13 July 2019

An afternoon of choral
music from Cambridge
in Saint Mary’s Cathedral

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, in advance of yesterday’s concert by Saint John’s Voices from Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the joys of being the canon precentor of a cathedral is the responsibility of taking an interest in the cathedral liturgy, music and choral music.

At lunchtime on Friday, I was in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, for a visit by Saint John’s Voices, the mixed-voice choir from Saint John’s College, Cambridge. About 30 members of the choir are on a tour of Ireland, directed by Graham Walker, and with Shanna Hart and Hugh Crook on the organ and piano.

The concert opened with three pieces from 16th and 17th century composers: ‘Cantate Domino’ by Claudio Monteverdi, ‘Ave Maria’ by Robert Parsons and ‘Alleluia, Ascendit Deus – Dominus in Sina’ by William Byrd.

We then moved to the 18th century and heard JS Bach’s ‘Lobet den Herm.’

We were then invited to imagine ourselves in a great French Gothic cathedral, filled with incense and light streaming in through stained-glass windows as we listened to the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ from the ‘Messe Solennelle’ by the blind French composer and organist Jean Langlais.

A colleague sitting beside me – a rector from the Diocese of Killaloe – whispered quietly, ‘Wow, could we have that in my church on Sunday.’

It was so appropriate then for a Cambridge choir visiting Ireland to then sing Three Latin Motets by Charles V Stanford, ‘Justorum Animae,’ ‘Coelos Ascendit Hodie,’ and ‘Beati Quorum Via.’ The Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was born in Dublin, was organist of Trinity College Cambridge and was Professor of Music at Cambridge. His students included Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The afternoon concluded with ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ arranged by Dale Adelmann. This spiritual has become the anthem of English rugby fans, but perhaps it was also appropriate given the present success of the English cricket team – albeit under an Irish captain, Eoin Morgan.

Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. The college choir began singing in the chapel in the 1670s, and since the 1950s it has developed into one of the world’s most distinguished choirs.

Music of all kinds plays an important role in college life, from ‘Jazz at John’s’ to the new Saint John’s Festivals. Musical alumni of Saint John’s include the singers Iestyn Davies and Simon Keenlyside and the composers Robin Orr and Jonathan Harvey.

Saint John’s Voices was founded in 2013, and is already developing an enviable reputation for its high-quality an emotionally charged performance.

The Voices was formed at first to sing Evensong weekly in the college chapel, and has gone on to become a quickly-evolving and ambitious choir in Cambridge. After only two years in existence, they undertook their first foreign tour in December 2015.

The Voices performed Messiah to sell-out halls in Hong Kong and Singapore in 2016, and plans are developing for tours to the US, Canada and Colombia.

My colleague’s whispered wish that he could hear the Voices sing ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ in his parish church tomorrow is not going to be realised. But their tour of Ireland, which began in Galway Cathedral on Thursday evening, continued this afternoon in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.

They are in Saint Fin Barre’s again on Sunday morning singing the Choral Eucharist at 11.15 a.m. (Langlais, Messe Solennelle, and Stanford, Beati Quorum Via) and Choral Evensong at 3.30 p.m. (Howells Gloucester Service and Bach Lobet den Herm).

Their Irish tour continues in Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, at 1.15 p.m. on Monday 15 July and in Saint Iberius’ Church, Wexford, at 1.05 p.m. on Wednesday 17 July.

Saint John’s Voices is embarking on an exciting programme of concerts, recordings and videos, and recently recorded its first commercial album of music by William Mathias, for release on the Naxos label next year [2020].

From the programme for Saint John’s Voices in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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