The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity

The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s <em>Stabat Mater</em>: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity

Can a medieval poem meditating on the suffering of Mary, the mother of Christ, as she stands at the foot of the cross have any relevance to these times, or to someone like me who adheres to no faith? The answer given by the performance of James Macmillan’s new setting of Stabat Mater at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall was a resounding yes.

The singers of Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen and the strings of the Britten Sinfonia combined to produce an electrifying performance of Macmillan’s elegiac, angry and often discordant cry of grief and personal commitment in the face of tragedy. I don’t think I’ve attended a more enthralling concert of contemporary music in the classical tradition. Continue reading “The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity”

Turtle doves, architecture, music and fountains of wine

Turtle doves, architecture, music and fountains of wine

The turtledove mourns the husband she has lost

The turtle dove mourns the husband she has lost from Richard de Fournival’s ‘Bestiaire D’amour’ (1250)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or heard) a turtle dove, a bird once common in the south of England but now increasingly rare and on the critical list of British species for familiar reasons – mechanised farming meaning there’s not enough for them to eat in Britain, and too many people wanting to eat them in the Mediterranean (as the Guardian succinctly put it earlier this year).  These thoughts occurred as we waited last Friday evening for Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen to make their entrance in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral on their 2014 Choral Pilgrimage, ‘The Voice of the Turtle Dove’.

In the late 15th and 16th centuries – the period from which all the music on the evening’s programme was drawn – just about everyone in England would have been familiar, if not with the turtle dove itself, then certainly with its symbolic meaning.

Churchgoers would have been familiar with its importance in Christian iconography as a symbol of love and peace, while in romantic legend, the dove’s billing and cooing reinforced the bird’s reputation for monogamous love and devotion, an association found in the Song of Solomon, the Biblical text drawn upon by William Mundy (c1528 – c1591) for his Vox patris caelestis, the concluding piece in The Sixteen’s programme:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

Fioretta Gorini depicted as turtle dove

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Giuliano de Medici, 1478 (detail)

One of the best examples of turtle dove symbolism in 15th century painting can be found in Botticelli’s portrait of Giuliano de Medici, brother of the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici. It’s a posthumous portrait, commissioned by his wife, Fioretta Gorini, after he and his brother Lorenzo had been viciously attacked in Florence cathedral by members of a rival family – the Pazzi – intent on seizing political control of the city. Lorenzo escaped unscathed but Giuliano died.  Fioretta is portrayed as the constant dove for whom there will be no more joy in life (symbolized by the withered, leafless branch); like for the turtle dove she will have only one partner, her husband Giuliano.

Botticelli, Giuliano de Medici

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, 1478

In this concert, Harry Christophers  and The Sixteen  revisited the repertoire on which they established their reputation as brilliant interpreters of early music.  The programme consisted entirely of pieces drawn from the golden age of Renaissance polyphony with a selection of music by Richard Davy, John Sheppard and William Mundy. The cathedral was packed for the performance, and you might well ask what it is that attracts close to a thousand people to a concert of unaccompanied Tudor vocal polyphony – including someone, like me, who can only take such stuff in small doses.  The answer is – as I wrote almost a year ago when we were here for The Sixteen’s 2013 Choral Pilgrimage – is that this is ‘music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck‘.

Remarkably, one of the opening pieces, O Domine caeli terraeque creator by Richard Davy, was composed in a single day at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a scholar in the 1490s, and also acted as choir master and organist. Although many pieces by him survive, little is known of him after he left Magdalen.  He wrote in a beautifully ornate style that was characteristic of English music at the very end of the 15th century – O Domine opens with a long-drawn out ‘O’ that might be considered the musical equivalent of an illuminated capital letter in a manuscript of the time.

Harry Christophers  and The Sixteen

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen

John Sheppard, four of whose works were included in the programme, was also at Magdalen College – 50 years after Davy, in the 1540s, when he held the post of choirmaster.  Like his better-known contemporary, Thomas Tallis, Sheppard was writing devotional music during times of religious conflict in England – years when what was considered appropriate music for the Church would change abruptly.  All the works by Sheppard in the programme reflect the centrality of plainchant (in which the melody was kept pure and unaccompanied) in church music. For me, the most arresting of Sheppard’s pieces came in the second half of the concert, with his Libera Nos I and II (an ethereal combination of upper voices soaring over the bass) and In Manuas Tuas I and III.

William Mundy, the latest of the three composers represented in this concert, was born about 15 years after Sheppard but lived until around 1591. In the first half we heard his Adolescentulus sum ego (‘I am young, but of no account’), written during the reign of Elizabeth I – a setting from Psalm 119 in the most modern style. By contrast, Vox patris caelestis, which closed the concert, was written during the reign of Mary Tudor – with some historical evidence suggesting that it was  first performed as part of a civic pageant presented to Mary outside St Paul’s Cathedral on the day before her coronation in 1553.

As I listened, I pondered the mystery of how music of such great beauty, a setting of texts from the Song of Songs, could emerge from a time of  murderous religious conflict.  With the restoration of Roman Catholicism during Mary’s five-year reign, religious dissenters were burned at the stake, while other Protestants chose exile. More generally, in the wider period during which Renaissance polyphony reached its apogee, the emerging divisions in the Christian faith led to persecutions of both Catholics and Protestants, with those who chose the wrong path being subject to earthly torments such as public beheading and disembowelling that have a disturbingly modern ring.

I thought, too, how hearing this music is so closely linked to the architecture and acoustics of churches and cathedrals.  Just listening to Renaissance choral music conjures an image of the interior of a great church or cathedral, leading to the conclusion that such places are the only ones with the acoustics for a genuine experience (I think, for example, of the ‘visual’ sensation I get when I hear one of the Officium albums by the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek).  In fact, in one of the essays in the programme booklet, Roger Bray points out the connection between the mathematics that underpinned both music and church architecture: often this choral music is described as ‘architectural’, referring to the way that voices are structured; yet at the time many church architects described their structures as ‘musical’.  One wrote:

The numbers by means of which the agreement of sounds affects our ears are thevery same which please our eyes and minds.  …. We shall therefore borrow all our rules for harmonic relations from the musicians to whom this kind of numbers is extremely well known.

Queen Elizabeth, attended by Fame, and a Herald of Arms, riding in an elaborate chariot. Sir William Teshe, England 1570.

Another coronation pageant: Queen Elizabeth’s entry into the City of London in 1559 (British Library)

But, this music was not always performed indoors.  There is some historical evidence that William Mundy’s Vox patris caelestis was first performed during a grand ceremonial pageant staged on 30 September 1553, during Mary Tudor’s progress through the streets of London the day before her coronation.  The History Learning website describes Mary’s progress as follows:

In her coronation procession, Mary was driven through London in a carriage drawn by six horses. She wore a purple gown with ermine edges. A small “circlet of gold” was worn on her head and observers claim that it had so many valuable jewels in it that its value was inestimable and that she had to hold up her head with her hands, as the weight of the circlet was so great. Mary’s carriage was accompanied by knights, bishops, lords and immediately in front of her carriage was the Privy Council. Various senior nobles were in front of her carriage – The Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Oxford and Knights of the Bath. Immediately behind Mary’s carriage was another with Princess Elizabeth and Anne of Cleves in it. Behind this carriage rode a number of “gentlewomen”.

All along the route of the coronation procession, pageants were performed, including ones by performers from Genoa and Florence. A writer described a conduit at Cornhill as ‘running with wine’. In the City the carriage containing Mary stopped and the Recorder of London read out a speech to her professing the loyalty of the people of London and he gave to Mary a gold thread purse that contained 1,000 gold coins. Near to St. Paul’s an oration was read out to her in English and Latin.

Wine fountain

Temporary wine fountain  constructed in Cornhill Street for Field of Cloth of Gold celebrations in June 1520

That reference to ‘a conduit at Cornhill running with wine’ was not metaphor or exaggeration: during such royal celebrations temporary wine fountains were erected along the route of processions and pageants, as the painting by an anonymous artist in 1545, above, confirms.

Old St Pauls

Old St Paul’s from William Dugdale’s ‘History of St Pauls’ (1658)

The Sixteen concert programme quotes an eye-witness account of the arrival of Mary’s pageant at the old St Paul’s cathedral:

 At the scholhouse in Palles church ther was certyn children and men sung dyverse staves in gratefying the quene; ther she stayed a goode while and gave diligent ere to their song.

Vox patris takes a good 17 minutes to sing, and I found it the least engaging piece of the evening.  By this time, anyway, I had pretty much reached my limit for the amount of unaccompanied early vocal music at one sitting.  I had enjoyed the evening and appreciated the skill of The Sixteen and the ethereal beauty of their entwined harmonies, but for the time being I had imbibed enough, even though they sang that:

The fruitful vines give their perfume
of ambrosia, heavenly in sweetness,
and the voice of the turtle dove
the song of your dearest lover’s
only desire to embrace you,
is heard in our land with graceful notes.

The Sixteen in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral: music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck

The Sixteen in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral: music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck

On Friday evening we were in the Metropolitan Cathedral for a concert by Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen, part of a national tour – called The Choral Pilgrimage 2013 – that has been progressing from one cathedral to another since the beginning of March.  The Sixteen are renowned for their immaculate interpretation of both medieval and contemporary religious choral music, and Harry Christopher talked of this tour bringing ‘great music back to the buildings for which it was written’.

The music in question was programmed under the title The Queen of Heaven, the theme being an array of sacred choral pieces connected with the Virgin Mary, some praising her, some articulating her grief at the foot of the Cross. All but one of the works were by two composers, both working in the same tradition of devotional choral music but centuries apart. One was Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina, regarded as representing ultimate perfection in sacred choral music since the 16th century. The other, James MacMillan, was a contemporary Scottish composer whose music is inspired by his Roman Catholicism and sympathies for the oppressed (example: back in Capital of Culture year, 2008, we saw a performance of his work Búsqueda which uses poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, interlaced with the Latin text of the Mass). Alongside works by these two composers was a new, radically re-worked, version of Allegri’s Miserere.

Sacred choral music is not my usual cup of tea (I suffered a long time from the childhood trauma of repeated weekly doses of my mother – a Methodist, mind you – singing along heartily to Choral Evensong on the Home Service.  To me the music seemed deadening, depressing – a long way from Lift Up Your Hearts).  But Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble have won me over to the ethereal beauty of choral music, especially when performed in the sublime acoustics of a cathedral (as we have experienced in Gloucester cathedral and in St David’s cathedral).

Listening on Friday evening as the voices of The Sixteen blended harmoniously in the magnificent acoustics of the Metropolitan cathedral, I really felt a sense of the rapture that medieval listeners must have experienced, hearing music that sounded unearthly, like no music they would have heard outside the walls of church or cathedral. It’s music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

There were moments in the medieval compositions by Palestrina and Allegri that moved me, but it was the contemporary pieces by James MacMillan that I enjoyed the most: edgier, with a mixture of dissonant and medieval.  One piece – Dominus dabit benignitatem – featured ecstatic sopranos soaring over deeper, darker harmonies, while Videns Dominus presented dramatic contrasts between passages that hinted at influences from Celtic bagpipe music and moments of pregnant silence. Also on the programme was Macmillan’s Miserere, his setting of Psalm 51, which harks back to Allegri’s 17th-century setting, but with modern timbres and harmonies.

The programme:

Plainsong  –  Regina caeli laetare
Palestrina  –  Kyrie from Missa Regina caeli
MacMillan  –  Dominus dabit benignitatem
Allegri       –  Miserere (new version)
MacMillan  –  Videns Dominus
Palestrina  –  Stabat Mater a8
Palestrina  –  Regina caeli laetare a8
Palestrina  –  Vineam meam non custodivi
MacMillan  –  O Radiant Dawn
Palestrina  –  Pulchrae sunt genae tuae
MacMillan  –  Miserere
Palestrina  –  Agnus Dei I-III from Missa Regina caeli

Harry Christophers explains the new version of Allegri’s Miserere