(Scroll down or click a composer or work to view programme notes...)
|Eugène Gigout||Grand Choeur Dialogué (arr. P. Walton)|
|Francis Poulenc||Messe en Sol Majeur|
|Flor Peeters||Aria Op. 51|
|Eriks Ešenvalds||Trinity Te Deum|
|Gerald Finzi||Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice|
Surely one of the most famous and often cited quotations about music is credited to the 19th century French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo:
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” It is difficult for anyone to disagree with these sentiments. Just consider the importance of the soundtrack of your favourite movie; a great demonstration of music's potential to awaken and enrich the senses, to build suspense, to quicken the heartbeat, to add poignancy to the most innocuous visual stimulus, to stir up belief against the odds, or to invite you to share in grief and great sadness.
However, for the performers and connoisseurs of choral and vocal music, there is an essential extra dimension. In the majority of cases, music serves to characterise and illuminate an existing text. Music expresses with utmost persuasion what otherwise might not resonate so fully with the listener. Singing is also fundamental to the formation and expression of identity, whether of a nation or a culture, a political or social movement, a religious belief, or even of a favoured sports team. We sing because we are in love, because we are celebrating or mourning, and when we join together to express our common beliefs.
This evening's programme is influenced by each of these factors. They all carry the heavy fingerprint of each composer's heritage, whilst the music always remains the servant of the text. As ever, I hope you share in the joy of tonight's offerings that are filled with pomp, ceremony and celebration. And equally, I hope that the timeless beauty and tranquility of the Finzi and Poulenc will challenge and inspire.
A piece for brass, organ and percussion, arranged by Paul Walton, assistant organist at Bristol Cathedral.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), French composer and pianist, was born into a rich family of industrialists; until recently Rhône-Poulenc was one of the
world's bigger chemical companies. He made his name early as one of Les Six. His music is often described as eclectic, being influenced by cabaret and
jazz as well as modernism and nationalism. His best-known pieces are probably the piano suite Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919), the ballet
Les Biches (1923), the Organ Concerto (1938), the opera Dialogue des Carmélites (1957), and the Gloria (1959) for soprano,
choir and orchestra.
Around the year 1935 Poulenc became dissatisfied with the style in which he had been writing, and began looking around for new musical directions. To this end he started studying the music of Monteverdi with Nadia Boulanger. The following year he learnt of the death in a car accident of a friend and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud; this led to the rediscovery of his Catholic faith, which he had lost following the death of his father in 1917. A visit to Rocamadour, a Catholic shrine in central France, led to his writing the Litanies à la Vierge Noire for female voices and organ, and, a year later, the Mass in G for unaccompanied choir which is, significantly, dedicated to the memory of his father. The style of the Mass could be seen as a collision between the simplicity of his faith, inspired by the memory of his father and by the pilgrims he saw at Rocamadour, and the dissonance and complexity of his previous work - without the sense of irony inherent in many of his earlier pieces. It has been called one of the most remarkable settings of the Mass of the 20th century, and it continually confounds the expectations of its listeners with music that sounds strange at first, but which with acquaintance appears both imaginative and natural.
It should be said that it's very difficult to sing - possibly the hardest piece we shall attempt this season.
The Mass in G is a missa brevis, which means that it does not set the Credo.
It's quite concise and with the exception of the Sanctus doesn't use a lot of repetition, preferring contrasted, usually shortish phrases, continuous thematic variation, and abrupt changes of dynamic.
Note the deliberate use of some unusual choral techniques - tunes in parallel octaves; staccato writing; and the repeated chord effect just before the end of the Benedictus. Sections within movements frequently end on unexpected dissonant chords, but movements end simply on common chords. Written for unaccompanied choir, frequently divided into eight parts; it lasts about 21 minutes.
What to listen for
Kyrie - marked Lively and very rhythmic. Striking texture at the beginning.
Note the little phrase which appears in the sopranos after about 20 seconds: Poulenc used this phrase in several of his religious works including the Gloria, and it seems to have represented a personal signature of his faith - it's also related to the opening motif.
Gloria - marked Very lively - note the rising phrase used five times in the basses towards the end of the movement.
Sanctus - marked Moving forward and sweetly joyful - note the contrast between the ritualistic repetition of most of the movement with the short phrase on Sabaoth (hosts or armies) - marked very violent.
Benedictus - marked Calm but not slow. Enjoy the serenity, up to the final Hosannah (see above).
Agnus Dei - marked Very pure, very clear and moderate. Very simple, starting with a solo soprano. Beautiful ending, with the return of the melody from the opening of the Kyrie.
Tim Warren © TJW 2016
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Flor Peeters (1903-1986) lived just on the Belgian side of the Dutch border. He became a renowned organ teacher and composer, and was organist at Mechelen Cathedral. He was made a Baron by the King of Belgium in 1971. The Aria, composed in 1943, was originally the slow movement of a trumpet sonata. The expressive melody unfolds above an accompaniment of soft repeated chords, typical of the simplicity of many of his compositions.
Jehan Alain (1911-1940) was a near contemporary of Olivier Messiaen and was killed in action at the age of 29, just 5 days before France withdrew from World War II. The plainsong phrase which opens the work is repeated continually building up to an ecstatic climax. Alain once said of Litanies - “You must create an impression of passionate incantation. Prayer is not a lament but a devastating tornado, flattening everything in its way. It is also an obsession. You must fill men's ears with it, and God's ears too! If you get to the end without feeling exhausted you have neither understood the piece nor played it as I would want it.” No pressure then!!
Eriks Ešenvalds is a Latvian composer, born in the small town of Priekula in 1977. Best known for his choral music, he has also written songs, chamber
music, orchestral music - including Lakes Awake at Dawn, commissioned by the Boston and Birmingham Symphony Orchestras - and an opera (with another due
out this year). Two Hyperion CDs of his choral music are available in this country: Northern Lights (Trinity Cambridge and Stephen Layton), and Passion
and Resurrection (Polyphony and Carolyn Sampson). The former has a lovely setting of O Salutaris Hostia which we have scheduled for our summer concert
and tour. He is married with four children; otherwise colourful information about him is in short supply.
From 2011 to 2013 Ešenvalds held the position of Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. During this time he worked closely with the college choir and its conductor Stephen Layton, and wrote the Trinity Te Deum for the ceremony of the installation of a new Master of the College in 2012. Layton has referred to Ešenvalds' ability to absorb the traditions as well as the talents of those for whom he writes; in the Trinity Te Deum this results in a fascinating blend of Anglican choral music and a modern Scandinavian/Baltic soundworld. Note that although Ešenvalds uses the Prayerbook translation of the Latin, he sets only the original 4th Century text without the (slightly) later additions - those of you familiar with Morning Prayer or Stanford's famous setting will miss Day by day we magnify Thee and Let me never be confounded.
Trinity Te Deum is written for brass, used sparingly, organ and choir. It lasts about 7 minutes. It is in three continuous sections, separated by organ solos.
After a short brass fanfare the first section in the key of E Major is notable for the use of rhythms, phrase structure and sometimes harmonies from the English choral tradition. It lasts until the everlasting Son of the Father.
The second section, in D Major, has a less familiar atmosphere, being based almost entirely on one chord. Listen out for the beautiful harmonies on Thou sittest at the right hand of God - they appear twice.
The short third section acts as a coda; it goes back to the music of the first section ending with the brass fanfare.
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Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) is one of a number of talented English composers of the first part of the twentieth century who managed to find a distinctive
style, and whose music is still appreciated by loyal devotees. Born in London, he moved often between the countryside, which inspired him and gave him the peace
to compose, and the capital, which gave greater opportunities for congenial friendships and performances. His best-known pieces are probably the Clarinet
Concerto, the cantata Dies Natalis and some of his partsongs, such as My spirit sang all day.
Finzi's music is recognisably English in style, and even at its brightest always seems to be not too far distant from something gentle, lyrical and slightly melancholic. His vocal music recalls Parry (he was an expert on Parry's music) in finding memorable melodic and harmonic ideas for each section of text.
Lo, the full, final sacrifice was one of a number of pieces commissioned by the redoubtable Rev. Walter Hussey of (and for) St Matthew's Church, Northampton. Hussey also commissioned music by Britten, Howells and Rubbra, art by Sutherland and Moore, and literary works by Auden and Norman Nicholson. He asked Finzi for a piece on the doctrine of the Eucharist, as he thought that there wasn't much written on that subject. Finzi, whose parents were Jewish, and who was agnostic by inclination, would not appear to have been the best person to take on this theological task, but he went about it with typical thoroughness, imagination and craft. He found two Latin poems by the 13th century theologian St Thomas Aquinas, Adoro Te and Lauda Sion Salvatorem, translated into English by the metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw (1613-1649). Crashaw's colourful and declamatory verse at once avoided the danger of dullness inherent in many a theological text. Finzi took verses from both poems and mixed them up, creating a text which may lose the rigour of a continuous argument, but gaining a set of verses each of which could be colourfully set to music. The piece has a reputation among church choirs as one which they would like to sing, but because of its length and complexity is only brought out on special occasions. Written for choir and organ; length: about 14 minutes.
What to listen for
Just follow the words. Each section is beautifully characterised, with rhythms derived from the way words might be sensitively spoken. At the beginning is an organ introduction which establishes the mood and introduces a motif (the intervals are a second and a fifth) which is used with variations throughout. Note Finzi's technique of ending sections on an unexpected chord - this happens many times. There is a short soprano solo on Live ever, Bread of loves and a tenor and bass duet on O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Some highlights are:
O let that love reminiscent of Parry).
Come love, come Lord - beautiful drooping across the choir.
Most of all, the soft lyrical Amen.
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John Rutter was born in London in 1945, and grew up living above the Globe pub on the Marylebone Road. Fellow pupils at Highgate School
included John Tavener and Howard Shelley. He read music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he later became a very successful director of the choir
before founding the Cambridge Singers, who have recorded many of his works. Most of his music is for voices.
Gloria was Rutter's first major piece commissioned from abroad, and is important not only in establishing his reputation but also in setting his style. He has written:
“I was approached out of the blue by a concert choir in the American midwest called the Voices of Mel Olson, who wanted me to compose an accessible but challenging choral work of about twenty minutes' duration which I was to come over and guest-conduct. Their conductor visited me in Cambridge to discuss the commission, and the guidelines were laid down: a familiar text, preferably sacred; instrumental accompaniment, but (for budgetary reasons) less than an orchestra; no professional soloists; and a positive, ‘upfront’ quality so that a non-specialist audience could enjoy the music at first hearing. All this steered my thoughts towards the text of the Gloria, which forms a complete section of the familiar Ordinary of the Mass, beginning with the words of the angels to the shepherds on Christmas Night, not often set to music on its own. Asking myself what instruments the angels would have played as heralds of the glad tidings, the answer was obviously trumpets, and that chimed in with what I knew to be a fine tradition of brass playing in the midwest, where marching bands are an established part of school and college life. I decided to supplement a brass ensemble accompaniment with timpani, percussion and organ, and I set to work. The music was written quickly in the spring of 1974, and in looking back at it now I find a mixture of influences: Walton (who knew a thing or two about brass bands, and festive and ceremonial writing), Stravinsky, Poulenc, and, running like a thread through the whole work, Gregorian chant.”
Given the brief, it has to be said that Gloria is very successful, with a freshness and exuberance also found in other of his earlier works such as When Icicles Hang. Walton appears - at least to my ears - to be nearer the surface of the music than Poulenc or Stravinsky. The plainsong influence is clear - much of the vocal melody (though not its harmonisation) could be plainsong.
Written for brass, organ and choir, with some solos in the second movement.
What to listen for
The first movement is neatly constructed from only a few musical ideas: chords built on rising fourths (as at the beginning), a few short rhythmic motifs and the ‘plainsong’ choral melodies.
The second movement is by contrast slower and mostly quieter has the following elements: an organ texture with repeated fast melody notes; very simple choral melodies; a chorale-like theme on the brass - this texture is later taken up by the voices. Note the lovely ending, when soloists singing miserere... and suscipe... float above the choir's qui tollis... chorale theme.
The third movement shares a lot of material with the first. It is in three sections: the first uses the ‘plainsong’ melody to the words quoniam..., the second is a not-very-strict fugue on Cum sancto spiritu... - spot the many appearances of this little motif - and the third is an extended Amen which includes a reference to the opening of the work. Some might say that this Amen, which is nearly half the length of the movement, is over long, but with music as joyous as this, who minds? After that, we defy you not to leave the concert happier than you came in.
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Following an extremely successful collaboration with Liberty Brass Ensemble at its Christmas concerts for the past two seasons, Bristol Bach Choir was delighted to be able to perform with them again. The ensemble comprises many of this country's finest young brass and percussion players, all of whom have trained at Europe's leading music colleges and who, individually, perform with many of the UK's premier orchestras. Almost all the ensemble's members having strong West Country roots and were therefore really delighted to have the opportunity of returning to Bristol once again.