st Stephen’s, Rochester Row
Tallis Lamentations I
Byrd Infelix ego
Howells Saraband In molto elegiac
Tallis Lamentations II
Palestrina Stabat mater
Dupré In Memoriam V. Ricercare
Charpentier Le reniement de St Pierre
Gilly French, Kevin Walsh, Helen Prentice, Iain Butler
Fiona Sharp, Catharine Robertson, Nick Dyles, William Nicholson
Thomas Tallis (1505-85) was the most important English composer of his time. He was employed at Waltham Abbey until its dissolution and then at Canterbury Cathedral before becoming a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543, where he remained until his death. His output encompasses early and late sixteenth-century English styles and his career reflects the religious upheaval and political change that affected church music of this period. Throughout his service to four successive monarchs he managed to avoid religious controversy, quietly remaining a Roman Catholic yet also composing to meet different royal demands.
Lamentations are lessons from the Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah and were performed at the highly dramatised night-time office of Tenebrae. Tallis composed two exquisite settings, each beginning with ‘Incipit Lamentatio’ and each ending with the line ‘Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’, freely adapted from the Book of Hosea. Within this structure Tallis sets biblical verses, each prefaced by successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Heth), indicating that the five chapters of laments were largely an alphabetical acrostic, the soulful melismas of which provide a contrast to the richly varied and declamatory writing in the verses. The music is always moving and, at the close, acquires an almost unbearable beauty; the darkly expressive tones and sombre colouring of the low voices providing a sustained severity. Their composition dates from the early days of Elizabeth’s reign, by when the deserted city of Jerusalem had become a metaphor for England deprived of its Catholic faith.
Infelix ego, by William Byrd (d 1623), is one of the greatest artistic statements of the sixteenth century. The remarkable text is a meditation on the Miserere (Psalm 51) by the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola, composed in prison in 1498 after torture and two weeks before his public execution. It takes the form of a number of rhetorical statements and questions and shows a whole range of emotion from a soul in torment – guilt, fear, embarrassment, anger, and release when Christ’s mercy is accepted. The motet is in three sections. The first starts in a calm manner, set in a resolute major tonality with only a hint of minor at ‘ad quem confugiam?’ The passage ‘I do not dare to lift my eyes to heaven’ shows an insistently-repeated ‘non audeo’ (I do not dare) on increasing levels of pitch. The second section starts with three voices on ‘Quid igitur faciam desperabo’ (What therefore shall I do? – shall I despair?’) followed by a homophonic ‘misericors’. Minor tonalities are favoured before the music builds in pitch with each successive ‘imaginem suam’. The final section starts in the minor and builds up an intensity of emotion around the poet’s perceived humiliation (‘I shall pour out words of sorrow’) before leading to an imploration for mercy. The final ‘Miserere mei’ is the climax of the work, bringing an extraordinary consolation on the word ‘misericordiam’.
The short Saraband by the Gloucestershire-born Herbert Howells (1892-1983) comes from a set of six pieces for organ written for Herbert Sumsion of Gloucester Cathedral and published in 1945. Much of Howells’ music was influenced by Tudor forms and dances, re-imagined through a highly expressive chromatic language. The triple-time slow Saraband form appears in a long sequence of Howells’ compositions for different forces and is always associated, as here, with a melancholy ‘elegiac’ mood, expressed through ornamented melody and richly intense dissonance.
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.
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) was one of the greatest organist-composers of the twentieth century, and the teacher of Olivier Messiaen. The reflective and contrapuntal Ricercare comes from his opus 61, In Memoriam, a set of six pieces, mostly based on improvisations and dedicated to the memory of his much-loved daughter Marguérite who died from cancer, aged 54, in 1963. It was first performed by the composer in St Sulpice, Paris on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1966.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (d 1704) was a prolific and versatile composer, producing music of the highest quality in several genres. He studied with Carissimi before entering the service of the grand dauphin in the early 1680s. He also became attached as composer and Master of Music to the Jesuit church in Paris before moving to Sainte Chapelle, a post second in prestige only to Versailles. Le reniement de St Pierre (St Peter’s denial of Christ) is one of the composer’s finest biblical oratorio-motets; although described as an oratorio, it was often sung as a motet during Passion week. The text is a compilation of all four Gospel sources and includes passages for a narrator (WN), as was traditional in unstaged oratorios. The music is dramatic and intensive, with great characterisation of the noble dignity of Jesus (ND) and the protests of Peter (KAPW). The denial scene is almost operatic, with Peter shouting that he does not know Christ whilst his accusers just as insistently repeat their identification of him as a disciple. Then the cock crows. The piece closes with what has been described as a ‘lacerating choral description of Peter’s horrified self-realisation, and of his going out, and weeping bitterly’; in its almost unbearable poignancy it is not unlike the final chorus of Carissimi’s Jephthe.