Spotlight on Talented Essex composers this Christmas

PUBLISHED: 11:51 14 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:26 20 February 2013

Spotlight on Talented Essex composers this Christmas

Spotlight on Talented Essex composers this Christmas

Talented Essex composers have coloured our lives down the centuries with a legacy of melodies and lyrics, and never is this more true than at Christmas...

Talented Essex composers have coloured our lives down the centuries with a legacy of melodies and lyrics, and never is this more true than at Christmas

For many of us, Christmas wouldnt be the same without our traditional music and carols. Whether choosing hymns and carols for December concerts or limbering up rusty vocal chords to join in the merry teams of carol singers on the village green, the age-old melodies and lyrics are embraced year after year.

Our countys contribution to the world of English music is quite considerable. For more than 400 years, Essex has been home to some of the worlds best-known composers of liturgical hymns, carols and anthems. Numerous composers living in Essex have added to a vast canon of music, both sacred and secular, and many wrote lyrics and compositions to be sung and played at Christmas.

During the late 1530s, when Henry VIII was dissolving the monasteries, Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) carried out his duties as organist at Waltham Abbey. His later career as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal spanned a period of spectacular change in the English liturgical climate. Eventually, he became known as the Father of English Cathedral Music and this gifted musician played, sang and composed for the remainder of his life, serving in turn Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth l. Among the lavish rewards he eventually reaped was a famous bequest of 1575, giving him and his young pupil, William Byrd (also an Essex musician), a complete monopoly on the printing of music and ruled music paper in England.

Byrd lived at Stondon Massey from 1593 until his death in 1623. Both Tallis and Byrd arranged wonderful compositions, especially for Christmas. Among a huge collection of work, Tallis composed his Christmas Mass Puer natus est (A Boy is Born) a seven-voice work which continues to be much-loved. Also Ave Dei patris filia is a lengthy prayer to the Virgin in typical English pre-Reformation style and Byrd composed Gradualia, Part 1 Beata Viscera and Sing Joyfully.

Composer Gustav Holst lived at Thaxted for 11 years from 1914, the year that he began work on The Planets Suite. His powerful composition The Hymn of Jesus was the result of his search for words to dancing hymns and his superb incidental music to Masefields The Coming of Christ was performed in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1928. Among a huge catalogue of music so popular today, Holst set the music to Sir Cecil Spring-Rices poem I Vow to Thee My Country.Holsts friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1883-1958) arrived in Essex in 1903 to deliver a lecture at Brentwood School on folksong and discovered a new direction in his compositional work.

Although more than half a century since his death, Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols on Christmas Night, with Prelude to Gentlemen and Christmas Cantata remain firm favourites at this festive time.Brentwood philanthropist Evelyn Heseltine built the beautiful pearl church at Great Warley in memory of his brother, Arnold. Philip Heseltine, Arnolds son, frequently visited his uncles home Goldings in Great Warley. In adult life, the boy took the name of Peter Warlock which entered English musical history, largely as a world-renowned composer. His Bethlehem Down is still a Christmas favourite and Goldings is now the De Rougement Manor Hotel.

Great Warley was also home to John Arnold, an organist who composed many anthems during his working life. His Compleat Psalmodist published in 1741, was a popular introduction to musical theory and his composition Essex Harmony was a popular collection of songs and catches for use in musical society. He often staged festive performances at the Horse and Jockey Inn on Warley Common.Another Essex-based musician, John Willbye (1574-1638), wrote more than 60 madrigals and was the household musician at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk.

He played his music at end-of-year masques at Essex mansions which Queen Elizabeth I was known to enjoy. A plaque commemorating Willbyes life was erected at his home in Colchesters Trinity Street and examples of his repertoire are often included in Christmas concerts.

Arthur Henry Brown (1830-1926), a Brentwood hymnologist, achieved worldwide fame for his musical talent. At ten, this self-taught prodigy was playing the organ at St Thomas Church and particularly loved Christmas services. His hymn O Love Divine is just one of the thousand pieces of church music he created and Browns carol When Christ was born of Mary Free achieved huge universal fame.Celebrated hymnologist Canon John Ellerton (1826-1893) served his final days in the parish of White Roding but his life yielded several famous carols and hymns still sung today including The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended.

Another cleric, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), lived at East Mersea for ten years and is famous for composing Onward Christian Solders. His magnificent translation of the carol Gabriels Message from the Basque language into English is also considered a Christmas masterpiece.

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