The Renaissance Choir is embarking on a year of themed programmes – concerts where the title is “Sanctus” or “Gloria” or “Agnus Dei”. This approach allows works from many different periods to share the same programme, so that Bach and Beethoven, Palestrina and Poulenc can nestle together in the same sumptuous feast.
Our first programme, at St Peter’s, Petersfield on 8 April is entitled “Sanctus”. Heading the programme is one of the young Mozart’s finest works, his Missa Trinitatis, his only wholly choral mass setting (solo vocalists were omitted for brevity), but the lack of solo episodes is nowhere felt, as the music irradiates nothing but heart-felt enthusiasm and joy.
Peter Gambie, MD of The Renaissance Choir, chose this work partly because of its spring-like quality. It’s full of youthful enthusiasm and humour: the occasional darker passages are quickly given a dusting of joie de vivre as the 18-year-old shows his sparkling genius.
The Sanctus from Mozart’s Requiem also appears in our programme and shows a complete contrast as the dying Mozart packs intense drama and pathos into his final work. Peter believes Mozart’s Requiem to be the greatest choral work ever written – the intense emotional expression being combined with true mastery to Mozart’s skill as a composer.
The programme comes in Peter’s 25th year with the choir, which he describes as a marriage made in heaven. He’s chosen many of his favourite works, including Sanctus movements from the finest Renaissance Masses.
Bach’s B minor Mass comes a close second in Peter’s mind, so there are movements from Bach’s finest choral achievement in the programme. Bach’s fugue writing is second-to-none: fugues are regarded as one of composition’s most difficult forms – like doing a Rubik’s cube in the dark. For JSB, solving fugue puzzles is akin to having an all-white Rubik’s, so he frequently threw in challenges to make life difficult for him. Numerology fascinated him, so there are many fugue subjects which have 14 notes (B=2 + A=1 + C=3 + H=8). The number 41 (inverse of 14) is, numerologically, J+S+B+A+C+H and there are several examples of this in the mind-blowingly complicated Kyrie.
Palestrina features in the programme partly because the choir sang, to enormous acclaim, in Palestrina cathedral last year. Both audience and choir were overwhelmed by the privilege of singing his music in his home town and the choir was equally honoured to sing his music in the house in which he lived.
Lassus based a Mass on Bell ‘Amfritrit Altera, which is a song from the Middle Ages. It’s not survived, but we know it to have been rather salacious – the equivalent of a rugby song. Lassus’s gorgeous 8-part work shows nothing of this and it’s regarded as one of his finest pieces.
Victoria’s Missa Ave Regina Caelorum, written for two SATB choirs, has vigorous antiphonal exchanges between the two choirs.
Byrd’s 5-part Mass was written for just 5 people to sing. He wrote it at a time when celebrating Mass, especially in Latin, was banned by the Church of England. People were sent to the scaffold if caught, so it was common for secret services to take place, often using Byrd’s clandestine piece.