March 2009

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Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria

Sheppard Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria
Legrenzi Salve, Regina
Palestrina Stabat Mater
Legrenzi Compline

John Sheppard (d ?1599) was one of the greatest composers of his generation.  He was Master of the Choristers at Magdalen College, Oxford between 1543 and 1548 and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal  from 1552.  His music is characterised by a punchy contrapuntal style and testifies well to the splendour of the Latin rite up to Elizabeth’s succession.  The six-part Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria is an outstanding masterpiece of sixteenth-century music, featuring rich and vigorous counterpoint around a monorhythmic plainchant (in the tenor line).  The result is sonorous: contrasted rhythms and phrase-lengths are played off against the slow-moving chant to great effect.  The text also provides a setting of the prose ‘Inviolata’, where the composer changes the texture by dropping both alto and tenor and dividing the treble and mean voices, also moving the plainsong to the mean, before a return to a full-voiced ‘Dum virgo Deum’.

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 the double-choir Stabat Mater, dating from about 1590, produces rich sonorities and an outstanding beauty of tone within the moderate compass of the voice parts.  It is what has been described as a ‘dramatic fresco in music, filled with light and shade’ and is an acknowledged masterpiece of Renaissance choral writing which, many would say, has never been surpassed.  The text is of 13th century origin and has a distinctive pattern of three-line verses each of 8, 8 and 7 syllables.

Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690) was one of the most gifted and influential composers of the latter half of the 17th century and an important force in the development of the late Baroque style in northern Italy.  His music is characterised by clarity of design achieved through the co-ordination of well-defined tonal drives and incisive themes; his style, which remained virtually the same regardless of genre, displayed little sign of development or change throughout his career, only of refinement.  Legrenzi was organist at Bergamo between 1645 and 1656, a period of great musical output.  He then became maestro di cappella of the Accademia dello Spirito Santo at Ferrara, an institution devoted to the performance of sacred music and oratorios.  Ferrara was a more vital musical centre than Bergamo and also provided an opportunity for the composer to cultivate aristocratic connections. In 1670 he was appointed maestro di musica of the Ospedale dei Dereletti in Venice.  Six years later he had composed four Masses, more than 70 psalms and 80 motets, five services of Compline, hymns, string sonatas and keyboard sonatas.  In 1685 he became maestro di capella at St Mark’s, Venice, after which both the choir and orchestra reached record numbers, and he was to remain there for the rest of his professional life.

Compline is one of the services of the Divine office. Traditionally performed at the end of the day, it seems to have originated as a form of prayer before going to bed; this was once the purpose of Vespers, with which it shares common theological themes, but Compline was never as variable or as imposing as its earlier counterpart.  In some sources Compline is preceded by what may be termed a preface, consisting principally of a prayer (Jube, Domine) and a short lesson (1 Peter v: Fratres sobrii estote), a general confession (Confiteor Deo omnipotenti), and a sung versicle and response (Converte nos Deus).  The service itself begins with three psalms: 4 (Cum invocarem), 70 (In te, Domine, speravi) and 133 (Ecce nunc benedicite), the first and last of these having a special relevance to night, or to sleep as the image of death.  The Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum is followed by the short responsory In manus tuas.  This setting of 1662 ends with the Nunc dimittis (the Canticle of Simeon, Luke ii. 29–32), which would be followed by prayers and a final antiphon.  Of the numerous antiphons addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, four appear in modern liturgical books at the end of Compline, each for a definite season of the year, including Alma Redemptoris mater and Salve, regina.  The latter (which appears in the first part of our programme) is the longest, richest and most effective of the four.