March 2016

Salvator mundi – music for Passiontide

st john’s smith square

Victoria Eram quasi agnus; Caligaverunt oculi mei
Tallis Salvator mundi
Bruckner Christus factus est
Sanders The Reproaches
Stainer The Crucifixion

Tomás Luis de Victoria was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day. He was a chorister at Ávila before moving to Rome in 1565, where he met (and might have been taught by) Palestrina; he eventually became maestro di capella and instructor of plainsong at the Pontifical Roman Seminary.  He was ordained as a priest in 1575 and two years later returned to Spain as chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid; he was to remain there, as organist and choirmaster, until his death.

Victoria’s music reflects his intricate personality and expresses the passion of Spanish mysticism and religion. His output was entirely religious: masses and motets, settings of the Magnificat and Lamentations, as well as antiphons, responsories and hymns. Two of his works are considered significant monuments in musical history: the Officium defunctorum of 1605, including a setting of the Requiem Mass for the Empress Maria, and Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (1585), his complete liturgy for Holy Week.

The Tenebrae Responsories were sung at the highly elaborate and dramatised night-time office of Tenebrae during Holy Week. It is a combination of two offices – the early morning Matins and Lauds which followed it – which came to be performed together on the previous evening after Compline.  The main feature, from which it derives its name (which means ‘shadows’), is the gradual extinguishing of 15 candles during a series of readings and psalms.

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 whilst Caligaverunt oculi mei (my eyes become dim with weeping) is from the Good Friday settings.  They are raw and poignant settings of bleak texts and are characterised by energy and vitality, with a mystical intensity and direct emotional appeal with an almost unbearable sense of human pain.

All Responsories have a balanced three-part structure ABCB; liturgically there would be an additional repeat in the third of each group (ABCBAB). The C section is always for fewer voices – 3 parts instead of four – and often sung by soloists. The formality of expression is perfectly complemented by the music, which never overpowers the texts, producing a movingly structured and introspective journey through the Paschal Tridiuum.

Thomas Tallis comes from the period often described as the Golden Age, the height of the English Renaissance, which saw the flowering of poetry, music and literature under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was the most important English composer of his time.  He was a boy at the Chapel Royal and became organist of Dover Priory in 1532, before moving to Waltham Abbey in 1538 until its dissolution two years later, after which he took up a post at Canterbury Cathedral.  He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 and remained there until his death.  His output encompasses early and late sixteenth-century English styles and his career reflects the religious upheaval and political change that affected church music of this period.  Throughout his service to four successive monarchs he managed to avoid religious controversy, quietly remaining an ‘unreformed Roman Catholic’ yet also adapting his compositional style to suit their hugely different demands.

English rites were reaffirmed on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 with establishment of the Book of Common Prayer, although the continued use of Latin was permitted in certain collegiate chapels and churches where the language was presumably familiar to congregations:

for the comforting of such that delight in music… there may be sung an hymn, or such-like song, to the praise of Almighty God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised, having respect that the [sense] of the hymn may be understanded and perceived.

The queen’s private services were more elaborate than those in many cathedrals and the provision effectively allowed for the use of almost any type of music at all.

In 1575 Elizabeth granted Tallis and his pupil William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country. The monopoly covered ‘set songe or songes in parts’, and in any language as long as it served for music in the Church or chamber; they also had exclusive rights to print any music, in any language, although they didn’t own a printing press.  Tallis and Byrd used their monopoly to produce Cantiones sacrae that same year: it was an anthology of 17 motets and the first major printed collection of music to be published in England. Salvator mundi, a setting of the antiphon for Matins on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, is the first of Tallis’s two settings of the text and the first of the collection. It begins imitatively, with soprano and alto 2 in canon at the octave, but quickly moves into a style which is freer and more expressive, with insistent pitch repetition at ‘auxiliare nobis’, an affecting pathos of the descending ‘te deprecamur’, and dissonant intervals creating a sense of magnificence and piquancy.

Anton Bruckner is remembered primarily for his symphonies and his sacred compositions. His music is rooted in the formal traditions of Beethoven and Schubert and was influenced by Wagner.  Of all nineteenth century Austrian composers Bruckner was the most religious, with the Catholic faith being the chief inspiration of his art.  The radical nature of his works is characterised by dissonances, modulations and roving harmonies.

Bruckner was the eldest of 11 children, only five of whom survived infancy. After his father’s death he was sent to the Augustinian monastery of St Florian, which would remain a source of spirituality and inspiration throughout his life.  He was to return there as a teacher and organist; later still he moved to Linz and became court organist at Vienna. He retained a modest diffidence until the end of his life, fortified by a strong and traditional faith.

Bruckner’s models for sacred music included Austrian masses and the works of Mozart and both Haydns. His later small-scale choral works show a neo-Palestrinian style enriched by chromatic harmony, with enharmonic transformations representing redemption through faith. Christus factus est (1884), with a text from Philippians 2:8-9, dates from his Vienna period.  It opens bleakly in D minor before moving through an impassioned ‘obediens’ to a pianissimo ‘mortem autem crucis’.  Enharmonic transformations (‘fallen’ D flat to ‘risen’ C sharp) to represent redemption, with melodic ascent and some extraordinary modulation increasing tension.  Descending phrases indicate relaxation, although complete release is not achieved until the end of the piece.  More than any of Bruckner’s great motets, Christus factus est follows what Stephen Johnson describes as ‘an almost symphonic path of motivic and harmonic development… a striking parallel to Christ’s journey of obedience unto death’.

John Sanders was Organist and Choirmaster at Gloucester Cathedral from 1967-1994 and director of the Three Choirs festival from 1968-1994. His predecessor at Gloucester, Herbert Sumsion, was to become a major musical influence on Sanders’ life.

The Reproaches are a setting in English of the sequence sung on Good Friday, and alternate psalmic verses with spaciously harmonised antiphons. They would originally have been chanted by the priest during the Veneration of the Cross, and represent the voice of Christ reprimanding man for the injustice of the Crucifixion.

Sanders’ setting, written in 1984 for Gloucester Cathedral, reveals a fine sense of harmonic opportunity, sonority and poignant dissonance and is one of considerable intensity. The form and atmosphere take as a point of reference Allegri’s Miserere, with its use of plainsong contrasted with harmony in the verses, although the dissonant harmonies used perhaps have more in common with Gesualdo, enriching the music with a sense of timelessness.

The plainchant sections render Christ’s words with painful simplicity, as each reproach grounds the cruelty of the Passion in the context of God’s good deeds to his people: ‘I led you from slavery to freedom, but you led your Saviour to the cross’. The two 8-part refrains, ‘O my people’ and ‘Holy is God’, with their block dissonances and thick textures, demonstrate the real power of Sanders’ setting, with an insistent repetition of material relentlessly keeping the focus of the music on the ingratitude and sin of the people of God.

Sanders’ compositions reveal a deftness of touch, underpinned by a clear grasp of the needs and potential of the musicians for whom he wrote. His music is refreshing and approachable and, seeming always to have an acoustic setting in mind, shows a particular sympathy with the demands of cathedral singers.

Sir John Stainer was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and professor of music at Oxford, but he also made it his special vocation to provide good music for ‘parish choirs of moderate abilities’, publishing a number of anthems and hymns and showing an expertise in drawing emotion and depth out of straightforward melody and harmony. The Crucifixion is modelled on the great Passions of J.S. Bach and vividly portrays the events of the Passion of Christ.  Scored for tenor and bass soloists, mixed choir and organ, the piece combines recitatives, solos and masterful choruses to superb effect.  The libretto alternates biblical prose narrative with newly-composed verse expressing a Christian’s response to the successive events, a procedure taken directly from the Bach oratorios.  Stainer plays down the dramatic events, depicting a very human Jesus in Gethsemane; the prevailing message of the work is one of rebuke for humanity’s indifference to Christ’s sacrifice.

The piece opens with a dramatic recitative followed by Processional to Calvary described as if by a Christian bystander.  This features a long organ introduction, starting with a quiet march which forms the recurring rondo theme, after which the choir enters with a cry of ‘Fling wide the gates’.  A lyrical tenor solo follows, ‘How sweet is the grace of his sacred face,’ before the insistent chorus breaks in and finally recedes into the distance.  The crucifixion is introduced in the first of the hymns, ‘Cross of Jesus’ whilst the Majesty of the Divine Humiliation displays a very wide emotional range with loud organ chords set against the prevailing mood of sympathy. God so loved the world is a stunning movement of simple ternary whereas the death of Christ is set in comparatively plain harmony.  The libretto is by W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, the son of a colleague at St Paul’s, and the work received its premiere at St Marylebone parish church in 1887.  The piece has outlived almost all church music of its period, endearing itself to many generations despite somewhat harsh judgements by critics and historians.