Holst's The Coming of Christ
Daniel Jaffé travels to St John’s, Smith Square to hear a revival of a rare work by the British composer
There's something enchanted about a walk at winter’s twilight from Westminster tube station to St John’s, Smith Square in London: maybe it’s that Victorian medieval fantasy, the Houses of Parliament; and then the Gothic splendour of Westminster Abbey, both of which I passed on the way to the concert last Sunday evening. Somehow all this seemed highly appropriate for the work which had drawn me from Bristol.
Holst’s The Coming of Christ is one of his rarest works, having been composed specifically for performance in another great Gothic building: Canterbury Cathedral, on Whitsun 1928. Scored for solo singers, choir, trumpet, strings, organ, piano and tubular bells, it's not perhaps the most orthodox line-up.
Furthermore Holst’s biographer, Michael Short, has described the music as ‘rather sparse’, though adding that ‘in the resonant acoustics of the cathedral it was very effective’. I had heard just two of its choruses, which had been recorded back in 1982 by the Aldeburgh Festival Singers, including a haunting ‘Song’ about April which begins with an ecstatic soprano solo: ‘O sing, as thrushes in the winter lift/Their ecstasy aloft among black boughs’.
The words are by John Masefield, who had been commissioned by the Dean of Canterbury, Dr George Bell, to write a mystery play for performance in the cathedral – the first such sacred drama performed since the Middle Ages. Bell was later to commission other works from leading writers, including TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 1935.
However this was 1928, and there was much protest from more conservative members of the church, one of whom sent dire warning that ‘God’s judgement will speedily follow’ if something so ‘pagan’ as a play to be performed in the cathedral. St John's, Smith Square, a ‘retired’ Baroque church which nowadays serves as a favourite concert venue, was perhaps a relatively cosy and ‘immediate’ place to revive such a work.
Yet the performers, the youthful City of London Choir under its director Hilary Davan Wetton (himself a long-standing champion of Holst’s work) proved that magic could be kindled there in their opening performance of Holst’s Two Psalms – modest yet emotionally stirring works. One soloist from the choir in particular, soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons (uncredited in the programme), had an intense, expressive and attractive voice which reminded me keenly of Susan Gritton’s, raising my hopes about the forthcoming performance of that spring chorus from The Coming of Christ.
This was fully realised, and it was wonderful to be reminded, too, of those moments of warmly expressive harmonisations amid the grave unison melodies, such as at the words ‘among slumbering men’. There were unexpected moments of humour, too, as Holst at one point contrasts the unearthly beauty of the Host of Heaven’s chorus with a more mundane chorus of King’s Men with their jaunty ‘rum-ti-tum’ rhythm demanding of ‘this poor tavern’ – ‘can his home be this?’.
Davan Wetton had prefaced the performance by rehearsing the audience in two verses from the hymn featured at the end of The Coming of Christ: though, he explained, it had been included in the 1930s publication Songs of Praise, it was a hymn, Davan Wetton candidly admitted, ‘I expect none of you know!’.
Indeed not! Having the choir sing a single verse once through, harmonised, was perhaps not the most helpful way of introducing the audience to the melody; nonetheless several members made brave but erring attempts to sing the tune as lustily as they dared. I must admit, with the hymn’s passing resemblance of a certain pagan chant in the cult film The Wicker Man, for a moment I had a frisson of suspicion that perhaps some of those fundamentalist types who objected to The Coming of Christ had a point – but only fleetingly!
The City of London Choir will give a 'Carols by Candlelight' concert on Monday 20 December at St John's, Smith Square
Daniel Jaffé has written on Gustav Holst for 'Composer of the Month' in the Christmas issue of BBC Music Magazine