SING WE MERRILY: 1000 Years of English Church Music

By Margret Brady Nankivell

Under the direction of music director Kirkland Adsett, the combined choirs of St. Matthew’s are planning a joyful journey of song across a millennium of English church music. Beginning with Gregorian chants, the May 15 Sunday afternoon concert will follow the development of sacred music to present times. Starting at 2pm, it will be presented on a freewill offering basis.

Adsett says his inspiration for the concert’s theme came from a Christmas gift in the form of a book from the men of the choir. Titled O Sing Unto the Lord by Andrew Gant, it lays out the history of church music in England through colourful stories of individual composers. “It's my hope that in presenting one thousand years of English church music we will both entertain and educate,” Adsett says.

Rev. Canon James Beall, who sang as a boy chorister at St. Matthew’s and was our interim minister for a few weeks after the rector’s retirement, will explain the context of the pieces selected and how English sacred music evolved. Multi-talented Scott Bradford, formerly director of music of St. James the Apostle in Montreal, will be the organist.

Selections include “Pater Noster”, a simple evocative Gregorian chant and other Latin pieces such as “Pange Lingua”, “Sancte Dei Pretiose” and “Angelus ad Virginem”. Particularly stunning will be “Salve Regina”, a processional chant that was sung by many monastic orders and now often a part of Compline services (night prayers).

The concert includes “If ye love me” by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), considered one of England’s greatest choral composers. Tallis composed works for Henry VIII and his children and is one of several composers associated with the the English monarchs’ Chapel Royal. And like fellow composer William Byrd (1540-1623), whose “Haec Dies” is on the program, Tallis was an “unreformed Roman Catholic” who managed to survive the religious turmoil of the Tudor period.

Tallis and Byrd were granted a 21-year monopoly for printing and publishing “polyphonic music” (music with two or more lines of independent melody) by Protestant Queen Elizabeth I -- one of the first such copyright arrangements in England.

Byrd’s Catholicism put him at considerable risk because of links with known seditionists, but was much admired by Elizabeth, a music lover and keyboard player. He helped keep the tradition of Latin music alive in England and was known for his compositions of English songs including psalms, sonnets, elegies and pastorals.

He also wrote keyboard pieces, some of which were recorded by Glenn Gould, the eccentric Canadian pianist. Gould’s favourite composer was Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), whose “This is the Record of John” will be one of the concert highlights.

Other Chapel Royal musicians whose works will be sung at the concert include Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and Thomas Attwood (1765-1838).

Purcell was considered one of the greatest English composers of all time and was remarkably versatile and prolific. A prodigy, he may have begun composing as young as age nine but his earliest known piece was an ode written for the King Charles II’s birthday in 1670. “Thou knowest, Lord”, which our choirs will sing, has been sung at British state funerals since Purcell’s death.

Purcell influenced 20th century composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76) whose children’s opera Noye’s Fludde was presented last year at St. Matthew’s. Britten’s uplifting “Jubilate in C” I will be on the program as will the rousing “Let All the World” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Organ pieces will include the regal “Agincourt Hymn” by John Dunstable (1390-1453) and “Rhapsody for organ No. 3 (in C sharp minor)” by leading British composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) whose “Collegium Regale” was featured in a program with the Gloucester Cathedral Choir last fall. Howells’s organ work was composed during a German Zeppelin raid on York during the First World War. It was dedicated to Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) whose “Lamentation” will be heard at this concert. This piece employs the Anglican chant, a uniquely English tradition.

The concert will conclude with the stirring “Sing We Merrily” by Sidney Campbell (1909-74), which suggested the name for this concert.



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