December 2021

O give us grace to sing

Farrant                     Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake
Viadana                    Exultate justi
Parsons                    Ave Maria
Byrd                           Sing joyfully
Handel                      Amen from Messiah
Weelkes                    Gloria in excelsis Deo
Gibbons                    Great Lord of Lords
Purcell                       O sing unto the Lord
Brahms                     Geistliches Lied
Balfour Gardiner    Evening Hymn
Parry                          Blest Pair of Sirens

St Matthew’s Westminster
Thursday 2 December 2021

Tonight’s programme, in our first concert since March 2020, is inspired by two themes – the joys of singing, and pieces with sumptuous Amens.

Richard Farrant (c.1525-1580) was Master to the Children of the Chapel Royal. There is some doubt as to whether Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake was written by Farrant or by John Hilton; both were cathedral musicians interested in the theatre. The expressive anthem is a prayer for forgiveness. Ludovico Viadana (1564-1627) was an Italian composer and friar and one of the pioneers in the development of figured bass, helping develop the transition from Renaissance to Baroque eras. Exsultate justi, with a text from Psalm 33:1- 3. is from Concerti Ecclesiastici, Op. 12, a collection of one hundred pieces finished in 1602. Double and triple meters alternate in this joyous piece, with the voices imitating the harp and lyre of the text. Robert Parsons (c1535-1571/72) was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, one of the few places where Latin-texted anthems could still be sung. His Ave Maria, a setting of a traditional prayer dedicated to Mary, shows him to be at the height of his powers, composing in highly elegant counterpoint, concluding with a lengthy Amen of extraordinary beauty. Sing joyfully, by William Byrd (1540-1623), with a text from Psalm 81, is arguably the composer’s best-known anthem. It scored for six voices and displays vivid wordpainting throughout, being especially evocative of trumpets.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), remembered above all as the composer of Messiah, was never primarily a composer of sacred music. Most of his oratorios are essentially dramatic works and his few liturgical settings are more ceremonial than devotional. The Amen begins in the bass and continuo, with each part joining in turn an intricate four-bar melody that rises to the octave. Imitation and counterpoint follow in glorious depth of emotion. A contemporary critic was less impressed: ‘The fugue too, on Amen, is entirely absurd, and without reason: at most, Amen is only a devout fiat, and ought never, therefore, to have been frittered, as it is, by endless divisions on A— and afterwards men’.

Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), organist of Chichester Cathedral, was a colourful personality, known for drunkenness and blasphemy, although ‘he was not the only disorderly member of the cathedral establishment, though in due course he would become its most celebrated’. Gloria in excelsis Deo shows a mastery of free flowing contrapuntal form, exquisite word painting and rich vocal texture which fluctuates between polyphony and antiphonal homophony. Great Lord of Lords, by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), is a verse anthem in which the five-part chorus alternates with an alto soloist. The final ‘Amen’ was popularised at the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. The anthem’s original text was of a personal nature and unsuitable for general church use; new words were substituted in the nineteenth century at the request of Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, curate at St Barnabas Pimlico. O sing unto the Lord by Henry Purcell (1569-1695) is a relatively late work, dating from 1688. It displays vigorous antiphony between voices and instruments, and between a prominent solo bass and the chorus. Although the writing is overtly celebratory, behind it is the deliciously wistful quality which is a feature of so much of Purcell’s music.

Geistliches Lied by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) dates from 1856 and is the composer’s earliest accompanied choral work. Set to a poem by Paul Flemming about the acceptance of fate and trust in God, it began as an exercise in counterpoint. It is set as an impressive double canon, with the tenor imitating the soprano part four beats later at the ninth; alto and bass have a similar canonical relationship as do the imitative organ interludes. Its archaic 4/2 meter evokes the Renaissance. All of the canonical complexities come together in a piece of exceptional beauty, especially in the final Amen. Evening Hymn by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) dates from 1908 and is the composer’s best-known piece. The long, seamless phrases, carefully written dynamic changes and effective use of harmonies, have made this piece a great choral favourite. It was written to both English and Latin texts of the compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum and ends with a powerful yet restful Amen.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) was Director of the Royal College of Music. Blest Pair of Sirens, one of his best-known works, was written in 1887 and is a setting of Milton’s Ode ‘At a solemn musick’. Milton combines the classical Greek idea of a lost Golden Age with the Christian doctrine of the Fall, the poem ending with the prayer that through the blest pair of Sirens – Voice and Verse – we may once again unite with God’s own ‘celestial concert’. Its originality, passion and fluent technical mastery were unprecedented, effectively establishing Parry as the leading composer of the day. The leisurely setting finds imaginative musical equivalents for the magnificent sweep and
solemnity of Milton’s verse.