Anthems on a grand scale with the choir of Merton College, Oxford
Tuesday, June 27, 2023
The expanding choral department of Merton College, Oxford, has been no stranger to Gramophone’s review pages. Now it presents its biggest recording yet...
On November 8, 1655, a ‘solemn assembly of sons of ministers’, many of them destitute offspring of clergymen suffering under Cromwell’s regime, gathered at a service for their benefit at the old St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was the start of what was to become known as the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy, which a 1956 edition of The Musical Times cites as ‘probably the origin of all music festivals, and in particular of those oratorio festivals which formed such important landmarks in Victorian music-making’.
Not much is known about the music at that 1655 service, though in 1789 Charles Burney noted that in the late 1690s the annual event included Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate in D. In musical terms, the catalyst appears to have been the inauguration of Wren’s new St Paul’s Cathedral in 1697, at which point the festival’s triumphant ‘return’ to its new home came with a determination to fill that church with sound. The festival got bigger, and it most certainly got louder.
Merton College Choir (photography: foxbrush.co.uk)
A tradition soon emerged which saw the choir of St Paul’s joined by two other cathedral choirs from elsewhere in England, making for a supersize vocal ensemble (the tradition continues today). In the 20th century, the temptation to throw yet more musical resources at the festival – in effect, little more than a colossal church service with a fundraising dinner appended – proved too strong to resist. Orchestras began to appear, for which existing works were orchestrated and bespoke ones were written. The centrepiece of a new album from the choir of Merton College, Oxford, and the Britten Sinfonia is Dyson’s well-known Evening Service in D of 1907, dressed in the orchestral garb bestowed upon it by St Paul’s sub-organist Douglas Hopkins for the 1935 festival.
In the organ loft of St Paul’s for the 300th festival at Wren’s cathedral was organ scholar Benjamin Nicholas, now Director of Music at Merton College, Oxford, and the brains behind Delphian’s new release ‘Orchestral Anthems’. ‘The festival always felt like going back in time, experiencing something from another era,’ says Nicholas, on a Zoom call from Oxford. His album does much the same, its cover unmistakably channelling 1930s aesthetics and the railway boom that allowed so many choristers from various parts of the country to reach London. What we hear inside is the spirit of England at a particular time: the 20th-century up to and including the coronation – at which, across town at Westminster Abbey, Howells’s Behold, O God our defender was performed by a choir of 400 and an orchestra perched on the organ screen.
‘The recording is just a little glimpse of a period of English music, and a rather thrilling one’Benjamin Nicholas, conductor
It is a sound that has perhaps survived, beyond coronations and clergyman festivals (the latter shed their orchestras post-war), in the Three Choirs Festival, where liturgical music is still ‘performed’ with orchestra. ‘I suppose in my head I have the nave of Gloucester Cathedral with that big stage and the orchestra and chorus going up in front of it,’ says Nicholas. ‘It is just a little glimpse of a period of English music, and a rather thrilling one.’
On this recording, Howells’s piece was played from a facsimile of the composer’s own handwritten score – a sure sign that the repertoire that Nicholas and his student singers are presenting is fresh, if not always new to the catalogue. ‘I tried to resist anything that has been regularly recorded,’ says Nicholas, ‘that’s why the Elgar psalm-settings are not there. And there was no point repeating the big Parry works and the Stanford canticles that have been done by Robert King and others.’
Benjamin Nicholas conducts ‘Orchestral Anthems’ sessions, All Hallows’ Gospel Oak, London (photography: foxbrush.co.uk)
Of most interest is the Dyson, getting its first recording here. Many will be familiar with the Magnificat as one of the most stolid, hearty contributions to this particular repertoire, rollicking unequivocally in D major and launched by a stentorian organ gambit. The surprise here – as well as the apparent melodic inversion of that opening organ phrase – is how Hopkins’s orchestration suggests less an immovable musical edifice and more a piece visited by striking tenderness and even intimacy. The orchestra is assiduously used: echoing horns, woodwind choirs that twist around themselves as if in a Humperdinck opera, flute and oboe solos quizzically echoing phrases, and notable use of pizzicato strings at ‘He remembering his mercy’. The Nunc dimittis feels even more luminous than normal, ushered into being by quasi-Wagnerian strings.
‘It was a revelation for members of the choir, hearing all these works with orchestral colours,’ says Nicholas. ‘Yes, Gerald Finzi originally wrote Lo, the full, final sacrifice for organ accompaniment – and, indeed, for a very fine Romantic organ at St Matthew’s Church, Northampton – but when you hear it with orchestra I’m not sure you ever want to hear it with organ again. It’s not just Finzi’s use of the clarinet, for which he is famous, of course; it’s all the other colours he brings into that score.’
Huge developments in the way that the grass roots of church and choral music-making operates will have a fundamental effect on its future
The other side of that coin is that these devotional works undeniably take on a different identity in orchestral clothing – distinctly unliturgical, for one thing, but perhaps even imperious and a touch jingoistic too. ‘I mean, that’s possibly true of Elgar’s Ecce sacerdos magnus,’ says Nicholas of the motet orchestrated by the composer to mark the completion of a new Lady chapel at the church of St Catherine of Siena in Birmingham. ‘I feel those things in that piece, but I also find it intriguing how it looks forward to Elgar’s First Symphony – that walking bass line with a beautiful melody over the top of it.’
The album’s booklet notes are disarmingly frank about Elgar’s arrangement of Purcell’s Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei, provided for the 1929 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, in lieu of something more significant (and indeed original) from a composer in a creative rut. There will be many who think the work makes heavy weather of Purcell’s light and breezy musical ideas, but Nicholas is not among them. ‘I actually rather love this,’ he counters. ‘Yes, it’s quite a thick texture and it’s obviously conceived for a vast Three Choirs chorus. But there’s a great tradition of composers looking back at earlier works and doing something different with them, even up to Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly. My biggest regret is that we couldn’t find Elgar’s orchestration of Jonathan Battishill’s O Lord, look down from heaven, another Three Choirs arrangement. I tried every avenue, but nobody can find the parts for that.’
Other big beasts include Vaughan Williams’s Te Deum, written for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928, later orchestrated by the composer’s pupil Arnold Foster. The orchestra here does little to get in the choir’s way, but undeniably adds interest to a score that can seem alarmed by its own profusion of text. Perhaps the most authentic work of all is Elgar’s ‘The Spirit of the Lord’ – the prologue to his oratorio The Apostles (1903), in which the presence of the orchestra seems essential to the music’s entire concept. ‘Elgar was just back from hearing Parsifal at Bayreuth,’ says Nicholas. ‘That is completely apparent from looking at the score; the choir emerges from this wonderful introduction in the strings. Elgar clearly had the sound world of Parsifal in his head.’
The Merton College choir sounds particularly refined here, not least in its mellifluous unisons. It is easy to forget how young this institution is, sitting as it does among ancient peers in Oxford. It was in 2008 that the choral set-up at Merton was redrawn, with scholarships introduced and professional leadership brought in to put chapel music-making on a more secure footing. Initially, Nicholas shared Director of Music duties with Peter Phillips, dovetailing work in Oxford with his leadership of the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum.
Part of the impetus says Nicholas, in addition to allowing organ scholars to focus more on their studies, was the chapel itself and its renowned acoustic. ‘I think Merton just decided they had to do something with this chapel, this wonderful space.’ Five years later a colossal new organ was installed, built by Dobson of Lake City, Iowa. As that instrument celebrates a decade in use, Nicholas reflects on the long process of building up a choral tradition, and a particular sound, from scratch. ‘It takes many generations of students, and that’s not to say that there weren’t some super students involved at the very beginning,’ he says. As for the sound style of the choir, that came from its surroundings. ‘I just tried to listen to the building. Because some things work very well in there and others don’t. If you sing something with clarity and ring and real resonance, then the building does the rest.’
The choir’s success has been self-perpetuating: the higher its profile, the better the calibre of potential choral scholars it can attract. Award-winning recording projects with Delphian have certainly helped. Nor was the ‘Orchestral Anthems’ album an isolated occasion: last year the choir released a disc of anthems with orchestra by Howells (alongside Ian Venables’s Requiem); it regularly performs the likes of Bach’s Passions with orchestra and has, in fact, performed Elgar’s The Apostles complete with the RPO. ‘We want to offer an amazing education to these young singers,’ says Nicholas, ‘so that during their time here they are introduced to all sorts of repertory that they simply won’t have met either at school or in previous lives as choristers.’
These days, that counts for even more young singers. In 2016 Merton became the first college in Oxford to offer a permanent home to girl choristers, who now alternate on top lines with the female adult choral scholars. ‘We were mindful of the fact that there are five chapels in Oxford where boys can sing – if you include Worcester and Pembroke, which take boys from Christ Church Cathedral School – but none for girls’ (this was before the peripatetic Frideswide Voices were adopted by Christ Church Cathedral).
The 24 girl choristers attend some 12 different schools in the area, coming from as far away as Didcot. ‘It’s been the most wonderful thing,’ says Nicholas. ‘It’s brought these young people to the college and in return we try to invest in them as musicians. They have their theory lessons here, they eat at the hall here, and we offer instrumental scholarships so they’re able to study at least one instrument paid for by Merton. It’s more than them just coming and singing the services.’ Indeed, the girl choristers travelled to the London church of All Hallows’ Gospel Oak to join their adult colleagues for the recording of the Dyson.
Video: Dyson, Evening Service in D – Magnificat (Choir of Merton College, Oxford / Britten Sinfonia)
Oxford now has two girls’ choirs it didn’t have a decade ago – a situation replicated across the UK, where attempts to redress gender inequality between the choir stalls have had a renaissance since the pioneering but sporadic work of choir leaders in Salisbury, Edinburgh and elsewhere. This huge development in the way the grass roots of church and choral music-making operates will have a fundamental effect on its future, so it seems even more ironic to be discussing such things at a time when such uncertainty hangs over the nation’s only full-time, professional chamber choir, the BBC Singers. It’s a mark of Merton’s standing that it had a smattering of alumni among the choir’s deputy list. ‘It’s scandalous,’ says Nicholas. ‘Why should Britain be the country that has no radio choir when those on the Continent go on, with their unique ability to programme so wonderfully? It’s also undeniable that the BBC Singers are an inspiration for our amateur choral scene in the UK. The members of the Oxford Bach Choir [of which Nicholas is Music Director] are always approaching me about what they heard the BBC Singers doing, and having repertoire ideas as a result.’
An optimist might conclude that whatever the state of the top of the choral pyramid, it will be buoyed by the sheer quantities of educated talent emerging from below, thanks to the likes of Merton, Frideswide and so on. At Merton, a college more than 750 years old, they are only looking forward. On the cards is a major new Christmas work by Gabriel Jackson, premiering at St John’s Smith Square in December and due to be captured by Delphian straight afterwards. Next will come a disc dedicated to music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad (former Visiting Research Fellow in the Creative Arts at Merton College), works that ‘should be heard and should also be widely performed’, says Nicholas. By my calculation, these will be respectively the choir’s 12th and 13th recordings for Delphian, the label that has been on hand to chart this choir’s development from the beginning.
This article originally appeared in the June issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today