Peter Leech Conductor
Charlotte Newstead Soprano
Stephen Foulkes Baritone
Nigel Nash Organ
“MUSIC FROM FRANCE IS A REAL DELIGHT”
“For their summer concert, Bristol Bach Choir presented a programme of French
choral music from the 19th and 20th centuries, under the title ‘In Paradisum’.
Two delightful Gounod pieces were beautifully sung with a nice balance whilst Fauré's Ecce Fidelis, with its intricate harmonies, wasn't any problem for the choir.
The layout for Fauré's Requiem, with the men in the front, gave a well-balanced sound and the whole performance was fresh and vivid.
Particularly impressive were the Agnus Dei and the soulful In Paradisum. Charlotte Newstead (soprano) sang Pie Jesu with touching purity whilst Stephen Foulkes (baritone) showed his usual confidence in his solos.
The soprano returned after the interval with three interesting short songs by Langlais and the female members of the choir sang two attractive pieces by the same composer.
After this Nigel Nash, the proficient accompanist throughout, played the rousing Third Movement from Guilmant's Organ Sonata in D Minor with great skill.
Langlais' Messe Solennelle is full of emotional intensity. After a long organ introduction, there was the Kyrie with its unusual chord structure.
Peter Leech the superb conductor controlled his forces with great aplomb throughout the imaginative evening.”
(JOHN PACKWOOD, Bristol Evening Post - 30th June 2008)
(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)
|Charles Gounod||Ave verum corpus
|Gabriel Fauré||Ecce Fidelis|
|Déodat de Séverac||Tantum ergo|
|Jean Langlais||Trois prières (Charlotte Newstead, soprano)
- Ave verum (Je vous salue)
- Ave maris stella (Salut étoile)
- Tantum ergo (Devant un si grand Sacrement)
|David Bednall||Salve Regina|
- Dessus les sables
- Le lin
|Alexandre Guilmant||Organ Sonata in D minor Op.42 (3rd movement) (Nigel Nash - organ)|
This programme of predominantly French sacred music from the late 19th and 20th centuries showcases two major works, Jean Langlais’ Messe Solennelle and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Interspersed with these masses will be shorter sacred works, included to set the larger works in context but also to demonstrate elements of musical forces at work in Paris before, during and after the period of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1). That earth-shattering event, during which the young Fauré served in the light infantry of the Imperial Guard, saw Paris besieged and starved, and the end of the monarchy in France, but it also heralded a new (albeit slightly unstable) period of republicanism which brought new developments in music, art, literature and the establishment of new institutions within which these cultural spheres increasingly flourished.
In the last 500 years of Western musical traditions Fauré’s Requiem stands as an iconic, landmark setting of the liturgy for the dead, held in equal esteem with requiems by composers such as Victoria, Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Duruflé. Greatly loved by audiences and choirs in equal measure, the secrets of the work’s success are varied: it is not overly long, the passion of the text is economically delivered yet always harmonically interesting, it can be sung by parish choirs accompanied by organ as well as large philharmonic choruses and orchestras, and it creates a maximum dramatic effect with a minimum of notational fuss and bother. In this last sense the work is typically French, the product of a cultured musician from the upper classes of society, educated at the elite, newly-established École Niedermeyer but also aware of the tastes of the wider Parisian public and who knew the success which could be achieved when a composer remained true to his instincts.
The Paris in which Fauré grew up was a political and artistic melting pot where composers, literary figures and artists came to terms with post-revolutionary (and post-Prussian conquest) cultural influences. Along the way many musicians suffered greatly for their support or rejection of dominant new forces sweeping Europe, represented in Germany chiefly by the neo-classicists of the Leipzig school such as Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, as opposed to the school of Richard Wagner. By the time Fauré had reached the age of 21, French music had polarised along the lines of pro- and anti-Wagnerians, but alongside these factions smaller movements developed, particularly in the realm of church music, rejected utterly by Wagner and his adherents as the archaic detritus of ancien regime Europe. Composers in Germany who continued to write for the church fell largely into the neo-classical stream, the style of their music being heavily influenced largely by Lutheran or Catholic aesthetics.
In France, where the state had been thoroughly secularised and where Catholic liturgical music suffered greatly in the wake of Napoleon, many composers felt the need to align themselves with the Saint Cecilia movement, a broad philosophical school dedicated to the rediscovery of early Catholic liturgy, preserving its use in contemporary religious life, and to making Latin church music accessible to the very smallest Parishes where it had almost become extinct by the 1840s. The pleadings of the Cecilians would ultimately be heard when works by their protagonists were ratified by Pope Pius IX in 1870 and Pius X in 1903 who called for the revival of choral foundations.
The first church music which Fauré probably heard as a child in Paris in the late 1850s would have been masses and motets by composers of the school around Charles Gounod. In his operas Gounod had been strongly influenced by Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini (who had retired to Paris in 1855) and Giuseppe Verdi. Although he received wide acclaim for Faust, many of Gounod’s other operas suffered at the hands of the critics. Paul Scudo famously but quite unfairly remarked that there was ‘more style in Verdi’s Rigoletto than in all the works of Gounod’! Gounod’s conscientiously conservative sacred works, many of which (the St. Cecilia Mass being an important example) achieved enormous popularity in his day, satisfied the desire of Cecilian advocates for beauty and sincerity in church music. The short but unashamedly ‘heart on sleeve’ settings of the Ave verum corpus and Ave Maria typify certain ideals of Cecilian musicians for a straight-forward musical language which communicated the essences of the text without too much complex counterpoint. Gounod’s homophonic (block-chord) progressions can be mastered by choirs with limited forces and abilities, but it was precisely their simplicity which made them accessible to a wide variety of musical environments. In this sense Gounod’s Ave verum, in particular, seems to draw inspiration from Mozart’s simplesetting, one which was widely celebrated in the nineteenth century not only as one of the last musical offerings from the pen of a genius, butalso because it demonstrated Mozart’s ability to communicate deeply held beliefs at the very simplest level of musical expression,another precept which the Cecilian movement held in high esteem. Gounod rarely pushed the stylistic envelope of his church music (though thereare brief but notable harmonic exceptions in some of his masses) but if we consider his efforts in this genre as being typical of Parisian parish church music in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, we gain an understanding of music in Faure’s early life, and also how revolutionary his church music would be in comparison.
That being said, many of Fauré’s shorter functional sacred works composed for churches where he served as organist and/or choirmaster (St. Sauveur, 1866-70, St. Sulpice, 1871-74 and Madeleine, 1877-1905) are very much in the Gounod tradition, yet they also demonstrate the beginnings of a unique harmonic language, where standard or anticipated harmonic progressions are often embellished with distinctive nuances, such as in the early settings of Tu es Petrus (c.1872) and Ecce fidelis (Opus 54), an offertory for the feast of St. Joseph dating from 1889. Taking into account the forces available and vocal ability of the choirs for whom they were written, these works are not technically demanding, but there are colourful corners, such as when Fauré propels the tenors into a heartfelt and modulating ‘Justus germinabit’ with a pulsating quasi-operatic accompaniment typical of Gounod and Rossini, underpinned by an angular organ pedal line. It was the sort of subtle tonal colouring for which he had already become well-known with the much-loved Cantique de Jean Racine, a work which earned him the Premier Prix for composition at the École Niedermeyer in 1865. The St. Sulpice evidently employed a talented baritone in the choir since both Tu es Petrus and the Libera me (later incorporated into the Requiem) were composed during Fauré’s time there.
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Fauré once said of Déodat de Séverac that he ‘has something to say, and says it quite simply. Many people have nothing to say, and do their utmost to disguise the vacuum'. The son of an aristocratic family from Saint Felix de Lauraguais, Séverac spent three years as a law student at Toulouse University, with concurrent studies in piano and harmony as preparation for entering the prestigious Paris Schola Cantorum in 1893. His main teacher there was Vincent d'Indy, who encouraged him to experiment with all genres. Séverac's output therefore includes songs, organ music, theatre music, orchestral pieces and sacred choral works, but apart from a short setting of Ave verum corpus, Tantum ergo is one of the few church compositions which are now firmly established in choral repertoire. The text (from a Eucharistic poem by Thomas Aquinas) seems to have been particularly popular with French composers - Duruflé, Fauré and Poulenc all composed settings - possibly because it can be used as an ideal motet for communion and at other places in the liturgy for the Mass.
The Requiem, begun around 1888, was not composed for a specific person but, as is often quoted, ‘for the pleasure of it', though it has been argued that the death of Fauré's father (1885) and mother (1887) may have prompted ideas for some of the movements. The work is essentially an amalgam of earlier items (Offertoire, 1889, Libera me, 1877) juxtaposed with the torso composed in 1888-9, with In Paradisum probably added slightly later. In its original small-scale parish arrangement for accompaniment with organ and a handful of string and wind instruments, the work continued to be performed at the Madeleine until the end of the century, but it was substantially revised for publication and there are at least three major versions of the whole, as well as numerous alternative versions of individual movements. The first performance of the components we recognise today took place in January 1893 for the funeral of one M. Joseph Le Soufaché. It is undoubtedly the combination of a powerful opening (brought back at the conclusion of the Agnus Dei) with the divine simplicity of the Pie Jesu and uplifting ethereal quality of the In Paradisum which evokes the strongest responses to this work. Departing dramatically from the texts and aesthetic expectations of standard funeral liturgy, Fauré incorporates only a fraction of the long sequence beginning with Dies irae, and the Sanctus, used so-often in earlier Requiems to reinforce the dread majesty of earlier movements, is instead a bright, hopeful episode in E flat major.
Amongst the smaller works Langlais composed for the St. Clotilde are three short settings of the Ave verum, Ave maris stella and Tantum Ergo in French for soprano and organ, written for the singer Marie-Louise Colozier. Here the beauty and serenity of the vocal line is underpinned by Langlais' characteristic harmonic approaches, quite often with parallel fourths or fifths in the bass line (a technique also used between vocal parts in the mass) portraying an organum-like quality (the early medieval technique of adding a second line to the chant at the fourth or fifth interval). Whereas in organum contemporary theorists were at pains to enforce avoidance of the tritone (or augmented fourth) inevitably encountered at certain intervallic steps in diatonic scales, for Langlais the ‘devilish' interval not only becomes an integral part of his harmonic language but is continually exploited in various guises throughout these three serenely beautiful works.
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In 2007 Jean Langlais' widow Marie-Louise Langlais established a small centenary festival in France in honour of his life and music. One of the organists and conductors at the festival, Colin Spinks, commissioned composer David Bednall, formerly organ scholar at Queen's College, Oxford and Assistant Organist at Wells Cathedral (now studying for a PhD in composition at Bristol University) to compose a short motet for one of the festival concerts. Using the most popular version of the Salve Regina chant as a basis, Bednall explores the many tonal possibilities inspired by the melody, as well as capturing many essences of Langlais' style in this rich and highly expressive setting. Bednall's choral compositions have been premiered by several leading British choirs, including Wells Cathedral Choir, Exon Singers and Choir of Queen's College Oxford.
Marie-Louise Langlais kindly consented to the inclusion of two of Jean Langlais' little-known chanson settings for female choir in this programme.
Felix Alexandre Guilmant was born in Boulogne in 1837 where he first learnt the organ from his father and became a church organist at the age of 16. He then studied with the renowned Belgian virtuoso Lemmens and soon became one of the leading figures of the French Romantic organ school. From 1871 to 1901 he was organist of La Trinité in Paris, which possessed one of the finest organs built by Cavaillé-Coll. His compositions are almost entirely for organ and consist of 8 sonatas written while he was at La Trinité. The sonata-form finale of the 1st sonata, Allegro assai, uses two themes, an opening toccata-like figure and a second chorale-like theme which provides a contrast to the toccata. After an extended development, involving a gradual shift from minor to major, the chorale theme finally emerges triumphant in the massive final section. [Programme note NN]
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There could not be a more stark contrast to Fauré's Requiem than the Messe Solenelle by Langlais (first published in 1952), but if we had time to perform the Requiem by Duruflé in between, the natural stylistic development of French music from the late 1880s to mid-20th century would be more readily portrayed. Blind from the age of two, Langlais' musical talents were recognised early in his life and he studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Paul Dukas and Messiaen, both of whom had been heavily influenced by Nadia Boulanger, herself a pupil of Fauré at the Conservatoire. From 1945 Langlais worked as organist at St. Clotilde in Paris, for whom he composed some of the most extraordinary choral works amongst the best composers of French sacred music of the second half of the century.
A wide variety of influences seem to be suggested in this mass, whether in the form of Poulenc's use of polytonality,
Messiaen's modal modulations and blatant structural dissonances, or Durufle's elaborations of traditional chant
melodies, yet there is no doubt that the style is unique to Langlais and reliant on written-out improvisation.
The final section of the Kyrie, with its wild angular shifts forward and backward from common chord pivots is truly
extraordinary, as are the tonally-mystifying and improvisation-based organ ritornelli which give few easy clues for
subsequent choral entries. The Gloria opens with the basses singing a modal melody which, again in improvisatory
style, is catapulted into another dimension with an organ interjection, after which accidentals are successively added
until the original idea is increasingly obscured by a blurred tonal patina, just as an artist might mix brighter primary
oil colours with darker impurities to create the right effect for shading. The Agnus Dei is perhaps the most
eerie of the five movements with its' dark organ introduction followed by choral parts entering from the bass upwards,
as if depicting the unfolding of the petals of a large black orchid in a time-lapse film. Choral statements often end
with common chords which are immediately obliterated by organ entries that seemingly emanate from another world,
the only linking tonal factors being the occasional sustained bass pedal line. Vocal ranges in the Messe Solenelle
are tested to the limit, and fractured time signatures contribute added elements of difficulty in this work which renders
challenging offerings by Duruflé and Louis Vierne in the same genre as appearing comparatively straight-forward.
The extent to which Langlais tests the limits of the aesthetic framework of the Latin mass, whilst not being necessarily
universally admired, are certainly individual and there is no doubt that this work is one of the great mass settings in
20th century western choral music.
© Peter Leech 2008
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(soprano) read music at the University of Bristol,
graduating with a Masters Degree with distinction in Early Music. She was involved in an international
project to transcribe and publish the complete works of sixteenth-century French court composer, Eustache du Caurroy,
and subsequently her transcriptions have been recorded by the Choir of New College, Oxford under Edward Higginbottom.
Since graduating she has built a career as a concert soprano in the West of England, appearing with all the major groups and at all the major venues of the area including St George's Brandon Hill, Bristol Cathedral, Clifton Cathedral, Bristol's Colston Hall and Bath Abbey. Recent performances have also taken her to Snape Maltings and to London to St Martin in the Fields, The Temple Church and Greenwich Theatre as well as recital work in France, and she has also given a live recital on Classic FM.
A specialist in the early repertoire, she is equally comfortable with more modern styles and has had several pieces written for her. Her wide experience of the oratorio repertoire extends from Bach, Handel and Vivaldi to Mozart, Poulenc, Orff and Copland. Operatic roles include Dido in Purcells' Dido & Aeneas, Vespina in Haydn's L'infedelta delusa and Lucy in Menotti's The Telephone.
Charlotte teaches Music Theory and Music History in the lifelong learning department of The University of Bristol. She also teaches singing both privately and at Badminton and Henbury Schools in Bristol and she sings every week at the Lord Mayor's Chapel in Bristol.
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(baritone) sang for ten years as a lay-clerk in Bristol Cathedral Choir,
with whom he toured extensively throughout Europe and in the USA. He is currently bass vicar-choral with Wells Cathedral
Choir. A regular soloist with choral societies around the UK, he has made many broadcasts and recordings. His extensive
repertoire includes works by Bach, Dvorak, Tavener and Finzi in venues as varied as Cologne, Amsterdam, New York and
Nymberg in the Czech Republic.
His recent performances in the UK have included Handel's Messiah in Edinburgh, London and Bath; Bach's St Matthew Passion in Truro Cathedral and St John Passion in Llandaff Cathedral; Cantata 140 Wachet auf! in York Minster; Verdi's Requiem in The Concert Hall, Reading; the role of Pater Ecstaticus in Mahler's monumental 8th Symphony for the Bath Festival; and Stanford's Songs of the Sea for the Cherwell Singers of Oxford. He was also guest soloist with the Silver Ring Choir of Bath on a tour of the Far East and New Zealand.
Future plans include performances of Messiah in Bristol Cathedral; Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the Oratorio Society in Wells Cathedral and in North Devon; Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem in Aberystwyth, Five Mystical Songs for Taunton Choral Society, and the Sea Symphony for the Chiswick Choir; and Duruflé Requiem for the Langlais Festival in Brittany. In addition to his concert work, Stephen has sung as principal in opera ranging from Monteverdi to Britten, and he has regularly appeared as judge and recitalist in competitions for song composers under the auspices of of the English Poetry and Song Society.
Outside music his interests are mainly water-based, thanks to a previous occupation as a police frogman, and sailing his Wanderer dinghy around Cornwall and the Lake District is his favourite relaxation. The waterside pubs are also a great attraction! He enjoys horse-riding and has had a book published on the history of the Mounted Police in Bristol to mark their recent centenary.
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