Summer at St Margaret’s
st margaret’s church, westminster abbey
Palestrina Sicut cervus
Palestrina Tu es Petrus
Monteverdi Beatus vir
Handel Chandos anthem 11: Let God arise
Duruflé Four motets on Gregorian themes
Langlais Messe solennelle
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. Sicut cervus (1581) has always been one of his most familiar works and is a model of imitative polyphony. The text is from Psalm 42 – the deer thirsts for water just as the soul thirsts for the fountain of Christianity. Tu es Petrus and its seconda pars, Quodcumque ligaveris, are a resplendent pair of motets which date from 1572. The motet, to a text from the Tract for the feast of St Peter’s Chair in Rome, is written in a bright major tonality and in a clear antiphonal structure, resulting in gloriously joyous quality throughout.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was employed at the court of Mantua and as maestro di cappella at S. Marco in Venice. Beatus vir, a much-loved Latin setting of Psalm 112, is believed to date from about 1630. It is scored for two violins and continuo bass, and has its origin in a canzonetta, Chiome d’oro, from the composer’s Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619).
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was one of the greatest composers of the baroque age. Born in Germany, he became a British subject in 1727. In 1717 he became resident composer to the Earl of Carnarvon, later the first Duke of Chandos, for whom he composed eleven anthems, two masques and the Chandos Te Deum. The anthems reflect both the urbane worldliness and the mixture of pomp and intimacy at Cannons, the Duke’s country seat. Let God arise opens with a fine Sonata, with a lyrically flowing first movement and a brilliant second section in which running semiquavers persist throughout. The text is from Psalm 68, with the interpolation of a verse from Psalm 76 for the chorus ‘At thy rebuke, O God’. The war-like mood is set immediately in the first chorus, where instruments and voices all strive to imitate the scattering of the enemies. In the solo ‘Like as the smoke vanisheth’ Handel skilfully conveys the notions of vanishing and driving away into a unified texture. This is followed by ‘Let the righteous be glad’, a delightful soprano aria. The chorus ‘O sing unto God’ is in the minor key with a theme dominated by running triplets, starting in the alto and bass but soon developing into an impressive four-part structure. A slow and solemn section prepares for the exhilarating ‘At thy rebuke’, before the final movement, with its resplendent Alleluias pitted against a legato theme.
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) was an introspective and highly self-critical musician, publishing only thirteen works in his lifetime. The Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens Op. 10 (1960) are written for unaccompanied chorus and each motet is composed around the Gregorian chant melody associated with its title. Ubi caritas is in ternary form and is homophonic; it is set in the hypolydian mode with a lowered fourth degree. It was originally the final melody sung at mass on Holy Thursday during the washing of feet. Tota pulchra es, in D dorian, is an antiphon for the feast of the Immaculate Conception and is the only motet written for women’s voices. The gentle yet sprightly nature of the polyphony portrays the purity and innocent nature of Mary. The third motet, Tu es Petrus, is a rousing statement of the Church’s foundation on the rock of St Peter, which climaxes with a dramatic crescendo to the only fortissimo dynamic of the set. Written in G mixolydian mode, it has a bright feel throughout. Tantum ergo concludes the motets with the familiar strophic hymn for Corpus Christi. The chant is set as a canon in the soprano and tenor parts, which gives rise to numerous 7th and 9th dissonances, and brings the set to a characteristically introspective close.
Jean Langlais (1907-1991) was born in Brittany. Blind from childhood, he studied organ in Paris with André Marchal, himself blind and a skilled improviser, before attending the Paris Conservatoire where he studied organ under Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas, and became friends with the young Olivier Messiaen. A man of profound religious conviction, his music was almost exclusively sacred, inspired by his love of the Catholic liturgy and of Gregorian chant. His Messe solennelle, for mixed chorus and organ, dates from 1951 and was written over a period of 11 days. It was inspired by Gregorian chant and Palestrinian polyphony, but has a modern slant as well. Langlais employs parallel fifths and octaves, made more incisive by the addition of notes which create often harsh discords. The Kyrie, the two main themes of which are foreshadowed in the organ introduction, is mostly homophonic, though the imitative entries give it in places a contrapuntal feel. The Gloria begins as a vigorous fugue with the main theme returning towards the end of the movement, the stretto entries here creating a sense of increasing pace. The Sanctus is marked by a sinuous figure in the organ which twists and turns chromatically until its rhythm is taken up by the chorus in an energetic ‘Hosanna’. A restrained womens’ voice Benedictus follows. The Agnus Dei is intensely chromatic, its melodic material showing a poignant angularity and its closing ‘dona nobis pacem’ becoming increasingly urgent.