Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Precentor’s joy at
listening to the cathedral
in ‘Times and Seasons’

One of the roles of a Precentor is taking an active interest in the choral and musical life of a cathedral(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The music and choral tradition of a cathedral is an integral part of its mission, ministry and outreach. One of the joys of being the Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, is the role of taking an active interest in the choral and musical life of the cathedral.

This week I received a complimentary copy of Times & Seasons, a CD recorded by Trevor Selby and the Choir of Saint Mary’s Cathedral. This CD dates from 2010, seven years before I was appointed Precentor. But already it is proving helpful as I search for recorded music that might be helpful for services during these Covid-19 days, when pandemic restrictions mean we cannot sing publicly in churches.

The 23 tracks on this CD were recorded by the cathedral choir with Trevor Selby, then the cathedral organist, and Michael Young, then the organ scholar.

This CD was recorded by Jim Callan of Callan Studios, Co Clare, in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on 3 and 4 July 2010. It represents the wide and substantial liturgical repertoire that had developed at the cathedral by then. It includes many of the choir’s favourites, but the main feature of this recording is to highlight the ‘essential round’ of liturgy through the times and seasons of the Church year.

Two morning canticles represent the service of Matins in the cathedral. The setting by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) of the traditional words of Jubilate, was written as part of his Collegium Regale for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

The canticle Urbs Fortitudinis – described by Bishop Harold Miller as the ‘national anthem’ of the Church of Ireland – is set to a chant by Trevor Selby.

The CD then turns to Advent, which is appropriate as I am now putting the finishing touches to my preparations for Advent, the season that marks the beginning of the Church year. The repertoire for this season is particularly strong in the cathedral thanks to Advent Carol Service, which had become a highlight in Saint Mary’s each year, usually featuring several new items.

The Celtic Advent Carol by David Angerman and Michael Barrett, features Susan O’Leary on the flute. The contrasting Behold the mountain of the Lord, Scottish paraphrases based on Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 to a setting by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), had become firm favourites in the cathedral.

The beautiful Advent Carol by Richard Shepherd and Mary Holtby highlights the relationship between the Virgin Mary and her cousin Saint Elizabeth with Saint John the Baptist’s heralding of the birth of Christ. This is followed, appropriately, by Mary’s Magnificat by Andrew Carter, with Niamh Hennessy as soloist.

E’en so, Lord Jesus, by Paul Manz and Ruth Manz, is based on verses in Revelation 22, and with its four-octave range proved to be an enjoyable challenge.

Christmas is represented on this recording by the simple but effective This is the truth sent from above, a traditional English carol to a setting by Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The soloist on this track is David Howes.

The Epiphany Carol Service has been a smaller affair in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, but provided an opportunity to enjoy a feast of repertoire. Peter Dyke’s setting of Three Kings, an old Flemish carol translated by Robert Graves (1895-1985), is a very approachable contemporary setting. Graves was a son of the Irish poet Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931) and a grandson of Bishop Charles Graves (1812-1899), who is buried in the grounds of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

‘Boardwalk’ is a marvellous tune by Robert Ashfield (1911-2006) for Brightest and Best, by Reginald Heber. The words of the hymn are based on Matthew 2: 1-11, and the tune deserves to be better known.

The organ at Saint Mary’s boasts a magnificent tuba stop, shown to great effect on this album with the ever-popular Tuba Tune by Norman Cocker (1889-1953), which ends this section of Festive music.

Lent and Passiontide are represented first by Wash me thoroughly, based on Psalm 51: 2-3. The setting is by Charles Wesley’s grandson, Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876), whose birth bicentenary was widely celebrated the year of this recording. Emily Howe is the soloist.

The canticle Benedictus contrasts plainchant and Tudor harmony in alternate verses in a setting by Tallis.

Jesus grant me this, I pray is a 17th century poem translated by the Revd Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877), editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern and sung to a setting by Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) of Rochester Cathedral, once a pupil of Vaughan Williams. Psalm 57 speaks eloquently of the pain and anguish of Passiontide but with the hope of the Resurrection. This version from the Book of Common Prayer is to chants by SS Wesley and WH Longhurst (1819-1904) of Canterbury Cathedral. These two pieces speak eloquently of the pain and anguish of Passiontide, but with the hope of the Resurrection.

John Donne’s poem ‘Resurrection,’ with a setting by Trevor Selby, provides a reflective introit to Easter celebrations:

Sleep, sleep, old Sun, thou canst not have repast,
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last;
Sleep then, and rest; The world may bear thy stay.
A better Sun rose before thee to-day.


Richard Shepherd’s Easter Song of Praise is another firm favourite in celebratory style.

King of Glory, King of Peace, a poem by George Herbert (1593-1632), to a setting by JS Bach (1685-1750) arranged by Sir William Henry Harris (1883-1973) of Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, is appropriate for Ascensiontide.

A little-known motet by Mozart, May thy Spirit rest upon us, arranged by Laurence Swinyard (1901-1986), takes the listener into Pentecost. Harvest is represented by Ye shall dwell in the land a hymn by Chatterton Dix based on Ezekiel 36 and Psalm 136 to a setting by John Stainer (1840-1901). The soloists are Harry Howes and Vivienne Crowley.

Saints’ days offer an opportunity to enjoy Ernest Bullock’s Give us the wings of faith, with its lively word-painting by Isaac Watts.

The choir reaches eventide with Sunset and Evening Star to a setting by Hubert Parry (1848-1918). Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote this poem overlooking the sea, some say at the Solen, others say at Kilkee, Limerick’s favourite resort.

With Louis Vierne’s Clair et Lune (Pièces de Fantaisie, Op 3 No 5), the organ bids a peaceful ‘Goodnight.’

The voices on this collection include Vivienne Crowley, Niamh Hennesy, Emily Howes, Laura Howes, Betty McGlone, Ruth Stanley (sopranos), Peggy Carey, Noreen Ellerker (altos), John Doyle, David Howes (tenors), and Harry Howes, Michael Howes and Paul Ryan (tenors).

‘Times & Seasons’ was recorded by Trevor Selby and the Choir of Saint Mary’s Cathedral ten years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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