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From Lassus and Byrd to Howells, Judith Bingham and Owain Park—The Gesualdo Six’s exploration of Epiphany down the ages is a multifaceted compendium of musical delights.
But then there is ‘Little Christmas’—Epiphany, which comes from the Greek ‘epiphaneia’, meaning ‘appearance’, and which is one of the three principal and oldest festival days of the Christian Church. The revelation of Jesus Christ to the world, the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus and the wedding at Cana are all celebrated at this time. Following an old tradition, those who forget to take down their Christmas trees on Epiphany eve must leave them untouched until Candlemas: it is this period which forms the musical timeline for much of this album.
There is no shortage of wonderful repertoire to explore at this time of year. Full of hope and joy, much of it alluding to the ‘morning star’, it offers a promise of renewal and rebirth. These works remind us to celebrate the gifts we have received, and to wonder at the mystical alchemy described in the Epiphany story. On this album we weave a tapestry of well-known seasonal carols together with Renaissance gems and highlights from the twenty-first century. We hope that the music contained here reflects the joy we had performing it, as we return to the chapel at Trinity College in Cambridge, where we made our first festive album () a few years ago.
We open this collection with The Three Kings, No 3 from the song cycle for voice and piano titled Weihnachtslieder, Op 8, by German composer Peter Cornelius. Owing to its immense popularity, this song (originally in German and named ‘Die Könige’) has been translated into numerous languages and arranged for many forces. Here we present the English translation of the choral arrangement, which many of us first encountered at Epiphany services around the UK. After several revisions, Franz Liszt convinced Cornelius to include the Lutheran chorale ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (‘How brightly shines the morning star’) in the accompanying voices. Mendelssohn and other composers used this well-known chorale in their works; it provides a lovely sonority to complement the song tune, whose meandering melodic line suggests steps being taken on a journey. The soloist’s text, which Cornelius himself wrote, beautifully portrays the biblical Christmas story as viewed through a child’s eyes.
Throughout the album, we intersperse choral compositions with plainchant Propers at Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany. Most of our performances at this time of year tend to take place in churches and cathedrals, and we use this chant to explore the acoustics in different corners of each building.
The text for the Introit, Ecce advenit, is a show of strength. The chant melody reflects this: each phrase has a fairly narrow compass, which gives the music a contained energy that is emphasized by brief, tight melismas.
The Gradual, Omnes de Saba venient, is much more florid, with cascading melodic lines that evoke great plumes of incense. The extended moments afforded to ‘Surge et illuminare’ (‘Arise and shine’) are particularly luscious, taking an almost balletic journey from the top of the stave down into the depths, before returning upwards to sound the highest note of the chant.
Three singers take on the role of the kings in the Alleluia, Vidimus stellam (‘We have seen his star’), explaining their intent to visit Jesus with offerings. When the Alleluia returns at the end, we add the remaining singers so as to join the jubilant Magi in their singing.
The repeated pitches in the Offertory chant, Reges Tharsis, gradually build up enough tension to release into beautiful melismatic phrases, creating a smoke-filled atmosphere similar to that found in the Gradual. By contrast, the Communion chant is more solemn in nature. This setting of Vidimus stellam is a simplified rendition of the same text heard in the Alleluia, and is sung here at a mellow pitch to accentuate the mystery of the sacrament.
Brahms considered Johannes Eccard to be one of the most important sixteenth-century Lutheran composers, ranking him alongside Schütz and Praetorius. Eccard’s setting Maria wallt zum Heiligtum (‘Mary made a pilgrimage to the temple’)—the text after a poem by Peter von Hagen, itself a paraphrase of the Song of Simeon—depicts Christ’s presentation in the temple (Candlemas). The music is written in a ‘chorale-motet’ style—similar to a hymn tune, but with each part having its own melodic and rhythmic logic. A particularly special moment is when the full six-part texture thins to just four voices, highlighting Simeon’s direct address to Jesus: ‘Nun fahr’ ich hin mit Freud’ (‘Now I depart with gladness’). This then unfurls into a moment of conversational polyphony, as ‘du Trost von Israel’ (‘you comfort of Israel’) is passed around the voices.
Ecce advenit is a characterful motet for four voices found in the 1607 Gradualia, a collection of liturgical works composed by William Byrd. The upper two parts are equal in range, and enjoy a dalliance in scales and rhythmic games above the two slightly more sedate lower voices. Byrd highlights ‘in manu eius’ in the opening section by teasing out ever-higher summits of ascending lines and thereby emphasizing in turn the three elements: ‘kingdom’, ‘power’ and ‘authority’. In the chamber-like verse section, short bursts of tightly woven imitation maintain a rippling energy, despite the forces reducing to three singers. The Gloria is treated fairly syllabically until ‘et in saecula’, where the parts begin to play off each other once more, symbolizing the timeless intensity of ‘an age of ages’.
In her 2019 setting In winter’s house, Joanna Marsh captures the wonder of a child’s winter dream as described in Jane Draycott’s poem. Each stanza begins with the words of the poem’s title before going on to describe a room, an object or a person, and how each changes during the transition from darkness to light. Over time, the opening musical cell gradually becomes fundamental to the structure—a simple chordal pattern which develops in harmonic complexity throughout the work. A lot of the music is composed in 5/4, which affords a lilting feel—as performers, we can interpret this using rubato, pulling back on the tempo to reflect on the text, or pushing forward as the story builds momentum. Hear how the word ‘child’ is harmonically bare and austere when it first appears (2'00); later in the work (at 4'18) the composer deftly alters the spacing of the chord to make it much warmer. The music is filled with these simple inflections, which give a close, soft-edged feeling.
Jacobus Handl was a prolific composer of the late Renaissance, writing during the Counter-Reformation in Bohemia. First printed in 1586, his five-voice motet Mirabile mysterium sets the Benedictus antiphon at Lauds for the Feast of the Circumcision. The ‘wondrous mystery’ of the text—the mystical interaction between the human and the divine—is realized through wandering chromaticism which in combination with melodic imitation generates wild, often unlikely dissonances. Listen to the top part at ‘innovantur naturae’ (1'01), where Handl asks the singer to cycle through a set of three adjacent chromatic pitches. Even more surprising are the three sets of chords at ‘non commixtionem passus’ (2'29), where Handl takes this chromatic potential and realizes it in full homophony: an awesome, if haunting, final twist.
One of Herbert Howells’s first compositions to be published was the carol-anthem Here is the little door, with words by Frances Chesterton. His musical setting allows the text to resonate with both the choir and the congregation; I remember singing this piece as a chorister, and there were always an extra few seconds of quiet after we had finished. The poem begins as a song sung by the mysterious Magi who visit the Christ-child with their strange gifts, before Christ repays them with his own—a sword and the smoke of battle—and returns the myrrh for embalming to the ‘honoured happy dead’. There is a particular clarity to the second half, perhaps as we’ve heard some of the musical material before, and so each change Howells makes is more keenly felt, such as the hushed, yet urgent unison at ‘Defend with it Thy little Lord’ (2'38). Despite the simple charm of this setting, there is tension too: in the context of the First World War, which was reaching its conclusion around the time of the work’s publication, how can the initial message of peace be reconciled with a call to arms? No doubt the care with which Howells treats the final line of the poem, ‘Touched by such tiny hands’, is intended to serve as a reminder of the preciousness of life.
Music by Jacobus Clemens non Papa was widely published throughout Europe from the 1540s, and his surviving output places him among the most productive composers of his time. His motet Magi veniunt ab oriente is typically responsive to the moods and imagery of the text. The clarity of expression is remarkable: after a series of falling scalic figures for ‘dicentes’ (‘saying’), each vocal line zones in on just one note for the questioning ‘Ubi est qui natus est?’ (‘Where is he that is born?’). The occasional use of rests in all parts articulates important narrative moments, providing space for a collective breath to emphasize the text that follows, such as at the end of the first part: ‘et venimus’ (‘and we have come’). Clemens then holds the top voice static while starkly calling on the lower three voices (which symbolize the Magi) to sing together in three-part harmony the phrase ‘adorare Dominum’ (‘to worship the Lord’). As the work approaches its conclusion, the most radiant chord sequence appears: ‘aurum, thus et myrrham’ (‘gold, frankincense and myrrh’)—quite startling on the page, with long, rectangular notes which give an indication of the spaciousness the composer requires—before the music winds down with a sequential set of alleluias.
Arvo Pärt composed Morning star to celebrate the 175th birthday of Durham University in 2007, choosing to set a prayer inscribed above the tomb of St Bede in Durham Cathedral. The voices are treated almost orchestrally at first: we imagine flutes and oboes in the legato upper parts, with the middle parts imitating strings playing with separate bow strokes. When the basses arrive, it’s a little like the gentle persuasion of timpani with soft bassoons. Pärt chooses the bright and shining key of A minor for this work, employing short, repeated melodic cells to establish a contemplative atmosphere. After the halfway point, each repetition climbs a little more to build to an ecstatic climax, offering a glimpse at resplendent C major, before returning to a more subdued soundworld for Christ’s ‘everlasting day’.
The earliest known collection of English polyphonic carols can be found on the Trinity Carol Roll, a parchment scroll that measures almost six feet long. The roll, which comes from East Anglia and dates to the early fifteenth century, includes words and musical notation for thirteen carols in both Middle English and Latin on a five-line stave. These include the popular There is no rose, which has inspired composers for centuries. Although the setting by Adrian Peacock was originally composed with mixed upper voices in mind, its lyrical charm works equally well when transposed down. The melody is gradually enriched with ever-more developed harmony, before the work subsides to a reflective conclusion.
Orlande de Lassus was born in Mons, in modern-day Belgium, and received his early training as a choirboy before adopting Italian influences while working in Mantua, Milan and Rome. His first publications appeared in Antwerp and Venice simultaneously in 1555, establishing his status as a one-man musical press: Lassus’s work accounts for an astonishing three-fifths of all music printed in Europe between 1555 and 1600. His motet Tribus miraculis (‘We celebrate a day sanctified by three miracles’) is joyous. Driving scalic moments in the lower voices provide a bubbling energy for the upper voices, which frequently dance along towards the top of their range in celebration of the three manifestations (or Epiphanies) of Jesus’s divinity. With an ebullience to match the conversational counterpart at play, the word ‘Alleluia’ is sung no fewer than fifty-two times across the five vocal parts in the closing section.
O send out thy light sets a verse from Psalm 42 (43) in which the protagonist asks for the divine light to guide them. I wrote this short introit for our Epiphany concert series in 2022 with the singers of the group in mind, splitting the forces in half to form a higher consort, which leads off, and a lower group which responds. Before returning to the chordal structure of the opening, the middle section becomes more lyrical, with a tender melodic figure for ‘bring me unto thy holy hill’ drifting between the voices. In order to emphasize the arrival at the word ‘dwelling’ at the end of the piece, I chose to juxtapose chords with overlapping sonorities of both vowel colour and harmony, avoiding the stability of root-position chords where possible.
Judith Bingham’s anthem In Mary’s love sets a poem by Ben Kaye whose text takes inspiration from a Marian homily given by the twelfth-century Cistercian Amadeus of Lausanne. Opus Anglicanum commissioned the work in memory of Mary Rowlands-Pritchard. The lovely series of parallel chords at ‘Wondrous newborn life’ and the tenderness of a faltering breath at ‘unveiled the jewels of heaven’ are examples of the piece’s refined elegance and gently radiating harmonic warmth. The folk-song-inspired melodic passages, such as those at ‘Humble shepherds, noble Magi’ and ‘Such an overwhelming joy’, both of which are set to upbeat 6/8 metres, are particularly alluring.
Celebrated in his day, Pierre de Manchicourt was a contemporary of Jacobus Clemens non Papa. The Epiphany responsory Illuminare, Jerusalem sets words from Isaiah and showcases Manchicourt’s highly polyphonic compositional style. Short, imitative passages weave the text into an intricate web that glitters with brightness. Voices take on scalic figures in turn, occasionally dancing together at phrases like ‘et gloria Domini’ (‘and the glory of the Lord’) and ‘super te orta est’ (‘has risen upon you’). The secunda pars opens with a strong rhythmic theme that sets the tone for yet more upbeat counterpoint, even more joyful than before. Many of the concepts and much of the imagery found elsewhere on the album are brought together in this work, and for that reason we would often choose to conclude a concert with this piece, sending the audience out on a polyphonic high! But there is one more tune we’d like to share …
Found in numerous hymnals since the turn of the nineteenth century, the text for Bethlehem, of noblest cities is drawn from a lyrical poem attributed to Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-after 405): O sola magnarum urbium. In 1568, it was introduced into the revised Roman Breviary by Pope Pius V as the Lauds hymn during Epiphany, and in 1849 the text was translated by the English clergyman Edward Caswall. The tune was adapted from a melody in Christian Friedrich Witt’s Psalmodia sacra (1715) and is commonly known as ‘Stuttgart’. I arranged this beautiful hymn tune as an encore for our seasonal concert series, showcasing the melody in a variety of forms, from a unison line to extended six-part harmony.
Owain Park © 2023