June 2022

the flower of the field

Music for singing outdoors

Ashburnham garden
Friday 17 June 2022

Bennett – All creatures now
Padilla – Kyrie and Gloria from Missa Ego flos campi
Mendelssohn – Sechs Lieder, im Freien su zingen
Padilla – Credo from Missa Ego flos campi
Kodaly – Matra Pictures
Padilla – Sanctus and Benedictus from Missa Ego flos campi
Byrd – This sweet and merry month of May
Padilla – Agnus Dei from Missa Ego flos campi

Missa Ego flos campi (I am the flower of the field) by the Spanish-Mexican composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1590-1664) is a parody mass tinged with evangelical outbursts and touched by secular dance music. It is a remarkable and joyous double-choir setting that has elements of flowing polyphony from Old Spain combined with lively, often syncopated, short phrases that reflect the New. A parody mass is one in which the voice parts are based on a pre-existing sacred or secular song, with the polyphony created by multi-reworkings of the theme. The original motet has not survived but is thought to be derived from one of the Padilla’s own, as evidenced by techniques seen in other parody masses on his works. Certain memorable melodic phrases and harmonic sequences recur as motives, especially at the beginning and end of each movement, often with the counterpoint inverted or subtly transformed. Sometimes the voices combine in genuine eight-part writing; more often they are separated into two antiphonal choirs, exchanging short phrases in catchy speech-rhythms.

Listen for lush suspensions, expressive vocal writing and seamless polyphony in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei. The Gloria is characterised by accentuating crisp, dotted rhythms and an active dialogue between the two choirs. Padilla takes considerable liberties with the liturgical text, creating refrains that suggest the religious fervour of a gospel meeting and hint at the didactic, evangelising purpose of music in the colonial church – ‘Bonae voluntatis’ (goodwill) ‘Miserere nobis’ (have mercy upon us), ‘Credo’ (I believe) ‘Domine Deus sabbaoth’ (Lord God of hosts).

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a German composer and conductor who was widely recognised as a musical prodigy. Essentially conservative in taste, he was responsible for the revival in interest of Bach’s works and was well-received throughout Europe. He wrote many smaller-scale sacred works for unaccompanied choir. Sechs Lieder, Op.59 remained unpublished until after the composer’s death. The subtitle, ‘im Freien zu singen’ (‘for singing outdoors’) indicates the Romantic spirit of reconnecting with nature and escaping the sweeping industrialization of the 19th century. Most of the songs are in simple strophic settings and straightforward homophonic textures, with the harmonic vocabulary drawn from the diatonic sonorities of the principal key, with chromaticisms in response to the text. Im Grünen (In nature) is a call to escape the stifling indoors and to seek emotional solace in nature. Frühzeitiger Frühling (Early spring) is joyfully of meadows, brooks, humming bees and the effervescent expectation of the arrival of the poet’s sweetheart. Abschied vom Walde (Farewell to the forest) is a hymn-like description of the singer’s need to move through life yet maintain an emotional connection with an emotional home. Die Nachtigall charms listeners and singers to reflect upon the simple, old songs of the nightingale. In Ruhetal (Valley of rest), the poet muses on the golden evening and sorrowfully wonders, in a poignantly chromatic moment, if his time has come. Jaglied (Hunting song) depicts hunters galloping through and out of a forest, in nervous anticipation and the exhilaration of anticipation of what might lie ahead.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was, along with Bartok, one of the creators of art music based on Hungarian folk sources, helping establish a high-level national musical culture. His development was profoundly influenced by his folksong experiences and by the embodiment of the Hungarian spirit. The evocative Matra Pictures, although written as a seamlessly fluid piece, is a compilation of five folksongs: Vidrócki’s hunting, The farewell, The message, Summertime and Stealing chickens, ordered to form a narrative thread. Kodály was a vocally-orientated composer for whom melody was of the highest importance. In 1966 he wrote ‘Our age of mechanisation leads along a road ending with man himself as a machine; only the spirit of singing can save us from this fate’.

The English madrigalist John Bennet (1675-c1614) published his first collection of madrigals in 1599 when in his early twenties. The delightful All creatures now is from The Triumphs of Oriana, a famous collection of 1601 commissioned by Morley in honour of Queen Elizabeth, and it is one of the most-loved of all madrigals. It is mostly homophonic, with a few obvious instances of word-painting: listen for an effervescent ‘merry’-ment, at the start, followed by hovering birds, and a stately elongation of the word ‘Long’ (live fair Oriana) towards the end of the piece. The six-part This sweet and merry month of May is one of very few of the compositions of William Byrd (1543-1623) that might rightly be called a madrigal. The piece begins with a brief canonic duet for two sopranos, with an upward flourish on ‘merry’ and gently arched quavers depicting birdsong. A brief section in triple meter sees homophonic groups of three, four, and five voices. The ‘beauteous Queen of second Troy’ – Queen Elizabeth and the British realm – is saluted in C major; the final line, ‘take well in worth a simple toy’, is a false modesty: the poet’s accomplished offering to a mighty monarch being presented as a mere trifle.