The second piece I want to review from the Novello Festal Voluntaries: Christmas and Epiphany album is John Cook’s Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium’. Like Thiman’s Postlude, I understand this work was written in 1956 as a ‘commission’ for this present collection.
John Cook was born in Maldon, Essex on 11 October 1918. He had an impressive musical education including being organ scholar at Christ’s College Cambridge. He studied there under Hugh Allen and Boris Ord. Cook was a conscientious objector during the Second World War but volunteered to drive ambulances during the Blitz on London. Organist appointments included the Church of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon and later at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ontario. Latterly, he obtained the post of organist and choir master at the great Anglo-Catholic Church of the Advent in Boston. During this period he taught at the University of Ontario and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. John Cook died on 12 August 1984. Most of his compositions are for the church and include many organ works and liturgical choral pieces. However there was the secular incidental music for a Broadway performance of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. His music appears to have been largely composed during the fifties and sixties.
The Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium’ is probably Cook’s best known organ work. It is a fantasy or rhapsody on the music of an ancient plainsong melody used for the eponymus16th century carol which is itself based on a Latin poem ‘Corde Natus’ by Aurelius Prudentius. ‘Divinum Mysterium’ is usually rendered (not literally) ‘Of the Father's Love Begotten’.
The Paean is written in a strophic form clearly presenting the plainsong melody throughout. There is a little cadenza-like passage which occurs between the episodes of this work. The opening presents the theme in block chords. There is then a delicious section in D flat major which balances a flute counter-melody against the ‘swell’ string tone. This entire section is indicated as a possible ‘cut’ however, to my ear it is the most attractive thing in the piece. The next section of the work us an ‘allegro brillante alla toccata’ which makes use of huge chords alternating between left and right hands. The melody is now ‘marcato’ in the pedals. Cook works the ‘cadenza’ into this massive soundscape however the work slowly moves ‘poco a poco allargando’ towards the peroration which is a résumé of the toccata, the opening theme and the cadenza in short succession. Harmonically, the Paean is largely diatonic, but makes use of a variety of interesting harmonic devices including parallel and oblique triads and added sixths. This is a considerable work, extending over ten pages of musical score.
John Cook’s ‘Paean on Divinum Mysterium’ is recorded on ‘Journey into Light’ issued by Jesus College Cambridge and their director Mark William and also on the seasonal album Rejoice and be Merry which features Paul Walton on the organ of Bristol Cathedral. However there is an excellent version of this work on the ‘Sound Cloud’ performed by ‘brenterstad’ on the organ at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston.