The Tallis Scholars: Metamorphosis
H. Praetorius: Magnificat IV
Gibbons: Magnificat (‘Short’)
Sheppard: Our father
Tavener: Our father (1999 version)
Stravinsky: Otche nash
Palestrina: Pater noster (a5)
Gallus: Pater noster (a8)
Chant: Ave Maria
Mouton: Ave Maria – virgo serena
Stravinsky: Bogoroditse devo
Pärt: Bogoroditse devo
Gibbons: Nunc dimittis (‘Short’)
Eccard: Maria wallt zum Heiligtum
Pärt: Nunc dimittis
Torrentes: Nunc dimittis
Holst: Nunc dimittis
The Ave Maria, Pater Noster, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis between them explore the full emotional gamut of the Christian experience. These four core texts of Christianity take us from birth to death, celebrate God as both father and infant, Mary as virgin and mother. There is joyful anticipation here, but also calm acceptance; we find ourselves looking forward to a life yet to come and backwards over a life already lived.
From simplest plainchant monody to elaborate polychoral polyphony, composers have responded to these touchstone texts in their different ways. Tonight’s programme explores the scope and diversity of these responses in works from the renaissance and 20th century.
We open with three contrasting settings of the Magnificat – Mary’s song of joy at the Annunciation. Each finds echo at the close of the concert in the corresponding setting of the Nunc Dimittis, framing the evening with the two familiar canticles of the Anglican rite of Evensong, or the Catholic services of Evening Prayer and Compline.
One of the earliest German composers to employ Venetian polychoral techniques in his music, Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) showcased the style at its animated and expressive best in his nine alternatim Magnificat settings. The Magnificat Quarti Toni embraces the ambiguous tonality of this “fourth tone” (the Hypophrygian mode), colouring what we might now think of as a minor key with rhythmic energy more suited to the jubilant text. It also boasts perhaps the most striking opening of any Praetorius work – an arresting bit of chromatic writing that keeps the ear guessing – as though the joy of this text is so great that the composer cannot find adequate expression in conventional harmonic gestures.
Although perhaps best-known now for his expressive madrigals, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was an accomplished and prolific composer of sacred works. While his Second Service showcases some of the finest verse writing of late Tudor England, his earlier Short Service finds its interest in the textural manipulation of full choral forces. Gibbons the madrigalist is quietly evident here in the stylistic articulation of his texts. Contrast, for example, the athletic, dance-like emphasis of the opening of the Magnificat, with the sustained, legato phrase that begins the Nunc Dimittis. Mary has rarely seemed as youthful in her joy as she does in Gibbons’ hands, nor Simeon’s rapture (“For mine eyes have seen thy salvation”) more simple in its conviction. The gradual scalic flowering of the “Amen” of the Nunc Dimittis is surely one of the contrapuntal high-points of its age.
Few composers are more texturally aware or demonstrate a greater sense of aural drama than contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part. Derived from his studies of Gregorian chant, renaissance polyphony and Russian Orthodox music, Part’s signature technique – a reverberant choral homophony he terms ‘tintinnabuli’ – places his voices in a constantly shifting yet strangely static harmonic relationship. With any conventional sense of harmonic trajectory negated, it is through varied vocal textures that he achieves his meditative musical drama.
Here in his Magnificat he places a solo soprano voice chanting on a single pitch against a series of homophonic choral ensembles, creating a contemporary take on the renaissance fauxbourdon technique of harmonised chant. The Nunc Dimittis by contrast sees Pärt’s voices deployed in rather more flexible units, sustaining by turns a rocking dialogue between upper voices over chanted mens-voice pedal notes, and latterly a denser chorale-like homophony, collapsing ultimately back into the familiar waves of echoing sound for the Gloria.
We return to the renaissance for the Pater Noster or Lord’s Prayer, heard first in a setting of exquisite delicacy by English composer John Sheppard. With its vernacular text, we can assume that the work dates from the reign of Edward VI with its new demand for music for Protestant liturgy. Clarity of text was paramount – a reaction against the “popish excesses” of the Catholic rite – and led composers to favour the translucent, five-part texture heard here. Modal harmonies add interest and colour to a treatment whose rocking imitation and pulsing, dotted rhythms establish a single mood of affirmation and spiritual security.
Affirmation is a little harder-won in two contemporary treatments of the same text. While offering moments of glowing, consonant warmth in his four-part setting, John Tavener complicates his prayer with the smudged doubts of passing notes and suspensions, rooting his setting in the muddy complexity of human imperfection. This is a work that reaches for the divine while never losing touch with the earthly.
After experiencing a miraculous moment of healing in 1925, Igor Stravinsky returned to the Russian Orthodox Church (also, incidentally, the faith shared by Tavener) he had abandoned in his youth. The result was a sequence of liturgical choral works, including this miniature four-voice setting of the Pater Noster. The text here is heard in Slavonic, chanted in traditional recitative style, and references but never quoting chant melodies. With a limited harmonic palette Stravinsky creates a single-mood work of mournful beauty, throbbing with never-fully-resolved uncertainties.
Palestrina’s Pater Noster setting typifies the polychoral style of sixteenth-century Rome. A world away from the ascetic purity of Stravinsky or even Sheppard, Palestrina’s setting delights in the richness and echoing sonority of his double-choir forces. Athough reaching an impassioned climax at the contemplation of “debitoribus nostris” (our sinss), the scale and grandeur of the “Amen” suggests a certainty of redemption absent from the contemporary settings.
From Rome to Venice, in Jacobus Gallus’s (also known as Jacob Handl) Pater Noster. Marrying the older Franco-Flemish imitative style with the antiphonal writing of the Venetian tradition, Gallus creates a fluid and lovely musical prayer. Upper voices are pitted against lower, exchanging phrases that echo, embellish and complete one another. The work concludes with one of the loveliest Amens of the period – a florid seal on this elegant motet.
Tuesday 4 April, 8:00pm
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Wednesday 5 April, 7:30pm
St. James Cathedral
The Ave Maria – the second Antiphon hymn during the Festival of the Annunciation – was a popular chant among sixteenth-century composers, chiming particularly with the revival in Marian worship during the early years of the Counter-Reformation. Heard first in its plainsong original, the text is then repeated tonight in a sequence of polyphonic settings.
The Marian imagery of the Ave Maria draws the smoothest of polyphony from the French renaissance composer Jean Mouton. Two simple motives (one rising, the other falling) form the melodic basis of this five-part work, giving it a characteristically organic sense of wholeness. Use of upper and lower voices suffice to create textural contrast within the imitative flow until the text’s climax in a threefold address of the Virgin – “O Maria Dulcissima/O Maria Piissima/O Maria Sanctissima” – where sudden homophony interrupts the flow with an appeal to Mary, all the more touching for its sudden plainness.
Texture is also at the fore in Arvo Part’s Bogoroditse Djevo – an unusually rhythmic and jubilant work from the minimalist. Passages of declamatory homophony are set against chanted sections of highly rhythmic, recitative-like accompaniment in this exhilarating paean to the Virgin.
The moving underlying parts of Stravinsky’s Ave Maria turn this prayer almost into a cradle song. “I can endure unaccompanied singing in only the most harmonically primitive music,” the composer wrote – a pronouncement amply borne out here. Any narrative quality in the text is negated by a meditative setting that restricts its harmonic language and range to the absolute minimum, creating a deliberately naïve piece of musical sophistication.
Johannes Eccard (1533-1611) worked as Kappellmeister to Elector Joachim Friedrich of Brandenburg in Berlin, and is chiefly known for his role in developing the genre of Lutheran Chorale. So influential was his work that the chorales of Bach’s St Matthew Passion owe their form to Eccard, and Brahms was known to revere the composer. Balancing a simple clarity in his polyphony with a sensitivity to word-setting that took Lassus as its model, Eccard’s music is represented tonight by two chorale motets.
Maria wallt zum Heiligtum describes Mary’s visit to the temple to present the infant Jesus to Simeon. Despite its six-part texture, the motet’s delicate harmonisation ensures that the words remain the focus, shaded by the composer’s textural manipulations. The climactic moment, when Simeon recognises Jesus as “the light of the world”, is beautifully simple – an octave leap in the soprano line sees it flower expansively above the accompanying voices. Ubers Gebirg Maria geht encloses within its story a miniature setting of the Magnificat. Its polyphonic treatment is once again a model of simplicity, but achieves drama through the contrasting homophonic directness of Mary’s speech (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”) and the more contrapuntal sections of narrative.
A contemporary of Guerrero and Morales, Spanish polyphonist Andres de Torrentes is best known for his large number of Magnificats. There survive also, however, two Nunc Dimittis settings, and tonight we hear the Nunc Dimittis in the eighth tone. It’s a short work, compressing a some exciting and athletic counterpoint into the traditional alternatim structure – alternating verses of plainchant and polyphony. Five voice-parts expand to six by the end, giving a thrilling sense of climax to the closing phrase “et nunc et semper” (now and forever).
The role of the Nunc Dimittis within the Anglican rite of Evensong has prompted settings by all the major English composers, including an elegant double choir treatment from Holst. The gradual building-up of the opening pianissimo chord establishes a contemplative mood that gives way to rather more sprightly polychoral writing, including a rhythmic “lumen ad revelationem”, and the vibrant exchanges of the Gloria that grow into a pealing “Amen”.