March 2014

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Appeal for a Peal

A concert in aid of the bell appeal at St Stephen’s Rochester Row

Victoria Officium defunctorum
Purcell Rejoice in the Lord
Vierne Carillon de Westminster
Vaughan Williams Three Shakespeare Songs

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music.  After 21 years in Rome and his ordination in 1575, he became chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid; he remained at the royal convent of the Barefooted Nuns of St Clare, first as choirmaster and later as organist, until his death 24 years later.  His music ranks with the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, and is characterised by a mystical intensity and direct emotional appeal.

His Officium defunctorum (Office for the Dead) of 1605 includes his second Requiem Mass and commemorates the widowed empress, who had died two years previously.  It is set for six voices, SSATTB, and is regarded as one of the most magnificent choral compositions of the literature.  Bruno Turner describes it as having a refined and dignified austerity ‘shot through with passionate conviction; it glows with extraordinary fervour within a musical and spiritual atmosphere of serenity’.  The Missa pro defunctis is accompanied by extra-liturgical music: the motet Versa est in luctum (My harp is turned to mourning), the Responsorium, Libera me, for the Absolution which follows the mass, and a lesson from Matins, Taedet animam meam (My soul is weary of life), a bleak text from the Book of Job.  The music is interspersed with the proper plainsong intonations and verses, and the plainsong is also paraphrased in the polyphony, usually the second soprano part.

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) was an extremely prolific composer who served at court in the reigns of three successive kings, Charles II, James II and William III; he became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679.  His exceptional genius makes him one of the greatest composers of the baroque era. The text of the verse anthem Rejoice in the Lord is from Philippians iv, vv 4-7. Its title comes from the peals of bells heard throughout the glorious opening prelude, not only in the bass part (where it is repeated five times) but also in the intertwining upper parts.  Verses sung by ATB soloists alternate with those of the full choir in this enduringly popular anthem.

The Three Shakespeare Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) were composed for the British Federation of Music Festivals in 1951 and were premiered in the Royal Festival Hall.  The first, Full fathom five, is from Act I ‘The Tempest’ and paints a hauntingly mysterious underwater atmosphere of a shipwreck, with the ship’s bell tolling and its eerie echo.  The cloud-capp’d towers, from act IV of the same play, is characterised by a tone of recitation and a sense of deep concentration, with some stunning word-painting, such as the oscillation between A minor and Aflat major on the word ‘dissolve’.  The third, Over hill, over dale is pastoral, energetic and again mysterious depiction of a scene from act II of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.