Summer Songs

    // St Mary's Bryanston Square, London W1

    Sacred music by Britten, Howells, Lennox Berkeley, Peter Maxwell Davies and Andrzej Panufnik

Britten: Antiphon
Britten: Hymn to St Columba
Britten: Hymn to St Peter
Howells: Take him earth for cherishing
Howells: Salve Regina
Howells: O salutaris Hostia
Lennox Berkeley: Three motets
Peter Maxwell Davies: Hallelujah! The Lord God Almichtie
Andrzej Panufnik: Song to the Virgin Mary

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Benjamin Britten: Antiphon, A Hymn of St. Columba, and Hymn to St. Peter

Britten wrote the Antiphon in 1956 for the centenary of the College of St. Michael’s Tenbury. The first lines of George Herbert’s poem, “Praised be the God of Love/ Here below/ And here above” suggested to Britten three types of contrasting music: a florid unison phrase for the first line, deep pianissimo triads for ‘Here below’ and a soprano solo for ‘And here above’, which Britten directs to be sung if possible from a gallery. The antiphonal writing continues throughout, with a final repeated alternation of a high F major ‘one’ and a low ascending ‘two’, which come together in the last bar.

A Hymn of St. Columba, for four-part chorus with organ, is another piece that starts off with firm unison writing. It was composed in 1962 to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of Columba’s voyage from Ireland to Iona. The Hymn to St. Peter was written for the quincentenary of the Church of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich in 1955. The words are from the Gradual of the Feast of St. Peter and St.Paul and the music is based on the plainsong Tu es Petrus, which is sung at the end to its Latin text by a soprano solo while the chorus chants the same words in English. David Matthews

Herbert Howells: Take Him, Earth for Cherishing

The motet Take Him, Earth for Cherishing (Motet on the death of President Kennedy) has a complex history which is bound up with the death of Howells’ son Michael in 1935 at the age of nine. Firstly, almost everything which Howells wrote following Michael’s death was written in its shadow, but more than this, where he had been suffering a crisis of confidence following the disastrous first performance of his Second Piano Concerto in 1925, Michael’s death had the effect of rousing him to great compositional activity and rekindling the inspiration, which had seemed to be lost.

The most notable result of this was the Hymnus Paradisi, Howells’ “requiem” for Michael. He had used the 4th century poet Prudentius’ text from Hymnus Circa Exequias Defuncti in that work, and he turned to it again for this motet, not in its original Latin this time, but in Helen Waddell’s imaginative translation. There was another level on which Howells responded to this commission – the instinctive and worldwide horror at the assassination of a brilliant and popular world leader. Howells identified this loss with his own, and in using the text which he had used so personally before, made his own musical statement devastatingly powerful. Paul Spicer

Lennox Berkeley: Three Latin Motets

These Three Latin Motets were written by Sir Lennox Berkeley for the Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge, who gave the first performance in the same year, under their conductor George Guest. Since the first performance the same choir and many others have performed these beautiful motets, for five-part choir.

The first is a setting of a text for Passion Sunday, Eripe me (Deliver me, O Lord): the second, Veni Sponsa (Come thou Bride of Christ) is to a text proper to the Feast of Virgins and Martyrs and the third is a Maryan anthem, Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven), proper to the season from Easter Sunday to the Friday before Pentecost. Chester Music

Peter Maxwell Davies: Hallelujah! The Lord God Almightie

Composed for St. Paul’s Old Kirk in Edinburgh, this is a setting in Scots of the passage in the Apocalypse where St. John hears a voice from the throne, that voice appearing here as soprano-alto duets from a distance, building, as Davies has said, a ‘fine bridge’ from the time of the Edinburgh church to the present. Both vocal groups sing in translucent modal harmony with organ support. Paul Griffiths

Herbert Howells: Master Tallis’s Testament

Herbert Howells as quick to acknowledge his debt to Tudor polyphony, both musics deriving charged harmonies from their sinuous lines. In Master Tallis’s Testament, Howells – whose work is often suffused with nostalgia – pays tribute to the Golden Age. The Testament unfolds a series of variations on the opening theme. Although short, Howells regarded it as his best piece for the organ. Mark Brafield

Herbert Howells: Salve Regina and O Salutaris Hostia

Both these pieces are early works, written for Westminster Cathedral. The little O Salutaris Hostia of 1913 is based on the hymn-tune Rex gloriose heard in simple form in the first verse. The second verse sets the tune in long notes in the tenor (and briefly in the bass) while the other voices provide decorations around it in ancient technique used to new effect.

The superb Salve Regina has its roots in the motet tradition of Byrd and Philips, the imitation between voices producing an intense central climax. The final soprano solo evocatively places ‘this vale of tears’ of the text in the same English countryside as Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written the previous year. Paul Spicer

Andrzej Panufnik: Song to the Virgin Mary

In this choral prayer to the Virgin, my intention was to evoke the adoration, warmth and pure faith of the Polish peasant, for whom worship of the Virgin Mary has a special closeness and significance. My desire is to compose this piece was enkindled both by memories of the naive beauty of the religious folk art of Poland, and by the moving and powerful medieval text of an anonymous Polish poet – which I unearthed after a great deal of search – these two factors dictated the musical language to me as well as the structure.

The melodic theme based on the pentatonic scale has a close relation to Polish folk music as well as some distant flavour of plainchant. This theme weaves consistently through all six voices passing through all 12 keys and these processes are designed symmetrically.

The song opens in the first part with soprano and mezzo-soprano only, singing pianissimo, a most humble invocation to the Virgin. The voices gradually join in, slowly swelling to a warm fortissimo climax. In the middle part of the work, in pianissimo, the voices intone rather than sing with much emphasis on the rhythm of the words, characterizing a peasant congregation in a country church. The third part is a reflection of the first as regards musical material, but dynamically it leads to a much stronger fortissimo. the prayer has become more urgent, and it intensifies its ardour until it reaches final, ecstatic shouts on the name ‘Maria’. Andrzej Panufnik