An English Garden
Program Notes by Sanford Dole
Longtime fans of Bay Choral Guild know that when programming I like to cover as many musical eras as possible each season. This year, after presenting a modern re-interpretation of one baroque masterwork in December--Messyah--and an historically informed performance of another in March--St. John Passion--I wanted to visit the Renaissance and Romantic eras as well as more contemporary music for tonight’s program. But it wasn’t until I realized that the longer works I wanted to feature, William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices and Herbert Howells’s Requiem, were both by English composers that I saw my way to creating an all-English program. Once I did, it was a delight to bookend the Mass with some of my favorite sacred anthems and madrigals, and similarly to complement the Howells with two Romantic gems and some striking modern works.
The sacred composers in our first half (Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, and William Byrd) span a nearly two-century period from the late Renaissance to the middle of the Baroque era. All four were associated with the Choir of the Chapel Royal, either as boy choristers or as “Gentlemen” (adult singers), or both. In fact, Byrd was a pupil of Tallis when the latter was director of the choir.
This is not the first time that we’ve opened a concert with Henry Purcell’s I Was Glad, composed for the coronation of King James II in 1685. I never tire of its festive nature and love how it starts off the program with a bang. Purcell is also known for two birthday odes to Queen Mary as well as more theatrical works, such as King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen.
Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were working at a time when there were religious controversies swirling around them. Both were adept at switching styles as the tastes and demands of the monarchs changed. Although both composed anthems for the Anglican Church, they remained “unreformed Roman Catholics,” somewhat secretly continuing to write music in Latin for their Catholic communities. Examples of this stylistic variety appear in their works on this program, with a Tallis anthem for Anglican services followed later by a Byrd Catholic Mass. Tallis’s If ye love me is a model of simple elegance in the homophonic texture of the opening section, which is followed by skillful imitative polyphony as each part enters in the second phrase.
Orlando Gibbons was organist at Westminster Abbey during the reign of James I. One of the most versatile composers of his day, he wrote many keyboard works and choral anthems. An impressive example of the latter is his six-part Hosanna to the son of David, demonstrating mastery of classical polyphony. Today Gibbons may be better known for his madrigal The Silver Swan, one of only a handful that he wrote.
Following Pope Pius V’s papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, in 1570, which absolved Elizabeth’s subjects from allegiance to her and effectively made her an outlaw in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Catholicism became increasingly identified with sedition in the eyes of the Tudor authorities. At this time, William Byrd was becoming increasingly involved with Catholicism, which got him in trouble more than once. Nevertheless, Byrd embarked on a plan to provide a cycle of liturgical music covering all the principal feasts of the Catholic Church calendar. The first stage in this undertaking comprised the three Mass settings (in four, three, and five parts). All three employ features common in the early Tudor era, notably the mosaic of semi-chorus sections alternating with full sections. The Mass for Five Voices is a brilliant example of Elizabethan polyphony and includes delightful moments of word painting, such as the ascending lines setting the text “et resurrexit” (He rose).
Next, we leave the chapel and walk out into the garden to hear some English madrigals. A madrigal is an unaccompanied song, usually for three to six voices, setting simple secular poetry that often expresses themes of love or sorrow. Though it was originally an Italian genre, the influence of prolific madrigal writer Alfonso Ferrabosco, who worked in Queen Elizabeth’s court, may have been responsible for inspiring English composers to take up the form.
Two of the genre’s leading proponents, Thomas Weelkes and John Willbye, begin our set. It has been suggested that the personalities of the two men—Wilbye appears to have been a more sober character than Weelkes—are reflected in the music. Both men were interested in word painting. Weelkes’s madrigals use varied organic counterpoint and unconventional rhythm in their construction. Sing we at pleasure includes the classic Fa, la, la refrain that we associate with so many upbeat madrigals celebrating shepherds and springtime. Willbye’s Draw on, sweet night, is characterized by delicate writing for the voice, acute sensitivity to the text, and the use of “false relations” between the major and minor modes.
John Farmer is a bit less well known, as he worked in Dublin, but his Fair Phyllis is nonetheless a standard among today’s madrigal singers. Who doesn’t enjoy the story of a young shepherd and shepherdess who fall into kisses when he catches her?
John Bennet’s life is mostly undocumented, but he did leave behind a volume of madrigals that includes his best-known work, Weep, O Mine Eyes. It is an homage to John Dowland, using part of Dowland’s famous Flow My Tears.
Thomas Tomkins was a student of William Byrd, who in turn was instrumental in finding young Thomas a position as chorister in the Chapel Royal. Tomkins published many madrigals, as well as keyboard and liturgical music. He was acquainted with Thomas Morley, also a pupil of Byrd’s, and in 1601 Morley included one of Tomkins’ madrigals in his important collection The Triumphs of Oriana. We close our madrigal set with See, see the Shepherds’ Queen. It celebrates spring and the shepherds piping and dancing with cascades of Fa, la, la’s.
The second half of our show finds us in an entirely different part of the garden. Before we get to the centerpiece, you’ll hear two recent works that employ a distinctly modern harmonic language, interspersed with two lushly romantic pieces.
Cecilia McDowall has become a favorite of mine, and I’ve found occasion to program her music several times on BCG programs. Born in London and a graduate of Trinity College of Music in London, she has been short-listed seven times for the British Composer Awards and won the award in 2014 for choral music. Her Regina Caeli was first performed in 2004. McDowall writes,
This hymn to the ‘Queen of the Heavens’ is a glorious work, replete with dramatic changes of mood and texture. The majestic chords of the opening bars quickly give way to a spirited section in which unison altos and basses mimic the insistent flourishes of the sopranos and tenors. This pattern of contrasts is repeated throughout the piece before the final jubilant chords fade away to a modest triple piano.
Nearly 100 years before McDowall, Edward Elgar grew up in a small village outside Worcester, England. His father owned a music shop, and young Edward took advantage of this by teaching himself many instruments. He taught himself composing as well, but struggled to gain recognition. It was not until 1899 with the premiere of the Enigma Variations and a year later the large-scale oratorio Dream of Gerontius that he finally began to earn respect within the British musical establishment. There is Sweet Music was composed in 1907 and sets a portion of Tennyson’s epic poem The Lotos-Eaters. An example of Elgar’s genius, this part-song is highly unusual in format. It is written in two keys simultaneously—the men in G major and the women in A flat major.
Born in London, Roxana Panufnik is the daughter of composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, she has written a wide range of pieces, including opera, ballet, musical theatre, choral works, chamber compositions, and music for film and television. Ever since performing her breakout work from 1997, Westminster Mass, I have kept Panufnik on my radar when I’m looking for unusual but well-crafted choral works. One such example is Kyrie after Byrd, dating from 2014. She describes it as a meditation on the Kyrie melody from Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices heard earlier on the program.
Charles Villiers Stanford grew up in Dublin before studying at the University of Cambridge. In 1882, then 29, he was one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music, where he taught composition for the rest of his life. Among his pupils were rising composers whose fame went on to surpass his own, such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although he wrote a substantial amount of orchestral music, including seven symphonies, he is best known today for the sacred choral works he composed for use in the Anglican Church. The rousing double choir anthem for Ascension Day, Coelos ascendit hodie, is part of a set of Three Motets, which are widely heard in churches today.
In 1910, the 18-year-old Herbert Howells had the formative experience of meeting Ralph Vaughan Williams at the premiere of the latter’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This likely led Howells to move to London two years later to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Stanford. He joined the staff of the College in 1920 and remained there for nearly six decades. In 1932, he wrote the a capella Requiem of today’s program, which for reasons unknown he did not publish at the time. Three years later Howells’s quiet life as teacher, adjudicator, and occasional composer was abruptly shattered when his nine-year-old son contracted polio during a family holiday, dying in London three days later. Howells was deeply affected and stopped composing altogether for several months, until his daughter Ursula suggested he channel his grief into music. Over the next three years he composed much of a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra, drawing heavily on material from the unpublished Requiem. He considered it “a personal, almost secret document,” and not until 1950 was he persuaded to complete it, premiering it under the title Hymnus Paradisi at the prestigious Three Choirs Festival. As for the Requiem, it was one of the last works published in his lifetime, edited from his manuscripts for performance in 1980. I first performed it at Grace Cathedral a few years later. Like most who have encountered this compelling, heartfelt work, I have cherished it ever since.
We conclude with an anthem by Kenneth Leighton. Born in Yorkshire of working-class parents, Leighton received a degree in piano performance and went on to teach at the University of Edinburgh, later moving to Oxford University. He was known as a rather private man, averse to self-promotion. While he wrote a good deal of church music, he was not a church-goer, or even conventionally religious. A Hymn to the Trinity was composed in 1976 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Kinghorn Singers, a community choir outside Edinburgh.
Thank you for supporting us all year! We hope you enjoy this concert, and we’ll look forward to seeing you in November for the start of our 40th season. See the inside cover of this program for more details on the exciting line up of the world’s great choral music we have in store.