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Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in Hamburg, the son of a Jewish banker and the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher. Like his father he was a convert to Christianity. By the time he was seventeen he had written twelve youthful symphonies for strings and firmly established himself with his string Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. Although he was a product of the Romantic age, his mode of expression was poetic rather than ostentatious. He leaned heavily towards the Classical tradition and was well attuned to the conservatism expected in religious music in his day. The Ave Maria is the second of Three Sacred Pieces, Op 23, for tenor voice, chorus and organ, written in 1830. With its alternations of soloist and choir and its interplay of block harmony and lively counterpoint, it makes a profound impact.
The sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach were intended for inclusion in the services of the Lutheran church and were intimately associated with the liturgy. Often they were written for a specific season or event in the church’s year and based on a relevant chorale and texts from the Epistle or Gospel for the day. A choir would be needed, with one or more solo singers and an orchestra including a keyboard continuo, and there might be recitatives, arias, possibly a duet, choruses and settings of the chosen chorale, both simple and more elaborate. Church Cantata No 147 (‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ – ‘Heart and mouth and deed and life’) was sung in July 1723 at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, where Bach had just been appointed Cantor. The chorale Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, with its oboe obbligato here recreated on the organ, is the cantata’s final movement.
It was in 1872 that César Franck wrote his Panis angelicus for tenor voice, organ, harp, cello and double bass, and it was published in that form the same year. Later he felt moved to incorporate it into his 1860 Messe à 3 voix which, without it, had been first sung in the Church of Sainte-Clotilde, Paris, where he was organist and choirmaster, in April 1861. The song itself is well enough known to need no introduction. The present arrangement by Andrew Gant begins with a straightforward delivery of the melody by unison trebles and proceeds to a full-choir verse making effective use of Franck’s canon.
Colin Mawby is a former Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral. Over the years he has composed a large number of short motets including this Ave verum corpus for mixed choir (dividing at times into as many as eight parts) with organ accompaniment. His is an unusually dramatic setting, depicting, at different dynamic levels, Christ’s agony on the Cross and the awed recognition by Christians of His sacrifice for mankind.
The name of Gioacchino Rossini is indissolubly linked with opera, his lighthearted sallies in this field, like The Italian Girl in Algiers and The Barber of Seville, revealing a more assured sense of theatre and making more of an impact than the tragic Tancredi or William Tell. But he also composed sacred music, including the Stabat mater and the Petite messe solennelle. As he wrote in a letter to the critic Filippo Filippi, ‘all genres are good except the boring one’. O salutaris hostia is a moving, homophonic motet for unaccompanied four-part choir, published in Paris in 1857.
Sir William Harris trained at the Royal College of Music where he studied the organ with Sir Walter Parratt and composition with Charles Wood and Walford Davies. After a period as assistant organist at Lichfield Cathedral he settled in Oxford where he became organist first of New College and later of Christ Church. From 1923 he was a professor at the RCM, and he conducted the Oxford Bach Choir for some years before embarking on almost three decades as Organist and Master of the Choristers of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. His compositions include a major choral work, The Hound of Heaven, for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, but he is remembered chiefly for his church and organ music of which the anthem Faire is the heaven, a setting for double choir of a poem by Edmund Spenser, is an outstanding example.
Gustav Holst was twenty-six when he wrote his Ave Maria for unaccompanied eight-part female chorus (sung here by boys). His student days at the Royal College of Music where, like many another, he had studied composition with Stanford, had been unremarkable, but it was there that he met a fellow student, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was to become a valued friend and musical touchstone. Holst left the RCM in 1898 and made his way for a time as a trombonist with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra. The Ave Maria is prophetic of the later Holst, breaking away from the heady chromaticism of Wagner and the stolidness of Victorian church music and finding a greater freedom in the use of dissonance within diatonic harmony.
Charles Gounod is now remembered mainly for the opera Faust and perhaps, on a more modest level, for the Funeral March of a Marionette. Born in Paris, he studied at the Conservatoire under Halévy and Le Sueur, winning the coveted Prix de Rome in 1839 with an early cantata called Fernand. In the Italian capital he made a study of sixteenth-century church music, especially the masses and motets of Palestrina, and was introduced to the works of J S Bach. Some would regard his tampering with the C major Prelude at the start of Bach’s ‘48’ as undiscerning – if not comparable to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, at least equivalent to thickening her eyebrows. But this rather saccharine Ave Maria, with its sentimentalized melody superimposed on Bach’s broken chords, was popular in its day. Composed in 1859 and described by Gounod as a ‘mélodie religieuse adaptée au 1er prélude de J S Bach’, it has attracted many arrangers. Colin Mawby’s version, with its largely wordless background, creates an atmosphere markedly different from Gounod’s original.
It took some time for the music of Gabriel Fauré to achieve recognition outside his native France, even the now-familiar Requiem making no real headway abroad until well into the 1940s. Born at Pamiers, in the département of Ariège, he trained at the École Niedermeyer in Paris where he attended the piano classes of Saint-Saëns and studied modal harmony and plainsong. In time he was destined to become director of the Paris Conservatoire, but his interest in church music waned and he eventually gave up his choir training and organ playing. Faure’s Op 47 consists of an O salutaris for solo voice and the present Maria, mater gratiae for two voices. Both works are provided with an organ accompaniment. The latter was completed in March 1888, shortly after the first version of the Requiem had its premiere at the Church of the Madeleine, and was scored for tenor and baritone voices. An arrangement for soprano and mezzo followed later in the year.
Sir Edward Elgar had little formal training in music. Yet by the time he was thirty he had succeeded his father as organist of St George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester, served as an orchestral violinist in a number of Three Choirs Festivals (including one conducted by Dvorák) and had his orchestral Sevillana performed under the baton of August Manns (no less) in London’s Crystal Palace. He was, of course, destined for greatness. His Op 2 comprises three short motets – Ave Maria, Ave maris stella, and the present Ave verum corpus, which is first in the set. Steeped in the Romantic tradition of Mendelssohn and Gounod and requiring a four-part mixed choir and organ, it was originally set to the words of the Pie Jesu. It was completed in 1887 and revised five years later.
The Peer Gynt suites and the A minor Piano Concerto have long kept the name of Edvard Grieg in the public eye, but he was essentially a miniaturist and, apart from collections of self-contained album leaves like the ten books of Lyric Pieces for the piano, he wrote well over a hundred songs, many of them for the soprano Nina Hagerup, a compatriot and cousin. The Ave maris stella of 1898 is a mixed-choir arrangement of a solo song written in the same year.
In 1919 Mauclair wrote of Déodat de Séverac that he was ‘the only one – since Pelléas – to have sought and found a new means of expression’. This was perhaps an extravagant claim. Having entered the Paris Conservatoire as a student in 1896, Séverac disliked what he considered the diehard academicism there and transferred to the Schola Cantorum where he studied under d’Indy, Magnard and Guilmant, and where Albert Roussel was among his peers. Albéniz taught him the piano, and his idiom embraces the pictorial Romanticism of Mussorgsky, the vibrancy of Albéniz himself, and the idealistic passion of d’Indy and the Schola as a whole. Now and then he makes an incursion into Debussyan impressionism. The Tantum ergo is one of six motets which he composed in 1920. It consists of two verses and an Amen coda.
Pierre Villette was prolific in many fields of composition – vocal, orchestral and instrumental. Brought up in the choir school tradition, he was a chorister at Rouen Cathedral and, in adulthood, was director of the Darius Milhaud Conservatoire at Aix-en-Provence. His extensive output of church music consists mainly of motets, but a larger-scale Messe en français was given its premiere at a Three Choirs Festival at Worcester in 1981. The Hymne à la Vierge is Villette’s best-known work – an a cappella setting of words by Roland Bouhéret, melodious, homophonic and chromatic, with some delicious harmonies in the four-bar coda.
Franz Schubert was one of the few composers who were actually born in Vienna as well as dying there. Although he was an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven, who died only a year and eight months before he did, his spirit was unequivocally Romantic, and his genius for conveying subtle moods and emotions in musical terms is manifest, not least in his numerous songs. His 1820 setting of Moses Mendelssohn’s German version of Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, for two sopranos, two contraltos and piano, is here sung in English by boys’ voices with organ accompaniment. The original was intended for the pupils of Anna Fröhlich, a young teacher of singing at the Vienna Conservatorium who, with her three equally charming sisters, had won Schubert’s heart.
In 1840 the thirty-one-year-old Felix Mendelssohn was in Leipzig, the hub of the German book trade, where preparations were under way to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg. His contributions to the festivities were the Lobgesang, or Hymn of Praise (in reality his second symphony) and the Festgesang for double male-voice choir. Like Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the Hymn of Praise consists of three orchestral movements and a choral finale, though the latter takes up a much larger proportion of the work than Beethoven’s corresponding movement and the inspiration is on a lower level. It pleased the King of Saxony, who had it repeated at a later date as a command performance, and Schumann likened the duet I waited for the Lord to ‘a glimpse of heaven filled with Raphael Madonnas’. Other critics have treated the work, as a whole, less generously.
The words of the Song of Simeon – the Nunc dimittis – are familiar from St Luke’s Gospel, from Compline in the Roman Catholic Church and from Anglican Evening Prayer. Gustav Holst’s setting, for unaccompanied eight-part mixed choir, is of the Latin version in the Vulgate. Written in 1915, it was first sung in Westminster Cathedral in April of that year and was one of a number of choral pieces which the first Master of Music at the Cathedral, Sir Richard Terry, invited from leading composers of the day. Not only Holst, but Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Herbert Howells (among others) contributed to this ongoing series.
Wadham Sutton © 1993