March 2024

your sweetest notes employ

Stanford Ye choirs of new Jerusalem
Stanford How beauteous are the feet
Mozart Great Mass in C minor, KV 427

the guards’ chapel
friday 8 march 2024

The Anglo-Irish Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was organist at Trinity College Cambridge and one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music, where he taught composition. He was influenced by the classical principles of the music of Johannes Brahms, and counted amongst his pupils Holst and Vaughan Williams.

Ye choirs of New Jerusalem, an anthem for Eastertide, dates from 1910. The text is taken from the hymn by St Fulbert of Chartres, translated by Robert Campbell, on the theme of Christ as the deliverer of the prisoners from hell.  Stanford’s anthem alternates between two contrasting thematic ideas, one in the major mode in a lilting triple metre (‘Ye choirs of New Jerusalem’), the other in the minor and in quadruple metre (‘Devouring depths of hell their prey’). The triple metre returns for the splendid final ‘Alleluia’.

This fine setting of How beauteous are their feet takes its text from four verses of Isaac Watts’s hymn. Stanford contrives a sophisticated variation form based on the opening melodic idea, with the polyphonic treatment of each repetition subtly varied.  In the fourth verse – ‘The Lord makes bare his arm’ – the tonic minor brings with it  a moment of gravitas, which is soon dispelled by the uplifting return of the major mode.

The monumental Mass in C minor, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), is one of his greatest works.  Like his Requiem, it is magnificent but incomplete, in concept perhaps echoing something of the extraordinary proportions of Bach’s Mass in B minor. 

Mozart began work on this Great Mass in the summer of 1782, around the time of his marriage to Constanze Weber and at a time when he was acquainting himself with Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s great fugues.  It was premiered in Salzburg in October 1783, presumably in a partially complete form, with Constanze as a soprano soloist.  The autograph manuscript contains the Kyrie and Gloria, the only movements that are fully complete, the first two verses of the Credo in short score, and a wind band score of the Sanctus which has survived only as a copyist’s manuscript.  The end of the Credo and the entire Agnus Dei are missing.  Despite all this, several convincing reconstructions have enabled the work to be performed today.

The work is sometimes described as a cantata mass, with alternating movements for four- and eight-part chorus, ensemble and soloists.  The work opens with an exquisite Kyrie, for soprano soloist and choir, which is followed by a rousing choral Gloria, embodying the pomp and solemnity associated with Salzburg tradition.  An Italianate coloratura Laudamus te is next. Domine Deus is a glorious pyrotechnical duet for two sopranos, after which there is a powerful 8-part Qui tollis, an Italianate trio Quoniam tu solus sanctus and a magnificently fugal Cum sancto spiritu.  The two movements of the creed are sharply contrasting – a lively Credo followed by an ethereal soprano aria Et incarnatus.  The 8-part Sanctus contains a splendidly fugal Osanna, which is partly repeated after an extended Benedictus, a serious exercise in worked counterpoint for four soloists.