Christopher Finch - conductor
Nigel Nash - organ
(Click on a composer's name for further information.)
|Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)||Salvator Mundi|
|Robert Parsons (c1530-1572)||Ave Maria|
|William Byrd (c1540-1623)||O quam gloriosum|
|Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)||Three Shakespeare songs|
|Felix Mendelssohn||Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (Nigel Nash: organ)|
|JS Bach (1685-1750)||O Jesu Christ, mein lebens licht|
|Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)||Magnificat|
|Paweł Łukaszewski (b.1968)||Nunc Dimittis|
|Nils Lindberg (b.1933)||Shall I compare thee to a summer' day?|
|Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b.1963)||Four Shakespeare Songs|
|Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)||Finlandia (Nigel Nash: organ )|
|Ěrics Ešenvalds (b. 1977)||O Salutaris Hostia|
|Arvo Pärt (b.1935)||The Beatitudes|
|Urmas Sisask (b.1960)||Benedictio|
I have always loved the way in which music allows us to learn more about the cultural identity
of other nations and to experience the great joy of enriching lives through the exposure to
masterpieces from all parts of the globe. Bristol Bach Choir has for many years enjoyed touring to
many different parts of Europe; sharing our own unique choral heritage and learning more about the
people, history and music of our hosts. I will certainly never forget the incredible tour to Iceland in 2013.
This summer Bristol Bach Choir has the opportunity to tour to one of Europe's most stunning and chorally vibrant countries, Estonia. In this year of quadricentennial celebrations of Shakespeare's death, we perform settings of the Bard's immortal texts in compositions by Vaughan Williams and some of Scandinavia's leading choral composers. We also present English Renaissance gems by composers roughly contemporaneous with Shakespeare.
In preparation for our exciting tour we present a programme that has been inspired by the culture and proud national identities of the countries whose coast borders the Baltic Sea. I am sure that this evening you will encounter many unexpected gems from Finland, Sweden, Poland, Latvia and Estonia. Each piece has a character of its own, influenced by regional folk-song or deep traditions of ‘classical’ music forged over many centuries. It has been a pleasure to rehearse such fabulous repertoire, works filled with genius and imagination which deserve a larger audience in this Sceptred Isle.
Thomas Tallis: Salvator Mundi
A verse from a memorial tablet to Thomas Tallis, formerly in the church of St Alfege in Greenwich, reads as follows:
“He serv'd long tyme in chappel with grete prayse
Fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen);
I meane Kyng Henry and Prynce Edward's dayes,
Quene Mary, and Elizabeth oure Quene.”
Salvator Mundi is typical of the pieces written by Tallis for larger religious establishments during the reign of the last of the four monarchs, Elizabeth the First: the words are in Latin, and the style is contrapuntal; it is in five parts - in our performance, SAATB. It first appeared in 1575 in a publication called Cantiones Sacrae, but may have been written earlier. The words are taken from the Matins antiphon for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September).
Listen for the five entries of the main theme at the beginning, one after another, working their way down the choir; for the repeated-note ‘pleading’ figure on auxiliare (help), and Tallis's characteristic use of false-relation ‘scrunches’ where two versions of the same note are sung at the same time.
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Robert Parsons: Ave Maria
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 would you 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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William Byrd: O quam gloriosum
William Byrd: probably born in London, probably trained under Thomas Tallis at the Chapel Royal, certainly became organist at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563, moved back to London in 1572 on the death of Robert Parsons (see above), and moved into semi-retirement in Essex in 1694. At its best, his music has a technical skill and certainty of direction unmatched by any of his English contemporaries.
O quam gloriosum was published in the 1589 volume of Cantiones Sacrae, but may of course have been written earlier. It has been suggested that the texts chosen by Byrd for this collection reflect his feelings at the execution of Catholics at around this time; if so, there is no sense of anguish in this piece, which depicts the Saints in heaven in serene but energetic counter- point. It is written for five-part choir, and divided into two sections - the second starts on the word Benedictio. Notice the subtle interplay between the top two parts (soprano 1 and 2, with equal ranges) and the carefully controlled colouring of the harmony at important moments.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Three Shakespeare Songs
These pieces were written for the competitive choral class at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and so are among Vaughan Williams' later works. They remain a good test of any choir, requiring a delicacy and accuracy in performance which we hope to provide this evening.
The first is Full Fathom Five, with words from The Tempest. At the start and end basses sing the words, with the rest of the choir imitating submarine bells of various speeds and pitches; in the middle section the composer takes his cue from the words change, rich, and strange - the music is all of these.
The Cloud Capp'd Towers also has words from The Tempest. The music is related to that of the last movement of the sixth Symphony, which was written earlier, but was inspired by this speech. Vaughan Williams interprets Prospero's declaration of the insubstantiality of everyday reality with a mostly homophonic setting which constantly surprises with its abrupt and unexpected changes of chord - there are too many of these to note individually. But listen out for the final twist in the tail of the piece, when the last chord suddenly changes from major to a darker minor before dying away into silence.
Over hill, over dale with words from A Midsummer's Dream is an evanescent scherzo, lasting less than a minute, with hints not only at fairy lightness but also, at the pastoral Englishness of some of his earlier works.
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JS Bach: O Jesu Christ, mein lebens licht
This work was written around 1736-7, and performed at the graveside of Count Friedrich von Flemming on October 11, 1740 in Leipzig. (Flemming had been governor of Leipzig, an old friend of Bach, an ally in his conflicts with the Leipzig Town Council, and the dedicatee of several secular cantatas). The work survives in two different orchestrations, but tonight we are performing it with organ. The text is from a 1610 hymn by Martin Behm. The piece consists of four choral sections, one for each line of the text, surrounded by elaborate instrumental sections. In each of the choral sections the sopranos sing the chorale melody in long notes, while the lower three vocal parts are much more intricate, and based on a faster version of the chorale theme. This structure should be fairly easy to follow.
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Dietrich Buxtehude: Magnificat
The only known source for this Magnificat is a set of parts and a score belonging to one Gustav (sic) Dü?ben, who was in charge of music at the German church in Stockholm during the later 17th century. Dü?ben was a friend of Buxtehude, and over a hundred of Buxtehude's pieces are in his collection, so it is not surprising that this anonymous piece has been attributed to him. However it is unlike anything known to have been written by Buxtehude, and on stylistic grounds probably originated in Italy in the mid 17th Century. It is, however, often performed in northern Germany, thus creating a tentative link to the theme of this evening's concert. Buxtehude, by the way, is usually considered to have been Danish, although he was probably born in what is now Sweden, and he worked mostly in northern Germany. His music, particularly his organ music, was one of the most important influences on J. S. Bach.
The Magnificat is a charming piece, in a gentle triple time with clear textures and harmonies, and attractive melodies. After the opening instrumental ritornello, choral sections alternate with solos and duets. Note the quiet ending, unusual but appropriate.
Paweł Łukaszewski: Nunc Dimittis
Paweł Łukaszewski has been called the best-known Polish composer of his generation. He comes from a family of composers, and studied at the Fryderyk Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, where he is now a Professor. It is perhaps his sacred choral music which has had the greatest impact on the musical world outside Poland, but he has also written five symphonies, oratorios, songs, and chamber music, and has won many awards.
Nunc Dimittis was written in 2007 for Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, who have been very active in promoting Baltic music in this country. It is scored for four-part choir, who sing all the words, underpinned by a smaller group who have just the one word - Domine (Lord). The work has been described as having ‘sumptuous diatonicism’ - the rich slow-moving harmonies create a unique prayerful atmosphere. Listen for the two points in the piece where the chords change dramatically; and at the end the almost forlorn repeated Domine of the small group. An unusual and very imaginative piece.
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Nils Lindberg: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Nils Lindberg is a Swedish composer whose work moves between three poles: jazz, Swedish folk music and classical. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? , which is very popular among choirs in Sweden, is firmly in the classical camp in terms of texture and melody, though jazz chording can be heard throughout. Lindberg sets Shakespeare's sonnet of love, decay and redemption through art in a fairly simple way for four-part unaccompanied choir, going straight through the words with no repetition until the very end. The subtlety of the piece lies in the music's ability to match the flickering emotions of the words.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Four Shakespeare Songs
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi is a professional translator (Finnish/English) as well as a prolific composer, mostly of music for chorus. He describes himself as an eclectic traditionalist, an apt description for the work we're performing this evening.
Four Shakespeare Songs (1984), perhaps his best-known piece, is another example of a surprisingly extensive tradition among Scandinavian composers of setting Shakespearean texts; Maäntyjaärvi himself has followed it up with More Shakespeare Songs (1997) and No More Shakespeare Songs? (2000), the question mark indicating that he might be persuaded to set the Bard again.
Mäntyjärvi has written: ‘Four Shakespeare Songs is a blend of Renaissance poetry and contemporary music. The choral writing is varied and demanding, although the music never strays very far from traditional tonal harmony.‘
Come away, Death (Twelfth Night) is a lament of unhappy love, typical for Renaissance lyrics: the narrator begs his friends to bury him, as he has been killed by the coldness of the ‘cruel maid’ that he loves. The falling figure on the repeated word ‘weep’ towards the end echoes the Renaissance practice of word-painting in music.
Lullaby (A Midsummer Night's Dream) is sung by the fairies to their queen; it is a soft and tranquil mood-piece in siciliano rhythm.
Double, Double Toil and Trouble (Macbeth), on the other hand, is a sort of Medieval cookery programme. The three witches, or weird sisters, chant the ingredients of a magic potion that they are brewing. This is the potion that the witches use later in the same scene to prophesy to Macbeth that he will become King of Scotland. The text is rather wild, and the music uses a wide range of devices up to and including speech choir.
Full Fathom Five (The Tempest) is a comforting yet ghoulish description of how the body of a drowned man is transformed into treasures of the sea and how mermaids ring funeral bells for him.
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Ěrics Ešenvalds: O Salutaris Hostia
Ěriks Ešenvalds is a Latvian composer, born in the small town of Priekula in 1977. As with many fellow Baltic composers, he is best known for his choral music, but he has also written songs, chamber music, orchestral music and opera.
O Salutaris Hostia, written in 2009, is set for eight-part unaccompanied choir with two soprano solos. The piece creates an unusual and beautiful atmosphere; the main choir has rich and quite slow-moving chords, which the two solos decorate with delicate filigree. Note how the soloists' phrases typically start with one rising interval, and then gently float down as it were earthwards. This gives a serenity to the piece, and a different slant on the to the meaning of the words - not so much pleading as quietly confident. A short choral gem.
Arvo Pärt The Beatitudes
The most celebrated composer of the Baltic states is of course Arvo Pärt - indeed it is claimed that he has been the world's most performed living composer for the last five years (in 2015 John Adams and John Williams came in second and third, in case you were wondering). Pä?rt was born in Paide, central Estonia, and was educated at the Tallinn Conservatory. His earlier music was influenced by neoclassical composers such as Stravinsky and Poulenc, but a crisis of confidence in the early 1970s saw him start to study plainsong and early music, and led to the development of his present ‘holy minimalist’ style and the ‘tintinnabuli’ musical technique. Among his best-known pieces are the Third Symphony a transitional piece written in 1971 - Fratres, Tabula Rasa, and the St John Passion. The Beatitudes, written in 1990, is scored for four-part choir and organ, but this is rather deceptive: the first section is for four-part choir, entirely homophonic in style, with the organ only playing single long-held low notes. The second section is a powerful organ fantasia without the choir, which works back through the chords used in the first section to arrive at the opening F minor. I do not know if this progression has a programmatic meaning. The Beatitudes is a good example of a tintinnabuli score: two of the four parts - alto and bass - sing simple stepwise plainsong-like melodies, while the other two - soprano and tenor - have lines based on the notes of a chord, a different chord for each phrase. The resulting clashes and resolutions create an atmosphere of solemn intensity from very simple musical means.
The words, in English, are taken from St Matthew's Gospel, chapter 5:3-12, the Sermon on the Mount.
Urmas Sisask: Benedictio
We end the concert with a piece by another Estonian. Urmas Sisask made his name with two (now three) cycles of piano pieces called Starry Sky (which I can recommend, but maybe not all at once). Sisask's music is influenced by many diverse things, including early music, Gregorian Chant, ‘astrologically governed sounds’, Estonian Runo-song (early runic folksong) and Shamanistic cultures.
Benedictio was written in 1991. Like many of Sisask's compositions, it features much rhythmic repetition - in this case there are half a dozen or so short motifs which are endlessly repeated, varied and recombined to create larger-scale musical structures. The piece is energetic, maybe even hypnotic: a true bravura show-stopper.
Programme notes by Tim Warren © TJW 2016
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