On Writing an Evening Service…

November 4th, 2016

I was giving a composition tutorial the other week and suggested to the student that she might like to have a go at writing a string quartet – nothing unusual there until I was met with the stunning statement that ‘everything that could be written for the string quartet, has been written’. I kind of agreed with her (before informing her that it was a course requirement, so she would have to find something to say) and realised that many composers have a great desire to write for this most revered medium but feel weighed down by the history, the repertoire and the extra-musical associations of this ensemble. It also got me thinking about whether the same thing existed in the choral music world, and got me thinking about the piece I am currently working on a second set of Evening Canticles.

Certainly there are fantastic settings of ancient church texts, some of which will never be bettered (the list in this case would be so exhaustive, I’m not going to even bother…) but that doesn’t seem to discourage composers from setting them, from trying to re-invent them and put their own individual stamp on them. It’s strange, but I’ve never heard a composer say he wouldn’t attempt a mass setting because he felt ‘weighed down by the repertoire’, and there are probably many more mass settings then string quartets. Maybe it is the conservative nature of the genre (after all, in most cases these settings will be for service use with all its conventions and restrictions) or maybe it is because the texts are so ancient, and so worn that any sense of trying to say something new has been removed from the equation? I’m not sure either way, but it doesn’t stop composers accepting commissions or cathedrals (etc) commissioning new works when an excellent canon of works already exists.

The case of Evening Canticles (the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – both sung at virtually every Anglican [and other denominations] evensong around the world) is a case in point – a culture has grown up of composers writing several settings of these texts over the course of their careers. Much of this springs from Herbert Howells who (for one reason or another) wrote nineteen settings of these texts during his lifetime. Some of these are exceptional and far beyond good enough to transcend the church music world – some are challenging, entertaining, flamboyant – some are rotten and perhaps only have credence as part of a larger whole. Generations of subsequent composers have taken this as a model and have written multiple settings for various cathedrals, churches and choirs. In the wider art music world it would be hugely unusual for a composer to re-set a text he or she had set successfully earlier in their career – one can’t imagine George Benjamin sitting down and thinking ‘you know, I think I’ll have another crack at A Mind of Winter – didn’t quite get it right first time’, but it happens regularly in the choral world. And I’m no different.

I’m currently writing my Second Service for performance in May. I’m quite happy with the first setting I did, it gets performed and I quite enjoy listening to it. Why do another setting? Do I have much more to say? Can I shed any new light on these texts? Well, to tell you the truth, I just fancied it. There is something hugely alluring about writing for a new choir in an ancient building ripe with history and tradition. Also, the Evening Service is the main event of the service – the music one is composing is structuring the whole service and act of worship. That seems like a reason to do it – I think?

There are many, many fantastic settings of the canticles from Howells, Leighton, Tavener, Tippett, Walton – a great new setting by Richard Allain I heard recently – and a whole repertoire of early Anglican settings by Byrd, Gibbons etc. Then there are settings in Latin. The list goes on – soon there will be two settings by Cooke – unless the weight of history gets to me first!


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