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ClassicsOnline Home » WOOD, C.: St. Mark Passion
Charles Wood made an important contribution to Anglican church music, with liturgical settings that remain part of cathedral choral repertoire. Answering a request from Eric Milner-White, the then Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, Wood completed his setting of the St Mark Passion in August 1920. As with J.S. Bach’s inclusion of Lutheran chorales in his St John Passion, here the flow of the biblical narrative in English, interspersed with well-known hymns for choir and congregation, provides the key to the work’s success.
By David Denton
Charles Wood was born in Ireland in 1866, but made his musical career in England after having studied composition with Stanford, Parry and Bridge.
Immediately following his graduation he was appointed teacher at the Royal College before taking up a similar appointment at Cambridge University. Today he is remembered almost entirely by his church music, though a recording of his A minor string quartet has pointed to his gift as a composer of chamber music. He was essentially working within the Anglican church, though his output was distinctly aimed at a populist market within that religious context. The St. Mark Passion was completed in 1921 for the King’s College Choir who performed it on Good Friday of that year. If you warm to Stainer’s Crucifixion you will certainly enjoy this. Both share the good sense of using an organ accompaniment so as to allow general church use, though Wood does have parts for four capable soloists, particularly in the tenor role of the Evangelist. Wood’s problem was finding readily memorable ‘tunes’, and we have to be content with skilled craftsmanship and some rewarding music for the chorus. But that plays to the strength of this recording with the fine Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, beguiling our ears with singing of the highest quality under the direction of Daniel Hyde. Of the solo quartet Simon Wall’s tenor is notable, his voice is intrinsically British in quality, his diction excellent, and he moves easily around the top end of his range. The disc is completed by Edward Bairstow’s Toccata and Prelude on Pange lingua played by Jonathan Vaughn who has already provided the very well balanced accompaniment in the Passion. Not an earth-shattering piece, but it does show one of the most persuasive recordings of an organ I have ever heard from Naxos. Can we have more, please?
Charles Wood (1866-1926)
St Mark Passion
Charles Wood was born in Ireland, at Armagh, but was to make his career in England, chiefly at Cambridge. At home he was a choirboy at Armagh Cathedral, studied at the cathedral school and had his early training in counterpoint and harmony with the cathedral organist. In 1883 he entered the Royal College of Music in London, where he was awarded the Morley Scholarship in composition. His teachers there included Stanford and Parry for composition and Frank Bridge for counterpoint. He completed his studies in 1887 and the following year started teaching at the Royal College. In the same year he moved to Cambridge, with an organ scholarship to Selwyn College. In 1889 he transferred to Gonville and Caius as organ scholar, and in 1894 was elected to a fellowship of the college. Three years later he was able to succeed George Garrett as university lecturer in harmony and counterpoint. He continued his career at Cambridge, involving himself with Stanford’s Cambridge University Musical Society and the other musical activities of the University, while serving at the same time as a teacher at the Royal College and as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. On the death of Stanford in 1924 Wood was elected Professor of Music at Cambridge, but died two years later.
Wood made a particular contribution to Anglican church music, with liturgical settings that remain part of cathedral choral repertoire. These compositions include some twenty settings of the evensong canticles, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis, more than thirty anthems, two settings of the Te Deum and Benedictus, and four of the Communion Service. While some of these may be the most familiar elements of Wood’s work, his compositions also include six string quartets, a piano concerto, solo songs and arrangements of Irish folk-songs, and a number of cantatas, settings of texts taken from Shelley, Herrick, Swinburne, Milton, Whitman, Scott and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. For the stage he wrote two chamber operas drawing on Dickens, A Scene from Pickwick, the unfortunate contretemps between Mr Winkle and Mr and Mrs Potts from Pickwick Papers, and The Family Party, based on the fourth chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit.
Answering a request from Eric Milner-White, the then Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, Charles Wood completed his setting of the St Mark Passion in August 1920; the work received its first performance on Good Friday 1921, with King’s College Choir directed by A.H. Mann. It is interesting to note that the request came after Mann had reviewed all the available Passion settings, including the two well-known works of J.S. Bach, and concluded that ‘the Bach Passions are too vast for an ordinary choir, however good’. Milner- White also saw another opportunity, adding that ‘it is about time that the bigger parish churches superseded Stainer’s Crucifixion – or at least had an alternative’. Times have since changed, and King’s, along with many other similar choirs around the country, now enjoys an excellent reputation for its annual Bach Passion performances at Easter.
It is worth looking back a little further to the late nineteenth-century English interest in the Passion narrative. Perhaps stemming from Mendelssohn’s pioneering work and rôle within the Bach revival, Joseph Barnby established an annual performance of Bach’s St John Passion in London in 1873. Subsequently, numerous composers were moved to set the Passion story within a contemporary libretto rather than one of the Gospel accounts. Following Stainer in 1887, Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary appeared in 1904, and Somervell’s and Nicholson’s Passions were published in 1914 and 1924 respectively. Wood’s setting of 1920 stands out in this collection as the only example of an English setting of the biblical narrative.
In order to break up the biblical narrative into five sections, Wood incorporates four hymns into the scheme. Opening and closing with verses from the plainsong hymn Pange lingua gloriosa, he also uses verses from Verbum supernum prodiens, Lord when we bow before thy throne and My God, I love Thee. Whilst not so well-known to us today, these hymns would have been better-known to the congregation who attended the work’s first performance. It is the idea of familiarity and intelligibility underlined by the inclusion of well-known hymns and the fact that the story is told in the vernacular, which brings Wood’s scheme into closer consideration with that of J.S. Bach. As with Bach’s inclusion of Lutheran chorales, and the connotations and theological links that they would have suggested to the average Lutheran in the congregation, so here the flow of the biblical narrative in English, interspersed with well-known hymns for choir and congregation, provides the key to the work’s success.
It would be wrong to assume that Wood’s setting is stuck in the Anglican mould of late nineteenth-century romanticism. Whilst it clearly inhabits that sound world, the musical language goes much further than one would expect in comparison to Wood’s numerous setting of canticles and anthems. There are flashes of late Wagnerian harmony alongside the very dry a cappella textures of the fifth gospel. Wood clearly knew J. S. Bach’s many chorale settings for the organ, as the accompaniments to the hymns display his contrapuntal ability akin to J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein settings.
Sung texts and translations may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570561.htm.
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WOOD, C.: St. Mark Passion