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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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This album presents a selection of works commissioned by The Clerks over the last decade, and is their first devoted entirely to contemporary music. The impulse behind each commission was different, as was the context in which they were first perf ...» More