MUSIC LOST AND FOUND - The story of R.J. Powell's 1965 Mag and Nunc

As part of their upcoming Epiphany service of Choral Evensong, The Anglican Singers, artists-in-residence at St. James Episcopal Church in New London, Connecticut, will introduce the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G-minor of the eminent American composer, Robert J. Powell. This inaugural performance of Powell’s Service will take place at St. James on Sunday, February 11, 2007, at 5:00 p.m.

Here is the story of this opus, its creator, the performers, and an improbable alchemy that brought them all together.

The Find:

One afternoon in the autumn of 2005, Dr. David Percival, parishioner and chorister at St. James Episcopal Church in New London, Connecticut, picked his way across the rain-spattered floor of the church’s basement choir room with his choir director, Violeta Chan-Scott. A heavy downpour had flooded parts of the room; he and she were mopping up and trying to salvage music scores and manuscripts from irreparable water damage.

The two delved into dozens of boxes that had lain untouched for decades – and so what had begun as a swabbing-up exercise turned into a treasure hunt. Seeing the necessity to protect these materials from further ravages of weather and neglect, they and their colleague, Ken Stewart, catalogued and carted as much as they could carry upstairs to “The Rector’s parlor,” which doubles as the church library – and is dry.

But something was overlooked that day . . . . and it was not until five months later that Dr. Percival, once again tidying up in the choir room, stumbled upon a mother lode: the original manuscript of a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Its author, the distinguished American composer, Robert J. Powell, according to the statement atop the first page of the score, had been commissioned to write a Service “For the Inaugural Festival of the American Friends of St. Paul’s Cathedral [in London] held in St. James Church, New London, Connecticut, 1965.”

Grasping the significance of his find, David Percival immediately brought this score to Marianna Wilcox, director of The Anglican Singers (of which group he is president), a thirty-member choral-ensemble based at St. James. Since The Singers perform Choral Evensong throughout each season, and since the canticles of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are integral to that service, he knew his director would be intrigued.
She was.

Ms. Wilcox, always on the lookout for new material for The Singers, was excited because Robert Powell is preeminent among contemporary American composers of church music. And her curiosity was piqued by the group which had commissioned the work, The American Friends of St. Paul’s Cathedral. She discovered that this organization had been established four decades earlier by parishioners of St. James. And so – entertaining the possibility of The Anglican Singers’ performing Powell’s Service during their tenth-anniversary season – she determined to dig deeper.

In June of 2006, Marianna Wilcox located and contacted the composer. To her surprise, he told her he had completely forgotten about the newly unearthed work, but asked her to mail it to him, which she did. And so began a series of exchanges between the two that would culminate in her putting Powell’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G-minor on the 2007 Epiphany program, and in his accepting her invitation to attend that service.

The two of them continued to communicate about this forgotten oeuvre, as well as other Services Powell had published – having composed “three or four” in all, any of which he invited her to use. Ms. Wilcox explained that the rediscovered Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G-minor were particularly suitable, both to be performed at St. James and to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the establishment of The Anglican Singers.

Meanwhile, sleuthing once again through dusty boxes in the church’s archives, David Percival (by now, with his wife, Darbee, church historian) discovered in a container labeled “Dr. Paul Wilbur” (rector of St. James in the nineteen-sixties) an article about the origins of The American Friends of St. Paul’s and a program sponsored by that group, entitled “An Inaugural Festival Service,” which took place at St. James Episcopal Church in New London at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 30, 1966.

When he examined more closely the bulletin of the choral festival, Percival noticed that Powell’s Service was not included. Instead the church had commissioned two anthems to celebrate its 240th anniversary: “O how glorious!” by David Williams, and “Who would true valor see” by Anthony Foster. Apprising Marianna Wilcox of this news, Dr. Percival saw her eyes light up: “Do you know what that means? It means that if The Singers perform Powell’s G-minor Mag and Nunc, ours will be the inaugural performance! What a way to celebrate our anniversary year!”

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