2014-12-14 Notes from the Bench

“Magnificat” by Herbert Sumsion

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995) was a twentieth century English organist and composer who is best remembered for his long tenure as a cathedral musician, organist, and choirmaster at Gloucester Cathedral, as well as for his leadership role during the annual Three Choirs Festival, which takes place at Gloucester, Worcester, or Hereford Cathedrals. His career as a composer, performer, accompanist, and teacher spanned over 60 years. The majority of his works were written for choir and organ, particularly for use during the Anglican cathedral services, but later in his life, he wrote some chamber and orchestral works.

“Magnificat” is a setting of one of the canticles sung during evensong, which is typically paired with a setting of the “Nunc Dimittis.” Sumsion’s works utilize a strong diatonic language with touches of modality, and writes elegant and fluid melodies. His compositions are appealing to performers and listeners alike.

 

 

Herbert Sumsion was born in Gloucester, England. He sang as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral under the direction of Herbert Brewer and was later under Brewer’s tutelage for an apprenticeship in organ, choral direction, and music theory. By the time he was 17 years old, Sumsion passed both the Associateship and Fellowship exams for the Royal College of Organists and was awarded the Turpin prize for the second-highest marks in the practical component. He served the Queen’s Westminster Rifles during World War I and following the war, he returned to Gloucester and accepted an appointment as the associate organist at the cathedral. While fulfilling his duties at the cathedral, he earned an undergraduate degree at Durham University. Sumsion lived in London from 1922 until 1926, serving Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, was the director of music at Bishop’s Stortford College, taught at Morley College, and continued his music studies at the Royal College of Music. In 1926, Reginald Owen Morris, a professor of counterpoint and composition whom Sumsion has met while at the Royal College, had accepted a position at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and requested that Sumsion accompany him there as his assistant. While in the United States, Sumsion met his wife, Alice Garlichs.

Sumsion returned to England in 1928 to succeed Herbert Brewer, who died that year from a heart attack, at Gloucester Cathedral as the organist and master of choirs. That year, the cathedral was slated to host the Three Choirs Festival, and with rather short notice, Sumsion lead the festival with a level of skill that impressed both his colleagues and the press. Sumsion maintained friendships with many of the important English composers of his day who were connected to the Three Choirs Festival, including Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Gerald Finzi, and premiered many of their new works at the festival. Sumsion remained at Gloucester until his retirement in 1967.

Sumsion was an active composer throughout his professional life and well into his retirement years and frequently accepted commissions for works. He received the honorary Lambeth Doctorate and was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).

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