For our summer concert this year, we will be returning to St Vedast alias Foster, to perform a programme marking (almost) a hundred years since the end of World War I.

The centrepiece of our concert will be Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, written right at the end of his life. 

Please come and join us if you are free on Friday 29th June! The concert begins at 7.30pm and tickets can be purchased either in advance, here, or on the door.

Parry himself died in 1918 and he wrote his set of six Songs of Farewell between 1916 and 1918, probably conscious that his own death was approaching. Drawing on both English poems and biblical texts, his chosen texts all share the same theme: the transitory nature of human existence, and hope for what may be to come. Although Parry, in his 60s when World War I broke out, was far too old to fight, he was clearly deeply troubled by the losses. As his biographer Jeremy Dibble describes it, Parry experienced “an incredulity, combined with a profound sense of betrayal, that a nation of artistic heroes who had taught him everything… could be capable of such carnage”.

The Songs of Farewell include some of Parry’s best-known settings such as My soul, there is a Country and Never Weather-Beaten Sail, but they are best heard as a complete set. Parry’s scoring becomes gradually richer with each song, moving from a four-part choir in the first two movements to a grand double-choir setting of Lord, let me Know Mine End in the final one. This last song was completed only three months before his death in October 1918.

St Vedast Alias Foster, looking towards the altar.
By Diliff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Sir Hubert Parry
By No credited photographer. - printed in and scanned from The Musical Quarterly, July 1919, p. 300.

Parry had been great friends with Charles Villiers Stanford: they were both distinguished composers and teachers, and instrumental in the renaissance of English music which occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately they fell out bitterly during the war years, and became reconciled only right at the end of Parry’s life, partly through the efforts of Stanford’s wife. In response to their reconciliation, Stanford dedicated to Parry his epic Magnificat for Eight-part Chorus, which he completed in 1918, but tragically Parry died before the work was published and never heard it performed. This is a grand work, reminiscent in many ways of J.S. Bach’s setting of the same text, and will also feature in our summer concert.

Like Parry, Stanford was too old to serve in the war, but was still badly affected by it. Many of his former pupils were involved in the fighting – Ivor Gurney was gassed and George Butterworth killed – and he lost much of his teaching income. He also moved to Windsor to escape air raids on the capital.

Stanford is best known today for his sacred music and our programme also includes his Three Motets, which date from the turn of the 20th century. However, in his lifetime his contributions to other genres were much more fully recognised, and we will also be performing his witty setting of the Irish air Quick! We have but a Second and his famous partsong The Blue Bird

Ralph Vaughan Williams served in World War I despite being old enough to have been excused active service – a major sacrifice from someone who was already an established composer and one who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. He served as a medical orderly in Greece in 1915 and on the Western Front in 1916. In 1917 he was appointed as an officer to an artillery regiment, responsible for firing 60-pound shells, and this commission may well have been responsible for the deafness he experienced later in life.
Vaughan Williams went on to live until 1958 and rarely spoke about his war experiences. But it is hard to imagine that his subsequent music was unaffected by the war. His Mass in G minor was written in 1922 and the prayer for peace in the final movement of the mass would have been particularly poignant so soon after the war had ended. Vaughan Williams set the text of the mass for unaccompanied double choir and a quartet of soloists. While the music owes much to composers of the English renaissance like Byrd and Tallis, it also contains many of his own trademarks.

Ralph Vaughan Williams as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery (1917)
No credited photographer.  Reproduced from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society

Vaughan Williams dedicated the mass to his close friend Gustav Holst, who also features in our concert programme. His Nunc Dimittis for double choir was written in 1915, though it was neglected for many years and not published until the 1970s. Both this work and Vaughan Williams’ mass were intended for liturgical use and were first performed at Westminster Cathedral, though today they are more frequently performed as concert pieces.

World War I cut short the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, including many promising composers who were never able to reach their potential. While others survived, they were profoundly affected by their experiences and often felt a deep sense of guilt. Those of us lucky enough to be alive today are fortunate to have a rich musical heritage from the time on which to draw, to give us some understanding of the terrible experiences of those who lived through it. We hope our concert will be an uplifting as well as a solemn occasion, and an opportunity to reaffirm for our own time the heartfelt prayers for peace of a previous generation of musicians.

Advance tickets are available here.

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Chandos has a well-established tradition of “cathedral weekends” and our latest one was a successful trip to Winchester in February.

Twenty-four members of the choir made the trip, many of them retaining fond memories of our previous visit in April 2015. As on that occasion, our assignment was to perform for all four of the weekend’s sung services while the cathedral choir took a well-deserved break.

Winchester Cathedral

Cathedral weekends provide an excellent opportunity for us to front-run repertoire for concerts, raise the profile of the choir, rise to the challenges of singing in a cathedral acoustic, and become more accomplished sight-singers.

We packed a lot into a short time, with services and rehearsals following hot on the heels of one another. The first service was Evensong on Saturday, where we sang canticles by Brewer and Duruflé’s Tantum Ergo as the anthem. Then it was back to a freezing Pilgrim’s Hall for more rehearsal time, with James working us very hard to ensure our consonants were super-clear and that the two halves of the choir were combining seamlessly. Some light relief was also provided by efforts during the rehearsal to prevent James’ car being locked in a car park behind an immoveable barricade – a feat which was achieved with just moments to spare.

Evening meal in St James’ Tavern

Later that evening we were able to relax with a meal at a local hostelry. Not content with being able to drink just from 8.00 onwards, John and Alaric thought they would sample some other establishments before joining the rest of the choir for a meal, and managed to clock up quite a few miles before finally locating “our” pub.

 

 

 

“Spreadsheet Bridget” checks that everyone has paid their bills. Note the ominous semi-offstage calculator.

The meal was superbly choreographed by Alison and Bridget, who were clearly alert to the risk that everyone would have forgotten everything they had pre-ordered. But all the dishes which were served managed to find consumers.

 

 

 

An early start followed the next day as we gathered at 8.30am to practise for Matins. We successfully carried off Stanford’s Te Deum after very limited rehearsal time, followed by Tallis’ In ieiunio et fletu. Some parts of the Matins service actually felt more like a quickfire in-tray exercise, with the Psalm, Te Deum, anthem, Venite and Jubilate all following within a few minutes of one another and scraps of paper disappearing and reappearing. Singing hymns while processing over an uneven floor also led to a few narrow scrapes. Matins was followed almost immediately by Eucharist, where we sang Palestrina’s Missa aeterna Christi munera and Sicut cervus.

Lining up for Sunday evensong – only one sermon to go, Andy…

After a short break for lunch our final task was to sing Sunday Evensong. This time the canticles setting was Noble in B minor and the anthem Ubi caritas by Duruflé. After the service we were plied with tea and biscuits by the cathedral staff, who were very welcoming and supportive throughout the weekend.

Although we were kept very busy during our visit, there was some time for reflection during the many hours sat in the cathedral. I certainly had a sense that the choir has improved over the past 12 or 18 months. When we last visited two years ago, I’m not sure we would have delivered the music to such a high standard with such limited rehearsal time. We have been lucky to recruit some strong singers over the past year or so.

More poetically, it is comforting, even for those like me who are not regular cathedral-goers, to be able to spend a weekend participating in worship with such a timeless quality. In a world where great technological innovations frequently become obsolete within a year, and corporate leaders are evaluated on their ability to deliver constant change, it was heartening to be reminded that there are still cathedral choirs all over the country who turn up every day to sing the same set services, using more or less the same format they have been for hundreds of years. It would be nice to think that in 500 years’ time there will still be choirs performing Tallis and Palestrina in our great cathedrals, while some of the issues that loom large in our lives today have been consigned to mere historical footnotes.

Unfortunately my temporary spiritual satisfaction was swiftly ended by South West Trains on the journey home: an incident with a stray refuse sack getting itself attached to a wheel of the train was sufficient to detain about eight choir members outside Woking for fifty minutes. Unfortunately the delay was not deemed long enough to merit compensation either.

Much more importantly, a big “thank you” is due to all those who helped make the weekend a success. No doubt I will miss someone, but this list definitely includes Sally, for persuading Winchester to host us in the first place, Richard for organising all of the music, Alison for arranging the meal out, Philippa for tracking down an excellent organist to come and play for us, and last but certainly not least James, for leading us with such expertise and enthusiasm through all of the challenges of the weekend.

Forthcoming cathedral trips:

  • 21st-22nd July 2018 - St Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork
  • 23rd-24th February 2019 - Winchester Cathedral

Stephen Burgess
3rd March 2017

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