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Choir of St. Cecilia Concert
October 20, 2001
Music of English Masters

What makes a composer a master? Concerning tonight's composers, all were well grounded in the great traditions of the past, but were also innovators within those traditions. All were recognized by royalty, fellow musicians, and the general public during their lifetimes. In addition to validating mastery, the compositions on this program also demonstrate each composer's respect for and riches drawn from the heritage of English Church Music, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox.

Stanford: Justorum animae Op. 38, No. 1 and Beati Quorum via, Op. 38 No. 3 |
Taverner: Western Wind Mass | Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor | Tavener: Song for Athene

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Justorum animae, Op. 38, No. 1
Beati Quorum via, Op. 38, No. 3

Stanford was born in Dublin into a musical household. His father, an attorney, was also an amateur cellist and singer. The Stanford home was filled with many interesting guests, so the young Charles was exposed to numerous intellectual and cultural gatherings. Sometimes celebrities, such as the famous violinist Joachim came to call. In 1870, Charles won an organ scholarship at Queens' College, Cambridge, and in 1871 a scholarship in classics. Early on he showed great talent for composition in a variety of genres. As a student he was engaged in several conducting positions and was appointed organist at Trinity College. He nearly gave up his degree studies because of his heavy musical involvement. At the age of 35 he was awarded a professorship of music at Cambridge, and later at the newly instituted Royal College of Music. Stanford is known today for his excellent compositions, particularly church music, and for the masterful tutelage he provided many distinguished students including: Bridge, Butterworth, Howells, Ireland, and Vaughan Williams. Stanford's notable achievements as a composer, teacher, and conductor won him a knighthood in 1902.

The Three Motets, Op. 38 were composed to be sung in Trinity College Hall on "Gaudy Days" (reunion dinners) as grace anthems. The pieces were dedicated to Alan Gray and the Choir of Trinity College (Gray was the organist who succeeded Stanford in that position). As is typical for Stanford, the Latin texts chosen (from the book of Wisdom and the Psalms) are serene, set to music reflecting that mood. Listen for lush harmonies enriched by individualized vocal lines in four to seven part textures.

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John Taverner (c1490-1545)
Western Wind Mass

Agnus Dei

Taverner is regarded as the greatest of the early Tudor composers. Little has been confirmed of his early life until 1524 or 1525 when he was recorded as a lay clerk of the Tattershall collegiate church. His reputation must have been widely known, for in the fall of 1525 he was invited by the Bishop of Lincoln to become master of the choristers in Wolsey's newly established institution, Cardinal College (now Christ Church Cathedral), Oxford. Taverner at first rejected the invitation because of his marriage plans, but the spring of the next year found him in Oxford recruiting singers for the new choir. During Taverner's brief tenure at Oxford he became involved in some underground Protestant activities, for which he and some of his friends and colleagues were arrested (one was even reported to have died in an underground cellar). Taverner, however, was soon released because he was "but a musician." Following Wolsey's fall from grace, it seems that the College Church declined, and Taverner left in 1530 returning to his native Lincolnshire. He settled in Boston, married, and lived out the rest of his life as a respected and wealthy citizen. His reputation as a composer rests primarily on his superb polyphonic settings of music for the liturgy: Masses, Antiphons, and Magnificats.

The most famous of Taverner's masses, the Western Wind Mass, is unusual for this period of English church music in that the melody on which it is based is a secular tune. The origin of this love song is not certain, but there is evidence that it may have been written or arranged by Taverner himself. There is also reason to believe that it was composed by the musically astute King Henry VIII.

Western wind when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Conforming to the convention of the time, the mass lays in four sections, and is an exquisite set of variations on the tune. No less than 36 statements of the melody appear in all voices except the alto. Perhaps the greatest compliment to a composer is imitation and quotation. Taverner's colleagues Christopher Tye and John Shepperd composed their own Western Wind masses. In the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams gave the first portion of the Gloria from Taverner's work to the medieval angels in his musical mystery play The First Nowell.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor

Gloria in excelsis
Sanctus - Osanna I - Benedictus - Osanna II
Agnus Dei

Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire, but always considered himself a Londoner. He grew up in an intellectually stimulating household (among his interesting relatives was great uncle Charles Darwin) and was given early solid musical training by an aunt. As a schoolboy, he was drawn to composition, and as his education expanded from Trinity College, Cambridge, the Royal College of Music, to studying with Bruch in Berlin, and Ravel in Paris, Vaughan Williams realized that his metier was for national music. Rather than imitate foreign models, he drew upon historical English sourcesearly hymnody, folksong, Elizabethan and Jacobean music. He developed a philosophy of English national music expressed in essays Who Wants the English Composer? and National Music. The esteem that he held for traditions allowed the composer, a professed atheist (later a content agnostic) total comfort in composing music for the church as well as editing the celebrated English Hymnal (1906). The period following his military service during WWI was an intensely creative one for Vaughan Williams. Several religious works including the Mass in G Minor come from this period. Indeed, composing choral musicparticularly that for amateurs and for special occasions (such as Queen Elizabeth II's coronation service) held a place of great importance for him throughout his long compositional life. Vaughan Williams welcomed few official honors in his life, but after deep soul searching, did agree to accept the Order of Merit in 1935. In addition to his splendid compositions, his place of honor is assured in the placement of his tomb near those of Purcell and Stanford in Westminster Abbey.

It was the inspiration of two choirs and their conductors that led to the creation of the Mass in G Minor. One was the Whitsuntide Singers, a student/amateur choir organized by the composer's great friend and colleague in the English music revival, Gustav Holst. The other was the magnificent choir of Westminster Cathedral (the Roman Catholic cathedral in London), that had revived works of Taverner, Tye, Tallis, and Byrd under the leadership of R.R. Terry. Although written for Holst and his singers, both choirs received and performed the work after its premiere by the City of Birmingham Choir, December 6, 1922. Written for liturgical use, and best experienced in the live acoustics of a church or cathedral, the mass received its first hearing in that setting in Westminster Cathedral, March 12, 1923, conducted by Terry. The work is set a capella in Latin for double chorus, with a quartet of soloists. Ever the pragmatist, Vaughan Williams supplied an organ part (specified for musical emergencies only) and an English version, Communion Service in G Minor. The Kyrie begins with a single alto line, the other voices joining in turn to build a contrapuntal richness so characteristic of the composer as well as the Tudor masters he so admired. Listen for soaring melodies and the masterful use of antiphonal interplay between the choirs, and the soloists. The opening theme of the Kyrie returns in the Agnus Dei leading to a peaceful close.

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John Tavener (b.1944)
Song for Athene

Tavener grew up in a London Presbyterian family where he was given musical encouragement. Although he began to compose at an early age, he entered the Royal Academy of Music planning initially to be a concert pianist, studying with the legendary Solomon. During his time at the Academy he also studied composition with Lennox Berkeley, won the Prince Rainier III Prize for his cantata Cain and Abel, and saw several works performed. The 1968 premiere of his cantata The Whale, brought his work to public attention, including to the notice of the Beatles, who issued a recording of several of his works on their Apple label. In 1969 Tavener became professor of composition at Trinity College, Cambridge. In the years following his 1977 reception into the Orthodox Church much of his work has been related to the Orthodox liturgy. The composer sees music as prayer. "I want to go back to the primordial roots of art, as the Orthodox icon-painters do, back to worship." "Music and art can replace the gap that organized ritual has left us." Tavener has written significant instrumental and operatic works throughout his career and during the last twenty years has made a significant contribution to the revival of British choral music. His music, so deeply concerned with matters of the spirit, has become immensely popular. Festivals of his music are regularly organized, and numerous CD's of his works have been issued. Tavener was knighted in the 2000 New Year honours.

Song for Athene, was written in 1993 as a tribute to a family friend, Athene Hariades, a gifted actress, tragically killed in a cycling accident. The composer writes, "Her beauty, both outward and inner, was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church." The composer had heard Athene read Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey, and following her funeral came upon the idea of combining text from the closing scene of Hamlet with portions of the Orthodox liturgy. Each phrase is linked with an Alleluia with the whole piece set over an ison, or drone, in the traditional Byzantine manner. The work was sung by the Westminster Abby Choir at the recessional of the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2001.
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