If you haven’t yet fixed upon coming to our gorgeous Lenten programme tomorrow (7.30pm, Exeter College Chapel), I’m hoping that our final blog might tip the balance in our favour…
In this post, I’m looking at three discrete works that illustrate the creative relations between tradition and innovation in English church music. You don’t, however, need to be religious in any conventional way to appreciate their emotional power and beauty.
The first is Thomas Tallis’s mature motet ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ (c.1575). Intended for the Feast of Corpus Christi, the text is (probably) by St Thomas Aquinas (13th Century), and tells how those who participate in the Eucharistic feast receive grace and the ‘pledge of future glory’ (future gloriae nobis pignus datur). The motet creates a suitably mystic mood, beginning with an alto statement of the theme, and building up imitative entries to full intensity in each textual section before introducing the next. As this is a late example of Tallis’s output, it displays some of the Protestant requirement for clarity of text, whilst retaining his signature linear expansiveness. The effect is a gradual, ecstatic build-up to the rising repetitions of ‘nobis pignus datur’, until quiet resolution in a vision of ‘future glory’.
The next piece I want to talk about is Herbert Howells’s Nunc Dimittis. He wrote many of these, of course, as part of his sets of canticles for the Anglican service of Evensong. However, this one is different, in that it is stand-alone, and in Latin: it was written for Westminster Cathedral at the invitation of Richard Terry (see my previous post), and intended for the Catholic office of Compline during Holy Week 1914. It is intriguing for many reasons: not least because it remained unpublished until after Howells’s death, only re-emerging in 1989. Another is that it bears relation to both Tallis and contemporaries, and the Mass in G Minor (see last post), by marrying the clear influences of Tudor modality and imitative polyphony to the modern double choir idiom in the same way as Vaughan Williams was to do some eight years later. As became characteristic of Howells’s church music, it perfectly exploits the sonorities of the particular acoustic for which it was written: the great choral convergence at ‘Lumen ad revelationem gentium’ (to be a light to lighten the gentiles) is truly luminous.
Finally, we come to Kenneth Leighton’s ‘Hymn’ (1961), a setting of Phineas Fletcher’s ‘Drop, Drop, Slow Tears’ (17th Century). You may know the text from its felicitous marriage to Gibbons’s Song 46 by Vaughan Williams in the English Hymnal, or perhaps Walton’s setting, entitled Litany. They both have a certain fluid ease of movement; thoroughly modern in idiom, Leighton’s realisation is very different. His setting – the resolution of his graphic cantata Crucifixus Pro Nobis – generates instead a kind of tortured stasis, with gradual chordal shifts supporting the more declamatory soprano line. Any vision of future glory is attained here not through mystical line or luminosity, but through apprehension of sorrow, filtering the pain of the cantata’s previous movements through the cleansing lens of tears.