The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary 

Victoria: Missa Vidi Speciosum

Palestrina: Hodie nata est beata virgo Maria

For our patronal festival we are celebrating with music by two giants of the choral repertoire. Missa Vidi Speciosum was written by the Spanish organist, composer and priest Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and was based on his motet for the feast of the Assumption. It was published in 1592, twenty years after the youthful motet was first published. In this exuberant six part music he uses the choir almost as an orchestra; combining different parts to find contrasting colours.

There are many who think that Victoria was taught by  Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594); even if the lessons where not formal it is inconceivable that Victoria – and almost every composer since – was not influenced by Palestrina, the first great Italian composer. ‘Hodie nata est beata virgo Maria’ was motet written for the feast of the nativity of Our Lady and published in 1569. It is, like so many of Palestrina’s motets, a beautifully crafted piece of music. The unusual opening phrase, whose fifth note seemingly does not belong, is used to create a wonderful ambiguity as the music slips between a collection of seemingly distantly related keys.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Morales: Missa Ave Maris Stella

Lassus:  Confitemini Domino a6

Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553): was a difficult, but great Spanish musician. He spent most of his working life in Rome; during the early sixteenth century the Popes considered the best musicians to be Spanish. This setting of the mass is a paraphrase mass based on the Marian hymn “Hail, Star of the Sea”. This unusual melody defies the standard ‘renaissance’ rules of coming back after a leap, making it recognisable from the opening three notes: the bright third note defines the melody and, in many ways, the mass. In Morales’ setting, nearly every movement has a canon (where one part exactly copies another) and the ancient church mode of the plainsong hymn gives a reverent colour to the music.

Orlando de Lassus (1530-1592) came from the other extreme of Europe in what is now Belgium. ‘Confitemini Domino’ is an exciting motet in 6 parts. Lassus was a master of matching the music to the words. He starts with three groups of two parts, for the three opening statements. To describe the scattering of the ‘children of Israel’ the music becomes suddenly chaotic; but the whole choir comes together to declare God’s wonderful works.

Easter Day 2017

Music for January 2017

The new year completes the celebrations of Christmas. The astonishing breadth of music written for the church is on show this month. We are able to take music from lesser known, earlier composers like Fayrfax, Mouton, and Brumel whilst enjoying the works of the greats: Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus.  The full music list can be found here.

1 January: Missa Iste Confessor – Palestrina (1525-1594)

Most of Palestrina’s 105 settings of the mass are based on earlier music. This setting is based on the 10th century hymn ‘Iste Confessor’. The theme winds its way through the Kyrie with no respite in any of the three movements. The contrast with the Gloria is striking: for whole sections of the piece Palestrina discards imitative writing and uses blocks of singers – two, three, or all four parts – depending on the effect he wishes to create. As is so often the case, the master composer saves the most beautiful writing for the ending. With an extra part for the second Agnus Dei (unusually a second bass part), the rising first line is reflected with the final descending “dona nobis pacem”.

8 January: Missa Dormendo un giorno – Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

Inspiration for the settings of the mass came to composers from many sources. For this energetic setting, Guerrero ‘parodies’ a madrigal by the French composer, Verdelot, that was published in Venice twenty years before this mass was written. From the madrigal, Guerrero has taken not only the main themes but the exuberant rising runs that permeate the piece.

15 January: Missa Sans Cadence – Jean Mouton (1459-1522)

Mouton spent most of his career working for the French court. He was responsible for the French music at the Field of the Cloth of Gold when Francois I of France met Henry VIII in an attempt to improve the relations between the two countries. It feels like a very modern setting because, unlike contemporary settings, he doesn’t stop the music after each line of text but continues. This approach was the standard from the second half of the sixteenth century.

22 January: Missa de Beate Virgine – Antoine Brumel (1460-1520)

This is possibly Brumel’s final work, composed after the chapel, in Ferrara, where he was director of music, was disbanded. Like Verdelot, Brumel was born in what is now northern France and held important musical posts throughout Europe before settling in Italy. This setting of the mass was famous throughout the sixteenth century: it is heavily based on chant and, unlike some of his more extravagant works, it is a delicate, intimate piece for four voices.

29 January: Missa Albanus – Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521)

Fayrfax led the Chapel Royal when they accompanied Henry VIII to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. He died the following year and is buried in St Albans; the choir of the abbey was the recipient of this wonderful mass. Liturgical music of this era is rhythmically very complex; it is possible that this was to differentiate it from secular dance music. Long phrases in every part with many notes for each syllable look very unwieldy in modern notation but the effect is glorious.


Music for November 2016

The celebration of the feast of Christ the King ends another wonderful year for the choir: A well-attended concert; singing in San Marco, Venice; new members; masses with our orchestra; new additions to the repertoire as well as old favourites.

2 November: Requiem in F minor – Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (c1644-1704)

The Bohemian composer, Biber, was one of the best-known composers of his day. His compositions stretched the techniques of violinists and his music travelled throughout Europe from Salzburg, the city that he made his home.

For the feast of All Souls the choir will be joined by an orchestra led by Simon Lillystone, Director of Music until 2014. Biber’s Requiem, written in 1692, is a musical highlight of the seventeenth century, the early Baroque. The music of the Baroque is often characterised by dance and Biber uses stately, sombre dance rhythms throughout this piece. Equally striking are the changes that occur in the music, from solo to chorus, from imitative writing to big extravagant blocks of sound.

6 November: Missa Inter vestibulum – Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

Although overshadowed by fellow Spaniards, Morales before him and Victoria afterwards, Guerrero has taken his place as a composer of some of the most striking music from the Renaissance. Although well-travelled, Guerrero almost exclusively worked in cathedrals in the south of Spain.
This mass, published in 1566, is based on a motet by Morales; it is possible that this mass was written as a tribute to his great predecessor who had recently died. The text is from the book of Joel, a description of a congregation weeping and pleading for safety from their enemies. Guerrero, using Morales as his template, uses lots of sighing phrases and dark harmonies. The final Agnus Dei is well known; he adds two extra parts but has three parts singing in canon, the same music but starting one at a time and at different pitches.

13 November: Missa pro defunctis – Jacob Clemens non Papa (1510-1555)

On Remembrance Sunday we commemorate those who have died in wars. The music for our Requiem Mass is the setting by the Dutch composer, Clemens. Very little is known about Clemens; he was extremely prolific: 15 masses, more than 200 motets, lots of songs and psalm settings. It is also believed that he was murdered; Vaet wrote a piece soon after his death mourning the sudden, violent loss of his colleague and friend.

This simple, powerful requiem uses the plainsong as the inspiration for long, sweeping phrases.

20 November: Missa Ave Regina caelorum – Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

The feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI; he saw the rise of nationalism and secularism and his predictions that these would lead to war were sadly shown to be all too accurate.

For this final service of the liturgical year, we celebrate with the exuberant eight part Missa Ave Regina caelorum. Victoria was one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance. He was born in a sleepy village (current population less than 800) in western Spain but he and his music travelled widely and the birth of Baroque music can be heard in this great mass, published in 1600. The choir is divided into two and joyfully throws musical ideas from one side to the other; imitation is by groups of singers not just one part copying another, and strong gestures predict the music that Biber and his contemporaries composed a hundred years later.

27 November: Missa Inviolata – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

We start the new year with music by the great Italian composer, Palestrina. He was the teacher of Victoria and an influence on the music of Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

Palestrina drew on many sources for inspiration for his masses, which numbered over 110. This early, understated mass is based on an eleventh century Marian hymn which was often sung in Advent.

Venice 2016

San Marco : 24 September
Dufay: Urbs Beata Jerusalem
Guerrero: Ego flos campi
Palestrina: Super flumina Babylonis
Sheppard: Filiae Hierusalem

San Simeone Piccolo : 25 September
Byrd: Mass for 5 voices
Gombert: Super flumina Babylonis
Tallis: Domine, quis habitabit

San Stefano : 25 September
Victoria: Mass Alma redemptoris
Handl: O quam metuendus
Lassus: Timor Domini Gloria

Parody and Paraphrase

Music for September 2016.

This month we sing four mass settings based on music composed in earlier times. From a twenty first century perspective, the motivation for this is hard to fathom. We prize creativity and scoff at those who copy: derivative is one of the harshest criticisms levelled at a piece of music.

Parody masses take music from a, usually famous, motet, chant or even secular song and set the words of the Ordinary (the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) to them. Often the music is directly taken from the original motet; as the mass continues, it transforms and evolves. The final statement of the Agnus Dei is often very different; sometimes with an additional part.

During the sixteenth century, imitation really was the sincerest form of flattery. Palestrina, Italy’s first great composer, wrote four masses based on the music of Jacquet, a French composer who moved to Mantua. On September 4 (XXIII per annum) we will sing both the mass and the motet that it is based upon: Spem in Alium. Jacquet’s motet was published in 1539; the mass was published in 1570, only a few years after the more famous 40 part motet by Tallis was first performed.

Composers often used a well-loved chant to unify the music within the liturgy. For the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity (Thursday 8 September) we will sing one of Morales’ two settings of the mass based on the chant ‘Beata Virgine’. Before the Council of Trent removed them (starting just five years after this mass was first published), many Beata Virgine masses (including the other setting by Morales) have Marian tropes. The devotion to Our Lady during the sixteenth century, and the special nature of these masses, including those by Josquin and Palestrina, show how popular this chant was.

Lassus was an incredibly prolific composer: his 2,000 compositions eclipse even Palestrina’s prodigious output. It is possible to guess a third reason why composers wrote parody masses: the combination of wonderful motet and a pressing deadline. On 11 September (XXIV per annum) we will sing Lassus’ Missa Credidi propter; this mass was published in 1574 and is based on his own motet that was published five years previously.

A mass based on a melody, rather than on a piece of polyphony, is known as a paraphrase mass. During the mass on 18 September (XXV per annum) we will sing Victoria’s magnificent 8 part setting Missa Alma Redemptoris. This mass was written soon after Victoria was ordained priest in Rome. The melody that Victoria used in this setting is not the one we are familiar with; he presents it to us clearly as well as weaving it around the parts.

Over the weekend of 24-25 September we will sing three masses in Venice. We are very grateful for the support and efforts of Frs Jeff and Lorenzo in organising this tour. We will be performing all of the music for the tour, including the mass by Victoria, in in a concert on 18 September at 19.30: the programme includes music by the three most influential Renaissance composers: Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus; those who influenced them: Dufay and Gombert; and those who were influenced by them: Guerrero and Gallus as well as English music by Sheppard, Tallis and Byrd; . We hope you can join us.

Pentecost 2016

Mozart: Missa Solemnis K337
Palestrina: Dum complerentur

Ascension Sunday, 8 May 2016

Palestrina: Missa Viri Galilaei
Byrd: Viri Galilæi
Philips: Ascendit Deus

The arrival of Palestrina (1525-1594) gave Rome their first great composer. After many years of importing musicians from Spain, Portugal and the Low Countries, Italy finally had a composer of her own. Palestrina’s music became the archetypal renaissance music and he is the benchmark of excellence for all his contemporaries. Of his 105 masses, many were based on other composers’ works or plainchant. For the joyful six part Missa Viri Galilaei, Palestrina takes as his inspiration his own Ascension motet. Palestrina combines the six voices in many different ways, juxtaposing melodies and rhythms and comparing different blocks of voices. Unlike many parody masses, in this setting he keeps close to the motet throughout; even the settings of the Agnus Dei, often used as an opportunity to flex the composer’s creativity, remain true to the motet. This mass was written for this important feast and so, as expected, the music is full of brilliance and excitement with many phrases rushing upwards as if trying to follow Jesus to heaven yet, surprisingly, the movements are quite short; the Gloria is only slightly longer than many settings of the Kyrie.

This week we also sing two motets from two famous English Catholic composers. Peter Philips (1560-1628) and William Byrd (1539-1623) shared a teacher, Sebastian Westcott, and the Catholic faith; however, their fortunes and music were very different. Although both were keyboard virtuosi and prolific composers, William Byrd ruled English music with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth whilst brazenly displaying his allegiance to Rome; Peter Philips, a Roman Catholic priest, was exiled to Flanders and imprisoned for his alleged part in a plot to kill the queen.

This divergence of paths explains the difference in style. Byrd’s Viri Galiliaei, a setting of the introit from the Gradualia of 1607, is similar to the music of Palestrina but rhythmically and harmonically more complex. It is the devotional music of someone who is thoughtfully preserving the dignity of the Catholic liturgy.

After leaving England, Philips met the new wave of composers, including Sweelinck and Frescobaldi, whose music is much freer and full of virtuosity and delight. Ascendit Deus, published in Antwerp in 1612 seems, to our modern ears, to be from a more secular world than the music of Byrd. The use of dance rhythms is in stark contrast to the long phrases of the followers of Palestrina; the two styles would soon be combined by the great masters of the Baroque.