March 2008

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Music for Lent

Charpentier Le reniement de St Pierre
Palestrina Sicut cervus
Howells Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks
Howells Take him, earth, for cherishing
D Scarlatti Stabat Mater

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (d 1704) was a prolific and versatile composer, producing music of the highest quality in several genres.  His mastery in the composition of sacred vocal music was recognized and acknowledged by his contemporaries.  He studied with Carissimi and had a working association with Molière before entering the service of the grand dauphin in the early 1680s. He also became attached as composer and master of music to the Jesuit church in Paris, for which he composed a large number of sacred works, before moving to Sainte Chapelle, a post second in prestige only to Versailles. Le reniement de St Pierre (St Peter’s denial of Christ) is one of the composer’s finest biblical oratorio-motets; although described as an oratorio, it was often sung as a motet during Passion week.  The text is a compilation of all four Gospel sources and includes passages for a narrator (AJS and also chorus, here sung one to a part), as was traditional in unstaged oratorios.  The music is dramatic and intensive, with great characterisation of the noble dignity of Jesus (TDP) and the protests of Peter (KAPW).  The denial scene is almost operatic, where Peter almost hysterically shouts that he does not know Christ whilst his accusers just as insistently repeat their identification of him as a disciple.  Then the cock crows.  The piece closes with what has been described as a ‘lacerating choral description of Peter’s horrified self-realisation, and of his going out, and weeping bitterly’; in its almost unbearable poignancy it is not unlike the final chorus of Carissimi’s Jephthe, a piece Charpentier knew very well.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth century music and at the time of his death was considered by some to be the finest musician in the world.  He was primarily a prolific composer of masses and motets and Sicut cervus is a setting of the opening verses of psalm 42, describing a longing or thirsting for God.  The English composer Herbert Howells (1893-1983) was a pupil of Brewer, Stanford and Wood and also taught at the RCM.  In 1936 he succeeded Holst as Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where he remained until 1962; he was also professor of music at London University.  Like as the hart is a setting of the same text as Sicut cervus: dating from 1941, when the composer and his wife were snowbound in Gloucestershire, it has an air of quiet simplicity yet poignant intensity.  Take him, earth, for cherishing was written in 1963 and is dedicated ‘to the honoured memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America’ and is set to a text by Prudentius (384-413) in the translation by Helen Waddell.  The music, something of a tour de force and possibly Howells’ finest choral composition, has an innate dignity and displays extreme sensitivities to the nuances of text.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was the son of Alessandro.  Italian by birth, he spent much of his life in Spain and Portugal.  An eminent harpsichordist, only a small fraction of his compositions were published in his lifetime and much of his fame today rests on his enormous output of keyboard music.  Of his sacred music only the ten-part Stabat Mater , dating from the composer’s time as maestro di capella at the Basilica Giulia in Rome (1713-19), is well-known.  Scarlatti uses rich textures and unexpected harmonies within a seemingly austere framework to remarkable effect. The opening ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ displays contrapuntal chromatic melodies before moving through strong emotional contrasts to arrive at an almost operatic ‘Inflammatus et accensus’ and ‘Amen’.  Set for four sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses, the piece has a grandeur and depth of expression as well as sublimely beautiful melodic lines that make it a compelling and enduring masterpiece.