Welcome back to Oxford Pro Musica’s blog! After an enforced break, we’re hoping to be with you all through the year, previewing (and sometimes reviewing) the varied but uniformly delectable music of our 2018 concerts: to introduce you to new gems, to tempt you to revisit old favourites, or to draw attention to particular highlights you might want to listen out for.
The first of our concerts (7.30pm Saturday 17th February, repeated 22nd March, both Exeter College Chapel) features Vaughan Williams’s ethereally beautiful Mass in G Minor, supported by a selection of deeply-felt Lenten works. My next blog post will be devoted to the special glories of the Mass; but I thought that I’d begin with a trio of searing Lenten motets which are perhaps less well-known.
‘O Vos Omnes’ is one of the Tenebrae Reponsories, texts traditionally sung during Holy Week in the Roman Catholic tradition – in this case, on Maundy Thursday. As the name indicates (Tenebrae being Latin for ‘darkness’) these parts of the office are sung at the retracing of the darkest moments of Christ’s Passion, when candles were symbolically extinguished. The text is taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and exhorts passers-by to behold, and consider ‘if there be any sorrow like my sorrow’. Cue, of course, lots of heart-rending music! In this concert, we’re singing three different settings, giving ample opportunity for you to compare and contrast (and there are many others for you to chase up, should you catch the bug!).
The earliest is by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), the Prince of Venosa, probably best known for murdering his first wife and her lover! His music – and this setting is a characteristic example – is every bit as dramatic as that sounds, using a tortured chromatic language that is perhaps the manifestation of the guilt with which he was later miserably afflicted.
Vaughan Williams’s (1872-1958) contribution was first performed in 1922 and is an interesting herald of what was to come in the Mass. As in the larger work, he combines modern harmonic shifts with a sense of the ancient – yet somehow timeless – fluidities and modalities of Gregorian chant. Initially playing off upper voices alone against the rich plangency of a solo contralto, he then underscores the cry of ‘Jerusalem’ with the entry of the lower voices: first answering, and then melding with, the upper voices. The effect is to suffuse an other-worldliness with something profoundly human – quite breath-taking.
The final setting is by Pablo Casals (1876-1973), probably better known to most as cellist extraordinaire. Dedicated to, and first performed at, the Benedictine Monastery at Monserrat in Catalonia – one of the chief influences on his spiritual life – it complements our other two settings in its impassioned emotional power, building to a climax in both texture and intensity before subsiding into quiet despair.