Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
Dietrich Buxtehude was an organist and composer of the Baroque period. The country of his birth is uncertain, but it is known that he studied music with his father, Johann, who had a great influence on him. He moved to Lübeck in 1688 and became organist of Marienkirche (St. Mary's Church). One of his greatest contributions there was his establishment of Abendmusik - evening concerts of organ and choral music held annually on the five Sundays before Christmas. His post in the free Imperial city of Lübeck afforded him considerable latitude in his musical career and his autonomy was a model for the careers of later Baroque master musicians from northern Germany who came to the city to meet the composer and to attend his concerts.
When interest in Buxtehude revived after a long period of oblivion his reputation as the most famous organist in Germany prior to Bach was the first fact to be remembered. The discovery that he was also an outstanding composer of sacred vocal music, and in that sphere of composition worthy to rank with Schütz and Bach, has been made only in the course of the last few decades.
Das Neugeborne Kindelein (The Little Newborn Child)
J S Bach (1685-1750)
In 1705, Bach travelled 200 miles, on foot, from Arnstadt to meet Buxtehude, the pre-eminent Lübeck organist, and hear him play; he also studied with him for several months in 1705 and 1706. He wanted to follow Buxtehude at St. Mary's, but had no wish to marry Buxtehude's daughter - and that was a condition for the position!
Bach's 'seventh motet' was originally catalogued as a cantata, despite being recognizably a motet and described as such by Bach on its title page. It was written in 1736 for a funeral service in Leipzig and scored for an outdoor group of litui (curved trumpets used at funerals), a cornetto and three trombones. Ten years later Bach re-scored it for indoor use for litui, woodwind, strings and continuo. The chorale melody upon which the motet is based comes from a Leipzig hymnal of 1625, As hymnodus sacer.
O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (O Lord Jesus Christ, my life and light)
Songs for Baritone and Piano performed by Stewart Kempster and Drew Tulloch
Handel: Where ere you walk from Semele
Wagner: O Star of Eve from Tannhauser
John Ireland: Sea Fever
Malotte: Lord's Prayer
Music in honour of the Virgin Mary from the 15th to 20th Centuries
The first of our three groups in honour of the Virgin Mary is a miscellany - a song of praise to Mary; Mary as a guiding light; Mary as a compassionate mother; and a devotional outpouring of reverence to Mary.
P I Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky first tried his hand at church music in 1878 with the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The success of this work prompted the Tsar to ask Tchaikovsky, at an audience in 1884, to write more for the church. His response was Nine Liturgical Choruses, written during the composer's wanderings around Europe that year. Balakirev, director of the Imperial Chapel Choir, was sent three (and probably later all) of the set to perform for the Tsar. Dostoino Yest is no. 5 of the nine choruses. It will be sung in Russian and the translation is provided below.
Dostoino Yest (Hymn to the Virgin)
This enchanting miniature, dating from 1898, is Grieg's own choral arrangement of a solo song with piano which he wrote in the same year and published as one of a pair of sacred songs - his only sacred pieces apart from the Four Norwegian Psalms written shortly before his death. The text of Ave maris stella, in its solo version, was a Danish poem by Thor Lange, but for the choral version Grieg reverted to the familiar Latin text. The poetic image of Mary as a star guiding mortal souls across the ocean of life no doubt held special significance for Grieg, who was born and lived for much of his life near the North Sea port of Bergen.
Ave maris stella (Hail, bright star of heaven)
The death of a friend in a car accident in 1936 and a subsequent visit to the shrine at Rocamadour turned Poulenc's thoughts towards the composition of sacred music, which was not a genre he had previously cultivated. Starting with the Litanies a la Vierge Noire (1936) he wrote a remarkable series of sacred works large and small, to which he attached considerable importance.
The Salve Regina and another a cappella motet, Exultate Deo, were written in 1941 at Poulenc's country home at Noizay in Touraine, both pieces being inspired by archaic models. Exultate Deo is directly modelled on Palestrina's setting of the same text, but the more homophonic Salve Regina is simply given a serenely antique flavour influenced by Gregorian chant, spiced with touches of Poulenc's own distinctive harmonic language. The dedicatee of the piece was Helene de Wendel, a cultured and music-loving friend who helped edit Poulenc's letters after his death.
Salve Regina (Hail Queen)
Górecki (b. 1933)
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki was born in Czernica in Poland's coal mining belt. In 1955 he began studying composition with Boleslaw Szabelski at the State Higher School of Music. Totus Tuus is dedicated to 'His Holiness Pope John Paul II for his third pilgrimage to his homeland' and was first performed in June 1987 by the Choir of Warsaw Academy of Catholic Theology at High Mass held by Pope John Paul II in Victory Square, Warsaw.
Totus Tuus (I am completely yours)
The second set of pieces in honour of the Virgin Mary looks at the Ave Maria (Hail Mary). The Ave Maria (sometimes called the "Angelical salutation") is the most familiar of all the prayers used by the Universal Church in honour of the Blessed Lady.
Josquin Desprez (c.1440-1521)
Desprez has always been regarded as the greatest composer of his generation, the fullest embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance and one of the most impressive and prolific exponents of sacred and secular vocal music. Of his 100 or so surviving motets, Ave Maria, probably written shortly before 1500, is one of the loveliest and most celebrated. Distinctive features of Josquin's style are in evidence, including the use of contrasting pairs of voices, canon, and paraphrased Gregorian chant (the pre-Tridentine sequence Ave Maria), though this appears only at the opening as a kind of prelude to the main part of the motet, which is a free setting of a five-versed poem starting with the words 'Ave cujus conceptio'. The verses deal in turn with the five Marian feasts - Conception, Nativity, Annunciation, Purification and Assumption - and at the end the prayer 'O Mater Dei memento mei' is added.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
This is the first of the Quattro pezzi sacri, four very diverse compositions completed in 1898 which form Verdi's swansong; the other three are the Stabat Mater for chorus and orchestra, the Laudi alla Vergine Maria for four unaccompanied female voices and the Te Deum for double chorus and orchestra. The Ave Maria has a curious history. The 'scala enigmatica' on which it is based was submitted anonymously to a music magazine, the 'Gazzetta Musicale', and Verdi took up the challenge of treating it as a 'cantus firmus' in what turned out to be a harmonically adventurous little setting that bears the composer's distinctive stamp. Thanks to his expert writing for voices, it is easier to sing than it at first appears!
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
The fifteen a cappella pieces making up the All-Night Vigil were written early in 1915. Rachmaninov had set the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in 1910, and a performance which he conducted in 1914 convinced him that he should write another and (to him) more satisfactory work for the Russian Orthodox Church. The All-Night Vigil was an immediate success at its première by the Moscow Synodal Choir in 1915, but the suppression of the Church following the 1917 revolution prevented it from achieving wide recognition until the 1960s. The Ave Maria concludes Vespers, the first part of the Vigil (Matins forms the second part). In accordance with Orthodox practice Rachmaninov based his music on traditional chants, but they were, in his words, 'conscious counterfeits' which he himself invented.
It will be sung in Russian and the translation is given below.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
In 1926 Stravinsky rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church, from which he had been estranged for some twenty-five years. The main musical fruit of his reconversion was the Symphony of Psalms, but he also wrote three short unaccompanied sacred choruses, of which the Ave Maria (1934) was the last. Originally in Slavonic (to the text Bogoroditsye Dyevo), it was adapted by the composer to the Latin text in 1949.
The text and translation is the same as for the Gabrieli setting of Ave Maria.
O magnum mysterium
For the third group of pieces, we turn to the fourth of the nine responsories for Matins of Christmas Day, O magnum mysterium. While references to scripture are contained within, the origins of this text are unknown. What is certain, however, is that this text – capturing the awe of the Birth as well as the message that the humble have a place - has inspired composers to set it to music for over a millennium.
G P da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was an Italian composer of Renaissance music. He was the most famous sixteenth-century representative of the Roman School of musical composition and had a vast influence on the development of Roman Catholic church music, and his work can be seen as a summation of Renaissance polyphony.
Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612)
Gabrieli was born in Venice and, like his uncle Andrea (who was a formative influence on his nephew), worked as organist in the Cathedral of St Mark in Venice. He also composed vocal and instrumental pieces for church and state festivities and taught a young generation of composers the new musical idioms of the baroque.
For Gabrieli, who designed his creations for large spaces, traditional counterpoint (as in Palestrina's setting you've just heard) was less important than dramatic changes in texture and dynamics. Gabrieli's version of O magnum mysterium uses two choirs - one with high voices and the other with low voices.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Poulenc’s religious music, while expressing perfectly his profound Catholic faith, was always closely bound up with his relationships with friends and lovers. He had been catapulted back to the church in 1936 by the death in appalling circumstances of the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. His great opera Dialogues des Carmelites was deeply affected by the illness and death of his lover Lucien Roubert.
Poulenc's setting of the O magnum mysterium text is number one in the set Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noel. These four exquisite miniatures, composed between November 1951 and May 1952, seem to have been written at least in part as gifts for their dedicatees: indeed they are such private pieces that no proper record exists of their first performance. What may have been their première was given, rather incongruously, in Madrid by the Netherlands Chamber Choir. Poulenc dedicated the first of them, a dark, tender setting of O magnum mysterium, to the conductor of that performance, Felix de Nobel.
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
O magnum mysterium, commissioned by Marshall Rutter in honour of his wife Terry Knowles, has had several thousand performances throughout the world and dozens of recordings since its 1994 première by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful O magnum mysterium text depicting the birth of the newborn 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.
Notes by the composer
For text and translation please see Gabrieli above.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Ralph Vaughan Williams was an outstanding 20th-century composer, and one of a handful of British composers whose achievement ranks equal in genius with that of Henry Purcell. Drawing on the rich treasury of national folk song and dance, he created a uniquely English style that is also universal in its range of appeal.
Fantasia on Christmas Carols
The Fantasia, derived from his reforming work as editor of the English Hymnal, is founded on traditional English carols: The truth sent from above (Herefordshire), words and tune; Come all you worthy gentlemen (Somerset), words and tune; On Christmas night (Sussex), words and tune; There is a fountain (Herefordshire), tune only; together with fragments of other well known carol tunes. The work is dedicated to Cecil Sharp, an English musician noted for his work as a collector of English folk song and dance.
With this grand, majestic music (incorporating this composer's typically spacious harmonies), we bring our concert to a close.
Programme notes were gathered from various sources.
Page last updated 3 December, 2007 by Ian Downie