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Britannia Rules!


Ralph Vaughan Williams ca 1900

The Spectrum Singers, a group of 40 voices expertly directed by John Ehrlich ever since its founding 27 years ago, continues to uphold its reputation for high quality and interesting programming. Yesterday’s as “Britannia Rules!” at the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, paid homage to a tradition of outstanding church music in England, where choral groups and oratorio societies form a major resource for communities large and small. Last night’s featured composers were all Anglicans, but the Catholic tradition, from Dunstable to Tallis, surely echoed in the background as well.

Rejoice in the Lord alway by Henry Purcell, the “Restoration genius” as Bukofzer called him, must be a favorite of every Episcopal choir; I remember singing it at Christ Church down the street as a boy soprano, and again two years ago as a shaky bass in Eastport, Maine. Most churches use this anthem in an etiolated and abbreviated version, with the spiciest dissonances weeded out. What we heard last night was the fullest version, with regular repetition of verses, and instrumental ritornelli for string quintet and portative organ in between, the whole preceded by a mini-sinfonia with an ostinato bass of a descending C major scale. The principal verse, for SATB soli, is regularly answered by the full choir, returning three times; the intervening couplets include a meter change from 3/4 to 4/4 to account for “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” The well-balanced soli were Ashley Caval, alto; Ian Fox and Keith Ohmart, tenors; and David E. Meharry, bass. In the final tutti, I clearly heard the Bflat against B, characteristically British since the Tudor period, and typically Purcellian.

Few remember Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow (1874-1946), choirmaster at York Minster (one of his predecessors was Joseph Barnby), but I was delighted to hear, for the first time since 1951, another gem from my choirboy days: The King of Love my Shepherd is, Bairstow’s delicious setting of the Irish tune St. Columba, with text from Henry W. Baker’s metric version of Psalm 23.  This included a canonic second verse, a soprano descant in the fifth verse, and a low-register minor-mode third verse (I would advise James Barkovic, the organist, to omit the 4-foot diapason here, because “death’s dark vale” shouldn’t be quite so bright). A melody suggestive of a shepherd’s pipe begins and ends the piece.

The main event before the intermission, the Mass in G Minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams for double SATB chorus unaccompanied, with soli, has the aspect of a missa brevis, covering the entire text of the Latin Ordinary essentially without repetition, in about 25 minutes. The opening Kyrie, with the Christe sung by the soli, involves the most extensively imitative music in the whole Mass, which in the other movements is mostly thoroughly homophonic and even chordal in “familiar style,” with the text easy to hear clearly. Vaughan Williams’s harmonic idiom in this work is mostly triadic and modal — he has a fondness for the Mixolydian mode, which pushes F major up against the G minor — with very little chromatic inflection, and this too adds to the clarity of sound.  The succession of B-flat–C–d–F–G at the end of the Agnus Dei was particularly touching. What the Mass lacks in rhythmic counterpoint is compensated by the abundance of soli-tutti dialogue and double-choir pairing. The featured soloists were excellent: Laura Serafino, soprano; Pamela Dellal, alto; Thomas A. Best, tenor (the section leader of the Spectrum Singers for 29 years); and Mark Andrew Cleveland, bass. This Mass, premiered in 1922, was dedicated to Vaughan Williams’s close friend, Gustav Holst, and was widely performed in England both in concert form and liturgically.  I was interested to discover (from the new New Grove) that Vaughan Williams had composed another double-chorus Mass as early as 1897, with orchestra accompaniment, but it remains unpublished.

Another serving of Purcell’s masterly expressiveness led off the second half: funeral anthems with brass interludes, organized by C minor. The texts, from the graveside ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer, were sung by the vocal quartet with each final couplet repeated by the full choir. “In the midst of life we are in death” was sung with organ; its final line, “the bitter pains of eternal death,” included an ascending chromatic melody that Purcell made sure was painful enough to hear, but perfectly in tune.  The last verse, “Suffer us not at our last hour / for any pains of death to fall away from Thee,” featured a descending melodic seventh on “fall,” with clashing suspensions at the end. The brass interludes were stately, but the timpani, played with hard sticks, reminded listeners that these instruments herald a dead march — solemn, ceremonial, but never creepy.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934), short-lived compared to his friend Vaughan Williams, has a comparable reputation for the quality of his church music, including favorite hymns (“In the bleak midwinter,” “Personent hodie”).  (Does anyone remember that he lectured at Harvard in 1932? I found his signature in a register.) His anthem “Eternal Father, who didst all create,” a setting of a sonnet by Robert Bridges, is bright and triumphant, with a sparkling organ intro, the first quatrain in choral unison, the second in unaccompanied harmony, the third with soprano solo, and a concluding choral “Alleluia” in a four-note treble ostinato with a different ostinato in the organ pedals.

The concert concluded with two brief settings of “Let all mortal flesh keep silence,” from the Cherubic Hymn of St. James (Eastern Orthodox) in different recensions. Sir Edward Bairstow’s, with an abbreviated text, alternated unison settings with full harmony, and concluded with a fortissimo Alleluia. The longer setting in four verses, by Holst, makes use of the familiar French folksong found in hymnals as Picardy.  The soprano solo was followed by tenor solo, then with the third verse for full choir, unaccompanied until the organ enters in the last line; the fourth verse, with Alleluias, was in full harmony. fortissimo. Both of these settings deserve wider circulation by church choirs, because they are of good effect and not difficult.

The church surroundings and the organ, but above all the excellent performance by the Spectrum Singers, reminded us how much the Protestant British tradition has added to the art of sacred music in our lives: one can easily compare it to the Lutheran tradition in Germany. John Ehrlich led with complete confidence and control, but he can also be congratulated for the choosing music that deserves to be more familiar. Another “Britannia!” helping would be welcome.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. As a Spectrum singer, I very much appreciated the fulsome, fascinating musicological details, with historical references. Sometimes one’s appreciation of a work one has sung becomes even greater when background material such as Mr. De Voto’s is made apparent after the performance. I do wish to comment that the Bairstow “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” most definitely does not end with ‘a fortissimo Alleluia’, but with a dark, minatory reminder in low F sharp minor.
    “And again” many thanks for the instructive and pleasurable review!

    Comment by Laurence Krenis — March 20, 2017 at 10:58 am

  2. For the record, The Spectrum Singers’ first concert was given in 1980, making the organization 37 years in existence, not 27 as the above generous review has it.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — March 22, 2017 at 10:33 am

  3. I’m grateful for these corrections. I was never very good at subtraction! As for my incorrect report on the Bairstow Alleluia, that was due to a misreading of my own notes; but I’m glad that my notes correctly remembered the F sharp minor because my absolute pitch, which used to be very accurate, fails me more often in my advancing years.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 22, 2017 at 4:00 pm

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