CHARLES WOOD  -  St. Mark Passion

Plainsong Adaptions by Geoffrey Atkinson




The Passion of Our Lord (According to St. Mark)  by Charles Wood (1866-1926) was first published by the Faith Press in 1921.  Subsequently the work was adopted by the RSCM and reprinted in 1981.  It is a fine piece, succinct and dramatic, and one making modest demands upon its performers.


During the course of the work use is made of two plainsong hymns, ‘Pange Lingua’, of which seven verses are incorporated at three different moments, and ‘The Heavenly Word Proceeding Forth’ four verses of which are incorporated at a single point. It is the musical treatment of these tunes wherein lies a notable drawback, one which almost certainly explains the work’s fall into disuse.


When plainsong melodies began to be used again in the mid 19th century, church musicians knew no other way to treat them than to harmonise them note to a chord, a practice which today would be regarded as wholly unacceptable.  One can see the progress of performing practice of plainsong neatly in the first two editions of the English Hymnal.  In 1906 even this landmark production used the old style of plainsong accompaniment - that is largely one note to one chord (notated in minims), though the Preface does show some understanding about the ‘free and rapid rhythm of mediaeval melodies’ and warns that the white note conventions followed in the accompaniment should not imply a ‘slow and heavy method of execution’.  When the 1933 edition of the hymnal came out all the plainsong accompaniments had been rewritten in the style with which we are now familiar.


Wood’s St Mark Passion appeared in 1921, five years before his death in 1926.  It is perhaps not surprising that his setting of the two plainsong melodies reflects the old way of doing things.  Note-against-chord harmonisation and its derivatives are used throughout.


This publication offers a solution whereby the plainsong is rearranged in a manner which, it is hoped, will be acceptable to modern sensibilities, and is offered in an attempt to restore the work to viability.  No great originality is involved and none claimed.  Sometimes the new settings keep to the way of simplicity, sometimes they exploit Pange Lingua’s willingness to go in canon, and occasionally they nod respectfully to Holst (The Hymn of Jesus) and Duruflé (Requiem etc.).


The other change made here is that at the very end, where Wood repeated verse 1 of Pange Lingua, the customary doxology has been substituted, as making a more fitting climax.  Performers would be at liberty to repeat verse 1 instead here, if they so wished.


It is hoped that these adaptions will give new vitality to Wood’s highly effective and emotionally involving masterpiece.


© Geoffrey Atkinson 2000

Last updated: 10/09/11 10:28:22

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