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From the twelfth century (Saint Hildegard) to the twenty-first, the voices of The Gesualdo Six weave a meditative reflection around the ancient Office of Compline in a moving sequence of music from fourteen composers.
The earliest known settings of the ancient Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum appear as plainsong versions in Catholic liturgical books from the mid-sixteenth century. In this intimate setting by Thomas Tallis, included in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, two verses of the chant frame a simple five-voiced middle section in which the highest voice sings the melody. Tallis’s craft is reserved for the lower parts which subtly bring out the nuances of the text, a prime example of this being the wide-eyed chord that heralds the night’s ghostly company (‘phantasmata’).
The music of Carlo Gesualdo has always been a cornerstone of our repertoire, starting with his extraordinary Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, which we performed at our first concert. Gesualdo’s music is well known for its extreme style, with chromatic melodies creating dissonant and disjointed harmonic progressions that illuminate the most melancholy aspects of the dark texts he set. The sacred motet Illumina faciem tuam, with its startling harmonic shifts and expressive word-painting, is typical of the composer: listen for the gradual build-up between ‘salvum me’ (‘save me’) and ‘quoniam invocavi te’ (‘for I have called upon thee’), as the tension grows through ever more insistent repetitions.
Written while he was a student at St John’s College in Cambridge, Look down, O Lord by Jonathan Seers sets words from the service of Compline. At the opening, cascading short motifs mark out the harmonic territory, before the voices join together on the word ‘illuminate’. Two ascending melodies then begin in the lower voices, leading towards brass-like chords for ‘brightness’ and ‘banish’. At the end of the work the voices divide into two groups as the music disappears into the night.
Among the earliest known Christian hymns, Phos hilaron (‘Gladdening light’) can be dated to at least the fourth century on account of its inclusion in the Apostolic Constitutions—prescriptive texts compiled in the Syrian region in the 370s AD. Contemplating the dying light of the evening, the hymn has traditionally been associated with the ritual lighting of candles, and Owain Park’s 2017 setting, which features a solo line accompanied by soft-grained chords, evokes both the literal and spiritual contrast between darkness and illumination. The piece was written for Compline services in Cambridge and later morphed into a larger work that has been recorded by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, on their 2018 album of Owain Park’s choral works.
Joanna Marsh is a British composer who has been living in Dubai since 2007 and is currently Composer in Residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Both Fading and Seeds in flight come from Arabesques, a set of four pieces composed for The King’s Singers in 2015. These are settings of short but highly evocative poems by contemporary male Arab poets, each telling the story of a woman they have known. Fading sets words by the Iraqi poet Abboud al Jabiri, who likens an ageing woman to a bird shedding plumage. To achieve this image, Marsh constantly shifts the voice groupings and harmonies so that the music rarely feels still. Seeds in flight tells of how a woman finds rebirth after her death, with Marsh this time regularly resolving to the same minor chord before finally breaking out into an uplifting chord sequence at the end. Throughout, gentle dissonances colour important moments in the text, such as at ‘whispers’, ‘magic’ and ‘miracle’.
William Byrd’s Lullaby ‘My sweet little baby’ was one of the composer’s most popular works during his lifetime, enjoying a wide circulation in various arrangements. Here we sing the opening section, a heart-rending verse in which the virgin Mary comforts her child in the wake of the slaughter of the innocents. The melody in the highest voice is echoed throughout by the second part, creating an almost sobbing effect.
Veljo Tormis was a lifelong evangelist for his country’s folk-song tradition, as evidenced by his Four Estonian lullabies, all largely unembellished settings of traditional tunes. Marjal aega magada (‘It’s time for the little berry to sleep’) has the quality of a lament, with the emphasis placed on the second beat of each bar, so the music never quite settles. Each accompanying part in Laulan lapsele (‘I sing for my child’) repeats a short individual motif, with these stated consecutively to build up the texture over which the melody is presented. In Lase kiik käia! (‘Let the cradle swing!’) Tormis sets an undulating folk melody with great economy of gesture, providing a simple rocking accompaniment in the outer voices. In Äiutus (‘Lulling’), Tormis sets a gentle three-note melody over slow-moving chromatic chords and a low bass drone—a valedictory setting that drifts off into the distance as the chords cease moving and the finally melody disappears.
Known for his dense complex polyphony, Nicolas Gombert was one of the last exponents of the influential Franco-Flemish School, which included several generations of Renaissance composers from the region loosely known as the ‘Low Countries’. In the six-voice motet Media vita, each phrase is worked out in slow passages of imitation. Unlike his predecessor and mentor Josquin des Prez, Gombert used irregular numbers of voice entries and avoided precise divisions of phrases, resulting in a flowing, continuous sonic landscape. Listen out for the dissonances around ‘Sancte Deus’ and ‘Sancte fortis’—Gombert often employed these false relations for emotional effect—as the music cries out to God for help.
A contemporary of Tallis, Christopher Tye’s name appears primarily in connection with King Edward VI, as he was allegedly the king’s music teacher. Although highly respected in his day, very little of his music remains. The polyphonic verse Ad te clamamus is the middle section of the full Salve regina text, which hints to the possibility that this could be a surviving fragment of a complete polyphonic setting. As might be expected, the ‘groaning and weeping’ in the text is portrayed by low-lying vocal writing, the long melismatic phrases interwoven to create a mellifluous texture for the ‘vale of tears’.
Versa est in luctum was composed by Alonso Lobo for the funeral of King Philip II of Spain in 1598. The liturgical tradition of the time dictated that a sermon should be preached at the end of the Requiem Mass before administering the last rites. In some instances a motet was sung between the oration and the absolution: Lobo’s Versa est in luctum is such a piece. The text vividly describes heavenly harps, organs and voices in lyrical mourning. A six-voice texture is maintained almost throughout, capturing the text’s anguish in descending melodic lines and wonderfully dark harmonic colours.
Luca Marenzio wrote twenty-three books of madrigals, and his 1581 setting of Potrò viver io più se senza luce is an excellent example of his style. The text questions whether life has any meaning without ‘light’, perhaps indicating that the protagonist’s beloved has died. The speaker now longs for death and to be with God, the ‘true light’. Marenzio emphasizes the expressive details of the text with surprising chromatic twists embedded in a dense network of motifs—a musical tapestry also found in the early Baroque works of Monteverdi.
Gregorian chant has run through sacred music for more than a millennium, and the earliest piece included on this album is an example of this beautiful monody. Twelfth-century polymath and religious icon Saint Hildegard of Bingen was a prolific composer of devotional pieces. In its complete form, O Ecclesia celebrates Saint Ursula, a martyr and leader of early Christians; in the opening section presented here, Hildegard begins not with Ursula herself, but with the greater church whose visionary faith in Christ was Ursula’s calling. Some of the hallmarks of Hildegard’s writing are clearly evident: phrases that begin with the leap of a fifth, and end by dropping just below the expected final note before resolving upwards.
My heart is like a singing bird is a beguiling setting of Christina Rossetti’s A birthday by American composer Sarah Rimkus. The work was written for The Gesualdo Six’s first composition competition in 2016, and has remained one of our favourite pieces to perform. At the outset, duetting voices deliver the poem over a repeating heartbeat figuration, before a gradual increase in tempo and dynamic leads into a more animated middle section. Winding down, the music refers back to the opening gestures, the voices gradually dropping out until a single note is left hanging.
O little rose, O dark rose by Canadian composer Gerda Blok-Wilson sets a poem by another Canadian, Charles Roberts. The words express a mutual love that cannot be: one is free-spirited and ‘Carmenesque’, the other is from the ‘other side of the world’ and yearns to be with this ‘little rose’. Blok-Wilson was attracted to this poem for both its sweet and dark elements, each of which are brought out through sensitive and delicate writing, creating a piece with the timeless quality of a folk song.
Owain Park © 2020