December 2008

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See, see the Word is incarnate

Gibbons See, see the Word is incarnate
Victoria Missa O magnum mysterium
Poulenc Quatre motets pour le temps de Nöel
Mendelssohn When Jesus our Lord (from Christus)
Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was a leading composer of vocal, keyboard and ensemble music in early 17th-century England.  From 1603 until his death he was a musician in the Chapel Royal.  His particular skill was as a keyboard player, becoming senior organist in 1625.  His seven children were baptised at St Margaret’s Westminster.  From 1613 he was the most talented keyboard player and composer available to the court and in 1623 he became organist at Westminster Abbey.  His verse anthems are characterised by vitality and are amongst the greatest of the genre.  See, see the Word is incarnate is a fine example: it starts with an expressive declaration for alto solo and chorus, moves through an imitative duet for soprano and alto, rhythmic choral writing, darkly descriptive passages for trio and quartet depicting the death of Christ, and ends in a triumphant chorus in celebration of the resurrection.

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was not only the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer but also one of the greatest composers of church music of his day in Europe, who has been admired above all for the intensity of his motets and of his Offices for Holy Week.  His work is limited entirely to the setting of Latin sacred texts.  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.  His renumerative and influential position as choirmaster, with plentiful resources at his disposal, are no doubt reflected in the underlying optimism and confidence of much of his later work. His masses and motets provided a consistent and vigorous corpus of new music for the counter-reformation Church.  O magnum mysterium, written for the feast of the Circumcision, is a so-called parody mass: it takes its theme from the composer’s motet of the same title, with the opening bars of the Kyrie echoing those of the motet.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is one of the supreme composers of French religious music.  The simplicity and directness of his writing have led to his relatively late acceptance as a serious composer. In 1936 a close friend, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, died in a tragic car accident after which his works became more spiritually oriented, although never losing their ‘joie de vivre.’  Poulenc’s choral music is unusually taxing, with strange key changes and awkward intervals all making for startlingly beautiful textures.  Despite their brevity, the Quatre motets pour le temps de Nöel are each an exquisite example of the composer at the height of his choral brilliance, brimming with freshness and clarity and full of the joy of the season.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was one of the most naturally gifted musicians of the 19th century.  His inspiration was more to be found in the works of Bach, Handel and Mozart than those of his contemporaries.  We will hear three movements from his unfinished oratorio, Christus: a short recitative for soprano is followed by a passage depicting the Three Kings and their search for the infant Jesus; the extract ends with a rousing chorus (‘There shall a star from David come forth’) expressing a fervent desire for the just Messiah, who will shatter the fallible structures of the world and replace them with everlasting peace; it ends with a setting of the chorale ‘How brightly shines the morning star’.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was the most important English composer of his generation and a key figure in the 20th-century revival of English folk music, carols and Renaissance madrigals, important components of that tradition.  His outlook was human and social; he never forgot that music was for people; and he showed a reverential, almost religious feeling for genuinely popular traditions despite being a ‘cheerful agnostic’.  The Fantasia is founded on four traditional English carols: The truth sent from above (Herefordshire), Come all you worthy gentlemen (Somerset), On Christmas night (Sussex) and There is a fountain (Herefordshire; tune only).  It is full of life-affirming melodies that never lose their welcome with each re-use and transformation throughout the piece.