Lately my Sunday morning routine is to do my usual 2 mile walk, and then return home to watch a livestream of Evensong from Duke University Chapel where former student Joey Fala is the Organ Scholar.Today’s anthem was Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb,” considered one of the “warhorses” of the choral repertoire and one with which I am very familiar.
I used to think “warhorse” was one of those Carl Crosier idioms, along with “chestnut,” but then I found it on the Internet, defined as “a music, theatrical, or literary work that has been heard or performed repeatedly.”
In fact, I performed the work on June 10, 1984; May 19, 1991, June 11, 2000 and May 4, 2003 with the Lutheran Church of Honolulu Choir. (Aren’t we glad that Carl Crosier kept meticulous records about such things!)
Benjamin Britten wrote this 17-minute work in 1942 on a commission by St. Matthew’s Church of Northampton in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary. The text is by English poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771) who was thought to be a lunatic because he was in an asylum. What happened is that his father-in-law had him locked away for his religious beliefs, and then because he incurred a lot of debts and couldn’t pay, Smart went to debtors prison. What a way to treat a son-in-law!
Christopher Smart’s text speaks of all the ways one can praise and worship God by all beings, each in his own way. Most memorable to me (for a person who doesn’t pay attention to lyrics) is the section about his cat Jeoffry, who apparently lived with him in the St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics (now occupied by Argos and The Co-operative.)
In fact, I found a whole blog post about Smart’s cat Jeoffry, which you can read here. Here is an excerpt:
Whenever I walk along Old St, I always think of the brilliant eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart who once resided here in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, with only his cat Jeoffry for solace, on the spot where the Co-operative and Argos are today. So when artist Paul Bommer asked me to suggest a subject for an illustrated print, I had no hesitation in proposing Christopher Smart’s eulogy to his cat Jeoffry, the best description of the character of a cat that I know. And, to my amazement and delight, Paul has illustrated all eighty-nine lines, each one with an apposite feline image.
In an age when only aristocrats with private incomes were able to exist as poets, Christopher Smart was a superlative talent with small means who struggled to make his path through the world and his emotional behaviour became increasingly volatile as a result. He fell into debt whilst a student at Cambridge and, even though his literary talent was acknowledged with awards and scholarships, his delight in high jinks and theatrical performances did not find favour with the University. Once he married Anna Maria Canaan, Smart was unable to remain at Cambridge and came to London, seeking to make ends meet in the precarious realm of Grub St. His prolific literary career turned to pamphleteering and satire, publishing hundreds of works in a desperate attempt to keep his wife and two little daughters, Marianne and Elizabeth Ann.
… “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” was never printed in Smart’s day, it was first published in 1939 after being discovered in manuscript amongst Smart’s papers, and subsequently W.H. Auden gave a copy to Benjamin Britten who wrote a famous setting as part of a choral work entitled “Rejoice in the Lamb” in 1942.
Here’s the YouTube video of the Duke University’s performance of “Rejoice in the Lamb,” directed by Christopher Jacobson with Joey Fala playing the organ. (To watch a video of the entire service, click here). There are several camera shots of Joey at the organ console.
After watching the livestream, I texted Joey: “Absolutely LOVED Rejoice in the Lamb! That was a fantastic performance — really enjoyed the soprano who sang Jeffrey [sic] the cat.”
Even though it has been fourteen years (!) since I played “Rejoice in the Lamb,” I did remember that the organ part of “The Mouse” section was pretty challenging for me, to which Joey asked if I had played the piece on the Beckerath. (Of course!) He remarked, “I can’t imagine doing any of the stuff I’ve been playing on the Beckerath… The Aeolian is very forgiving and makes crescendoing very smooth.” On the other hand, when you play the Beckerath you are very exposed — like playing naked!
By the way, last weekend I attended the Oahu Choral Society Chamber Choir’s fundraising concert at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu (a new venue for them). The program consisted of mostly solos and small ensembles from within the Chamber Choir, plus several large group numbers including the monumental motet, “Singet dem Herrn” by J. S. Bach. Their conductor is Esther Yoo.
According to Carl Crosier’s list, the LCH Choir sang this motet on three separate occasions, on April 11, 1982; May 9, 1982; and September 10, 1995. I remember that when we first learned it in 1982, I thought it was the most difficult piece that the Carl had ever attempted to teach the choir. I am reminded of Carl’s oft-repeated remark, “Bach is not for amateurs!”
My organ student, Steven Severin, sang tenor in the choir and also played Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Prelude and Fugue in F Major, BuxWV145” on the organ. We worked out a colorful registration with many echo passages. He did a fantastic job!
After the concert, there was a catered reception in the courtyard, where this picture of Esther Yoo and myself was taken. I’ll be playing the organ for their Christmas concert at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in December.