March 2005

Music for the season of Lent

Carissimi Vanitas vanitatum
Zelenka Lamentation I for Maundy Thursday
Tomkins When David heard that Absalon was slain
Bruckner Christus factus est pro nobis
Walton A Litany
Fauré Requiem

Giacomo Carissimi (1605–1674) was, in his time, the most celebrated composer in Rome.  His Latin oratorios, of which there are a considerable number, are strongly rhetorical and had a great ability to move the audience: ‘truly imbued with the essence and life of the spirit’ in the words of a commentator of the day.  Vanitas vanitatum (Vanity of vanities) is thought to be one of his earliest oratorios – if indeed it can be described as an oratorio as it is undramatic and without dialogues or characters.  In Carissimi’s day an oratorio was a work to be performed during the congregation of a religious brotherhood, usually during Lent.  Whatever, it is a stunning setting based on a text from Ecclesiastes in which a choir and five individuals meditate on the passing of earthly life.  The soloists are the protagonists of the drama and poetry of the text, with simple melodic lines and heightened diction where emotional or musical content was important – indeed Carissimi is often credited with the ‘perfection of the recitative style’ – whereas the choruses concentrate on direct textural expression without personal emotion.

The Bohemian born Jan Zelenka (1679-1745) was a leading double bass player and composer, spending most of his career in Dresden with rather less success and fortune than his considerable merits deserved.  Nevertheless his music, which is nearly all religious, was admired by Bach and Telemann, especially for its contrapuntal mastery and highly original harmonic fluidity.  Six of the nine Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah for Holy Week were set by Zelenka in 1722 for use at Tenebrae in the Hofkirche at Dresden.  The style of solo cantatas with concertante instrumentation is highly unusual for Lenten music, but gives great clarity to the verses of the Latin text, with their preceding Hebrew letters set – as had been the tradition since the Middle Ages – in a melismatic style.  The Lamentation we hear tonight is the first of the two ‘pro die mercurii sancto’ – that is to say, for the eve of Maundy Thursday.  It begins with an introduction ‘Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae’ in C minor, followed by intense chromaticism in the recitative passages, and an aria-like setting of ‘omnes amici’ before ending with an extended call to repentance ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’, which both responds effectively to, and rounds off, the preceding narrative.

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) was appointed a member of the Chapel Royal in 1620 and was organist there when he wrote his stunning five-part setting of II Samuel 18: When David heard that Absalon was slain.  The sorrowful text displays rich polyphony and outstanding harmonic progression, tension being created and relaxed through suspensions and their resolution.  The impressive Christus factus est by Anton Bruckner (1824-96) was written in 1884 and is a setting of the Gradual for Maundy Thursday, with a text from Philippians 2, vv 8-9: ‘Christ became obedient unto death’.  Written for unaccompanied choir, it is characterised by a strange chromaticism and unusual key changes, and a dramatic climax followed by an equally dramatic whispered conclusion.  William Walton (1902-1983) was an important figure in early 20th-century composition: before the second world war he was regarded as the great new hope of British music and especially noted for jazzy rhythms and astringent harmonies.  As a composer of sacred choral music he created over a span of some sixty years some of the finest works in the Anglican canon, characterised by a deep sense of spirituality which gives his work force and memorability.  A Litany, which has been described as ‘a deeply expressive work of chiselled perfection’ was, astoundingly, written when he was a sixteen year old schoolboy.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was perhaps the epitome of fin de siecle French elegance.  The most advanced composer of his generation, he developed a personal style that had considerable influence on many early 20th century composers.  His Requeim dates from 1888 and the intimacy of the scoring (four violas, four cellos, solo violin and organ) was a deliberate reaction against the Requiem of Berlioz, which Fauré detested because of its use of massed forces to emphasize the horror of purgatorial suffering.  Fauré produces the opposite: serene, sensuous and melodic, in which ‘the human spirit, awed yet secure in its own innocence and capacity to overcome suffering, progresses calmly towards its inevitable, rapt entry into Paradise’.  Tonight’s performance is accompanied by organ.