Skip to main content

SANCTA CIVITAS in King’s College Chapel, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 15 May 1954

The concert opened with The Glories of our Blood and State by Parry. It would have been more profitable to run a buffet instead, and then get down to the real concert later. The performance of this work was marred by the tolerant forbearance of the chorus, and a certain amount of irresponsibility in the orchestra. It sounded like a hum-drum stop-gap, done without conviction, significance, or thought. This was a pity. I am sure many people came away saying to themselves, “We have always heard Parry decried, and this shows why.” Poor old Parry! Such music needs loving care and imagination. It must be made to speak, for then it speaks eloquently—but only then.

The real concert started thereafter with a happy Handel organ concerto (the fourth), nicely played by Hugh Mclean with the orchestra adroitly synchronised. And at last we came to the feast of the evening: “Sancta Civitas.” by Vaughan Williams.

It is a weighty and complex work, describing the celestial city more or less as seen by Saint John in his Revelation. It is full of music and drama till the very end. When even Vaughan Williams was hard put to find adequate musical expression for the glorious impression of the heavenly host (plus guests) singing radiant praises to their Maker. If in fact the celestial city is going to echo with a common augmented triad inverted and inverted again throughout eternity, then I for one feel like declining my invitation.

But the performance was absolutely wonderful—ably and clearly conducted by John Walker. When I say “wonderful,” I mean that the spirit, the enthusiasm, the music in the music came across unadulterated, and heart-stirring words of praise fail me.

But oddly enough, judged from a merely technical standpoint, one could find fault incessantly. Much of the orchestral playing was dreadful; the distant trumpeter was by no means satisfactory; nor were the boys’ voices (supplied by Christ’s Hospital) free from harshness: there were ugly moments of doubt even in the chorus work, with words slurred continually (and no light to follow the printed programme); and the percussion was puny. All this and more was completely obliterated in the sum effect by the wholehearted and sincere way that all concerned seemed to attack the work. The music lived. The distant trumpet, the hidden boys, the suspicious wind-playing, despite all, seemed to have a fitness, a rightness of spirit which overcame mere blemishes of performance; and with the fine contribution of the soloists (baritone, Cecil Cochrane; tenor, Nigel Rogers), we were given an impressively moving, exciting and enjoyable evening. Professionals might have done it with greater polish, but not with half such a deep vitality. There is an object-lesson in this: Neither accuracy of notes nor authenticity have any important part in making music—quâ music.

Peter Tranchell