John Scott, The St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys
(London: Resonus, 2015), $20.00
Available for purchase at www.resonusclassics.com
Reviewed by Erin Hanke
The latest release by the St. Thomas Choir of New York City also happens to be the final recording the choir made under the direction of John Scott. Those who knew Mr. Scott were shocked by his sudden death this past August the morning after he returned from the first leg of a highly successful performing tour of Europe. His wife gave birth to their first child a few weeks later. At the age of only 59, John Scott was at the height of his career. “John was a musical genius with exacting standards that few, if any, of us could dream of matching. As an organist, his achievements are unparalleled. He leaves us at the height of his powers as a musician….John had a deep faith and it will be a comfort to many that his strivings for musical perfection in life now find their fulfillment in the perfection of heaven.”
John Scott came to St. Thomas after serving for 26 years at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. While at St. Paul’s, Mr. Scott was responsible for a number of significant musical events, including the National Service of Thanksgiving for the Millennium, the services to mark the 100th birthday of HM The Queen Mother, the Golden Jubilee of HM The Queen, and the wedding of Prince Charles to Princess Diana.
Mr. Scott performed the complete cycle of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ works, the complete works of Franck, Buxtehude, and Messiaen, and the complete symphonies of Vierne. He was himself a gifted composer and
arranger and champion of all styles and periods of music, but gravitated more and more to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Like Bach, his motto was “Soli Deo Gloria.”
Scott came to St. Thomas in New York City in 2004, when he was appointed Organist and Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. Here he was charged with the music directorship of Saint Thomas Choir School, the only choral boarding school in North America. His students have gone on to assume the highest positions in church music, choral direction, and organ performance.
Dancing Day was recorded at St. Thomas and sent to press only a few days before Scott’s death. The album centers around two works for treble voices and harp that the choir performed annually: Benjamin Britten’s
A Ceremony of Carols and John Rutter’s companion piece, Dancing Day.
Benjamin Britten originally composed A Ceremony of Carols for women’s choir, but soon adapted it for children’s voices. Britten and John Scott were both dedicated to the musical education of children. After a series of performances in 1943, Britten wrote, “I think the little boys were enchanting. The occasional roughness was easily overweighed by their freshness and naivety—something very special.” Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols highlights the particular qualities of children’s voices, and his choice of harp for accompaniment helps evoke a sense of nostalgia and innocence. A Ceremony of Carols contains 11 movements written for three-part treble choir and harp. The carols are framed with the plainsong antiphon from the Vespers of the Nativity. All eight carols are of medieval origin and are performed in Middle English (spoken between 1154-1485). Britten here sets aside his typical virtuosic, complex compositional style. Rather, he embraces the musical and cultural traditions of the past by resetting traditional carols. Though such carols were incredibly popular during the 19th century, they fell out of fashion until the publishing of the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. The carols then became better known through the tradition of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.
Dancing Day also contains Britten’s “A New Year Carol” and Patrick Hadley’s “I sing of a maiden.” The men of the St. Thomas choir join the boys in works by Matthew Martin, Philip Ledger, William Mathias, and in John Scott’s arrangement “King Jesus hath a Garden,” which he wrote while an organ scholar of St John’s College, Cambridge. This excellent recording offers a glimpse into the extraordinary legacy of John Scott and is highly recommended.