December 2022

‘from the realms of glory’

A concert of music on the theme of angels

Rutter Angels carol
Durante Magnificat
Ledger The voice of the Angel Gabriel
Philips Gabriel Angelus
Palestrina Stetit angelus
Dering Factum est silencium
Ledger Angels from the realms of glory
Pearsall In dulci jubilo
Harris Faire is the heaven
Bairstow Let all mortal flesh keep silence
Vaughan Williams Te Deum in G

St Matthew’s Westminster

 

Tonight’s concert is on the theme on angels, not all of them Christmas ones. What you will hear this evening is music that is about, directly or indirectly, or has been inspired by, these timelessly enduring beings.

The name of John Rutter (b 1945) is almost synonymous with Christmas.  His work is characterised by an infectious melodic invention and consummate craftsmanship.  The delightful Angels’ Carol was written, to the composer’s own text, as a duet for the winners of the 1980 ‘choirboy and choirgirl of the year’ competition and was later arranged for SATB choir.

The joyous Magnificat by Francesco Durante (1684-1755) was for many years thought to be by his pupil Pergolesi.  The text is from the Gospel of Luke, where Mary, recently visited by the angel Gabriel, declares to her cousin Elizabeth the greatness of, and her delight in finding, God.  Durante composed two settings of the text, the B flat major one we hear tonight being in 4 parts.  It consists of six movements, with the counterpoint in the first built around the eighth psalm tone cantus firmus. In each successive movement, overlapping, imitative polyphony is used in concordance with the opening subject and is then woven throughout the entire movement using text, tempo and vocal colour to give it its own particular character. A short duet from soprano and alto (‘and his mercy is on them that fear him’) leads into an energetic scattering of the proud.  This is followed by a strongly fugal Deposuit, and expressive tenor and bass Suscepit Israel, a Sicut locutus est that is a recapitulation of the opening chorus, and a splendid Gloria.

Philip Ledger (1937-2012) was  Director of Music at King’s College Cambridge from 1974 to 1982.  The voice of the Angel Gabriel is one of his first compositions and alternates a haunting minor melody in the unaccompanied verses with a quietly affirmative organ-accompanied refrain in the relative major.  Angels from the realms of glory is a 4-part choral version of the much-loved hymn, part-unaccompanied and part with organ.

Peter Philips (1560-1628) enjoyed great fame in his lifetime. A prominent Catholic, he left England for Rome and later travelled across Europe for a few years before settling in Antwerp.  A prolific composer of motets and madrigals, he seemed to have been a serious, almost austere figure.  The 5-part Gabriel Angelus tells of Gabriel’s visit to Zachariah, announcing that he will soon have a son, John (the Baptist), who ‘vinum et ficeram non bibet’ (will not consume wine or strong drink).  It is in the format ABCBD, where D is the final alleluia; in other words, section B ʻet multi in nativitate eius gaudebuntʼ is repeated in such a way that the second time it goes straight into the alleluias, producing an effect of energy and momentum.

The text for the 5-part Stetit angelus, by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), who along with Victoria and Lassus was possibly the greatest composer of his time, is from Revelation 8:3-4 ‘An Angel stood near the altar of the temple, having a golden censer in his hand’. The motet is associated with the feastday of the archangel Michael and is also the first part of another, Inconspectu angelorum, for the archangel Raphael. Richard Dering (1580-1630) converted to Catholicism while visiting Rome in 1612 and later went into exile in the Spanish Netherlands. Factum est silentium, to a text from the Book of Revelation, depicts the battle between the Archangel Michael and a dragon, an allegory of the devil. It is declamatory, dramatic and madrigalean in style, with considerable variation of note durations, vividly contrasting textures and insistent, stylised rhythm.

In dulci jubilo is said to have been taught to the German mystic Hermann Seusse by angels. The text is macaronic, a mixture of medieval German and Latin.  Robert de Pearsall’s 1837 translation retains the Latin but substitutes English for German; a looser (and much-criticised) English version is better-known as Good Christian men, rejoice. The carol is best known in Reginald Jacques’ arrangement for Carols for Choirs, but what we hear tonight is closer to Pearsall’s own, retaining the original German and with more clearly-defined solo lines.

William Harris’s 1925 masterpiece Faire is the Heaven is one of the best-loved works in the Anglican repertoire. At various points in his career, Harris held appointments in London, Lichfield and Oxford and was for nearly thirty years Director of Music at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Faire is the heaven is set in D flat major for double choir without accompaniment. The words are taken from Edmund Spenser’s An Hymn of Heavenly Beauty, first published in 1596. Harris selected lines from three stanzas of a poem over forty stanzas in length. The editing is subtle—so much so that a casual reader might not realize lines have been omitted—and a structure is created that lends itself to ternary treatment: Spenser’s ‘cherubins’ and ‘seraphins’ are assigned a faster section in the middle, and Harris engineers a memorable return to the home key for the final section of the anthem.  Edgar Bainton’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence also dates from 1925. It achieves its mysterious effect at the outset with tenor and bass in octaves, followed by upper voices only at the words ‘and lift itself above all earthly thought.’ This high-pitched texture returns as the words ‘the Cherubim with many eyes’ chime out with a short, arpeggiated ostinato-figure in the bass part. The final dramatic alleluias lead to a restatement of the opening material with a dark choral accompaniment.

The Te Deum in G by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was written in 1928. Commissioned for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury on 4 December, it rolls with confidence from the outset, a strong declamatory unison leading to an antiphonal representation of the angelic chorus before the opening material is transformed into a prayerful, supplicatory ending.