Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 12:00PM – The Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, MA
Josquin des Prez: La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem
Giuseppe Tartini: Stabat Mater
Thomas Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah I
Thomas Tomkins: When David heard
Eric Whitacre: When David heard
Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium
The Boston Choral Ensemble will be joined by guest singers for the Whitacre and for Tallis’s Spem in alium.
The act of deploration, or lament, especially for the death of a loved one, has inspired composers to write some of the most powerfully moving music. This concert begins with the famous Deploration on the death of Ockegham by Josquin. In the first of two main sections we contrast Tallis’s first setting of the Lamentaions of Jeremiah for men’s voices with Tartini’s setting of the Stabat Mater dolorosa for women’s voices. In the second main section, we highlight different approaches to text interpretation with settings of the same text, from the renaissance and from the twentieth century. The concert concludes with the monumental 40-part motet Spem in alium by Tallis, which refers to a God of both anger and graciousness, but above all, one who absolves the sin and suffering of all people.
Johannes Ockeghem was the most famous and influential composer of the second half of the fifteenth century. After his death in 1497 Josquin des Prez wrote an obituary tribute piece imitating Ockeghem’s complex counterpoint and rich harmonies. In La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem (also known as Nymphe des bois or Nymphes of the wood), Josquin sets a text by Jean Molinet for four voices, to which he adds a fifth part in the tenor that sings the plainsong requiem aeternam from the Requiem Mass. Josquin’s piece is full of powerful and imaginative word-painting. For example, for the line “… it is a great sorrow that the earth must cover him,” the voice parts descend like the body in the grave and come to rest in a prolonged cadence. Molinet’s poem references Atropos, the Greek fate who had the task of cutting the thread of a mortal life with her shears. The Déploration also invites several contemporary composers such as Pierre de la Rue, Brumel and Compère, to put on their mourning clothes and weep for the loss of their colleague. The piece ends with the supplication: “may he rest in peace, Amen.”
The second part of this afternoon’s concert features settings of major Christian texts that are traditionally used during the Triduum, the last three days of Holy Week: The Lamentations were traditionally part of the Tenebrae service for Maundy Thursday. The Stabat Mater dolorosa, a thirteenth-century Catholic hymn to Mary, Christ’s mother, meditates on her suffering during his crucifixion on Good Friday. The text is variously attributed to the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi or to Pope Innocent III. It consists of 20 short verses in Latin and its expressivity has been inspiration to many composers, including Josquin, Haydn, Schubert, Rossini, Poulenc and Pärt. Italian baroque composer and theorist Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) composed his setting in 1769, for three high voices. It may have had a basso continuo accompaniment, but, in keeping with the tradition of not using instruments during lent, we are performing the piece this afternoon with unaccompanied women’s voices. Tartini sets all the stanzas of the poem, alternating between three-part settings (which are all variations on the plainsong theme), with plainsong verses. This alternatim practice has the advantage of getting through a long text more quickly, however, this doesn’t affect the emotional impact of the poem as Tartini manages to convey its essence with great economy of means.
Our performance of the Lamentations of Jeremiah uses Philip Brett’s edition for five male voices, which most likely reflects Tallis’s original design for the pieces. Tallis’s composed two settings of the Lamentations using successive verses, however, the two parts were independently conceived so this afternoon we are singing only the first set. Most likely composed in the mid- to late-1560s, Tallis included in his setting an incipit announcing that the text is from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Hebrew letters that headed each verse, and a concluding refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord, thy God.” Other renaissance composers known to have set versions of this text include Tallis’s contemporaries Robert White and William Byrd, as well as composers on the continent such as Palestrina and Victoria. The Book of Lamentations, placed in the middle of the Old Testament, is a set of five, longer laments that are believed to be mourning the destruction of Jerusalem (metaphorical described in this text as a woman) by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Historians and theologians debate the authorship and events leading to its conception, but the reference to Jerusalem is widely accepted. While Tallis’s two settings only consist of the first five verses of the first chapter of the book, each larger chapter has greater literary meaning that is reflected in Tallis’ excerpt. Probably the most well known of the literary devices employed in this book is the use of the acrostic. In this technique, the first letter of the first line of poetry would be the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The second line would then consist of the second letter and so on, until the end of the alphabet was reached on the 22nd line. In order to convey this acrostic without setting the text in its original language, composers of the Lamentations, including Tallis, wrote a melismatic setting of each of the corresponding Hebrew letters. This procedure gives the piece both a larger structure and breaks up the longer sections of the actual poem. It also allows the composer to write in a more florid style rather than the more comprehensible and largely syllabic setting of the principal text. The imagery found in the text offered Tallis the opportunity to use all the compositional techniques at his disposal. One of the most notable of these techniques is referred to as a “point of imitation,” in which a concise motive consisting of a few notes is written in one voice and then imitated in the other voices. Part of the beauty of Tallis’s composition is how he can knit these sections of majestic polyphony with more plaintive homophonic sections (where the choir sings the same text at the same time). Another technique that appears in the Lamentations and also in Spem in alium is “false relation,” the deliberate exploitation of dissonance caused by the simultaneous sounding of two contrapuntal lines, each of which are technically correct but when heard together clash at a certain point. While the actual text of the lament describes only destruction and demise, the editorial caption at the end of each section (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God) makes a theological statement, turning the piece into a petition for the people of God to repent. This phrase was certainly added to make the text more appropriate for its placement during Holy Week, but closes the piece in a way that turns the message of the text back onto the people of the present.
Absalom, the third son of King David of Israel, was his father’s favorite and described in the Bible as the most handsome man in the kingdom. Absalom rebelled against David and was killed in battle by his father’s commander, Joab. When David heard the news he was deeply upset and lamented Absalom’s death, wishing he had died in his son’s place. The text, from The Second Book of Samuel, has been set by many composers, who have been drawn to the depth of emotion expressed by David. English composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) was a student of William Byrd and probably composed his setting of “When David heard that Absalom was slain” as a graduation piece when he was a student at Magdalene College, Oxford. It was published in 1622 and was composed for five voices in several contrasting homophonic and polyphonic sections that set the text with a high degree of sophistication. Like Whitacre, Tomkins uses a minor mode for the piece. He uses many devices to depict the text through the music, especially the half-step interval to indicate weeping, a device that is particularly evident from mm. 13-16 for the text “and wept,” which perhaps represents the tears on David’s cheek. The work closes with the sad repetition of “Absalom, my son, o my son” repeated four times over 13 measures as David comes to terms with his grief.
American Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is now recognized as one of the leading contemporary composers of choral music and has contributed many pieces that have become part of the repertoire. “When David heard” is currently the only Biblical text he has set. It was composed in 2000 for the Brigham Young University Singers and has become one of his most popular works. It is three times as long as the setting by Tomkins, which allows much greater opportunity expressivity. In this expanded time frame Whitacre presents a narrative that explores the psychology of grief in an extraordinary exposition of the range of emotional responses, from full-blown and intense anger in 18-voice cluster chords, to subdued and episodic spasms. Whitacre wrote the following regarding the text and his own experience of the composition:
“For When David Heard I decided that my first and most principal musical motive would be silence. The text, one single, devastating sentence, is from the King James Bible; II Samuel, 18:33: When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee! Setting this text was such a lonely experience, and even now just writing these words I am moved to tears. I wrote maybe 200 pages of sketches, trying to find the perfect balance between sound and silence, always simplifying, and by the time I finished a year later I was profoundly changed. Older, I think, and quieted a little. I still have a hard time listening to the recording.”
Spem in alium was composed around 1570 and is scored for 40 individual parts, divided into eight five-voice choirs. The text is from a response for the service of Matins from the Book of Judith: “I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel, who can show both anger and graciousness, and who absolves all the sins of suffering man. Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, be mindful of our lowliness.” Musically, the motet is a tour de force on many levels, not least for Tallis’s masterful exploitation of his choirs’ spatial distribution. If the choirs are arranged in circular fashion sequentially by number, then the music “rotates” through the opening points of imitation on “Spem in alium nunquam habui” (choirs I to IV) and “Præter in te, Deus Israel” (choirs V to VIII). After a short interjection from choirs III and IV, Tallis completes the circle with the entry of the ﬁnal bass voice of Choir VIII; shortly afterwards, at the fourtieth breve of the work, all forty voices enter in the ﬁrst of a series of massive welters of sound, which has been described as “polyphonic detailism.” The next imitative section which follows at “qui irasceris et propitius eris” reverses the direction of rotation as new voices enter against varied countersubjects in the parts already established. Tallis also manages to combine the exchanges between choirs in four different antiphonal arrangements, by amalgamating the singers in four groups of two choirs, but also as two groups of four choirs (ie one massive 20-voice choir against another). After the most intricate chordal passage so disposed between the various choirs, Tallis contrives the entire choir of 40 voices to enter as one after a pause, “upon a magical change of harmony.” With the words “respice humilitatem nostrum” Tallis ends with the most strikingly unhumble polyphonic passage yet heard, framed by the strong harmonic rhythms of the ensemble. The view that this might be Tallis’s opus magnum is intriguingly suggested by Hugh Keyte’s observation of a possible numerological signiﬁcance in the work’s duration being exactly 69 long notes: in the Latin alphabet, ascribing an ascending numeric value to each letter means that the word TALLIS adds up to 69.
-Michael Dauterman, Philip Legge & Andrew Shenton