Paired settings of Christmas texts by mediaeval and modern composers, including Victoria, Praetorius, Sweelinck, Bach, Poulenc, Leighton, Rodney Bennett, and Mathias.
Sacred pieces ranging from plainchant to a 1997 SACC commission, including Victoria, Schütz, Bach, Mendelssohn, Howells and Britten.
This recording grew from a performance of Mathias’s Ave Rex (22-25) given by St Albans Chamber Choir in 1999. The original medieval melodies for three of the texts were already known to us (3,10,15) but did the old melody survive for the fourth? The discovery that it did (21) and our knowledge of several other medieval/modern pairs (1/5, 8/12, 16/18, 19/26) provided an ample framework for what became an interesting and wide-ranging project. The time-span of the project was extended backwards by the inclusion of plainchant (4, 9, 13) and the 15th/20th century gap was bridged by the inclusion of music from the core Renaissance/Baroque SACC repertoire (2, 7, 14, 20). All this meant that a piece from the first concert the choir gave in 1958 (20) was included and the programme was completed by two motets by Francis Poulenc (11, 17 – linked to 9/20 and 13 respectively) whose music was prominent in SACC programmes 1998-2001.
Most of the ‘modern’ settings of the venerable texts are, of course, original compositions though it is interesting that the composers often reflect medieval techniques by, for example, alternating vocal forces (12) or building their harmony on parallel fourths and fifths (18, 22-25). However, the art of the arranger is also amply represented. The oldest of these is the unknown 15th century hand that added a counter-melody to the fine 14th century Resonemus laudibus (19), a tune that also proved irresistible to the doyen of modern carol arrangers, David Willcocks (26). Chronologically between these two lies the work of Michael Praetorius and JS Bach. The former’s prodigious output of music based on Lutheran chorales (hymns) ranges from duets to polychoral extravaganzas is as many as twenty parts. From these riches we have taken two sturdy four part harmonisations (6,14i), a four part polyphonic setting (14iii) and a setting for eight voices, divided into two choirs (14iv). The second verse of In dulci jubilo is also in eight parts, but disposed as one sonorous ensemble.
Inevitably, the most sophisticated music in the recital is that of Bach. His Vom Himmel hoch (7) was composed as one of four seasonal interpolations in the first version of Magnificat. Here, a technique often heard in his organ music is heard, wherein the noble melody is heard in long notes accompanied by a contrapuntal tapestry woven from faster moving fragments of itself.
These notes deal with the works in chronological order though the running order has been designed to be a more varied concert sequence. Listeners are, of course, at liberty to programme the disc to play in any order they wish.
St Albans Chamber Choir’s 2001 recording Christmas across the Centuries (LAMM 128D) was a tightly themed programme not just of Christmas music but also of paired settings of the same text from widely contrasting historical periods. This present issue is a more varied anthology selected from the Choir’s core repertoire of unaccompanied or organ accompanied music from circa 1600 to the present day. If there is a sub-theme running through the programme it is that of music for double choir. This means that instead of being divided into the standard four (SATB) vocal parts, each of those parts is divided to produce two four part ensembles which composers can combine and contrast in a variety of ways. The origins of this practice were in liturgical music, which from earliest times has used antiphonal devices of various kinds – either a soloist or a small ensemble singing in alternation with the main body of worshippers or the available forces being divided into two or equal groups.
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) composed many such works from which we have selected two antiphons in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Originally, these were sung as part of the concluding devotions at a service of Vespers (the early evening service of the Roman rite) where Victoria’s elaborate settings would, on major liturgical occasions, have replaced the plainchant settings most commonly used. The composer acknowledged this by basing his own opening melodies on the contours of the chants which has prompted us to include them to complement the polyphony. While Alma Redemptoris requires two SATB groups, Regina Coeli is for choirs of contrasting pitch and colour – SSAT/SATB. In both pieces the two ensembles sing separately for the most part, combining for climactic moments at the end of each section.
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was a prolific composer throughout his long life, not least of music for double (and triple, and quadruple) choir. However, Tröstet is in a relatively restrained 6 parts (SSATTB), which nonetheless often sound polychoral as Schütz contrasts different combinations of voices from within this basic ensemble. After the tutti opening, for example, there are short passages for SSAT and ATTB, then another tutti and then the first of several high/low (SSA/TTB) contrasts. Each phrase of the text, familiar from the opening of Handel’s Messiah, is characterised by a new melodic idea, and the contrapuntal technique throughout seems effortless, though Schütz, in the preface to the 1648 publication from which this piece comes, was keen to stress that his mastery was the result of diligent study and urged young composers to follow the same path.
The truly remarkable Bach family provided the churches and courts of their native Thuringia, as well as more distant centres of musical activity, with organists, composers, Capellmeister and orchestral musicians in unprecedented numbers for almost the whole of the 17th and 18th centuries. Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731) was a distant cousin of Johann Sebastian (1685-1750), who worked principally at the court of Meinigen. Unsere Trübsal is in some ways a relatively old-fashioned motet, echoing features common in Schütz, for example, though the contours of the melodies, the less severely-syllabic style of word setting and some of the harmony indicate why JS Bach valued Ludwig’s music enough to perform several of these cantatas himself at Leipzig during the 1720’s.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s own motets were all composed for specific occasions. In the case of Der Geist this was the funeral of JH Ernesti on 20th October 1729 (Ernesti had been Rector of St Thomas’ School, and therefore Bach’s immediate superior). Scored for two equal choirs, the opening of this sublime work features a soaring invocation of the Holy Spirit which is shared by the choirs in a series of antiphonal exchanges. The inexpressible sighs are depicted by syncopated rhythms and chromaticisms in a concise fugue before the the heart of the text is conveyed in a more extended passage of sturdy, four-part writing.
Almost exactly 100 years after the composition of Der Geist, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was preparing to conduct the first performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion since the composer’s lifetime. Evidence of his admiration and study of Baroque music can often be discerned in Mendelssohn’s music, though in the case of Richte mich, Gott this is only of a general kind. The scoring is again for a choir in eight parts, though here the contrasts are between high and low voices rather than the two equal ensembles of Bach’s motets and, indeed, the Passion.
The five 20th century works in this programme were all the results of commissions. Although it is now sung at Ascensiontide, Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) composed God is gone up for a St Cecilia’s Day celebration in 1951. Finzi selected the text from one of his favourite 17th century poets and responded to its rich imagery with his usual fastidious flair. It was to a similar source that Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) went for the text of Antiphon, composed in 1956 for the centenary of St Michael’s College, Tenbury. This was a remarkable institution founded by Sir Frederick Ouseley ‘to form a model for the Choral Service of the Church’, which in its time employed or educated, among others equally or more significant, Arthur Sullivan, John Stainer, Heathcote Statham (subsequently a long-serving organist of Norwich Cathedral), Edmund Fellowes and Watkins Shaw (scholar-librarians of great importance in the development of our knowledge of pre-Classical music), Christopher Robinson (recently retired Director of Music of St John’s College, Cambridge), Roger Judd and David Hansell! Although Britten does not formally divide the choir in the Victoria/Bach manner he does create three distinct sonorities to match the poet’s Chorus (full choir, often in unison), Men (ATB in harmony) and Angels (solo or semi-chorus soprano with organ). Britten wrote with great skill for the College’s small choir, often finding ways to double lines in the interests of textural clarity in the turbulent counterpoint of the second section.
Ironically, Herbert Howells’ (1892-1983) Sequence for St Michael was written not for St Michael’s but for St John’s College, Cambridge in 1961, the 450th anniversary of its foundation. Despite the composer’s enduring popularity in cathedral music circles
this dramatic masterpiece is little known, although many of its pages are absolutely the quintessence of Howells – the passage ‘Yea, thou hast the dominion . . . honour thee’ can be cited here. The text is a modern translation of a medieval Latin poem.
The music of Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) is also central to cathedral repertoires. His career was a distinguished one by any standards: at various times he was awarded scholarships, prizes, fellowships, doctorates, posts as Lecturer at three universities and finally the Reid Professorship of Music at the University of Edinburgh. He was a fine pianist and prolific composer but this brilliant career was cut short by his premature death at the age of 59. This world premiere recording of the 1968 setting of the Te Deum marks the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth. This is a relatively straightforward work, having been written for a thanksgiving service in St Paul’s Cathedral where the participation of a large unison choir had to be accommodated. (This component became optional in the published version and we have omitted it.) The piece still has its moments of power and brilliance, however, being mainly canonic in structure though with well placed moves away from this potentially mechanical device to chordal or unison declamation.
Jubilate by Malcolm Singer (b.1953) also received its first performance in a cathedral – St Albans. This was commissioned by SACC to open the concert celebrating its 40th anniversary in January 1999. The programme contained a number of works for double choir and Malcolm was asked to write in this tradition, though he did so in a way that keeps all the singers on their toes and occupied all the time. The work begins with a ‘strong and bell-like’ introduction and then in the main section the choirs alternate between the melodic material and the repeated note accompaniment figure. There is then a triumphant and brilliantly scored coda. Naturally, this too is a world premiere recording.