Category Archives: churches

Let all the world in every corner sing

Hi all! Just a quick sign of life to let everyone know I’m still here. My personal life has been quite hectic so blogging has been down, but I hope to be able to pick it up later this year.

Meanwhile, here’s a short festive video from St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. For two reasons: one, well, simply because I love this piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and two, to commemorate last Monday’s confirmation of a new archbischop for the worldwide Anglican communion, also in St. Paul’s Cathedral. May he help bring forth into the world the joy of faith, as heard in the singing, and encourage the unique Anglican choral tradition to flourish.


Collegium of Cappella Nicolai, Amsterdam

As I was too tired to go to church today, I decided to watch the weekly Mass broadcast on TV instead, which is aired from a different church every week. I was pleasantly surprised to see that today’s broadcast came from the St. Nicholas church in Amsterdam. I have fond memories of its services and know people who have sung or still sing there, and what’s more, since yesterday this 125 year old church can call itself a basilica, which is basically a royal stamp in church terms. Today’s liturgy therefore included the anointing of the altar by the bishop and a rich splendour of glorious singing by the Collegium of Cappella Nicolai. Especially the Victoria, Lauridsen, Pärt and Tavener pieces were amazing (…wait, that’s almost the entire service ;)). Four of my favourite composers in one service… I just wish they would never stop singing! Director of music Michael Hedley is renowned for his professional approach – ofcourse, we can’t expect less from an Englishman 😉 (And all this just four days after the traditional Dutch St. Nicholas celebration!)

Here’s the full service for you to enjoy:

cap nicolai

Music sung during the service:

Victoria: Vidi aquam
Palestrina: Stetit angelus
Lauridsen: O nata Lux
Pärt: O Holy St. Nicholas
Tavener: Apolytikion for St. Nicholas
Hassler: Agnus Dei, Missa Octo Voci

Roden Boys Choir in Amsterdam

It was another fine summer evening yesterday with great singing as the Roden Boys Choir visited the St. Nicolaas church in Amsterdam. I had forgotten how beautiful and spacious the church is and as we were there just as the doors opened we could find seats all the way in the front of the church, under the massive dome which felt pretty special.

It had been a long time since I last heard my favourite Dutch choir sing (the last time was during Advent!) so I was curious what I could expect. I was happy when I saw they would sing one of my favourite anthems recorded by them, They that go down to the sea in ships by Herbert Sumsion.

Earlier that afternoon the boys and men had sung at a special Bach afternoon where everybody had to show up in baroque costume and were introduced to baroque music and dancing. I could not attend, but later learned that they had sung Lobet dem Herrn and Jesu bleibet meine Freude, as well as pieces by Sweelinck. I’m sure it must have been a treat and I would love to experience them singing German.
This however was a classic Anglican Evensong, minus the sermon though (not sure why). For your information, the Nicolaas church is in fact Roman Catholic but they hold choral Evensong every Saturday – I blogged about that before. During the summer there are organ recitals which I’m told are very good (if only I had more time on my hands…!).

The organ, played by Sytze de Vries, accompanied the choir and the serving pastor as they filed in procession to the altar where the Introit was sung, a mesmerizing polyphonic piece by 17th-century composer John Hilton. It was a bit difficult to hear the basses, perhaps due to the acoustics from where we were stting, perhaps due to the choir’s very strong and many trebles – with three probationers attending, so good hopes for the future. Two former trebles were now placed among the men, a sign of maturing voices. Not seeing a choir in over six months can make you note how fast choristers at a young age grow up. Wonderful to see the continued dedication to a choir in a period of their lives where choices abound. A sense of belonging and loyalty must play a part in their long-term dedication, as well as the joy of singing and an interest in music.

As for the men, they were treated with a piece just for them, as they sang a Sarum plainchant piece devoted to the Blessed Trinity, the melody of which is used in a simplified form in the current Protestant church songbook, as my boyfriend later explained (he’s a walking church song catalogue ;)). The Psalm was, surprisingly enough, the same as when we attended Evensong with the Roden Boys Choir in Advent, and the first lesson, from the Book of Lamentations, could well be from Lent. So a lot of sadness and gloom, which was answered with a gentle and compact canticle setting by Herbert Brewer. His Magnificat in D builds up to a glorious crescendo with a roaring closing chord on the organ which was a real joy to hear. About that Psalm: I thought their pronunciation was really good and precise, very tight and clear, even though some faces seemed a bit tired, perhaps from spending a long day in the capital, far from home.

After the Creed, sung by all on a single note, which made it very solemn, and the prayers, each with its own fitting repsonse (by John Sanders), it was time for the beautiful anthem which really paints the dramatic narrative of Psalm 107. It talks of shipmen on the sea and as the waves become very violent because of a storm “they reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man”. The tension gradually falls away to make room for a serene and calm ending. I love how English anthems often tell an entire story, and director Rintje te Wies really knew how to treat each section of the story with the right emphasis and build-up. I immediately thought of the time I heard the Choir of Westminster Abbey sing Elgar’s anthem Great is the Lord where director James O’Donnell employed the same sense of narrative and word-painting, so well written by Elgar.

The final prayers also included a moving poem by John Donne, which I first heard in another Evensong at the Nicolaas church. The poem speaks of a home of eternal rest and a glimpse of that heavenly vision was shared in the sights and sounds of the Evensong. Then Sytze de Vries really let the pipes blow to support the congregational singing of closing hymn Strong Son of God, immortal Love and treated us to an exuberant voluntary, always a privilege to hear.

At the exit two young choristers collected donations which was nice to see – being able to contribute directly to their wonderful efforts.
And now I’m already looking forward to their next apearance, in two weeks’ time at the St. Bavo church in Haarlem with its amazing organ!

Evensong for the Eve of the 4th Sunday after Trinity
Introit: Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake (John Hilton; text: Christian Prayers and Holy Meditations, 1568)
Preces: John Sanders
Office Hymn: O lux beata Trinitas (Sarum Plainchant)
Psalm 80
Canticles: Service in D (Herbert Brewer)
Responses after the Creed: John Sanders
Anthem: They that go down to the sea in ships
Closing Hymn: Strong Son of God, immortal Love

Choir organ celebration

Today was a festive day in the Roman Catholic St. Catharine cathedral in Utrecht. The new choir organ was welcomed with a special concert, featuring the choirs of both the cathedral and the choir school. For years, it has been a wish of organist Wouter van Belle to have an organ that was suited to accompany the choir during liturgical services. In recent times they were only accompanied by the great organ above the entrance while the choir were located left of the high altar. Now, this is also the place where the newly installed choir organ is placed, above a newly built kind of wooden choir stalls with steps on several levels. The organ was built in 1852 by Daniel Gray (so it’s exactly 160 years old this year :)) and in 1989 bought and restored by Dutch organ builder Feenstra in the province of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands. After moving from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands it has been in use at a church in the orthodox reformed tradition, and now, as of 2012, it serves the worship at the seat of the Dutch Roman Catholic archbishop.

Though small, the instrument has a lot of colour and depth, with lovely elegant flute sounds and deep sounding pedals. Wouter van Belle demonstrated this in a few pieces, in particular by variations on a theme by Corelli, showing off all the different possibilities of the organ.

The real treat I came for though (ofcourse 😉 was the choir performance. We got to hear the choirs first in the position they normally take during worship, left of the altar and later also in front of it -‘centre stage’, so to speak. During the first part, they sang works by Herman Strategier and moved me especially with a Marian antiphon (Ave Regina coelorum) and a beautiful, radiant setting of the Gloria. Unfortunately, even from our relative good view from our pew, the view of the choir was partly obscured by a large pillar. Which was funny, because at one point I thought, there are so few men in this choir – and then I realised that most of them were simply hidden from view 🙂 The choir is mixed, by the way, so it has boys as well as girls and it was nice to hear their mixed voices, just after having recently changed my viewpoint that the traditional English church choirs should be opened up to girls as well. Maybe I’ll write a separate blog about that sometime.

After the choir moved to the centre, the first piece they sang was Laudate Dominum by Mozart, an exquisetely beautiful piece with a soprano and violinist. I am recently in a Mozart craze so I was delighted to hear this, though I was not overly enthusiastic about the soprano. The organ played really smoothly and tenderly, making it sound like the song was gently rocking on waves or on a mother’s lap. The moment the choir entered for the final part sounded wonderful.

Next up was Elgar’s Ave verum, a piece I love but I thought their performance lacked some strength and focus. That was soon forgotten though when the next piece came: the Jubilate Deo) from the Collegium Regale service by Herbert Howells. Such a dynamic, complex piece which had me glued to my seat when my attention was attracted to a boy soprano and a few girl sopranos on my left side who sang with strong, clear voices. The boy especially sang with unmatched focus and direction, really singing towards the people in the church, not only with his voice but also with his whole expression and body language. He stood out in that respect because as usual (sadly) with the choir of the choir school there is a big variety in concentration and sense of ‘togetherness’. It was so refreshing to see this kid being so into it and he had a great voice to match. At one point, for the text ‘The Lord is gracious’, Howells paints the word ‘gracious’ for the sopranos solo and the final note stays on as the other voices blend, like a small red thread running through the rest of the fabric, and this one boy especially held it just beautifully. Perhaps the best moment of the concert. But the entire piece is, and was, marvelous. (I was actually surprised because I never associate Howells with joyfulness ;)) What was also nice was to see a choir member I praised earlier on this blog still in the choir, though I was surprised he seemed to be singing with the altos and not with the tenors as I would expect. I was seated on the side where he stood and often I could pick out his voice which was very nice to hear.

In order to put the organ once more in the spotlight, cathedral organist Paul Houdijk was helped to the instrument (he is blind, which makes it even more moving to watch him play). He played two lovely elegant pieces, one by Lemmens and one by Lefébure Wely, with soft flutes and a very reverent sound throughout, that were very touching, and two beautiful pieces by César Franck.

If you’re ever in the opportunity to listen to this rather English instrument, do so. You won’t be disappointed.

A choral London Sunday in May

After visiting Arundel for the Libera concert, my boyfriend and I added two more days in London. On Sunday 6 May we attended Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Evensong at Westminster Abbey. The choir at St. Paul’s sang the Missa octo vocum by Hans Leo Hassler (1562-1612), a setting for eight voices dividing the choir into two separate choirs. I thought their music director Andrew Carwood directed them forcefully and I enjoyed the parts with high and low voices together the best. It’s a great feat to pull off a Mass setting with this complexity, but they did not impress me as much as the last time I heard them. I thought they did not always blend beautifully. The anthem, Dic nobis, Maria by Giovanni Bassano, with words from the sequence on Easter Day, was very nice though and the organ voluntary, Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 547) by Bach, played om the remote console next to the choir, was just spectacular. A nice bonus was the fact that the closing hymn was How Shall I Sing that Majesty?, which the Libera song of the same title, the last song of the previous night’s concert, is based on 😉

The Westminster Abbey Choir did not disappoint however, on the contrary. I think right now they are my favourite English church choir. I was so lucky to be able to hear them last Sunday because they sang beautiful classic responses by William Byrd and a Psalm setting by Samuel Wesley (Psalm 96) as well as the very modern and dynamic Jesus College service by William Mathias and an anthem which is one of my absolute favourites: Great is the Lord by Edward Elgar. This setting of Psalm 48 showcases a wonderful range of choral singing and is the first song on the CD I bought of the Abbey choir as a souvenir of my first visit there last year in March. And they sang it even more beautiful than on that recording. The dynamics were played out even more; each section of the song was given its own momentum, especially the dramatic part about the kings who were amazed and dismayed and hasted away. Each picture was painted perfectly. The baritone solo that follows was just fantastic, so peaceful – a rich, bronze voice that warmed up the whole church. And the moment when the trebles start the part of “Let mount Zion be glad” really was a moment of glad tidings approaching, culminating in a wonderful, powerful climax. Amazing and hats off to James O’Donnell.

What I love about the Abbey is not just its stunning atmosphere but also the fact that you can hear each voice so clearly, especially when seated in the choir stalls. Two of the basses on the Decani side really stood out for me. They seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot as well. One of them had a bit too much vibrato to my taste, but it’s really minor remarks for a choir of this standard.
I was also struck by the way some of the young trebles listened attentively to the long sermon by the former Bishop of Hereford, which sounded a lot like a lecture in school, despite its inspiring material. What a childhood it must be for these young boys, getting so close in contact not only with amazing music but food for thought as well. There were two probationers in the stalls, directly opposite to us, who made me wonder how they experienced this service. I would so love to borrow their head one day to see what a day in their life is like 🙂 The service ended with a hymn that is now becoming a favourite, Love divine, all loves excelling. All in all a wonderful experience.

Special events at Salisbury Cathedral (video)

Last year I took a look at what goes on “behind the scenes” of a chorister’s life, with examples from many churches. This video focuses on special events that occur in the life of a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral.

There was a documentary about this choir on BBC4 recently but this is a different video. It shows some unforgettable moments. For instance, it introduced me to the phenomenon of ‘boy bishops’. Apparently there is a century-old tradition in both Anglican and Roman Catholic churches that on 6 December, St. Nicholas Day, the real bishop hands over his blessing, title and duties to a boy from the choir. The newly appointed boy bishop then gets to perform all the duties of a real bishop, including blessing and giving a sermon. It’s all done in remembrance of Jesus who took a child in the midst of His disciples. There is also a line in the Magnificat, the famous hymn of Mary, sung everyday during Evensong, where Mary proclaims: “God hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek”. The boy becoming a bishop then stands for the simple and innocent youth taking over from those normally in charge. More about this wonderful tradition is here on Wikipedia and more about the Salisbury ceremony is here. I think it’s such a cool tradition! Fun but meaningful at the same time.

The video also shows a stunning Advent ceremony where the church is all in darkness and slowly filled with light as flames are passed from one candle to another – a ritual that reminded me a lot of the Easter Vigil service I am familiar with in the Roman Catholic tradition. The shots of the procession with the singing are a real must-see (and -hear!).
Another moment of recognition came when I realised the robes they wear highly resemble those of my favourite Dutch choir 🙂 (I wonder if they were modelled after the Salisbury ones)
On the other hand, there was not so much recognition at the ceremony of burning small wooden crosses in preparation of Ash Wednesday!

The final part might be the most moving. The end of summer term means some choristers have to leave. The ceremony for their parting brought a tear to my eye. What a life these young people must leave behind and what a rich gift they have been given with their choristers’ experience. Truly very moving, and may their lives be blessed with each new step they take.

Thanks go to film maker Ash Mills who directed, shot and edited this film for Salisbury Cathedral and shared it on Youtube.

Elegant Evensong by assorted Anglicans

You know you’re fanatical about Evensong when you’re prepared to travel at least two hours for a service that lasts only one. This evening I attended Evensong at the wonderful St. Bavo church in Haarlem, sung by the Anglican Singers from Amsterdam and the choirs of the Anglican Church Haarlem. Most of them sung together recently in Ely Cathedral and two of them I know from the St. Nicholas Chorale in Amsterdam. Does that still make sense, dear reader? If it doesn’t, don’t worry – the same puzzling effect of assorted Anglicans was created by all the different colours of robes and medals. For one thing, this patchwork-like variety didn’t show in the choir sound, which was homogenous and confident and had a nice clear pronunciation. The repertoire was very elegant, with no real highlights, except maybe the ethereal Introit by Jackson or the Response “and take not thy Holy Spirit from us” which had some lovely dissonances, colouring the despair behind this pleading phrase. The famous Müller organ once again stole my heart, especially the high flute-like sounds. You have to hear it to believe it (the same goes for the sometimes glorious echo of the church).

Oh yes, and we got to sing two very nice hymns: O Worship the King, which has a melody I know really well, and How Shall I Sing that Majesty which I know in a completely different version by Libera – so I had to reacquaint myself with the tune but most of the words were overly familiar. So it was great to be able to sing them in an actual service, amidst a strong and enthusiastic congregation, I might add (maybe they were regulars at the protestant St. Bavo church, and therefore more used to congregational singing, who knows).

I have a hunch this was not the last time I made the trip north, and hopefully also not the last time my journey was accompanied by such spectacular clouds and a blazing sunset.

Introit: Justorum animae (Gabriel Jackson)
Procession hymn: O Worship the King (NEH 433)
Preces (Michael Walsh)
Psalm 136 (Jonathan Bielby)
Canticles: Evening Service in E minor (William S. Lloyd Webber)
Lesser Litany, Lord’s Prayer, Collects (Michael Walsh)
Anthems: Christ whose glory fills the skies (Harold Darke) & Litany to the Holy Spirit (Peter Hurford)
Closing hymn: How Shall I Sing that Majesty (NEH 699/373)
Organ voluntary: Voluntary in A minor for Double Organ (William Croft)

Conductor: Martin van Bleek
Organ: James Pollard