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Hyperion Records

CDA67799 - Dubra: Hail, Queen of Heaven & other choral works
The purified soul is like a bright, beautiful chamber by Elizabeth Wang (b1942)
Private Collection / © Radiant Light / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67799

Recording details: January 2009
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 65 minutes 40 seconds

'Sound moments of raptural texture (such as the word 'Christ' in Hail, Queen of Heaven, by the far the most substantial piece on this programme) … Dubra's natural home is a mood of controlled meditation and lyrical clarity … this style is well handled by the Choir of Royal Holloway, whose clean-edged sound, under Gough's sympathetic direction, warms to the generous acoustic of St Alban's, Holborn' (Gramophone)

'Royal Holloway's fabulous choristers and their inspired conductor convey the purity and spiritual fervour of Dubra's ear-catching output' (Classic FM Magazine)

Hail, Queen of Heaven & other choral works

Rihards Dubra, born in Riga in 1964, spent his early years under a Soviet regime for which any public performances of sacred music constituted religious propaganda and were not permissible. During his studies with Adolfs Skulte at the Latvian State Conservatory, Dubra began to test the boundaries of political acceptance in the last remaining years of Soviet rule. He has now emerged from the largely secular tradition of choral music-making in Latvia as a distinctive voice, that of a composer devoting himself exclusively to the composition of sacred music. The purity of this endeavour is one that Dubra has admired in the work of so-called ‘holy minimalists’ such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Dubra prefers to describe his own music as ‘a style of meditation’—one instilled with the essence of the Middle Ages ‘through the view of a man who lives in the twentieth century’.

This recording represents a selection of pieces, from early experimentation to fully formed style—a style that fuses minimalism and neo-romantic melodies with the inflections and philosophy of Gregorian, Medieval and Renaissance music. The Choir of Royal Holloway is directed by Rupert Gough in this their debut recording for Hyperion.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
‘Just as everyone has their own pathway to God, so every composer has his own pathway to emotion in music, and through that—also to God.’ (Rihards Dubra)

Rihards Dubra has emerged from the largely secular tradition of choral music-making in Latvia as a distinctive voice, that of a composer devoting himself exclusively to the composition of sacred music. The purity of this endeavour is one that Dubra has admired in the work of so-called ‘holy minimalists’ such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Dubra prefers to describe his own music as ‘a style of meditation’—one instilled with the essence of the Middle Ages ‘through the view of a man who lives in the twenty-first century’. All Dubra’s music, be it vocal or instrumental, is shaped by his own faith and is the result of a deeply spiritual desire ‘to write truthful and emotional music’. Therefore, Dubra explains, ‘as faith is the only purity in this world, I cannot imagine anything better than to write only sacred music’. It is his resolute faith that provides the energy and inspiration to compose, to the extent that Dubra has said: ‘I doubt that the energy I feel inside me is mine. I do not create music—I just write down what has been sent to me.’

Latvia, like its neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania, was dominated by foreign powers right into the latter half of the twentieth century. The indigenous population did not have access to professional music-making, yet was always united through the expression of folk song. As Latvia began to assert its independence it was these national songs that drew its people together and, as a result, choral music became the most dominant musical genre. From 1940 to 1990, when the country suffered the restrictions of Soviet occupation, large song festivals and choral singing in general played a crucial role in rallying, strengthening and inspiring the people. Singing remains central to the cultural life of this small nation.

Rihards Dubra was born in Riga on 28 February 1964. Although the maternal side of his family were Lutheran (the most prevalent denomination in Latvia) Rihards was raised as a Catholic by his grandparents. Under the Soviet regime any public performances of sacred music constituted religious propaganda and were not permissible. Catholicism itself was tolerated but worship was by necessity discreet. Consequently when Dubra became interested in writing music (at the age of ten) his exposure to church music was very limited. His studies began outside Riga in Jurmala, and then at the Emils Darzinš College of Music, where his teachers in composition were Jazeps Lipšans and Gederts Ramans.

During his studies with Adolfs Skulte at the Latvian State Conservatory, Dubra began to test the boundaries of political acceptance in the last remaining years of Soviet rule. Even a determination to title a work ‘Christmas Trio’ caused confrontation with authorities and was deemed unacceptable. ‘At that point’, Dubra says, ‘I realized the direction I wanted to go in.’ He graduated in 1989 with a symphony the title of which can be translated as ‘The beginnings of consciousness’. Further studies at the Latvian Academy of Music under Juris Karlsons earned him a master’s degree in 1996.

Even before 1990, Dubra had begun to set liturgical texts in Latin, although these works were conceived for concert audiences whose experience of sacred music was not informed by any theological or liturgical understanding. The traditional approach of illuminating individual words or phrases from the biblical text would therefore be largely meaningless in this context, which is why Dubra prefers to take listeners on a spiritual journey. ‘People should not always understand the text exactly because its meaning is encoded in the music … my main task is to work on people’s subconscious level, people’s emotional level.’ This recording represents a selection of pieces, from early experimentation to a fully formed style—a style that fuses minimalism and neo-romantic melodies with the inflections and philosophy of Gregorian, Medieval and Renaissance music.

Dubra teaches harmony and composition at the Jurmala School of Music and is Cantor of the Church of Mary Magdalene in Riga. He is also involved with a number of choirs, particularly as a bass and founder of the Schola Cantorum Riga. He receives regular commissions from music festivals and ensembles and his music is widely performed around the world. His Te Deum, composed in 2002, won him the Latvian Great Music Prize and the Cantata in Nativitate Domini was simultaneously broadcast all over the European Union in 2005.

Oculus non vidit dates from 1993 and is one of Dubra’s best-known motets. Dubra’s ever-present desire to deliver a message of hope is apparent in the choice of text—a passage from Corinthians offering ample reward to those who love the Lord. Musically, this short piece typifies Dubra’s early style. The writing is buoyantly optimistic from the searching repetition of the opening to the confident rising maestoso chords that follow. For the phrase ‘qui diligunt illum’ (‘who love him’) the sopranos and tenors weave a mesmerizing tapestry coloured by the altos as an accompaniment to a deep chant from the basses. The repetition here, which gives way to an aleatoric crescendo, provides an inconclusive, timeless ending—Dubra often likes to leave the music hanging in the air. The piece is dedicated to Pastor Gerhard Jungst of Dortmund, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Schola Cantorum Riga.

As devotion to the Mother of God lies at the heart of the Catholic faith it is not surprising that Dubra has set the Ave Maria many times. Ave Maria III in A flat major dates from 1994 and is dedicated to the Church of the Mother of Sorrows in Riga where Dubra had recently taken up the position of organist. Dubra was moved to write this setting after visiting a tiny church in the remote Latvian countryside. There, on entering, he encountered three elderly ladies reciting the Ave Maria, each in her own manner but sounding strangely unified. This provided the inspiration behind the three-note chant for the opening of this piece to which is added a Gregorian-style intonation from the sopranos which is in turn mirrored by the tenors. There follows some polyphonic development of the theme for ‘Benedicta tu in mulieribus’ (‘Blessed are you among women’) which melts away over a solo tenor chant of ‘Jesus’. The final meditative section reaches an intense peak at ‘in hora mortis nostrae’ (‘at the hour of our death’). The final ‘Amen’ forms an unusual conclusion with a descending glissando for the whole choir—a kind of exhausted release after the emotion of this powerful prayer. Dubra likes to remind us that our religious path is not always an easy one.

The short Miserere mei (1993) begins in the unusual key of G sharp minor and the descending musical outline gives a sense of bowing one’s head in prayer. Dubra lifts the music out of this plaintive stance by focusing on the words ‘sed ut convertatur in [sic] vivat’ (‘but that he will be converted and live’). ‘Vivat’ is held in one’s sight for as long as possible before the music returns to the opening plea for mercy.

In February 2008, the State Choir Latvija travelled to Ireland to participate in the festival Baltic Voices in Ireland organized by the Louth Contemporary Music Society. For the choir’s performance the festival commissioned Dubra to write his first piece in English, the extended hymn to the Mother of God Hail, Queen of Heaven. The piece begins with a simple two-part chant for alto voices. The other voice parts enter weaving a wordless chorus around the chant with the sopranos creating a mystical halo to greet the ‘Queen of Heaven’. There follows more use of free rubato which extends the vocal canvas whilst the sopranos and basses sing a chant in parallel tenths. At the end of each verse, the last two lines form a kind of refrain and Dubra returns each time to the same resonant chords. For the passage ‘O gentle, chaste and spotless Maid’ the texture changes completely. Here Dubra wishes to capture the essence of medieval dance to reflect a naive, more theologically uneducated view of life. ‘Remind thy Son that He has paid / The price of our iniquity’ constitutes the most impassioned part of this hymn before returning again to the refrain. To conclude, Dubra returns to the opening two-part ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven’ motif and builds an ever-more colourful and complex soundscape until the final blazing chord of E major.

Duo Seraphim was composed in 2005 also in response to an Irish commission. Once again it is alto voices that take the dominant role, echoing each other in the call of the two Seraphim at the beginning. The other voices enter and envelop this mantra in a wash of sound until the general cry of ‘Sanctus’. Under a cloud of high voices chanting ‘Gloria’ the lower voices enter with ‘Plena est omnis terra gloria eius’ (‘The whole earth is full of his glory’). This upwards-inflected chant in tenths is a recurring musical figure in Dubra’s work. The final Doxology is a dance of praise which again gives way to another, extended refrain of ‘Sanctus’ although the piece concludes with a final, more reverential ‘Sanctus’.

For several years Dubra has given composition masterclasses at the Salzburg Sacred Music week. There is a tradition that participants write a short piece during the week of the festival for the final concert and in 2007 Dubra produced the brief motet Felix namque es …. In that year the prerequisite was to set a Marian text, although at the peak of this simple homophonic work it is the words ‘Jesus Christus Deus noster’ (‘Jesus Christ our God’) that Dubra chooses to venerate.

Stetit Angelus was commissioned in 2005 by the Indonesian choir Vox Angelorum and their director Henry Sutjipto for a choral competition in China. Dubra saw this as the long-awaited opportunity to set this marvellously evocative text from the Book of Revelation. There are many interesting effects here, such as the opening chord which contains both static and moving parts on the same pitches. Later in the work free-floating voices reflect the image of rising clouds of incense.

The early work Gloria Patri (1992) was a partial essay in minimalism, although Dubra’s particular brand always carries with it opulent melodic lines. Dubra describes his approach to this piece as an instrumental one to which he would be unlikely to return. The opening, like the A flat major Ave Maria III, creates the atmosphere of a multitude in prayer. Over this ever-increasing cacophony soars a soprano chant which in turn leads into a homophonic hymn of praise from the whole choir. A minimalist texture is created at ‘Sicut erat in principio’ against which the sopranos emerge once again with their familiar chant. An intense, repetitious build up for ‘et in saecula saeculorum’ unexpectedly gives way to a hushed ‘Amen’. With a pivotal twist to B major, Dubra adds a meditative ‘Alleluia’ section. However he chooses to break the hypnotic spell of this passage with an unresolved, and indeed unexpected, chord.

The Missa de Spiritu Sancto for upper voices was the result of a commission from the Lithuanian Academy of Music in 2001. As Lithuania is a much more predominantly Catholic country, this Mass was clearly destined for liturgical as well as concert use. The Kyrie creates a timeless atmosphere imbued with elements of organum. The Gloria, by contrast, is suitably exuberant and here the choral writing is more homophonic. For the softer sections the melody moves in octaves with the other voices providing harmonic colour in the middle. This style of writing is exploited more in the Sanctus where the parallel octaves are part of six-part cluster chords. To this jubilant chant the organ provides an accompaniment akin to a peal of bells. The more reverential Agnus Dei utilizes a simple four-part harmonized melody as a refrain. Juxtaposed with this is a minimalist organ accompaniment. For the concluding ‘dona nobis pacem’ all the elements come together but slowly work outwards towards complete freedom of expression. The result is celebratory and yet, as in so many pieces, never conclusive.

Hodie Christus natus est is a simple joyful paean for Christmas Day. The resourceful use of a single line of music for both tenors and basses was born out of necessity when writing for Dubra’s own church choir. There is a hint of the neo-Baroque here in this modal dance in triple time.

The marriage of two friends in 1998 provided the perfect opportunity to set a text very dear to Dubra, one that he sees as expressing love and hope. Although Ubi caritas forms a part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy it also conveys ideal sentiments for a marriage ceremony. The soprano melody is simple and built around thirds, yet with the contours suggesting a brimming over of emotion.

The E major Ave Maria I is Dubra’s first piece in Latin and dates from 1989, just before the end of the Soviet occupation. The motet is a beautiful and understated expression of joy with the main theme always resolving upwards into the tonic key of E. According to the eighteenth-century poet and musician Christian Schubart, in his Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst, ‘full delight lies in E major’. The repetition in this prayer can be seen as a form of emotional development which aspires to spiritual calmness and oneness with God.

Rupert Gough © 2009

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