May 2023

Carole magnus eras – Music for a Monarch

Victoria Ave Regina caelorum
Tomkins Be strong and of good courage
Clemens Carole magnus eras
Gombert Lugebat David Absalon
Ramsey Sleep fleshly birth
Byrd This sweet and merry month of May
Wilbye The Lady Oriana
Bach Jesu meine Freude

st stephen’s rochester Row

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music.  His music ranks with the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance and is characterised by a mystical intensity and direct emotional appeal.  The 8-part Ave Regina, in honour of the Queen of Heaven, is typical of what is known as cori spezzati (spaced style), with polyphony merging freely in and out of sonorous homophony.  It opens with stately figures derived from the Compline plainsong, before giving way at the end of the first part to some lively passagework. The second part of the motet bursts into joyous antiphonal triple-time exchanges of ‘Gaude gloriosa’ and the piece ends in a more sombre mood with wonderful rich eight-part counterpoint.

Thomas Tomkins (1752-1656) was the organist of Worcester Cathedral and later became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Be strong and of good courage was written for the coronation of King James I in July 1603. It sets a prayer for the monarch, derived from Deuteronomy and Joshua, that, as the antiphon Confortare et esto vir, was used in medieval coronations.  It was published in 1688 by the composer’s son Nathaniel in Musica Deo sacra, a far-from-perfect source with haphazard text underlay. Listen for the rhythmic quickening and rising phrases.

The remarkable Hapsburg dynasty at its peak ruled much of Europe and established the first truly global empire; their Renaissance monarchs, including Charles V and his son Philip II, gathered around them some of the finest composers of their day. The assertion in Carole magnus eras, by Jacob Clemens non Papa (c 1510-c 1556) that Charles ruled over ‘all of Asia and Africa’ was exaggeration – being in the employ of the Habsburgs perhaps called for a certain amount of sycophancy? The motet celebrates the achievements of the Emperor but promises even greater things under his son and it has been suggested that it was composed for Philip’s investiture as regent of the Low Countries in 1549.

The eight-voice motet Lugebat David Absalon has been attributed to Josquin but its style points to that of his pupil, Nicolas Gombert. The work is a contrafactum (where the composer substitutes one text for another without making substantial changes to the music) of two chansons, one of which is Gombert’s Je prens congie. It is full of extraordinary pathos and word-painting as King David laments the death of his son, Absalon – listen for the movingly antiphonal ‘o fili mi’.

Robert Ramsey (1590s-1644) was a Scottish-born composer and organist and Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Sleep, fleshly birth was written in mourning for Prince Henry, the 18 year-old eldest son of James I, who died of typhoid in 1612.  His death was widely regarded as a national tragedy. The piece is exquisite – contemplative, with longer lines and plangent part-writing, showing a powerful and affecting mastery of harmony and rhetoric, yet full of madrigalean features such as word-painting, and plaintive chromatics. One can almost reach out and touch the ‘peaceful earth’. The ‘music of the spheres’ is a little like the gentle rolling of the globe, there is crotchet movement on the ‘numerous feet’ and a musical ‘part and meet’ motif. The piece ends with a moving expression of faith and hope: ‘til soul and body meet to join again’.

William Byrd (1540-1623) 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.  It 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’ (Elizabeth I and the British realm) in saluted in C major.  The final line, ‘take well in worth a simple toy’, is false modesty: the poet’s accomplished offering to a mighty monarch being presented as a mere trifle.

Thomas Morley, having been granted by Elizabeth I in 1598 a monopoly to print music, set out not only to charm and flatter her in return but to add lustre to her reign.  Taking as his model the Venetian collection Il trionfo di Dori, he commissioned a collection of madrigals entitled The Triumphs of Oriana.  The words depict a pastoral idyll but their message is clear: an extravagant musical compliment.  One contributor to the collection was John Wilbye (1574-1638), with The Lady Oriana. Wilbye’s style is characterized by delicate voice-writing, acute sensitivity to text and language, a seriousness of approach and a subtlety of musical ideas.  He spent much of his life employed as resident musician for a wealthy family of arts patrons in Suffolk, and most of his compositional output is madrigalean.

The works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) are revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty and he is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.  Jesu, meine Freude, for SSATB, is included in tonight’s programme not for any regal reason but because we had been rehearsing it for a previous concert that had to be rescheduled! It is the longest and most elaborate of the composer’s funeral motets and is based on a chorale melody by Crüger with a text from the Epistle to the Romans.  There are stark contrasts between images of heaven and hell, often within a single section, resulting in a motet with an unusually wide dramatic range.  There are eleven movements, beginning and ending with an identical chorale setting and with balanced musical symmetry around a double fugue.