Sacred Music 2015 Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Sacred Music for a Sacred Space concert on Good Friday, April 3, 2015 at St. Paul’s Basilica. Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Good Friday 2015 concert of spiritual, meditative music begins with music by the popular Englishman Sir John Tavener (1944 –2013). He was trained traditionally at the Royal Academy of Music, and as his life and career developed, Tavener’s character and music became more spiritual and contemplative, eventually leading him to turn to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. Song for Athene was written in 1993 as a tribute to a young family friend of Tavener’s named Athene who died in a cycling accident. Athene’s love of acting and of the music of the Orthodox Church led the composer to combine words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet with words from the Orthodox funeral service. The work became part of popular culture after it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

The World is Burning was commissioned by the Monteverdi Choir to mark its thirtieth anniversary in 1993. The text is by Mother Thekla (1918–2011), an Orthodox theologian who had a profound influence on Tavener, acting as a counsellor and spiritual advisor. Scored for choir, tam-tam and soloists, including one who represents Christ, the work is chant-like and repetitive, illustrating Tavener’s love for slow-moving vocal lines.

Sometimes called “the father of English cathedral music,” Thomas Tallis (c.1505– 1585) was a teacher, friend and business partner to William Byrd (c.1543–1623). Although it was once believed that his 40-part motet Spem in alium was composed for the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth I in 1573, it is more likely that the work’s creation stems from an event in 1567. The Italian composer Alessandro Striggio (c.1540–1592) visited England that year and performed his 40-part motet Ecce Beatam Lucem. The English were dumbfounded by it, leading the Duke of Norfolk to commission Tallis to come up with an English “answer.” The result was Tallis’ own 40-part motet, with the text of a Latin prayer response from the Book of Judith. This choral masterpiece, divided into eight choirs of five parts each, weaves a complex polyphonic web around a basic harmonic progression. It was deemed (by the English, at least) a better motet than Striggio’s, and England’s honour was restored.

A requiem mass is the musical setting of the Mass for the Dead of the Roman Catholic Church, so named because it begins with the Introit text Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine (Give them eternal rest, O Lord.) The liturgical structure of a requiem mass is similar to that of other masses, but the joyful sections of the Gloria and Credo are dropped, and a sequence starting with the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is added. Plainchant requiem masses go way back, but the first polyphonic requiems date from about the 15th century. Many composers since have been drawn to the dramatic text, from Palestrina and Victoria to Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi, to list just a few. A survey of musical requiems is a fascinating study in perspectives on the topic of death, and life after death.

The French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) worked as a church musician for much of his life, but he was a religious sceptic. Once, when asked why he composed a requiem, Fauré replied, “It was written for no reason – for pleasure, if I may be permitted to say so.” Fauré chose to compose a setting that shies away from the fear and threats of damnation that appear in other requiems. Like the earlier German Requiem by Brahms, Fauré’s requiem is a more contemplative, meditative work attempting to soothe and console the living, while expressing the hope for eternal rest after death. Fauré had to defend this approach more than once, writing, “It has been said that my requiem does not express the fear of death, and someone once called it a lullaby of death. But that is how I see death – as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”

The work has long, serene melodic lines with gentle rhythms, similar in style to plainchant, which Fauré loved. The harmony is typical of him, very important to the work overall and original. It’s not so much the chords themselves, but instead, the relationships set up between them. Maybe the American composer Aaron Copland summed it up best by saying, “The magic of Fauré is difficult to analyze, but lovely to hear.”

The Fauré Requiem is smaller in scope and not as grandiose as other requiems, but it is just as powerful, emotional and effective. It has been said that Berlioz and Verdi built huge “cathedrals” of sound in their requiems to stand for unwavering faith and to conquer doubt. In comparison, the Fauré Requiem is a more intimate “candle-lit chapel” bringing warmth and peace.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, teacher, broadcaster and music tour host.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.