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Five Motets

author of text
author of text

After writing an 8-voice a cappella setting of an ancient Hebrew poem for The Clerks in 2000, their director, Edward Wickham, suggested that I write them a work on a larger scale. When the BBC invited The Clerks to sing at a Prom in 2003 (the year of my 50th birthday), the opportunity presented itself to fulfil this request. At the time, I was working on a long-term project, a radio opera The Wandering Jew (commissioned by BBC Radio 3); as the subject of wandering (with the inevitable issue of whether or not a particular journey might be cyclic or goal-directed) has been a compositional preoccupation for many years, the idea for the motets developed rapidly. Edward Wickham suggested that I use the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, another factor which helped me shape the overall plan, the cycle alternating Latin settings with English poems of my own, the latter acting as commentaries on the biblical texts. This scheme also had a practical aspect; the ‘continuous’ Prom in which the motets were premiered included not only a parody mass by Josquin des Prez, but also performances by His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts of instrumental In Nomine settings by later 16th Century Tudor composers. The technique of parody (ie: secular material being re-cycled for use in liturgical music) was a relatively common one during the late Medieval and Renaissance periods and was most valuable to me in writing the motets. The source of the In Nomine melody is the Mass Gloria tibi Trinitas by the great early Tudor composer, John Taverner.

The Five Motets describe an outward journey (a voyage of departure) and a return (in the sense of fulfilment) and emanating from this overall idea and its manifestation regarding the texts set, each piece in the set addresses the technical issue of writing for a 9-voice choir in a specific way. The journey is thus circular but, as in the Biblical narrative, the ‘return’ is not literal; life changes and nothing remains the same. The motets, as a sequence, both technically and expressively, mirror and illustrate this voyage.

The first motet sets the Latin Vulgate (St Jerome) translation (from Hebrew) of the passage from Genesis describing Abram and Sara’s outward journey from Ur, in modern-day Iraq, to Canaan, and God’s promise of the land to them and their descendants. The setting, which sets out from Taverner’s In Nomine melody, is in 9-voice ‘equal’ polyphony, the choir thus being used as one body of sound, and the music progresses from E to a multiple octave A.

This note begins the second motet, which is the first of the settings of my own texts (in English) and acts as a ‘retrospective’ commentary on the first piece. The choir is divided into two groups, the first representing the present and the second choir the past—the original voyage of departure. The music leads from its initial A to E flat, the uninvertible tritone being symbolic of distance, in this case, the span of four thousand years.

The third motet departs from Biblical chronology, setting the well-known description in Exodus of another outward journey: that of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea (or, more correctly, Sea of Reeds). It is a choral dance describing the women on the shore, led by Moses and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, as they celebrate freedom. This is an important passage, as it is believed to be the first description of non-mythical women being allotted the leading role in Western literature. The texture is in stratified counterpoint, the female voices and male altos singing a poem of freedom (action) in English, while the lower male voices sing the Biblical text (description) in Latin. The pitch centre is B flat.

The fourth motet acts as ‘pre’-commentary to the fifth, and is a setting, in English, of another poem of mine, this time about Jacob’s dream, an episode which occurred at Haran, the place at which his grandparents (Abram and Sara) had arrived on their outward journey two generations earlier and, in his vision Jacob, too, realises the holiness of the place where he lays his head to sleep. The lower male voices, singing in homophony, meditate on this while the upper voices sing a prayer of Hope and Light. The pitch centre is ‘prophetically’ A flat.

The fifth motet reverts to Genesis, and sets the Biblical text, in Latin, describing Jacob’s dream of the ladder reaching to Heaven. The choir begins the piece with imitative polyphony in double canon before the music is ‘released’ to ascend ‘towards heaven’.

The close returns to the initial E from the beginning of the first motet, but now the minor third of the In Nomine has become the major third, the prominent A flat from both the fourth motet and the first part of the fifth enharmonically becoming a tierce de picardie above the bass note E.

from notes by Robert Saxton © 2008


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SIGCD174Download only


No 1: Dixit autem Dominus ad Abram
Track 1 on SIGCD174 [3'27] Download only
No 2: Distant, a family travels
Track 2 on SIGCD174 [2'52] Download only
No 3: Down the ages a song has echoed
Track 3 on SIGCD174 [2'34] Download only
No 4: Returning, wander weary
Track 4 on SIGCD174 [2'25] Download only
No 5: Igitur egressus Jacob
Track 5 on SIGCD174 [4'27] Download only

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