Over the next few weeks, some members of the Choral Union and Choral Scholars will participate in a virtual-choir recording of Sir John Stainer’s passion cantata The Crucifixion. This piece was once a Holy Week fixture in almost every parish with a good choir, and after decades in the wilderness owing to widespread distaste for all things Victorian, it has enjoyed a revival in recent years. The Choral Union and Choral Scholars have, of course, performed it live in 2018 (in Sandford Church) and 2019 (in St Philip’s Church).
This virtual recording is a collaboration between musicians from several parishes across the dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough. The conductor is Kevin O’Sullivan, organist of Kilternan Parish Church, and the producer and organizer is Tom Maxwell, organist of St Brigid’s, Stillorgan, who was the artistic force behind the diocesan virtual-choir Nine Lessons and Carols. The organist is the organist of Sandford and St Philip’s, and the soloists are Brian Hennessey (of Christ Church Cathedral choir) and the Rev’d Jack Kinkead (Rector of Wicklow and Killiskey).
Jack Kinkead’s participation in this performance reminded me of an early example of a musical collaboration between Sandford and St Philip’s. In 1925, the choir of St Philip’s put on a performance of The Crucifixion, in which the bass soloist was the Rev’d William Nesbitt Harvey, then quite recently appointed as Rector of Sandford Parish. Dr Harvey was also a frequent soloist in Sandford’s own Crucifixion during the 1930s and ’40s.
Until the pandemic intervened, the Choral Union and Choral Scholars were preparing a performance of Théodore Dubois’s Seven Last Words (the English translation of Les sept paroles du Christ). This piece is extremely popular in the USA (as popular as Crucifixion is here), but is hardly ever heard on this side of the Atlantic. Dubois was the organist of La Madeleine in Paris, where he succeeded Camille Saint-Saëns, and was succeeded by Gabriel Fauré (another composer whose music is well known to our choirs).
There is a wealth of dramatic musical settings of the Passion, the most famous of which are Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. Since both of these are beyond the means of most church choirs (both in scale and complexity), many composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century created works intended for church performance. Crucifixion is the most famous, followed by John Henry Maunder’s once-popular and highly dramatic Olivet to Calvary (which someone once quipped to me was Crucifixion for people with even worse musical taste). The anti-Victorian reaction of the early twentieth century produced the much more solemn St Mark Passion by Irish-born composer Charles Wood.
There are many other suitable Passion works, by composers who are now largely forgotten (Calvary by Louis Spohr, The Passion of Christ by Arthur Somervell, The Last Supper by Eric Thiman), and works by more familiar composers (Christ on the Mount of Olives by Ludwig von Beethoven, The Brockes Passion by George Frideric Handel). There is also the spurious St Luke Passion (attributed to Bach, but likely written by one of his contemporaries), which was in the earlier part of the last century the favourite Holy Week piece of St Philip’s choir. In any case, there is plenty of repertoire in that list alone to keep the Choral Union and Choral Scholars busy for the next few years!
My personal favourite Holy Week piece is Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I don’t think we’ll be performing it in Sandford or St Philip’s any time soon (since it needs three choirs, two orchestras, and a myriad of soloists), but if you can set aside three hours on Good Friday, I highly recommend a wonderful performance of it by the Netherlands Bach Society, which is available on YouTube. David O’Shea
10 years of music (and so much more)
January marked the 10 anniversary of David O’Shea as organist and choir director in our parishes. So much has taken place musically during this time that it’s impossible to mention it all, but to mention some; lunchtime recitals, early music recitals, spring concerts; Choral Scholars and Choral Union; Choral Compline and organ recitals; Holy Week recitals, operas, hymnathons; local school and community concerts, Christmas sing-alongs; the restoration of two organs, the list goes on, and all in addition to regular Sunday worship, including skilled improvisations. David’s commitment and enthusiasm are second to none and we are very fortunate indeed to have him with us in our parishes. A presentation was made to David at the live-streamed service on 10 January, before he launched into the organ voluntary, Grand Choeur in C major (Sortie on a Swiss Noel) by César Franck.