Welcome to Oxford Pro Musica’s new blog! The idea is to give you a little insight into some of the fantastic music in our upcoming concerts, which will hopefully tempt you either to sample new repertoire or revisit old favourites with a fresh ear. Either way, armed with inside information, we would like to think that you will appreciate our performances even more. Do share if you’ve enjoyed it!
Our Christmas concert this year is entitled ‘Christmas Past and Present’. Yes, it does sound rather Dickensian! But Dickens’s novel has become a seasonal classic in part because it recognises that Christmas is a time that gathers all time into itself: even as it celebrates an ancient birth, at the time of an even older festival, it yet remakes itself anew each year. Families revisit their own traditions and forge new ones – even traditions such as the Christmas tree were new-fangled once! Singing carols is itself a tradition that reaches back to pagan times, though its Christian aspect has waxed and waned through the ages, finding lasting revival in the 19th Century as have so many current Christmas customs. Our concert celebrates all this in a kind of ‘musical chronotope’: much of the programme, as its title indicates, bridges ‘past’ and ‘present’, most obviously through modern settings of ancient texts. However, in this first entry I’m going to turn the spotlight briefly on some of the older elements of our programme.
The concert opens with a bang with Samuel Scheidt’s ‘A Child is Born in Bethlehem’ (1620 – edited by David Willcocks). This 17th Century setting of a medieval Benedictine text employs a dance-like rhythm and double choir in a kind of ‘call and response’ format, giving it an arresting, almost primitive quality. In an ongoing dialogue, a single soprano line asserts the strident theme, which is then repeatedly confirmed by the choirs in an emphatic communal echo.
Robert Parsons (d 1570) is one of those eminent 16th Century churchmen about whom little is known other than that he was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, rather adding to the mystique of his few extant compositions. His Ave Maria (one of my personal favourites) reminds me of an elegant swan, in that the lower parts are working feverishly away underneath in busy polyphony whilst the sopranos sail serenely over the top in ever-ascending entries. The motet builds to a radiant ‘Amen’ to which all the voices contribute in ecstatic celebration.
Most singers (and hopefully listeners!) will concur that Tomás Luis de Victoria’s (c1548-1611) O Magnum Mysterium is a miniature masterpiece. A setting of the matin responsory for Christmas morning, it has a rich, calm confidence in its subject, the eternal mystery of Christ lying in a manger watched over by animals. Listen out for the magic moment in the middle, when there is a palpable hush as the singers reverence the blessed virgin (O Beata Virgo). It then switches to a more upbeat, celebratory mood to conclude with a series of dancing Alleluias.
Giovanni Gabrieli’s (c1554/7-1611) ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ is on a much grander scale. Scored for 10 voices, the piece typifies the considerable glories of the late-Renaissance Venetian style, exploiting vocal sonorities and spatial effects by pitting a low-voiced choir against a stratospheric one. You’ll just have to imagine that Keble Chapel is momentarily transformed into San Marco!
The Swedish composer Jan Sandström’s (b.1954) sublimely atmospheric setting of the early German harmonization of Es ist Ein Ros Entsprungen by Praetorius (1571-1621), falls into the category of ‘past’ because really what he has done is to preserve and then enhance the original, almost like taking an ancient jewel and setting it in a new ring in order to show it off to full effect. Whilst a solo quartet gives a sustained rendition of the Praetorius, the rest of the choir encircles it in a shimmering sound-halo through continuous humming of its deconstructed harmonies. The effect is quite magical, and probably unlike anything you’ve heard before.