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)
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