May 2017

O quam gloriosum

st matthew’s westminster
st andrew’s kew green

Victoria                Motet O quam gloriosum
Victoria                Kyrie Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina            Sicut cervus
Victoria                Gloria Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina            Exsultate Deo
Victoria                Credo Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina            Tu es Petrus
Victoria                 Sanctus and Benedictus Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina            Assumpta est Maria
Victoria                Agnus Dei Missa O quam gloriosum
Byrd                      This sweet and merry month of May
East                      Hence stars, too dim of light
Weelkes               Thule, the period of cosmography


Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day.  His music, in its strictly liturgical or devotional function, has been described as ‘not only the most perfectly suited to its purpose, but the most perfectly styled and fashioned of its kind, its emotional heart perfectly in accord with Roman Catholic liturgical ceremony in the Tridentine Rite’. Missa O quam gloriosum is a parody mass, based on the composer’s own joyful motet of 1572, written for All Saints Day and depicting the glorious vision of the company of heaven. The motet, described by Tovey as the most perfect ever written, starts in quiet awe, with chords which imitate an organ, but moves into livelier scales on ‘gaudent’ to suggest the joy of the saints.  The Mass is concise, balancing great simplicity with a controlled fervour that is typical of Victoria, and has become perhaps the most loved and most performed of all his Masses in modern times.

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. Sicut cervus (1581) has always been one of his most familiar works and is a model of imitative polyphony. The text is from Psalm 42 – the deer thirsts for water just as the soul thirsts for the fountain of Christianity. Exsultate Deo has a joyous tunefulness along with vivid word-painting depicting musical instruments. Tu es Petrus and its ‘seconda pars’, Quodcumque ligaveris, are a resplendent pair of motets which date from 1572: the music, to a text from the Tract for the feast of St Peter’s Chair in Rome, is has a bright major tonality and a clear antiphonal structure, resulting in gloriously jubilant quality throughout. The motet Assumpta est Maria is based on a short phrase of plainsong for the Feast of the Assumption. Scored for SSATTB, it takes its text from the Offertory at Mass for the Assumption of the Virgin, with a secunda pars from the Song of Songs; both end with a rousing ‘Gaudete’. The three upper voices are grouped against the three lower in easily audible antiphony, whilst the high scoring gives rise to a bright sonority.

William Byrd was the greatest English composer of his era. The six-part This sweet and merry month of May is one of very few of his compositions that might rightly be called a madrigal. Byrd was reluctant to allow the Italian style to influence his own musical language, and did so only to satisfy his publisher. The piece begins with a brief canonic duet for the two sopranos, with an upward flourish on ‘merry’ and gently arched quavers depicting the singing of the birds. A brief section in triple meter sees homophonic groups of three, four, and five voices. ‘Holiday’ is strikingly homophonic and antiphonal, while ‘Eliza’ provides some distinct and dense imitation. The ‘beauteous Queen of second Troy’ (Queen Elizabeth and the British realm) in saluted in C major. The final line, ‘take well in worth a simple toy’, is a false modestly: the poet’s accomplished offering to a mighty monarch being presented as a mere trifle.

Michael East’s Hence stars, too dim of light is from The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection of madrigals by 23 composers, commissioned by Thomas Morley in honour of an ageing Queen Elizabeth and painting her as an eternally bountiful queen of a pastoral Arcadia. Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) was a colourful personality, known for drunkenness and blasphemy, although ‘he was not the only disorderly member of the cathedral establishment, though in due course he would become its most celebrated’.  His madrigals are noted for word painting, lively rhythms, and highly developed sense of form and structure.  Thule, the period of cosmography and its companion-piece The Andalusian merchant, the composition of which were possibly prompted by an eruption of Etna in 1597, are expansive musical structures in which vivid geographical and geological reports are exaggerated by a striking musical imagery: furious scales depicting Hecla’s ‘sulphurious fire’, a side-step into triple time on ‘Trinacrian Etna’ and the rising accompaniment to its ascending flames, the flying fishes’ acrobatic motif, and the meandering chromaticism of ‘how strangely Fogo burns’. The moral of the story comes at the end of each part: the fire of the poet’s love is far ‘more wondrous’ than any traveller’s tale.