Programme note for ‘Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A’ by H Sumsion
The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are canticles sung after the Old and New Testament reading during choral evensong.
The words for the Magnificat, also known as Mary’s song, are found only in the Gospel according to Luke. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear a son; she then visited a relative called Elizabeth, who told her that she was blessed among women and that her child would also be blessed. In response, Mary said the words we now know as the Magnificat.
The words for the Nunc Dimittis are from the same Gospel. Joseph and Mary took their firstborn son to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. They encountered Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God with the words of the Nunc Dimittis.
This setting by Sumsion for SATB choir is lyrical and joyful. In the Magnificat the trebles introduce each of the first four phrases before being joined by the full choir. All voices then build to the declaration that “all generations shall call me blessed”; the absence of instrumental accompaniment allows the voices to stand out. The setting continues to alternate between sections for one part – now making more use of the low voices -, two parts singing in unison and full choir. In the Nunc dimittis the basses sing the opening phrases, before being joined by the tenors and then the other voices.
Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995) was organist at Gloucester Cathedral from 1928 to 1967. He also worked as a composer, conductor, accompanist and teacher. Sumsion was instructed in organ playing, choir direction and music theory by Herbert Brewer and later served him as an assistant organist at Gloucester cathedral. He then worked as an organist in London and as an assistant to an American professor of counterpoint and composition in Philadelphia; there he met and married his wife, Alice. Brewer died suddenly of a heart attack in March 1928. Although Sumsion had accepted the post of organist at Coventry Cathedral, the dean and chapter of Gloucester cathedral negotiated his release, as Brewer had expressed a strong desire for Sumsion to succeed him.
Gloucester is one of the three cities that host the three choirs festival, which began nearly 200 years ago. Sumsion planned and served as principal conductor for 11 festivals. He promoted the works of English composers and was closely associated with E Elgar, H Howells, G Finzi and R Vaughan-Williams.
Programme note for ‘O clap your hands’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams
‘O clap your hands’ is a short choral work for mixed chorus accompanied by three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals and organ. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed it in 1920 and wrote for the voices as if they are brass instruments.
It is exuberant and strongly rhythmic music mostly sung in dense chords. Two contrasting sections are the phrases ‘for the Lord most high is terrible’ and ‘for God is the King of all the earth’, which are sung in unison on a low note; the mood of awe in these short sections is short lived and the full choir once again sings God’s praises. The words are taken from Psalm 47.
Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was the great-great- grandson of Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin, who in turn was Vaughan Williams’ great-uncle. His birthplace was Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, but he grew up in Leith Hill Place in Surrey, where, in 1905, he co-founded a Music Festival for local choral societies and served as a conductor for nearly five decades.
He studied the piano and violin at the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of CV Stanford and Hubert Parry. From 1892 he also studied music and history at Cambridge, where he developed a wide circle of friends. When he returned to the RCM 3 years later he met Gustav Holst, who became a close friend and was described by Vaughan-Williams as “the greatest influence on my music”.
Vaughan Williams composed works in all major genres. He was among the very first to travel into the countryside to collect folk songs and carols. He was the musical editor of The English Hymnal and composed several hymn tunes that are now favourites around the world: ‘Come down, o love Divine’ (Down Ampney) and ‘For all the Saints’ (Sine Nomine).
Vaughan-Williams worked as a composer and conductor into his eighties; his ashes are interred in Westminster Cathedral near those of another great English composer, Henry Purcell.
More about Soul Space
Date(s) - July 3, 2016
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
St Barbara's Church