March 11, 2012 - 5:00 PM
Choral Evensong
  • Intoit: Tallis – “O Lord, Give Thy Holy Spirit”
    Preces: Tomkins
    Psalm 103, Benedic anima mea chant: John Randall
    Canticles: Hoiby
    Anthem: Hoiby “Hear Us, O Hear Us, Lord


Forty is a mystical, almost inescapable, number that echoes throughout the Old and New Testaments. God flooded the earth for forty days. For forty years the Israelites lived off the land in the desert before claiming their inheritance in Canaan. Moses was in communion with God on Mount Sinai for forty days. For forty days Jesus endured his lonely vigil in the wilderness at the beginning of his earthly ministry. And in the Christian tradition, the forty days of Lent, incorporating that symbolism, serve as a time of self-denial, of reflection, and of preparation for the joy of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter.

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England experienced a musical renaissance during the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks both to the flowering of genius inherent in the compositions of Tallis, Byrd, Tomkins, and the like, and to the patronage of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I, both aficionados of elegant church and court music. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was particularly blessed, not only with talent, but with the encouragement of the four monarchs whom he served, regardless of their religious orientation. Indeed, during the reign of Elizabeth, when the Church of England was fully established, the queen granted Tallis and his pupil William Byrd, devout Catholics both, a monopoly of publishing and distribution of music written for both the Roman and the Anglican Churches.

So the same Thomas Tallis who bequeathed to the world “O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit” (the text taken from Lidley’s Prayers) also gave the world Spem in alium. A more profound contrast of style can scarcely be imagined: the lissome yet spare “Anglican” motet – this evening’s introit – versus the forty-part polyphonic masterpiece.

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), a contemporary of Tallis and Byrd, wrote a still-popular setting of Preces and Responses. Throughout his professional and personal life, Tomkins encountered the religious and political upheavals of the times. Born in the reign of the moderate Protestant monarch Elizabeth, he died during the incumbency of the radical Puritan autocrat Oliver Cromwell. Yet despite disruptions in the English Church and body politic, Tomkins inspired a revolution in sacred and secular music as the progenitor of the British Baroque style that came to fruition in the works of Purcell and Handel.

John Randall (1717-1799), who wrote the Anglican-chant setting of Psalm 103 (Benedic, anima mea), was a lifelong resident of Cambridge, England. He served as organist at King’s Chapel and Trinity College, Cambridge University, and wrote a fine collection of psalm and hymn tunes that are still in circulation today.

Wisconsin native Lee Hoiby, who was born in 1926, died inMarch 2011, shortly before the Anglican Singers performed his anthem “At the round earth’s imagined corners” at Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, Massachusetts. His death was a great loss to the music world. Writing in many genres, from opera to church anthems, Hoiby was, musically speaking, in the mid-20th century yet not of it, in the sense that he never succumbed to the avant-garde dogmas of his day. An advocate of the abiding principles of harmony and melody, he bucked the prevailing orthodoxy to write music that, while not in the least derivative, is informed by a timeless and time-tested beauty and power that resonate deeply in the heart and soul. Hoiby’s canticles are a case in point. The buoyant Magnificat sparkles with sun-drenched morning dew; the hushed Nunc dimittis – before its transition to an exquisitely- layered Gloria – evokes an image of undulating evening shadows.

John Donne (1572-1631) is deemed one of England’s preeminent poets, essayists and Christian apologists. He is also considered the founding father of the 17th-century school of metaphysical poetry (a term not coined until the following century). A devout Catholic during the first part of his life, Donne converted, after a lengthy period of reflection, to Anglicanism, becoming a priest of the Church of England in 1615. “A Litany” is, along with the “Holy Sonnets,” one of John Donne’s most famous poems. Liturgically, “litany” (from the Greek FGHIJKGI) means invocation and supplication, as in the versicles and responses of Morning and Evening Prayer. In “A Litany,” the poet invokes and beseeches the Trinity, the prophets, the Apostles, the martyrs and a host of other intercessors. Composer Lee Hoiby has combined verses xxiii and xxviii of “A Litany” in a stunning arrangement that the Singers are presenting tonight. “Hear us, O hear us, Lord” is a choral tone-poem integrating Donne’s enigmatic verses and elusive rhythms with Hoiby’s particular musical lyricism that arcs across time to fulfill the poet’s design and purpose.

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Lent is that melancholy, in-between time when winter clings stubbornly to everything, and nothing in nature seems to hold out any promise of the sun’s warmth or the wonder of new growth. Yet even now as the frozen ground imprisons the hibernating seeds, with the return of spring those seeds will emerge in a profusion of blossom and color that fulfills in nature the triumph of Easter.

Anne Carr Bingham