Blest Pair of Sirens: Great English Choral Music Program Notes

Discovering Hidden Treasures

England’s rich musical heritage reaches back well before the Renaissance and includes so many outstanding composers – yet too often choirs only concentrate on a few dozen compositions and even fewer composers, mostly from the Renaissance period. The second great age of English classical composing, during Queen Victoria’s reign an after, produced remarkable works that drew on Anglican traditions and a wealth of English poetry. This concert, eschewing the English Renaissance tradition, explores this latter trove, the nurturing connections among the composers, and the modern heirs of this legacy.

We open with “Blest Pair of Sirens,” with words by John Milton (1608-1674) and music by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), whom Charles Villiers Stanford considered the finest English composer since Purcell. Parry began studying music seriously only in his university days, instead preparing for a business career. That changed when George Grove, founder of the invaluable Dictionary of Music and Musicians, took Parry on as a contributor and then as assistant editor in 1875. Grove also recruited Parry to teach composition at London’s new Royal College of Music in 1882, with Parry succeeding Grove as director in 1894.

In the 1880s, however, Parry was still struggling to make his name as a composer as well as a scholar. His friend Stanford commissioned him to write a new piece for the Bach Choir of London to perform at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, choosing Milton’s ode, At a Solemn Musick, for the text (ironically, Milton was anti-royalist). “Blest Pair of Sirens,” scored for orchestra and chorus, immediately established Parry’s popular reputation. Today, Parry is best known for his 1916 setting of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.”

Singer and composer Bob Chilcott (b. 1955) chose a still older text for “Even Such Is Time.” A true Renaissance man—poet, soldier, explorer, and spy, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) is believed to have written this poem on the eve of his execution. This poignant piece differs from Chilcott’s other works, many of which he has composed for children’s choirs. He began composing only in 1997 after singing tenor with the King’s Singers for 12 years.

Like Parry, Welsh-born Paul Mealor (b. 1975) has combined composing with teaching. He first came to international attention in 2011 when his motet “Ubi Caritas” was performed at the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Later that year, he became the first composer ever to top Britain’s classical and pop charts simultaneously, thanks to his song “Wherever You Are.” Like Jake Runestad’s “Please Stay,” which set tweets by people touched by suicide, Mealor’s song, performed by the Military Wives Choir, featured excerpts from letters between those serving in Afghanistan and their spouses/partners at home. Mealor’s lush setting of Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” reveals his gift for making sometimes harmonically challenging works warm and accessible.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), whose father ran a music shop and tuned pianos in provincial Worcester, largely taught himself to play several instruments and to compose; he attributed much of his later success as a composer to studying Parry’s essays in the Grove Dictionary. He was eventually knighted, but Elgar always considered himself an outsider in English musical circles because of his working-class background, his Catholic faith, and his lack of formal education. His wife proved an excellent partner for an aspiring composer. At the time they married, and in defiance of her family, Alice Roberts (1848-1920) was already a well-connected, published author, able to introduce her husband to influential people and to write poetry that he set to music. They collaborated on “From the Bavarian Highlands” (1896), which recalls Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzer, both for their meter (¾ time) and intentionally folk-like lyrics. They thought of the piece as a musical souvenir of their holiday in Bavaria in 1894.

Like Elgar, Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) came from a family of modest means, but, thanks to scholarships, was able to enjoy far better educational opportunities. While at Oxford University, he met Gerald Finzi, who in turn introduced him to Ralph Vaughan Williams (coincidentally one of Parry’s former students); the latter facilitated getting Leighton’s compositions performed in London. In addition to chamber music, concertos, symphonies, and an opera, Leighton composed many choral works on religious texts, perhaps due to his early experience as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650), an Anglican priest and prolific poet, provided the penitent text for “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears.”

We close the first half with a work that may sound oddly familiar. In its original instrumental form, it has been used in DeBeers diamonds ads for over 20 years. What’s more, the composer, Sir Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), won prizes for those ads! He subsequently added sacred text to this and many more of his instrumental compositions. This versatile Welsh musician had his first successes as a jazz-rock performer in groups such as Soft Machine, which won awards for best small jazz ensemble in 1973. He began composing more serious music in the 1990s, including scores for Welsh television, masses, a requiem, and The Peacemakers (2011), with texts from the Bible and Koran, as well as individuals like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Anne Frank. Jenkins was knighted in 2015.

Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) has recently composed works that commemorate the centenary of events in World War I, including a chamber opera. She has also produced innovative choral pieces like The Shipping Forecast, which combines poetry, Psalm 107, and words from an actual shipping forecast. In addition to orchestral and chamber music, she has composed many liturgical works, including the lively, dancelike Regina Caeli. The Royal School of Church Music honored her contributions in a ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral in 2017. We will be singing another of her pieces this December.

Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) has a tangled and tragic history. Something of a prodigy, Howells studied with Parry, Stanford, and others at the Royal College of Music, where its “cosy family” atmosphere encouraged his composing; he joined the faculty there in 1920. Treatments for Graves disease prevented him from serving in World War I and kept him in London where he participated in editing several volumes of church music of the Tudor era. This experience may account for his own contributions to Anglican church music, including a hymn tune named for his son Michael.

Until recently, people believed that Howells composed his Requiem almost as therapy after 9-year-old Michael’s death from polio in 1935, but scholars have now determined that he drafted most of it as early as 1932-33. He could not bear to publish it or have it performed for many years. At some point, he reworked it into a larger work for orchestra and soloists, titled Hymnus Paradisii, arranging to have it performed for the first time at the venerable Three Choirs Festival on the anniversary of Michael’s death in 1950. Yet he allowed publication of the Requiem itself only in 1980. It combines English and Latin texts; the sections in Latin use intricate chord clusters, while the settings of the Psalms recall plainsong. Like the Brahms Requiem, Howells’ work relies heavily on Biblical texts that held special meaning for him, and both use the identical text for the last movements.

“Crossing the Bar,” with words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) and music by Howells’ mentor Parry, feels almost like a serene chorale that rounds out a Bach motet, putting death in the context of a soul moving into another kind of being. England’s Poet Laureate from 1850 till his death, Tennyson wrote this brief poem near the end of his life in 1889, instructing his son that it should always be the last poem in any collection of his work. Parry set it to music in 1903, the same year he was knighted.

We close with a very familiar English composition. Although Americans usually think of it as the graduation march, for Britons, “Land of Hope and Glory” ranks as their informal national anthem, second only to “God Save the Queen.” Elgar did not write it as any sort of anthem, but rather as part of an orchestral work, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, which premiered in London at the famous “Proms” in 1901. (England had enjoyed outdoor concerts for strolling—or promenading—listeners since the 1700s, but a series of summer concerts called The Proms began only in 1895; they have proved hugely popular, especially after the BBC began broadcasting them in 1951.) The audience loved it and even demanded an encore.

According to one story, King Edward VII attended the concert and hummed along, mentioning that the trio section might make a good song. True or not, Elgar agreed to Cambridge don A.C. Benson (1862-1925) setting a patriotic ode to his music to be used in the King’s coronation in August 1902. Since then, the song has concluded the final night of the Proms every year, with thousands of people inside and outside Royal Albert Hall joining the singing. In that spirit, we invite you all to join us in this tribute to England and her musical heritage.

— Susan Wladaver-Morgan