March 2007


Tallis Lamentations of Jeremiah (second set)
Bach Cantata BWV 158: Der Friede sei mit dir
Handel Messiah (Lenten extracts)

Lamentations, in the biblical sense, are lessons – collections of verses – taken from the Old Testament book The Lamentations of Jeremiah and were used during the old Roman Catholic liturgy as part of the office of Tenebrae.  They elicited some of the most sombre and darkly expressive writing from the Renaissance composers who set the texts.  The Englishman Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), one of the supreme masters of late Renaissance polyphony, composed two exquisite settings, each beginning with the announcement ‘Incipit Lamentatio’ and ending with the response ‘Ierusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’.  Within this structure there are two or three of the biblical verses, each prefaced by successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (in this, the second set, they are Ghimel, Daleth and He), the soulful melismas of which provide a contrast to the richly varied music of the verses.

The genius of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers, and he is especially admired and renowned as a master of counterpoint.  As cantor at Liepzig he was responsible for supplying cantatas for the main three-hour Sunday services as well as for the festivals during much of the liturgical year.  They were usually musical illustrations of the day’s gospel: an annual cycle consisted of sixty cantatas and a Passion and about two-fifths of his cantatas must be considered lost.  The compositions are important for the development they show in the composer’s personal style of writing for voices and instruments.  At around twelve minutes long and with only four movements, BWV 158, Die Friede sei mit dir (Peace be with you), is thought to represent only a fragment of a larger work.  It exists only in a copy that contains no indication of its date of composition (1727 and 1728 have since been suggested), or of the authorship of its text, stating only that the cantata was suitable for the third day of Easter or for the festival of Candlemas (2 February), commemorating the presentation of Christ in the temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary.  Its principal movement, the aria ‘Welt ade, ich bin dein müde’ (World, goodbye, I am tired of you), is a striking piece. Accompanied by solo violin it features, in counterpoint with the Italianate bass line, a soprano chorale melody beginning with the same text as the aria; comparison with Schlummert ein from BWV 82 and Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion have been made.  The opening recitative includes arioso sections of outstanding beauty and the second recitative also turns to arioso in a modulation to E minor.  The cantata finishes with Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm (‘Here is the proper Easter lamb’) the fifth verse of Luther’s great hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), remembered above all as the composer of the 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.  In writing his oratorios he produced colourful, largely (until today’s times) unstaged dramas, which appealed as both entertaining and uplifting.  The Messiah was written in anticipation of a visit to Dublin in 1741 and performed in London the following year.  It met with a mixed reception, not least from its librettist Charles Jennens, who wrote ‘I don’t yet despair of making him retouch Messiah, at least he shall suffer from his negligence…’ Regular performances became established from 1750 where it was performed each April or May for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a governor.  The work is not a wholly Christmas piece: part II, much of what is performed tonight, is concerned with Christ’s sacrifice whilst part III depicts Christ’s redemption and the immortality of the soul.  Mozart’s celebrated reorchestration started a trend of well-intentioned but misdirected attempts to enhance the calculated sobriety of Handel’s orchestration.  In the nineteenth century it was increasingly performed with mammoth forces (choirs of 2,500 singers apparently not being exceptional) as a form of imperial propaganda and a voice for the Victorian doctrines of progress and social amelioration.  In concentrating on a theme of Lent for tonight’s concert we perform, unusually for us, a selection of music proper to the liturgical season including some of the finest choruses in the piece.