This latest album from Westminster Abbey is a programme of memorial music composed in England and France in the shadow of two World Wars.
The main feature is Duruflé’s Requiem, one of the best-loved of all works of the twentieth century, and given an astoundingly beautiful performance here, enhanced by distinguished soloists Christine Rice and Roderick Williams. The Requiem is many ways a paradoxical work, based on plainsong but with Durufle’s sensuous harmonies suffusing every note with feeling: ‘This Requiem is not an ethereal work which sings of detachment from human concerns’, he said. ‘It reflects, in the unchanging form of Christian prayer, the anguish of man faced with the mystery of his final end.’ It is a work of unimpeachable integrity, a miraculous synthesis of the old and the new.
Throughout the past century the Abbey has been a focus of national remembrance on Armistice Day, and ‘O God, our help in ages past’—the ‘great ceremonial hymn of the English nation’, quoted in Vaughan Williams’ Lord, thou has been our refuge—has been a constant and reassuring presence, from the Burial Service of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November 1920 to the Service commemorating the Passing of the World War One Generation on 11 November 2009. The anthem by John Tavener recorded here was composed for that service, and all the other English music has some special significance in this place: a statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands above the west door of Westminster Abbey (one of the ten twentieth-century Christian martyrs installed in the niches there in 1998), while the ashes of Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams are buried in the church where their music has contributed so much to daily services and great state occasions.
Like flowery fields the nations stand
These lines from Isaac Watts’ poetic paraphrase of Psalm 90 are omitted from modern hymn-books, but they provide a fitting epigraph to this programme of memorial music composed in England and France in the shadow of two World Wars. Throughout the past century Westminster Abbey has been a focus of national remembrance on Armistice Day, and O God, our help in ages past—the ‘great ceremonial hymn of the English nation’ and the hymn to which these words rightfully belong—has been a constant and reassuring presence, from the Burial Service of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November 1920 to the Service commemorating the Passing of the World War One Generation on 11 November 2009. The anthem by John Tavener recorded here was composed for that service, and all the other English music has some special significance in this place: a statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands above the west door of Westminster Abbey (one of the ten twentieth-century Christian martyrs installed in the niches there in 1998), while the ashes of Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams are buried in the church where their music has contributed so much to daily services and great state occasions.
Isaac Watts has his memorial in Westminster Abbey too, and his hymn—with its noble tune by William Croft, a former Abbey Organist—inspired the earliest piece in this sequence, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Lord, thou hast been our refuge of 1921. Vaughan Williams is the only one of the five composers represented here who experienced the reality of war at first hand, serving in France and Greece in 1916–18 with the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Royal Artillery. Like so many of his generation, he rarely spoke of the war, but it had a profound effect on his music. His own, very personal ‘war requiem’ took an unconventional form in the bleakly beautiful ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, and this was followed by a succession of works that showed a new concern with things spiritual, including Lord, thou hast been our refuge and the Mass in G minor (1922), and culminating in the oratorio Sancta civitas (1925).
The oratorio-like, multi-layered scoring of Sancta civitas (‘Soloists, Chorus, Semi-Chorus, Distant Chorus, Distant Trumpet and Orchestra’) is also found, to a lesser extent, in many of the other works, as is the solo trumpet—recalling a lone bugle which the composer had heard echoing over Salisbury Plain in 1916, and which haunted his imagination for years. In Lord, thou hast been our refuge there are two layers of choral sound (chorus and semi-chorus), two layers of text (Psalm 90 in its traditional Book of Common Prayer version, combined with the first verse of Watts’ paraphrase), and two musical worlds—the chant-like modality of the semi-chorus (‘extraordinarily timeless’, as Paul Spicer describes it) and the comfortable Anglican D major of the hymn-tune. As the Psalm proceeds, the choral textures become rich and dark, and a short motif from the hymn makes a brief appearance (‘For we consume away’); taken up by the organ, this motif forms a bridge to the final reprise of the hymn, the uncertainty of the semi-chorus on the opening page now transformed into blazing confidence, and leading on to a triumphant fugal peroration.
Herbert Howells was twenty years younger than Vaughan Williams, but the two composers enjoyed a close and mutually supportive friendship. As Howells once said: ‘Ralph and I reacted to things musically in a very similar way.’ The similarities are clear in the modal unison opening phrases we hear here—though Howells’ luscious and richly coloured harmonic language soon takes his music in a different direction. Commissioned as a tribute to President John F Kennedy, Take him, earth, for cherishing was first performed at a memorial service in Washington on 22 November 1964, the first anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. But this music has deep roots which extend back through the decades to the 1930s and beyond.
Howells had known and loved the words of the Hymnus circa Exsequias Defuncti (‘Hymn for the Burial of the Dead’) by the fourth-century Christian poet Prudentius ever since they were published in Helen Waddell’s Mediaeval Latin Lyrics in 1929. In 1932 he began (but never finished) setting them in Latin as part of a choral work, ‘a brief sort of “Requiem”, on the Walford Davies model’; the model was a Short Requiem in memory of those fallen in the War, composed in 1915 by the future Master of the King’s Music, and based on texts from the Anglican Burial Service. In 1935 Howells’ nine-year-old son contracted polio and died a few days later. This tragic loss cast a dark shadow over the rest of his life, and the words of the Hymnus took on a deep personal significance; the first two lines are quoted on the score of his memorial to his son, the visionary Hymnus Paradisi, and the poem remained a lifelong source of comfort on the darkest days. The commission to compose a memorial motet for JFK—another young victim of ‘one of those seemingly arbitrary hammer-strokes of fate which had destroyed Howells’ only son’ (Christopher Palmer)—ignited a spark, and the words that had haunted him so long inspired a masterpiece of imaginative and expressive choral-writing. Faultless control of texture and intensity, magically shifting shades of harmonic colour, subtle sensitivity to the poetic imagery of the words—all combine to reveal new beauties with each hearing. The motet was inevitably, and most fittingly, sung at the composer’s own memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1983.
Organist of York Minster for twenty-five years until his retirement in 2008, Philip Moore is one of the few cathedral organists of our time who has an equal reputation as a composer. He modestly describes his settings of Three prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as ‘straightforward’, but his music beautifully captures the essence of these moving testaments of faith—their eloquent sincerity, their fluctuations of confidence and doubt, their moments of anguish, and their very real humanity.
The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi concentration camp in April 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by the Allies. A committed opponent of Hitler’s regime, Bonhoeffer had been denounced as a pacifist and enemy of the state as early as 1936. His arrest in 1943 led to two years in prison, and his fate was sealed when documents came to light in 1945 revealing his close links with the German Resistance. Having lived, preached and lectured in England and America, Bonhoeffer was already an international figure in the 1930s, but the publication after the war of his Letters and Papers from Prison confirmed his stature as an extraordinary man of faith, a rare combination of penetrating intellect, gentle humour and true Christian humility.
The first two of Moore’s responses to the Bonhoeffer texts are each coloured by one dominating melodic interval, a minor second in ‘Morning prayers’ and an augmented fourth in the stark, declamatory invocations of ‘Prayers in the time of distress’. Music was important to Bonhoeffer, and ‘Evening prayers’ is based on the melody of one of his favourite hymns, the Advent chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, beginning as a fugue in flowing 5/4 metre, the individual strands finally coming together in a quietly harmonized chorale: ‘Into thy hands I commend my loved ones …’
‘Dors en oubli et calme, dors en paix douce … dors, soldat, ton sommeil éternel’ (‘Sleep, soldier, in forgetfulness and eternal peace …’): these are the words of the choral finale of Symphony No 6, ‘In Memoriam’, by Alexandre Tansman, composed in 1944 ‘in memory of those who have died for France’. The Symphony was broadcast in a memorial concert on French radio on All Souls’ Day, 2 November 1947, accompanied by two other works: the Pièce symphonique ‘In Memoriam’ (1941) by the Francophile Hungarian composer László Lajtha, and the premiere of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. A public performance of the Requiem followed in December, with further performances in Paris on, or just after, Armistice Day in November 1948 and 1949. In its early days, there is no doubt that the Requiem was perceived as a response to the Second World War. Most unusually, the first four performances were all given by different choirs and orchestras, perhaps indicating that this was seen as a work of special significance. By the time of Duruflé’s death in 1986, the Requiem was earning more in hire and performance fees than any other work by a contemporary French composer; the whole world had fallen under its magic spell, and the wartime connection was forgotten. After decades of tactful silence, however, the past twenty years have seen an explosion of research into the complexities and compromises of cultural life in France under the Nazi Occupation; we now know that Duruflé accepted a commission ‘for a symphonic poem’ from the Vichy government in May 1941, and that in January 1948 he submitted an invoice for the composition of the Requiem. As a result, the work is now often described as a ‘Vichy Commission’.
Under the Occupation of 1940–44 the collaborationist Vichy regime offered a generous programme of state commissions as a useful instrument of propaganda to increase the prestige of French culture; sixty-one composers benefited from the scheme (including some with links to the Resistance), though some of the commissions led to nothing or were never performed. We know that Duruflé did not complete the Requiem until September 1947. Some musicologists now assume that he must have begun it in 1941, and that the ideology of Vichy influenced some of his ‘compositional choices’—but there is no evidence for any of this. Duruflé was a notoriously slow worker, and his first wartime memorial was an organ piece, a tribute to his young friend Jehan Alain, ‘mort pour la France’, which he premiered in December 1942. Other work and a new full-time appointment as Professor of Harmony at the Paris Conservatoire kept him fully occupied until the end of the war and beyond. In the winter of 1945 he said: ‘My personal work is absolutely nil. In my frigidaire [his tiny rooftop apartment] it’s impossible to think of a single bar.’ But Duruflé himself said the Requiem originated ‘around 1945’, so ideas may already have been forming in his mind; the work is dedicated to the memory of his father, who had died in February. The original plan was for a suite of organ pieces to be performed during a Requiem Mass, but it soon turned into something much bigger, a major concert work for chorus and full orchestra (‘I am terrified by the adventure I have embarked upon’, he said in July 1946). To facilitate performance in church, where the music so clearly belongs, he also made an organ reduction of the orchestral parts, and later published a third edition, with organ and a small chamber orchestra (the version recorded here).
Duruflé’s Requiem is often described as the only successor to Fauré’s, but in fact it was the fourth big Requiem to appear in France in eight years, and the other three composers were probably better known at the time than the young Parisian organist: the veteran Franck pupil Guy Ropartz (1939); Debussy’s friend, the conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1942); and the conductor Henri Tomasi (Requiem ‘pour la Paix, à tous les Martyrs de la Résistance et à tous ceux qui sont morts pour la France’, 1946). What makes Duruflé’s work unique—and has ensured its survival while the others (rather unfairly) sank without trace—is the presence of Gregorian Chant; each of the nine movements is inspired and shaped, more or less closely, by the appropriate plainsong melody from the traditional Catholic liturgy of the Missa pro defunctis. Duruflé was a devoted servant of the church. In his youth he was a choirboy at Rouen Cathedral, and it was here, amid the grandiose music, the gorgeous flowers and the sumptuous robes of the great Feast Days, that he found his vocation as a church musician. And it was here that he fell in love with plainsong and the timeless world of the medieval modes, in which he found ‘a variety of colours and expression which is infinitely seductive’. ‘Truly,’ said his wife, ‘he had a Gregorian soul.’
The Requiem is many ways a paradoxical work. Plainsong is in its very essence the most rarefied form of music, ‘pure as an angel’s wing’ (Messiaen), purged of all human emotion. But Duruflé’s sensuous harmonies suffuse every note with feeling: ‘This Requiem is not an ethereal work which sings of detachment from human concerns’, he said. ‘It reflects, in the unchanging form of Christian prayer, the anguish of man faced with the mystery of his final end.’ And the fluid rhythm of plainsong is essentially incompatible with the regularity of modern bar-lines. But Duruflé instinctively overcame these obstacles to create a work of unimpeachable integrity, a miraculous synthesis of the old and the new. He said that he ‘clung desperately’ to the chant, but much of it was simply unusable in its original form, and he often had to let go, retaining just a vague memory of a short melodic motif, or sometimes retaining nothing at all; many phrases that sound like plainsong are actually pure Duruflé (the ‘Christe eleison’, the baritone solo in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’, and most of the ‘Libera me’). And Duruflé’s own tunes are always as memorable as the chant they accompany or replace (think of the angelic counter-melody of the ‘Agnus Dei’, or the organ refrain of ‘Lux aeterna’).
When the chant is clearly evident, it sometimes floats across the barlines (in the ‘Introït’ and ‘Agnus Dei’) and is sometimes confined in a more regular pulse (the glorious polyphonic ‘Kyrie’, and the swaying processional of the ‘Sanctus’, with its heaven-storming ‘Hosannas’). The infinite flexibility and variety of rhythm, texture and colour are reinforced by a masterly control of tonality. The most distant keys are reserved for the most overtly dramatic movements: A flat for the dark-hued ‘Pie Jesu’, and F sharp minor for the ‘Libera me’ and ‘Domine Jesu Christe’. But the terrors of eternal damnation are quieted by the promise of salvation, the serene conclusion of the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ (‘Quam olim Abrahae …’) offering a foretaste of the eternal peace to come in the ‘In paradisum’ through a radiance of F sharp major: ‘May the choir of angels receive you …’
‘A Western Christian tends to aspire to God … whereas the Eastern Orthodox Christian is already aware of the divine presence … Even in composers like Victoria or Palestrina, there is always aspiration. But if you listen to the music of the East, somehow the divine is already there.’ In these words Sir John Tavener also summed up the appeal of his own music, music which touched hearts all round the world when his Song for Athene was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey in 1997. And his own memorial service was held there in June 2014, six months after his untimely death on 12 November the previous year. Dedicated to the Fallen of both World Wars, The peace that surpasseth understanding was commissioned jointly by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey and the Ministry of Defence, and premiered on Armistice Day 2009.
‘In this setting of Saint Paul’s great statement,’ Tavener said, ‘I have tried in a simple and primordial manner to suggest majesty, solemnity and a radiance of peace and bliss. I have also given the music a ceremonial nature by inserting ‘Alleluias’ sounding from Heaven (semi-chorus), gradually rising in pitch until they are answered by ‘Alleluias’ from the World (main choir). The music forms a gradual crescendo reflecting the meaning of the words. At the musical and spiritual climax, the full organ sounds four chords which represent the Four Angels before the Throne of God. The final chord then transforms into the sacred monosyllable ‘OM’, which hums around the building, representing the Peace and Beatitude of God’s Presence.’
David Gammie © 2014
Other albums in this series