Often thought of as a standard, if long, example of an Anglican Cathedral anthem, a classic case of musica anglicana if you will, that reputation does not really represent the full picture. It is not an anthem (it is the prologue to an oratorio, "The Apostles") and it was not written by an Anglican (Elgar was of course a Catholic, and he selected biblical texts in a very effective if idiosyncratic way to create the Oratorio). Having said that, it is no surprise that the Church of England's musicians should find such appeal in a work of such power and quality, and therefore that it has indeed become such a favourite with Anglican choirs.
Given the reaction from the Anglican establishment that had greeted the choral work on a similar scale that Elgar had written only a few years before The Apostles, there is, if I may say so, some degree of wry amusement that may be allowed. Elgar's use of Blessed John Henry Newman's The Dream of Gerontius with its very clear expression of Catholic theology on purgatory, was a source of much Anglican angst. The Dean of Gloucester banned the work from his cathedral in 1901, and the Dean of Hereford in 1902 decreed that it could only be performed in his cathedral with substantial edits. One of the more acknowledged masters of musica anglicana, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, said that the piece "stinks of incense".
As a music undergraduate heavily involved in church music, I heard The Spirit of the Lord played on many CDs, but I didn't ever manage to hear it "live". Then, in my early years in London thereafter, one quiet Sunday afternoon - which, logically, must have been Pentecost - I heard it sung at Westminster Cathedral. As all who know the work can understand, it was a powerful experience, helped of course by hearing it sung in that wonderful building by the best cathedral choir in England.
The quiet, meditative introduction; the quiet, unison setting of the words of Our Lord; the concise, effective summary of some of the key tasks to be performed in the name of the Father expressed in warm and powerful singing and orchestration : it is a very moving piece for those who choose to listen carefully to its seven minutes.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor: he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord; to give unto them that mourn a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified. For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
The mystical introduction to the piece helps emphasise the other-worldly, spiritual genesis of this mission to good works. Workers in the vineyard, yes, but not just any old vineyard: we are commissioned to work in the vineyard of the Lord. There are many charitable things we can do, many excellent and important roles to be performed, but we are to carry them out for a reason and in a wider context. We are not to be social workers in fancy dress, nor are we do-gooders who get together to sing songs and use fancy words once a week. The calling we have comes from God Himself, and as such is intricately bound up with our place in his Church, our tasks being both spiritual and practical.
What a strange co-incidence it was then, that at our last Pentecost Sunday as Anglicans, the anthem at St Mary's was this very piece, this music written by a Catholic but so popular with Anglicans, this piece that expresses a spiritual calling, a mission, the undertaking of tasks, even a call to obedience.
Is it too much in the way of wishful thinking to imagine that in the words being sung in unison there was a sign of there even being a call to the unity within which we would find ourselves a few months later, upon being received into the Catholic Church? Perhaps it is, but the symbolism most certainly fits. I heard the music "live" for the first time in the mother church of Catholic England, and it was one of the last pieces I heard sung in a church before I joined the Catholic Church - you will understand why I see significance in it.
Another Catholic musician much loved in Anglican cathedrals, and who wrote a famous piece of music often performed at Pentecost, was Thomas Tallis. His setting of Loquebantur Variis Linguis is a staple of church music on this day throughout the country. Tallis, and his contemporary and pupil Byrd, remained devout Catholics throughout their lives, notwithstanding the severe religious turmoil that battered sixteenth-century England. Both wrote music in English and in Latin and displayed a tremendous talent for adapting their composition skills to the needs of the particular monarch's religion at the time : both wrote glorious polyphony, florid expressions of the glory of Catholic church music, both wrote equally beautiful but very different and much plainer music for the protestant tastes of the newly born Church of England.
Byrd shared Elgar's ability to join disparate parts of biblical texts in one piece of music, whereas Tallis generally preferred to set texts from liturgy. Here then is that Tallis piece, a setting of the second respond at Matins on the third day after Pentecost, in his typical polyphonic responsory style (where a number of parts weave around a plainsong cantus firmus sung by the tenor part) :
Loquebantur variis linguis apostoli, alleluia.
Magnalia Dei, alleluia.
Repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sancto,
et ceperunt loqui variis linguis.
Magnalia Dei, alleluia.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
The apostles spoke in many tongues, alleluia,
Of the great works of God, alleluia.
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit,
and began to speak in many tongues
of the great works of God, alleluia.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.