March 2016

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Salvator mundi – music for Passiontide

Weelkes Hosanna to the son of David
Victoria Eram quasi agnus; Caligaverunt oculi mei
Tallis Salvator mundi
Bruckner Christus factus est
Sanders The Reproaches
Tomkins My shepherd is the living Lord
Byrd Ave verum corpus
Weelkes When David heard that Absalon was slain
Holst Four songs for voice and violin
Tchaikowsky The Crown of Roses
Rutter Sans day carol

The first half of tonight’s programme features music inspired by Holy Week, from Passion Sunday to Good Friday.  Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) was an English composer and organist, whose output of mostly vocal music included madrigals as well as anthems and services.   He became organist of Winchester and Chichester cathedrals, although he was dismissed for using being drunk at the organ and using foul language during divine service.  Hosanna to the Son of David opens with a majestic six-voice SSATBB proclamation, with a sonorous lower register, moving seamlessly between homophonic and imitative passages. The text is a composite paraphrase of verses from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, detailing Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day.  His output was entirely religious: masses and motets, settings of the Magnificat and Lamentations, as well as antiphons, responsories and hymns.  The Tenebrae Responsories were sung at the highly elaborate and dramatised night-time office of Tenebrae during Holy Week.  The texts, 18 in total, trace the story of the Passion and were adapted from the Gospels with fourth-century additions.  Eram quasi agnus (I was like an innocent lamb) is for Maundy Thursday whilst Caligaverunt oculi mei (my eyes become dim with weeping) is from the Good Friday settings.  They are raw and poignant settings, characterised by energy and vitality, with a mystical intensity and direct emotional appeal.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) comes from the period often described as the Golden Age, the height of the English Renaissance, which saw the flowering of poetry, music and literature under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Salvator mundi, a setting of the antiphon for Matins on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, is the first of his two settings of the text. It begins imitatively, with soprano and alto 2 in canon at the octave, but quickly moves into a style which is freer and more expressive, with insistent pitch repetition at ‘auxiliare nobis’, an affecting pathos of the descending ‘te deprecamur’, and dissonant intervals creating a sense of magnificence and piquancy.

Of all nineteenth century Austrian composers Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was the most religious, and his music for the Roman Catholic liturgy is amongst the finest of the last 150 years. The radical nature of his works is characterised by dissonances, modulations and roving harmonies, with enharmonic transformations representing redemption through faith. Christus factus est, to a text from Philippians 2:8-9, follows what has been described as ‘a striking parallel to Christ’s journey of obedience unto death’.

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 the second half of the concert is reflective and relates to the theme of the first. Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) studied with Byrd before becoming a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and Master of the Choir at Worcester Cathedral.  His most noted collection of works, Musica Deo sacra, was published posthumously in 1668.  In My shepherd is the living Lord a single solo voice is given prominence for the first verse, while the second verse section is a duet, with intricate writing for the organ contrasting with the rhythmic simplicity of the voice lines.  Ave verum corpus is a text for the feast of Corpus Christi and the setting by William Byrd (1543-1623), one of his best-loved pieces, conveys the perfect mixture of awe and joy as well as the fervour and conviction of his own beliefs.  Weelkes’s setting of the short Absalom lament in the Second Book of Samuel highlights the deeply personal nature of King David’s public and private mourning for his dead son.

Four Songs for voice and violin, by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is a deceptively simple setting of texts which the composer found in A Medieval Anthology, Being Lyrics and Other Short Poems, Chiefly Religious compiled by Mary Gertrude Segar in 1915. None of the four songs contains a key signature or time signature: Holst uses modes and simple structures to give the music a folk quality, and a free-flowing rhythm to impart the feeling of improvisation and to imitate the flowing quality of speech.  There are four movements: Jesu sweet, My soul has nought but fire and ice, I sing of a maiden and My leman is so true of love.

The Crown of Roses, from Chansons pour la jeunesse by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), is a simple and moving story about the childhood of Christ, which also foreshadows the Passion.  Originally entitled Legend, it was composed to a Russian translation of an English text and was later re-translated back to English by Geoffrey Dearmer.  The Sans Day Carol tells of the whole life of Christ rather than just his Nativity and is thus appropriate to other times in the liturgical year, especially Easter.  It is well known in this fluid and seemingly effortless version by John Rutter (b 1934), and is so called because the melody and first three verses were written down at St. Day in Cornwall.