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Ancient & Modern Poster

Hallgr�mskirkja, Reykjav�k

Ancient & Modern
Saturday 22 June 2013
St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

Christopher Finch - Conductor
Nigel Nash - Organ


Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)





  • J S Bach
  • Prelude in Eb, BWV 552 (organ)










 

Programme Notes

H Schütz: Selig sind die Toten; Die Himmel erzählen

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is regarded by contemporary scholars as one of the most influential and pioneering composers of the 17th century, and is also considered to be Germany's preeminent composer before J. S. Bach. Schütz's compositions show the influence of his two most significant teachers, Monteverdi and Gabrieli. They are characterised by frequent use of imitation between vocal parts that enter at irregular intervals, and by melodic interplay that results in colourful harmonic progressions that only fully resolve at carefully crafted cadences. Selig sind die Toten is taken from the Geistliche Chormusik, published in 1648, apparently written to encourage others to write without the use of continuo. It is a richly sonorous work, full of vivid contrasts. The serenity and stillness of 'for they rest' is perfected juxtaposed with the energetic counterpoint of 'for their deeds follow them'. The motet Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes is a highly complex work that concludes his Musikalische Exequien, written in 1636 for the funeral of Prince Heinrich Posthumus of Reuss. The exuberance of Psalm 19 is captured with apt rapture in this great song of praise and thanksgiving. 

W Byrd: Ne Irascaris Domine

William Byrd (c. 1543-1623) is a significant musical figure whose importance to this country's cultural landscape is summarised by the historian Paul Henry Lang as follows: "After Shakespeare, Byrd is without a doubt the most imposing figure of the English Renaissance, towering above all his contemporaries." Byrd held strong Roman Catholic beliefs; his wife was cited for recusancy and his associations with other high-profile Catholics led to his temporary suspension from the Chapel Royal. However he was held in high esteem by the Queen Elizabeth (herself an accomplished keyboard-player) and remained relatively secure in his position at the Chapel Royal until his death. In the Queen's own words, he managed to succeed in being both "a stiff papist and a good subject" during such perilous times. Ne irascaris, Domine was published in 1589, at a time when Catholics throughout England must have felt desperate and victimised. This motet is among a group of Latin anthems that describe the fall of Jerusalem and are often interpreted as a metaphor for the plight of the Roman church in England during these turbulent times. Byrd employs the five voices in contrasting groups of three and four in a manner derived from the contemporary madrigal. The anthem has been heralded for its balance of drama and prayerful restraint, with beautiful homophony alternating with inspired polyphony.

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J D Zelenka: Nisi Dominus

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 - 1745), born in Bohemia, began his employment at the Dresden court in 1711 as a double bass player. By the 1720s, he had achieved the title of court composer, and often acted as the Kapellmeister J.D. Heinichen's deputy, especially as the latter often suffered from ill health. He might therefore reasonably have expected to succeed to the post of Kapellmeister when Heinichen died in 1729. But his hopes were thwarted. The court did not find his sometimes dark and intense compositional style to its liking, and he was passed over for the post. Although he tried hard during the 1730s to amend his style to be more in line with the galant idiom that the court had come to expect, his talents were never fully recognised. He died in 1745, in all probability a bitter and disappointed man. During the 1720s, Zelenka began assembling great collections of all the music required for the office of Vespers: psalm settings, Magnificats, hymns and Marian antiphons. From these collections a Kapellmeister could then select whichever items were required for any given day or feast. This setting of the psalm Nisi Dominus is part of one of these collections, and was composed around 1726. It well illustrates Zelenka's bold and imaginative use of harmony and chromaticism, with its pungent dissonances and also moments of great lyricism. The whole setting is based on an ostinato, a repeated pattern of notes, played in unison, which is virtually unremitting until the final bars of the piece. By this means, the Dresden congregation was perhaps encouraged to reflect on the necessity of the unchanging support of God in all things ('Unless the Lord build the house, those that build it labour in vain').

J S Bach: Vom Himmel hoch

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) started his 27-year tenure as Kapellmeister for the main churches of Leipzig in the summer of 1723. For his first major festival in his new position, he composed his first large-scale Leipzig work - the Magnificat in E-flat major, BWV 243a, which was performed on Christmas Day. Ten years later, in 1733, Bach revised the Magnificat, most significantly transposing it to D major, a more traditional and easy key for trumpets. In Leipzig, the Magnificat was customarily sung during the service of Vespers in German, except on high feasts when it was sung in Latin and set to polyphony. Since medieval times, the Magnificat was sung with interpolations of so-called Laudes, which are Liturgical appropriate hymns (in this case, for Christmas). Bach adopted this local practice for his setting of the Magnificat by writing settings of these four 'hymns', albeit only including them in the appendix. The first Vom Himmel hoch was instructed to be performed after the second movement. Eminent musicologist Robert L. Marshall claims that these movements do not share a stylistic unity with the rest of the Magnificat. In his view, the interpolations are intentionally a pastiche of former historical styles of choral music. For example "Von Himmel hoch" is an a capella chorale cantus-firmus motet in the strict stile antico.

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J S Bach: Prelude and Fugue in Eb (organ)

Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat major was included in Part III of his Clavier-Übung (literally "Keyboard-Practice") which was first published in September 1739. It is generally considered to be one of his finest and most noble organ works. The Prelude is framed by a section based on dotted rhythms and ornamentation, which also reappears several times in the middle of the piece. There are interludes between these sections making use of the contrasting sounds of the different manuals on the organ, and with many running semiquaver passages to contrast with the weightier opening.

Paul Mealor: Ubi Caritas

Paul Mealor (b.1975) is establishing a reputation as one of the most admired of contemporary choral composers, producing music of a deep and heartfelt spirituality. Having studied composition from an early age he now teaches at the University of Aberdeen, and elsewhere. In 2011 he was catapulted to fame when 2.5 billion people (the largest audience in broadcasting history) heard his Motet, Ubi caritas sung at the Royal Wedding of HRH Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey. The piece, adapted from an earlier secular one at the specific request of the couple, draws on the composer's expertise in both Renaissance and modern choral technique (there is also religious symbolism in the layout of the score, another Renaissance device). The rich yet delicate harmonies enhance the simplicity and power of the ancient Latin words which, referring to divine as well as human love, are particularly appropriate for a wedding.

John Tavener: 5 anthems from The Veil of the Temple

Sir John Tavener (b.1944) began as a prodigy; in 1968, at the age of 24, he was described by The Guardian as "the musical discovery of the year", while The Times said he was "among the very best creative talents of his generation". As the years progressed his music became increasingly spiritual in conception, contemplative in its idiom, and popular with audiences worldwide. In 1977 he joined the Orthodox Church which was a major inspiration on his work for the following two decades. In 1997, the performance of Song for Athene at the close of Princess Diana's funeral showed that the profound effect of his music reached far beyond just the concert-going public. Knighted in 2000, his music has since taken on a more Universalist approach, which embraces a diverse range of musical, cultural and religious influences. Tavener wrote The Veil of the Temple for performance in the Temple Church in London in 2003. The whole work, which lasts seven hours or more, has been described as a majestic all-night journey from darkness into light. From this epic work the composer later published a set of five anthems to draw upon some of the most memorable and touching moments.

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H Purcell: Hear my prayer; Remember not, Lord, our offences

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) grew up in the English church, as a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal and, once his voice had broken, as organ tuner and copyist at Westminster Abbey. In 1679, he succeeded his teacher John Blow as organist of the Abbey, and in 1682 he became one of the organists of the Chapel Royal. Both these posts, and indeed his involvement with the court's musical establishment before 1682, required him to compose sacred music. The anthem Hear my prayer, O Lord, which dates from the early 1680s, is a setting for eight-part choir of the first verse of the penitential Psalm 102. It is no more than a fragment: for some unknown and unfathomable reason, the composer's manuscript breaks off at the first double bar, with a blank space after it. The piece is based on just two phrases, which are used to create a single span of music gradually increasing in tension towards a powerful climax. Remember not, Lord, our offences was also composed around 1680 and makes highly effective use of harmony, discord, word-setting, and drama, in a piece of music shorter than the first movements of many of his other sacred works. The first and last phrases are homophonic and prayer-like, while the central section is contrapuntal, each phrase representing a new point of imitation overlapping the previous one.

T Tallis: O sacrum convivium

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) lived in a time of considerable political and religious volatility. During his career he witnessed the reign of four monarchs with vastly differing theological convicitions. Fortunately, it appears that Tallis was equally adept at writing for the Catholic and Anglican liturgies. His setting of O sacrum convivium comes from a volume of Cantiones published jointly with Byrd in 1575 under exclusive royal licence. It has been surmised that Queen Elizabeth had hoped that the publication would raise England's musical profile across the continent, for which the choice of Latin texts would be essential. Even considering this, O sacrum convivium is a strikingly Catholic piece, with its use of a Thomas Aquinas text from the liturgy of Corpus Christi, a feast outlawed by the English Prayer book. The work's genius is in its communication of the spiritual intensity of the text. Its close-knit five-part texture, masterful use of rising sequential motivic treatment and skilful control of tessitura bring the work to a staggering emotional climax.

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Gabriel Jackson: O sacrum convivium

Gabriel Jackson (b.1962) began his musical training as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and later studied composition at the Royal College of Music. His music is now widely recorded, and regularly performed and broadcast around the world. Many of his pieces reflect an interest in medi�val techniques and ideas, and are made of simple melodies, chords, drones, and ostinatos. The composer says, "I try to write music that is clean and clear in line, texture, and structure. [My pieces] are not about conflict and resolution; even when animated, they are essentially contemplative. I like repetition and 'ritualised' structures". O sacrum convivium was commissioned by Andrew Millington, then organist of Guildford Cathedral, for the 1990 Guildford and Portsmouth Cathedrals' Festival. As the piece was to be sung by the combined forces of two cathedral choirs, Jackson decided to take advantage of the potentially massive resultant sonority by dividing the score, at some moments, into ten parts. The piece is predominantly quiet and meditative, with a resplendent climax at 'et futurae gloriae'.

H Howells: Psalm Prelude Set 2 No 3 (organ)

Herbert Howells composed two sets of Psalm Preludes. The third Psalm-Prelude of the second set was completed in London on June 27th 1939, and is inscribed "For Percy C. Hull", who was then organist of Hereford Cathedral. It is marked 'Allegro (non troppo) ma giocoso' (Not too fast but joyful) and is a commentary on Psalm 33, verse 3: 'Sing unto Him a new song: play skilfully with a loud noise'. The opening section unfolds with very energetic rhythms reminiscent of Walton, starting with a most outrageous blues chord and using a mode of C where the fourth note is often sharpened and the seventh flattened, a mode used increasingly by Howells in some of his later organ pieces. Towards the end of this section there is a rather perky tune on the Tuba, before a gradual diminuendo leads into a quieter and slightly slower middle section. Although softer, the rhythmic momentum is maintained, the music gathers volume and speed until an allargando leads to a modified restatement of the first section, but in D major. The extended coda reverts to C for its tonal centre, before building up to end "with a loud noise", as the Psalmist directs.

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James MacMillan: The Gallant Weaver

James MacMillan (b.1959) was raised in Cumnock, North Ayrshire and studied composition at the University of Edinburgh and Durham University. James MacMillan has produced acclaimed works in various genres - symphonic, concerto, opera, theatre, sacred and choral. His huge successes place him easily among the leading Scottish composers of recent times. 1990 was a watershed time for MacMillan: that year his theatrical piece Búsqueda (1988) was introduced at the Edinburgh International Festival, and his orchestral work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was premiered at a Proms concert, both events catapulting him to national as well as international notice. The latter opus and his percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel are probably MacMillan's most popular large works. MacMillan's style incorporates some modernist characteristics, but on the whole his relatively approachable melodic and rhythmic invention and his gift for imaginative scoring, place his style well within the accessible range. In fact, much of his compositional style is strongly influenced by traditional Scottish folk music. The Gallant Weaver, composed in 1997, is rich in Scottish flavour, appropriate to its Robert Burns text. Characteristic vocal elements are the ornamental inflections drawn from Scottish folk music and Gaelic Psalmody, and the overall mood is one of tranquillity. Distinctive colourings of the voice parts are explored through triple divisions of the sopranos above rich sonorities in the lower parts.

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Pawel Lukaszewski: Nunc Dimittis

Pawel Lukaszewski (b.1968) has been at the forefront of the vibrant and progressive musical scene that has developed in Poland since the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of the towering musical and cultural figure of that generation, Witold Lutoslawski. Lukaszewski's individual compositional style has been appreciated and lauded throughout Europe for many years. However, his rich harmonic language, shimmering choral textures, and ability to encapsulate the expressive essence of a text have only recently been brought to the national consciousness in the UK through the quasi-evangelical promotion of his work by acclaimed British maestro Stephen Layton, whose inimitable recordings of Lukaszewki's choral works have received many plaudits. It is to this maestro and his peerless choir at Trinity College Cambridge, that this Nunc dimittis is dedicated. The canticle of Simeon has provided a rich source of inspiration for many composers across the centuries. Lukaszewski's eloquent setting focuses on the image of enlightenment, of promises fulfilled and of works complete, through radiant shimmering sound. A sense of awe and wonder is present in each and every note. The constant diminuendo during the final repeated section paints the image of Simeon's departure from this earthly life in hope and eternal peace.

Patrick Gowers: Viri Galilæi

Stephanie Williams joins Nigel Nash at the organ.

Patrick Gowers (b.1936) is best known as a composer of music for television and films, but his large output also contains several sacred choral works, of which the Ascensiontide anthem Viri Galilæi is the best known. Gowers paints a vividly dramatic and emotional picture of the Ascension of Jesus: one can almost visualize the scene as the dumbfounded apostles gaze up in amazement while high-pitched swirling organ figurations and ethereal overlapping choral 'Alleluias' convey the literal other-worldliness of what they are witnessing. Gradually the chordal writing for the choir assumes a more solid, less disembodied character, and the music becomes punchier and more rhythmic ('God is gone up with a merry noise'). The build-up continues inexorably, leading to a thrilling glissando on the full organ and an elated verse of Christopher Wordsworth's Ascension hymn 'See the Conqueror mounts in triumph', underpinned by a jazzy, propulsive organ part and dramatically interspersed with forceful 'Alleluias' and the swirling organ figurations heard at the start, but now louder and more prominent. After this, the music gradually subsides into the mystical mood of the opening and eventually disappears into nothing.

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