Handwashers’ Newsletter 5th July 2020


One important local musical figure who has not yet featured in this column is Gustav Holst. He was born in Cheltenham in 1874, the elder son of Adolph von Holst (a professional musician) and his wife, Clara (the daughter of a local solicitor). He took an interest in composition from any early age as well as playing a variety of musical instruments. It was the trombone that won the day, having initially taken up a brass instrument in the hope it might improve his asthma. Like Vaughan Williams, Howells and Butterworth he went on to study at the Royal College of Music with Stanford.

By all accounts, Holst was a modest, shy man who preferred composing or teaching to appearing in the spotlight.

The success of his famous suite ‘The Planets’ definitely preserved his name for posterity, but it is another important work I wish to share with you this week – ‘Hymn of Jesus’. Dating from 1917 this was a personal response to the suffering of the First World War. It is quite an original work in some respects, using a double mixed chorus and two semi-choruses, one of treble voices and the other of tenors and basses. All of these groups are to be placed separately from each other – a kind of social distancing, if you will!!! Plainsong melodies play an important role (the first of these is heard at the outset on the trombone) and a variety of vocal techniques are utilised, including wordless vocalisation, whispering, humming and unaccompanied polyphony.

The work is dedicated to Vaughan Williams and it is undoubtedly one of the great choral works of the twentieth century. I hope you enjoy listening to it: https://youtu.be/VIiU2OxfWsQ


Philip Langridge was a tenor whose voice particularly appealed to me. I could always tell it was him singing — his voice was distinctive. I have numerous recordings of him and recently decided to revisit some of them. Another revisiting (all this has been brought on by being cooped up at home) has been of my personal choral archive, consisting of programmes from pretty much every concert I have taken part in over the years. I first joined Surbiton Oratorio Society in 1971, in time to prepare for a Vaughan Williams centenary concert in Guildford Cathedral the following summer. But looking back beyond that to the very first concert I did with SOS, I find that we performed the Verdi Requiem with Philip Langridge as the tenor soloist. Wow! That hadn’t registered with me at the time.

The programmes go on to record that Philip sang with us twice more, in 1973 (April, Bach B Minor Mass and June, Mozart Requiem). After that, no more; by then he was heading for the big time. It is lovely to know that my path crossed with his back then, as his career was taking off and my choral days were beginning. He died in 2010 but his very special voice lives on in those precious recordings.

Here he is in Dream of Gerontius: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=philip+langridge+tenor


Like Thomas Linley Junior, dying in his twenties was also the sad fate a century earlier of another British musician of great promise – Pelham Humfrey (1647-74).

Along with John Blow the young Pelham, already composing, was one of Henry Cooke’s charges in the re-established Chapel Royal after the Restoration. When his voice broke, King Charles sent Pelham to France to be instructed by Lully. This experience may have turned the young man’s head as Samuel Pepys’ 1667 account of him on his return suggests a not especially likeable character – Little Pelham Humphreys is an absolute monsieur as full of form and confidence and vanity, and disparages everybody’s skill but his own! His musicianship, though, was beyond doubt. He later succeeded Cooke as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal – one of whom was Henry Purcell – and was appointed composer at Court. 

The New International Encyclopaedia describes Humfrey as ‘one of the founders of modern English music’ and his compositions as ‘remarkable for their expression and depth of sentiment, as well as for discoveries and departures in harmony’. His early death robs us of a fair comparison with his more famous pupil Purcell, though even his lifespan was only 9 years longer.

No apologies, therefore, for suggesting another Mag and Nunc to listen to:  Humphrey’s Evening Service in E minor. I first heard this while visiting Worcester Cathedral in the 70s and it left a lasting impression.  It’s sung here by the choir of St John’s College Cambridge under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, previously Director of Music at Gloucester: 


(Andy mentions the Italian/French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) who, as well as music, also enjoyed dancing, including with King Louis XIV. Though he outlived Humfrey, he did meet an unusual end. While conducting in the manner of the age, by beating time on the floor with a heavy staff, he hit his foot. The wound became gangrenous, but he refused amputation as it would impair his dancing. Inevitably the infection spread and caused his death.

We are fortunate that our conductor, instead of a staff, uses a pencil to beat time and the front row have become adept at ducking when it breaks loose. Ed.)

‘DISCORD OVER ORGANIST WITH MISSING FINGERS’  To round off this grim section about lives being cut short and so forth, we thought you might be interested in this report in yesterday’s paper: Missing Fingers

(My main concern would be whether he had the necessary fingers and feet to play the bass notes. Ed.)

AND FINALLY . . . Ginny cheers us up:

Apparently, Sir Thomas Beecham always found it difficult to remember names but found if he started talking to them the name might come to him.

He was at a post- concert party and saw a lady that he was sure he knew who was standing on her own so went up to talk to her.

He started off with ‘How are you?’ ‘Very well, thank you’ no help there so he pushed on.

‘And how are the family?’ ‘They are well too, thank you’ still no clues.

‘And how is your husband, is he still in the same job?’ ‘Yes, he is still King.’

And here’s the Chairman’s bookcase. Start reading the titles from the top left. If the image appears blurred even if you haven’t had a drink, click on it.