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This rich programme, exploring the theme of light, was recorded in the magnificent acoustic of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. It marks the debut on the Collegium label of Timothy Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and features a rare recording of Ligeti's Lux aeterna.
Bring us, O Lord God
For most of his long life Sir William Harris was a cathedral organist and teacher; from 1933–61 he was organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. His published compositions are few, all of them church or organ music. Bring us, O Lord God, published in 1959, is a spacious double-choir anthem in the rich key of D flat (like Harris’s earlier and equally renowned Faire is the heaven), with Donne’s visionary text looking towards a heaven where ‘there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light’. The unmistakably English aura of the music is combined with a perhaps rather un-English intensity of passionate emotion overtly revealed in a harmonic language of almost Straussian ripeness.
Rautavaara has long been acknowledged within Finland as the leading Finnish composer of his generation, but internationally his work has gained full recognition only recently. Prolific in both instrumental and vocal music, his music for choir is nourished by Finland’s rich, thriving choral tradition. The Evening hymn comes from his All-Night Vigil setting, written in 1972 in response to a joint commision from the Helsinki Festival and the Orthodox Church of Finland. The text is a Finnish version of the same third-century Greek evening hymn set to music by Wood in English translation, and by Grechaninov and Tchaikovsky in Church Slavonic.
This is the fifth of the fifteen movements comprising the All-Night Vigil, Op 37 (sometimes mis-named the Vespers), Rachmaninov’s most enduring contribution to the repertoire of Russian church music. The interest of Russia’s leading composers in the liturgy of the Orthodox church had been rekindled by Tchaikovsky’s 1878 setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrystostom, though creative freedom was limited since the traditional chants were held to be sacred, and over-elaborate or personal treatment of them was frowned upon by the church authorities; instruments, moreover, were forbidden. Rachmaninov’s own 1910 setting of the Liturgy (which made no use of pre-existing chants) was in fact never sanctioned for liturgical use. Perhaps to make amends for this official rebuff, in 1915 he wrote the All-Night Vigil, in which he did incorporate a number of chant melodies, reverently treated though in his own distinctive style. The work was very well received, though its success was short-lived, since the 1917 Revolution led to the suppression of the church and its music. Rachmaninov retained a particular affection for the Nunc dimittis movement, and wanted it sung at his funeral: he could not have foreseen that in the very different environment of Beverly Hills, his home at the time of his death, this proved to be impractical. The Nunc dimittis is based on a chant of the Kiev tradition, sung by the tenor soloist, surrounded with a lullaby-like accompaniment from the choir. The final bars have the basses descending to a low B flat; Danilin, the conductor of the Synodal Choir who were to give the first performance, asked the composer ‘Where are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.’
O Lux beata Trinitas
The text of Byrd’s motet (proper to Vespers) is one of twelve hymns ascribed to St Ambrose, the fourth-century French bishop who is credited with establishing and codifying a tradition of chant in the Western church, preceding the more renowned Pope Gregory in this endeavour by some 200 years. Byrd’s setting, which he designated ‘hymnus’, is in fact in a fairly contrapuntal motet style, though unusually clear and lucid in texture despite its six voices, and divided into three sections corresponding to the stanzas of the text. The third section is a triple canon, perhaps symbolic of the Holy Trinity. O Lux beata Trinitas dates from early in Byrd’s career, appearing in his first collection of church music, the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 in which seventeen of his compositions were published together with seventeen by Tallis.
O coruscans lux stellarum
The music and poetry of Hildegard of Bingen—abbess, mystic and writer—has come to be widely appreciated only in recent years. She gathered together her 77 sacred songs in a liturgically ordered collection called the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum; O coruscans lux is designated as proper to the ceremony of dedicating a church. Its text apostrophizes the church as a place of divine splendour and light; the melody is of appropriately soaring, rhapsodic freedom.
O nata lux
The Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6th) commemorates the incident when Christ took three apostles up a mountain ‘and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’ (Matthew 17, v. 2). O nata lux is the office hymn for Lauds on this feast day. Tallis’s brief but much-loved setting comes from the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 (see note on No 5).
Te lucis ante terminum
Another of Tallis’s contributions to the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae (though probably composed some years earlier), Te lucis ante terminum is a simple setting of the famous Compline hymn believed to date from before the eighth century and surviving in many medieval manuscripts. As the final evening office of the monastic day, Compline is filled with references to light and darkness, imagery which had particular force in a medieval world ‘lit only by fire’.
Hymn to the Creator of Light
The occasion for the first performance of this piece was the dedication of a memorial window to the composer Herbert Howells in Gloucester Cathedral at the 1992 Three Choirs Festival. Howells was born near Gloucester in 1892, and the new stained-glass window was a tangible memento of his centenary celebrations, as was the commissioning of this anthem. Lancelot Andrewes, the author of the main part of the text, was a leading Anglican theologian of his day, one of the translators of the King James Bible, and Bishop of Winchester from 1618 until his death. His Preces privatae, from which the text is taken, is a collection of Latin prayers and meditations.
Hail, gladdening Light
The text of this resplendent double-choir anthem is one of the earliest known Christian hymns, first referred to by St Basil in the fourth century and used in the early church at the lighting of the evening lamp at sunset, hence its nickname of ‘the candlelight hymn’. It was incorporated into the Orthodox liturgy of the All-Night Vigil, hence its many settings by Russian composers. John Keble’s English translation attracted the attention of Charles Wood, who set it to music in 1912 as one of a set of anthems for the major festivals of the church. Wood was then Lecturer in Music at Cambridge University (he succeeded to the professorship on the death of Stanford in 1924) and also organist of Gonville and Caius College; the college choir very likely gave the first performance, though publication was delayed until 1919 because of the World War. This anthem has remained a cornerstone of the Anglican repertory ever since.
Christe, qui lux es et dies
Little is known of Robert Whyte’s life. Possibly born in London, he was first a chorister and then a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. He held cathedral posts in Ely and Chester before becoming Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey in 1569, remaining there until his death. His vocal music represents the older tradition of Latin polyphonic composition and was much admired in his century. He wrote four settings of the medieval Compline hymn Christe, qui lux es et dies, of which the present one is the simplest, with the chant melody appearing in the top part in the second and sixth stanzas and in the alto for the fourth stanza. The remaining stanzas are sung to the Gregorian chant unharmonized.
In 1914 R. R. Terry, organist of the then recently-built Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral in London, invited four composers (including the young Herbert Howells) to write unaccompanied eight-part Nunc dimittis settings for use at the cathedral’s Compline services during Holy Week. Holst’s setting was performed on Easter Sunday 1915 but not then published. After lying forgotten for many years, it was revised and published in 1979 by the composer’s daughter Imogen, quickly establishing itself in the repertoire as an imaginative and assured setting of its familiar text: Holst seized the opportunities offered by the eight-voiced medium and the very reverberant acoustic of the cathedral to create a setting of exceptionally full, sonorous texture, with a lovely opening that seems to evoke the gentle lighting of candles.
Christe, qui lux es et dies
Gregorian chant runs like a golden thread through the sacred music of most Renaissance composers. In Palestrina’s case it is most clearly to be discerned in his only collection of polyphonic hymn settings, published in 1589, where the outlines of the chant melodies are recognizable in most of the voice parts, notably the soprano, rather than the tenor which had been favoured by earlier composers. Christe, qui lux es et dies comes from the 1589 publication; its version of the chant differs slightly from that used by Whyte in No 11. Palestrina achieves an impressively cumulative effect by reserving the use of all five voices until the final stanza.
Such was the prestige enjoyed by the music of Josquin during and immediately after his lifetime that an unusually large number of compositions which he probably or definitely did not write were attributed to him, some no doubt on the principle that an orphan given a famous name is more likely to succeed in the world. This appears to be the case with the present Nunc dimittis, which was included in the collected Josquin edition but subsequently shown to be of unreliable attribution. Whoever the composer, it is a setting of affecting simplicity and expressiveness which bears some of the hallmarks of Josquin’s style, notably in the alternation of high and low pairs of voices. Particularly effective is a reprise near the end (unusual in Renaissance motets) of the opening words and music.
Grechaninov’s life began in Moscow and ended in New York. He was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and enjoyed some early success in various genres, notably songs, piano pieces, and music for children, but it is his church music, a lifelong interest, which has best endured. In 1910 the Tsar granted him a pension in recognition of his music for the Orthodox church. In 1925 he settled in Paris, and in 1940 emigrated to America where he continued to compose church music, not all for the Orthodox liturgy, however. The present Svyéte tikhii, a typical example of his warmly resonant choral writing, is from his Liturgy of Holy Week, Op 58 (1911).
Tchaikovsky’s setting of the same text as No 15 comes from his 1881 All-Night Vigil, Op 52, the second of his two substantial liturgical works. His 1878 Liturgy of St John Chrysostom had incurred the disapproval of the church authorities, and, like Rachmaninov thirty years later, Tchaikovsky seems to have been anxious to avoid further trouble. In a lengthy preface to the All-Night Vigil, he stresses the care with which he approached the task of harmonizing the traditional chants and his determination to purge his style of all ‘foreign’ influences which might dilute its essential Russianness. His approach to the text of Svyétye tikhii is more joyous, less consistently reflective and homophonic than Grechaninov’s, and he is willing to risk a hint of contrapuntal writing in the second section of the piece, a technique liable to incur the disapproval of the church. In fact, his All-Night Vigil was officially sanctioned for liturgical use and became very popular, serving as a model for other composers including Rachmaninov.
Lucis creator optime
This is a setting (from the same 1589 publication as No 13) of an Office hymn generally used at Sunday Vespers, believed to be by Pope Gregory—from whom Gregorian chant takes its name. As with No 13, Palestrina reserves his full five voices for the final stanza; here he achieves additional contrast by setting the middle stanza for just three voices.
Born in Transylvania, in the border region between Hungary and Romania, Ligeti studied composition at first locally and then at the Budapest Academy, where he became a professor in 1950. Leaving Hungary in 1956, the year of the Uprising, he settled in Vienna, establishing his reputation with a series of avant-garde compositions beginning with Apparitions (1959). His Requiem (1965), a response to the horrors of World War II, made a deep impression, and was swiftly followed by the present Lux aeterna (1966), which can be seen as a pendant to it. The Lux aeterna was commissioned by the conductor of the Stuttgart Schola Cantorum for inclusion in a recording of new music. If the prevailing mood of the Requiem is one of death, the Lux aeterna carries the hope of resurrection, consistent with the eternal light referred to in its text. A sense of harmony and tonality (largely absent in the Requiem) is discernible, with the periodic recurrence of clear unison notes and a three-note ‘rainbow’ chord (E flat, F, A flat on its first appearance). No rhythmic pulse can be detected, because eternity has no sense of time, but the shape and structure of Lux aeterna is lucid and even strict. At the time Ligeti wrote it, he was interested in concepts of space and distance—his next work after the Lux aeterna was called Lontano—and at the top of the score of the Lux aeterna appears the general instruction ‘as if from afar’. Ligeti divides the choir into sixteen parts, which enables him to form, literally, nebulous clusters of notes slowly shifting in subtle and ever-changing patterns. All of this suggests that the ‘eternal light’ of the title may be cosmological rather than spiritual; in 1968 the American film director Stanley Kubrick used portions of the Lux aeterna and the Requiem in his immensely influential film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which further encouraged a ‘galactic’ interpretation of the music. Whether we should think of the eternal light as coming from distant galaxies or from God, there is no doubt that Lux aeterna is a masterpiece, taking choral music—and the listener—into a new and eerie sound-world of the imagination.
Collegium Records © 1999
Composers have returned again and again to certain key texts, and the eighteen a cappella pieces chosen for this recording afford fascinating points of comparison: two settings of the medieval Compline hymn Christe, qui lux es et dies, four of the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc dimittis), and four of the third-century Greek hymn text best known in the John Keble translation as Hail, gladdening Light.
The music ranges in date from the dawn of notation in the middle ages to Ligeti in 1966; geographically there is a spread from Tallis’s England, via Hildegard of Bingen’s Germany and Palestrina’s Italy, to Finland and Russia, whose fervent sacred music is presently winning new audiences throughout the choral world.
This rich programme, recorded in the magnificent acoustic of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, marks the debut on the Collegium label of Timothy Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.
John Rutter © 1999
Les compositeurs se sont à chaque fois retournés vers certains textes-clés, et les dix-huit œuvres a cappella choisies pour cet enregistrement offrent des points de comparaison fascinants: deux mises en musique de l’hymne de Complies médiéval Christe, qui lux es et dies, quatre du Cantique de Siméon (Nunc dimittis), et quatre mises en musique de l’hymne grec du IIIème siècle O lumière joyeuse.
Les compositions s’étendent temporellement depuis l’aube de la notation au Moyen-Âge jusqu’en 1966 avec l’œuvre de Ligeti; géographiquement elles nous font voyager depuis l’Angleterre de Tallis, via Hildegard de Bingen en Allemagne et Palestrina en Italie, jusqu’en Finlande et en Russie, dont la ferveur de la musique sacrée est actuellement en train de gagner une audience toujours plus large au sein du monde choral.
Ce programme d’une grande richesse a été enregistré dans la Lady Chapel de la Cathédrale d’Ely dont l’acoustique est magnifique, et marque le début chez Collegium de Timothy Brown et du Chœur de Clare College de Cambridge.
John Rutter © 1999
Français: Claire de Burbure
Komponisten haben immer wieder auf bestimmte Schlüsseltexte zurückgegriffen, und die achtzehn a cappella-Stücken der vorliegenden Einspielung bieten in diesem Zusammenhang faszinierende Vergleichsmöglichkeiten: zwei Sätze der mittelalterlichen Hymne (zur Komplet) Christe, qui lux es et dies, vier Sätze des Nunc dimittis (Canticum Simeonis) und ebenfalls vier Sätze eines griechischen Hymnentextes aus dem dritten Jahrhundert, O frohes Licht.
Zeitlich bewegt sich die Musik von den Anfängen der musikalischen Notation im Mittelalter bis zu Klängen György Ligetis aus dem Jahre 1966; geographisch werden das England des Thomas Tallis, das Deutschland Hildegards von Bingen, das Italien Palestrinas, aber auch Länder wie Rußland und Finnland gestreift, deren ausdrucksstarke Vokalmusik immer mehr Publikum auch in der internationalen Welt der Chormusik gewinnt.
Mit diesem vielseitigen Programm präsentieren sich Timothy Brown und der Choir of Clare College (Cambridge) erstmals bei Collegium.
John Rutter © 1999
Deutsch: Christine Hartlieb