Richard Stoker – A First Performance of I saw a fair Mayden
The Garrick Club carol service was a great place to be on the evening of Wednesday, 20 December 2006. A good chance to enjoy a short interlude before battling with fog-bound roads and manic last minute shopping. It was a fine opportunity meet with the true Christmas spirit.
The carol service was held in that fine church in the heart of Covent Garden – St Paul’s. Often known as the ‘Actors’ Church’ this 17th century building is truly an oasis of calm in the centre of a riot of celebration - especially so amongst all the slightly squiffy office party celebrations ‘happening’ around the old fruit market.
Many famous people have worshipped at this church – including W.S. Gilbert and Thomas Arne. However last night the church was full of respected and equally famous people. It would be unfair to mention names – but it was nice to see Geoffrey Palmer reading the ‘Fourth Lesson’ – the story of Jesus’ birth in the manger. For those of us old enough to remember Reggie Perrin – it was certainly ‘not a cock up on the recitation front.’ It was most movingly and beautifully read.
The Garrick Club is a gentleman’s club in London that has its premises in its namesake street. Over the years it has become the haunt of literary men, actors and of course barristers. It serves as a place of ‘recreation’ for gentlemen that are not inclined to walk as far as Pall Mall to the better known clubs there.
The Garrick had organised this fine Carol Service and had commissioned Richard Stoker to write a new work specifically for this event.
Stoker’s music has encompassed a number of styles over the past five decades - including serialism and jazz. His mature style is probably best summed up as ‘serial’ but not being beholden to the series. I spoke to the composer last night and he suggested that he was developing a new musical philosophy – ‘maximalism’ – but whether this is an attempt at going ‘back to Boulez’ or more pertinently, ‘back to Sorabji’ I do not care to comment on at this time. Perhaps it was just a little bit of Yuletide whimsy?
The carol is entitled ‘I saw a fair mayden’(qv) and is set to 15th century words from the Sloane Manuscript. The text retains the contemporary spellings and dialect words – such as ‘They made mickle mirth’ and ‘…she lulled a lyttel childe.’
The piece is notable for its simplicity. A quick scan at the score reveals a surprising feature. There is not a single accidental; no sharps, flats or naturals. The piece has an interesting balance between modern and ancient. The harmony relies on major 7th and 9th chords for much of its effect but there is almost a feeling of organum in the contrapuntal movement of the four voices.
The carol has four verses, with a refrain following each verse. There is a short organ interlude before and after each strophe. The third verse is unaccompanied, but this verse and the last have a lovely descant for a few soprano soloists. A truly lovely Christmas piece.
The remainder of the service was an enjoyable balance of carols, readings and prayers as has become the norm. Fine performances of Gustav Holst’s Personent Hodie and Patrick Hadley’s exquisite ‘I sing of a maiden’ were given. No carol service would be complete without at least one tune by John Rutter – at this event it was the popular Star Carol. I did not like ‘God is with us’ by John Tavener. To my ear it was a rant - loud and unbalanced. In fact I have never enjoyed the music of this philosophically confused composer since he got ‘Orthodoxy’ and abandoned his more avant-garde – and inspired- music of the nineteen seventies.
There were lots of carols for the large congregation to join in with and the evening finished with ‘O Come all ye faithful’ correctly omitting the final verse. The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev and Rt Hon Richard Chartres truly graced the proceedings and concluded the service with a blessing.
The music was provided by the L’Inviti Singers who are normally based at the Anglo-Catholic shrine of St Mary’s Bourne Street. They were ably conducted by William Whitehead and organist was Stephen Disley.
One last thought. It was lovely to hear the bible stories read from the King James Version and not some pedestrian translation supposedly presenting the Gospel message for today’s challenged readers - in karaoke ‘English.’