By Thomas May
Spanning the Centuries: England’s Choral Music Tradition
It was in London that the concept of orchestral concerts for a general public first sprang to life. Yet England’s essential musical identity remains deeply influenced by the choral legacy that began to bloom centuries ago, at the height of the Tudor era. “More than in almost any other country,” observes Music Director Grant Gershon, “in England — you could say in all the British Isles — the tradition is vocal rather than instrumental.” Key aspects of that tradition, for Gershon, involve “a directness and simplicity of melodic content, long lines that are naturally vocal, and a flair for rich, triadic harmonies.”
These qualities permeate the music of William Byrd, one of the great architects of the English choral style. Byrd represents an intriguing example of the interplay between historical, biographical, and aesthetic factors. A Catholic in Reformation England, Byrd was a recusant (i.e., conspicuously absent from mandated Anglican worship), yet he nevertheless won the favor of Queen Elizabeth and served as a member of the Chapel Royal in her court. The Queen even granted Byrd, together with his mentor Thomas Tallis, the exclusive right to publish music. Paradoxically, while Byrd penned significant contributions to the Anglican service, as well as patriotic pieces celebrating Elizabeth and her victory over the Armada, he risked being denounced for treason by writing music for the Catholic liturgy.
The Four-Part Mass dates from the early 1590s, by which time Byrd had retired from the potential pitfalls of the court in London. This is the first of a series of three Masses — the other two were composed for three and five vocal parts, respectively — which were intended for use in underground celebrations of the Catholic liturgy conducted in secretive chapels. Byrd even went so far as to publish these scores for wider distribution among the recusant community, omitting a title page though proudly printing his name.
Composed at the height of his powers, the Mass evokes not a grandly ornamented and sumptuous cathedral, but the inner life of the worshipper. Byrd’s neatly tailored, economic and practical structure resounds with an emotional intensity. He establishes a dark tone from the beginning with the descending, minor-key head motif of the Kyrie, which is woven throughout the Mass.
Stylistically, Byrd also seems to express a yearning for an older, vanished England through his elegantly imitative counterpoint. Microclimatic shifts of mood — in tempo and textural density — yield maximal effects. Even in the Gloria, the praise of creation becomes shadowed by the penitential humility of miserere nobis. A flash of hope briefly surges through et resurrexit, while Byrd’s concise writing makes the repetition of catholicam stand out with obvious significance in the Credo. The ambiguity of Byrd’s own standing has a familiarly contemporary ring to it, particularly in the despair of the Agnus Dei. In this music we hear a world fallen into ruin, the pleas of its sinners for peace more urgent than ever.
Judith Weir also evokes imagery of humility and dissolution in Two Human Hymns, which she composed in 1994 for the 500th anniversary of the University of Aberdeen. Yet despite the specifically Christian context of the 17th-century metaphysical poets she chose to set, their words “could be more widely applicable to all human experience,” says Weir — hence her title. The idiosyncratic spice of her score, which inventively blends organ and six-part choir, further underlines the sense of contemporary allegory.
Love Bade Me Welcome supplements the poet George Herbert’s spiritual message with a scenario that suggests “a gently hypnotic love song,” as Weir terms it. The organ, which serves as connective tissue for the choral dialogue, is alternately seductive and anxious, as if voicing the doubts of the beloved. In Like to the Falling of a Star, Weir renders Henry King’s litany of metaphors to conjure decay via two complementary musical metaphors. “In the first half of the piece,” writes the composer, “the music bubbles upwards, fresh and optimistic; in the second half, like all those doomed sinners, it is going down, down, down.”
When Benjamin Britten decided to end his temporary exile in the United States and return to England in 1942, the authorities seized his music manuscripts — including the opening of his Hymn to St. Cecilia — before he could set sail. Their concern was that military secrets might somehow be encoded therein, but the personal references to Britten embedded in Auden’s poem would defy any cryptographer. Typically, Auden weaves pointed advice into his portrait of the young composer (whose birthday was in fact on St. Cecilia’s Day), while updating the traditional invocation to this muse-like Christian figure. On one level, Britten’s departure signaled his determination to break free from the poet’s overbearing influence. His setting of Hymn, which he completed during the sea journey, served as both an exorcism and a farewell.
Britten finds striking musical terms to mirror Auden’s imagism.
A pungent harmonic ambiguity underlies the refrain, which binds the three sections together and colors the opening section as well. The middle section, a virtuosic flicker of lightly punctuated counterpoint against an antique sounding cantus firmus, gives way to the heart of the hymn in the final section, featuring a celestial soprano and a series of solo voices to enact the metaphorical properties of music — and fill out the composer’s portrait.
With Peter Grimes, Britten charted a new course for English opera, yet his choral music remained deeply rooted in England’s rich choral
tradition — a tradition he invokes directly in Missa Brevis, which he composed in 1959 for the boy choristers of Westminster Cathedral and their director, George Malcolm. Britten’s setting for three-part treble voices and organ, which omits the Credo entirely, animates the clarity of English choral textures with its piquantly bitonal harmonic idiom and tricky rhythms (note especially the Gloria for the latter).
John Tavener, who was one of Judith Weir’s teachers, blends English clarity with the longstanding traditions of Orthodox music in his Song for Athene for four-part choir. This brief work brought the composer into the international spotlight when it was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, and it beautifully distills his combination of aesthetic and spiritual ideas into a music stripped to its minimal essence.
Tavener in fact wrote Song for Athene several years earlier, in memory of a gifted young Greek actress who, as it happens, had also been killed in an accident. The text interpolates two brief references to Hamlet alongside words from the traditional Orthodox funeral liturgy. An austere drone low in the basses sets passing dissonances into relief, while the Alleluia melody is repeated eight times. Its seventh iteration leads to a climax; a coda follows, tapering into peaceful resignation.
Our celebration of the English choral legacy concludes with a return to the heyday of Byrd — but now with a focus on secular music making. Like the sonnet, the madrigal first blossomed in Italy before it was imported to England, where it acquired local characteristics. Indeed, the evolution of these two art forms — sonnet and madrigal — was intertwined, and the flourishing of native English poetry spurred composers to take up the madrigal as a form of song. The chief characteristic of madrigal writing, after all, is its inventive mixture of counterpoint with musical word painting to enhance the expressive effect of the poetry.
Here are a few representative examples of such madrigalism as you savor this selection from its flowering in the English Renaissance. Naturally, music’s power itself can provide an apt topic (Music Divine by Thomas Tomkins), while the image of Queen Elizabeth conjures a cheery allegorical paradise, as in John Bennet’s pastoral All Creatures Now. And the changeable moods of love are captured not only by clever poetic conceits but by comparable musical puns, from Thomas Morley’s suggestion of his harmonically frigid mistress to Michael East’s mock lament for an imagined virginity or the overlapping voices of Thomas Greaves’s Come Away Sweet Love. Thomas Weelkes paints a different, almost proto-minimalist frolic with his ringing, ever singing shepherds.
And, as we hear in perhaps the most famous of all English madrigals — The Silver Swan — the form is conducive as well to the elegiac. Orlando Gibbons uses a simple but unexpected harmonic turn to unlock the poem’s haunting melancholy. The swan becomes a metaphor for the passing of an era — and a poignantly resonant one, given the short lifespan of the English madrigal.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
> Byrd himself dallied with madrigal-like pieces (“consort songs”) and taught some of the leading madrigalists (for example, Thomas Morley). But he soon lost interest in this musical format, which flourished among English composers for less than a half century.
> Of the composers represented in this evening’s assortment, Morley is the only one to have written a Shakespeare setting that has survived (a song from As You Like It).
> And with Orlando Gibbons, who died a mere decade after the Bard, the English madrigal reached its peak. Italian composers, however, reinvented the madrigal for instrumentalists and absorbed some of its devices into the new medium of opera.