Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2012 Program Notes

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2012
Good Friday, April 6, 2012 at St. Paul’s Basilica

Concert Program:
Martin: Mass for Double Choir
Willan: How they so softly rest
Purcell: Hear my prayer
Nystedt: O Crux
Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor
Morales: Parce mihi

Program Notes by Rick Phillips

“If men take great pains to compose beautiful music for profane songs, they should devote at least as much thought to sacred song, nay, even more than to more worldly matters.” – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1563

Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890 -1974) was born in Geneva into a line of Huguenots, the youngest of ten children. He learned the piano on his own and was composing by nine, but followed his father’s wishes and studied mathematics and physics for two years at Geneva University. His love for music got the better of him, though, and he never completed his degrees, studying composition and piano privately. The story goes that at the age of ten, Martin attended a performance of the St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach and the experience never left him. It was the music of Bach that convinced him to devote his life to music. Maybe, like Bach in the Passion, Martin wanted to try his own hand at a work for double choir. But his Mass for Double Choir also shows influences of ancient church modes and Renaissance polyphony. Although it was composed in 1922 and revised in 1926, Martin refused to release it for decades, believing it unworthy of the Lord. It was finally premiered in the 1960s. Today, it is hard to believe this mass went unheard for so long, as it is now regarded as one of the greatest a cappella works of the 20th century.

The motet How They So Softly Rest by Toronto composer Healey Willan (1880 -1968) employs a text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1870 -1882). Composed near the end of World War I, it was dedicated to the memory of the choristers of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir who died in the Great War.

Hear my Prayer, O Lord by the great English composer Henry Purcell (1659 -1695) is a full anthem for double choir, probably composed for the Chapel Royal. It is one of about seventy sacred works Purcell composed between 1680 and his death in 1695. None of them was ever published. The text is the first line from Psalm 102, leading scholars to believe the anthem may be just the opening of a much longer work. Even so, the thirty-four bars of music that we have are a masterpiece. Purcell’s use of complex harmony and dissonance vividly captures the tortured anguish of the text. With only the manuscript copies of his sacred music as his legacy, we can only wonder what other choral masterpieces by Purcell may have been lost.

Knut Nystedt (b.1915) is a leading Norwegian organist, choral conductor and composer, who once studied with the great American composer Aaron Copland (1900 -1990). Although Nystedt has written quite a bit for orchestra, it’s his sacred choral music that forms the bulk of his output, much of it based on texts from the Bible or other sacred sources, and influenced by plainchant and Renaissance polyphony. O Crux (Oh Cross) is one of his most popular pieces. By starting with the sopranos on a single note, the importance and focus of the cross in Christianity are highlighted.

The musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass has appealed to composers for hundreds of generations, regardless of their individual religious convictions. The mass text expresses a spirituality – from the invocation of the Kyrie, to the Gloria’s thanksgiving, faith in the Credo, worship in the Sanctus and supplication in the Agnus Dei. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 -1958) did not subscribe to any religious denomination, but that never stopped him from writing one of the most beautiful and effective masses of the 20th century. He once said to his wife, “There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass.” This, combined with his knowledge and love for the great English choral tradition, dating back to the Tudor period, were the influences on his Mass in G minor, composed in the early 1920s. Although it was dedicated to Vaughan Williams’ friend Gustav Holst (1874 -1934) and the
Whitsuntide Singers, a choir known for their performances of English Tudor church music by the likes of Tallis and Byrd, the mass was intended for liturgical use in London’s Westminster Cathedral and its choir directed by Sir Richard Terry. Another friend of Vaughan Williams’, Terry championed the mass and performed it often. He wrote
to Vaughan Williams, “I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for.” But although both Holst and Terry revered the mass, it was actually first sung by the City of Birmingham Choir in Dec., 1922, leaving the first liturgical performance to Terry in Westminster Cathedral in March, 1923. Parts of the mass were heard at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in 1953.

Tonight’s final selection for this special TMC Good Friday event was inspired by a popular recording from almost twenty years ago. In 1994, the British vocal chamber group, The Hilliard Ensemble and the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek teamed up to record an album called Officium. Recorded in an Austrian monastery, it combined ancient chant and early polyphony with the impromptu sax improvisations of Garbarek. Officium was an instant hit, going on to sell well over a million copies worldwide. It led to two more similar collaborations between The Hilliard Ensemble and Garbarek, the latest being Officium Novum. But of the fifteen selections on the original Officium album, Parce Mihi Domine by the 16th century Spaniard Cristobal de Morales (c.1500-1553) was the first, eighth and final tracks, each one with a different improvisation by Garbarek.

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

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.

Categories: 2011-2012 Season and Program Notes.