Welcome to our second blog post exploring the programme for our ‘Miserere’ Concert on Friday 3rd April, at 8.00pm in Exeter College Chapel.

Image of sunriseTim has looked at the complementary Misereres in detail in the previous blog, so I thought that in this post I might draw your attention to some of the ‘heady moments’ in the programme – by which I mean climactic musical moments that give each piece shape and meaning, and induce pleasurable tingles or goosebumps in both singer and listener – we hope!

Actually the MacMillan Miserere features a prime example. The performance marking ‘desolate and cold’ characterises much of the piece, from the dark sounds of the sections for lower voices, to the keening soprano duet and the spare plainsong-inspired sections which pay tribute to the work’s famous predecessor. However, the final section is in a warm, devotional E major, to convey the sense of hope that God will be pleased with the sacrifices and oblations laid on his altar. There is a sudden whoosh of passionate sound as the choir soars up in both pitch and dynamic on the word ‘holocausta’ (which doesn’t carry its English associations – it means ‘burnt offerings’). It’s an extraordinary tear-inducing moment, which, I believe, conveys the depth and sincerity of MacMillan’s own faith.  Listen out for it!

Henry Purcell’s (1659 – 1695) miniature, Hear my Prayer, an extended plangent cry in eight parts, was almost certainly the opening to a longer work, which sadly does not seem to have been written. The piece builds from a very still, focused alto entry, playing off two main contrasting themes against each other and gradually increasing the complexity, intensity and volume, until a final full anguished cry grinds into an excruciating dissonance and is then resolved into a measure of peace on the final cadence. It definitely has the tingle factor!

Thomas Tallis’s (c1505-1585) powerful Lamentations of Jeremiah Part I, is, as the name would suggest, also a pretty desolate piece. Even in our arrangement including sopranos, the tessitura (vocal range) is on the low side, which gives it a predominant sound of dark despair – with the ‘Beth’ section a luminous exception, perhaps. The texture is typically polyphonic, with sinuous vocal lines weaving in and out of each other. However, the final section brings a radical change of texture; it is now basically homophonic (ie moving in blocked chords), with the sopranos leading the plaintive but passionate exhortation a beat ahead of the lower parts: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn again to the Lord your God’. This concerted movement, driven by the sopranos, has an amazingly potent effect in the wake of the intricate web of sound that has preceded it, and is a perfect vehicle for Jeremiah’s heartfelt plea. I challenge you not to feel converted!

We end, as I do here, with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s (1872-1958) setting of Psalm 90, Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge. Set for semi-chorus, choir and organ, and possible brass, this combines the Psalter Psalm with the hymn version by Isaac Watts – ‘O God our help in ages past’. The semi-chorus begins whilst the full choir sings the hymn (tune St Anne) beneath, as if from very far off. The central section of the piece plays off the two textures against each other, with the mood at this point predominantly bleak and regretful. However, the final section, incorporating imitative phrases from St Anne, swells to an absolutely exhilarating climax on ‘Prosper thou the work of our hands’ – it may well take the roof off! If it doesn’t quite manage that, it will certainly send you away with a spring in your step, and a song in your heart.

Hope to see you there!

Alice Stainer