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The Musical commissions of St Matthew’s Church

During the years 1943-68 St Matthew’s church commissioned some eighteen new works from up and coming composers including, Benjamin Britten (twice), Michael Tippett, Edmund Rubbra, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, Malcolm Arnold, George Dyson, Elizabeth Poston, Kenneth Leighton, John McCabe and Richard Rodney Bennett, and over the next twenty-five years would go on to commission many more. Without commissions, both musical and artistic, St Matthew’s would have remained an anonymous parish church in the provincial town of Northampton. Many of the commissioned musical works have gone on to become world famous and it is these that saw St Matthew’s rise from obscurity to become internationally renowned for music and the arts.

Walter Hussey, following some persuasion, succeeded his Father as Vicar of St Matthew’s in 1937. Hussey had long considered the divide between the arts and the Church that had once stood as a bedrock for music and other artistic commissions. St Matthew’s had a flourishing choir which had a repertoire firmly rooted with Victorian composers such as Stanford, Harwood and Smart. As 1943 approached, the fiftieth anniversary of St Matthew’s, Hussey considered the possibility of commissioning a piece of music to mark the occasion. Anxious to get a young composer, his first approach was to William Walton who at that time had produced very little in the way of church music. It became clear that Walton was not interested, and so Hussey turned his attentions to Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote to Hussey to assess the size and capabilities of the choir, with Hussey replying that A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells was ‘about as difficult as we could safely manage’. Britten visited Northampton to hear the choir and expressed himself satisfied. He chose the words for the new work from an obscure poem by Christopher Smart. Originally entitled Jubilate Agno it was written whilst the 18th century poet was in an insane asylum. Britten himself conducted the first performance, the church’s Director of Music, Phillip Pfaff , having been called up to the RAF in 1940. The performance was a success, and Britten and Hussey developed a lifelong relationship on the back of a commission that cost Hussey just £25. Rejoice in the Lamb is now considered one of the most influential and important choral works of the 20th century. The work was performed many times during 1943-44, perhaps most notably at the unveiling of Henry Moore’s controversial sculpture Madonna and Child in February 1944.

Hussey decided to make commissioning new music an annual event and in for the 1944 Patronal Festival asked Edmund Rubbra to compose a piece. His motet, The Revival was another success with Lennox Berkeley’s Festival Anthem being written for the church in 1945.

With the end of the war came a different tone in the commissions. The next commission of art work, Sutherland’s Crucifixion was accompanied by Gerald Finzi’s beautiful anthem Lo! The Full final Sacrifice, yet another of the St Matthew’s to achieve international acclaim. Also in 1946 Benjamin Britten penned a solo organ piece for St Matthew’s, Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria. The theme is from a motet by Victoria Ecce Sacerdos Magnus or ‘Behold a Great Priest’. Hussey continued to badger Britten over the years about further pieces, in particular a mass setting. Nothing ever materialised, however, and so Hussey went back to the drawing board.

In 1948 Hussey commissioned an unknown composer, Christopher Headington followed by the then little-known Malcolm Arnold in 1950. It was becoming Hussey’s policy to employ young and relatively unknown composers with both Headington and Arnold fitting this criteria. James Butt was just eighteen when offered the chance to compose for St Matthew’s and was so flattered by opportunity, and the £18 fee, that he commented that he would have paid money to Hussey!

This was the last piece of music commissioned at St Matthew’s by Hussey who, in 1955, took up the position of Dean at Chichester Cathedral. He had brought St Matthew’s to prominence as a centre for church music and the arts and it is no doubt that his legacy changed the direction of church music. So well-known had St Matthew’s become that Hussey quite regularly received manuscripts in the post from hopeful composers.

After Hussey’s departure to become Dean of Chichester in 1955 the driving force behind the St Matthew’s commissions had gone. The importance of his legacy to the church must not be underestimated, however, and this can be seen in the number of commissions which followed. Hussey had taken risks to employ largely unknown musicians to write for the church but the tide changed and works by more established composers joined the list of St Matthew’s commissions. Pieces were added from Kenneth Leighton, John McCabe, Gordon Crosse Herbert Howells, William Mathias and Herbert Sumsion over the next 30 years. Some of these commissions were quite experimental in the forces employed; Gordon Crosse’s Covenant of the Rainbow was scored for choir, organ and two pianos.

The two most successful periods of commissioning post-Hussey were under Michael Nicholas (Organist and Choirmaster 1965-71) and Andrew Shenton (Director of Music 1985-91). In 1967 Michael Nicholas approached Richard Rodney Bennett to write a work (he suggested a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) for the festival. He heard nothing, and was surprised to receive Five Christmas Carols from Bennett which, although not fitting into the ‘usual’ pattern of commissions were considered an unexpected gift. The carols were performed at the Patronal Festival recital and all five were sung during the Carol Service at King’s College, Cambridge the same year.

Andrew Shenton’s first commission was from the elderly Herbert Sumsion who wrote The Spacious Firmament on High, suitable for any festal occasion. In 1987 Geoffrey Burgon penned The Song of the Creatures - a setting of words attributed to St Francis of Assisi which come from the perspective of a blind man who is unable to see the sun but is assured of its presence through the splendour of God’s creation. John Tavener’s The Call, which was the 1988 commission, is scored in 14 parts and suits the acoustic of the church fantastically well. The choir, under Shenton’s direction, received rave reviews for the first performance of the work. In the same year Simon Lole wrote Carol for Advent: Morning Star for the Advent Carol Service and it became a firm favourite with the choir and congregation alike thanks to its lyrical nature.

In 1989 Shenton approached Alan Ridout to compose an organ work ‘to demonstrate the versatility of the organ at St Matthew’s’. This was the first time since Britten’s work in 1946 and the result was a Toccata in the French style; fast moving parts for the hands and a tune in the pedals. This work was a gift by Shenton to the church in aid of the organ appeal. Alongside this in 1989 Richard Shepherd wrote a work for the festival, The St Matthew’s Mass which can be sung accompanied by organ alone or with optional Brass and Timpani. In 1990 Shenton approached two composers with Northamptonshire links. Paul Edwards has found success as a composer of small-scale works for choir and organ and was organist at various churches in Bedford and the surrounding area. His commission was for Altos, Tenors and Basses and resulted in God that madest earth and heaven. Trevor Hold, who was born in Northampton, wrote Verses from St Matthew, a short, unaccompanied work. These two works are amongst the finest that St Matthew’s received from little-known composers.

In 1993, and under the direction of Andrew King, who was appointed following the departure of Shenton in 1991, the commission celebrated St Matthew’s centenary. King engaged the services of Diana Burrell who wrote Heil’ger Geist in’s Himmels Throne. A large-scale work, it was scored for organ, percussion (vibraphone, tubular bells, bell plates, tam-tam, triangles and maracas) and choir. The work opens with a lengthy section for organ and the percussion before the choral section which is based on the works of a Lutheran Chorale. It represents one of the most ambitious works ever commissioned for St Matthew’s.

Following the 1993 commission there were to be no more for a period of 15 years. For various reasons the musical fortunes of St Matthew’s took a significant down-turn until the early 2000s. Then, and under the watchful eye of the present incumbent, the choir was re-founded and the organ restored. The first new commission was written for the Patronal Festival of 2008. David Briggs’ Toccata for St Matthew’s Day was to celebrate the restoration of the organ.

Since then other pieces have been commissioned as St Matthew’s once again looks to further restore its famous tradition. In 2009, and to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Walter Hussey, David Bednall wrote The Walter Hussey Centenary Mass. This is a challenging work for choir and organ, with some congregational participation. He also provided an introit for the choir Aspire to God, my soul which calls to mind St Matthew’s history of commissioning new works of music and art.

After Stephen Moore’s arrival at St Matthew’s in 2011, further commissions have been made. On St Matthew’s Day 2012 the choir gave the first performance of Paul Mealor’s How beautiful on the mountains. Mealor had shot to fame through his Ubi caritas which was sung at the Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. His work for St Matthew’s is highly reflective and employs certain ‘effects’ in the three lower parts to accompany a beautiful melody.

In 2013 St Matthew’s celebrated the church’s 120th Anniversary with a weekend festival of events. On 21 September the choir gave two performances of David Halls’ short, vibrant, introit This is the Day. On 22 September, at Mass to celebrate the 120th Dedication Festival, the choir and congregation joined to sing Halls’ Mass of the Altar of Life. At a concert on the evening of St Matthew’s Day the church choir and the St Matthew’s Singers gave performances of Rejoice in the Lamb and Lo, the full, final sacrifice to a full church. Malcolm Archer, who has become involved with the music here at St Matthew’s through is Patronage of the Friends of St Matthew’s Music, attended to direct the choirs and was so impressed he dedicated a Christmas Carol he had recently written to the choir.

On St Matthew’s Day 2014 the choir gave the first performance of O how glorious is the kingdom by Philip Stopford. The work resonates with Walter Hussey’s desire to commission a new work of music from a young, up-and-coming composer. 2015 saw the premiere of Simon Johnson’s Behold the tabernacle of God, which was first sung by the combined choirs of St Matthew’s, All Saints’, and St John the Baptist, Kingsthorpe. The festival weekend concluded with an organ recital given by Richard Pinel which included the first performance of David Maw’s chorale prelude, commissioned as part of the Orgelbüchlein Project.

James Whitbourn’s Beatus vir was given its first performance in 2017, and it is quickly gaining
popularity thanks to James’ links in America. Similarly, Grayston Ives’ All people that on earth do dwell, the 2018 commission, will undoubtably become a firm favourite of many choirs. Through works such as this it is hoped that choirs all over the world will once again sing music which holds the dedication ‘for the Choir of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton.’

The Choir of St Matthew’s Church is directed by Stephen Moore.
The Organist is Thomas Moore.
The recording was made by Sam Grainger.

A definitive list of commissioned works can be found here.


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