Herbert Howells: St Paul’s Service (Washington National Cathedral)

Washington National Cathedral (officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Paul) is a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion.

La Flor Roja

La Flor Roja

[Article updated el 17 de febrero de 2014]
El 6 noviembre de 2013.  Hola.  Last week on All Hallows’ Eve at Washington National Cathedral in the District of Corruption (a.k.a. the District of Columbia or The District) for Choral Evensong the Liturgy was sung by the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls, conducted by Choirmaster Michael McCarthy. The canticles setting was the St Paul’s Service by the English composer Herbert Howells, one of my favourite services. They were accompanied by the Cathedral’s Assistant Organist (and the best organist there!), Benjamin Straley, who did a superb job, as usual. The St Paul’s Service was glorious. (An aside note: If only the Cathedral Singers at Washington National Cathedral sounded this good! Well the Men usually do, it’s las mujeres/the women who are the problem with their poor intonation/wobbling vibrato. The Cathedral Singers consist of the Men of the Cathedral Choir with women’s voices added to them. I’ve heard them sing early music pieces without any vibrato—so I know they can do it—and it was lovely, but any other period of music it seem las mujeres feel the need to turn on that vibrato (ugh! and usually when the principal organist is conducting them) and they sound unrefined and amateurish, or as an amigo of mine said: like your average church choir women).

For those not familiar with Herbert Howells or the St Paul’s Service, you might find this interesting:

Herbert Howells composed a lot of music for the Anglican Church. I think he preferred the High Church (as do I). He traveled around England writing services (meaning Canticle settings and/or Communion Services) for the Cathedrals, collegiate chapels and parishes. He tailored each service he wrote to the acoustics and choir of the building he was writing for. So, for example with the St Paul’s Service which this is about, that Service has very slow harmonic changes to accommodate the vast acoustics of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. I’ve sung the St Paul’s Service and it takes a lot of breath control and air because of the long phrases, and I never tire of hearing the piece, so when I looked at the service leaflet and saw they were doing it, I said: Oh good! The St Paul’s Service is part of what is known as “The Big Three” canticles settings by Howells which are:

The St Paul’s Service
The Gloucester Service (Gloucester Cathedral, or the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity)
The Collegium Regale (or King’s College as in King’s College, Cambridge and the chapel there)

La Dalia Amarilla y Naranja

La Dalia Amarilla y Naranja

The Collegium Regale canticle setting is over-performed in my opinion. The Collegium Regale Communion Service is performed every now and then. I prefer to hear that over the canticle setting of the same name mainly because I’ve sung that canticle setting and heard it so many times. My favourite services of “The Big Three” are St Paul’s and Gloucester. My ongoing complaint with Anglican Church choirmasters is that most of them seem stuck in a rut with “The Big Three” canticles settings. Howells wrote many, many more Services (Chichester, York Minster, Westminster, Westminster in b, St Peter in Westminster, Winchester, New College, St Johns, Oxford and Cambridge to name ten…you get the idea, but those settings are neglected and rarely performed. The same goes for some of his anthems. “I love all beauteous things” is rarely performed and that is a beautiful anthem. Instead, “Like as the Hart,” for example, is over-performed. It’s easier to do what one already knows and what most of the choristers already know—including at the few remaining Anglican/Episcopal Cathedral/Parish Choir Schools en los Estados Unidos/the US—rather than introducing a new piece where everyone has to learn it, including the choirmaster and organist. Then there’s also the cost of the scores for each person and then the time to prepare it and make it sound like it’s a regular part of your repertoire.

Below is the link to the video for the Choral Evensong at Washington National Cathedral. For those who don’t want to watch the Liturgy (one does not have to be religious to watch the Liturgy, by the way), here are the timings for the St Paul’s Service by Howells:

Magnificat: at 25.15 in the video
Nunc Dimittis: at 33.45 in the video

And again, the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls (and Michael and Benjamin) did an outstanding job. They should be very pleased with themselves. Someone might be wondering: Don’t they have boy choristers/trebles at the Cathedral? Yes they do, but they had the evening off. They sang last Domingo/Sunday for the principal Liturgy.

Also, I want to mention that the camera work for this was excellent. I got the impression that la producción (the camera crew) know the score well to the St Paul’s Service because the camera was on Benjamin when he was playing solo passages, then the camera showed the bass entrances and the same for the tenor entrances. I also got the impression that there’s one tenor that they especially like since the camera was often on him.

La Dalia Púrpura

La Dalia Púrpura

And this is not to be taken as a criticism at all but rather a personal preference: I prefer that the final chords for both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis be held a bit longer to let them really soar throughout the Cathedral. So enjoy the Howells. It’s lovely. Chau.—rosa barrio

Here are the links:

Choral Evensong, Canticles Setting: St Paul’s Service by Herbert Howells

Service Leaflet


Benjamin Straley at Washington National Cathedral

Herbert Howells: St Paul’s Service (The Trinity Choir)