November 2019

Salve Regina – music from Trinity to All Souls

St Matthew’s, westminster

Weelkes                                  Alleluia, I hear a voice
Palestrina                               Kyrie from Missa Salve Regina
Tallis                                        O nata lux
Victoria                                   Vidi speciosam
Palestrina                               Gloria from Missa Salve Regina
Dering                                     Factum est silencium
Bach                                        Pièce d’orgue BWV 572 (Organ: WN)
Guerrero                                 In conspectu gloriosum
Palestrina                               Sanctus & Benedictus from Missa Salve Regina
Byrd                                         O quam gloriosum
Stanford                                  Justorum animae
Palestrina                               Agnus Dei from Missa Salve Regina
Poulenc                                  Salve Regina

Gilly French, Kevin Walsh, Helen Prentice, Iain Butler
Fiona Sharp, Catharine Robertson, Nick Dykes, William Nicholson

Salve Regina is a Marian hymn, traditionally sung at Compline in Ordinary Time (between Trinity and Advent). Palestrina’s sublime 5-part (SAATB) Missa Salve Regina is based on the Gregorian antiphon and has a warm and rich sonority characterised by the relatively small range of the upper voices.

Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost, which fell this year on 16 June. It celebrates the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) was a creative and prolific composer who was probably overshadowed to some extent by his contemporaries Byrd and Tallis. His large output of church music was probably written for Chichester Cathedral, where he was organist, despite his being in constant trouble with the authorities there for drunkenness, swearing and blasphemy. Alleluia, I heard a voice, is a majestic and declamatory piece associated with Ascensiontide and Trinity. The Latin motets of Thomas Tallis (1505-85) were designed for unofficial Roman Catholic gatherings and are of an intensely intimate nature. O nata lux is a setting of the first two verses of an Office Hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration (6 August), a meeting of the temporal and the eternal where human nature meets God. Despite being almost continuously homophonic it has a remarkable fluidity, resulting from tension between duple and triple time, subtle modulations and a melodic curve closely following the natural cadence of the words. Bristling with false relations, notably at the doubly-dissonant final cadence, and tonally somewhat indeterminate, it is one of the composer’s most memorable works.

Vidi speciosam is a liturgical text derived from the Song of Songs, with all its imagery of love turned to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. It is a Responsory at Matins on the Feast of the Assumption (15th August), the taking of Mary into heaven. The six-voice (SSATTB) setting by Tomás Luis da Victoria (1548-1611) is in two sections, in the form AB–CB, in the mixolydian (G) mode. The Virgin ascending into heaven is likened with superb word-painting to the beautiful one rising like a dove over the rivers, like a lily of the valley or the rose in spring. It opens with the three high voices followed by the three lower, after which a variety of voice combinations for 3, 4 or 6 parts give rise to occasional antiphonal effects. The frequent crossing of the tenor parts and especially of the two upper lines gives a bright shimmering quality to the music. Richard Dering (1580-1630) converted to Catholicism while visiting Rome in 1612 and later went into exile in the Spanish Netherlands. By 1617 he was organist to the convent of English nuns in Brussels, and in the same year published his first collection of Cantiones Sacrae.  Factum est silentium comes from a second collection which appeared in 1618 and is a setting for Michaelmas (29 September) of a dramatic passage from the Revelation of St John, depicting the battle between the Archangel Michael and the dragon. It is declamatory, dramatic and madrigalean in style, with considerable variation of note durations, vividly contrasting textures and insistent, stylised rhythms all used to convey the text.

Fantasia in G major, BWV572, also known as Pièce d’Orgue, by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) dates from 1505/7. It is in three sections. A toccata of patterned chords, and a coda of acciaccatura-strewn broken chords, enclose a French-influenced panoply of continuously eliding five-part harmony.

The Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) was in his lifetime more famous than Victoria. In conspectu Angelorum is for the feastday of the Archangel Raphael (24 October) to a text from Psalm 138 (‘In the presence of angels I will sing to you’). Raphael appears only in the apocryphical Book of Tobit but is part of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canon. William Byrd (1543-1623) was the greatest English composer of his era. O quam gloriosum is from the 1589 Cantiones sacrae and is in two sections. The text is proper to the Feast of All Saints (November 1st), when Christians remember the company of saints in heaven, although Byrd’s publication of it was as a sacred song rather than as a liturgical piece. The first section is derived from the Magnificat antiphon ‘O how glorious is the kingdom’ and the second from the service of None, ‘Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power’, with a text from the Book of Revelation. It is an intricate work, with an atmosphere that gleams with lucid major triads and a suffused light, yet conveying a sense of effortlessness that permeates the whole piece.

Justorum animae by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is the first of Three Motets Op 38. The text, appropriate to All Souls (2 November) is from the Book of Wisdom 3: 1-3 and is in ternary form, the outer two sections reflecting the contemplative nature of the text (‘The souls of the just are in the hand of God’) with the central section a vivid depiction of the torment of malice.  Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) has been described as ‘half monk, half delinquent’ who rediscovered his faith after the death of a close friend. Salve Regina, dating from 1941, is inspired by Gregorian chant and coloured by the composer’s own distinctive harmonic language, with strange key changes and awkward intervals all making for a sensuously delicate beauty of texture. The text pointedly contrasts the human condition ‘in this valley of tears’ with the promise of Mary’s intercession. The piece was composed during the Nazi occupation of France and its final phrase, ‘dulcis Virgo Maria’, repeated over sixteen bars, seemingly pleads for an answer to this troubled period before reaching a point of calm resignation.