March 2020

Via Crucis
A choral meditation on the Stations of the Cross

st stephen’s, rochester row

Byrd Ne irascaris Domine                

Station I Jesus is condemned to death
Victoria Tanquam ad latronem            

Station II Jesus carries the cross
Malcolm Guite Jesus is given his cross

Station III Jesus falls for the first time
Victoria Animam meam dilectam        

Station IV Jesus meets his mother, Mary
Palestrina Stabat mater                           

Station V Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
Tournemire IV from Sei Fioretti Op 60       

Station VI Veronica wipes Jesus’ face
Tallis Salvator mundi                       

Station VII Jesus falls for the second time 
Victoria Tradiderunt me                       

Station V Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
from Jeremiah 9

Station IX Jesus falls for the third time
Victoria Jesum tradidit impius              

Station X Jesus is stripped of his clothes
Brahms Herzlich tut mich verlangen    

Station XI Jesus is nailed to the cross
Byrd Ave verum corpus                   

Station XII Jesus dies on the cross
Victoria Tenebrae factae sunt              

Station XIII Jesus is taken down from the cross
Victoria Caligaverunt oculi mei 

Station XIV Jesus is placed in the tomb
Byrd Civitas sancti tui                      

Gilly French, Hannah O’Toole-Thrower, Helen Prentice, Isabel Nesbit
Kevin Walsh, Manvinder Rattan, Iain Butler, William Nicholson

READER Jeremy Gray
ORGAN William Nicholson

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music.  After 21 years in Rome and his ordination in 1575, he became chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid; he remained at the royal convent of the Barefooted Nuns of St Clare, first as choirmaster and later as organist, until his death 24 years later.  His music ranks with the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, and is characterised by a mystical intensity and direct emotional appeal.  

The Tenebrae Responsories, published in Rome in 1585, are a set of eighteen motets for four voices.  They are liturgical texts prescribed for use in the Catholic observances during the Triduum of Holy Week; the six we hear in this concert are those for Good Friday.  They are raw and poignant settings of bleak texts and are characterised by energy, vitality and, at times, an almost unbearable sense of pain.  

The works mix the words of the Gospels with other texts commenting on collective suffering written around the 4th century and would traditionally have been performed as part of Tenebrae, a moving service which combines Matins and Lauds and in which candles are slowly extinguished to mark the progress and suffering of Christ that forms the Passion story.  The Matins section was divided into three ‘nocturns’, each comprising three psalms (each with its own antiphon, and after each of which a candle was extinguished) followed by a short versicle, a silent recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and a reading divided into three sections each followed by a responsory.

Victoria set the responsory texts which follow each of the three sections of the reading at the second and third nocturns of Matins. So, of the 18 responsories in total, the first six would have been performed at Maundy Thursday Tenebrae, the next six for Good Friday and the last ones for Holy Saturday.  They are set for four voices, mostly SATB, but for each nocturne the second responsory was set for SSAT.  This was sometimes sung an octave lower by tenors and basses; in this concert, Tenebrae factae sunt (Darkness fell…) is presented in this low voice version and Jesum tradidit impius for higher voices.  All the Responsories have a balanced structure of three parts: an opening section and a second section, both for four voices; a third section for reduced voices, and a repeat of the second section, giving an ABCB structure.  The power of the music lies in the balance between words and setting and mood is introverted and spiritually intense, with extreme simplicity and directness of style.  Listen for the expressive downward scale of a fourth – the Dowland Lachrymae motive – that appears in number 12, Caligaverunt oculi mei (My eyes grow dim with weeping).

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 to be the finest musician in the world.  He was primarily a prolific composer of masses and motets: 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 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, with a distinctive pattern of three-line verses each of 8, 8 and 7 syllables, and is a meditation on the suffering of Mary at the Crucifixion.

William Byrd (1539-1623), a pupil of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), was the most prodigiously talented and prolific English composer of his time.  During the 1580s and 1590s Byrd’s Catholicism became the driving force for his music; he wrote and openly published motets and masses, almost certainly composed for small chapel gatherings.  The elaborate and penitential motet Ne irascaris, Domine, along with its second part Civitas sancti tui, is one of Byrd’s masterpieces and must be one of his most forceful acts of protest against the persecution of English Catholics. The setting is of verses from Isaiah 64.  The atmosphere is of quiet polyphonic contemplation, with the melody contained within the range of a fourth, before the stark homophony of ‘Sion deserta facta est’. The final phrase is a moving lament for Jerusalem – a metaphor, perhaps, for the Catholic Church in England – in which the poignant words ‘desolata est’ are heard a remarkable 54 times.  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. It begins imitatively, with S and A2 in canon at the octave, but quickly moves into a freer and more expressive style, 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.

Herzlich tut mich verlangen is a German hymn and prayer for a blessed death and will be recognised as the Passion Chorale; the chorale prelude by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) dates from 1896.  Charles Arnould Tournemire (1870-1939) was a French composer and organist, notable partly for his improvisations, which were often rooted in Gregorian chant.  Malcolm Guite (b. 1957) is an English poet, singer-songwriter, priest and academic.  His stated aim to ‘to be profound without ceasing to be beautiful’.