Preview of “European Sacred Music” on 14 July

Lovers of Poulenc, Renaissance polyphony, and sacred choral music of the 19th and 20th Centuries will delight in this Renaissance Choir summer concert programme conducted by Peter Gambie.

The chorally rich and varied emotion of Poulenc’s Gloria will be complemented by the scintillating accompaniment of pianist Karen Kingsley. Renaissance masterpieces include the popular Miserere by Allegri and two sumptuous 8-part motets by Orlando di Lasso – Tristis et anima mea and Ave regina coelorum. Unaccompanied works from 19th and 20th Century European composers include treasures by Poulenc (Salve Regina), Bruckner (Os Justi and Ave Maria), Rachmaninov (Bogoroditsye Dyevo) and Rheinberger (Abendlied). The Cantique de Jean Racine by Fauré, accompanied by Karen Kingsley, completes this choral feast for the matchless acoustic of The Church of the Holy Spirit.


We provide some additional information relating to the two main works that we will be singing
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Gloria – Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)

This work (1961) was scored for soprano solo, large orchestra, and chorus, is a setting of the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” text. The Gloria came about as the result of a commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation (Serge Koussevitzky had been the longstanding conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

Our MD, Peter Gambie, writes: “I wanted to return to some of the works which have helped the Renaissance Choir achieve its remarkable reputation. Around ten years ago, looking for new challenges for the choir, I started to explore the more difficult works of Poulenc, whose idiosyncratic style is known to be very challenging for singers.

“Very quickly, the choir discovered a great affinity for his music, developing an affection as strong as that previously reserved for Renaissance masters such as Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis and Guerrero. Our first performance of Poulenc’s Gloria was accompanied by the wonderful pianist, Karen Kingsley with whom we had already developed a strong synergy.”

We are delighted to be accompanied by Karen again in this concert.

Peter continues: “The critic Claude Rostande famously described Poulenc as “moitié moine, moitié voyou” (half-monk, half-rascal). Are the sacred works all monk, or does the rascal ever creep in? They are so personal and you wonder sometimes “what is he thinking?” I interpret the “rascal” element as iconoclastic, with the composer challenging established compositional norms.

“So, whereas when singing a Salve Regina, Renaissance composers would have slowed the tempo and have all four parts singing “Et Jesum” in unison, Poulenc has two parts in unison followed by the other two in unison, and they are the most exposed and difficult moments in the piece. The “rascal” is making us work!”

Poulenc’s Gloria is skittish, dangerous, playful, sorrowful, rapturous, threatening, joyful, angry, hilarious and spooky. It has Tom chasing Jerry through one movement and Christopher Lee’s Dracula lurking in another. Poulenc’s idiosyncrasy has him writing a straightforward march – but he then makes his marchers fall over by putting the emphasis on the off-beat. He writes in two keys at once in order to challenge his listeners. But there’s a more mindful side to this – Poulenc was an agnostic for much of his life, composing with a sacred text. One of the two keys he’s using speaks of his disbelief, while the other tells of the opposite. Which one wins? Music, of course!

A Parisian with his roots in Touraine, a vulgarian with a connoisseur’s sense of the exquisite, an innocent commuting to and from the infernal regions of art, a practical joker let loose in the temple of the immortals—these and many other paradoxes could be used to describe Poulenc.

Miserere – Gregorio Allegri (c.1582 –1652) (pictured above)

Composed around 1638, Miserere was the last and most famous of twelve falsobordone settings used at the Sistine Chapel since 1514. At some point, it became forbidden by Papal decree to transcribe the music and it was allowed to be performed only at those particular services at the Sistine Chapel, thus adding to the mystery surrounding it.

Three authorized copies of the work were distributed prior to 1770: to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I; to the King of Portugal; and to Padre (Giovanni Battista) Martini. However, none of them succeeded in capturing the beauty of the Miserere as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel. The convention of this time was to add plenty of ornamentation to the melody line of such pieces. This ornamentation wasn’t written down – instead, the singers knew how to embellish lines which, on paper, looked really uninteresting. So the manuscript copies had none of the soaring soprano high Cs which were performed. And no-one had written down the conventions of the Sistine Chapel’s either.

According to the popular story, fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome in 1770 when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections.

Less than three months after hearing the piece and transcribing it, Mozart had gained fame for the work and was summoned to Rome by Pope Clement XIV, who showered praise on him for his feat of musical genius and awarded him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur.