The Resilient Spirit
by Peter Rutenberg
Welcome to this celebration of British sacred music bridging five centuries. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 signaled the rise of a naval powerhouse and sowed the earliest seeds of promise for the empire England was to become. By the late 20th century, two world wars and a fierce desire for independence among its last colonies had dismantled that empire, but at the same time, infused British life with the abundance of influences and ethnicities that make it a remarkable cultural crossroads today.
Composer John Tavener is a product of that history. From the "flamboyant" use of multimedia techniques in the 1968 premiere of The Whale to the sentimental lushness of In Alium that same year, Tavener established the two most important driving forces of his style- "stasis and non -developmental block construction." From there, a host of explorations into Eastern Orthodoxy and other sacred worlds, a pervading personal spirituality and a love of the chorus's powers of expression have yielded a body of transcendent works. The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Grant Gershon celebrate john Tavener's contributions to our musical present on the occasion of his 6oth birthday - January 28.
The composer writes: "I have long regarded the writing of short choral works as an essential part of the composer's craft. In the Orthodox church, ikons provide a focus for prayer and contemplation, and in my pieces I have tried to produce ikons in sound, instead of with wood and paint." Fear and Rejoice, O People (1997) serves as meditation during the Orthodox Christmas fast. Song for Athene (1993) was inspired by the tragic bicycle accident that killed a young Greek girl; it was later sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey. Love Bade Me Welcome (1985), to a text by George Herbert, was written for the enthronement that year of Colin James as Bishop of Winchester. Annunciation (1992) was written for performance in the St. Cecilia's Day Service in Westminster Abbey and juxtaposes the full choir as the Angel Gabriel with a solo quartet portraying the humble Mary.
William Byrd faced adversity from birth. The period from Henry VIII's break with the Roman Church through his daughter Elizabeth l's ascent to the throne of England was at best a period of political and religious instability. When the dust settled, Catholicism was outlawed and those who held onto their faith were subject to severe fines and punishment. Byrd walked in both worlds - the Anglican by professional necessity and the Catholic by nativity. His tremendous talent brought forth music for the English Church that was nothing short of revolutionary, setting the high water mark of Protestant composition with his luminous Great Service in the 1580s. His favor with the crown was certainly cemented by then, for although the anti-Catholic climate was stormiest during the last quarter of the 16th century, he was permitted to conduct his business without much interference from the authorities. Indeed, his prominence in London as a member of the Chapel Royal and holder of the publishing monopoly must surely have kept a gentlemanly smile on his public face.
His three settings of the Mass in Latin were written in the span of two years, between 1593-95: the Mass for Four Voices came first, then the Mass for Three Voices, and lastly the Mass for Five Voices. In them one can hear a different story - one of melancholy and torment- that voiced Byrd's innermost feelings on the suffering of his Catholic brethren. Clandestine as the services at which they were performed, the Masses were published without a title page. It is an ironic stroke of utter defiance, then, that the composer's name appeared on each and every page! The Mass for Five Voices is considered by some to be the most gratifying of the three. Certainly the voicing provides a sonorous grandeur and the architecture is never more assured.
Of greater interest though is the setting of the Latin texts. Whatever Byrd had learned about setting English for comprehensibility as a result of Henry's edicts, he transferred in spades to these Masses. Words overlap in a torrent of persistent and emotionally-charged counterpoint, yet they are never obscured lest the central message of worship be lost. As a measure of his victory over this lifelong adversity, each section ends with an unmistakable sense of triumph, nowhere bolder than in the section from Et resurrexit to the conclusion of the Credo. One of the few moments of unison declamation, and a particularly poignant one, occurs here at "in one holy Catholic church .... " Byrd unifies the chorus in a gesture that is madrigalian on the surface but with much deeper political animus.
The two motets by Byrd on this program are radiant in their use of harmony and counterpoint. Lumen ad revelationem gentium excerpts a part of the Nunc dimittis with a flurry of scales to depict "enlightenment," and a bolder rhythmic pattern to portray the "glory of Israel." Sing joyfully shows Byrd's mature, consummate skill in setting English, where all the attributes of The Great Service are not only evident, but refined to their most expressive and delicious quintessence.
Two other early English composers - Thomas Tallis from the preceding generation and Peter Philips from the following - form a direct lineage with Byrd and are featured with brief and well-known examples of their style. Tallis was already at the height of his powers when the "sea change" of the Reformation occurred. Abandoning the mesmerizing melismatic practices of the early Tudor style, he embraced full-heartedly the musical goals of "one word, one note" and wrote some of the most hauntingly beautiful and enduring hymns. If Ye Love Me is one of those, profound in its simplicity and elegant in its conciseness. Although he considered himself 'English' to the end, Philips spent most of his life as a composer in the court of the Spanish Netherlands at Antwerp. Ascend it Deus is typical of the musica reservata motet: each phrase of text is reflected in the music. For example, when "God ascends in jubilation" it is not by small steps but by bounding upward with intervals of a third. The "voice of the trumpet" is heard in jocular fanfares and the "alleluias" peal like the chimes of Westminster Abbey.