Concert in Hertford College Chapel given by The English Chamber Choir

Report by Ann Manley

The English Chamber Choir was delighted to continue its association with the William Tyndale Society by giving a recital during last September’s conference. On previous occasions, our programmes have featured musical settings of words created by Tyndale himself; this year we decided instead to look at his legacy, as pursued by those of his contemporaries who outlived him and their successors. This led us to the rich corpus of metrical settings — from Luther, from Geneva, and from here in Britain – by means of which the Word was spread, in the vernacular, to communities who previously would not have possessed the education to read or learn for themselves. Along with these verses comes a huge repertoire of melodies, some of which became so familiar that just hearing the tune would immediately recall to mind the words which went with it.

We could easily have filled the programme with well-known and wellloved hymn tunes, but both the words and music of many of these have provided inspiration to composers over the years to create more elaborate versions of their own. But we also included a few ‘wild cards’: Tallis’ setting of Tyndale’s words If ye love me became something of a mantra during our visit to Antwerp so we wanted to repeat it. John Sheppard’s Lord’s Prayer also has direct links to Tyndale via Magdalen and Oxford, as well as being something of a musicological curiosity – a setting of Tyndale’s English translation but in a very pre-Reformation ‘melismatic’ style.. And at Prof. David Daniell’s suggestion we included a couple of settings of words by Shakespeare (this is at some distance from metrical psalmody, but reflects the contribution made by both Tyndale and Shakespeare to the evolution of the English language as we know it).

We were grateful to Prof. Francis Higman for suggesting Sweelinck’s Psalm 33. We had not come across it before, but it is a virtuoso piece; it will certainly stay in our repertoire. Sweelinck was one of the foremost keyboard virtuosos of the early 17th century, but he also wrote extensively for voices and set many psalms in French from the Geneva Bible. The work of Tyndale’s contemporary, Miles Coverdale, needed little introduction. Coverdale’s influence on his musical contemporaries was two-fold: unlike Tyndale, he survived persecution and thus went on to translate the psalms, always a rich source of inspiration to composers, and also to begin working on metrical texts. We chose a carol translated from Luther which was included in Coverdale’s Goostly Psalms and Spiritualle Songes of 1546.

The English hymn All people that on earth do dwell, popularly known as the Old Hundredth, is very familiar today from its inclusion in The English Hymnal by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was also responsible for our Shakespeare settings – The Cloud capp’d Towers and Over hill, Over dale.

The early settlers of 17th century New England took with them the heritage of metrical psalm singing from the English Reformation, but developed their own style, which came to be known as the ‘fuguing tune’. So we included a setting of Psalm 68 by one of its foremost exponents, William Billings. The 19th-century German composer Johannes Brahms wrote a setting of the chorale Es ist das Heil, which co-incidentally follows a very similar pattern. The words are by Paul Speratus, a German contemporary of Tyndale who began his career as a Catholic priest, but finally settled in Wittenberg where he worked with Luther.

So, almost at the end of our programme, we reached the founder of modern hymnody – Martin Luther himself. Luther was in many ways the ultimate practical musician. As a child he had sung in the local Kurrende group – a collection of singers who went from house to house singing at weddings and funerals. He happily collaborated with other musicians on producing settings of the Mass which would be performable by an uneducated congregation. In the same way, he acknowledged that the singing of hymns was an ideal way of involving the congregation. In fact his own contribution as a composer was not as extensive as is generally believed. Many of the chorales which became the cornerstone of Lutheran worship were gathered from traditional melodies and metrical versions of Latin hymns. One of the few which is directly attributed to him, however, is Ein’ feste Burg. It went on to become one of the best-loved of Lutheran chorales and, in 19th-century Britain, attracted the attention of Thomas Carlyle, whose translation of it is found in most English hymn books. The harmony, once again, was that of J.S. Bach.

Bach himself composed a total of six motets, four of which use double chorus, in addition to a huge series of cantatas most of which are based on Luther’s chorales. In terms of metrical settings, Singet dem Herrn is notable for its central section, which contrasts two metrical texts, juxtaposed between two choirs. Apart from that, it is a joyful, exuberant piece, which proved highly appropriate to usher our audience on to dinner where, we hope, it continued to ring in their ears.