October 2016

O quam gloriosum

westminster abbey chapter house

Victoria                Kyrie and Gloria Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina           Sicut cervus
Victoria                Credo Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina           Tu es Petrus
Victoria                Sanctus and Benedictus Missa O quam gloriosum
Palestrina           Exsultate Deo
Victoria                Agnus Dei Missa O quam gloriosum
Victoria                Motet O quam gloriosum
Mundy                 O Lord, the maker of all thing
Tallis                    O nata lux
Byrd                      Ave verum corpus
Weelkes               When David heard
Wilbye                  Draw on sweet night
East                       Hence stars, too dim of light
Weelkes               Thule, the period of cosmography

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

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day.  His music, in its strictly liturgical or devotional function, has been described as ‘not only the most perfectly suited to its purpose, but the most perfectly styled and fashioned of its kind, its emotional heart perfectly in accord with Roman Catholic liturgical ceremony in the Tridentine Rite’. Missa O quam gloriosum is a parody mass, based on the composer’s own joyful motet of 1572, written for All Saints Day and depicting the glorious vision of the company of heaven. The motet (which Tovey describes as the most perfect ever written) starts in quiet awe, with chords which imitate an organ, but moves into livelier scales on the word ‘gaudent’ to suggest the joy of the saints.  The Mass is concise, balancing great simplicity with a controlled fervour that is typical of Victoria, and has become perhaps the most loved and most performed of all his Masses in modern times.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth-century music and at the time of his death was considered by some to be the finest musician in the world. He was primarily a prolific composer of masses and motets. Sicut cervus (1581) has always been one of his most familiar works and is a model of imitative polyphony. The text is from Psalm 42 – the deer thirsts for water just as the soul thirsts for the fountain of Christianity. Tu es Petrus and its ‘seconda pars’, Quodcumque ligaveris, are a resplendent pair of motets which date from 1572. The music, to a text from the Tract for the feast of St Peter’s Chair in Rome, is has a bright major tonality and a clear antiphonal structure, resulting in gloriously jubilant quality throughout. Exsultate Deo has a joyous tunefulness along with vivid word-painting depicting musical instruments.

After the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, the Latin motets of Thomas Tallis (1505-85) and William Byrd (c1543-1623) would not have found a place in public worship. They were designed for unofficial Roman Catholic gatherings and are of an intensely intimate nature. Tallis’s O nata lux is a setting of the first two verses of an Office Hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration. 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 perhaps for these very reasons one of the composer’s most memorable works. Byrd was the greatest English composer of his era. His richly expressive Ave verum corpus was written for the feast of Corpus Christi: its clear structure, perfectly controlled polyphony and intense conviction reach directly to the listener and make it an enduring favourite. William Mundy (c. 1529–1591) was an English composer of sacred music and the father of John Mundy, organist and composer. He was appointed to the Chapel Royal in 1562–1563, and was replaced in 1591, presumably following his death. O Lord the maker of all thing, a setting of a text from The King’s Primer, is thought to be a contrafactum (adaptation of a Latin motet to an English text). Thomas Weelkes’s six-part setting of the short Absalom lament in the Second Book of Samuel highlights the deeply personal nature of King David’s public and private mourning for his dead son.

John Wilbye (1574-1638) spent most of his working life under the patronage of Elizabeth Cornwallis at Hengrave, a recusant household in Suffolk, although little of his sacred music survives. Considered one of the greatest of English madrigalists, his six-part Draw on, sweet night is characterised by delicate voice-writing, acute sensitivity to text and the use of false relations between the major and minor modes. Michael East’s 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. Weelkes’s Thule, the period of cosmography and its companion-piece The Andalusian merchant, the composition of which were possibly prompted by an eruption of Etna in 1597, is an expansive musical structure in which vivid geographical and geological reports are exaggerated by a striking musical imagery: furious scales depicting Hecla’s ‘sulphurious fire’, a side-step into triple time on ‘Trinacrian Etna’ and the rising accompaniment to its ascending flames, the flying fishes’ acrobatic motif, and the meandering chromaticism of ‘how strangely Fogo burns’. The moral of the story comes at the end of each part: the fire of the poet’s love is far ‘more wondrous’ than any traveller’s tale.