Choral Gems

Victoria Requiem / Bach Singet dem Herrn

Saturday 12 November 2011
St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

Nigel Nash - Conductor
Andrew Kirk- Organ

Introduction by Nigel Nash

When I joined Bristol Bach Choir way back in 1987 as one of 16 (yes really!) tenors and a guide-dog in a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers, the thought that I would one day take to the podium myself was completely off the radar. So it remained until June, when the committee were wondering who would conduct the November concert, and I suddenly found myself saying, ‘Oh, go on then, I'll have a go.’

Gavin Carr had originally planned to include the Victoria Requiem, together with other music from the same period, in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomas Luis de Victoria, the best known of a substantial school of Spanish Renaissance composers. I was very keen to do this piece as well, and decided, by way of contrast, to continue the Remembrance theme by including the poignant and deeply expressive Take him, earth, for cherishing, one of my favourite pieces by Herbert Howells.

It then seemed appropriate to offer a change of theme for the second half of the concert, and as St Cecilia's Day is just 10 days after the concert, what better piece to perform than Benjamin Britten's setting of Hymn to St Cecilia. After the glories of Mozart's Fantasia in F minor, played by Andrew Kirk on St Mary's newly restored, magnificent Harrison organ, we finish with the ebullient and joyful double choir motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied by The Master.

Concert Order

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

Tomàs Luis de Victoria  Requiem à 6
Herbert Howells Take him, earth, for cherishing
Benjamin Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, op.27
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Fantasia in F minor K608  (Andrew Kirk - organ )
J S Bach Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV225 )

Programme Notes

Victoria: Requiem à 6

Tomàs Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest composer of the Spanish ‘golden age’, and one of the greatest composers of a century rich in talent. Indeed, for many lovers of 16th-century music, and singers in particular, his music represents the apogee of late Renaissance style. His output was relatively small, and consisted entirely of sacred music. It is nevertheless wonderfully rich and beautifully expressive, displaying a consummate blend of Italian style and Spanish emotional intensity, an intensity for which it is justly renowned.

Victoria was born in Avila, in central Spain, the birthplace of St. Teresa. Like many composers of the Renaissance, his early career was spent in Italy. Possibly from 1563 (other estimates are 1565 or 1567) he studied at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome, continuing a Jesuit education begun in Avila, an education which clearly had a profound and continuing influence on him. He then occupied a variety of church and other posts, including a return to the Collegio as a tutor and later maestro di cappella. In 1575 Victoria was ordained priest. In the early 1580s he petitioned Philip II that he might return to Spain ‘to put an end to my labour of composing, to rest for a time in honest leisure, and to be able to compose my soul in contemplation, as befits a priest’. As a result, in 1585 Victoria was appointed chaplain and maestro di capilla to the Dowager Empress Maria, who in 1581 had retired to the luxurious royal convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St. Claire. There he served first the Empress and later her daughter until his death.

In 1603 the Empress died, and Victoria had to write, rehearse and direct the music for her funeral rites. The resulting music forms the six-part Officium defunctorum, his second setting of the Requiem Mass (the four-part Missa pro defunctis had appeared in 1583). The complete Officium consists of polyphonic settings of the appropriate parts of the mass Propers and Ordinary; a responsory for the Absolution (Libera me); an extra- liturgical motet (Versa est in luctum), for performance after the funeral oration and before the Absolution; and one of the lessons (Taedet animam meam) for the first nocturne of matins, which was sung on the first evening after death - the Requiem Mass itself following the next morning.

Our performance focuses on the music of the mass itself, omitting Taedet and the motet: that is, four of the Propers - Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion (Victoria did not set the Tract and Sequence); the three movements of the Ordinary used in the Requiem Mass - Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei; and the Responsory, Libera me. All these movements are, as was customary, based on the associated plainsong chants. These are heard, lightly embellished, in the second soprano part, round which Victoria weaves a richly expressive texture in the five other voices. Only the 'tutti' sections of the original chants are set polyphonically, the cantor's intonations and verses being kept as plainchant, which thus forms an essential part of the structure. The whole is wonderfully powerful, and rightly regarded by many as Victoria's greatest work.

Keith Bennett

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Howells: Take him, earth, for cherishing

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, and studied first with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, as an articled pupil alongside Ivor Gurney, the celebrated English songwriter and poet. Howells began a lifelong friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams at a concert in Gloucester Cathedral in September 1910, when he was profoundly moved by the première of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Later he studied at the Royal College of Music under Stanford, Parry and Charles Wood.

Howells was briefly assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, but a severe illness cut the appointment short. During his convalescence he assisted Richard Terry (the first Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral) in editing the voluminous Latin Tudor repertoire that Terry and his choir were reviving at the Cathedral. Howells took great interest in this work, absorbing the English Renaissance style which he loved and would evoke in his own music, and continued it until joining the faculty of the Royal College of Music in 1920. During World War II, he served as acting organist of St John's College, Cambridge. In 1935 his nine-year-old son, Michael, died suddenly from meningitis, and several of his subsequent works reflect this tragedy, notably Hymnus Paradisi. Howells succeeded Holst as Director of Music at St Paul's Girls School in London, leaving the post in 1962, shortly after he had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. He died in 1983 in London and his ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.

In his twenties and thirties his compositional output focussed chiefly on chamber and orchestral music, including two piano concertos. The hostile reception given to the second of these in 1925 largely silenced Howells' compositional activities for almost ten years. The death of his son Michael in 1935 did, however, appear to unleash a new period of creativity; both Howells himself and his music were never the same after this period of his life. He is especially well-known in church music circles for a large collection of Matins, Evensong and Eucharist music composed for many of our best-known cathedrals and college choirs, including a setting of the Te Deum for St Mary Redcliffe.

The motet Take him, earth, for cherishing has the dedication 'To the honoured memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America'. It was completed in London on 6th June 1964 and first performed at a memorial service in Washington, by the choir of the Cathedral Church of St. George, Kingston, Canada. Some nineteen years later, in 1983, the work was sung in Westminster Abbey at the Memorial Service of the composer himself.

Herbert Howells wrote of this work: 'Within the year following the tragic death of President Kennedy in Texas, plans were made for a dual American-Canadian Memorial Service to be held in Washington. I was asked to compose an a capella work for the commemoration. The text was mine to choose, biblical or other. Choice was settled when I recalled a poem by Prudentius (AD 348-413). I had already set it in medieval Latin, years earlier, as a study for Hymnus Paradisi (1938). But now I used none of that unpublished setting. Instead, I returned to Helen Waddell's faultless translation. Here was the perfect text - the Prudentius Hymnus circa Exsequias Defuncti.'

The beginning of the piece is very typical of Howells' choral style, starting as it does with a modal unison B minor melody in the lower three parts, and with a frequently changing time-signature helping to avoid much regularity of metre. The texture changes to two parts when the sopranos enter, and then spreads out into 4 and 5 part chords as the mood becomes more agitated on 'Guard him well'. The chord on 'the dead I give thee' is particularly heartfelt, almost bluesy. The music becomes more intense and passionate, as indicated in the score by the composer, on the words 'Comes the hour God hath appointed', before calming down again on 'then must Thou what I give, return again', with a brief return of the opening words in the tenor part. The music continues to ebb and flow through different moods, climaxing in a rich 8-part chordal section on 'Take, O take him, mighty leader', now firmly in B major. This thick scoring continues through to the end as an exquisite harmonic passage that only Howells could have written brings the piece to rest with the return of the words 'Take him, earth for cherishing', settling once again on B major, and magnificently underpinned by low Bs in the basses.

Nigel Nash

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Britten (1913-1976): Hymn to St Cecilia

Hymn to St Cecilia, Op 27 is a setting of a poem by W. H. Auden written between 1940 and 1942. Auden's original title was 'Three Songs for St. Cecilia's Day', and he later published the poem as 'Anthem for St. Cecilia's Day (for Benjamin Britten)'.

Britten had long wanted to write a piece dedicated to St Cecilia for a number of reasons. Firstly, he was born on St Cecilia's Day (in 1913); secondly, St Cecilia is the patron saint of music; and finally, there is a long tradition in England of writing odes and songs to St Cecilia, notably by John Dryden ('A song for St. Cecilia's Day', 1687) and musical works by Purcell, Parry, and Handel. The first reference to Britten's desire to write such a work is from 1935 when Britten wrote in his diary on 19 January: "I'm having great difficulty in finding Latin words for a proposed Hymn to St. Cecilia". and on the 25th: "I have the scheme but no notes yet for my St. Cecilia Hymn."

In April 1935, he was approached by a film director to write the score for the documentary The King's Stamp, produced by the GPO Film Unit. He subsequently met W H Auden, who was also working there; together they worked on the films Coal Face and Night Mail, as well as collaborating on the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers. Of more lasting importance to Britten was his meeting in 1937 with the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his partner. In early 1939, Britten and Pears followed Auden to America. While there, Britten wrote his first music drama, Paul Bunyan, to a libretto by Auden. Britten asked him to provide a text for his ode to St Cecilia, and Auden duly complied, sending the poem in sections throughout 1940, along with advice on how Britten could be a better artist. This was to be the last work they collaborated on.

According to Peter Pears in 1980: "Ben was on a different track now, and he was no longer prepared to be dominated - bullied - by Auden, whose musical feeling he was very well aware of." Composition was not begun until June 1941, when a first performance was contemplated by the Elizabethan Singers (in which Peter Pears was the tenor), to take place in New York sometime towards the end of that year. But Britten was unable to complete the work in time, and when he and Pears left the United States in March 1942 only the first two stanzas were ready. Unfortunately, the customs inspectors confiscated all of Britten's manuscripts, fearing they could be some type of code. Britten re-wrote the manuscript while at sea and finished it on 2 April, composing it at the same time as A Ceremony of Carols. The first performance, a radio broadcast, was given by the BBC Singers conducted by Leslie Woodgate on St Cecilia's Day 1942, 22 November (also Britten's twenty-ninth birthday), as part of the 'Music-Lover's Calendar'.

The text itself follows in the tradition of odes, including an invocation to the muse: "Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire". Britten uses this as a refrain throughout the piece, whereas it is the last portion of Auden's first section.

The piece is in three sections, plus repeats of the refrain, with slight variations, following each section. The largely diatonic opening section of the Hymn shows how well Britten was able to locate a precise musical image to match the serenity of Auden's words. The simple refrain is presented in unison at its first hearing but made progressively richer in harmonic texture at its two subsequent appearances. The second section, in the manner of a scherzo, combines fast, imitative passages for sopranos and tenors with a cantus firmus-like melody for altos and basses. The third section is more lyrical, with a sequence of vocal cadenzas, in which instrumental sonorities are imitated (violin, timpani, flute, trumpet) before a final rendition of the refrain settles back into E major.

Nigel Nash

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Mozart (1756-1791): Fantasia in F minor K608 (Andrew Kirk, organ)

'The organ still is, to my eyes and ears, the king of instruments'. (W A Mozart)

Mozart was a renowned organist, holding the position of Court and Cathedral Organist to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg from 1779-81. He wrote little organ music apart from some Epistle Sonatas for organ and orchestra.

This Fantasia (and its companion K594) was written as a commission, for a mechanical pipe organ inside a large clock. The piece stands alongside the best of his compositional output. It has a recurring French overture refrain followed by a fugal section, which contrasts well with the lyrical set of variations in the central Andante, showing the softer colours of the organ.

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JS Bach (1685-1750): Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied

It is quite a shock to admirers of Bach's music to discover that after his death in 1750, the works that we now consider to be the height of his achievement, the Passions and the Mass in B minor, lay forgotten and virtually unperformed until well into the 19th century. The story of the motets, though, is quite different. These smaller scale pieces - much loved by choirs because they give a good helping of Bach without having to hire an expensive orchestra and soloists - have enjoyed an almost continuous history of performance since their composition. One of Bach's successors in the post of Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig re-instated the motets as vocal training pieces for the choir, and they have remained in its repertoire ever since.

Of all Bach's motets, Singet dem Herrn in particular has left a trail of awe and admiration throughout its history. Mozart heard the work with great delight on a trip to Leipzig in 1789, and the poet Goethe, with typical Romantic eulogy, said that .It is as if the eternal harmony were conversing with itself as it may have done in the bosom of God just before the creation of the world.. The composer Parry, writing in the early 20th century, commented that Singet dem Herrn was "essentially fit to demonstrate the volume of tone of a great choir." This remark is interesting, in that it reminds us how much attitudes have changed in matters of performance.

To perform Singet dem Herrn, we divide into two equal four-part choirs. The first of the work's three sections begins with an abundance of musical material; the two note 'singet' motif is particularly prominent, as are the longer melismas on the same word. This then becomes the accompaniment to a lively fugue (you may notice that the fugue theme is very similar to the 'Cum sancto spiritu' from the Gloria of the Mass in B minor). The fugue starts in the soprano of choir 1 and gradually moves down through all four voices of choir 1, with choir 2 singing the accompanying material based on the two-note 'singet' motif. Then, after the fugue theme reaches the bass, it travels back up through the voices again, collecting the voices from choir 2 with it as it goes.

The gentle middle section combines a chorale sung by choir 2, with accompanying interjections from choir 1. Towards the end of this section the choir 1 parts include a quotation from a second chorale, the last line of the tune Eisenach, better known to British audiences perhaps as the hymn tune 'Oh love, how deep, how broad, how high'. The final section begins with material shared antiphonally between the eight voices of the two choirs, and then at the words 'Alles was Odem hat' the choirs combine in one last fugue. The theme of this last fugue, although very ornate, is actually very closely related in melodic outline to the theme of the 'Pleni sunt caeli et terra', again from the Gloria of the Mass in B minor.

The fugue text translates as 'All that has breath, praise the Lord'. Did Bach allow himself a wry smile here, I wonder, as he imagined his young singers coping with this challenge - not to mention the high soprano B flat right near the end - after an already demanding 15 minutes of singing?

Margaret Williams

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Andrew Kirk

Andrew Kirk has been Director of Music at St Mary Redcliffe Church since August 2003. He has responsibility for three choirs at the church (the main one being of 20 boys and 18 men).

He regularly gives recitals on the famous 4-manual Harrison and Harrison 1912 pipe organ (which was fully restored in 2010) and around the UK. He has recently recorded an organ CD Redcliffe Restored.

From 1994-2003 he was Director of Music at St John's Church, Ranmoor, Sheffield where he directed two choirs. Andrew has also taught class music at three secondary schools in the past ten years, including Lady Manners School, Bakewell. He has accompanied many choirs and is actively involved in the work of the Royal School of Church Music.

Born and educated in Leicester, he won an Organ Scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford where he studied organ with David Sanger. He spent 2 years in Western Australia as Assistant Organist at St George's Anglican Cathedral in Perth. He has played and given recitals in many cathedrals and major churches in the UK.

Andrew holds the FRCO Diploma, and gained the Turpin and Durrant prizes for organ playing. In addition to music making, he likes to keep fit by running, cycling and swimming.

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St Mary Redcliffe Organ Restoration 2009-10

The whole instrument was dismantled and pipework cleaned. The Swell layout has been reconfigured with new building frame, soundboards and 3 stage actions, improving access for tuning and maintenance.

Four new blowers have been provided : low and high pressure to the main organ situated in the north churchyard together with two blowers for the Swell organ in the upper vestry room. All reservoirs have been fully refurbished and the instrument is wind-tight for the first time in many generations. The Great soundboards have been remade; the Choir and Solo have new plywood tables and pallet-boards with actions re-made.

The console has been restored with additional general memories and a stepper provision. New SSOS coupling system, new cabling and fusing have been provided throughout the instrument.

Ample time was allowed to voice and fine tune the instrument, to preserve the original tonal quality of the 1912 instrument.

The Appeal target was set at £800,000. Half of the money was promised over a five year period from the Canynges Society and Temple and Ecclesiastical Trust. A generous anonymous benefactor gave a substantial donation, along with individual donors from the church and various trust funds. The choir and congregation also put on a number of fundraising concerts and events.

Work commenced in January 2009 and was completed in August 2010. When all the pipework was in place, Andy Scott (London tuner and voicer) started work on the north side of the organ (Great and Swell); Peter Hopps arrived later to work on the south side and the tonal balance of the whole instrument. Duncan Bennett, who has tuned and maintained the instrument for many years has also played an important role in bringing the organ back to life.

The results speak for themselves - I am sure that the organ is sounding as well as it did in 1912 and on behalf of the church I would like to take this opportunity to thank Harrison and Harrison for their unstinting care over every detail of the restoration process.

'It is no exaggeration to describe the Redcliffe organ as the finest high-Romantic organ ever constructed' (William McVicker)

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