Of Psalm and Song
Our programme includes great works by Handel and Britten, Charles Villiers Stanford provides the thread which connects much of the music we present. Stanford brought back into performance forgotten works by Purcell and Handel, and he taught composition to Herbert Howells, Edgar Bainton and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams, in turn, was one of Britten’s teachers.
We open with The King shall rejoice, one of the anthems Handel wrote for the coronation of George II in 1727. The first performance was not a great success: indeed the archbishop wrote on his programme “The Anthem in Confusion: All irregular in the Music”, but since then it has become a great favorite.
The beautiful anthem If ye love Me, by Thomas Tallis establishes a more reflective mood, which is developed further by Herbert Howells setting of verses from Psalm 42: Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks. This is one of a set of four anthems written in 1941 in time of war. Howells jokingly referred to himself as the reincarnation of a Tudor-era church composer, but this work contributed to the development of the modern Anglican anthem tradition.
Edgar Bainton’s most famous anthem And I saw a new heaven was written some thirteen years earlier, while Bainton was Principal of the Newcastle Conservatory of Music. It is a setting of words from the Book of Revelation.
The first part of the programme ends with Britten’s cantata Rejoice in the Lamb. The words are taken from a long eighteenth-century poem written by Christopher Smart. The poet was in an asylum at the time, and the words tread a fine line between genius and madness.
The second part of the concert opens with two nineteenth-century madrigals written by Robert Pearsall, a self-taught composer who had a long association with the Bristol Madrigal Society. We then move forward in time to 1953. Silence & Music was Vaughan Williams’ contribution to A Garland for the Queen, a song-cycle written by ten British composers to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II. The words are from a poem by RVW’s second wife, Ursula, and the score is inscribed “To the memory of Charles Villiers Stanford, and his Blue Bird”.
So it is fitting that we conclude with seven part-songs by Stanford, including The Blue Bird, set to a poem by Mary Coleridge. The set includes an Easter anthem also set to words by Mary Coleridge, When Mary through the garden went. She also provided the words for The Haven and Chillingham. We start on a lighter note with three Elizabethan Pastorals.
In addition to his work as an organist and conductor, Stanford was a prolific composer. He wrote seven symphonies, seven operas and a wide variety of chamber music. On a smaller scale, he was indeed a master both of psalm and of song.