November 2017

To rejoice in thy strength

guards’ chapel, birdcage walk

Byrd                O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth
Palestrina       Kyrie from Missa brevis
Byrd                  Justorum animae
Palestrina       Gloria from Missa brevis
Byrd                 Laetentur coeli
Palestrina       Credo from Missa brevis
Byrd                Sing joyfully
Sweelinck       Unter der Linden Grüne (WN organ)
Byrd                Ne irascaris, Domine
Palestrina      Sanctus & Benedictus from Missa brevis
Byrd                Miserere mei
Palestrina       Agnus Dei from Missa brevis
Byrd                O quam gloriosum

Gilly French, Fiona Sharp, Helen Prentice, Catharine Robertson
Kevin Walsh, Tim Dutton, Iain Butler, William Nicholson

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), primarily a prolific composer of masses and motets, was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth-century music; at the time of his death he was considered by some to be the finest musician in the world. Despite its title, the Missa brevis of 1570 is one of the most substantial and sonorous of all Palestrina’s four-part mass-settings. The music has a strong character with the motif of a falling minor third, usually followed by upward movement by step, appearing not only at the beginning of most movements but frequently during them, for instance in the remarkable sequence in all the parts of the ‘Amen’ in the Credo. The second, exquisite Agnus Dei expands to SSATB, with the ascending scale at the beginning of the first Agnus inverted at the start of the second.

William Byrd (1539-1623), a pupil of Thomas Tallis, was the most prodigiously talented and prolific English composer of his time. He became Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563, where he produced English works for Anglican services, before moving to the Chapel Royal in London in 1572. There he worked jointly with Tallis, and in 1575 they secured a royal patent for the printing and distribution of part-music. During the 1580s and 1590s Byrd’s Catholicism became the driving force for his music; he wrote and openly published motets and masses, almost certainly composed for small chapel gatherings. 

O Lord, let thy servant Elizabeth was written during Byrd’s time at the Chapel Royal. Its text comes from Psalm 21, customized to address the queen by name. A relatively sober composition for SAATTB, it ends in an expansive Amen. The offertory Justorum animae, for the feast of All Saints and from the Gradualia of 1605, is a serene reminder that those who have died lie in the peace of God. Set for five voices (SSATB), it evokes a mood of tender confidence and faith, with gradual and subtle transitions between homophony and polyphony, harmonic dissonances and suspensions becoming apparent as the piece unfolds. The five-part (SSATB) Laetentur caeli and its seconda pars Orietur in diebus tuis come from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589. A setting of the Processional Respond for Advent Sunday, they characterised by a virtuosic command of florid, imitative counterpoint. The six-part Sing Joyfully, for SSAATB and with words from Psalm 81, is Byrd’s most popular and arguably best anthem. There is some marvellous madrigalean word-painting, especially at ‘Blow the trumpet in the new moon’.

Published in his 1589 Cantiones Sacrae, the elaborate and penitential motet Ne irascaris, Domine, along with its seconda pars Civitas sancti tui, is one of Byrd’s masterpieces and must be one of his most forceful acts of protest against the persecution of English Catholics. The setting is of verses from Isaiah 64. The atmosphere is of quiet polyphonic contemplation, with the melody contained within the range of a fourth, before the stark homophony of ‘Sion deserta facta est’. The final phrase is a moving lament for Jerusalem – a metaphor for the Catholic Church in England – in which the poignant words ‘desolata est’ are heard a remarkable 54 times. The five-part Miserere mei, for SATBB, is from the second Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 and is a quiet prayer: a clear homophonic plea for mercy moves quickly into beautiful imitation, with especially powerful settings of ‘iniquitatem’ and ‘misericordiam’.  O quam gloriosum and its seconda pars Benedictio et claritas also come from the 1589 Cantiones Sacrae. The texts used in the two sections had liturgical links with the Office texts for the Feast of All Saints, although Byrd’s publication of it was as a ‘sacred song’ rather than a liturgical piece. The text of the first section is derived from the Magnificat antiphon ‘O how glorious is the kingdom’, with that of the second from the service of None, ‘Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be unto our God for ever and ever’ (Revelation 7:12). The atmosphere gleams with lucid major triads and an even, suffused light.

The Netherlands composer, organist and teacher Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was one of the most important musical figures of his time: a renowned player, one of the first major keyboard composers of Europe and a sought-after teacher. Calvinist practice prohibited the performance of organ music during the service and Sweelinck held a civic position, performing concerts at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. His compositions include many variation sets on both sacred and secular tunes, including the set of four variations on the folk-tune Oonder een linde groen (Under the green linden tree).