December 2015

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On Christmas Night…

westminster school chapel

Foster Nativity
Hassler Hodie Christus natus est
Tallis Gloria from Missa Puer natus est nobis
H Praetorius Magnificat quinti toni with Christmas interpolations
Clemens non Papa Magi videntes stellam
Britten A Ceremony of Carols
Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols

Peter Foster (b 1967) is a composer, choral conductor and teacher based in Oxford.  He was the winner of the Budleigh Carol Competition in 2014, and is currently Director of Music at Our Lady’s Abingdon.  John Donne’s La Corona is a circle of seven sonnets, telling of successive phases of the life of Christ.  Nativity was composed in 2013; this is the first performance of the SATB version.  The poem is concerned with the paradox of the Incarnation: the God who ‘fills all place’, yet who becomes weak and vulnerable.  The music therefore has moments of contained stillness, and moments which allow a much more confident mood to emerge.

Hans Leo Hassler (bapt. 1562–1612) was a German composer belonging to a family of musicians. He studied at St Mark’s Venice with Andrea Gabrieli, whose famous nephew Giovanni was a fellow student.  The magnificent motet Hodie Christus natus est is written for two 5-part choirs and dates from 1591. It is serene in character, demonstrating a particularly Venetian feature of changing of metre into triple time for the ‘Alleluia’ sections at the end of each main line of text.

Thomas Tallis (1505-85) was the most important English composer of his time.  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 yet also composed to meet different royal demands.  His extraordinary seven-part Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est nobis, written in the time of Queen Mary, is based on the plainchant introit for Christmas Day.  It is lavishly scored and leaves an impression of immense grandeur, with the steady progression of cantus firmus in the tenor line – with each note assigned a value based on its vowel in the original text – coupled with a magisterial seven-part texture throughout.

The music of the north-German composer Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) bridges the gap between the stile antico and the stile moderno of the early baroque. The Magnificat quinti toni was very much intended as a Christmas piece: while his other eight-voice settings appear to form a set (comprising one setting for each of the eight church tones), this additional setting on the fifth tone was published in 1622 alongside arrangements of the popular carols Josef lieber, Josef mein and In dulci jubilo which share the same distinctive double-choir scoring. In addition instructions are provided that the carols be interspersed between the verses of the Magnificat (a tradition notably observed by Bach when he wrote his own well-known setting for Christmas 1723), highlighting the Christmas significance of the fifth tone.  The Magnificat is essentially polychoral in style and would almost certainly have been originally performed with continuo and instrumental accompaniment, making dramatic use of antiphony between the two choirs. Many of the motivic features of the plainsong tone are much in evidence in the polyphonic verses, along with some lively word painting to accompany some of the more dramatic phrases in the text.

The nickname “non Papa” seems to have been given to the Dutch composer Jacob Clemens (1510-1556) by his publisher as a joke, to distinguish him either from the poet Jacobus Papa, or from the recently deceased Pope Clement VII. In the generation following the death of Josquin Desprez, Clemens non Papa was one of the most prolific and well-published composers of both sacred and secular music, but rather little is known of his life.  The text of the four-part Magi videntes stellam comes from the Magnificat Antiphon at First Vespers at the Feast of the Epiphany.

On a voyage home from America in 1942 Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) wrote his Hymn to St Cecilia as well as ‘seven Christmas carols… to alleviate the boredom’.  These were the earliest version of the composer’s popular A Ceremony of Carols, written for treble voices and harp, which was premiered in 1943 by the women of the Fleet St Choir.  The idea for the carol sequence seems to have come from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems and five of them appear in the finished piece.  In it he began to refine and diversify his command of English verse-setting: the use of single vocal lines and their canonic multiplication, and the radiant tone, give the cycle strength as well as a multitude of colourings.  The SATB arrangement, by Julius Harrison, was commissioned in 1955 by its publishers.

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.  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.