Fauré <i>Requiem </i>

Fauré: Requiem

Saturday 7 November 2015
St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

Christopher Finch - conductor
Nigel Nash - organ

Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer or work to view programme notes...)

Herbert Howells Requiem
Herbert Howells Take him earth for cherishing
Gustave Fauré Requiem

An introduction to this concert from our Music Director, Christopher Finch

This time of year sees the nation's collective consciousness focus briefly on the wider issues of remembrance, loss and sacrifice. Composers have been eternally inspired by these most human of emotions. Many of the greatest choral compositions of the last four hundred years have placed their emphasis not on the great sense of grief that is felt by the bereaved, but instead on the universal themes of comfort, consolation, redemption and hope. The music of this evening's concert is therefore unified by these central themes, with the hope that the experience will provide a moment or two of reflection followed by a lasting afterglow of indefinable peace and affirmation.

Music speaks in a language that unifies all people. However, we must not underplay the significance of the texts that are being sung. From the standard liturgical texts of the Roman Catholic funeral rite (Fauré), to the soothing and reassuring words of the psalms (Howells Requiem) and, most remarkably, to the ancient poem of Prudentius (Take him, Earth, for cherishing), the amalgamation of words and music in beautiful and profound coexistence produces a heartfelt communicative directness, from which it is impossible to remain untouched.

As a conductor, it is my privilege to present a programme of such ethereal beauty and timeless profundity. I simply invite you to open yourselves to the music, to rejoice in its life-affirming joy and share with us in this remarkable journey.

Notes on the composers and tonight's works

Herbert Howells 1892-1983

Born in Lydney in the Forest of Dean. Studied with Herbert Brewer, organist of Gloucester Cathedral before moving to the Royal College of Music. In 1915 he was diagnosed with Graves&appos; disease, which prevented him being conscripted into the army. He lived mostly in London, earning a living from composing, teaching and adjudicating. He is best remembered for his contribution to the Anglican church repertoire, but also wrote chamber, organ and orchestral music.

There is a story that, as a youth, Howells would accompany his father on weekly trips to Bristol. Howells senior always took the time to come into St Mary Redcliffe to say a few prayers before returning home; one can imagine the young lad taking in the sight and sounds of the great building while waiting patiently for his father to finish his devotions. One of Howells' later works - a Te Deum - was written for this church.

Gustave Fauré 1845-1924

Born in south-west France, he showed early musical promise; his local bishop paid for a scholarship for him to a boarding school in Paris from the age of nine. Among his teachers was Saint-Saëns, who introduced him to the latest music, and became a friend. Fauré fought in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Thereafter he made a living as organist, composer and teacher, becoming head of the Paris Conservatoire in 1905. He got on well with most of his contemporary composers, and was known for championing their music. He is best known for his songs, chamber music and the Requiem.

Some similarities and coincidences

Both Fauré and Howells came from modest backgrounds, showed early promise and had their musical education financed by establishment figures. Both wrote music based on national traditions; and both discovered a harmonic language which makes their music distinctive. Both were organists and teachers. Both had less-than-perfect marriages; both were serially unfaithful. Both wrote Requiems supposed, probably incorrectly, to have been inspired by the death of a close relative.

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Howells: Requiem

This is not a liturgical requiem. There are six short movements, with breaks in between each. It lasts about 20 minutes in total. It is written for unaccompanied choir, with solos in numbers 2, 4, and 6.

Brief historical note:
Recent research has shown that the Requiem was written around 1932-33 and intended for Boris Ord at King's College Cambridge, but for some reason was not sent or performed at that time. Thus the usual view that it was written in response to the death of his son Michael in 1935 is incorrect. However he did reuse some of the material in his large-scale cantata Hymnus Paradisi (1936-8, revised 1950), which was written in memory of Michael; and it seems likely that he came to associate it with the memory of him. Perhaps understandably, Howells was wary of letting these works be publicly performed: Hymnus Paradisi was not heard until 1950 and the Requiem was not published until 1980, three years before the composer's death.

What to listen for:
Most of the melodic material of the piece derives from the first few notes of the opening phrase, which is constantly extended and varied throughout the six movements. This process however is quite hard for the casual listener to follow, so here are a few more things to listen for:
1st movement: without any dramatic chord changes, the music reaches a distant key on the words Save us and then gradually works its way back to the opening tonality.
2nd movement: starts with one solo, joined by a second and then a third. Full choir then starts very simply in octaves, moving out into modal harmony on shall be full before going back to the octave texture. About as simple and effective as you can get.
3rd movement: only Howells could have written the lovely chords on Et lux perpetua.
4th movement: the interaction between the baritone soloist and the choir; then the simple homophonic texture concealing subtle harmonies; and the rise and fall of each phrase.
5th movement: the same words as the third movement but a quite different, more dramatic musical treatment, rising to a loud climax on perpetua, and falling back to a serene ending.
6th movement: the choral texture is punctuated and overlapped by solos: first the tenor, then baritone, then (at the climax) soprano, and ending with the baritone again. There is a sense of complex tense chords gradually unravelling into the diaphanous ending.

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Howells: Take him, Earth for cherishing

Brief historical note:
To start at the beginning: the poem Hymnus circa Exequias Defuncti (The Burial of the Dead) was written by Prudentius (348-413), a Christian poet, anthologist and theologian who came from what is now northern Spain, but lived for most of his life in Rome, whither he was summoned by the emperor Theodosius. This was translated by Helen Waddell and included in her book Medieval Latin Lyrics. Prudentius hardly counts as medieval: the poem is in the book as an example of the continuity of the Latin poetic tradition.
Helen Waddell (1889-1965) was a much-loved Irish academic and author whose best-known work is perhaps the historical novel Peter Abelard. Howells was commissioned to write this piece in 1963 for the memorial service to John F. Kennedy in Washington Cathedral. It was performed at his own memorial service in Westminster Abbey. It is said that the theme reminded Howells of the earlier death of his son Michael - see note on the Requiem - and that this is a reason for the heartfelt nature of the setting.

What to listen for:
Notice how the beginning gradually expands from a unison melody to two parts on once was this ... to full chords on Guard him well.
Note how the repeated interjected lines from the first verse - Take him, Earth and body of a man have the effect of reminding us of the funeral, like a grief that will not go away.
Note how cleverly Howells constructs the ending of the piece, with a more formal setting of the words Take, O take him, mighty leader leading to a repeat of the first two verses - not, however, with the same music, but as though informed by the preceding verses - over a tonic pedal note B that seems to add an air of inevitability and acceptance.

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Fauré: Requiem

Seven movements, with pauses in between. Choir accompanied by organ. Baritone solos in the second and sixth movements; the fourth movement is just for soprano solo and organ.

Brief historical note:
The piece has a history too convoluted to go into in much detail here. Fauré started writing the work ‘for the pleasure of it’ in 1887, and it went through several different versions with additions, revisions and re-orchestration until the final version - the one usually performed - appeared in 1900. John Rutter has suggested that much of the detail of this last version is unsatisfactory, as Fauré may have entrusted the editing to others, and he has produced an edition of the 1893 version which we are using this evening. In practice however, most of the differences are in the orchestration - not really relevant as we're performing with organ - and it would take great familiarity with the piece to hear any differences from the ‘normal’ version - very well done if you spot any. Perhaps the most obvious is that the beginning of the first movement is marked Largo (slow) rather than Molto Largo crotchet = 40, which is very slow indeed.

What to listen for:
It is hard to suggest particular points to the listener as the piece is so well-known - just enjoy all those marvellous tunes, harmonies and textures.
The adventurous among you may however like to consider the following: one technique which Fauré uses several times is to start a section with a tune that is basically in stepwise motion, and then to increase the intensity and to make a more definite statement, he moves on to melodies featuring a perfect fourth - usually rising. This pattern can be heard most clearly in the first movement (first to second sections), the Sanctus (fourths on Pleni sunt coeli), and the tremens section of the Libera me, while the Pie Jesu performs the operation in reverse, starting with a definite statement (rising fourth) and moving to a more gentle ending.
It can be argued that the last movement reconciles the two types of melodic material, making a musically fulfilling ending to the Requiem as well, of course, as being a beautiful and imaginative piece of music.

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