The Music of Gerre Hancock
The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York
The Saint Thomas Brass
Jeremy Filsell, Organist and Director of Music
Benjamin Sheen, Associate Organist
Nicholas Quardokus, Assistant Organist
Review by Geoffrey Williams
A recording of a single composer’s work can be a delicate thing. This is particularly true when the project provides something of a memorial or homage to a beloved figure. Gerre Hancock remains arguably the most influential church musician on those of us working in church music today.
He was a brilliant improviser, clever programmer, gifted recruiter, and teacher of thousands. As a composer, Hancock fills the role of most of his Anglican predecessors, from Tallis onward, who were not merely writers of tunes but active church musicians. Contrary to composers like Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett, who were unbeholden to an ecclesiastical post, Hancock was the ultimate practitioner of the Anglican choral tradition.
This recording rather smartly avoids the pitfalls of some compendiums that program seasonally or thematically. Within the first three tracks we are treated to the balance of Hancock’s compositional worlds.
First, a commissioned anthem, Song to the Lamb, followed by a piece of liturgical repertoire in the Jubilate Deo and completing the cycle with “Uncle Gerre’s” inimitable hymn arrangements, the Polish Carol Infant Holy. The program carries on this categorizing of works to great success to the casual listener, and the variety this creates also catches the ear just as one feels in a compositional rut.
Hancock’s choral output ranges from the boisterous and playful to the sublime. The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys follows suit wherein the full-throated anthems have a joyful sense of reckless abandon and the softer repertoire shows the superbly crafted choir training of Hancock’s successor, Jeremy Filsell. This is most present in the Advent anthem The Lord will surely come.
The men of the choir are at their most suave in the plainsong quoting “Creator of the Stars of night,” with a very fine solo from baritone Andrew Padgett. Again, the men are in good form with robust plainsong singing in the fauxbourdon setting of Psalm 8, echoed expertly by the elegance of the treble voices. This setting was previously heard on the choir’s recording O God, my heart is ready on the Koch label, and while the Saint Thomas sound is distinctly recognizable through the decades, it is likewise refreshed under Filsell’s direction.
Another kudos is due to the boys’ unified and utterly complete sound in the sweet carol Come ye lofty, come ye lowly. Perhaps the best known of the choral anthems is Judge eternal, which demonstrates if Hancock knew best how to improvise on a melody, he certainly could compose a fine tune as well.
Specific to Hancock’s composition, the greatest tribute I could offer is to applaud his succinct and clever adaptation of the tune St. Magnus (“The head that once was crowned with thorns”) in the Missa Resurectionis. The syllabic setting the longer text of the Ordinary allows a brevity perhaps welcome on an Easter morning, and choirs at all levels could well approach this piece in small parishes.
Would that it were still in print. In fact, much of this repertoire deserves greater circulation among choirs. That would indeed be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Gerre Hancock.
Dr. Geoffrey Williams is assistant professor of church music and director of St. Mary’s Chapel at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.