by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
This evening's concert affords the opportunity to enter into the grandeur of the English choral tradition so strongly initiated by her 17th century composers and Henry Purcell and continuing unabated to the present.
Handel was selected on very short notice by King George II and Queen Caroline to compose four ceremonial anthems for their coronation which was to take place in Westminster Abbey on October 11, 1727. Zadoc the Priest was sung during the King's anointing; The King Shall Rejoice during the actual coronation. Zadoc is generally recognized as "the greatest public ceremonial music of its kind ever composed." "It was," as H.C. Robbins Landon asserts, "designed to create an enormous effect in an enormous space and it succeeded brilliantly." Indeed, the anthem has been sung ever since at every coronation of a British monarch. The King Shall Rejoice, while being even more elaborate and polyphonic than Zadoc, matches it in the splendor of its five movements, manifesting the surprising varied aspects of Handel's choral art.
Sir Charles Hubert Parry's (1848-1918) setting in 1887 of John Milton's poem "At a Solemn Music" (Blest Pair of Sirens) marked, as famed musicologist Donald Tovey has observed, an epochal work in British musical history. "It represents classical choral writing at the height of maturity and natural resource ...” In essence, Parry viewed Milton's 1637 poem of 28 lines in the totality of its three basic subdivisions. He gave to his music a sweeping, unencumbered phrasing perfectly matching the poem's structure and thought content. Parry's massive eight-part choral harmony united to his beautiful romantic accompaniment sweeps through the poem's first 16 lines without hindrance or interruption to the words "singing everlasting." He now reduces the chorus to four parts and in the next eight lines he emphasizes their nostalgic longing for a restoration of that erstwhile God-directed harmony destroyed through disobedient and disproportionate sin. Parry now sets the last four lines extensively, balancing in their musical thought the whole of the previous poetc/musical elaboration. The initial cantabile develops into a stirring fugato, rising from climax to climax until the organ crowns the last chords by the third and final allusion to the opening theme.
Holst composed his Ode to Death in 1919 in memory of his friends killed in World War I. It followed immediately after his masterly Hymn of Jesus and exhibits many of the extraordinary harmonic and melodic characteristics of that earlier work. Regarded as one of his finest works, it is puzzling why it has languished in neglect. Albert Coates directed the first performance of the Ode at the Leeds Festival in 1922. The words of the Ode are taken from Walt Whitman's Memories of President Lincoln as excerpted from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, in turn from Leaves of Grass. The composition's opening invitation "Come lovely, soothing death," drew from Holst a serene response. He builds to a characteristic ostinato procession for the words "When thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly," which is expanded through praises of death. The dolce tune for "Over the tree tops I float thee a song" leads inevitably to the final hushed "Come." Here the gesture of supplication is transformed into the surrender of acceptance as the sound dissolves into silence. This description is a briefer form of Imogen Holst's resume of the work.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) stands tall in a constellation of English 20th century composers who have made their country one of the century's most musically productive. Admiring that period in music history when "music served things greater than itself... the glory of God as greatest of all," Britten always found stimulation for his musical imagination through poetic words as in his 1962 War Requiem and his 1935 Te Deum in C. Thus, inspired by the majestic words of the centuries-old hymn of thanksgiving, at the age of 22 he composed the first of two Te Deums to the English translation used in the Anglican liturgy. While the later and better known Festival Te Deum of 1945 was composed for chorus and organ, this earlier setting also includes a soprano solo. Britten dedicated it to Maurice Vinton and his Choir of St. Mark's Church, London. Constant Lambert, the famed British conductor, considered this work to be characterized by extremely mature and economical methods. Indeed, Britten has in his customary manner penetrated into the more mystical aspects of the text and set them with an understanding of its more contemplative mood.
John Rutter's (1945-) The Falcon stands as his first large-scale choral work. The Cambridge Musical Society, under Sir David Willcocks, premiered the work on December 4, 1969. The insertion of various Gregorian chants into the second and third movements manifest the influence which Benjamin Britten's War Requiem exercised on Rutter who was a member of the boys' choir at an early performance of the work. Rutter notes that the kernel of the composition is the medieval English poem "The Falcon," rich with symbols of the Eucharist, the Grail legend and the Glastonbury Thorn. "Out of the poem," he notes, "grew the idea of a larger work moving from the images of a warlike Old Testament Jehovah (Psalm 97, 1-9) via the sacrifice of Christ as portrayed in The Falcon poem to the visionary prospects of peace (in the heavenly Jerusalem) found in the Book of Revelation. In the second movement the Easter antiphon Surrecit Dominus (The Lord has arisen) is sung by a distant treble choir. Similarly inserted into the third movement are the 7th century chant Urbs Jerusalem beata (Blessed City, Jerusalem) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God ... grant us peace).
Benedicite was one of three works Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed for the jubilee in 1930 of the famed English Leith Hill Musical Festival at Dorking near London. He conducted the performance there on May 2 of that year. The work's text is that of the Canticle of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 2/57ff) to which Vaughan Williams interpolated the Song of the Three Holy Children, a poem by the 17th century recusant John Austin. He concluded the work with Austin's doxology to the Trinity and a repetition of several key verses of the Canticle. A jubilant instrumental introduction launches the chorus into a forthright proclamation of praise to the Most High. Creation in all its elements is repeatedly called upon to "Bless ye the Lord," as the chorus reaches a climax of exaltation. After the organ enters varying the phrase connected with the leitmotiv-like "Bless ye the Lord," the soprano soloist enters. Her advent softens the character of the music and embellishes the quiet choral singing with her melismatic phrases. Over chords in the accompaniment, soloist and chorus end this beautiful section with even more softly waning phrases of praise. A flutelike accompaniment again introduces the soprano on the first verse of Austin's poem as she floats above the lively counterpoint of the chorus. It takes up the melody for the second verse as the soloist weaves her counter-melody above them. Austin's third verse is the Trinitarian doxology, sung in chorale-like fashion as Benedicite's opening section is recapitulated to conclude in a blaze of jubilation.