Gavin Carr Conductor
Nigel Nash Organ / piano
The concert steered a course through the unaccompanied choral music of two of the most interesting
periods of English music: the Tudor and the twentieth century. Some of the music is frequently performed,
and some more rarely; but each piece in its own way explores the boundaries of the style within which it was written,
and each is a sincere and imaginative response by the composer to the words which he was trying to express in sound.
From the Tudor period we had religious pieces by Parsons and Byrd representing both Catholic and Protestant traditions, and in the second half, a set of five secular pieces by Dowland and Byrd indicative of the great range of moods to be found in this repertory.
From the twentieth century we had the wonderfully expressive and moving Mass in G Minor by Vaughan Williams, and three very different pieces written for the Anglican choral tradition by Harris, Leighton and Wood.
The two periods have more in common than one might think - both feature music in Latin as well as English, and also, as could be heard, music of the Tudor period was a major influence and inspiration to the later composers in terms of general approach to word-setting as well as in the harmonies and textures used.
As a change from unaccompanied Choral singing Nigel Nash played music by two of the greats of the twentieth-century English organ loft: Leighton and Howells.
Finally, to represent the continuation of the tradition, we were proud to be able to present the world première of Paul Carr's ‘Now comes beauty', after which, appropriately we trust, the concert was named.
(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)
Agnus Dei (from Mass for Four Voices)
I will not leave you comfortless
|Howells||Master Tallis' Testament (Nigel Nash - Organ)|
|Vaughan Williams||Mass in G Minor|
|Dowland||Go, crystal tears
Fine knacks for ladies
Come, heavy sleep
Come again, sweet love
|Byrd||Though Amarillis dance in green|
|Leighton||Sonatina No 2 (Nigel Nash - Piano)|
|Harris||Faire is the Heaven|
|Leighton||Drop, drop, slow tears|
|Carr||Now comes beauty (World première)|
|Wood||Hail, gladdening light!|
Not much is known of the life of Robert Parsons. It is quite possible that he taught William Byrd at Lincoln, and he was certainly associated with the Chapel Royal before being appointed a Gentleman of that institution in 1563. His death was unusual: according to evidence of the time he fell into the swollen river Trent at Newark on a cold and wet day in January 1572 and was drowned. A contemporary at the Chapel Royal, Robert Dow, left this eulogy:
Qui tantus primo, Parsone, in flore fuisti
Quantus in autumno ni morerere fores?
Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life,
How great you would have been in the autumn, had not death intervened?
Byrd took his place as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.
A surprising amount of his music has survived considering that it was not much performed after his untimely demise. He wrote sacred music in both English and Latin, as well as secular and instrumental music. Parsons was clearly a very competent composer, using mostly a more purely polyphonic style than Byrd. ‘Ave Maria', perhaps his best known work, is a good example. With its Marian text, it may well have been written during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558). It is laid out in five parts, and is subtly based around a simple plainsong melody, which appears in the top part at different pitches and with different rhythms, and which gradually integrates with the rest of the texture. With a little attention the listener can hear this process, picking out the long-held notes followed by a little rhythmic figure until, on ‘fructus ventris tui', the top part is stylistically similar to the other four. There follows one of the most beautiful Amens in all Tudor music.
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Two settings of the text ‘Haec Dies' by Byrd have survived: one in five parts printed in the collection Gradualia in 1605,
and the present setting in six parts, printed in Cantiones Sacrae volume 2 in 1591. This is one of Byrd's most
extrovert as well as one of his greatest motets.
The piece is in three easily-identified sections. The first opens with a happy forward-moving theme which appears successively in each of the parts.
The second section sets the words ‘exultemus et laetemur' in a dance-like triple time which features complex cross-rhythms.
The third and final section, the longest, is an extended ‘Alleluia' which has been described as ‘dazzling' - not a word normally associated with church music, but very appropriate here.
In the estimation of many knowledgeable musicians, this is one of the most perfect pieces of polyphony ever written,
with every note perfectly in its place within both its melodic line and also the harmony of the piece, which moves
forward gently but inevitably towards its serene end. Key to understanding the music is the concept of the device known
as suspension, in which a note from one chord is held on into the next creating a small knot of tension which is then released.
At the beginning Byrd avoids suspensions except to articulate the ends of the phrases; but in the final dona nobis pacem
they appear more and more, making this a heartfelt plea for peace, focusing more on the human plea than the divine peace.
Listen out for the simple but beautiful opening, which uses just the top two parts; and of course for the final ‘dona nobis pacem'.
This is one of Byrd's shorter English anthems, unpublished during his lifetime, and not often performed now; but a
lovely example of the composer's imagination and craftsmanship. The words come from John's Gospel, chapter 14, where
Jesus, before the crucifixion, talks of his departure and return, and tells of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
These words were normally read on the Sunday after Ascension Day: the anthem was probably intended to be sung then.
The piece is written in five parts - we are singing it this evening as two soprano parts, and one each of alto, tenor and bass, although Byrd would probably not have thought of the choral layout in this way. Interestingly, Byrd integrates the word Alleluia with the rest of the text, so that the opening contains two different themes, a rising motif for I will not leave you comfortless balanced by a falling motif for the Alleluia. As is usual in Byrd, each motif is constantly varied, giving a feeling of continuous development. After a more homophonic section on ‘And your heart shall rejoice' the final, lovely ‘alleluia' of the piece uses a new motif which combines elements of both the first themes.
Possibly the greatest of Byrd's English anthems: as with many of them, it was unpublished in his lifetime.
It is written in six parts with a preponderance of upper voices - we are performing it with two each of
soprano and alto, and one each of tenor and bass parts. This gives the choral sound a brightness well fitting its subject.
Byrd's subtlety in setting English words is well shown in Sing Joyfully. Each phrase is carefully arranged so that the music mirrors the meaning: thus and bring forth the timbrel is a forthright instruction, the pleasant harp and the viol features pleasantly flowing quavers, blow the trumpet is martial, and a law of the God of Zion is just a little stern; and yet the whole piece holds miraculously together.
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Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, and studied first with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral.
A concert in the Cathedral in September 1910 included the premiere of a new work by the then little-known composer
Ralph Vaughan Williams. Howells not only met the composer that evening, but the piece, the
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, profoundly moved him. He later studied at the Royal College of Music
under Stanford, Parry and Charles Wood.
This organ piece was one of Howells' personal favourites and was written in 1940 as part of a set of Six Pieces for Organ. In its modal nature, it pays obvious homage to the Tudor composer Tallis, but also shows the influence of his teachers and Vaughan Williams, whose Mass in G minor which follows is in the same key. Master Tallis' Testament is in three sections, the first two developing the opening theme in a gentle and understated way, before the third section becomes increasingly bold and leads to a powerful climax. A short coda returns to the peaceful mood of the opening.
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In the early 1920s, partly no doubt as a reaction to his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the
First World War, Vaughan Williams turned to writing music expressing an English pastoral mood. Works from this time
include ‘The Lark Ascending', the Third Symphony (the Pastoral), the operas ‘The Shepherds of the
Delectable Mountains' and ‘Sir John in Love', and the Mass in G minor. All these works are
characterised generally by a search for beauty of melody, avoidance of too much conflict, use of consonant
harmonies, and reliance for musical as well as literary ideas on English traditions.
The Mass in G Minor dates from 1920-21, and was possibly the first mass setting written by an English composer since Tudor times. The major influence is, suitably, of Tudor music, both in the overall shape of many of the melodic lines and in the widespread use of modal harmony. With the possible exception of the imitative opening of the Kyrie, the piece rarely sounds Tudor however, but is distinctively of its time and composer.
The music is written for four soloists and two four-part choruses. Particularly in the Gloria and Credo, Vaughan Williams makes great use of the varieties of texture which this setup allows.
Other composers at the time were experimenting with different types of dissonance and the new forms which these engendered. In the Mass in G minor Vaughan Williams remarkably uses hardly any dissonance at all - almost every chord in the piece is a triad.
The mass is laid out in the usual five sections:
Kyrie: The opening theme, with its distinctive five-note motif at the beginning, appears in imitation across the choir at the beginning. This is a clear reference to Tudor models. The middle section, ‘Christe eleison', is in the contrasting major mode, and is for soloists. The final section is a reworking of the first, ending with just the altos, as the first had begun.
Gloria: After a pianissimo opening for full choir to ‘Et in terra pax', the first and second choruses launch into the jubilant ‘Laudamus te', trading fanfare-like volleys of praise. The solo quartet brings a pleading, devotional note in the middle section, ‘Qui tollis peccata Mundi', before the return of joyful praise in the fugal ‘Cum sancto spiritu'.
Credo: The many different moods of the text are reflected in the frequent changes of speed and texture in this movement. Note the delicate solo writing on ‘Et incarnates', followed by the full choir, marked pppp, on ‘Et homo factus est'; and the joyous ‘Amen'.
Sanctus - Osanna I - Benedictus - Osanna II: The quiet cascading opening is one of Vaughan Williams' most original. It is followed by a fugal section on ‘Pleni sunt caeli.' The first ‘Osanna' is predictably joyful; the solemn ‘Benedictus' is followed by a short final ‘Osanna'.
Agnus Dei: This movement contains the most concentrated and expressive music of the Mass. It uses material from the first movement - the ‘Kyrie' theme on ‘miserere nobis', and the ‘Christe' theme on ‘dona nobis pacem'. Notice two particularly lovely moments: the chord change at the beginning when the soloists give way to the chorus, and the ending, a series of serene chords reminiscent of the Tallis Fantasia.
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Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense.
This couplet from ‘The Passionate Pilgrim', once thought to be by Shakespeare but
probably by his contemporary Richard Barnfield, shows the esteem in which John Dowland was held as a lutenist.
He was also a highly regarded singer and composer.
Three of the four pieces by Dowland in this programme were published in ‘The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of fowre partes' in 1597. Dowland's title page makes it clear that the songs can be performed in various ways: in four parts (as we performed them in this concert) or as solos accompanied by a number of possible instruments, notably the lute. The remarkable thing about this is that Dowland suggests that any of the four parts may be sung to the accompaniment i.e. each of the four parts is melodically distinguished enough to be sung by itself. The main melody however always resides in the top (soprano) part; Dowland displays considerable skill in arranging the lower three parts to create contrapuntal interest and satisfying melodic lines which sometimes use melodic material from the top (tune) line. Each of the songs is organized strophically - the music is repeated for each verse of the text - with a ‘chorus' whose words are the last two lines of each verse, and which is repeated.
Dowland had a contemporary reputation for writing mainly sad music. Go crystal tears is a good example, as the hapless lover fails to make any impression on the ‘indurate heart' of his beloved, and laments his fate. The music moves from minor mode to major as the lover's mood changes between hope and despair.
Fine knacks for ladies, which comes from Dowland's second book of songs (1600) is his most extrovert song, with a jolly forward-moving tune using subtle syncopation and unusual phrase lengths. The words are not so easy to understand, being full of courtly conceits and puns (a fair is a beauty as well as a fête, grain is also a measure of the weight of jewels). The poet pretends to be a street-trader and compares his amorous wares to his supposed trinkets and trifles. One possible interpretation is that his heart, being true, is of more worth than that of those who would offer more valuable gifts. Turtles are of course turtle doves rather than aquatic reptiles - a symbol of constancy in love.
Come heavy sleep is back in Dowland's doleful territory, and is one of his greatest songs. Like a handful of other works of genius (by Bach and Schumann, among others) its use of the major instead of the more obvious minor mode to express real sorrow only intensifies the emotion of the piece. The unexpected chord at the beginning of the chorus is a very poignant moment. It is heard four times (there are two verses, with the chorus being heard twice after each), and it remains fresh each time.
In Come again! Sweet love doth now invite the lover initially seems happier with the progress of his affair, or is at least reasonably hopeful of a successful outcome. The words ‘To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die' set to an appropriately rising phrase, signal the phases of seduction; verses two and three however cast some doubt about its ultimate success, without (at least according to the music) disturbing the poet's equilibrium.
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This is an earlier piece than the Dowland songs, published in 1588 in the collection Psalmes, Sonets
and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie, though probably written earlier. It is presumably one of the Songs. The year
1588 was notable, apart from the Spanish Armada, for the publication of Musica Transalpina, a collection of Italian
madrigals translated into English, which was to be very influential on the native English Madrigal. Byrd's piece does
not show Italian influence. It provides a suitable end to our Tudor secular group.
The poem is simpler in meaning than the intricate verse set by Dowland, and the words of the ‘chorus' are the same f or each of the three verses. The poet resolves, despite temptation, in the words of the chorus Hey ho chill [=I will] love no more; this is set to the most intricate yet transparent 5-part texture - a miracle of clarity and jollity well fitting the words.
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The second Sonatina was composed in 1947, the year that Leighton went up to Queen's College, Oxford. In his early works, he acknowledged the influence of Vaughan-Williams, Rubbra and Walton, and these pieces are characterised by their clear cut tonality and attractive melodies. This is especially noticeable in the Andante sostenuto, where a simple tune is set against a chordal, almost guitar like accompaniment. A rhapsodic middle section introduces a flowing left hand part before the opening theme returns with, eventually, a more arpeggiated accompaniment. The Allegro molto immediately creates a more joyful mood with its use of staccato left hand triads. Roles are frequently reversed, though, with a good deal of melodic work for the left hand, and there is a soon a contrasting lyrical section before the opening music returns and speeds along to its joyful conclusion.
Notes on organ & piano pieces by Nigel Nash
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Harris was an organist and composer who held a number of posts as organist and choir-trainer,
most notably at St George's Chapel, Windsor from 1933 to 1961. He is remembered nowadays for a handful of choral
pieces, of which Faire is the Heaven, written in 1925, is perhaps the most notable. It is one of the
best-loved pieces of Anglican church music, though because of its difficulty not performed that often.
Spenser's poem about heaven would seem to be a difficult one for which to find adequate musical images, but Harris's imaginative treatment for eight-part unaccompanied choir manages this very well. A key to the success of the piece is his ability to maintain the sense of momentum as each rank of angels is succeeded by another ‘more faire': listen for example to the magical chord change at ‘yet far more faire be those'. Other highlights include one of the most celebrated twentieth-century instances of the English cadence at the word ‘overdight', and the serene ending, which interprets ‘the image of such endlesse perfectnesse' with a perfectly serene chord of D flat.
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Kenneth Leighton was a twentieth-century English composer who held various prestigious academic posts,
was awarded many prizes and honours, and wrote music in many different genres including piano and chamber music, symphonies,
concertos and choral music. He constantly strove to find new expressive means within a basically tonal harmonic framework:
Drop, drop slow tears, which is the final unaccompanied section of the longer religious cantata Crucifixus pro nobis
op. 38 (written in 1961) is a very good example. It is a setting of a pious poem by the 17th century poet Phineas Fletcher,
also set to music by, among others, William Walton, and often sung to a hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons.
Leighton's problem here was to create music as simple and yet as emotionally charged as the poem; the poem's simplicity is mirrored by a slow tempo, uncomplicated textures and restrained melodies; the emotion by a subtle use of harmony. Listen for example to the unexpected but effective chords on ‘tears' at the beginning, and ‘floods' in the middle. One unusual and very effective device, used on important words, is when the soprano part, having settled on a consonant note, falls to a dissonant one. Examples include ‘feet', ‘Heaven', and ‘fears'.
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Paul Carr has written:
“Now comes beauty was originally composed in the Summer of 2009 as a song for solo voice & piano, commissioned by my brother for his wife, Heather, as a birthday present. At Gavin's suggestion, I then made this arrangement for unaccompanied mixed voice choir and also an instrumental version for string orchestra, all three versions of which are now published and the string version recorded a few weeks ago for CD by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
The words to the song are my own and while they might not be great poetry they are an honest expression of my thoughts and feelings about the place in which I lived and the new world I was about to walk out into. It is essentially a 'song of farewell' to an idyllic, though sometimes solitary life on the beautiful island of Mallorca where I lived from 2004 to 2009 - the ending of a long relationship and the need to move on in a new direction. Death and re-birth if you like; painful, lost, but accepting and open at the same time.
This choral version is dedicated to my Brother and the Bristol Bach Choir, whose concert last year of Lauridsen, Barber and Whitacre greatly impressed, as did their beautiful rendition of my Christmas carol.”
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Wood's English Anthem for unaccompanied double choir makes a suitably heartwarming end to our survey of highlights from the English choral tradition. Exuding Edwardian optimism, the piece makes much use of the contrast between choirs one and two. Nominally an evening hymn (words translated by John Keble from the Greek), the piece doesn't often sound crepuscular as the ‘gladdening light' of the glory of God is symbolically more powerful than the light of the fading sun.
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