March 22, 2009 - 5:00 PM
Choral Evensong
Introit ~ Blow, Let my Prayer come up
Responses ~ Morley
Service ~ Tomkins, Second Service
Anthem ~ Allegri, Misere mei, Deus


This Sunday marks the midpoint of Lent:  a season defined by repentance, reflection, and preparation for the ultimate event of the Christian experience, Easter.  For early Christian ascetics, these forty days summoned them to encounter Jesus on their literal wilderness journeys of reclusion, self-denial, and penitence.

Originally the word Lent – from the Old English lencten – simply referred to springtime.  The Church redefined it as the period of fasting and contrition between Ash Wednesday and Easter – a reminder of both the wanderings of the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness and Jesus’ temptation in another desert centuries later.  Lent was also the period during the early years of Christianity when Church elders prepared catechumens for baptism at Eastertide.

The Anglican Singers’ selections each year for the Lenten service of Choral Evensong reflect and symbolize this time of somber self-examination.  And yet the music offered up is neither depressing nor gloomy, because it intimates and envisions the colors and sounds of joy and fulfillment that wait just beyond the shadows of these still-dark days.

This evening’s program – British, Italian, and Italian-inspired – primarily features works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period rich with creative artistic ferment.

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John Blow (c. 1649-1708) is perhaps as well remembered for whom he tutored as for what he wrote.  His famous pupil, among others of note, was Henry Purcell (1659-1695), arguably England’s greatest native composer.  But Blow was a fine composer as well as an obviously excellent teacher.  In his brief  but winsome motet “Let my prayer come up,” the tone of the text and music is pensive and pleading.

Thomas Morley (c. 1557-c. 1603), may be better known than John Blow, but he too is overshadowed by famous acquaintances – in his case William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and William Byrd (1543-1623).  As a composer, Morley’s most memorable works are secular (particularly of the Italianate style that his successor Thomas Tomkins would develop in the next century), although several of his liturgical compositions, like the setting to the Preces, Responses, and Suffrages which The Anglican Singers perform tonight, are known to and popular with modern collegiate and cathedral choirs.

Perhaps Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) has the contemporary British composer and historian Bernard Rose (1916-1996) to thank for his continuing reputation as a pioneer in the evolution of sacred choral music during the English Reformation.  Rose took particular scholarly interest in Tomkins’ adaptation of the Italianate, baroque style to English church music.

Tomkins, whose Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are taken from the Second Service, was an extraordinarily talented musician who lived through some of the most tumultuous periods of English history, coming into the world in the final years of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign and leaving it during the repressive tyranny of Oliver Cromwell that succeeded the regicidal beheading of one king and preceded the monarchical restoration of another.  Amidst these unsettling events, a stylistic revolution of which Tomkins was an early leader emerged, as English composers of both sacred and secular music looked to Italy for inspiration.

Both the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis of the Second Service embody Tomkins’ expanding use of the Italianate, baroque style he was to popularize among English musicians:  ornate, sprightly, gilded – each canticle sung antiphonally between the decani and cantori divisions of the ensemble.

Tonight’s anthem is the beloved “Miserere” of Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).  Because of its particular resonance for Lent, it is a permanent part of The Singers’ Lenten repertoire.  The text, Psalm 51, poignantly exposes the shame and remorse of the psalmist King David after the prophet Nathan has confronted him over his double sin of adultery and murder.  This psalm is the perfect text of repentance:  acknowledging “my transgressions”; recognizing the justification for God’s chastisement, “that the body you have broken may rejoice”; understanding finally that God’s intention is not for retribution but for restoration, through the sacrifice of “a broken and a contrite heart.”

Allegri is best remembered for the “Miserere.”  He wrote it about 1638 for the Sistine Papal Choir during the pontificate of Urban VIII, and it became instantly popular.  Almost immediately mystery and speculation surrounded the work.  Apparently its musical ornamentation was never written but handed down orally from choir to choir; for like a prized recipe, the “ingredients” of the composition were a fiercely guarded secret, forbidden to be committed to paper.  Yet that is just what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did over a century later, violating the taboo by transcribing the score from memory after hearing it performed in Rome.

In this transcendent anthem, verses of Psalm 51 are sung by a full five-part choir and answered by the faraway sounds of a distant quartet.  Separating these antiphons are recitative phrases sung by male voice or voices.  The “Miserere” concludes with all nine parts joined in a spacious benediction of forgiveness and reclamation.

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Though the mood and motifs of tonight’s service are solemn, as befits the season, they convey the hopeful expectation of Easter which, like the annual return of spring to the earth, reveals again God’s ever-green promise of rebirth.

Anne Carr Bingham

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