Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2013 Program Notes

Sacred Music for a Sacred Space
Mendelssohn Singers
March 29, 2013 at St. Paul’s Basilica
Notes by Rick Phillips

Except for a couple of years at the Dresden Court, Antonio Lotti (c.1647-1740) spent his career in Venice, working his way up from singer to organist to maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica. Lotti was an innovative composer of almost thirty operas, but in his sacred music he tended to rely on the great traditions of Renaissance polyphony. J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel and Felix Mendelssohn all knew and admired his music. Today he is known almost exclusively for his many settings of the Crucifixus text from the Credo of the mass. Why he wrote so many has remained a mystery but it may have been for insertion into mass settings by other composers.

William Byrd (c.1540-1623) and his teacher, friend and colleague Thomas Tallis were both organists at the Chapel Royal, the small group of clergy and musicians assigned to the English monarch. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted them an exclusive publishing monopoly, for their music as well as blank manuscript paper. Although a Catholic (for which he was persecuted in Reformation England), Byrd composed for both the Roman Catholic and Anglican services. He was known to be obstinate, but you would never know it from his profound, spiritual musical style. Many composers, from Byrd to Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Elgar and the Canadian composer Imant Raminsh have set the Ave Verum Corpus text, believed to date back to the 13th century. One of Byrd’s most beautiful and popular motets, it links the two sacraments of communion and baptism.

Palestrina (c.1525-1594) probably composed his Missa Papae Marcelli in 1556. At the time, Roman Catholicism was still reeling from the blows of the Reformation, earlier in the century and the Council of Trent was established to look into ways to “counter” this reform. Pope Marcellus II (who reigned for only three weeks in 1555), and other church fathers believed that church music had become unintelligible and too secular. To them, polyphony clouded the texts, and the use of folk tunes as the basis of masses and motets was too profane for sacred music. The legend goes that the council was considering banning all polyphonic music and returning to plainchant, or monophonic music, when Palestrina composed his Pope Marcellus Mass illustrating that music of dignity and nobility could still be written in the polyphonic style and that words could be clearly understood. Thus, Palestrina “saved” music from returning to its roots. Today, much of this story is considered apocryphal, but it was used as the basis for a 1917 opera called Palestrina by the German composer Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949). Regardless of the reasons for its existence, the Missa Papae Marcelli has survived because of its high quality, exhibiting Palestrina’s skill in combining technical craft and devotion into music of great beauty.

Pawel Lukaszewski (b.1968) is a prolific Polish composer and choral conductor who credits his earlier compatriot Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener as influences. He has developed his own distinct choral style, sometimes described as anti-modern. The Ave Maria for double choir was one of his first choral works, composed in 1992 when he was still a student. The Nunc Dimittis is as recent as 2007, written for the English conductor Stephen Layton and his Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, who have been devoted champions of Lukaszewski.

Svyati or “Holy One” by John Tavener (b. 1945) dates from 1995, scored for the unusual combination of solo cello and choir. The text, taken from the funeral service, is sung entirely in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of Tavener’s Russian Orthodox faith. While the solo cello seems to express grief, the choir comforts with compassion. Tavener has written, “The cello represents the Priest or Ikon of Christ, and should play at a distance from the choir, perhaps at the opposite end of the building. As in Greek drama, choir and priest are in dialogue with each other. Since the cello represents the Ikon of Christ, it must be played without any sentiment of a Western character, but should derive from the chanting of the Eastern Orthodox Church.”

Timothy Corlis (b.1972) is a Canadian composer now based in Vancouver – a former member of the Elora Festival Singers. The TMC commission heard this evening evolved with two stipulations. Considering the use of a solo cello in Svyati by Tavener, Noel Edison commissioned Corlis to create a companion piece employing a solo cello, with the text of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Tonight’s performance is the world premiere.

One of the most symbolic acts during Holy Week is Tenebrae, an evening service of readings and psalm settings during which candles are extinguished one-by-one, until the final candle, symbolic of the light of Christ, is carried behind the altar and snuffed out, placing the church in total darkness. Miserere Mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), probably written in 1638, was intended for Tenebrae during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. The chant-like delivery of the Psalm 51 text is contrasted by a vocal quartet, usually situated at a distance, containing florid music embellished by a high ascending, ethereal solo soprano. For over a century, the Vatican, realizing it owned an exceptional work, refused to allow any copy to leave the Sistine Chapel, subject to severe punishment. According to legend, the monopoly was only broken when the 14-year-old Mozart heard it there, and transcribed it from memory.


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: marketing@tmchoir.org. Thank you.

Categories: 2012-2013 Season and Program Notes.