November 2012

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Music for the Queen of Heaven

the great hall, westminster school

Palestrina Dum aurora finet darem
Vivaldi Magnificat
Victoria Ave Regina caelorum; Salve Regina
Steffani Stabat Mater

Dum aurora finem daret is the last responsory from the Matins for St Cecilia, whose feastday is today.  Cecilia was a Roman noblewoman martyred for her Christian faith in the second century AD. It is said that as she suffered a lingering death she sang exultantly to God, thus becoming the patroness of musicians and of church music.  This setting, by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), one of the towering figures of the sixteenth century, is characterised by fluid polyphony and a richness of sonority, each segment following on from the preceding one with remarkable subtlety.  The brief text suggests a fuller narrative and draws attention to the importance of saints in the early years of the Counter-Reformation as inspirational models for emulation: ‘As dawn was fading into day, Cecilia cried: Arise, soldiers of Christ, cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.  The words are painted with an expressive touch, the caressing polyphony of the ‘dawn’ changing to a stronger, more militant manner in the second half.  Palestrina’s style is both cerebral and emotional, managing to synthesise an immaculate grasp of musical form with heartfelt movement and vitality.

The Magnificat, with a text from Luke 1: 46-55, is one of the most ancient Christian hymns and one of the first in honour of the Virgin Mary.  It is sung at Evensong, or its Catholic equivalent, Vespers, and so has been set to music by many composers.  That by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was written during his long years as music director of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage in Venice, a post which inspired him to compose a large variety of church music.  The solemnity of the Magnificat and Suscepit Israel is characterised by hymn-like chords and a masterly chromaticism whilst the expressively contrapuntal Et misericordia is full of intensity.  Fecit potentiam and Deposuit, traditionally dramatic, are depicted through striking instrumentation and bold unison writing, the latter depicting the fall of the mighty and the exaltation of the humble.  The solo sections are all short ensembles with momentum and purpose; the concluding Gloria ends with a fugue one wishes were longer.

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music.  After 21 years in Rome, and ordination in 1575, he became chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid; he remained at the royal convent of the Barefooted Nuns of St Clare, first as choirmaster and later as organist, until his death.  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 is typical of the cori spezzati (spaced style), with polyphony merging freely in and out of homophony; both choirs combining for the final oration in a rich sonority. Salve Regina is set for double choir SSAT and SATB, giving rise to a grandly architectural concept in which the individual voices support the edifice of the whole.  Stepwise melody gives rise to a continual sense of ebb and flow, so that the music pulsates with sober expressivity.  Thus the work combines powerful emotionalism with didactic seriousness in a manner typical of Counter-Reformation art.

Agostino Steffani (1654 – 1728) was a chorister at St Mark’s Venice and later not only a composer and musician (Kapellmeister to the court in Hanover), but also a priest and diplomat.  The Stabat Mater, one of his last compositions, was written for the Academy of Ancient Music in London, of which he was president.  It is an extraordinary work, characterised by a richness of sonority and set for six-part chorus, six-part strings including three violas, organ and theorbo.  Essentially a prayer to the Virgin, the poem depicts a sorrowful Mary standing at the foot of the cross and expresses both sympathy and a desire to share her grief; this is masterfully effected by confining the vocal writing to the middle and lower registers.  The most ambitious counterpoint is saved until the end, where at the word ‘morietur’ each voice enters a note above its predecessor.  The final fugue is introduced by the voices and followed by a new theme in the strings, the material being combined in the final Amen.