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William CROFT (1678 - 1727): "Burial Service & Anthems"

The Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Anita Datta (soloa), Rachel Haworth (solob), organ
Dir: David Skinner

rec: June 28 - 30, 2014, Cambridge, Chapel of Sidney Sussex College
Obsidian - CD714 (© 2015) (50'50")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

William CROFT / Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Burial Service; William CROFT: God is gone up with a merry noise [2]; Hear my prayer, O Lord [1]; O Lord God of my salvation [1]; O Lord, grant the King a long life [1]; O Lord, rebuke me not [1]; Sing praises to the Lord [1]; Voluntary No. 1 in d minorb; Voluntary No. 4 in g minora; Voluntary No. 5 in Cb; Voluntary No. 8 in Ca

Source: [1] Musica sacra, or Select Anthems in Score, 1724; [2] William Boyce, ed, Cathedral Music, 1760-73

It has been noted more than once that the music by English composers from the decades around 1700 is not often performed and recorded. Henry Purcell is the best-known composer from this period, but even large parts of his music are not widely available on disc. The output of his teacher John Blow has fared even worse, and the same can be said of another of Blow's pupils, William Croft. That makes a disc which is entirely devoted to his oeuvre all the more welcome, even though the playing time is very short.

Croft started his musical career as a chorister in the Chapel Royal under Blow's direction. It has been noted that he was more than a pupil and was also Blow's protégé. He may have acted as organist of St Anne's Church in Soho as from 1700. The same year he returned to the Chapel Royal as Gentleman Extraordinary, alongside Jeremiah Clarke. In 1704 both were appointed organists of the Chapel, and when Clarke died in 1707 the whole post fell to Croft. In 1708 Blow died and Croft succeeded him as composer, Tuner of the Regals and Organs, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal and as organist of Westminster Abbey. In July 1713 Croft took the degree of DMus. in Oxford.

In his early years Croft composed secular vocal music - including music for the stage - and instrumental works. Although he continued to do so after he succeeded Blow he then largely focused on the composition of sacred music. He collected a large part of his output in this genre in two volumes which were printed in 1724 under the title of Harmonia Sacra, not in parts - as was common practice at the time - but as scores. He considered himself as a chain in a tradition whch went back as far as Thomas Tallis and which he characterised with the words "Solemnity, Gravity, and Excellency of Style". Part of that tradition was also Henry Purcell whose influence is clearly noticeable in Croft's anthems. At the same time he underwent the influence of George Frideric Handel who played an increasingly important part in music life and wrote sacred music for special occasions. In this respect he was a rival of Croft whose position made him the first responsible for the composition of such music. However, it seems that he didn't nourish ill feelings towards Handel.

The present disc includes some specimens from his output in the genre of the anthem. Most of them are verse anthems in which episodes for the full choir and for solo voices alternate. In previous times such passages often merged into one another. In Croft's anthems they are mostly more clearly split and one could probably see here the influence of the modern cantata with its division into arias and choruses. He uses the juxtaposition of verses in different scorings to underline a textual contrast. That is the case, for instance, in Sing praises to the Lord, a setting of the verses 4 and 5 of Psalm 30. Verse 4 - Sing praises to the Lord, O ye saints of his - is for full choir. The next verse - "For his wrath endures but for a moment" - is scored for solo voices. The second half of verse 5 shows the same contrast: the soloists sing "heaviness may endure for a night" and then the full choir ends the piece with the words "but joy cometh in the morning". Croft also makes use of harmony in the interest of text expression. The opening phrase of Hear my prayer O Lord includes some dissonances: "Hear my prayer, O Lord: "and let my crying come unto thee". There are certainly some reminiscences of Purcell's setting of the same text.

Croft's best-known work is the Burial Service. As it is not known when he composed it we don't know for which occasion it was written. It was included in the appendix of his Musica Sacra and Croft added that it was "occasionally perform'd in Westminster Abbey". The texts are from the Book of Common Prayer and are divided into four sections: I am the resurrection, Man that is born of a woman, Thou knowest Lord and I heard a voice from heaven. Croft took the form of the full anthem for his Burial Service, and it is notable that he did not set the third section but rather included Purcell's famous version of Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts which were part of his music for Queen Mary's funeral in 1695. Croft stated that "the reason why I did not compose that verse a-new (so as to render the whole service entirely of my own composition) is obvious to every artist". It tells us something about Croft's character and his reverence for the great master Henry Purcell.

voluntary is not the name of a fixed form but rather an activity which the music historian Roger North viewed as the "consummate office of a musician". It seems likely that the voluntaries by Croft are the result of his activities as an organist. But such pieces could also be played on a harpsichord as they omit a pedal part. In the setting of this disc with sacred works the performance at the organ is certainly the most logical option.

Those are also the pieces which I enjoyed most. Croft's vocal music is very good but their qualities - especially in regard to expression - don't come across that well. The Choir of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge is certainly a good ensemble, but I don't find its sound very interesting, and often rather bland. The anthems lack profile and the performances are too straightforward. I would have liked a better phrasing - the music doesn't really breathe - and a more differentiated articulation as well as more dynamic shading. I have heard far better and more expressive performances of Purcell's Thou knowest, Lord. But as far as Croft's anthems are concerned there are not many alternatives. Edward Higginbottom devoted a disc to him with his Choir of New College Oxford (CRD, 1995) whose programme includes several pieces which are also on the present disc. John Scott recorded the Burial Service with the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral, together with a Te Deum and Jubilate and a Thanksgiving Anthem which are for choir with orchestra. Considering the large number of anthems Croft has written a more thorough investigation of his oeuvre is long overdue.

A word about the booklet. It includes the lyrics but I heard a voice from heaven (Burial Service) is omitted. It lists the members of the choir and indicates the soloists in the various anthems. However, it mentions two organists but fails to tell who plays in which item. The information in the header in regard to the Voluntaries is taken from Amazon, assuming they have made some investigation into this matter. It was impossible to track down who plays the accompaniments in the anthems.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

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