Programme Notes – When Rooks Fly Homeward

The programme’s title comes from the opening piece ‘When Rooks Fly Homeward’. This is a beautifully crafted setting of words by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell (1879-1944) – the second poem in a collection titled ‘The Mountainy Singer’ (Dublin, 1909). Its composer, Arthur Baynon (1889-1954), was briefly organist at St. Michael’s College, Tenbury, in Worcestershire. The school was founded in 1856 by Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, a musician and Anglican priest, specifically to educate boys in the traditions of Anglican church music. ( Sadly, the school had to close in 1985 because of financial difficulties, although its buildings still accommodate an international boarding school. For the last thirty years of his life, Baynon was in charge of the music at Caterham School in Surrey. He composed a number of short choral works as well as songs. Typical of his musical pedigree (Oxford, the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Music), his music is characterised by economy of musical material and consummate craftsmanship.

The Tudor period was the ‘golden age’ of English music. It was also a time of upheaval in the life of the Church in England, of the ordinary people who attended services, and of the musicians who composed music for the collegiate chapels and the cathedrals. The Henrican separation from Rome took place in 1534, and between 1536 and 154o the Dissolution of the Monasteries occurred. At the same time, although Henry VIII adhered to Catholic faith and practice, the Reformation was gathering pace and with it the advent of services in English rather than Latin. William Mundy (c.1530-1591) was associated with several London churches and the Chapel Royal. ‘O Lord, the Maker of All Thing’ is a setting of a Compline prayer from the ‘King’s Primer’ (1545), a precursor of the Book of Common Prayer which appeared in 1549, early in the reign of Edward VI. A more Protestant version of the Prayer Book was introduced in 1552. However, adjustment from Latin to English forms of service was short-lived as Edward’s death in 1553 led to the accession of Mary Tudor, King Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, and the return of Roman Catholicism and the Latin rite. ‘Christe, qui Lux es et Dies’ by Robert White (c.1538-1574) dates from the reign of Mary. White was a Cambridge Mus.B. who became organist at Ely Cathedral, Chester Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey. Thomas Morley regarded him as one of the greatest English composers. ‘Christe, qui Lux es et Dies’ is one of four settings he wrote of a Lenten Compline hymn. Verses 1, 3, 5, and the Doxology are sung to the plainsong melody while verses 2, 4, and 6 are elaborately set for five voices, with the tenor holding the original melody in long notes (as a cantus firmus, or ‘fixed song’ that is the foundation of the musical structure).

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) was associated with the Chapel Royal, Dover Priory, Waltham Abbey, and Canterbury Cathedral. He was one of William Byrd’s mentors and, in the hurly-burly of the Reformation managed to be a musical chameleon, switching styles to suit the prevailing ecclesiastical climate. ‘O Nata Lux’ is a five-part setting of a hymn from the early morning Office of Lauds (which, confusingly, took place during the night but anticipated the new day).

The overt antagonisms, both political and ecclesiastical, came to a temporary halt with the so-called ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ marked by the Act of Uniformity of 1559. However, they resurfaced in the 17th century culminating in the Civil War between the King (Charles I) and Parliament (under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell). The King’s execution on January 30, 1649 marked the beginning of the Cromwellian ‘Commonwealth’ (England’s only, and unsuccessful, experiment with republicanism) – a dark time for the Church and its music. However, then came the Restoration in 1660 and the coronation of Charles II the following year. Charles had spent time in exile at the French court, where the composer Lully reigned supreme, and was determined that the English court should emulate that of France. Prominent among the musicians who now had opportunity to flourish was Henry Purcell (1659-1695), whose music exhibits that fashionable French courtliness – even when composed for the Church.

‘An Evening Hymn’ was published in 1714 by Henry Playford as part of a collection of Purcell’s works titled ‘Harmonia Sacra’. The vocal line unfolds over a repeated bass melody (ground bass) and concludes with a dance-like ‘Hallelujah.’ The poem, composed in 1688, is from the pen of William Fuller (1608-1675), Bishop of Lincoln. In his dedication to Queen Anne (1665-1714), Playford writes: ‘Your Majesty was pleased to give Mr. Purcell Your Royal Approbation when Living, and it is Humbly hop’d the Memory of him will not be unpleasing to You now that He is Dead.’ This is a testimony to the high esteem in which Purcell was held during his short life and close to twenty years after his death. Playford’s title page indicates that the ‘Divine Hymns and Dialogues’ are to be accompanied by a ‘Through-Bass for the Theorbo-Lute, Bass-viol, Harpsichord, or organ.

Of roughly the same period, ‘Mit Fried und Freud’ by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is a complex setting of Luther’s version of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ (Luke 2.29-32) that dates from 1671. Buxtehude sets the four verses of the text using Luther’s Chorale melody: verse 1 for soprano, verse 2 for bass, verse 3 for soprano, and verse 4 for bass. 3-part string writing accompanies the voice in each verse. Verse 1 is titled ‘Contrapunctus I’; verse 2 ‘Evolutio’; verse 3 ‘Contrapunctus II’; and verse 4 ‘Evolutio’ again. Suppose that the material sung and played by the four voices, from highest to lowest, in Verse 1 are labelled A, B, C, and D. In Verse 2 they are transposed so that reading from top to bottom they become D, C, B, A – a complete inversion of the texture. Moving from Verse 3 to Verse 4 a similar inversion of texture takes place with, at the same time, an inversion of the melodic material in each individual voice. The technical term for this is ‘Invertible Counterpoint.’ It is little wonder that the young Bach travelled miles on foot to visit Buxtehude and to sit at the feet of the master, for this kind of mirror structure is precisely what we see in, for example, some of the pieces in Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue.’ However, this is far more than mere structural tricks; the ‘mirror’ aspect of the music has deep spiritual and psychological significance. The mirror image in the music connotes a mirror image of life – the life of the soul after death.

The ‘Nunc Dimittis’ is the Song of Simeon  when the aged priest Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms when Mary and Joseph go to the Temple to present the child to God. Simeon has received insight from the Holy Spirit that he will not see death before he has seen the Messiah. He recognises Jesus as the Messiah and then gives voice to this song, which is one of profound hope and peace as he looks to the life beyond. Here is the text as found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Buxtehude added ‘Klaglied’ (lament) in 1674 for his father’s funeral.

The late Victorian and early Edwardian period saw a musical renaissance in England in which Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) played a significant part. As Professor of Music at Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, he had a huge influence on his pupils who included Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Howells. For years, his music was underrated, but his symphonic work is equal to that of Brahms, and his settings of the Anglican services are wonderfully sympathetic to the texts. The ‘Nunc Dimittis’ from the Evening Service in G major, set for bass solo, four-part choir and organ, wonderfully illustrates the calm sense of hope in the text. His setting of the ‘Gloria’ (‘Glory be to the Father, etc.’) is a model of musical serenity.

‘All in the April Evening’ is a setting of a poem (‘Sheep and Lambs’) by the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan (1859-1931). Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats were among her friends.  The sight of sheep and lambs on a country road would have been normal for Tynan who grew up in a large farming family a few miles west of Dublin. Hugh Roberton (1874-1952) was a Scottish composer and conductor who founded the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music of this kind, as with a lot of music from its time, has suffered from performances that can only be described in popular argot as  ‘over the top’ in terms of dramatic rallentandi, exaggerated firmatas, and a sort of declamatory approach that has little to do with the words. The music then becomes its own pastiche. It is sad because this belies the intrinsic value of the music and its integrity. Far better to do simply and straightforwardly what the composer indicated, to try to understand the subtle implications of expression markings, and otherwise to get out of the music’s way.

Mozart (1756-1791) is not, like Schubert, famous as a songwriter. However, apart from numerous arias and canons, he composed 29 solo songs. ‘Abendempfindung’ is the longest of them and its quality anticipates Schubert. It is a reflection on evening as an image of the end of life.

Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) is best known for his brilliant collaboration with W.S. Gilbert in the Savoy Operas. However, there is more to him than that, as his symphonic works show. Economy of means is a hallmark of the composer’s art, as this elegant setting of ‘The Long Day Closes’ shows. The poem was written by Henry Chorley (1808-1872), a friend of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and of Arthur Sullivan himself.

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) was a highly regarded poet in his lifetime in both his native England and the United States. Through his association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt he was drawn into the circle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Perhaps Elgar’s setting of ‘Evening Scene’ might encourage us to explore this poet’s work. Earlier, in the note on ‘All in the April Evening,’ I referred to ‘the subtle implications of expression markings.’ A case in point (among many) arises in this piece by Elgar where the composer adds the notation ‘cantabile.’ This Italian term means ‘in a singing style’ but the music already is being sung! In a piano piece, one would instantly understand that cantabile indicates that the melody is to be played with as beautiful and legato a ‘singing’ tone as possible, in defiance, really, of the piano’s percussive nature. But what does it mean when something is already being sung? What did Elgar mean? I should think that he intended the vocal line not only to be as smooth as possible, albeit with clear consonants, but to be delivered in a manner that seems somehow undisturbed and calm. At least, that is what we are aiming for in this instance!

Eric Whitacre (b.1970) has emerged as one of the leading choral composers of his generation. ‘The Seal Lullaby’ is a tender setting of an equally tender poem from ‘The Jungle Book’ by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) might be described as an ‘organist’s composer’ since he wrote 20 brilliant sonatas for the instrument plus numerous other pieces, including ‘Abendfriede.’. However, during a lifetime as a church musician in Munich he also composed a large amount of choral music. ‘Abendlied’ is a richly layered setting of the prayer of Jesus’s disciples at Emmaus on the day of resurrection: ‘Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’