December 2003

Music for Advent

Byrd Laetentur coeli
Cleobury (arr) Let all mortal flesh keep silence
Poston Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
Purcell Rejoice in the Lord alway
Handel O praise the Lord with one consent (Chandos Anthem 9)

The first half of the programme is taken up with music for advent written by English composers.  The season of advent is about preparing for the coming of the Lord and is characterised by preparation, hope, and a restrained, joyful expectancy.  In this programme we address three of the major themes: The Coming of the King and the Kingdom (Laetentur coeli, Rejoice in the Lord alway); The Sin of Adam reversed in the Birth of Christ (Jesus Christ the Apple Tree); and Preparing for Christmas – waiting and expecting (Let all mortal flesh keep silence). Stephen Cleobury was born in 1948 and is director of music at King’s College Cambridge.  Let all mortal flesh keep silence is an arrangement of the traditional French carol from the Liturgy of St James.  There is a fine organ accompaniment and a descant in the last verse.  Elizabeth Poston (1905–87) emerged as a composer in her twenties.  Her personal style much emphasises clean craftsmanship and melodic fluency, and she has won particular respect as the editor of folksong, carol and hymn collections.  Jesus Christ the Apple Tree sets a moving metaphorical poem about the nature of religious belief, and is characterised by a simple flowing melody which starts as a soprano solo, turns into an exquisite quartet (this beauty doth all things excel, by faith I know but ne’er can tell), and is then followed by two four-part verses and ends in a tutti unison affirmation of faith (this fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive).  The music of William Byrd (1543-1623) belongs to the period sometimes described as the Golden Age of English church music.  His Laetentur coeli has a mood of quiet but confident expectation and is characterised by appropriate word-painting: ascending phrases on ‘coeli’, a rhythmic ‘exsultet in terra’, a gentle ‘et pauperum suorum miserebitur’ and a contemplative hope of justice and peace.  He was one of the few composers to write in Latin after the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I and the publication of his Gradualia was seen as an act of political subversion and a chance for the composer to acknowledge the support of his powerful catholic patrons.  Henry Purcell OW (1659 – 1695) became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679.  His exceptional genius makes him one of the greatest composers of the baroque era.  He was an extremely prolific composer who served at court in the reigns of three successive kings, Charles II, James II and William III.  The text of the verse anthem Rejoice in the Lord is from Philippians iv, vv 4-7. There is a string orchestral overture and ritornellos, verses are sung by soloists and alternate with others sung the full choir, and the piece is very much a perennial favourite.

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) was born in Halle, Germany but became a British citizen in 1727.  He was one of the greatest vocal and instrumental composers of the baroque age and was a cosmopolitan and eclectic artist.  In the summer of 1717 he became resident composer to the Earl of Carnarvon (who was in 1719 to become the first Duke of Chandos), where he composed eleven anthems, two masques and the Chandos Te Deum.  Interestingly this music makes very little use of altos or violas (there is no viola in tonight’s anthem, and the alto solo is usually sung by a tenor), presumably because of availability of musicians at the time.  The anthems were composed for the English equivalent of a small German court and reflect both the urbane worldliness and the mixture of pomp and intimacy at Cannons, the country seat of the Duke.  They are eclectic, full of expressive and pictorial invention and are of elaborate style.  The text of O praise the Lord with one consent comes from the metrical New Version of the Psalms prepared in 1696 by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady.  There is no independent overture.  The opening line of the first number is taken from the great hymn tune St Anne, whilst the second part of this movement is more fugal in character, with a lengthy, self-contained theme in one voice heard against counter-subjects in imitation  The St Anne hymn tune appears again in long note-values in the fifth movement, the choral ‘sing solemn hymns with praise’, whilst the final two choruses are a triumphal ‘exalt your maker’s fame’ and an affirmatory ‘ye voices raise, ye cherubim and seraphin, to sing his praise, alleluia’.  The arias, in contrast, are brief and straightforward, although there are very effective contrasts between the solos, with a virtuosic bass ‘That God is great’, an expressive ‘God’s tender mercy knows no bounds’ for soprano, and two contrasting arias for tenor: a larghetto ‘Praise him all ye’ and a rapid concertante ‘For this our truest int’rest is’.