Haydn’s Harmoniemesse – Choral Workshop and Concert in Christ Church Cathedral

Haydn’s Harmoniemesse – Choral Workshop and Concert
Christ Church Cathedral
Saturday 15 October
2.00pm Workshop
8.00pm Concert

For further details and booking information please email: gordonhughes@btconnect.com

Forthcoming CD: ‘The Sun Most Radiant – Music from the Eton Choirbook Vol. 4’

We are delighted to announce that the Cathedral Choir’s recording of its fourth CD of music from the Eton Choirbook, entitled The Sun Most Radiant, will be released on the Avie label on 9 September. In conjunction with its release, an article by Stephen Darlington on this repertoire has been published in the Trinity Term edition of Christ Church Matters. An extended version of this article can be found below.

The three previous volumes in this series, which have all been nominated for a Gramophone Award in the Early Music category, are as follows:
More Divine Than Human – Music from the Eton Choirbook
Choirs of Angels – Music from the Eton Choirbook Vol. 2
Courts of Heaven – Music from the Eton Choirbook Vol. 3

Stephen Darlington writes:

There are those who might wonder about the appeal of this liturgical music dating from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. I hope that this article will give you some small insight into the reasons for my enthusiasm and its suitability for a choir such as ours.

The Eton Choirbook is a remarkable music manuscript and represents a compilation of about ninety sacred works, all on texts in honour of the Virgin Mary. Of these, forty-three are complete, and twenty-one remain as fragments, in some cases susceptible to reconstruction. The copying began around 1500 and had been completed four years later, a remarkable achievement. The object of the collection was to provide a repertory of liturgical works to be sung in Eton College Chapel, primarily during the afternoon office of Vespers and the evening Salve ceremony. From its foundation in the early 1440s, there were clerks (skilful at singing to various degrees) and boy choristers. In fact, by the middle of the century, there were sixteen boy choristers in the foundation, exactly the same number as we have here at Christ Church. The complexity of the works preserved in the Eton Choirbook clearly demonstrates that these singers were virtuoso performers, particularly so during the fifteen-year tenure of Robert Wylkynson, who was the instructor of choristers from 1500 to 1515.

Three composers are represented in this latest volume of Eton Choirbook recordings. Of these, by far the most significant was John Browne, who was clearly one of the most respected composers of his own time. Little is known about him except that he was originally from Coventry, and was elected King’s Scholar at Eton College in July 1467 at the age of thirteen. I have chosen to include three of the fifteen works of his which appear in the Eton Choirbook. The first Salve regina setting on the CD is scored in five parts: treble, alto, two tenors, and bass. In common with many Eton Choirbook pieces, the full choir texture alternates with passages for smaller solo groups and juxtaposes two lengthy sections, one in triple time (known as ‘perfect time’) and the other in duple time (known as ‘imperfect time’). In the case of this piece, each of these sections involves a complete statement of a cantus firmus, the duration of each being exactly the same. This cantus firmus (the plainsong melody which underpins the whole piece) is Maria, ergo unxit pedes which was an antiphon used on Maundy Thursday during the ceremony of foot-washing. The second setting of the same text employs a scoring of five parts but this time three tenor parts and two bass parts. The principle of the structure is the same as the SATTB setting, but based on a different cantus firmus, Veni dilectus mei. The text comes from a Psalm antiphon set for Matins on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is used elsewhere by Browne, in his O Maria salvatoris mater. It is interesting to compare these two settings of the same text, the former richly scored and in places remarkably modern in terms of its harmony, the latter more austere and restrained, but brilliant in its manipulation of the more restricted vocal ranges.

A superficial glance at the structure and musical language of the Eton Choirbook compositions might lead one to suppose that they are all written in a generic style with little room for individual approaches. However, the reality is very different. Each of these composers has a distinctive voice. After all, when considering eighteenth-century symphonies and their exploitation of sonata form structure it is readily recognised that the style of Mozart is very different from that of Haydn. So, William Horwood’s setting of the text Gaude flore virginali reveals a composer with different priorities from John Browne. For example, there are passages of considerable rhythmical complexity, particularly in the final section where the text is ‘that these joys seven shall neither minish, nor also cease, but still continue and ever increase while the Father is in Heaven’. At other points, he is less harmonically adventurous than Browne with a weaker instinct for sonority. William Horwood had a rather different background from John Browne, having been Informator Choristarum at Lincoln Cathedral following a period as Master of the London Guild of Parish Clerks. His style certainly represents an earlier generation than that of John Browne. Horwood was one of many composers whose settings of the Magnificat are included in the manuscript. Amongst these is a setting for four voices by William Stratford, scored for two tenors and two basses. As was standard practice, polyphonic verses alternate with plainsong and the composer is skilful in varying texture, sometimes in two parts, sometimes in three, as well as the full four voices. Some of this music is rhythmically intricate and there is a delightful energy in the close imitation between all of the parts. This is a freely composed setting and is this composer’s only contribution to the Eton Choirbook. His real title was ‘William, monk of Stratford’. It is thought that he was from the Cistercian Abbey of Stratforde Langthorne, and he certainly represents the significant minority of composers who were associated with monastic communities, such as Canterbury College, Oxford.

That these Eton compositions should be so appealing to our present choir is not a surprise. After all we function in much the same way as the Eton College Chapel Choir would have functioned at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The choir is involved in the daily singing of the offices in the Cathedral and the regularity of this commitment and the skill required is not dissimilar to that of previous generations. It seems clear that the original Eton Choirbook, a copy of which can be viewed in Eton College Library, was used by the singers as an aide-mémoire. It is large enough to be seen by a group of singers, with the young boys closest to the lectern and the adults behind. But it is also clear from sources that much of the music was memorized and rehearsed in advance, exactly as we do these days. The challenge for us is to revive not only the text but also the spirit of this music which is so glorious in its variety and complexity. The project has been inspiring to all those who have been involved. When searching for a title for this latest release, a particular phrase from Horwood’s Gaude flore virginali stood out: ‘the sun most radiant’. I hope it is not too fanciful to suppose that the Cathedral Choir’s performances of this repertory are shedding light on a hitherto neglected repertoire, and also bringing it to life through the use of a choir so similar to that of the 1500s.

Day 14: Last day in Toronto

So we arrived at the last full day of the tour with everyone still happy and in one piece – as one of our hosts said, if no-one’s died then you’re doing well.

Last night’s snow had completely cleared by the time the choristers headed for Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. The aquarium nestles under the CN tower which, thanks to the thick mist, looked like a mere stalk (we’re assured the top bit is still up there). The boys adored the aquarium, particularly the tunnel where sharks seem to swim right over your shoulder under the Dangerous Lagoon. Lunch was had at a pizza restaurant around the corner where the boys enjoyed their last feast of North American proportions. Some of the senior boys sang to the staff, and – by now on a roll – performed ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Yesterday’ to a delighted but baffled audience on the subway afterwards. As you can see from one of the pictures above the boys were sustained on their journey to the airport by light snacks provided by their generous hosts. We were slightly alarmed at check-in when one of the sharks from Ripley’s seemed to have stashed away in one of the choristers’ bags. Dr D got a light mauling, but he’s doing fine now.

Time until boarding: 40 minutes!

Day 13: Concert in Toronto

The choristers began their concert day with a trip uptown to the Ontario Science Centre. This afforded the chance to test their wits against six floors of interactive exhibits, although they were very sad to find that the shop had closed. Better than any shop was the small pile of frozen snow found outside when we exited, which immediately lured the boys in to throw, kick and sculpt. There wasn’t much of it left by the time they finished but there was time for a few selfies before it disappeared.

We battled the Sunday dim sum crowd and managed to secure tables at a nearby Chinese restaurant for lunch. Wave after wave of enticing food appeared (there were even vegetables), which was just the right thing to energise the choristers before the final rehearsal of the tour at 3pm. As with Davidson we have visited Grace Church before (2011 and 2014) and have good musical friends here. It was a delight to be joined for part of the programme by the excellent church choirs, who sounded in very fine voice when we heard them rehearsing this morning. It was a bittersweet experience to share supper with them… we have enjoyed many delicious meals as church guests over the past two weeks, and this will be our last.

There was just time for some basketball in the gym under the church (why isn’t there one of these under the cathedral at home?) before the choir’s final performance. This went down a storm to a packed church, who were even kind enough to cheer as the choir came on for the second half – what a great welcome we have had here! We are delighted that the choirs at Grace are coming to sing at Christ Church in August, and look forward to welcoming them to Oxford. Huge thanks go to Rob, Stephen and the hosts for making the final leg of the tour work so well for us.

As we all departed snow was falling thickly. If this continues through the night we may end up with drifts so deep that not even a chorister can kick through them. It could be an interesting final day!

Day 11: Concert in St Paul

We’re becoming rather blasé about the depredations of the weather, so when we found a blizzard blowing this morning it put no dampener on plans to set off for the Mall of America. It’s the largest mall in the US, with a theme park, an aquarium, cinemas, shops and restaurants spread over 5.6 million square feet. The choristers’ financial reserves are dwindling, but they hunted dollar bills from crevices in their bags and fanned out in search of bargains. When the bus collected us at 2.30pm it became apparent that most purchases followed a theme, as the radiant boys exhorted each other to write with electric shock pens, wound invisible wire around ankles and brandished electrically-charged chewing gum. Essentially the choristers are well on their way to becoming Bond villains, and I recommend that anyone coming into contact with them should stay at a safe distance.

Some of the loveliest occasions on a tour like this are the moments when we get to meet other musicians. The choristers arrived at Hamline Church this afternoon for a rendez-vous with members of the North Star Boys’ Choir, a delightful group known for its roots in European vocal traditions. The choirs sang to each other and had time to chat, although there was nearly a diplomatic incident when one of the Christ Church boys asked for an autograph and proffered an electric shock pen…

After rehearsals (and the presentation of some rather eccentric gifts to Dr Darlington) we sat down to a seemingly endless spread of delicious food kindly provided by our hosts, which provided the necessary energy for the evening’s concert. Fuelled by a dozen kinds of cookie the choir was in terrific voice – and particularly glad of Hamline’s generous acoustic, since the concert is to be broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio. Very many thanks go to John and Joanne Wahlstrom, Matt Mehaffey, Mark Johnson, the Minnesota Boychoir and the whole community here at Hamline for looking after us, for making us feel so personally welcomed and for ensuring everything has gone so smoothly. We’ve had a lot of fun in the Twin Cities and can’t believe it’s nearly time to go!

Day 8: Even more Chicago…

Howdy partners. Today was another, and our final, day in Chicago. For reasons which are still somewhat unclear, the concert that was scheduled for this evening was cancelled last week, leaving us with a day free in our itinerary here in Chicago. This was no bad thing, as it means we’ll have chance for some great vocal rest over the next few days before the next concert, and also it has given us chance really to get to know this beautiful city well – something that isn’t always the case on tours such as this.

Much like yesterday, the men got the train in from La Grange into Chicago Union Station this morning. From there we split off into smaller groups to go and see the parts of the city we hadn’t covered yesterday. My group decided to go up to the top of Willis Tower (formally Sears Tower) – a building that was for a while the tallest structure in the world. It’s now been overtaken by a good few buildings both in America and abroad, but take it from me: it’s jolly tall. The views from the top are spectacular in every direction, but one was certainly reminded, looking northward, that ‘upon the north side lieth the city of the great King’ [Psalm 48: 2], and here is that view:

image

After the Willis Tower and some pizza-based lunch, some of us headed to the Art Insitute to view the beautiful collection there – some Renaissance works, some modern art, and a particularly beautiful impressionist section. This was a calming and enlightening way to spend the afternoon before dinner. Now for dinner, we parted ways; the church which had to cancel our concert offered us dinner anyway, and most of the men went southwards to take this dinner. A few of us, though, went instead to the Fourth Presbyterian Chuch to see a concert by The Tallis Scholars. They performed a concert of 16th and 17th century sacred music, focusing on the ‘Western Wind Mass’ by John Taverner (the original director of music at Christ Church!). They sang beautifully, and it was a pleasure for some of us to catch up with the singers over a pint or two after the concert, and it was particularly pleasing given how many of them (4 out of 10) had at one point sung with Christ Church Cathedral Choir! Here we are:

image Christ church old and new

For those who weren’t at the concert, the evening yielded a genuine Chicago blues bar, or otherwise socialising with our lovely hosts from Emmanuel Church. We’ve so enjoyed our time here in Chicago, and tomorrow we’ll be sad to leave, and sad to embark on another long coach journey. But we’re now on to the final two stops of tour and beginning to be excited about getting home for a few days off before the new term!

VACANCY FOR BASS LAY CLERK

A vacancy has arisen for a Bass Lay Clerk at Christ Church Cathedral, from 1 September 2016.

This will involve the daily sung liturgy at the Cathedral, as well as concerts and tours. Suitable voice, at least three years’ choral experience, and advanced sight-reading skills are required. Education to post-graduate level is preferred. Accommodation is available.

For full details regarding salary and duties please email Ms Florence Maskell, PA to Dr Stephen Darlington (florence.maskell@chch.ox.ac.uk).

Provisional interview date: Thursday 21 April.

Closing date for applications: 12 noon on Thursday 14 April.

Day 3: Concert at Virginia Theological Seminary

Here are some photos from the choir’s first concert day. The choristers rehearsed a little in the morning, then romped about on the lawns improvising some very English cricket in the sun. The afternoon was spent in a full choir rehearsal, before the evening’s concert in front of a packed audience in the chapel. (We were particularly grateful for an introduction which clarified that the choir hails from England, not Oxford, Mississippi!)

We will very much miss our kind hosts, the delicious food and the lovely setting at VTS when we leave in the morning.

Day 2: Washington and Alexandria

The choristers, fully committed to American-style breakfasts, began the day much as they ended yesterday: putting away piles of crispy bacon stacked on fluffy pancakes. After a short coach-ride we spent the morning at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where the devices and gadgets on offer in the shop were so popular that the boys were soon staggering under the weight of bags full of meteorites,games and lasers.

We stopped for lunch at a well-known burger outlet in the museum, where the boys were impressed to find that ordering a cheeseburger meal gets you not one but TWO cheeseburgers – clearly one wouldn’t be enough to sustain a chorister. We took advantage of the glorious weather to walk down the National Mall, taking in the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the cherry blossom and everything in between (including some ice cream).

Refreshed by all this sunshine we headed back to Alexandria to get down to the serious business of why we’re really here: the first rehearsal in the seminary chapel, and a chance to test the acoustics and balance before tomorrow’s concert. Dr Darlington whisked the choir through Rossini, Grieg, Handel and Tallis, but it was very soon time for supper. There is a scurrilous rumour that the choristers consumed courgette, squash, aubergine and lettuce at this meal, and no bacon at all. They’ll have to make up for the omission at breakfast tomorrow.

VACANCY FOR COUNTERTENOR LAY CLERK

A vacancy has arisen for a Countertenor Lay Clerk at Christ Church Cathedral, from 1 September 2016.

This will involve the daily sung liturgy at the Cathedral, as well as concerts and tours. Suitable voice, at least three years’ choral experience, and advanced sight-reading skills are required. Education to post-graduate level is preferred. Accommodation is available.

For full details regarding salary and duties please email Dr Stephen Darlington (stephen.darlington@chch.ox.ac.uk).

Provisional interview date: Thursday 17 March.

Closing date for applications: 12 noon on Wednesday 9 March.