November 2005

Wachet auf!

A programme of music looking forward to the season of Advent

Guerrero Canite tuba
Gibbons This is the record of John
Brahms O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf
Mendelssohn Ave Maria
Bach Wachet auf (cantata 140)

Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) studied music with his elder brother Pedro in Seville and was engaged as a contralto at the cathedral where he remained until, aged only 17, he was invited to become the maestro de capilla of Jaén cathedral.  In 1549 he returned to Seville as a singer; he later became assistant to the maestro there and also obtained a papal brief that granted him the right to succeed.  He published 18 masses and 150 motets and was the only composer to publish widely abroad whilst making his career in Spain and his music was widely performed in Spain and Latin America for more than two centuries after his death.  Canite tuba dates from 1570; the text is from Joel 2:1 and Isaiah 11:4 ‘Blow up the trumpet in Sion, for the day of God is near at hand’.  As with all Guerrero’s canonic feats there is a clear harmonic impulse and the voices move so smoothly and effortlessly that the technical complexities pass unnoticed by the listener.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was one of the most important English figures of the early 17th century.  He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal around 1603 and organist of Westminster Abbey in 1623.  A master of serious polyphonic music, his verse anthems show contrapuntal and vitality.  His verse anthems are amongst the finest of the genre: This is the Record of John shows a simple alternation of solo voice and five-part chorus, in three sections, with a superb declamatory solo line imitated each time by the chorus.

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.  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 four-part O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf,composed in 1863-4, is in strict chorale form.  In the second verse the sopranos sing the chorale melody whilst the supporting parts sing a rhythmically diminished version of the same theme.  In the third verse a triplet rhythmic variation appears, and the fourth is a canon by inversion.  The final movement is a double canon in inversion, leading to a superb final Amendemonstating the stretto effect, where simultaneous entries are very close to each other.  The text – ‘O Redeemer, rend the heavens’ – looks forward to the season of Advent, but also to the Passion beyond (Hie leiden wir die Grösste Not) and ends with a song of eternal praise and thanksgiving.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was deeply affected by the music of Beethoven and Weber and also touched by the emergence of a new Romantic aesthetic, although the roots of his style lay in the 18th century.  His Ave Maria dates from 1830 and is an eight-part setting of the famous text, with organ accompaniment.  The motet opens with a soaringly melodic tenor solo, replied to by the chorus, then proceeds to a movingly pleading Sancta Maria, over an agitated organ pedal accompaniment, before a sixteen-part restatement of the opening theme; the clearly balanced themes and symmetrical phrase structures remind the listener of the Viennese classical style which the composer so admired.

The 27th Sunday after Trinity occurs in years when Easter falls between 22 and 26 March, which means that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) experienced only five in his lifetime.  The fourth of these was in 1731, for which he wrote a chorale cantata based on Philip Nicolai’s hymn Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme, a close reworking of the parable of the ten virgins in the prescribed Gospel reading, Matthew 25: 1-13.  The emphasis is on preparation for the second coming of Jesus.  The text cleverly weaves together three different eschatological images: the virgins, the watchmen and lovers, and the Messianic banquet of Revelation 21.  In Bach’s time marriage was seen as a model of the relationship between Christ (bridegroom) and the Church (bride) and was understood as the climax of God’s redemptive plan. The cantata opens with a vigorous dotted rhythm, as if shaking us into a state of watchfulness.  The solo violin’s yearning phrases remind us of young love – indeed some of the text is startlingly explicit, something which in its day would have been regarded as a beautiful and entirely appropriate depiction of the mystical union.  The tenors sing the song of the watchmen; Jesus comforts his bride in the second recitative and duet and the final orchestrated chorale reinforces the gravity and beauty of the simple message ‘no eye hath ever seen nor ear ever heard such great joy’.