation of Anne's father, James II, in 1685.

It is a simple four-part setting of fewer than 100 bars. Although the score has no organ part, a simple accompaniment has been included here. The music is attractive, and has a dance-like quality in a dotted three beats to a bar metre.

Dr Geoffrey Webber, the editor of this anthem, suggests that it would be possible to perform the work in a lilting triplet rhythm in compound time, but it seems to me that the dotted rhythms work best as the composer wrote them.

The general editor of the CMS Reprints is Richard Lyne, and he has brought out an edition of John Blow's anthem O Lord God of my salvation (£2.20; 978-0-19-395390-1) to coincide with the commem­ora­tion of the centenary of the birth of Dr Watkins Shaw, who had a special affection for the works of Blow and this piece in particular.

Although modest in scale, the anthem is large in scope, beginning with eight-part choral counterpoint to the words of Psalm 88, "O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee." A central verse section omits two voice parts, but these are reintroduced for the last full section "For my soul is full of trouble, and my life draweth nigh unto hell." This is a most im­pressive piece.

Perhaps the finest of Pearsall's works is the eight-part madrigal "Lay a garland". Towards the end of his life, Pearsall adapted this work to the words "Tu es Petrus". Taking the lead from the composer, Richard Shephard has taken another eight-part work of Pearsall, "Great God of Love", and married it to words from Charles Everett's hymn, Take up thy cross, the Saviour said (Church Music Society, £1.85; 978-0-19-395392-5). This will give the Pear­sall work a new lease of life; the music seems perfectly suited to its new context.

In celebration of the 400th anni­versary of the King James Bible, the Royal School of Church Music organised a composition com­peti-tion seeking works in two categor­ies: one for cathedral choirs, and the second for works suitable for use in church or school. The winning anthem in the latter category was the very approachable and melod­ically straightforward work "The mystery of Christ", by Christopher Totney, a music teacher and church organist based in Wiltshire.

This has been published in a volume, King James Bible Anthems (RSCM, £4.95 (£3.71 affiliate price); ISMN: M-57018-074-5), together with three of the anthems that were runners-up. Each of the works is easy on the ear and very practical. Owain Park is the 17-year-old composer of "Let thine heart keep my commandments", which has a separate part for oboe (although the solo line is written in small notes in the piano accompaniment). The main vocal melody is hauntingly singable.

"Sing, O heavens" by Andrew-John Bethke is suitably jaunty and is scored for two-part choir (upper and lower voices), while Thomas Hewitt Jones's anthem is a gentle setting of words from Revelation, "Thou art worthy, O Lord". The harmonic language of all four anthems is safe and schmaltzy. Did no one enter something ear-ticklingly original?

LEVEL ONE of The Complete Church Organist was published in 2010 by the Royal School of Church Music, and sought to provide the necessary skills for any organist for the accompaniment of church ser­vices. Rather than focus on organ-playing, the book offered guidance on the playing of hymns, worship songs, anthems, and communion settings, and gave useful advice on how to rehearse and how to lead from the keyboard, with some sug­gestions of which stops to use in various circumstances (£19.50; 978-0-85402-179-6).

If organists were not confident, this was a wonderful manual to help them on their way, and was ideal for pianists who were making the move on to the organist's bench. The editor, Daniel Moult, has a wealth of experience to offer, and did so in a helpful and pragmatic way.

Now comes Level Two (of the proposed three) (£19.50 (£14.63 affiliate price); 978-0-85402-180-2). It has been devised to accompany the RSCM's Church Music Skills programme, and includes repertory from the course as well as a range of solo organ pieces. The volume builds on its predecessor by offering advice on the use of pedals and how to accompany chanted psalms. Of course, it all comes down to prac­tice, but there are some very useful hints here, and some artful exer­cises. I am pleased that exercises by John Stainer are included, because he was a very significant musician, who strove to improve the standards of church music in his day.

Sections on "how to practice" and the various exercises are geared to limbering up the fingers, hands, and feet, besides enabling an indepen­dence and co-ordination between them. Then come various hymns, with suggestions of speed and registration, followed by helpful suggestions of how to manage modern worship songs, which often appear to be written for piano (and not organ) accompaniment.

The section on accompanying Anglican psalms stresses the need to know the chant by heart to enable flexible support to the singers, and the section on accompanying anthems offers editorial fingering. The last section in the volume provides a wide variety of organ solos from Sweelinck to Langlais, with notes on their composers.

Both volumes are well designed and well assembled and highly recommended.

ALSO from the same stable comes Volume One of Gospel Colours by Martin How (RSCM, £5.95 (£4.46 affiliate price); 978-0-85402-192-5). These are 14 short organ pieces reflecting the moods of various Gospel readings, and the titles give some idea of what the composer is driving at: Longing, Confidence, Fanfare, Majesty, Apocalypse. It all smacks of "library music". But please do not think that this is to belittle. These pieces have integrity and musical sub­stance, and this will make them very useful as interludes in a ser-vice. Do search out this volume, and see what How has written - and, of course, there is more to come.

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