March 2015

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Music for Lent

Victoria Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday
Poulenc Timor et Tremor; Vinea mea electa
Palestrina Stabat Mater
Sanders Reproaches
Bach Komm Jesu, komm

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.  The Responsories, published in 1585, were sung at Tenebrae during Holy Week to texts, 18 in total, which trace the story of the Passion.  The six we hear tonight are those for Maundy Thursday.  They are raw and poignant settings of bleak texts and are characterised by energy, vitality and, at times, an almost unbearable sense of pain.  The music was written for liturgical performance and keeps strictly to the repeats prescribed by tradition: an opening section and a second section, both for four voices; a third section for fewer voices, and a repeat of the second section – ABCB.  The power of the music lies in the balance between words and setting. The mood is introverted and spiritually intense, with extreme simplicity and directness of style.

Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence, by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) were the first pieces in the composer’s fully-recognisable a capella style.  Written for the hanteurs de Lyon, they were intended as concert pieces. From the opening of the first motet, Timor et tremor, to a text from psalms in the Vulgate of St Jerome, Poulenc builds his own dramatic but modest sound-world, with sharply-defined dynamic contrasts, an unsettled metre, and distinctive harmonic progressions depicting the ‘fear and trembling’ associated with the Crucifixion. This engrossing stylistic progression feels as if it is dictated by the text’s increasing intensity, driving towards the concluding ‘non confundar’ and a chromatically descending soprano line.  The second motet, Vinea mea electa, with a text from the third responsory for Matins on Good Friday, contrasts the tender opening, in sonorous six-part C sharp major, depicting loving references to the vine, through a shift to the modal tonic minor and a calm resignation at the impending Crucifixion, with anger at the possibility of Barrabas’ release.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth-century music and at the time of his death was considered by some to be the finest musician in the world.  He was primarily a prolific composer of masses and motets: the double-choir Stabat Mater, dating from about 1590, produces rich sonorities and an outstanding beauty of tone within the moderate compass of the voice parts.  It has been described as a ‘dramatic fresco in music, filled with light and shade’ and is an acknowledged masterpiece of Renaissance choral writing which, many would say, has never been surpassed.  The text is of 13th century origin, with a distinctive pattern of three-line verses each of 8, 8 and 7 syllables, and is a meditation on the suffering of Mary at the Crucifixion.

John Sanders (1935-2003) was Organist and Choirmaster at Gloucester Cathedral from 1967-1994.   The Reproaches are a setting in English of the sequence sung on Good Friday and alternate psalmic verses with spaciously harmonised antiphons.  The form and atmosphere take as a point of reference Allegri’s Miserere, with its use of plainsong contrasted with harmony in the verses, although the harmonies used perhaps have more in common with Gesualdo, which the composer suggested ‘gives the music a sense of timelessness’.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty and intellectual depth.  Now regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, his work was not well-known until the 19th century.  Komm Jesu, komm, the fifth six motets, dates from around 1723-34 and is a setting of a funeral poem written by Paul Thymich (d. 1684).  The setting is for SATB double choir.  The opening section, in moderate triple metre, is the darkest.  Descending lines and angular counterpoint predominate, accentuating the hardships of life, with a sustained pedal tone for basses leading to a clear cadence. It is remarkable for its word-painting, notably at ‘Der saure Weg’ (the bitter way), where the bitterness of life is emphasised with a downward leap of a diminished seventh in every voice, perhaps implying that nobody is exempt from earthly trials. The mood shifts to a more hopeful sentiment which, in turn, moves into a stately expression of faith; the words ‘You are the right way, the truth and the life’ are set as a dance in 6/8 for alternating choirs, moving through an interval of a fifth each time and culminating in a true eight-voice polyphony. With ecstatic confidence, a stately four-part chorale concludes the motet with the words ‘My spirit…shall soar with its creator’.