All Shall be Well: Saturday 5 March 2022 at 7:30pm

The Lady Chapel of St Albans Abbey.

A collection of a cappella choral music for Lent on the themes of grief and suffering and the promise of Paradise in the afterlife.

The legendary Miserere by Gregorio Allegri, with its mixture of plainsong and glorious ornamentation, has a complex history. Originally composed in 1638 for the Sistine Chapel Choir, the story goes that transcribing it or performing it elsewhere was prohibited by the Pope on pain of excommunication. The fourteen-year-old Mozart on a visit to Rome in 1770 is alleged to have transcribed it from memory and allowed it to be published. In 1831, Felix Mendelssohn heard it sung a fourth higher and so produced the section including the famous top Cs. Consequently, the version sung nowadays has been described as a patchwork derived from many different sources.

As senior choirmaster at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice in the early eighteenth century, Antonio Lotti composed much high-quality sacred music. His eight-part setting of the Crucifixus from the Credo of the Mass depicts the pain and exhaustion of crucifixion using musical devices such as suspensions, chromaticism, discords and modulation.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was one of the most prolific and highly acclaimed musicians of the sixteenth century. His work is seen as setting the standard for Renaissance polyphony. The intricate Stabat Mater dolorosa for double choir, written for the Sistine Chapel Choir around 1590, has many changes of rhythm and mood to describe Mary’s suffering at the foot of the Cross.

Palestrina’s influence, along with that of Wagner, can be heard in the motet Christus Factus Est composed by the devoutly religious Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. First performed in 1884, it depicts Christ’s journey of ‘obedience unto death’.

The wingbeats of angels bearing us to Paradise are represented by a solo viola and cello In Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ piece In Paradisum (2012). The words from the Requiem Mass antiphon sung as the body is taken from the church for burial are voiced by the choir.

Similar words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are used in John Tavener’s piece Song for Athene, sung at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, together with text from the funeral service of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In All Shall Be Well (2009), for double choir and solo cello, Roxanna Panufnik sets 14th century texts from the plainsong hymn Bogurodzica sung by Polish knights as they went into battle and from the Revelations of Divine Love by the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich. The knights’ pleas that they go to Paradise are answered by Julian’s comforting words: “at the last day, you shall see it all transformed into great joy”.

Mystical Experiences

Next Concert – Saturday 25 October 7.30pm

St Saviour’s Church
St Albans

The centrepiece of this musical exploration of religious mysticism is the spectacular 40-part motet Spem in alium by the 16th century English composer, Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 1585), considered to be one of the greatest of all Renaissance choral works.  In his masterpiece, Tallis makes wonderful use of the space created between the eight, five-part choirs, often interweaving the 40 different parts to create a glorious tapestry of sound that gives the listener an insight into the devotional zeal which inspired the work.

In the generation before Tallis, the Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (c. 1450/55 – 1521), was considered the greatest composer of his time. His remarkable 24-part composition Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi entrances the ear with its intricate vocal patterns that seem to pivot around a single chord.

Many commentators hear a mystical intensity in the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, (1548 – 1611), the most famous composer of the Spanish “Golden Age”. Perhaps this is no surprise seeing that he was an ordained priest as well as a composer, and his religious conviction shines throughout all his work.  This is evident in his Missa Laetatus sum for 12-part choir, renowned for its passionate fervour and published in 1600 when Victoria was at the height of his powers.

Religious experience continues to inspire composers today, and the programme includes Woefully Arrayed, a piece by the choir’s musical director, John Gibbons,  in which he sets a powerful meditation of Christ on the Cross attributed to the Tudor poet John Skelton, and Jonathan Dove’s settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, The Far Theatricals of Day.