Programme Notes

Songs of Britain
Saturday 20 May 2023, Great Malvern Priory


Songs of the Fleet – Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924)

Following upon the success and popularity of his Songs of the Sea first performed at the Leeds Festival of 1904, Stanford decided six years later to follow the same formula with his Songs of the Fleet, also premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1910.

Although Songs of the Fleet did not achieve the same success as its predecessor, it is probably superior in musical terms. With lyrics from the collection of the same name, written in the same year, by his contemporary Sir Henry John Newbolt, Stanford’s orchestration is more skilful and understated. Although it shows the influence of the German school and of Brahms, he was by now his own master in his handling of the orchestra.

The work comprises five songs for baritone solo and chorus. The rousing Song of the Sou’Wester is a vivid portrait of the vulnerability of seamen subject to the whims and temperament of prevailing winds, while Sailing at Dawn and The Middle Watch have greater breadth and are more contemplative. The Little Admiral is a glowing testament to sailors’ admiration for the admirals Drake and Nelson while Fare Well brings the song cycle to a melancholy but dignified close.

The Sprig of Thyme – John Rutter (1945 – )

The Sprig of Thyme is a suite of eleven settings of traditional folk songs from all parts of the British Isles. Six of the songs are for full choir, three for unison upper voices and two for lower voices. They are scored for chamber orchestra or piano accompaniment, as in tonight’s performance. The recurring themes of unrequited love and betrayal are common to many folk songs. Also, in common with much folk music, many of the tunes are modal, that is, their tonality precedes that of major and minor keys and uses scales which date from medieval music. The work includes long-standing favourites such as Down by the Sally Gardens and The Miller of Dee as well as less familar songs such as O Can Ye Sew Cushions and The Sprig of Thyme.


Oratorio de Noel – Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921)
Saturday 3 December 2022, Christ Church, Malvern

The Oratorio de Noël Op. 12 by Camille Saint-Saëns, also known as his Christmas Oratorio, is a cantata-like work scored for soloists, chorus, organ, strings and harp. It was composed in less than a fortnight while Saint-Saëns was organist at La Madeleine.

The work is divided into 10 movements, a prelude followed by nine vocal numbers. Essentially reflective and lyrical in style, Saint-Saëns was heavily influenced by the choral music of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Berlioz.

In Terra Pax – Gerald Finzi (1901 – 1956)
Saturday 3 December 2022, Christ Church, Malvern

In Terra Pax, a setting of two verses from Robert Bridges’ poem, “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913”, was composed in 1954 and was almost the last piece that Finzi wrote. However, its genesis can be traced to an event some 30 years previously when, one Christmas Eve, he had climbed up to the church at the top of his beloved Chosen Hill, between Gloucester and Cheltenham. The sound of the midnight bells ringing out across the frosty Gloucestershire valleys made a lasting impression on him, retrospectively providing the idea for In Terra Pax. Subtitled “Christmas Scene”, Finzi explained that ‘the Nativity becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Christmas Eve in our own familiar landscape’.

In the work, the two soloists and chorus have clearly defined musical roles; the baritone soloist takes the voice of the poet, the soprano that of the angel, whilst the chorus narrates the familiar biblical text. In the opening section the poet is standing on a hill contemplating the events of the very first Christmas, the sound of the distant church bells becoming for him the sound of an angel choir. This image is expressed in a pealing-bells motif which, together with the refrain from ‘The First Nowell’, provides the musical fabric of the piece.

Gabriel’s Message – John Rutter (born 1945)
Saturday 3 December 2022, Christ Church, Malvern

This beautiful setting of an old Basque carol, translated into English by Sabine Baring-Gould, is one of twelve traditional carols arranged by John Rutter when he was Musical Director at Clare College Cambridge. Whereas the Kings College tradition was to perform the carols in their Christmas Eve service with organ accompaniment, Rutter wrote orchestral settings for these carols, which were recorded by the Clare College Singers (with members also recruited from Cambridge University Musical Society) and released in 1970 under the title ‘Here we come a-wassailing’. Gabriel’s Message tells the story of the Annunciation, and is set for baritone soloist and chorus.

Fantasia on Christmas Carols – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)
Saturday 3 December 2022, Christ Church, Malvern

Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a work for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, was first performed on 12 September 1912 at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford Cathedral conducted by the composer who was born 150 years ago this year

It is a single-movement work consisting of the English folk carols “The truth sent from above”, “Come all you worthy gentlemen” and the Sussex Carol. These had been collected by Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp several years previously. The folk songs are interspersed with brief orchestral quotations from other carols, such as The First Nowell.

Messiah – George Frederik Handel (1685 – 1759)
Saturday 25 June 2022, Holy Trinity, Malvern

When Handel settled in London in 1712 there was already a thriving Italian opera scene and he soon became its leading figure, with a succession of brilliant works. However, then, as now, the economics of opera were constantly on a knife-edge and making a profit on these costly ventures was difficult and unpredictable. Despite their critical acclaim, Handel’s Italian operas never attracted large audiences. They were mainly supported by the aristocracy and the upper classes. Public taste was changing quickly, though, and by the 1730s people were becoming increasingly intolerant of the unfamiliar language, ridiculous plots, arrogant soloists and over-elaborate music. They now demanded something less highbrow and more home-grown. Box office revenues started to plummet as rival companies competed with each other for the dwindling audiences and the costs of opera production escalated. Handel had invested heavily in his own company and this alarming collapse seriously affected his finances.

Faced with possible bankruptcy the ever-resourceful composer turned to oratorio as a potential solution to his financial difficulties. Though oratorio has much in common with opera it is not staged and is consequently a great deal less costly to produce. It was a genre in which Handel had already experienced some modest success, beginning with his first English oratorio, Esther, composed in 1720. He now found himself working more and more on oratorios and in February 1741 he staged his last Italian opera, which closed after just three performances.

Handel’s oratorios were deliberately aimed at a new audience: the Protestant middle classes. The musical style was largely direct and straightforward and the librettos, in English, were generally based on passages from the Old Testament, a common literary heritage with which everyone was thoroughly familiar. In an era of increasing prosperity and expanding empire these vivid Biblical stories of larger than life heroes leading a people who, if they followed God’s law, were specially protected and given victory over their enemies, must have held particular resonance for the middle classes of eighteenth century London. Musically, Handel’s most significant innovation was his use of the chorus, which was given a much greater role and now enjoyed equal status with the soloists. His monumental style of choral writing, calculated to impress with great blocks of vocal sound – exemplified in such pieces as the 1727 coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest  was ideally suited to the task.

In 1741 Handel had already begun work on a new work, Messiah, when he received an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to visit Dublin. He accepted the invitation, taking his Messiah score with him. It was first performed at the New Music Hall, Dublin, in April 1742, and was an unqualified success. In addition to its musical impact, its success was also due to the general approval of the donation of a large part of the proceeds to various Dublin charitable institutions, a pattern later repeated in London with Handel’s association with the Foundling Hospital.

Though Messiah shares many common characteristics with Handel’s other twenty or so oratorios, it is the least typical in several respects: it has more choruses than any other except Israel in Egypt; it does not have a newly written libretto but one compiled from existing short passages from the Bible; and it has no named characters or overall narrative, presenting instead a series of contemplations on the life of Christ and Christian redemption. The success of Messiah owes much to the fine libretto compiled for Handel by Charles Jennens, who had previously collaborated with him on his oratorio Saul. Jennens’ extensive knowledge of literature and music made him in many ways an ideal creative partner for Handel, though the relationship was not without its tensions.

The work is divided into three parts. Part One deals first with the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth. An appealing sequence of Christmas movements follows, comprising the chorus ‘For unto us a child is born’, with its powerful setting of the words ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Counsellor’; recitatives depicting the angels bringing the good news to the shepherds; and the imaginative final chorus, ‘Glory to God’, which ends with a diminuendo as the angels disappear from sight.

Part Two is the dramatic heart of the work. It tells of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Here we find a wide range of emotional expression, from the crowd’s derisive taunts in ‘He trusted in God’, to the heartbreaking alto aria, ‘He was despised’ and the bass soloist’s fierce rage in ‘Why do the nations’. This part ends, though, on a gloriously optimistic note, with trumpets, drums and chorus blazing out their triumphant ‘Hallelujah!’.

Part Three consists entirely of commentary, principally on the resurrection and the theme of Christian redemption. In a work that abounds in superb music, this section contains some of Handel’s most inspired writing, beginning with the radiant soprano aria, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. Equally superb is the bass aria, ‘The trumpet shall sound’, with its spectacular trumpet solo. However, it is in the towering final choruses, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’, that Handel truly surpasses himself with music that carries all before it in an exultant affirmation of faith.

Throughout, Handel’s writing for orchestra and solo voices is masterly, the fruits of a lifetime’s musical experience. Arguably, though, it is the choruses that raise Messiah onto a different plane, thanks to Handel’s unerring ability to grasp the dramatic potential of each text and the astonishing power and variety of his choral writing.

Handel composed Messiah in just twenty-four days, a remarkably short space of time but not exceptional by his own extraordinary standards. What is almost beyond comprehension, however, is how in these three weeks he was able to create a work of such sustained inspiration, power and seemingly inexhaustible invention. More than 250 years have passed since its first performance, yet Messiah’s status as one of the great icons of European music remains undiminished, and it continues to speak to millions of people of many cultures and faiths around the world.

John Bawden

The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace – Karl Jenkins (1944 – )
Saturday 7 May 2022, Christ Church, Malvern

The Armed Man is a Mass by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. Born in Wales and educated at Gowerton Grammar School, he went on to read music at the University of Wales before commencing postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music. After winning several awards for advertising music for a range of products, he returned to the music mainstream with his highly successful Adiemus project, combining a classical base with ethnic vocal sounds, ethnic percussion and an invented language.

Subtitled “A Mass for Peace”, The Armed Man was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum to mark the transition from one millennium to another and the museum’s move from London to Leeds. It was dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis whose tragedy was unfolding as it was being composed. Like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem before it, it is essentially an anti-war piece. In addition to extracts from the Catholic Mass, the text incorporates words from other religious and historical sources, including the Islamic call to prayer, the Bible (eg. the Psalms and Revelation) and the Hindhu Mahabharata. Writers whose words appear in the work range from Kipling and Tennyson to the Japanese poet Toge Sankichi, who survived the Hiroshima bombing but died some years later of leukaemia. Guy Wilson, then Master of the Museum, selected the texts for the Mass as well as writing his own contribution, Now the Guns have Stopped.

The Armed Man charts the growing menace of a descent into war, interspersed with moments of reflection; it shows the horrors that war brings and ends with the hope for peace in a new millennium, when “sorrow, pain and death can be overcome”.

St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

The St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, is a sacred oratorio written in 1727 for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra, with libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici, a Leipzig poet who used Picander as his pen name. It sets chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew (in the Lutheran Bible) to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of classical sacred music.

The work was probably first performed on 11 April 1727 and again on 15 April 1729, 30 March 1736, and 23 March 1742. Bach then revised it again between 1743 and 1746. The first performance took place in St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in Leipzig. Bach had been Cantor there, responsible for the music in the church, since 1723.

Many composers wrote musical settings of the Passion in the late 17th century. Like other Baroque oratorio passions, Bach’s setting presents the Biblical text in a relatively simple way primarily using recitative, while aria and arioso movements set newly written poetic texts which comment on the various events in the Biblical narrative and present the characters’ states of mind in a lyrical, monologue-like manner. Two distinctive aspects of Bach’s setting spring from his other church endeavours. One is the double-choir format, which stems from his own double-choir motets and those of many other composers with which he routinely started Sunday services. The other is the extensive use of chorales which appear in standard four-part settings as interpolations in arias and as the melody in large polyphonic movements. Many of these chorales are familiar to present-day audiences as well-known hymns.

The narration of the Gospel texts is sung by the tenor Evangelist accompanied only by continuo. Soloists sing the words of the other characters, also in recitative; these include Judas (Bass), Peter (Bass), two witnesses (Alto and Tenor), two High Priests (Bass), two maids (Soprano), Pilate (Bass) and his wife (Soprano). They are not always sung by different soloists. A small group is represented by Chorus I or Chorus II separately (Chorus I always for the disciples); High Priests and larger groups of people are sung by Chorus I and II together.

In addition, the words of Jesus, Vox Christi (voice of Christ), usually receive special treatment. They are accompanied by continuo as well as the entire string section of the first orchestra using long, sustained notes and “highlighting” certain words, thus creating an effect often referred to as Jesus’s “halo”. Only his final words, in Aramaic, Eli, Eli lama asabthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), are sung without this “halo”.

As is typical of settings of the Passion, originating in its liturgical use on Palm Sunday, there is no mention of the Resurrection in any of these texts (apart from indirect allusions at Matthew 26:32 and 27:53 and 63). Following the concept of Anselm of Canterbury, the crucifixion is the endpoint and the source of redemption; the emphasis is on the suffering of Jesus.

Requiem in D minor Op. 48 – Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924)
Saturday 7 September 2019, Great Malvern Priory

Gabriel Fauré composed his Requiem in D minor Op. 48 between 1887 and 1890. The choral-orchestral setting of the shortened Catholic Mass for the Dead in Latin is the best-known of his large works. Its focus is on eternal rest and consolation. Fauré’s reasons for composing the work are unclear, but do not appear to have had anything to do with the death of his parents in the mid-1880s. He composed the work in the late 1880s and revised it in the 1890s, finishing it in 1900. The piece premiered in its first version in 1888 in La Madeleine in Paris for a funeral mass.

In seven movements, the work is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, mixed choir, orchestra and organ. Unlike typical Requiem settings, the full sequence Dies irae is omitted, replaced by its Pie Jesu section The final movement In Paradisum is based on a text that is not part of the liturgy of the funeral mass but of the burial.

Fauré wrote of the work, “Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”

Of the many settings of the Requiem, this is probably the most widely loved. In comparison with the large-scale masterpieces of Verdi, Brahms and Berlioz, Fauré’s setting seems gentle and unassuming, yet it is this very quality of understatement which contributes so eloquently to the work’s universal appeal. It is impossible not to be moved by the ethereal beauty of this humble masterpiece.

Gloria in D RV589 – Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

Today Vivaldi is one of the most popular of all composers who, during his lifetime, enjoyed considerable success and fortune which he squandered through extravagance. When he died in Vienna he was buried in a pauper’s grave. For two centuries after his death, the Gloria lay undiscovered until the late 1920s, when it was found buried among a pile of forgotten Vivaldi manuscripts. However, it was not performed until September 1939 in Siena in an edition by the composer Alfredo Casella. This was by no means an authentic edition as he embellished the original orchestration of trumpet, oboe, strings, and continuo, while reducing the role of the continuo, and cut sections from three movements. It was not until 1957 that the now familiar original version was published and given its first performance at the First Festival of Baroque Choral Music at Brooklyn College, NY.

Vivaldi composed the Gloria in Venice, probably in 1715, for the choir of the Ospedale dela Pieta, an orphanage for girls which prided itself on the quality of its musical education and the excellence of its choir and orchestra. Together with his Four Seasons, it is probably his best-known work and presents the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in 12 varied, cantata-like sections.

The wonderfully sunny nature of the Gloria, with its distinctive melodies and rhythms, is characteristic of all of Vivaldi’s music and gives it an immediate and universal appeal.

Requiem – Maurice Duruflé (1902 – 1986)

Saturday 22 June 2019, Malvern Theatres

Like his mentor Dukas, Duruflé was incredibly self-effacing and spent considerable time re-working his compositions until they achieved what he felt was the correct level of perfection; in fact, there are only 14 published Opus numbers to his name, one of which was his Requiem composed in 1947.

Duruflé’s early musical training was at the cathedral in Rouen where there was a famous school of Gregorian chant. This repertory of liturgical song had become something of a French speciality in the 19th century, and among the scholars working on the chants were a group of Benedictines at the French monastery of Solesmes. The Solesmes school of chant restoration and performance achieved widespread acceptance in the Catholic church and even some Protestant congregations.

After a thorough steeping in this tradition, Duruflé went to Paris and studied at the Conservatoire, where he confronted the tradition of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. Like the earliest composers of polyphonic Requiems, Duruflé took the Gregorian plainchant Mass for the Dead as his raw material. His declared intention was ‘to reconcile, as far as possible, Gregorian rhythm…with the exigencies of modern meter.’ However, although he came from a different liturgical tradition, Duruflé used similar texts to those used by Fauré in his Requiem. He wrote his Requiem in three versions; for organ alone, for full orchestra and for organ and string quintet with harp, trumpets and timpani ad libitum.

Barry Creasy
Collegium Musicum of London

Cantique de Jean Racine – Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924)
Saturday 22 June 2019, Malvern Theatres

Perhaps because he was already renowned as an outstanding organist and teacher, Fauré only slowly gained recognition as a composer. He wrote several works involving a full orchestra but his particular talent lay with the more intimate musical forms, songs, piano music and chamber music. His somewhat austere style and highly individual, impressionistic harmonic language contrasts markedly with the music of the Austro-German tradition which dominated European music from the time of Beethoven until well into the 20th century.

The subtlety of Fauré’s music and his concentration on the small-scale led many to criticise him for lacking depth, a judgement based on the mistaken premise that the bigger and bolder a composer’s music the more worthwhile it must be. Fauré deliberately avoided the grander kind of orchestral music that could easily have brought him fame and fortune, preferring to embrace an elegant and subtle musical language that has won him increasing numbers of admirers.

The Cantique is a setting of words by the 17th century dramatist and poet Jean Racine. It was Fauré’s first significant composition, written in 1865 whilst he was in his final year at the École Niedermeyer, the ‘École de musique religieuse et classique’. The piece won the composition prize but was only published 11 years later, with a full orchestral version following in 1906. Although Fauré went on to write a good deal of religious music, most notably his Requiem written in 1888, of his shorter sacred pieces it is the Cantique that has particularly captured the affections of choirs and audiences.

John Bawden

Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) – Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Saturday 22 June 2019, Malvern Theatres

Although not published until 1864, Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) Op. 30 was written in the spring of 1856 and is Brahms’ earliest accompanied choral work. It is a setting for four-part choir with organ or piano accompaniment of a poem by the chorale author Paul Flemming (1609-1640) about the acceptance of fate and trust in God.

The composition of Geistliches Lied clearly reflects Brahms’ study of early-Baroque contrapuntal technique. As with many of his choral works, it is reminiscent of works from the late 17th century rather than those of the 19th century. For example, it opens with a double canon, the tenor part following the soprano and the bass the alto, each at a major ninth below. Even the title, Geistliches Lied, suggests the 17th century, drawn as it is from the term ‘Geistliches Konzert’ which was used at that time to indicate a setting of a sacred text for voice with instrumental accompaniment.

Adagio for Strings – Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)
Saturday 22 June 2019, Malvern Theatres

Barber’s Adagio for Strings was originally the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, composed in 1936 while he was spending a summer in Europe.

In January 1938, Barber sent an orchestrated version of the Adagio for Strings to Arturo Toscanini. The conductor returned the score without comment, which annoyed Barber until Toscanini sent word through Menotti that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it! It is said that he didn’t look at the music again until the day before the premiere which took place on 5 November 1938 before an invited audience in the Rockefeller Centre. It was broadcast on radio and also recorded, and was received with great critical acclaim. Toscanini went on to introduce Adagio for Strings to audiences in South America and Europe.

This poignant music has been variously arranged for solo organ, woodwind ensembles and by Barber himself in 1967 as a choral setting of the ‘Agnus Dei’. It has been performed on many public occasions, especially during times of mourning. It was broadcast on television at the announcement of John F. Kennedy’s death and on BBC Radio after the announcement of the death of Princess Diana. It was performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 2001 to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attacks and, more recently, in Central Park in New York City on 15 June 2016, for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, and at the televised memorial in Manchester on 23 May 2017 for the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

Eternal Light A Requiem – Howard Goodall (b 1958)
Saturday 16 March 2019, Great Malvern Priory

Eternal Light was originally composed to mark the 20th birthday of the orchestra London Musici whose artistic director requested a work that would also be a new dance piece for the Rambert Dance Company.

One of the challenges for composer Howard Goodall was how to address what a requiem is for in the 21st century; who it is for and what it means. Like Brahms, Goodall sought to provide comfort for the living rather than the need to pray for the salvation of the dead. He chose to focus on death as a passage towards light. Rather than use the structure and language of the Catholic Mass for the Dead, Goodall retained key phrases of the Latin text but turned to poetry to express the fundamental concepts of the requiem; peace, everlasting light, grief, comfort and faith in an afterlife. Time and again the concept of light provides the central image.

Although composed in 2008 in response to a specific request, the music for Eternal Light: A Requiem had probably been triggered by a commission completed in 2005 for the choir of King’s School, Canterbury, in memory of a student who died with members of her family in the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. Goodall’s aim was to recognise the tragic loss of a precious life and the grief that follows as well as to honour it with dignity, compassion and beauty.

Otcenas (The Lord’s Prayer) – Leos Janacek (1854 – 1928)
Saturday 16 March 2019, Great Malvern Priory

The religious music of the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia and, before that, Bohemia) has always been unique, sandwiched as the country is between Catholic southern Germany and the Orthodox countries of the East. The Hapsburg dominance of the country in the 18th century combined with 19th-century nationalism to produce an anti-German and anti-Catholic feeling; in short, 19th-century Czech culture was based on a kind of modern reformation myth. The best-known Czech composer is Antonín Dvorák, whose output of religious music was prodigious.

His disciple and countryman, Leos Janácek is more famous for his operas and orchestral works, although he wrote two religious pieces of note: the barbarically stirring Glagolitic Mass and the more sensitive setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Otcenás, composed for piano or harmonium accompaniment in 1901 and reworked with organ and harp accompaniment in 1906. The work is in six short but contrasting movements and is scored for organ, harp, chorus and tenor solo. In three of the movements, the cantabile solo voice alternates with chorus against a background of continuous harmonic modulation; in the three other movements (‘Our Father’, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and ‘lead us not into temptation’), the whole choir presents the dominant messages; in the second, seemingly demanding not the consecrated bread of the altar, but the daily bread of true humanity.

Barry Creasy
Collegium Musicum of London

Five Mystical Songs – Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)
Saturday 16 March 2019, Great Malvern Priory

Following the death of Purcell in 1695, English music went into a long period of decline that was not reversed until the late 19th century with the emergence of Elgar, followed by a whole new generation of talented composers. The leading figure of this younger group of musicians was Ralph Vaughan Williams who, for nearly sixty years, remained one of the most influential figures in English music.

Like Elgar, Vaughan Williams was a late developer, reaching his mid-thirties before attracting serious attention as a composer. He eventually developed his own unique musical style, which was profoundly influenced by his love of Tudor music and his immensely important work in collecting English folksongs.

In 1908 Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel for a brief three months, and shortly afterwards produced a series of major works, including the song-cycle On Wenlock Edge, the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis followed, in 1911, by the Sea Symphony and the Five Mystical Songs. The latter is a setting of poems by George Herbert (1593 – 1633). Despite his declared atheism, which in later years mellowed into what his wife Ursula described as ‘a cheerful agnosticism’, Vaughan Williams was inspired throughout his life by much of the liturgy and music of the Anglican church, the language of the King James Bible, and the visionary qualities of religious verse such as Herbert’s.

The baritone soloist is prominent in the first four of the Mystical Songs, with the chorus taking a subsidiary role. An accompaniment suggestive of pealing bells introduces the triumphant final song of praise, in which the chorus is heard to full effect.

John Bawden



Magnificat in D major – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres

In May 1723 Bach was appointed Kantor of St Thomas, Leipzig, where he remained until his death in 1750. It was a hugely demanding post, but despite this enormous workload and recurrent disputes with the city authorities, Bach composed some of his greatest music during this period. His choral compositions alone include such towering masterpieces as the St John and St Matthew Passions, the Magnificat and the Mass in B minor, as well as the Christmas Oratorio and some 250 church cantatas.

The Magnificat – the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke I: 46-55) – traditionally formed part of the Roman Catholic service of Vespers. After the Reformation it was incorporated into the evening services of the Lutheran and Anglican churches, in which it was linked with the Nunc Dimittis. The Magnificat has been set to music more often than any liturgical text other than the Mass itself, in settings that vary enormously in style, from the purity of Palestrina’s exquisite four-part unaccompanied compositions to Monteverdi’s grand, dramatic settings written for St Mark’s, Venice, and the almost symphonic conception of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore with the Magnificat forming the final movement.

Bach’s Magnificat was written in Leipzig for the 1723 Christmas Vespers. The original version was in E-flat and included several additional Christmas texts. Some years later he revised it, removing the Christmas insertions to make the work suitable for use throughout the year and transposing it into D, a much brighter and more satisfactory key for the trumpets in particular. The extraordinary impact of Bach’s great choral works derives essentially from his remarkable ability to balance, yet at the same time to exploit to the full, the spiritual and dramatic elements of each text, whether it be one as concise as the Magnificat or as monumental as the St Matthew Passion. In its splendour and jubilation the work anticipates the great choruses of the later Mass in B minor.

John Bawden

Coronation Mass, Mass in C Major (K317) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres

Of the sacred works that Mozart composed in Salzburg, none is as well known or as popular as the Mass in C K317. In 1779 Mozart returned from his disastrous trip to Paris and, partly out of material necessity and also to please his father, he took up a position in the Archbishop’s service in Salzburg. His duties included “to provide the court and church with new compositions of his own creation”. At the first opportunity Mozart fulfilled this demand, composing the mass for the Easter Day service on 4th April 1779. The composition’s use of wind instruments suggests a “Solemn Mass”, and its length suggests a “Short Mass” as demanded by the requirement that, even for the most solemn occasions, a mass had to last no more than 45 minutes. The mass therefore had to have a grand ceremonial setting but a compact structure so Mozart omits formal closing fugues for the Gloria and Credo, the Credo with its problematic, vast text is in a tight rondo form, and the Dona nobis pacem recalls the music of the Kyrie.

Even as early as the 19th Century the mass was already popularly referred to as the “Coronation Mass”. The nickname grew out of the misguided belief that Mozart had written the mass for Salzburg’s annual celebration of the anniversary of the crowning of the Shrine of the Virgin. The more likely explanation is that it was one of the works that was performed during the coronation festivities in Prague, either as early as August 1791 for Leopold II, or certainly for Leopold’s successor Francis I in August 1792. It seems that Mozart must have seen the chance to be represented at the coronation festivities in 1791, not only with La clemenza di Tito, but also with a mass composition. He was held in very high regard in Prague so it seems likely that the city would have taken on the mass as its own and the nickname would have grown from there.

Certainly the music itself is celebratory in nature, and would have fitted a coronation or Easter Day service perfectly. The soloists are continually employed either as a quartet, in pairs or in solo lines that contrast with the larger forces of the choir. Perhaps the most obvious reason for the mass’s popularity in Prague in 1791/2 was the uncanny similarity between the soprano solo Agnus Dei and the Countess’s aria Dove sono from Figaro which had been so successful there in the 1780s.

Aylesbury Choral Society

Ave Verum Corpus – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres

Mozart composed Ave Verum Corpus in 1791 in the middle of writing his opera Die Zauberflöte. He wrote it while visiting his wife, Constanze, who was pregnant with their sixth child and was staying in the spa, Baden bei Wien. Mozart set the 14th century Eucharistic hymn Ave verum corpus” for Anton Stoll, the musical director of the parish of St. Stephan, Baden, who was a friend of his and of Joseph Haydn. The motet was composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, the autograph being dated 17 June 1791, less than six months before Mozart’s death. It is only 46 bars long and is scored for SATB choir, string instruments, and organ. Mozart’s manuscript contains minimal directions, with only a single sotto voce marking at the beginning. In contrast to the dramatic composition of his Requiem, aspects of which it foreshadows, the motet expresses the essence of the Eucharist with simple means suited for the church choir in a small town.

Exsultate Jubilate – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres

This glorious solo motet was composed in January 1773, when Mozart was staying in Milan during the production of his opera ‘Lucio Silla’, and he wrote it for the castrato soloist in that opera. It will be performed by our soprano soloist. Although nominally for liturgical use, the motet has many features in common with Mozart’s concert arias. The first three movements call on the souls of the blessed to celebrate the dawn and the defeat of darkness, and implore the Crown of Virgins (Mary) to grant us peace. The final virtuoso Alleluias show Mozart at his most brilliant.