I will nail my colours to the mast. I am a ‘card carrying’ member
of the Prayer Book Society. However, like most members, I am not a
Cranmer Bigot. There is an important place for liturgical revision
and modern versions of the bible and services. On the other hand,
so many of the recent liturgical changes have been unfortunate. Since
1662 the Book of Common Prayer has been authorised for use and fortunately
we still have it. It has been revised a number of times over the centuries,
but typically has not had the language dumbed-down. The last major
update of the traditional language book was the ill-fated 1928 revision
which was voted down in Parliament.
Since 1960 we have had Series 1, Series 2, Series 3, Alternative Service
Book (1980) and finally Common Worship (2000). It has been
an exponential progression of sidelining Cranmer’s language and substituting
‘contemporary’ words. To be fair, Common Worship does also
contain a good selection of ‘traditional texts’. However this is not
the full picture: parish churches and dioceses have set up their ‘liturgical
groups’ and have introduced ‘local uses’ on an almost church by church
basis. There is an ever-present danger of this turning into anarchy.
Liturgical groups seem to take the view that if only we get rid of
the ‘thees and ‘thous’, make the language inclusive and remove any
word that is not in the vocabulary of a nine year old primary school
scholar, then the people will flock into the pews. This has not happened.
They have managed to throw the numinous content out alongside the
beauty of the language and sometimes the meaning and theology of the
Fortunately, there are still plenty of churches and cathedrals that
recognise the importance of superlative speech in their services and
make regular use of 1662 – even if only at the early morning Communion
Service or Choral Evensong. 2012 saw the 350th Anniversary of the
publication of Cranmer’s masterpiece. The present CD is a celebration
of the majesty and beauty of that book. It presents four works that
have been inspired by a response to Cranmer’s ‘incomparable language’.
Most Anglican churchgoers will be familiar with the ubiquitous ‘Merbecke’
and will be able to ‘join in’ with the progress of the musical part
of the liturgy. Some unison settings for Series 3, ASB and Common
Worship are also perfectly sing-able by choir and congregation.
However, the worshippers typically do not ‘join in’ when the choir
are singing a ‘sung setting’. I think of some well-known works like
Stanford in B flat or one of Howells Canticles. These are complex
works that require practice and perseverance to present the music
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Service in D minor ‘Christ’s Hospital’ was
composed in 1938 and was specifically written for Dr. C.S. Lang and
his singers at ‘Christ’s Hospital’. Michael Kennedy in his catalogue
has quoted a note on the score by the composer: it bears repeating:-
‘This service is designed for college chapels and other churches where
there is, besides the choir, a large body of voices who also wish
to share in the musical settings of the service. The part allotted
to these voices is entirely in unison or octaves. The part for the
choir is, it is hoped, reasonably simple ...’. It is therefore a halfway
house between a simple setting and one for choir only.
This note really defines the mood of the music. Paul Spicer has written
that this Service ‘[is] strong-boned, masculine, no-nonsense music.’
I guess that there is a danger that the singing of such a setting
may become a little raucous or over-enthusiastic: however the recording
here is well-stated. The music is often subtle and is always restrained,
even when exhibiting power and majesty.
RVW in D minor has some stunningly beautiful moments that are a million
miles away from a chapel full of lustily singing schoolboys. It is
a satisfying work that amply fulfils its purpose;
however, I doubt that this setting will be used on any kind of regular
basis in ‘churches and place where they sing’.
John Sanders’ ‘The Firmament’ is inspiring. The text is collated from
the Book of Common Prayer and part of Joseph Addison’s (1672-1719)
Ode ‘The spacious firmament on high’. The anthem is set for treble
soloist, choir and organ. It was commissioned by Coutts Bank for the
organist Marcus Huxley and the Choir of Birmingham Cathedral to celebrate
the Millennium. The setting is quite ‘modern’ in its sound and concept.
The organ acts more as a commentary on the proceedings rather than
as an accompaniment. The opening line ‘The heavens declare the glory
of God’, acts as a connection between the liturgical and the poetic
texts. There is a beautiful treble solo at the words ‘The Lord himself
is thy Keeper’. ‘The Firmament’ is a well-crafted work that successfully
balances two strands of achievement in the English language – poetry
The anthem ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ by Paul Spicer is a welcome
addition to the choral repertoire. This piece was composed as recently
as 2011, yet is timeless in its use of choir and organ. The anthem
was commissioned by John Gilbert Harvey as a memorial to his parents.
The text is taken from the King James Bible rather than the BCP. It
is a lovely, reflective work that is both heart-easing and inspiring.
Sir Henry Walford Davis suffers from being known for three or four
works – the well-known ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ tune, the Solemn
Melody heard at the Cenotaph, the RAF March Past and
the anthem ‘God be in my Head’. However his achievement is much wider.
There are two symphonies, the second of which is to be performed at
this year’s English Music Festival. There is the major oratorio Everyman,
a number of short orchestral works including the evocative ‘Big Ben
Looks On’, the ‘Holiday Tunes’ Suite and the piano ‘concerto’ Conversations.
Also included in his catalogue are many chamber works, an operetta,
The Pied Piper of Hamelin anddozens of songs and part-songs.
Church music is an important part of his opus. There are many services,
anthems, hymn-tunes and carols. He is a composer awaiting rediscovery.
The Short Requiem was composed in 1915 ‘in sacred memory of those
who have fallen in the war’. Alas, there were to be many more casualties
before Armistice Day. The text is a confection of words that includes
Latin, extracts from the Book of Common Prayer, a hymn written by
the composer and some words by John Lydgate (c.1370-1451). It is an
appropriate selection that is both effective and moving. The musical
content of the Requiem is relatively straightforward and does not
challenge the technical abilities of the choir yet the singing here
is perfect. The overall effect is one of devotion and meditation.
There is nothing untoward about this music: it is the perfect accompaniment
to the ‘Service for the Dead’.
The singing in all these works is superb and the organist makes a
major contribution to the success of this CD. With the exception of
John Sanders’ anthem all these works are new to me and I guess will
be to most potential listeners. Paul Spicer’s liner notes are first-rate
and make essential reading.
This CD will appeal strongly to all enthusiasts of the English Cathedral/Parish
Church musical tradition. It is especially good to have Vaughan Williams’
rarely heard service available in its entirety on disc.