Piece of the week 69: Never weather-beaten sail

The secondary school that I went to was a Victorian building on the south side of London’s Tower Bridge (it’s no longer a school but has been converted into an expensive hotel, just behind the new City Hall and the Bridge Theatre).

It had (and still has) a wood-panelled hall with a balustraded gallery, and from that gallery, at every Tuesday evening assembly, before the whole school raced down Tooley Street to catch our buses or trains home, those of us in the school choir sung Thomas Campion’s beautiful little four-part anthem, Never weather-beaten sail. It was one of those traditions which, looking back, seems a little strange, but at the time, was just one unremarkable part of the school week. You can see the music at the head of this post, exactly as we sung it from Songs of Praise, our school hymn-book.

Singing it weekly, and, as my voice sunk lower over the years, getting to know every voice part, meant that it became etched into my musical memory. And what a wonderful lesson in melody and harmony it was!  The first phrase (which is repeated for the second line) settles us clearly into the home key using the primary triads in root and first inversions, ending the phrase with a simple 4-3 suspension in the alto line (what a delight it was to sing those Alto suspensions as a twelve-year old after a year of being a consonant treble!) The next four bars (the third line of words) are more decorative – the passing-notes in the melody are complemented by rising and falling scalic passages in the alto and tenor, held together by a firm bass line: and a passing modulation and a flattened leading note add some spice. And then, in the extended fourth line, to the words ‘O come quickly’ we start in the lower part of the compass for a beautiful rising sequence leading to a final melodic flourish which echoes the scalic passages that were introduced in the middle parts in the third line – and the bass gets the chance to sing the scale-wise pattern too – both up and down!

So it isn’t surprising that when, thirty years later in 1990, I wrote my Four Sacred Songs to words by Thomas Campion, I concluded the set with my own setting of these troubled, weary, but ultimately triumphant words – beginning the music even more simply than Campion, but with slightly more complex intertwining towards the end. Although there were no intentional quotations from the original music, I think that Campion’s spirit (or ‘sprite’) is still there.  And then, in 2007, I made an adaptation of Campion’s original music for voices in three parts, in The Oxford Book of Flexible Anthems. I just couldn’t let it go…

I’m not going to say anything more here about my 1990 setting of the text, but you can hear it and see it in this scrolling score.

And in this little video, that I made a year or two ago, you can hear me talking about all four of the movements of Four Sacred Songs.