Choral Gems

Choral Gems

Saturday 6 November 2010
Trinity-Henleaze United Reformed Church

Gavin Carr - Conductor
Nigel Nash - Piano & Organ

Introduction from Music Director Gavin Carr

One of the principal pleasures to be had from working with a good-sized chamber choir is the vast repertoire available to us, from the grandest of Baroque masterpieces, such as Bach's B Minor Mass, to the most intimate a capella offerings from contemporary composers, such as Paul Carr's 'Now comes beauty'. Thus the only difficulty arising in selecting a Bristol Bach Choir 'favourites' programme such as this lies in choosing what to leave out!

This concert programme will be recorded by the choir in a few days' time (although in a slightly different order), and we hope we have covered our favourite bases (and some of yours) by throwing our net wide indeed, from Tallis and Spanish and Italian renaissance polyphony (Lobo, Monteverdi, Lotti), through German High Baroque (Bach, Zelenka) and the Romantic response to it (Mendelssohn and Rheinberger), via English Romantic and Anglican-revival classics (Pearsall and Stanford), not forgetting the lush Russian harmonies we so love to bathe in (Glinka and Rachmaninov), emerging into the present day with the gorgeous harmonies of the Anglo-American axis, with Barber, Carr, Lauridsen and Whitacre. We have not forgotten, either, to pay homage to the irrepressible and ground-breaking work of the Australian Percy Grainger, although we beg his pardon for translating a Lincolnshire song into the deepest Bristolian we can manage!

So here you have it: culled from many centuries and many continents - the distillation of much of our work over the last few years, and a rich and harmonious feast for your ears, minds, and hearts.

Concert Order

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

Monteverdi Lauda Jerusalem (from Vespers of 1610)
Tallis If ye love me
Lotti Crucifixus
Lobo Versa est in luctum
J S Bach Dona nobis pacem (from B Minor Mass)
Organ Interlude
     Two pieces from Parthenia:
     Byrd Pavana - The Earle of Salisbury
     Gibbons Galiardo
Zelenka Nisi Dominus
Mendelssohn excerpt from 'Christus'
Rheinberger Adendleid
Pearsall Lay a garland
Stanford Coelos ascendit hodie
Rachmaninov Bogoroditsye Dyevo
Glinka Cherubic Hymn
Pärt Bogoroditsye Dyevo
Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium
Organ Interlude
     Howells Psalm Prelude Set 1 no.2 (Op.32)
Barber Sure on this shining night
Whitacre Sleep
Carr Now comes beauty
Whitacre With a lily in your hand
Grainger Seventeen come Sunday

Programme Notes

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): Lauda Jerusalem

For many of us in the choir, one of the most memorable recent concerts was our performance last March of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. One movement in particular that is still ringing in our ears is this triumphant setting of the psalm Lauda Jerusalem.

The thread running through each of Monteverdi's psalm settings is the plainchant melody commonly associated with the psalm. In this case, the chant melody is taken - often heroically - by all the tenors, while the rest of the singers divide into two choirs, and weave great patterns of polyphony around it. The vigorous drive of the music is suddenly halted at the doxology, the Gloria Patri, where, in traditional fashion, the pace broadens for a stately and sonorous ‘Amen'.

Lauda Jerusalem Dominum: lauda Deum tuum Sion;
quoniam confortavit seras portarum tuarum: benedixit filiis tuis in te,
qui posuit fines tuos pacem:
et adipe frumenti satiat te.
Qui emittit eloquium suum terrae: velociter currit sermo eius.
Qui dat nivem sicut lanam: nebulam sicut cinerem spargit.
Mittit cristallum suum sicut buccellas: ante faciem frigoris eius quis sustinebit?
Emittet verbum suum et liquefaciet ea: flabit spiritus eius et fluent aquae.
Qui annuntiat verbum suum Jacob justitias et judicia sua Israel.
Non fecit taliter omni nationi: et judicia sua non manifestavit eis. Alleluia.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto;
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem: praise thy God, O Sion;
because he hath strengthened the bolts of thy gates:
he hath blessed thy children within thee, who hath placed peace in thy borders:
and filleth thee with the fat of corn.
Who sendeth forth his speech to the earth: his word runneth swiftly.
Who giveth snow like wool: scattereth mists like ashes.
He sendeth his ice like morsels: who shall stand before the face of his cold?
He shall send out his word, and shall melt them: his wind shall blow, and the waters shall run.
Who declareth his word to Jacob: his justices and his judgments to Israel.
He hath not done in like manner to every nation: and his judgments he hath not made manifest to them. Alleluia.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585): If ye love me

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.

The second of the four sovereigns served by Tallis - ‘Prynce Edward' - was Edward VI, who came to the throne at the age of nine in 1547 and reigned until his early death in 1553. The Regency Council, who effectively ran the country, put in place decrees stating that all church music should conform to strict Protestant ideals: in English, and syllabic (all parts having the same rhythms and words) so that the words could be clearly heard. Tallis's response to this was music such as If Ye Love Me. It's not completely syllabic - after the first line each new section of the text is treated in imitation - but the words should be clear to the listener. The Protestant aesthetic is also shown by the simple and dignified harmonies and the open 4-part texture.

Tallis sets Christ's words from St John chapter 14, part of the gospel for Whit Sunday.

Note that the music is in ABB form - the last section from ‘that he...' being repeated.

If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you for ever, even the spirit of truth.

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Antonio Lotti (c.1667-1740): Crucifixus

In the catalogue of the Dresden university library music department is a card for the manuscript of a setting of the Credo by Lotti, which helpfully is marked with a note: ‘Contains the famous 8-voice Crucifixus'. The setting would probably have been written during Lotti's short time as a composer at the Dresden court, between 1717 and 1719. We know from the library card that there were only four separate vocal part-books, so for this 8-voice movement the singers would have had to share.

The opening of the piece is quite extraordinary. The voices are introduced in turn from lowest to highest, each one driving the harmony forward with a new dissonance or resolution. The whole setting reaches an anguished climax on the word ‘passus' (suffered), before concluding gently at the grave.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato; passus et sepultus est.
He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; suffered and was buried.

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Alonso Lobo (1555-1617): Versa est in luctum

There are two easily confused Renaissance composers named Lobo. The more famous of the two, Duarte (c.1565-1646), was perhaps the best-known Portuguese composer of his time; his fine Requiem has been performed by the Bristol Bach Choir. His contemporary Alonso Lobo was Spanish; he worked in the south of the country at Osuna, Toledo and Seville. He corresponded with and was highly regarded by two of the greatest composers of his time, Victoria and Palestrina.

Recently his music has undergone a revival, the most popular of his motets being the present work Versa est in luctum. This has an interesting history: it was written for the funeral of King Philip II of Spain in 1598. Philip, incidentally, had been king of England when married to Queen Mary (1555-58), launched the Spanish Armada in 1588 and was the person after whom the Philippines are named.

Unusually for a Spanish composer the words are not taken from the service, but are appropriate for the occasion. The music is written in six parts (in our performance SSATTB). The rich counterpoint, stately progress of the harmonies and minor mode create a dark and mournful piece.

Versa est falls into four sections, one for each line of the words. The first and most striking of these uses a motif of six notes of the minor scale both ascending and descending, and creates intensity by the repetition of these themes, echoes of which can be heard throughout the piece. Listen out for this, and also for the subtle changes to the interwoven melodies when a new line of words succeeds the previous one.

Versa est in luctum cithara mea
Et organum meum in voce flentium.
Parce mihi Domine
Nihil enim sunt dies mei.

My harp is turned to mourning
and my organ to the voice of wailing.
Spare me, O Lord,
for my days are nothing.

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Dona nobis pacem

Naturally, we wanted to include music by JS Bach in our programme this evening, and what better choice than this, the valedictory final movement of the great Mass in B Minor.

The Mass, assembled in the final years of Bach's life, took as its starting point the setting of the Kyrie and the Gloria (together known as the Missa) that Bach presented to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden in 1733.

It was common at this time for the final movement of a Mass setting to reuse some of the music from earlier in the work, and Bach chose for this purpose the Gratias agimus tibi movement, from the Gloria of the 1733 Missa setting. In fact, the trail of re-use extends even further back than this, because the Gratias agimus tibi movement was itself a reworking of a movement called ‘Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir' (We thank you God, we thank you) from an earlier cantata celebrating the inauguration of the Leipzig town council.

The congregation in Leipzig would have recognised this movement as being in a purposely old fashioned style, reminiscent of Renaissance polyphony. The accompaniment is mostly what is known as colla parte - that is, the instruments (in tonight's performance the orchestral parts are taken by the organ) follow exactly the vocal lines. However, as the movement treads a dignified yet inexorable path towards its conclusion, Bach adds something new. The trumpets, which up till then had kept themselves in check, dutifully following the soprano and alto lines, suddenly break away from the vocal parts and soar above them, adding a thrilling extra dimension to the final bars of this movement. The writer Donald Tovey once referred to the way the conclusion of a Bach movement ‘rolls around with astronomic precision'. Nowhere is this more true than here.

Dona nobis pacem.

Grant us peace.

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Organ interlude: Two pieces from Parthenia
William Byrd (1540-1623): Pavana - The Earle of Salisbury
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): Galiardo

Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls was, as the title states, the first printed collection of music for keyboard in England. ‘Virginals’ was a generic word at the time that covered all plucked keyboard instruments, but most of the pieces are also suited for the organ. Although neither the first nor second editions bear a date, Parthenia was probably published around 1611 and was dedicated To the high and mighty Frederick, Elector Palatine of the Reine: and his betrothed Lady, Elizabeth.

Parthenia contains, as the 1613 edition states, music Composed By three famous Masters: William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. The book is divided into three sections, each devoted to one of its composers, and the pieces chosen are representative of the finest compositions of these composers: pavanes, galliardes, fantasias and variations.

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Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745): Nisi Dominus

We are thrilled to have discovered the music of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745). If ever a composer did not deserve to be lost in dusty library archives, then it is surely Zelenka, and we are delighted to be sharing his work with you this evening.

The Bohemian born Zelenka 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 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 unremitting until virtually 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.

Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam:
nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem, frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:
surgite postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris. Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum.
Ecce haereditas Domini, filii: merces fructus ventris.
Sicut sagittae in manu potentis: ita filii excussorum.
Beatus vir qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis; non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
Gloria Patri, etc.

Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it:
unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it.
It is vain for you to rise before dawn:
rise ye after you have rested, you that eat the bread of sorrow. For he shall give sleep to his beloved.
Behold, the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so are the children of the vigorous.
Blessed is the man that hath fulfilled his desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate.
Glory be to the Father, etc.

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Excerpt from ‘Christus'

Mendelssohn worked on the oratorio Christus fitfully in 1846 and 1847. At his death, however, only fragments had been completed - even the title was given later (by his brother Paul). The present extract comes from the Christmas section of the piece. It consists of the following:

Recitative (soprano): When Jesus our Lord was born in Bethlehem, in the land of Judaea,
behold, from the East to the city of Jerusalem there came wise men, and said:
Trio (tenor and two basses): Say, where is he born, the king of Judaea? For we have seen his star, and are come to adore him.
Chorus: There shall a star from Jacob come forth, and a sceptre from Israel rise up, and dash in pieces princes and nations.
Chorale (chorus): How brightly beams the morning star!
With sudden radiance from afar
With light and comfort glowing!
Thy word, Jesus, inly feeds us, rightly leads us, life bestowing.
Praise, O praise such love o'erflowing!

The music is characterised by the subtlety with which Mendelssohn is able to create memorable music from comparatively simple resources, and the craft with which he shapes each section. Listen for the wonderful theme on There shall a star from Jacob come forth whose serenity is interrupted by and dash in pieces; the music then gradually returns to its former calm. Mendelssohn's setting of the chorale contrasts with Bach's setting of the same tune - Mendelssohn's is simpler and gentler. The piece ends with a piano reminiscence of the There shall a star theme.

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Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901): Abendlied, Op.69, no.3

Rheinberger is best known for his organ music (20 sonatas and other pieces) but he was a prolific composer in many genres, including choral music. He has a reputation for embodying the virtues and flaws of the nineteenth-century German musical establishment - solid technique but rather dull. The present piece disproves the dull part of this reputation. Abendlied (evening song) is a short setting of Luke 24 verse 29, written in 1873 for a Berlin choral society. It is scored for six-part choir, with a carefully controlled balance between homophonic and contrapuntal textures. Listen for the second chord of the piece, which is minor and unexpected, and sets the tone for the piece - rich but solemn; and for the final phrase whose diminuendo seems to symbolise the fading of the evening light.

Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, und der Tag hat sich geneiget.

Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.

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Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795-1856): Lay a Garland

The Bristol Madrigal Society was founded in 1837. Among the original members was the Bristolian Robert Pearsall (who sang tenor), then on a visit to this country from Germany where, having inherited wealth, he lived for the sake of his health. Although in its early years the society was mostly dedicated to performing madrigals from ‘the golden age' both English and Italian, they did sing several which Pearsall wrote especially for them, among them Lay a Garland. Like several of the pieces in this concert, it is stylistically influenced by music from the past, in this case Elizabethan madrigalists, particularly Thomas Morley, while at the same time being of its time - contemporary influences on Pearsall included Spohr and Mendelssohn.

Lay a Garland is written for eight-part unaccompanied choir (SSAATTBB) and uses rich textures in which syllabic writing and polyphony are neatly balanced. Note the ‘scrunches' on the words Maidens, willow branches bear, and the sure sense of direction of the harmonies as the piece approaches its final gentle cadence.

The words are a song from the play The Maid's Tragedy (c.1609) by Beaumont and Fletcher. However Pearsall changed them to suit his purpose: the original (sung by the heroine Aspasia) begins:

Lay a garland on my hearse
Of the dismal yew.

Devotees of Steeleye Span will recall that wearing willow was a traditional sign of mourning.

Lay a garland on her hearse of dismal yew;
Maidens, willow branches wear;
Say, she died true.
Her love was false, but she was firm,
Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth.

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Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924): Coelos ascendit hodie

This piece is the third of Three Latin Motets, Op.38, written probably in 1892 when Stanford gave up the post of organist of Trinity College Cambridge. They are dedicated to his successor Alan Gray. Written in eight parts divided into two SATB choirs, this piece shows Stanford at his most joyful. Much use is made of the interplay between the two choirs, with carefully controlled phrase lengths ranging from very short (just alleluia) to much longer. The words are from an Ascensiontide liturgy. Note the final Amen, which starts with the whole choir singing the same note, and expands outwards to a rich eight-part chord.

Coelos ascendit hodie Jesus Christus Rex Gloriae: Alleluia!
Sedet ad Patris dexteram, Gubernat coelum et terram. Alleluia!
Iam finem habent omnia Patris Davidis carmina.
Iam Dominus cum Domino, Alleluia!
Sedet in Dei solio, in hoc triumpho maximo, Alleluia!
Benedicamus Domino: Laudetur Sancta Trinitas:
Deo dicamus gratias. Alleluia! Amen.

Today into the heavens has ascended Jesus Christ, the King of Glory: Alleluia!
He sits at the Father's right hand, and rules heaven and earth. Alleluia!
Now have been fulfilled all of Father David's songs.
Now God is with God, Alleluia!
He sits upon the royal throne of God, in this his greatest triumph, Alleluia!
Let us bless the Lord: Let the Holy Trinity be praised:
Let us give thanks to the Lord. Alleluia! Amen.

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Sergei Rachmaninov(1873-1943): Bogoroditsye Dyevo

This is the sixth movement of Rachmaninov's Vespers (All-night Vigil op 37) and was written in 1915. After the revolution of 1917, however, the Orthodox Church was suppressed, and Rachmaninov's music did not become generally known until the 1960s. According to church requirements, all settings of the Vesper texts should be based on the appropriate pre-existing melody or chant, but in this movement Rachmaninov invented his own chant-like melody.

As is appropriate for the words, the music is serene, concise but unhurried. It falls into two sections. The first is largely syllabic in style. The second starts with one of the simplest and most imaginative textures in all choral music. The altos, divided, quietly sing a variation of the chant theme in parallel thirds, while the sopranos and tenors, in octaves, surround them with a countermelody even more quietly. The control of the composition from this point to the subsequent climax, and its fall back to the quiet ending, with a reminiscence of the opening, is masterful. A short piece, but a masterpiece.

Bogoroditsye Dyevo, raduissya, Blagodatnaya Mariye, Gospod Toboyu.
Blagoslovyenna Tyi vzhenakh, I blagoslovyen Plod chryeva Tvoyego,
Yako spassa rodila yessi dush nashikh.

Virgin, rejoice, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,
for you have borne the Saviour of our souls.

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Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857): The Cherubic Hymn

Glinka is known as the founding father of the nineteenth century Russian musical tradition, and is best remembered for his two operas: A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila. His brief interest in Russian church music arose out of the success of the former of these, as the Tsar, impressed by the opera, appointed its composer to the post of Kapellmeister to the imperial chapel. The benefits of this included a generous salary and the use of a state apartment, but Glinka didn't find the work congenial, and resigned two years later. This setting of the Cherubic Hymn was written in 1837, the year of the appointment.

The text is one of the best-known in the Orthodox liturgy - the Cherubic Hymn was sung every day of the year except for Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday. The music is written for unaccompanied choir - no instruments were allowed by the Orthodox Church. It is scored for SATB, with each part dividing to create thicker textures where required. The three verses of the hymn have more or less the same music. They are followed by a brief Amen, and a final verse with Alleluia which starts out as though it's going to be an extended fugue, but soon subsides to a calmer ending.

Izhe kheruvimyi, taino obrazuyushchye,
i zhivotvoryashchei Troitsye trissvyatuyu pyessn pripyevayuschchye,
vsyakoye ninye zhityeiskoye otlozhim popyechyeniye. Amin.
Yako da Tsarya vsyekh podyimyem, angyelskiminyevidimo dorinossima chinmi, Alleluya.

We that in a mystery figure forth the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity,
now let us lay aside all cares of this life. Amen
To receive the king of all who comes invisibly upborne by ranks of angels. Alleluia.

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Arvo Pärt (b.1935): Bogoroditsye Dyevo

Another, but very different, setting of the same text as the Rachmaninov. The contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is known for his minimalist style - which he calls ‘tintinnabuli', inspired by bell-like triad-based sounds. His music is also heavily influenced by Gregorian Chant.

Bogoroditsye is minimalist in its syllabic textures and resolutely traditional in its use of harmony. Irregular rhythms, sudden changes of dynamic and speed and lightness of sound counterbalance this to give a more modern feel. The melodic material - more fragments than tunes - does have a simplicity reminiscent of chant. The piece is very brief - just 43 mostly very rapid bars with a short loud section in the middle.

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Morten Lauridsen (b.1943): O Magnum Mysterium

Morten Lauridsen was born in Colfax, Washington State in 1943. He studied at the University of Southern California, where he has been for many years professor and Chair of the Department of Composition. His works are primarily vocal, and include Lux Aeterna (given a recent workshop performance by the Bach Choir), Nocturnes (2005) and Les Chansons des Roses (1993), which we performed in St Mary Redcliffe in 2009. O Magnum Mysterium is his best-known work, a setting of Christmas words from 1994.

The composer has written:

“For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful O Magnum Mysterium text depicting the birth of the new-born King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God's grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy.”

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in their manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

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Organ interlude:
Herbert Howells (1892-1983): Psalm Prelude Set 1 no.2 (Op 32)

Herbert Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire in 1892, and his contribution to the twentieth century organ repertoire is one of the most significant of any British composer. He was Herbert Brewer's articled pupil at Gloucester Cathedral for two years before taking up a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1912. There he studied with, among others, Stanford, who described the young Howells as his ‘son in music’.

Howells' career as an organist was brief: he was forced by ill health to quit the post of sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917 and later deputised for a conscripted Robin Orr at St. John's College, Cambridge between 1941 and 1945. He wrote two sets of Psalm Preludes, the first of which dates from 1915/16. It is dedicated to Harry Stevens-Davis, a pupil of Howells, and is based on the 11th verse of Psalm 37: “But the meek-spirited shall possess the earth; and shall be refreshed in the multitude of peace.” It follows a typical Howells pattern of beginning and ending quietly with a more energetic and louder middle section.

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Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Sure on this shining night

Barber wrote this in 1938 as a solo song with piano accompaniment, and it was published as the last of the Four Songs opus 13. In 1941 he arranged it for choir with piano. In its original version it is probably Barber's best-known song, and a good example of his ‘neo-Romantic' style. As with all his music it is concise, well expressed and beautifully crafted.

The transcendent words are by the author, poet and screenwriter James Agee; Barber also used Agee's words in Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for Soprano and orchestra (1948). The choral arrangement has been criticised, but only for not being quite as perfect as the original. It is still one of Barber's best melodies, a lyrical little gem which deserves to be heard more often. Just enjoy the flow of the melody.

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Eric Whitacre (b.1970): Sleep

Whitacre comes from Nevada. He studied in Las Vegas and New York, and now lives in Los Angeles. He is best known as a composer of choral, wind band and electronic music, and as an inspiring conductor of his own music and that of others.

Whitacre's style is generally recognisable by his signature ‘Whitacre chords’, chords with sevenths and/or ninths, and sometimes with suspended seconds and/or fourths. A good example in Sleep is the chord on moon at the end of the first phrase - it's used again as the final chord of the piece. If this seems too technical, just enjoy the sound of his music, with chords that are unusual but not normally too dissonant or harsh. Whitacre's music is often compared to that of Morten Lauridsen: the harmonies they use are often similar, but Whitacre uses more avant-garde techniques, and a greater variety of texture.

Sleep has an interesting history. In 2000 Whitacre set to music Robert Frost's famous poem ‘Stopping by Woods', only to discover that he had not secured permission to use the poem. Rather than waste the music, he commissioned Charles Anthony Silvestri to write new words, and Sleep is the result. The most striking part of the setting is the final word, ‘sleep' which repeats and fades to nothing. Note that the original also ended on the same word.

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Paul Carr (b.1961): Now comes beauty

Paul Carr has written:

Now Comes Beauty was originally composed in the Summer of 2009 as a song for solo voice and 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 Bristol Bach Choir, whose concert last year of Lauridsen, Barber and Whitacre greatly impressed, as did their beautiful rendition of my Christmas carol.”

Now comes beauty, now my life
holds my soul through love, through strife.
Gifts of birds sing, winds from south,
stars like light bulbs stop my mouth.
Blue seas beckon, soft lands lie,
one more dream or I fear I die.
Two steps forward, three steps back,
empty canvas and I lost in track.
Moonbeams send me left to right,
must I say farewell this night?
New worlds hold new sounds for me,
time to go, to love, to be.

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Eric Whitacre: With a lily in your hand

With a lily in your hand is the second of Whitacre's Three Flower Songs, and was written in 2001. The words are a translation by the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) of an oblique love poem by the well-known American Jerome Rothenberg (b.1931). Rothenberg's version manages to be as vivid as the original while retaining its meaning and structure. One difference: Lorca's original title is Curva (curve or curved line). With a lily in your hand (the first line of the poem) is no doubt a better title for the song, but may miss a layer of meaning.

The piece is a virtuoso composition, in which an extraordinary choral version of Flamenco weaves in and out of richly-chorded slower music and more wistful melodic fragments. Interestingly, Whitacre's performance suggestions divide the music into ‘water' - a fluid texture in the middle of the piece at the words Tamer of dark butterflies - and ‘fire' - the rest of the music. Neither water nor fire is referred to in the poem.

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Percy Grainger (1882-1961): I'm Seventeen come Sunday

Among his many other musical activities - composer, performer, scholar and innovator - the Australian Percy Grainger was a collector of folksongs. In September 1905 he wrote down the song I'm seventeen come Sunday from the singing of one Fred Atkinson in Redbourne, Lincolnshire. Later that year he arranged it for choir with brass band or piano accompaniment. I'm afraid that this evening you will only get the piano version.

Grainger's attitude to folksong was typical of its time:

“ the folk-song there is to be found the complete history of a people, recorded by the race itself, through the heartoutbursts of its healthiest output. It is a history compiled with deeper feeling and more understanding than can be found among the dates and data of the greatest historian...”

Seventeen come Sunday was rather despised by folksong collectors not so much because it was well known (having been published as a ballad in the 1830s and 40s) but because the words were regarded as unsuitable for publication (Grainger's setting omits the verse in which the lovers spend the night together). Similar versions of both words and tune were found across the country. In 1923 Vaughan Williams used a Somerset version collected by Cecil Sharp in the first movement of his Folk Song Suite.

Grainger's setting doesn't sound much like a ‘heartoutburst', but it is typically exuberant. It starts with just the tune, for tenors and basses, and in each successive verse the influence of the arranger becomes more apparent, ending with some very Warlock-like harmonies. Grainger marks the music To be sung with a Lincolnshire (Lindsay) accent, if possible. Alas, for us this is not possible, so we're giving our performance a more local twist.

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