BERNARD ROSE, the 20th anniversary of whose death falls this November (Features, 6 May), would have been 100 years old this year. He is easily best known for his Preces and Responses incorporating the chimes of the great tower of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was Informator Choristarum for 24 years (1957-81).
An impressive event in St Mary’s, Bampton, in Oxfordshire, has now brought together perhaps 150 of his former choral scholars (Academical Clerks). Many of them formed a group of massed voices on a par with any choral society, but with vast and unrivalled musical experience behind each of them.
One thing about Magdalen in Rose’s day, apart from his insistence on pronunciation and expression, was that for each evensong he drew on the music of just one specific period. This event went one better: the entire evening was given over to music by Rose himself.
It is not widely realised how much music of real quality he left: thus the full-bodied and latterly ecstatic “Lord, I have loved the habitation of thys house”, written the year he moved to Magdalen from The Queen’s College, where his direction of the celebrated Eglesfield Music Society had drawn admiration from Boult, Rubbra, and Vaughan Williams.
Rose’s liturgical settings, such as the “Short” Evening Service, revealed here just what a master craftsman he was. Two carols were included early in the concert: a setting of G. K. Chesterton, and one of 16th-17th-century Richard Verstegan, which alternates solo and choir refrain. Each stood out, the first for its rocking effect with lulling triplets, the other for the eloquent soprano solo that leads in.
Among the 40 or 50 compositions that Rose left, his Feast Song for Saint Cecilia (1975) stands out as one of his most truly beautiful and ultra-refined works, with a melting solo (originally for treble) woven in over the top. Rose brings an almost Purcellian feel to the anthem “O God, who didst give the law to Moses”, dedicated to the organist and Cambridge scholar Peter le Huray. To Samuel Johnson’s words, “Almighty God, who art the Giver of all wisdom”, Rose — as elsewhere — shows his gift for using extended long lines (like Rubbra or Howells) to generate appealing and individual harmonies, with an electrifying transition from minor and modal to a major key.
Rose’s output includes a wealth of secular settings. “Upon Westminster Bridge” shows how he can conjure joy and wonder on a par with Wordsworth’s poem. But even more the youthful “Slow, slow fresh fount” — a Ben Jonson setting — with its wistful feel is exquisite, enhanced by expressive suspensions but also teased by occasional clashes.
This was the earliest piece by Rose on offer. Dating from 1939, it anticipates by a decade one of his vital, and part-antiphonal, “Praise the Lord”, written for his close friend Douglas Guest, when he was director of music at Salisbury Cathedral, where Rose had been Dean’s Chorister in the early 1930s.
Given the minimal rehearsal time available, the conductor Gregory Rose, Bernard’s son, produced remarkably acceptable and intermittently polished performances of a substantial amount of music. It was John Fuller, a close Magdalen colleague, who penned “Lines for a Magdalen Choir to sing, on the restored Tower” in 1981, leading Rose to one of his most inspired offerings, massively cheerful and zestful. (It had, after all, to be audible on Magdalen Bridge below.)
That Rose should, as almost his last work (1993), have chosen a poem by W. H. Auden might raise a smile: Auden is not someone he would generally have tolerated. But with its beautiful repetitions of the refrain “If I could tell you” almost sensually beautiful, the poem that begins “Time will say nothing but I told you so” possibly stole the thunder of all else in this inspired and uplifting celebration concert.