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MUSIC LIST

Gerald Raphael Frinzi

Sunday 31st May 2020

We are bringing you a wealth of music to listen to this Sunday: my plan was to bring you the anthem the choir were going to be performing in normal time (Elgar - The Spirit of the Lord), but due to constraints on streaming videos I have produced a recording of Tallis - Loquebantur variis linguis for the morning service. I also write briefly about two pieces of music which would have been performed at the recreation of Holst's Whitsun Festival this weekend, both of which received their first performances in Christ's Chapel.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) - The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

Edward Elgar can lay claim to being one of my many favourite composers. His popularity in England is immense, although his works are infrequently performed outside of this country. In spite of heavy compositional influences from continental Europe, he is considered to be one of the finest purveyors of the British style of composition. It took him a long time to achieve national and international fame: he was in his forties when he wrote the Enigma Variations (1899) which catapulted him into the top echelons of British music. Many of his major works followed soon after - The Dream of Gerontius the following year, the first Pomp and Circumstance March (1901) The Apostles (1903), his First Symphony (1908), and his Violin Concerto (1910). The fact that the bulk of Elgar's work was written when he had reached compositional maturity has enabled him to have a strongly unique musical language, and a finely developed style of writing.

The Spirit of the Lord is the Prologue to The Apostles. The opening of the work conjures up feelings of awe, wonder, and quiet fervour. A long orchestral introduction with spacious string writing, punctuated with slow harp arpeggios and timpani rolls (incidentally, he uses the same key, the same first chord, and the same timpani roll as at the start of the First Symphony), lead us into the story. A beautiful solo horn comes through the texture to herald the entrance of the choir, who are playing the role of the Apostles. The opening choral phrase is wide-eyed, encapsulating the essence of the Holy Spirit entering the Apostles, but as the choir start to sing about what they will do ("he has sent me to heal the broken-hearted") the music begins to gain momentum, leading up to a glorious crescendo ("to preach the acceptable year of the Lord"). The next two sections are Elgar's melodic writing at its very best, firstly the arching soprano and alto melody ("to give unto them that mourn a garland for ashes" - one of my favourite texts), and then the slightly more energised soprano melody ("for as the earth bringeth forth her bud"). The harmonic writing in the strings underneath both of these melodies is exquisite. Elgar leads into these two melodies brilliantly - when I conduct this I allow the tempi to flow into each other, which brings out the natural harmonic progression.

Elgar repeats the second soprano melody, but this time with full choir and orchestra, with an epic crescendo onto "spring forth before all the nations". One of the most beautiful alto phrases then heralds in the return to the opening music, via a protracted rallentando to the opening tempo. Elgar changes the repetition of the opening phrase very slightly, which for me really sets the scene for the remainder of the oratorio.

Here is Mark Elder, with the Hallé choir and orchestra:  Click Here

Text here: Click Here

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) - Loquebantur

Tallis's setting of this lively pentecostal text is superb. The text focuses on the theme of our second reading, about the Holy Spirit giving the Apostles the gift of speaking in tongues. The music is full of rejoicing and real fizz, full of rhythmic energy and voices suddenly appearing out of the texture. It is meant, I believe, to sound like people babbling in many different languages at the same time.

Tallis writes the anthem for seven voices. This is potentially significant, as the Bible teaches us of the seven Spirits of God, and of their link to the 'seven graces' or gifts written about in Romans 12:6-8 and in Isaiah 11:1-2 (which are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). Of course, he could have just been showing off. The plainchant melody (which is heard in between repeats of the music) also runs through the work as a cantus firmus, in this case in the tenor part. The tenor sings the plainchant in semibreves throughout the work, whilst all the decorated writing goes on around them. The plainchant does weave itself into the free writing too - the opening phrases of each voice begin on the same four notes as the chant.

Once the music gets started it is difficult to hear any new entries with any clarity. The melismatic writing, coupled with often two or three different words being sung at the same time, adds to the feeling of a crowd excitedly chatting to each other in many languages. What we do hear, courtesy of the six free voices constantly swapping with each other, is bits of melody suddenly springing out when a voice suddenly rises in the texture. The two (in the case of Sunday's performance) alto parts are equal in terms of tessitura, and frequently jump above the other to be heard: the same goes for the two tenor and two bass parts. Rhythmically, at various points each voice suddenly goes into a frenzy of activity for a few notes, before returning to the texture again. Each section proceeds in much the same way as the first, starting with one or two voices before quickly building up to all seven singing at the same time.

Tallis gives us the plainchant to sing between repetitions of the music: he has written a few pieces like this, in which performance practise is to sing the entire piece (usually three sections) through in one go, sing the first part of the plainchant, repeat sections two and three, sing the second part of the plainchant, and finish with a repeat of the final section. The mesmerising Videte miraculum is another piece set out like this - I would highly recommend having a listen to this if you get the chance (ORA). The repetitions allow for some creativity in performance, as there are no specified dynamics or performance instructions, but it feels to me that Loquebantur almost benefits from not having any - for my money the babbling feeling tends to get a little lost if performers get too arty about it.

Here, for those who won't hear me sing it tomorrow morning, are The Sixteen/Harry Christophers: Click Here

Text and translation:

Loquebantur variis linguis Apostoli magnalia Dei, prout Spiritus Sanctus dabat eloqui illis, alleluia. Repleti sunt omnes Spiritu Sancto, et coeperunt loqui.
The Apostles spoke in many languages of the great works of God, as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of speech, alleluia. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak.

The Holst Whitsun Festival recreation

This year is the 100th anniversary of Holst's Whitsun Festival. I will write a brief paragraph about two of the works which received their first performance in the 1920 festival. Phillipa Tudor has written a wonderful and very informative article about the festival in the Dulwich Society Journal, due out today, so if you can get your hands on a copy of that please do. As and when an online link becomes available I will post it in a future music list. Here are two works which were first performed at the festival, in Christ's Chapel:

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Introit Kyrie

Vaughan Williams, a close friend of Holst and former teacher at JAGS, wrote his liturgical Mass in G minor for the Whitsun Festival. The very first Dulwich-based festival, 100 years ago this Sunday, contained mostly music of the renaissance and baroque eras (predominantly Byrd, Bach, and Victoria). The exceptions to this were a new work by Holst himself, which I will get to in a moment, and Vaughan Williams's Introit Kyrie (which ran alongside the Kyrie of the mass chosen for the eucharist, by William Byrd). The Introit Kyrie became the Kyrie of the G minor mass.

In spite of being written as a liturgical setting, the Mass in G minor is often reserved for concert performance. The main reason for this is the scoring: it's written for 12 parts, four soloists and divided chorus. I have performed this with a choir of 11 (!) and it's a bit of a mess, even with professional singers. The scoring alone puts it out of the range of many church choirs, especially those who only meet to rehearse on a Sunday morning. Having said that, the music, the Kyrie especially, is mesmerising in a liturgical setting. The opening, sung by the altos (pianissimo) sets the tone for the work, and when the remaining voices enter they do so very softly. It reminds me of slowly rising incense, taking the prayers of the congregation to God. This is helped by the way he writes for the voices: each voice rises and falls in waves, going above and below the parts around them, the sound washing over the congregation. The music itself is pure Vaughan Williams, the two Kyries written in a modal G minor, with the Christe in G major (with F naturals to keep the modal feel to the music).

Here are Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown: Click Here

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) - Festival Te Deum

The founder of the festival, Gustav Holst, gave the first performance of his Short Festival Te Deum (written the year before, in 1919) at the Mattins service in the festval, and at the end of Evensong to close out the formal Whitsunday services. The setting is typical Holst: he sticks to the styles of writing common in liturgical Mattins settings of the time (plenty of unison writing, especially at the most powerful parts of the music, a liberal use of writing in thirds when the music does split into harmony, antiphonal writing at "the glorious company of the Apostles", and slowing down the tempo for "when thou took'st upon thee to deliver man", to name but four. These can be found in many 20th Century settings of British Te Deums).

Whilst sticking to these structures, Holst makes the music his own. Harmonically the music is relatively impressionistic, with more than a hint of British modality about it, and when performed with orchestra the writing and orchestration is vivid, dramatic, and energetic, especially in the arpeggiated string writing. Some of the writing reminds me strongly of The Planets suite (finished two years previously, in 1918). The fact that the first performance was such a success is testament to Holst's teaching of his pupils at JAGS, St. Paul's Girls School, and Morley College, who made up the bulk of the musicians at the festival.

Here are the LSO choir and orchestra/Sir Charles Groves: Click Here

 

Image credit: ID 131103232 © Perseomedusa | Dreamstime.com

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