While Duke Chapel is closed for in-person services, we are rebroadcasting selected services of Choral Evensong on Sundays at 4:00 p.m.
The music this afternoon features composers who were almost exact contemporaries of each other: Edmund Rubbra (1901– 1986) and Sir William Walton (1902–1983). Despite their vastly different upbringings and careers the music of both men does not cease to stimulate and inspire.
Edmund Rubbra was born to poor, working-class parents in Northampton. His father was employed in a boot factory and Edmund ran errands to supplement the family income long before he left school at the age of fourteen to work as a railroad clerk. His mother sang in the local church choir and took care to encourage his musical development at the piano. He went on to study composition with Gustav Holst at Reading University.
Two noteworthy elements define Rubbra’s compositions. The first is that while embracing traditional forms and structures he wrote with a unique voice and advanced concept of tonality and harmony. This concept seems to grow from the starting point of a composer such as Ravel or Debussy, where harmonic inventiveness is always logical but often breath-takingly wonderful. Tonality is clear but not set in stone and the context in which it is presented opens up endless possibilities.
The second characteristic of Rubbra was his firmly held religious faith. Few of his colleagues had definite convictions of religion: Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten, and Tippett felt uncomfortable with religion and both Britten and Tippett had to supplant their personal feelings in order to write music for the Church. For Rubbra spirituality was the starting point for work, an limitless wellspring from which flowed seamlessly into his choral and vocal music.
His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A-flat major, Op. 65 was composed in 1948 and is a remarkably bold and original setting compared with the more polite versions often heard. There is a sense of muscularity at the opening of the Magnificat, underscored by a broad, majestic tempo. Throughout there is an acute sensitivity to word stress, most obviously in the Nunc dimittis where the unison melody in octaves between the upper and lower voices stretches languidly around the text. The Gloria features bold organ writing with notorious simultaneous duplets and triplets between the hands and pedals!
One of the foremost British composers of the twentieth century, Sir William Walton, received his musical education as both a chorister and graduate in music at Christ Church, Oxford. Yet despite his fame and prosperous musical career he led an extraordinarily reclusive life: he lived permanently on the remote Italian island of Ischia, he did not have any private students, he did not teach in any conservatory, nor did he write essays, books, or lectures on music.
This lifestyle did not seem to jeopardize his career for when Ralph Vaughan Williams turned down the invitation from Westminster Abbey’s Director of Music, William McKie, Walton received the commission to write his Coronation Te Deum for Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation. Working closely with McKie, Walton wrote to him in December 1952: “Though I hesitate to hazard an opinion when I am so near to the work…I think it is going to be rather splendid. I have made use of extra brass but have arranged it so that it can be dispensed with if impractical for any reason. There is quite an important and indispensable organ part!” A splendid work indeed, the version heard this afternoon features the virtuosic organ part on its own.
Music in this service:
- Preces and Responses by Bruce Neswick
- Psalm 30 (chant: Joey Fala)
- Service in A flat by Edmund Rubbra
- Coronation Te Deum by William Walton
- Hymn: King of glory, King of peace (GENERAL SEMINARY)