The texts and music of the medieval period have indeed provided rich pickings for twentieth- and twenty-first century composers. This trend reaches back at least as far as the publication of The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928; and it was confirmed by the composition of the seminal work in the genre, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, in 1942/3. The use of medieval texts seems particularly appropriate in Ave Rex, a carol sequence composed by William Mathias in 1969 for the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir. Mathias’s music is full of parallel fourths and fifths, a sound guaranteed to evoke medieval music; he also makes much use of bitonality. The pungent sound world is established by the organ flourishes and clashing repetitions of ‘Ave’ in the opening movement; this material alternates with more stately settings of the English portions of the text. The second movement, Alleluya, a new work is come on hand, is less severe than the first, though open fifths still predominate. The mood is lively; the short choral phrases are articulated by bouncy organ interjections which are extended in the final verse to a Stravinskian descant of running staccato quavers. At the heart of the sequence is one of the most popular medieval carols, There is no rose, which touches upon the mysteries of the Immaculate Conception, Incarnation, and Trinity, all in very ‘little space’; Mathias alternates between single-voice settings of the English part of the text and three- and four-part Latin refrains. The musical language is much softer-edged than the surrounding movements, making use of the distinctive Lydian scale, in which the fourth note is sharpened. The refrains are all in compound time; initially rocking peacefully like a lullaby, they gather pace toward ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gaudeamus’, in bright A major. Then the tessitura and tempo drop for the final, gently melismatic verse. The fourth carol in the sequence is the best known, and the most energetic; it also provides a secular foil to the sacred texts that surround it. The eponymous Sir Christèmas is a sort of messenger-cum-master of ceremonies; he first announces the birth of ‘a child full young’, then bids the assembly ‘Buvez bien par toute la compagnie’. Mathias’s music is suitably uproarious, ending with a shouted ‘Nowell’. An organ cadenza then provides the link back to the sequence’s opening.
from notes by Robert Quinney © 2008