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Works for choirs to discover

16 January 2015

Ronald Corp reviews new editions from the Church Music Society


WORKING with the music department of Oxford University Press, through which all its publications are issued, the Church Music Society (CMS) continues to make available a wide selection of liturgical music, some of it unjustly neglected.

One such example is the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G (£3.50; 978-0-19-395399-4) for five voices by Henry Smart, composed in 1850 or '51. This Evening Service failed to enjoy a wide circulation when it was first published in Sacred Harmony, compiled by the Bristol organist Henry Haycraft.

Smart's setting is notable for its boldness and for the repetition of music from the opening of the Magnificat at the start of the Gloria section, a thematic device that predates Stanford's similar approach. The five voices are two soprano parts, alto, tenor and bass and the Magnificat rolls along in a quick sweep of three minims to a bar.

The minim pulse is kept up in the Nunc Dimittis, which is also marked Vivace. There are passages for solo voices in both movements, and the work is a most distinguished one, which I urge choral directors to investigate. It is edited by Peter Horton and Richard Lyne.

Exultate Deo by Samuel Wesley (£3.10; 978-0-19-395400-7), composed in 1800, is more widely known, although it is good to have it in this new edition edited by Richard Lyne. The text is in Latin, and there is no translation or English version for singing. It is a very strong piece, suitably joyous, and is accompanied by the organ, which rounds the piece off with a short postlude.

Harry Bramma's name will be well known to most people as an organist and choirmaster (for some years as Director of Music at All Saints', Margaret Street), and as Director of the Royal School of Church Music between 1989 and 1998. In 2011, the choir of All Saints' made a recording of his choral music. The disc includes the anthem that has just been published by the CMS. It is a setting of words by St Augustine, Late have I loved thee (£1.85; 978-0-19-395394-9), and is scored for choir and organ. It is broadly contemplative, and rejoices in rich harmony for the choir and some mellifluous chords in the lower register of the organ.

The opening page of Mark Sirett's website offers quotations from colleagues. Bob Chilcott calls him one of the best choral musicians he has come across, and Philip Brunelle calls him one of Canada's marvellous composers. The CMS offers us a short four-sided anthem Thou shalt know him (£1.60; 978-0-19-395397-0), written for the gentlemen and boy choristers of St George's Cathedral, Kingston, Ontario.

The words, I presume, are Sirett's own, and include the lovely (albeit archaically expressed) phrase "But his coming known shall be, by the holy harmony which his coming makes in thee." The main melody is simple and in a folksong idiom, but the harmonic language is lush.


FOUR further items from the Church Music Society Reprints series offer new editions of a "sacred madrigal" by Tomkins, and evening canticles by Daniel Purcell (in E minor), Walmisley (in B flat), and William Denis Browne (in A).

Browne was born in 1888, and wrote these canticles in 1911 while studying at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was organ scholar. He had met Rupert Brooke while at school in Rugby, and the two became close friends; they were both commissioned to serve in the Royal Navy. Browne was wounded in 1915 and subsequently rejoined his unit only to be killed that year in the Gallipoli Campaign.

He had studied with Charles Wood, also had lessons with Busoni, and came to the attention of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who commented that Browne had a "most musical nature". His musical idiom in the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A is relatively conservative, but there are ear-tickling moments that suggest that he might have become a major and original talent had he lived beyond his tender years (£2.60; 978-0-19-395406-9).

Walmisley is known today for his setting of the evening canticles in D minor, and for various psalm tunes still in general use. In his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat, composed for double choir in 1845 (£3.50; 978-0-19-395405-2), the composer's aim was to appeal to church musicians who wished to improve the state of church music, which, during this period, was at a low ebb. The work was to form part of a projected volume to be paid for by subscription, but the volume never materialised.

The Magnificat has a majestic sweep and is strong and dramatic, and the Nunc Dimittis captures the various moods of the text effectively. Together, these canticles represent the very best of mid-Victorian music-making.

The publication of Tomkins's Dear Lord of life (£2.60; 978-0-19-395401-4) is significant, as the work has not appeared in print before. It is a six-voice setting of a devotional text in a madrigalian style. As the text is non-biblical, and the only source of the manuscript is in part-books at Christ Church, Oxford, which include vocal and consort music by John Coprario, Orlando Gibbons, and John Ward, it is unlikely that this work was intended for church use. But there is no reason for it not to find a place in the liturgy.

The work in this edition by James Burke had its première at evensong at The Queen's College, Oxford, last year. Burke has had to unravel a complicated issue about original clefs and the tinkering with these by the original copyist who wrote out the part-books, but a happy solution is found, which makes sense of the range of modern vocal forces. This is a great work, and rejoices in some quirky chromatic shifts that bring to mind the music of Gesualdo.

Geoffrey Webber transposes Daniel Purcell's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in E minor (£2.60; 978-0-19-395403-8) into F sharp minor, on the basis that Restoration pitch was higher. Otherwise, the edition relies very much on the two already published, one by Stainer in 1900 and a second by Christopher Dearnley in 1971. The manuscript does not survive, and Stainer took as his source the organ-book belonging to the library of Magdalen College, Oxford, where Purcell was Organist and Informator Choristarum in the late 1690s. Stainer maintained that the vocal parts could be readily gleaned from the organ score, and Dearnley's version worked principally from Stainer.

This new edition suggests different textual underlay, and returns approximately to Stainer's barring of the music, while retaining the original note-values. The work itself, written in the style of a verse anthem, is alive with the rhythms and harmonic twists that we might expect from his brother Henry.

These publications are all excellently presented, and I recommend them unreservedly.

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