Following the death of Henry Purcell in 1695, English music went into a long period of decline that was not reversed until the late 19th Century. Of the many musicians who helped to bring about the English musical renaissance it was Sir Charles Stanford (1852-1924) and Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) who were arguably the most influential. Largely thanks to their untiring work as composers, teachers, performers and administrators, British music once more began to attract widespread acclaim in the world’s concert halls. This re-awakening had already begun with the rise of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) to prominence and now continued with a whole new generation of talented composers, of whom the leading figure was Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
As a teacher of composition, Stanford was without equal. A list of his many pupils at the Royal College of Music reads like a Who’s Who of early twentieth-century British music: Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Gustav Holst, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Herbert Howells, to name only a few of the most well-known. Stanford was a prolific and highly regarded composer himself, with seven symphonies and five concertos to his name, as well as numerous other major compositions, but most of these works fell into neglect after the First World War. New musical horizons had been opened up (Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others). Stanford’s music was firmly rooted in the formal Austro-German tradition of the nineteenth century, and no longer seemed relevant to a traumatised post-war world looking to the future, not the past, for reassurance.
Stanford’s church music, on the other hand, has consistently retained its preëminent position. At a time when mediocrity prevailed, he swept away many of the tired conventions, bringing in a freshness and vitality not heard since Purcell’s day, and enriching the repertoire with a succession of fine anthems, motets, and settings of the morning and evening canticles that immediately became central pillars of our cathedral choir repertoire, and have remained so to this day.
The Three Latin Motets, Op.38 for unaccompanied choir dates from around 1892, the year in which Stanford gave up his post as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge. They are dedicated to his successor, Alan Gray, and the college choir, and are amongst the finest of his choral compositions.
Justorum animae is in three short sections. The outer two reflect the contemplative nature of the first and last part of the text, whilst the central section is a vivid depiction of malice and the torment of death. The text is from the Book of Wisdom, or The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish work written in Greek and generally dated to the mid-first century BCE
Justorum animae / The souls of the righteous
in manu Dei sunt, / they are in the hand of God
et non tanget illos tormentum mortis. / and the torment of death shall not touch them
Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori, / They were seen to die by the eyes of fools,
illi autem sunt in pace / but they are at peace.
Coelos ascendit hodie is a motet for Ascensiontide, the 39 days after Easter. It is scored for a double choir and makes much use of the dramatic interplay between the two choirs. The superb final ‘Amen’ grows ever outwards from one single note, concluding on a vibrant eight-part chord.
Coelos ascendit hodie / Heaven ascended today
Jesus Christus Rex Gloriae / Jesus Christ the King of Glory
Sedet ad Patris dexteram, / He sits at the right hand of the Father
Gubernat coelum et terram. / He rules heaven and earth.
Iam finem habent omnia, / Now all things have an end,
Patris Davidis carmina. / Father David’s poems.
Iam Dominus cum Domino / Now the Lord is with the Lord
Sedet in Dei solio: / He sits on the throne of God:
In hoc triumpho maximo / In this great triumph
Benedicamus Domino. / Bless the Lord.
Laudatur Sancta Trinitas, / Blessed be the Holy Trinity,
Deo dicamus gratias, / Let us say thanks to God.
Alleluia. Amen / Alleluia. Amen
Beati quorum via is in six parts, with divided sopranos and basses, and is meditative in character. Effective use is made of contrasting the three upper and three lower voices, and the piece is rightly regarded as one of Stanford’s most exquisite unaccompanied compositions. The text is from Psalm 119, verse 1:
Beati quorum via integra est, / Blessed are those whose way is perfect,
qui ambulant in lege Domini / who walk in the law of the Lord
© John Bawden
MMusic, University of Surrey, UK
John Bawden, MMus, LTCL, was appointed Musical Director of the Guildford Cathedral Singers in 2009. He has had a wealth of experience directing a wide variety of choirs, ranging from large choral societies to chamber choirs. A former member of Guildford Cathedral Choir, John then worked as a freelance deputy singer with a number of professional choirs, including those of Winchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey firstname.lastname@example.org