Via Crucis (‘The Way of the Cross’) is a sequence of prayers and reflections that is likely to be of great devotional value in Passiontide – or indeed at other times of the year. (It was not available for review in time for our January issue.)
There are 14 ‘reflections’, plus a concluding one (referred to in the CD notes as ‘The Crown’, but as no. 15 on the list of tracks) – they are essentially based on the Via Dolorosa (‘Sorrowful Way’ or ‘Way of Suffering’), Jesus’ path to the site of his crucifixion at Calvary.
The CD note tells us that the work uses ‘some of the prayers from [the Very Revd Eric] Milner-White’s 1950 publication’ (A Procession of Passion Prayers), thus creating ‘a work which speaks to the future through the language of the past’. The language is indeed that ofThe Book of Common Prayer in which, notably, God and Christ are addressed as ‘thou’ and ‘thee’. The text is beautifully crafted, and most passages are structurally similar to Collects. The reader is the Revd Dr Barry Orford, Emeritus Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford: his voice is ideal for the content and character of Milner-White’s prayers.
The composer Philip Moore has had strong connections both with York (his 25-year stint as Organist and Master of the Music began in 1983, the year of Eric Milner-White’s death, and last as Dean). Previously he had been Organist and Master of the Choristers at Guildford Cathedral, whose organ is used for this recording (specification and brief history available in the online booklet). Richard Moore (no relation, I understand), is Sub Organist at the Cathedral.
Philip Moore’s music is varied in texture, tempo, character, registration and dynamics in accordance with the various prayer texts. The opening four bars (a melody of eight minims) for pedal only in ‘The Agony in Gethsemane’ contain the seeds of almost all that follows. Immediately after the initial statement, the eight notes are repeated, with other parts progressively added: the section culminates in a four-bar inverted pedal E over a C sharp minor chord. The key signature of two sharps normally points to D major or B minor, but the tonality here is more elusive and chromatic.
Some prayers provide more scope than others for pictorialism – notably ‘The Scourging’ and ‘The Nailing’. A telling moment, highlighted in the Foreword, is the tranquillity at the end to the seventh reflection ‘Bearing the Cross’ in anticipation of Simon of Cyrene’s taking over the bearing of the Cross from Jesus: fittingly in the eighth reflection there is some major-key relief from the inevitable dwelling on the minor in much of the work. The ending of Reflection 7 had juxtaposed ‘unrelated’ minor chords in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Vaughan Williams – but the final two chords (ppp) were G minor and F sharp (major), the B flat of the former becoming memorably and beautifully the A sharp of the latter.
The concluding organ piece is based on the tune ‘Rockingham’ (‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’) to ‘anchor worshippers’ into familiar Holy Week territory – but in the ‘bright’ key of E major rather than the E flat or D in which the tune is usually sung. The familiar tune and the ‘bright’ key provide sounds of hope after the intensity of what has preceded. We know of course that the story did have a happy ending.
The CD comes as a ‘digipack’, commendably so at a time when care for the environment increasingly encourages any move away from plastic. It is perhaps also in response to environmental considerations that short notes are provided rather than a conventional CD booklet, although the latter is available online via QR code or URL.
The score is available from Encore Publications: many experienced and proficient organists should find it perfectly manageable. Perhaps some may wish to perform isolated reflections during Passiontide rather than feel obliged to present the entire work?