Bainton’s And I saw a new heaven

This is such a gorgeous anthem. I’ve had the pleasure of singing it many times now, and I thought it would make a worthy subject for a brief post. As my old teacher Dickers put it, ‘it’s a fine piece, if a tadge cruel on the tenors.’

 

We used to do this on Sunday mornings back in Ampleforth and I hated it then, because the tenor line lies quite high for a morning sing (Why couldn’t we do it in Friday night choral masses instead?!). I recall my director then, Ian Little, talking about hearing it for the first time in John’s Chapel, Cambridge, and the effect it had on him. It was also the anthem for an evensong Rods did in Westminster Abbey, and we just had so much fun with this music. (Swayne Mag, Holst Nunc, Elgar chant for the psalm. That was a fit evensong.) I remember Ralph saying that it’s a tenor line that distinguishes the tenors that can from those who can’t. We sang it yesterday at evensong in Paisley Abbey, and many glances were exchanged between the Dec and Can tenors, with us frequently raising eyebrows. We love this piece, we just can’t help it.

Who was Edgar Bainton? He was a pupil of Stanford at RCM and he taught at the conservatoire in Newcastle. He was interned at Ruhleben during WWI and subsequently taught at the conservatoire in Sydney. There is a story that always gets told whenever this piece comes out of the folders, and that is how he died. I have been unable to find proof for this, but apparently, Bainton was eaten by a shark.  Some say the musical figure later on in the piece is like a shark’s jaws. Whatever the truth, the choristers find much entertainment in this.

Striking about this piece is how Bainton paints the words from the Book of Revelations. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. That sudden pp and rall. at the words ‘and there was no more sea’. That sudden blast of ‘Behold’, like a trumpet fanfare. As the tenors start at ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes’, my heart just melts. I can never restrain myself from adopting a more heroic colour for ‘Neither shall there be anymore pain’, with the triplet on ‘anymore’. Resolute and confident, this is the world to come, and I do want to believe that. And the tenors get the cake again with ‘For the former things are passed away’, climaxing on the word ‘former’. Such juicy chords. Mmm.

I was surprised at yesterday’s rehearsal, as George Mcphee likened this piece to passages out of Brahms’ Requiem. That in turn also made me think of similarities with Brahms’ Geistliches Lied. I was lucky to come into contact with so much music like this at school. With the liturgical calender, the turnover was at a relatively quick pace, and we went through a lot. It’s a fantastic grounding. What are your other favourite choral pieces? Imagine hearing this piece in a beautiful cathedral in the evening, as the sun sets and the light pours through the stained glass windows, reflecting on the organ pipes, highlighting the texture of the wooden choir stalls. Evensong is definitely one of my favourite services, and I strongly urge you to go. It’s always nice to have some time out to reflect.

 

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