March 2004

Lenten Reflections

Byrd Teach me O Lord
Farrant Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake
Victoria Tenebrae responsories
d’Astorga Stabat Mater
Rutter Sans day carol
Tchaikowsky The Crown of Roses
Holst This have I done for my true love
Greene Hearken unto me, ye holy children


Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) belongs to the period sometimes described as the Golden Age of English church music; he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in the late sixteenth century.  The verse anthem Teach me, O Lord is one of the earliest examples of the use of a solo voice with independent organ part.  The composer of the simple prayer Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake is somewhat unclear: manuscripts ascribe the music to ‘Farrant’ but this could have been Richard, another of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, or one of the two Johns.  John the elder was master of the choristers at Salisbury and had a particular reputation for a rough temper and ‘rayling and contumelious speeches’; his son John became organist at Salisbury in 1600.  The final ‘amen’ of this short but moving piece is thought to have been added by a John Hilton, of which there were also two, father and son, the latter being one-time organist at St Margaret’s Westminster.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day.  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.  The Responsories, published in 1585, were sung at the highly elaborate and dramatised night-time office of Tenebrae in Holy Week.  The texts, 18 in total, trace the story of the Passion and were adapted from the Gospels with probably fourth century additions.  Eram quasi agnus (I was like an innocent lamb) is for Maundy Thursday; Caligaverunt oculi mei (my eyes become dim with weeping) is from the Good Friday settings; and Astiterunt reges (The kings of the earth stood up) from those for Holy Saturday.  They are raw and poignant settings of bleak texts and are characterised by energy, vitality and, at times, an almost unbearable sense of human pain.

Emanuele d’Astorga (1680-1757) was born in Sicily of Spanish descent and had a colourful and itinerant career which took him to Rome, Barcelona, Vienna and (perhaps) London. In his lifetime it was his opera and secular cantatas which were most esteemed, and the Stabat Mater is his only surviving sacred work.  The sublime 13th century Franciscan poem Stabat Mater dolorosa tells of the sorrows of Mary as she stands at the foot of the cross.  Its emotive content and haunting metre have made it one of the most frequently and poignantly set Christian texts.  Astorga’s setting may be dated to 1707 (although could be as late as 1730), and enjoyed great popularity between about 1760 and 1840.  The piece is characterised by a combination of melody and melancholy and, especially in the choruses, demonstrates a fine grasp of counterpoint.

The Sans day carol and This have I done for my true love are examples of carols that tell of the whole life of Christ rather than just his Nativity and are thus appropriate to other times in the liturgical year, especially Easter.  The former, a traditional piece well known in this fluid and seemingly effortless version by John Rutter (b 1934), is so called because the melody and first three verses were written down at St. Day in Cornwall; the latter, also Cornish in origin with a text from Sandys’ Christmas carols, ancient and modern of 1833, is a fine example of what is sometimes called the pastoral revival of English music and was considered by its composer, Gustav Holst (1874–1934), to be his best part-song.  Its rhythm creates a great sense of movement and forward drive, complemented by changes in pace and tone: the darkly despairing ‘when on the cross hanged I was’ moving towards a vigorous ‘and rose again on the third day’ and ending in a jubilant ‘then up to heaven I did ascend’.  The Crown of Thorns, from Chansons pour la jeunesse by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), is a simple and moving story about the childhood of Christ which also foreshadows the Passion.

The Englishman Maurice Greene (1696 – 1755) was a contemporary but never a friend of Handel.  His posthumous reputation has suffered somewhat from harsh criticism by musicologists of the time although it is probably fair to say that the quality of his work is uneven: ‘Greene undoubtedly was a genius, though the fire of inspiration burnt fitfully’.  His best music is his choral music, which is generally buoyant and tuneful, and he had a real flair for handling choral and orchestral resources.  The text of Hearken unto me ye holy children is taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, and was composed for King’s College Chapel, possibly to coincide with a visit by George II.  There are two main choral movements, a declamatory Magnify his name and a more stately Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, which develops fugal textures and is re-called at the end of the piece along with a concluding Hallelujah, Amen; interspersed with solos and duets for alto, tenor and bass.