|First Vesper Psalm|
|Second Vesper Psalm|
|Third Vesper Psalm|
|Fourth Vesper Psalm|
|Fifth Vesper Psalm|
This disc presents an adorned version of the Office of Vespers as it might be heard on the eve of Christmas in Westminster Cathedral, a building steeped in art, music and spirituality.
The chant on this disc is the golden thread which runs throughout the entire liturgy giving the Office a natural rhythm and inevitability as well as clarity of text and beautiful language; it is complemented here by motets and canticles by Thomas Tallis, Tomás Luis de Victoria and Heinrich Schütz, while Jean Langlais’s massive Fête for organ concludes the service.
The only cathedral choir in the world to sing Mass and Vespers liturgically every day, The Choir of Westminster Cathedral is perfectly placed to offer to the armchair listener this CD encapsulation of their very lifeblood, recorded here in the opulent acoustic of their own cathedral.
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The celebration of the birth of Christ is one of the most joyful feasts in the Church’s calendar. For centuries, musicians have adorned their Christmas liturgies with Gregorian chant, polyphony and organ music designed both for rejoicing and reflection. Christmas rings out with the joy of the angels singing ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ to the astounded shepherds but it also speaks of the quiet calm and selfless acceptance of the Virgin Mary and most eloquently of the almost indescribable miracle of the Deity taking flesh and becoming human.
The oldest music designed for use within the liturgy is to be found in the ancient plainsong melodies which weave their way around a text or have a mantra-like effect during the recitation of a Psalm. There is a timeless quality to these chants and infinite subtlety as, through the use of various harmonic colours created by the undulating melodies, they express the thoughts and prayers of the Church during its journey through the liturgical calendar. To find the right term to describe this music is not easy. ‘Cantus planus’, or ‘plainsong’, is a good basic term and contrasts well with ‘cantus figuratus’, ‘cantus mensuratus’ or ‘priksong’ indicating later polyphonic music. Yet these are terms from the twelfth century and later and are perhaps inadequate when talking about the first great period of chant composition from the fifth to eighth centuries.
The term ‘Gregorian’ specifically relates to Roman chant from the time of Pope St Gregory the Great, the man who presided over a reorganization of the melodies at the end of the sixth century and set up the first Schola Cantorum. For Gregory (and his political ally Charlemagne) the reorganization of the chant and the liturgies according to Roman principles allowed him to stamp a central authority on the disparate and far-flung Christian communities. If music was performed throughout the Western world in the same way and the same services were celebrated, this would provide a degree of central control. It is no surprise then that a legend developed detailing how the entire corpus of Gregorian chant was dictated into the Pope’s ear by an angel: arguments with the Pope were possible, arguments with God were not.
Yet there are other, older sources for some of the chants which we would now term ‘Gregorian’, and these do not necessarily hail from Rome: chants from Milan written during the time of St Ambrose in the fourth century (Ambrosian chant); a remarkable mix of Moorish and Christian writing from Iberia (Mozarabic chant); and melodies from France (Gallician chant). The only term which will suffice for all of these melodies is the seemingly vague yet geographically accurate ‘Western chant’—the chant of the Western Church.
Christ and his disciples would have used the Jewish melodies, which they would have known from their youth onwards, when they needed music to pray but as the early Church developed so too did its music, and after the Church divided into Eastern and Western branches there came a radical difference in musical style. Both traditions remained essentially oral but became contrasting in character with the high tessitura and florid ornamentation of the Eastern chant standing in complete opposition to the more self-effacing, demure Western writing. Indeed in the uncertain days of the Dark Ages, the chant of the West was one of the few certainties to remain after civilization appeared to have been destroyed; something which set the West apart from the East and proclaimed its identity.
The chant written during these dark days was designed for Mass and Divine Office. The round of daily services, or Divine Office, was first organized by the inspirational mind of St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order. He articulated the need for regular prayer, for recitation of the Psalter and for readings from scripture and the Church Fathers. To facilitate this he organized the day into seven services—Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers. In this way the words of the Psalmist were remembered—‘seven times a day will I praise you’. These services together with the night office of Compline were referred to as the Opus Dei or ‘the work of God’ and they formed the backbone of monastic prayer, whilst the monks’ spiritual life was given sustenance through the daily celebration of the Mass.
This disc presents an adorned version of the Office of Vespers as it might be heard on the eve of Christmas in Westminster Cathedral, a building steeped in art, music and spirituality. The chant on this disc is the golden thread which runs throughout the entire liturgy giving the office a natural rhythm and inevitability as well as clarity of text and beautiful language. Vespers is one of the Greater Hours (the other being its twin liturgy, Lauds) containing five Psalms and a canticle. Beginning with an invitation to prayer (Deus in adiutorium, track 2), the five Psalms then follow immediately, each Psalm bracketed by an antiphon. An antiphon in this context is a setting of words, usually from scripture but sometimes from other sacred writings, which shed light on the Psalm or the feast day being celebrated. Following the Psalmody is the capitulum, or short reading (track 23), followed by a responsory (where a cantor alternates sentences with the full choir) and then a hymn. The liturgical high point of the service is the recitation of the canticle of Mary, or the Magnificat. After the suffrages and a collect, there follows a devotion to the Virgin with prayers in her honour.
Most major feasts have two celebrations of Vespers: first Vespers on the Eve of the Feast and second Vespers on the day itself. The texts for First Vespers of Christmas are still much concerned with preparation, with warnings and signs that the day of the Lord is about to appear. Fitting with this imagery is the vigorous and stirring motet for five voices Gaude et laetare (track 1) by the Dutch composer, organist and teacher Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621). Starting in a minor key, this precursor to the service proper conjures up the stirring power of Advent before relaxing into a more prayerful welcome to the new King, until it explodes once again as the Cherubim and Seraphim proclaim Christ with the word ‘Sanctus’.
The five Psalms which follow, together with their antiphons (tracks 3 to 22), draw us away from Advent and towards the birth of Christ. The King of Peace is referred to as ‘great’ and described as being ‘at hand’: Mary’s time is also ‘at hand’ and the Church is urged to ‘lift up its head’ and welcome its redeemer.
One of the most imaginative and dramatic developments in liturgical music over the last few centuries has been the tradition of organ improvisation during services. The practice of singing and playing in alternation is centuries old but in France especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this tradition has been turned into a particularly wonderful and liturgically valuable art form. Thus after the repeat of the plainsong antiphon at the end of each Psalm there is a musical response from the organ. This can take the form of a reworking of some melodic material from the antiphon or it could be a more general meditation on the overt theme and style of the antiphon. These improvisations provide a valuable commentary as well as punctuating the flow of the chant. Also traditional is the occasional use of falsobordone settings for the Psalms—simple chordal compositions which provide added solemnity for grand occasions. The more grand organ improvisation after the fifth Psalm impels the liturgy forwards and, in its momentousness, prefigures the chanted words of St Paul which refer to the birth of Christ. This reminder of the celebration that is to come provokes a response from the choir, the Responsorium breve (track 24) or short responsory where a cantor intones the words ‘today you will know that the Lord is coming’.
The hymn Christe redemptor omnium (track 25) is a poetic meditation on the Feast of Christmas in seven verses. The repertory of hymns for Divine Office is one of the most beautiful and seems to have generated wonderfully thoughtful and satisfying melodies from the chant writers. The falsobordone setting used here provides a stimulating juxtaposition and was written by Matthew Martin, the Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral and the organist on this recording.
The final act of preparation for Christmas comes with the Magnificat antiphon Cum ortus fuerit (track 27)—‘When the sun has risen in the sky, we shall see the King of kings coming forth from the Father’. The five-part setting of the Magnificat (track 28) by Thomas Tallis (c1505– 1585) is a fine example of this composer’s style from the middle years of the sixteenth century. Tallis was an English composer of great ability and adaptability. He served four successive monarchs throughout the troubled Reformation period in England and produced music which suited the conditions of the time: large-scale Latin votive antiphons for Henry VIII, short miniatures in English for Edward VI, more extensive, thicker-textured Latin motets for Mary and Latin devotional motets for Elizabeth. This setting of the Magnificat is difficult to date. Its Latin text suggests that it must have been written for Henry or Mary but its style seems reminiscent of an earlier age than the mid-1550s.
The ancient prayers that follow (track 30) are intoned to simple melodies and include the lesser Litany and the Our Father before the prayer or collect for the day. The office proper ends with the Benedicamus Domino (track 31) and the obligatory prayer for the souls of the faithful departed (always recited on a lower, more discreet note), before the liturgy moves into the devotions to the Blessed Virgin.
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) is now considered one of Spain’s most famous composers, yet in his time he was regarded more as a Roman writer and little known in Spain until he returned there in 1587. Born near the great spiritual centre of Avila, he went to study in Rome after his voice broke and held numerous posts there before becoming maestro at the German College. In 1583 he petitioned King Phillip II that he might return to Spain to concentrate on his priestly duties (he had been ordained priest in 1575) and was allowed to return as chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria. His five-part setting of the Marian antiphon for the Christmas season Alma redemptoris mater (track 32) is an extended and richly coloured composition, spacious and grand: it is followed by a prayer to the Virgin laid down by centuries of tradition (track 33).
After the reading from the Martyrology (track 34), which announces the birth of Christ in a declamatory fashion, the response from the choir is a brilliant and joyful setting of Hodie Christus natus est (track 35) by the German composer Heinrich Schütz. Schütz (1585–1672), the son of an innkeeper, was lucky enough to be talent-spotted by the Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel who heard him sing as a young man and asked to be entrusted with his education. Moritz must have been discerning, for Schütz was to become the pre-eminent composer of the seventeenth century, saturated with Italian ideas and achieving a wonderful marriage between the German language and musical imagination, both tasteful and clear. Hodie Christus natus est alternates triple-time dancing Alleluias with duple-time sections to proclaim the birth of Christ. The piece as a whole is a riot of energy and rhythm with great juxtapositions between slow and fast pulses and high and low voices, all of the hallmarks of the Baroque period towards which Schütz clearly points the way.
The energy of the Schütz is reflected in the voluntary Fête (1946, track 36) by the great Parisian organist Jean Langlais (1907–1991). Langlais held the post of organist of Ste Clotilde from 1945 until 1987, continuing a tradition of excellent playing and composition established by César Franck and Charles Tournemire. With the exuberance of this final piece the die is cast. The season of Advent with its sombre colours is left behind and the Church moves forwards to celebrate the birth of Christ and the beginning of a new life, through which the world will be redeemed.
Andrew Carwood © 2006