Prince Philip & Benjamin Britten

The anthem following the first reading at the funeral of Prince Philip (17 April 2021) was Benjamin Britten’s 1961 setting of the Psalm 100 the “Jubilate Deo.”

The epistolary evidence shows that Britten was keen to write liturgical music for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, when Prince Philip and Britten corresponded about the possibility in the early 1960s.  For reasons not altogether clear, Britten’s Jubilate Deo of 1961 was the only realization of the project.  The then organist and composer of St. George’s, Sir William Harris, found the Jubilate to be too “jolly” for the liturgy.  (Letter from Canon Bentley to Graham Elliott, quoted in Elliott, Britten: The Spiritual Dimension, 86.)  It was around this time that Britten’s contributions to writing music specifically for the liturgy (Anglican or Catholic) waned.  If Britten was aware of Harris’s opinion, the disapproval of so eminent a church musician might have been one factor in Britten’s shift of focus.  Other factors, though, include Britten’s increasing success in other musical genres and the fact that, though he continued to write works with Christian themes, such as his parables for church performance, his attachment to liturgy/common worship was not strong in his adult life.

Nonetheless, it is good to have this setting of the “Jubilate Deo” in the repertoire, and a bit of jollity, founded on Christian hope, was good to hear at Prince Philip’s funeral.

Richard Shephard – +20 February 2021 – May he rest in peace.

Reporting the sad news of the death of Richard Shephard, MBE, FRSCM (20 March 1949 – 20 February 2021).  Considered “one of the most significant composers of church music of his time,” he was also an educator and had several roles at Yorkminster and in Yorkshire.

Follow this link for a performance of his Responses written for Salisbury Cathedral.

Working for the Organist

The first “High Mass [the young Stephenson] attended at St. Bart’s [an Anglo-Catholic parish in Brighton] was Easter Day … We did not have to wait long before things started to happen, for … a rotund man wearing a cassock and cotta … walked solemnly down the aisle bowing graciously on either side to those with whom he was acquainted.  I discovered that this was Mr. Madle the organist who was responsible for the musical tradition of St. Bart’s.  When Cyril Tomkinson became the vicar he was apt to say to people: ‘I help a little at Mr. Madle’s church.’”  (Colin Stephenson, Merrily on High [New York: Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1973], 26).

[The Nave of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton]

Handel’s _Messiah_, Britain, and the American Colonies

Handel’s _Messiah_ is a musical work in its own right (unusual among oratorios generally and especially among Handel’s oratorios) and a British musical phenomenon in its own right.  Those few music historians who turn their focus on the Anglican choral tradition tend not to include Handel in their discussions.  He was a German import, so to speak, by way of Italy, and his claim to fame (and fortune) was musical drama in the forms of both opera and oratorios (almost all of which were un-staged operas), more than music written explicitly for liturgy.  Yet, rare would be the British musician over the years, Anglican and non-Anglican, trained and un-trained, who has not been involved in a performance of Handel’s _Messiah_ at this time of year.

According to Trinity Church, Wall Street, one of the first performances in the soon-to-be United States was in 1770 at Trinity, Wall Street.  See the December 7 discussion and clip at this link for Trinity’s mention of the 1770 performance and the opportunity to listen to a recent performance.

Sir James MacMillan on Faith in Music, Part I: Thomas Tallis

[The featured image is of a posthumous engraving of Tallis made by Gerard Vandergucht in the eighteenth century]

[The photo is of Sir James MacMillan in 2011 on the banks of the Mississippi River at Saint Cloud, Minnesota, when he was my guest at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.  A couple of days later, the Minnesota Orchestra premiered MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Minneapolis, performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and conducted by Osmo Vänskä.  Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.]

Here is the link to the first in a series of radio programs in which Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan considers the faith lives of four very different composers: BBC Radio 4 – Faith in Music, Thomas Tallis

Over the centuries, composers have created musical masterpieces which many listeners have come to regard as spiritual touchstones. For example, Tallis’s motet Spem in alium, Wagner’s opera Parsifal, Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, Bernstein’s Mass. But what did these composers actually believe about God, faith, compassion, an afterlife and redemption? And do we need to share these beliefs in any way, to have a spiritual experience as listeners to their music?

Answers to these questions are complex, fascinating and challenging.

Thomas Tallis witnessed England’s faith switch four times in his life, yet he cleverly survived without persecution to live into his 80s. He composed through the reign of Henry VIII who broke away from Rome to create the Church of England. Then, he had to totally switch his compositional style to please Edward VI. Mary I was a Catholic which signalled a return to earlier techniques. And finally, Protestant Elizabeth I required a different type of religious music again.

James MacMillan talks with conductors Harry Christophers, Peter Phillips and Suzi Digby about the sort of man Thomas Tallis must have been to not only survive the religious and political upheavals that he witnessed throughout his life, but also to compose some of the most magnificent English choral music ever written.

The programme features the following music by Tallis:

Salvator mundi

If ye love me

Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater

Puer natus est nobis

Lamentations of Jeremiah

Spem in alium

Plus: O Radiant Dawn by James MacMillan