November 2004

Music for voices and harp

Tallis If ye love me
Gibbons O clap your hands
Britten A Ceremony of Carols
Brahms Op 17 songs
Janacek Otcenas (Our Father)

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) belong to the period sometimes described as the Golden Age of church music and both became Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, Tallis in the mid sixteenth century and Gibbons around 1603.  Tallis’s beautiful setting of If ye love me, to a text from St John’s Gospel, possesses unusual purity and simplicity and is a fine example of restrained pathos.   Gibbons became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1623.  His O clap your hands dates from 1622 and formed the composer’s DMus submission to Oxford University: written in eight parts, it is a dramatic and majestic setting of Psalm 47 and is one of the most impressive anthems of a composer noted for his Anglican church compositions.

The choral compositions of Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) show a variety of influences, in particular a search for balance between the Classical and Romantic elements; the op17 Gesänge of 1860, for women’s voices, touch on the Romantic.  Nevertheless he imposed a traditional sense of order on his music and he was widely claimed in his own day as the true upholder of a central German tradition.  The first movement, Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang, opens with an evocative horn and harp duet; there follows a brief Shakespeare setting, from Twelfth Night, Come away, death, here sung in English; a four-verse setting of Eichendorff’s Die Gärtner; and finally, the longest of the four, Gesang aus Fingal which, with a text from the semi-fictional Ossian, appeals to a Romantic as an alternative Northern mythology to replace the old classical gods and heroes.

On a voyage home from America in 1942 Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) wrote his Hymn to St Cecilia as well as ‘seven Christmas carols… to alleviate the boredom’.  These were the earliest version of the composer’s popular A Ceremony of Carols, written for treble voices and harp, which was premiered in 1943 by the women of the Fleet St Choir.  The idea for the carol sequence seems to have come from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems and five of them appear in the finished piece.  In it he began to refine and diversify his command of English verse-setting: the use of single vocal lines and their canonic multiplication, and the radiant tone, give the cycle strength as well as a manifold of colourings.  The SATB arrangement sung tonight was commissioned in 1955 by its publishers.

Leos Janácek (1854 – 1928) was the fifth of nine children of musical parents.  At eleven, showing above-average musical ability and in order to relieve the crowded family home, he was sent to the Augustinian Queen’s Monastery in Brno where he discovered for the first time the venerable Slavic choral traditions which would, to some degree, remain a potent force throughout his life.  He was also taught harmony and counterpoint and in due course returned to the monastery to teach it: in doing so he revitalised choral music-making there and ‘lived and breathed only for music’.  His forty-odd choral compositions for mixed voices form a substantial category of his creative output and provided artistic stimulus in almost every phase of his sometimes troubled life.  Otcenás, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer for mixed voices, tenor solo, organ and harp, dates from 1901 and shows a distinctive and compelling character, with a flowing vocal line and rich harmonic colours.