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H & H Thrills with Bach and Byrd


Both William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) capped long traditions of polyphonic choral music with masterful achievements of their own, and both composed sacred music that conveyed human emotion as well as religious conviction in affective settings of traditional texts. In composing a program that juxtaposed the works of the two composers, one a recusant Catholic working in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the other an adventurous Lutheran cantor in mid-eighteenth century Leipzig, Harry Christophers led a chorus of 28 Handel & Haydn Society singers in a thrilling program heard Friday evening, March 14th, at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. The program will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, March 16th.

Setting the stage, so to speak, was the ancient (ninth century) plainchant hymn “Veni creator spiritus” (Come, creator spirit), its seven stanzas sung alternately by different groupings of male and female singers as they filed down the aisles and onto the stage. The five-voice motet “Laudibus in sanctis Dominum supremum” (Celebrate the Lord most high) by William Byrd followed. The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 150, long favored by composers for its colorful evocation of musical instruments, here set in Latin elegiac verse (hexameter alternating with pentameter). In the opening stanza, each line or clause began in emphatic chordal declamation. In the second stanza, by contrast, the five parts entered successively, overlapping each other as they defined each text segment with a new point of imitation. Declamatory chords returned to open the final stanza, breaking at the words “laeta chorea pede” (joyful dance with nimble foot) into a dance-like triple meter. Christophers led—or danced—his way through the piece, eliciting supple phrasing and crisp declamation from the unaccompanied singers.

After serving as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, where complaints were soon lodged about the “popish” nature of his organ interludes, Byrd moved to London, where he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1570. In 1575 he and his friend and teacher Thomas Tallis received a royal patent for the printing and marketing of part music and lined music paper, and in the same year published their first collection of Latin motets with a dedication to Queen Elizabeth. Tallis, who died in 1585, was eulogized by Byrd in the consort song “Ye sacred muses.” Here Byrd followed the tradition of Campion and Dowland, with the text declaimed syllabically with the exception of an affecting melisma on the words “and music dies.” The song was performed beautifully by Stefan Reed, tenor, with Ian Watson, organ, taking the four viol parts.

After Tallis’s death, Byrd published two further volumes of his own Latin motets, the Cantiones sacrae of 1589 and 1591. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he composed numerous anthems and Anglican service music to English texts, all the while becoming increasingly involved with the Catholic cause. Beginning in 1585 he and his family were cited and fined repeatedly for recusancy (refusing to attend the Anglican service), and he was known to have taken part in clandestine Catholic services at various aristocratic houses. Byrd’s three Masses, for three, four, and five voices, were printed inconspicuously in the mid-1590s in very small books without title pages. As if to emphasize the limited forces available to a clandestine Catholic community in Byrd’s time, just four perfectly matched voices from the choir — Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, soprano, Emily Marvosh, alto, Patrick Waters, tenor, and Woodrow Bynum, bass — presented the Agnus Dei from the four-voice Mass. The first Agnus was a duet for soprano and alto following one another in close imitation; the second a trio for tenor, bass, and soprano. All four voices joined in the third iteration, the final outcry of “Dona nobis pacem” tumbling out in four successive points of imitation. No attempt was made to conceal the Catholic content of the two books of Gradualia (service music for the Roman liturgy), published in 1605 and 1607, just at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. The four-voice motet for Corpus Christi “Ave verum corpus” (Hail, True Body) from the second book was sung by the full choir. Here precise diction gave rhythmic life to Byrd’s skillful alternation of chordal and imitative textures and carefully calibrated harmonies. The repeated final section, the sopranos leading off with short imitative phrases on “O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu” (O sweet, O pious, O Jesus) was particularly effective.

The Bach offerings on the program were introduced by “Bist du bei mir” (When thou art near) from the 1725 Notebook for Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdelena. Long attributed to Bach himself, the relatively modest little song turns out to have come from an opera composed in 1718 by Gottfried Stölzel. It was engagingly sung by soprano Margot Rood, accompanied by organ and cello continuo. Of the three large-scale motets we heard, Jesu meine Freude and Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied may have served for choral exercises at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. They were composed to be sung with or without instrumental support; Handel & Haydn performed them with continuo accompaniment of organ, cello, and violone (bass viol). The five-voice chorale motet Jesu meine Freude (Jesus, my joy) sets six stanzas from a hymn by Johann Franck interspersed with doctrinal verses from Romans 8. The first and last stanzas are set in traditional chorale fashion with the melody in the soprano. The second and fourth chorale stanzas maintain the original melody in the top voice but introduce word painting in the lower voices, while the third drops the chorale melody altogether and rages against the devil (depicted as a dragon) with operatic fury, and the fifth bids farewell to earthly life and its sins with a gentle lullaby. Stepping out from the choir, the able soloists in the fourth movement (“Denn das Gesetz”) were Jessica Petrus and Sonja Tengblad, sopranos, and Thea Lobo, alto and, in the eighth movement (“So aber Christus in euch ist”) Emily Marvosh, alto, Jonas Budris, tenor, and David McFerris, bass. Christophers and the choir did a wonderful job of bringing out the details of word painting and the variety of part-writing styles with rhythmic verve and exemplary German declamation.

The memorial motet “Komm, Jesu, komm” (Come, Jesus, come), for double choir of eight voices, was probably composed in 1730. Here again word painting was used effectively in the opening antiphonal exclamations on “Komm” and in the exchange of halting phrases as the spirit longs for heavenly peace. “Der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer” (The bitter way becomes too difficult for me) was illustrated by an angular fugal passage on a traditional motive, followed by increasingly elaborate counterpoint for all four voices, with a joyful turn to a dancing six-eight on the words “Du bist der rechte Weg” (You are the right way) followed by a consoling chorale. The final work on the program was the eight-voice double choir motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (Sing unto the Lord a new song), based on verses from Psalms 98 and 150 and sung with the accompaniment of organ, two cellos, and violone. This is a technically demanding piece, showing off the choir’s acuity and Christophers’s skill in holding it all together. The massive opening concerto set off percussive declamation by one choir on the word “singet” against bouncy figuration in the other, followed by similar exchanges of short text segments, culminating in a spectacular long melisma on the word “Reigen” (dances) in one voice after the other. In the second, slower movement, phrases of a chorale stanza “Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet” (As a father feels compassion) alternate with the lines of a four-voice aria “Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an” (God,  in future take us to yourself) in the manner of a chorale prelude. The third movement is another concerto in a lively tempo, concluding with a four-voice (the two choirs now united) fugue in fast triple time on the words “Let all that has breath praise the Lord.”

Thanks to Harry Christophers and the Handel & Haydn singers for bringing us a varied and thoughtfully put together program, brilliantly performed. The instrumental contingent of continuo players Guy Fishman and Sarah Freiberg, cellos, Robert Nairn, violone, and Ian Watson, chamber organ, provided support to the bright choral sound. Teresa Neff supplied the informative program notes. Certainly the choir owed much to the expert preparation by chorusmaster John Finney. If one can venture a couple of complaints: While ads are necessary and useful, two to four pages of them inserted between each segment of the program made it difficult to find one’s way around. Text and translations in small print on glossy paper were nearly impossible to follow in the dim light at Jordan Hall. Why provide them if we cannot read them?

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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