November 2023

From darkness to light

Ledger   Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
Buxtehude   Magnificat
Ledger   Adam lay y bounden
Wilbye   Draw on, sweet night
East   Hence stars, too dim of light
Rutter   Dormi, Jesu
Davies   O little town of Bethlehem
Poulenc   Videntes stellam
Handl   Ab Oriente venerunt magi
Holst   Nunc dimittis
Macmillan   O radiant dawn
Wood   O thou the central orb
Handel   Let the bright seraphim; Let their celestial concerts all unite

St stephen’s rochester row
Thursday 30 november 2023

Philip Ledger (1937-2012) was Director of Music of King’s College, Cambridge between 1974 and 1982, and a noted choral composer. Jesus Christ the Apple Tree is an 18th-century poem that first appeared in London’s Spiritual Magazine in August 1761. The text to Adam lay y bounden is thought to date from around 1400 and is a macaronic setting of the story of the Fall of Man, Adam being released from limbo by the death of Christ four thousand years later.  Ledger’s settings are refreshingly unostentatious in their simplicity and craftsmanship, demonstrating simple yet memorable melody and harmony in uncomplicated verse structures.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637- 1707), organist at the Marienkirche at Lübeck, is unlikely to be the composer of this Magnificat, but the piece has been so long associated with him that the attribution has remained.  It is a delightful piece which obtains striking results by way of enduring lilting melodies, simple harmonies, frequent hemiolas and a clear sectional structure.

John Wilbye (1574-1638) was a prolific composer of English madrigals, with a style characterized by delicate voice-writing, acute sensitivity to text, a seriousness of approach and a subtlety of musical ideas.  Draw on, sweet night, possibly the greatest of all the English madrigals, displays a wistful melancholy and subtle alternation of major and minor modes.  Michael East (1580-1648) was a member of the choir of Ely Cathedral before moving to Lichfield as a lay clerk and choirmaster.  Hence stars, too dim of light is from ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’, a collection of madrigals by 23 composers, commissioned by Thomas Morley in honour of an ageing Queen Elizabeth and painting her as an eternally bountiful queen of a pastoral Arcadia.  After a brief homophonic statement there follow several lines of nimble imitation, particularly effective on the wordy ‘you dazzle but the sight, you teach to grope by night’.

John Rutter (1945- ) is an English choral composer, especially renowned for his effective and enduring settings of many Christmas carols.  Dormi Jesu sets an anonymous Latin text with its translation by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is a tender lullaby.  It is a classic example of his style, with its final blues-esque chord being an notable touch.  O Little Town of Bethlehem is best known in its setting to the English folk melody, ‘The ploughboy’s dream’, as arranged by Vaughan Williams, but this 1913 version by Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941) has become a much-loved alternative. It begins with a solo soprano recitative, of text from the angel’s message to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, before moving into four hauntingly beautiful verses, the first of which is also a solo.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is one of the supreme composers of French religious music, with a simple and direct style.  His choral music is unusually taxing, with strange key changes and awkward intervals all making for startlingly beautiful textures.  Despite its brevity, Videntes stellam, from Quatre motets pour le temps de Nöel, is an exquisite example of the composer at the height of his choral brilliance, brimming with freshness and clarity.  Ab oriente venerunt magi, by the Bohemian composer Jacob Handl (1550-1591), dates from 1586 and is a setting of the Magnificat Antiphon for Epiphany, telling the story of the Wise Men and their gifts of ‘aurum, thus et myrrham’.  It starts with lovely word-painting depicting the journey to Bethlehem and ends with a dance-like Alleluia.  The 8-part unaccompanied Nunc dimittis by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was first performed liturgically on Easter Sunday 1915 and thereafter remained in manuscript form until 1979 when a published edition appeared, revised by the composer’s daughter Imogen.  Holst’s esteem of Byrd and Palestrina is especially evident in the modal and antiphonal writing of this glorious piece.

O Radiant Dawn is the antiphon for 21 December. The 2007 setting by James Macmillan (1959-) depicts a fervent longing for Christ, with suspensions and dynamic crescendos emphasising the increasing desperation of the people and the final resolution from dissonance to consonance maybe a representation of the conflicts resolved by Jesus’ coming.  The Irish composer Charles Wood (1886-1926) wrote a considerable amount of church music, mostly towards the end of his life.  O Thou, the central orb is skilfully crafted and a joy to sing. The ‘central orb’ is Jesus, bringing to us God’s eternal light; it also symbolises kingship and the piece is often sung at royal occasions.

Let the celestial concerts all unite is the jubilant finale to the oratorio Samson, by G.F. Handel (1685-1759).  The largest of his biblical oratorios, written shortly after Messiah, it was a triumphant success, not least because of the inspired last-minute addition of a dazzling soprano aria, Let the bright seraphim, composed for the renowned Italian singer Christina Avoglio who happened to be in London that season and was willing to make a cameo appearance in Handel’s new oratorio.