John SANDERS (1933–2003) The Firmament (2000)
Paul SPICER (b.1952) Let not your heart be troubled (2011)
Sir Henry WALFORD DAVIES (1869–1941) Short Requiem in D major 
I will nail my colours to the mast. I am a ‘card carrying’ member of the Prayer Book Society. However, like most members, I am not a Cranmer Bigot. There is an important place for liturgical revision and modern versions of the bible and services. On the other hand, so many of the recent liturgical changes have been unfortunate. Since 1662 the Book of Common Prayer has been authorised for use and fortunately we still have it. It has been revised a number of times over the centuries, but typically has not had the language dumbed-down. The last major update of the traditional language book was the ill-fated 1928 revision which was voted down in Parliament.
Since 1960 we have had Series 1, Series 2, Series 3, Alternative Service Book (1980) and finally Common Worship (2000). It has been an exponential progression of sidelining Cranmer’s language and substituting ‘contemporary’ words. To be fair, Common Worship does contain a good selection of ‘traditional texts.’ However this is not the full picture: parish churches and dioceses have set up their ‘liturgical groups’ and have introduced ‘local uses’ on an almost church by church basis. There is an ever-present danger of this turning into anarchy. Liturgical Groups seem to take the view that if only we get rid of the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s,’ make the language inclusive and remove any word that is not in the vocabulary of a nine year old primary school scholar, then the people will flock into the pews. This has not happened. They have managed to throw the numinous content out alongside the beauty of the language and sometimes the meaning and theology of the text.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of churches and cathedrals that recognise the importance of superlative speech in their services and make regular use of 1662 –even if only at the early morning Communion Service or Choral Evensong. 2012 saw the 350th Anniversary of the publication of Cranmer’s masterpiece. The present CD is a celebration of the majesty and beauty of that book. It presents four works that have been inspired by a response Cranmer’s ‘incomparable language’.
Most Anglican churchgoers will be familiar with the ubiquitous ‘Merbecke’ and will be able to ‘join in’ with the progress of the musical part of the liturgy. Some unison settings for Series 3, ASB and Common Worship are also perfectly singeable by choir and congregation. However, the worshippers typically do not ‘join in’ when the choir are singing a ‘sung setting’. I think of some well-know works like Stanford in B flat or one of Howells Canticles. These are complex works that require practice and perseverance to present the music effectively.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Service in D minor ‘Christ’s Hospital’ was composed in 1938 and was specifically written for Dr. C.S. Lang and his singers at ‘Christ’s Hospital.’ Michael Kennedy in his catalogue has quoted a note on the score by the composer: it bears repeating:- ‘This service is designed for college chapels and other churches where there is, besides the choir, a large body of voices who also wish to share in the musical settings of the service. The part allotted to these voices is entirely in unison or octaves. The part for the choir is, it is hoped, reasonably simple...’ it is therefore a halfway house between a simple setting and one for choir only.
This note really defines the mood of the music. Paul Spicer has written that this Service ‘[is] strong-boned, masculine, no-nonsense music.’ I guess that there is a danger that the singing of such a setting may become a little raucous or over enthusiastic: however the recording here is well-stated. The music is often subtle and is always restrained, even when exhibiting power and majesty.
R.V.W. in D minor has some stunningly beautiful moments that are a million miles away from a chapel full of lustily singing schoolboys. It is a satisfying work that amply fulfils its purpose; however, I doubt that this setting will be used on any kind of regular basis in ‘churches and place where they sing.’
John Sanders’ ‘The Firmament’ is inspiring. The text is collated from the Book of Common Prayer and part of Joseph Addison’s (1672-1719) Ode ‘The spacious firmament on high’. The anthem is set for treble soloist, choir and organ. It was commissioned by Coutts Bank for the organist Marcus Huxley and the Choir of Birmingham Cathedral to celebrate the Millennium. The setting is quite ‘modern’ in its sound and concept. The organ acts more as a commentary on the proceedings rather than as an accompaniment. The opening line ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, acts as a connection between the liturgical and the poetic texts. There is a beautiful treble solo at the words ‘The Lord himself is thy Keeper.’ ‘The Firmament’ is a well-crafted work that successfully balances two strands of achievement in the English language –poetry and liturgy.
The anthem ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ by Paul Spicer is a welcome addition to the choral repertoire. This piece was composed as recently as 2011, yet is timeless in its use of choir and organ. The anthem was commissioned by John Gilbert Harvey as a memorial to his parents. The text is taken from the King James Bible rather than the BCP. It is a lovely, reflective work that is both heart-easing and inspiring.
Sir Henry Walford Davis suffers from being known for three or four works – the well-known ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ tune, the Solemn Melody heard at the Cenotaph, the RAF March Past and the anthem ‘God be in my Head.’ However his achievement is much wider. There are two symphonies, the second of which is to be performed at this year’s English Music Festival. There is the major oratorio Everyman, a number of short orchestral works including the evocative ‘Big Ben Looks On’, the ‘Holiday Tunes’ Suite and the piano ‘concerto’ Conversations. Also included in his catalogue are many chamber works, an operetta, The Pied Piper of Hamelin and dozens of songs and part-songs. Church music is an important part of his opus. There are many services, anthems, hymn-tunes and carols. He is a composer awaiting rediscovery.
The Short Requiem was composed in 1915 ‘in sacred memory of those who have fallen in the war.’ Alas, there were to be many more casualties before Armistice Day. The text is a confection of words that includes Latin, extracts from the Book of Common Prayer, a hymn written by the composer and some words by John Lydgate (c.1370-1451). It is an appropriate selection that is both effective and moving. The musical content of the Requiem is relatively straightforward and does not challenge the technical abilities of the choir yet the singing here is perfect. The overall effect is one of devotion and meditation. There is nothing untoward about this music: it is the perfect accompaniment to the ‘Service for the Dead’.
The singing in all these works is superb and the organist makes a major contribution to the success of this CD. With the exception of John Sanders’ anthem all these works are new to me and I guess will be to most potential listeners. Paul Spicer’s liner notes are first-rate and make essential reading.
I recommend this CD to all enthusiasts of the English Cathedral/Parish Church musical tradition. It is especially good to have Vaughan Williams’ rarely heard service available in its entirety on disc.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.