June 2003

Music for a summer’s evening

Phillips Ascendit deus
Tallis O nata lux
Viadana Exsultate justi
Victoria O quam gloriosum
Stanford Beati quorum via
Parry My soul, there is a country
Wilbye Adieu sweet Amaryllis; Draw on sweet night; Sweet honeysucking bees; Yet sweet take heed
Kodaly Matra Pictures

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and Peter Phillips (1560–1628) belong to the period sometimes described as the Golden Age of English church music. Philips spent most of his adult life in the Spanish Netherlands and for this reason has often been regarded as a member of the Flemish school, yet he staunchly maintained his Englishness.  Apart from Byrd he was the most published English composer of his time.  He is best noted for his madrigals and motets and indeed some of his sacred music has a madrigal-like quality to it.  Ascendit Deus is a glorious five-part setting of Psalm 47, v 5 celebrating the ascent of Christ into heaven. ‘God has gone up with a shout, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.  Alleluia.  The Lord has prepared his seat in heaven.  Alleluia.’  The vocal lines are madrigalian in style and often have appropriately upward moving shapes, and the sound of the trumpet is suggested in strongly rhythmic fanfare-like passages.  Tallis became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 and remained there until his death.  He was one of the first composers to write for the new Anglican liturgy and his Elizabethan motets are characterised by an element of restraint.  His beautiful setting of If ye love me, to a text from St John’s Gospel, possesses unusual purity and simplicity, whilst the moving five-part O nata lux de lumine, a setting of the first two verses of the Office Hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration, shows an expansive fluidity maintained by chromatically-moving inner parts.  It is characterised by an ambivalence of duple/triple time, harmonic false relations and indeterminate tonality and remains one of the composer’s most memorable works.  The Italian Lodovico Viadana (1560-1627) was a friar as well as composer.  His works are characterised by a freshness and fluency.  Exsulktate justi, a setting of psalm 33 vv1-3, is taken from his concerti ecclesiastici of 1602 and was very popular for its tunefulness and colourful word-painting.

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.  He was ordained priest in 1575 and two years later became chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid; he remained at the convent, first as choirmaster and later as organist, until his death.  O quam gloriosum is a motet for All Saints day and is about the glorious vision of the company of heaven.  It starts slowly with chords which imitate an organ, but moves into livelier scales of notes on the word ‘gaudent’ to suggest the joy of the saints.  My soul, there is a country, by the English composer Hubert Parry (1848-1918), is another meditation on heaven and is one of a set of six such pieces he composed towards the end of his life.  The words, by Henry Vaughan, speak of a longing for peace and tranquillity and urge us to live a virtuous life  – ‘Leave then thy foolish ranges, for none can thee secure but one who never changes, thy God, thy life, thy cure’.  The way the music ebbs and flows, punctuated by pauses, is typical of Parry’s richly emotional style.  Along with Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) he made the greatest contribution to the romantic tradition of the late 19th century.  Stanford’s setting of psalm 119 v 1 – Beati quorum via integra est, qui ambulant in lege Domini  (Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord) is set for six vocal lines, the phrases gradually flowing and growing with great beauty; although the overall mood is quiet there is a convincingly expressive mood of confidence.  The idea of ‘walking in righteousness’ is expressed by the regular pacing of the music.

John Wilbye (1574-1638) is one of the finest of English madrigalists.  Such pieces are set to secular texts and usually describe the pains and pleasures of love, and the beauties of nature.  Adieu, sweet Amaryllis is a poignant four-part piece of resigned pathos.  In the six-part Draw on, sweet night, a work remarkable for its intense yet poised melancholy, Wilbye makes subtle use of a major-minor ambivalence to produce a work of expressive potency which has been described as the greatest of all English madrigals.  Sweet honey-sucking bees with its sequel Yet, sweet, take heed is an extended and impressive five-part piece where he exploits the idea of repetition as a means of musical expansion.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was, along with Bartok, one of the creators of art music based on folk sources, and helped establish a high-level Hungarian musical culture.  His development was profoundly influenced by his folksong experiences and by the embodiment of the Hungarian spirit.  The evocative Matra pictures, although written as a seamlessly fluid piece, is a compilation of five folk-songs: Vidrócki’s hunting, The farewell, The message, Summertime and Stealing chickens.  Kodály was a vocally-orientated composer for whom melody was of the highest importance.  In 1966 he wrote ‘Our age of mechanisation leads along a road ending with man himself as a machine; only the spirit of singing can save us from this fate’.  The whole concept of singing as a liberating, enriching experience lies behind the very existence of the group of singers we hear tonight – Cantandum!