Jesse Ratcliffe is Saint James’ director of music. He can be reached here.
Easter Vigil is one of the most beautiful services of the church year as we segue from the reflective and somber atmosphere of Lent into the joy of Easter. The choral anthem for this service, Alleluia, composed by Randall Thompson conveys all the emotions of this holy day.
Thompson, born in 1899 and died in 1984, was an American composer who taught at many prestigious schools, including the University of Virginia (1941-1945), whose compositional style is regarded as “distinctly American”. Alleluia was composed in five days with the text being two words: “Alleluia, Amen”-with the latter being sung once at the final chord which spreads the choir into seven parts. This composition was a reaction to the war, especially the fall of France.
Thompson utilizes unique parallel harmonies and distant key centers (F-sharp minor, for example) as well as syncopation (accents on weak beats) and dramatic variances in dynamics to express contemplation, anxiety, sorrow, and peace. G. Wallace Woodworth, the conductor to first learn and direct this piece remarked, “So sure was Mr. Thompson’s technique, so expert his craftsmanship and so masterly his grasp of the true genius of choral singing […] he had created one of the most noblest pieces of choral music in the twentieth century.”
The Episcopal tradition brims to overflowing with engaging and unique music and liturgy. On May 21at the 10:15 Eucharist, the Saint James’ Adult Choir, Youth Chorale, and Handbells will lead the church in a Festival Eucharist utilizing some of the finest music.
The service will begin with a Concerto for Handbells and Organ, a recent work by Michael Helman, the Mass (Gloria¸ Sanctus¸ Benedictus and Agnus Dei) as well as the Psalm were penned by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford in the early 20th century, and the offertory anthem was composed by Gwyneth Walker in 1997.
Most notable of the three composers is Stanford, a well-known name in the Episcopal and Anglican Church worldwide. Born in 1852 and died in 1924, Stanford composed in virtually every classical genre-symphonic, piano, chamber, opera, as well as organ and choral music. At age 29, he became one of the founders of the Royal College of Music. Stanford’s church music, consisting primarily of settings for communion and evensong liturgies, are a staple in church choral literature. His compositional language is heavily melodic with emphasis on the soprano and bass whereas the alto and tenor serve as “filler”. Ralph Vaughan Williams remarked that Stanford’s sacred music was that of “imperishable beauty”. The Mass setting the choir will be singing is full of heroic themes in the Gloria and Sanctus. The Gloria has fast and unexpected key shifts-a true challenge for any choir, but the Benedictus and Agnus Dei are quite reflective with emphasis on the text instead of attention to extravagant compositional techniques.
Gwyneth Walker, the composer of the offertory anthem, With Thee That I May Live, was born in 1949, formerly served on the music faculty of Oberlin, and has been a dairy farmer for the past thirty years. The text, a unique poem by Anne Barbauld (1743-1825), is in essence an Easter text, but has many allusions to Pentecost, Advent, and Good Friday. The organ accompaniment, is minimalistic and does not complicate the lush choral harmonies which are a mix of contemporary and ancient.
The most exciting element of the service, at least for the choir and handbells, is that Marilyn Shenenberger, a former faculty member of Westminster Choir College that has retired to the Winchester area, will be the conductor of the service. In September she spent several hours with the choir instilling proper choral technique. Her energy, wit, and years of experience as a vocal coach will prove to be an invaluable experience to the choirs. My role will be that of choral accompanist-the Helman Concerto, the Stanford Mass setting, and the Walker Anthem all have difficult accompaniments which require a separate conductor.