November 2011

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English music through the ages

Mundy Magnificat
Purcell Welcome to all the Pleasures
Parry Never weather-beaten sail
Britten Rejoice in the Lamb
Handel Chandos Anthem: O praise the Lord with one consent

William Mundy (c1529-c1591) was appointed organist at the Chapel Royal in 1562 where he remained until his death; little is known about his life.  His Magnificat is characterised by unhurried polyphony and lengthy, weaving phrases; variety is created by changes in scoring.

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679.  His exceptional genius makes him one of the greatest composers of the baroque era.  He was an extremely prolific composer who served at court in the reigns of three successive kings, Charles II, James II and William III.  From 1608 until 1703 it was the custom in London for ‘Gentlemen Lovers of Music’ to celebrate St Cecilia’s day at Stationers’ Hall, a ‘performance of Music by the best voices and hands in Town…’ The festivities normally included an ode addressed to Cecilia, taking as its theme the power of music to move the emotions.  Fishburn’s poem Welcome to all the Pleasures gave Purcell an opportunity for gentle word-setting, especially in the alto solo ‘Here the deities approve’ and a melancholy but melodious tenor solo ‘Beauty thou scene of love and virtue thou innocent fire, Made by the powers above to temper the heat of desire’.  Unusually the piece ends quietly, with the choral ‘Iô Cecilia’ fading away to leave just the bass instruments and singers to conclude the Ode.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) studied at Eton and Oxford before starting a career in insurance.  He continued his musical studies and became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music; he was regarded by Stanford as the greatest English composer since Purcell. Parry succeeded Grove as the director of the RCM; his development as a composer was almost certainly hampered by the immense amount of work he took on, but his energy and charisma, as well as his abilities as a teacher and administrator, helped establish art music at the centre of English cultural life.  Never weather-beaten sail is one of six Songs of Farewell, written towards the end of the composer’s life.

Benjamin Britten (1913-76) acknowledged choral music as the bedrock of British musical life in centuries past.  Rejoice in the Lamb was commissioned in 1943 by the Rev Walter Hussey, a great patron of art and music and later Dean of Chichester; it sets the text of the then recently-published ‘Jubilate Agno’ of Christopher Smart, written in an 18th-century lunatic asylum.  This endearing poem explores the wonder of creation from a variety of unusual perspectives and allows for a virtuosic display of word-settings.  The work celebrates music’s power to heal and to bring delight; it ends with a glorious catalogue of musical instruments.

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was born in Germany but became a British citizen in 1727.  He was one of the greatest vocal and instrumental composers of the baroque age and was a cosmopolitan and eclectic artist.  In the summer of 1717 he became resident composer to the Earl of Carnarvon (later the first Duke of Chandos), for whom he composed eleven anthems, two masques and the Chandos Te Deum.  Interestingly this music makes very little use of altos or violas (there is no viola in tonight’s anthem, and the alto solo is usually sung by a tenor), presumably because of availability of musicians at the time.  The anthems were composed for the English equivalent of a small German court and reflect both the urbane worldliness and the mixture of pomp and intimacy at Cannons, the Duke’s country seat. The text of O praise the Lord with one consent comes from the metrical New Version of the Psalms.  There is no independent overture.  The opening line of the first number is taken from the great hymn tune St Anne, whilst the second part of this movement is more fugal in character, with a lengthy, self-contained theme in one voice heard against counter-subjects in imitation.  The St Anne hymn tune appears again in long note-values in the fifth movement, the choral ‘sing solemn hymns with praise’, whilst the final two choruses are a triumphal ‘exalt your maker’s fame’ and an affirmatory ‘Ye voices raise, ye cherubim and seraphin, to sing his praise, alleluia’.  The arias are brief and straightforward, although there are very effective contrasts between them.