I first came across the music of Herbert Sumsion in the organ loft - actually a pit - at St. Andrew’s Church, Stepps, Glasgow. Someone had left a copy of A Book of Simple Organ Voluntaries published by Oxford University Press, originally published in 1949, but then still in print. This album had the distinctive blue and white cover that graced so much organ music from that publisher in the late sixties and early seventies. I remember that I could just about play Sumsion’s contribution, which was a ‘Pastoral’. Other pieces in this volume included ‘Le prie-dieu’ by George Oldroyd, an ‘Adagio’ from Henry G. Ley and an ‘Alla Marcia’ by Henry Coleman. I looked at this music the other day and reckon I could still play it - pedals an’ all. It was a few years later that I heard some of Sumsion’s liturgical music as I began to visit various Anglican churches and cathedrals. He is certainly a composer I can do business with.
Currently, there is no biography of Herbert Whitton Sumsion. Any information needs to be pieced together from the relatively few sources that are available in libraries or online. Even Stanley Webb’s entry in the current Grove runs to only just over 200 words.
Sumsion was born in Gloucester on 19 January 1899. As a boy he was a chorister at the Cathedral at the time when Herbert Brewer was the organist there and was musical director of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festivals. He studied organ with Brewer, completed war service in Flanders and eventually succeeded him in 1928. For nearly forty years Sumsion was director of the Festival and introduced many new works by composers such as Kodaly, Sibelius, Howells and Finzi. Sumsion found time between playing, conducting, organising and teaching to compose a sizeable body of choral and organ music. There were a few chamber and orchestral works but these have largely stayed below the musical horizon. Sumsion died in 11 August 1995 at the age of 96.
It would be true to say that there is little that is challenging in the pages of his organ and choral music. Yet, that is to miss the point. I imagine that virtually all the pieces presented on this CD were composed with a congregation in mind rather than the cognoscenti of the organ loft. Where Sumsion truly weaves his magic is in the craftsmanship of his writing and registration and in his personal adaptation of the lingua franca (mixing metaphors) of the English organ music ‘school’. The influence of Elgar, Parry, Brewer and Stanford can be heard in these pages. Yet Sumsion has managed to fuse these Victorian and Edwardian exemplars with a more contemporary sound as engendered by Howells and other mid-century organ composers. It is a stylistic synthesis that is stunningly and competently reflected in Daniel Cook’s playing.
I do not want to analyse or describe each of the pieces presented on this CD. However, a few highlights will not go amiss. The proceedings get off to a dramatic and impressive start with the fine Toccata on ‘University’. It is a little unusual for this ‘form’ in that the hymn tune (attributed to Charles Collignon) is presented in full in alternation with more ‘traditional’ toccata-like figurations derived from ‘melodic fragments’ of the tune.
Writing in early January, I cannot help but mention the ‘Four Preludes on Well-Known Carols’ written for Christmastide. These are varied in style with a toccata-like treatment of ‘Adestes Fideles’ to a more reflective, but not slow, meditation on the ‘Coventry Carol’. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is restrained rather than boisterous. The set concludes with a Postlude on ‘Unto us is born a Son’ which is a powerful and ‘joyful’ conclusion to these Yuletide celebrations.
Some of the most attractive music on this disc is to be found in the three chorale preludes on ‘Dundee’, ‘Liebster Immanuel’ and ‘Down Ampney’. The second of these is a bit of a surprise. The tempo of this piece fairly romps along: Bach’s ‘take’ is a lot slower. Sumsion varies the metre of the piece between the tune and the interludes. The ‘Down Ampney’ Prelude is as lovely as one might come to expect from this well-known tune by Vaughan Williams. The liner-notes rightly suggest that there is a structural resemblance to RVW’s exquisite ‘Rhosymedre’.
The work that surprised me most is the ‘Introduction and Theme in B minor’. The notes point out this work is one of Sumsion’s ‘most substantial pieces in terms of artistic achievement’ as well as being his earliest composition for organ. What is startling is the sheer competence and confidence that this work exhibits. To be fair, he was not a youngster at the time: he was 37 years old - assuming that it was written near to its publication date. This long, complex work is a major recital piece rather than a ‘mere’ voluntary. Diane Nolan Cooke is correct in wishing that Sumsion had composed more works of this magnitude.
Finally, it was good to hear the ‘Pastoral’ that I had engaged with some forty years ago. It was only the second of Sumsion’s pieces to be published and nods rather belatedly to the so-called ‘English Pastoral’ school of composition. It is an attractive little number that is well-crafted: I can see how it must have appealed to a teenager who had just come to appreciate the Lark Ascending.
Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a ‘Welsh Connection’ (also reviewed on this site). Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works (in hand) of Herbert Brewer, Charles Villiers Stanford and a selection of music by Walter Alcock. He recently released an excellent and enjoyable recital on the organ at St Mary’s, Cullercoats in Northumberland.
It is hard not to be impressed with the acoustic properties of this disc. Like Daniel Cook’s previous Stanford CD it has passed my ‘recorded organ music test’. I am once again given the impression of sitting in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral.
The excellent notes have been written by Diane Nolan Cooke who is an expert on Herbert Sumsion. She has contributed the composer’s Wikipedia entry and has recently edited the important Volume 12 ‘Sacred Music’ of the Elgar Complete Edition - due for release in 2015, I understand. The present notes are wide-ranging and informative. I look forward to reading more from her pen about Herbert Sumsion. Included in the booklet is the essential specification of the ‘Father’ Henry Willis organ which was installed in the cathedral in 1877. In spite of a series of rebuilds, cleans and restorations, this organ is reputed to sound exactly as it did the day it was built. John Stainer believed that this was ‘even finer’ than the organ Father Willis had designed for St Paul’s in 1872. The organ builder himself considered that it was his finest creation.
As noted above, Herbert Sumsion’s music is not challenging. All of it is immediately approachable. The listener will soon realise that here is a composer who is steeped in the Anglican Cathedral Tradition, has a deep sympathy with the liturgy and ceremonial of the church and has made a significant contribution to music that reflects the beauty, the dignity and the holiness of worship. I look forward to reviewing the next Daniel Cook volume in this stunningly executed survey of Sumsion’s music.