Hyperion Records

O bone Jesu
5/6vv AATBarB(B); Christ Church, Oxford, MSS 984-988, The Dow Partbooks
author of text
Versus Sancti Bernardi, comprising Psalms 12; 4-5; 30: 6; 38: 5; 115: 8; 141: 5-6; 85: 17 & 4: 7

'Parsons: Sacred Music' (CDA67874)
Parsons: Sacred Music
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O bone Jesu
The unusual setting of O bone Jesu for five voices draws on the tradition of the old Votive Antiphon. This text had proved a puzzle for academics being a seemingly random selection of Psalm verses each concluding with an invocation to Jesus. It bears no relation to other settings which begin with the words ‘O bone Jesu’ and Parsons is the only English composer to assay these words. It was David Skinner who solved the riddle when he came across the reference to ‘St Bernard’s Verses’ in various Primers and Books of Hours, one of which contained the following rubric:

When St Bernard was in his daily prayers, the devil said unto him. ‘I know that there be certain verses in the Psalter, who that say them daily shall not perish, and he shall have knowledge of the day that he shall die.’ But the fiend would not show them [to] St Bernard. Then St Bernard [answered] ‘I shall say daily the whole Psalter.’ The fiend, considering that St Bernard shall do so much profit to labour so, he showed him these verses.

This was just the sort of devotion ridiculed by Erasmus in In Praise of Folly (1511) and condemned by Archbishop Cranmer in his Homily of Good Works (1547). O bone Jesu must be considered Parsons’ highest dramatic achievement. The piece sets full-choir writing (mainly for the invocations of Christ) against solo sections for the Psalm verses. His sense of symmetry is clear from the outset, starting with a duet, then increasing to a trio and then a quartet before the entry of the full choir signals the end of the first section. A trio starts the second section giving way to a sextet with a bass gimell (as in Retribue) with both bass voices in canon at the unison. The text ‘Clamavi ad te, Domine’ (‘I have cried to you, Lord.’) elicits an irresistible scale starting on a low F and moving up by step to a fourth above the octave—perhaps a clever cross reference to Psalm 130 ‘De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine’ (‘Out of the deep have I cried to you, Lord’) with the bass voices rising from the depths to the heaven with their cry. This canon allows an intensification of the drama and cleverly creates a ‘battle’ tension between the two bass voices impelling the music forward to the full-choir explosion at ‘O Rex noster’. The tension then recedes as the full choir moves into the final verses and increases gradually towards the final ‘Amen’ where Parsons returns to ‘battle’ between the voices, increasing the pitch one step at a time until the final eight bars where the constant hammering of the tonic note D on the weak beats of the bar allows the final cadence to feel one of total relief and fulfilment.

from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2011

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67874 track 10
Recording date
17 November 2010
Recording venue
Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Recording engineer
Martin Haskell
Hyperion usage
  1. Parsons: Sacred Music (CDA67874)
    Disc 1 Track 10
    Release date: October 2011
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