“French Connection: Poulenc’s Gloria”. This is the third of our 40th anniversary celebrations. View our concert page.
The concert will include the second ever performance of a new commission to Hampshire-based composer Ian Schofield entitled “Stream of Life” containing poetry by Rabindranath Tagore.
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: “As part of our 40th birthday celebrations, I wanted to explore again some of the works which have helped the Renaissance Choir achieve its remarkable reputation. The rich and distinguished history of the choir is studded with notable achievements, most of which were, until the turn of this century, part of the usual repertoire of the better chamber choirs. Looking for new challenges, 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 a few years back was accompanied by the wonderful pianist, Karen Kingsley. There is a special magic between Karen and me which is partly empathic and partly sharing one mind concerning interpretation. Since the empathy between the choir and its conductor is also extremely special, the performance will live long in the memory as an exceptional event.”
We are delighted to be accompanied by Karen again in this concert.
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 listener. But there’s a more mindful side to this – Poulenc was an agnostic, 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!
Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens – Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)
Maurice Duruflé composed his Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, Opus 10, for unaccompanied choir in 1960. As their title suggests, he invokes the spiritual element of plainsong in a polyphonic context. The first motet is based on the hymn for Maundy Thursday, Ubi caritas et amor. Sung by tenors and basses, the melody is later shared with sopranos and altos. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, Tota pulchra es makes use of the higher voices, with the melody entrusted to the soprano. Tu es Petrus is a rousing and optimistic work. Finally the Tantum ergo brings a conclusion to the whole work, offering a magnificent example of polyphonic writing, with the chant entrusted to sopranos and tenors, while the harmony is enriched by altos and basses.
Cantique de Jean Racine – Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
The text is a French translation, by the 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine, of a medieval Latin hymn, Consors paterni luminis. When Gabriel Fauré set the translation to music (at the tender age of 19 in 1865), he gave it the title “Cantique de Jean Racine”, rather than the title of the original hymn.
Verbe, égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance,
Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux ;
De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence,
Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux !
Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante,
Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix ;
Dissipe le sommeil d’une âme languissante,
Qui la conduit à l’oubli de tes lois !
O Christ, sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle
Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé.
Reçois les chants qu’il offre à ta gloire immortelle,
Et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé !
Bring us, O Lord God. Motet for unaccompanied double choir (1959). Words by John Donne (1572—1631), music by William H. Harris (1883—1973).
“Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end.”
Hail, gladdening Light – Charles Wood (1866-1926)
The words of Hail Gladdening Light come from a poem by the Tractarian John Keble. They are based on the third century Greek hymn Phos Hilaron (Φώς Іλαρόν). Keble held the Chair of Poetry at the University of Oxford in the early nineteenth century, and Keble College Oxford was built as a memorial to him in 1870.
“Hail, gladdening light, of His pure glory poured
Who is th’immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
Holiest of Holies – Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest;
The lights of evening round us shine;
We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.
Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.”
The music is a strident, antiphonal work for double choir in ternary form. The bright, outer, homophonic sections contrast with a more mellow middle section. The climax, overflowing with joy and light, is to me one of the all-time great moments in sacred music – full of the sheer thrill of being alive.
A Hymn for St Cecilia. Words by Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007), music by Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
A Hymn for St Cecilia (1961), commissioned by the Livery Club of the Worshipful Company of Musicians to mark Howells’s Mastership of the Company in 1959–60, sets a poem in praise of the Patron Saint of music by Ursula Vaughan Williams (widow of the composer) as a three-verse hymn. The wonderful dancing-on-tiptoe nature of this piece takes its cue from the syncopated first vocal entry and each phrase finds increasingly high notes as the verse goes on. It is a classic ‘cumulative’ tune which carries the singer along on a tide of increasing emotional energy and leaves an impression of being a piece much bigger than its constituent parts.
“Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing, in words of youth and praises of the Spring, walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray, and sing as sunlight fills the waking day; till angels, voyaging in upper air, pause on a wing and gather the clear sound into celestial joy, wound and unwound, a silver chain, or golden as your hair.
“Sing for your loves of heaven and of earth, in words of music, and each word a truth; marriage of heart and longings that aspire, a bond of roses, and a ring of fire. Your summertime grows short and fades away, terror must gather to a martyr’s death; but never tremble, the last indrawn breath remembers music as an echo may.
“Through the cold aftermath of centuries, Cecilia’s music dances in the skies; lend us a fragment of the immortal air, that with your choiring angels we may share, a word to light us thro’ time-fettered night, water of life, or rose of paradise, so from the earth another song shall rise to meet your own in heaven’s long delight.”
Schofield – Stream of Life. This will be the second ever performance of this work for unaccompanied choir, comprising five poems of Rabindranath Tagore (2016). It’s a nice twist that Tagore’s poetry was all the rage in Paris when Poulenc was at the height of his powers.