- Introit: Peter Phillips Ascendit Deus
Psalm 46, Deus noster refugium chant: John Fenstermaker
Canticles: Howells in b minor
Anthem: Gerald Finzi God is gone up
Today is the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension, a major festival in the Church year that celebrates the rising of Jesus into heaven, in the presence of his disciples. The Mark and Luke Gospels, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, acknowledge and describe this event. Important in itself, Ascension Sunday also leads directly to Pentecost Sunday (this year May 19th), when the celestial fire of the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, empowering them for their apostolic commission to bring the nations of the world to Christ.
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For the final evensong of their 2012-2013 season, the Anglican Singers, under the direction of Dr. Jason Roberts, are performing the music of eminent British and American composers, the beauty and splendor of which have graced five hundred years of Anglo-Catholic history and tradition.
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Ascendit Deus (“God is gone up,” excerpted from Psalm 47) is a motet for five voices, written by the prolific English composer Peter Philips (ca. 1560-1628). The biography of Peter Philips, a contemporary of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, is intriguing. A devout Catholic like Tallis and Byrd, he, unluckily, was exiled for his faith to the Continent in 1582. Traveling to and living in Rome, Genoa, Madrid, and Paris, he settled finally in Brussels, where he married, collaborated with other exiled Catholic musicians, and wrote quantities of music for voice and instrument, in addition to perfecting his considerable skills as a keyboard artist.
Following the death of his wife and child, Peter Philips was ordained a Catholic priest, after having successfully confounded his English accusers who alleged that he had conspired in a treasonous plot against Queen Elizabeth I. In his final years in the Low Countries, Philips continued his output of music and worked with some of the finest musicians of the time. He died in 1628 and is buried in Brussels, far from his native land – another victim of the fierce conflicts that were still raging over dueling orthodoxies.
There is no hint of sadness, though, in Ascendit Deus. It is a sparkling motet that dances joyfully from opening to closing line.
The Preces and Responses of Bruce Neswick (b. 1956) are an integral part of the Singers’ repertoire. Neswick, an acclaimed American composer, wrote this setting fully in the American idiom. Bold and lively, these Preces are suggestive throughout of the influence of jazz.
The text of Psalm 46 (Deus noster refugium) inspired the great Reformation hymn of Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ein’ feste Burg. Whether Luther actually wrote the tune is a subject of debate. What is not in dispute is that J.S. Bach (1685-1750) appropriated it for his cantata, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80). It is from Ein’ feste Burg that the psalm appointed for tonight is being sung.
The sacred choral works of Herbert Howells are much loved by the Anglican Singers. Herbert Howells (1892-1983), a former student of C.V. Stanford and Charles Wood, himself became the esteemed teacher of a generation of rising musical leaders. Acclaimed as one of the premier British composers of church music in the 20th century, Howells’ personal life was beset by critical illness in his youth, and later by the death of his only son at the age of nine. It was this tragedy that altered Howells’ life, including the style and motifs of his music. (Tonight’s final hymn, set to Howells’ hymn-tune Michael, was written in memory of his beloved child.)
Howells’ Service in b minor, one of his “London Services,” is no exception to the elusive, almost haunting quality that had become his signature after the loss of Michael. While incorporating robust, even clamorous, passages in parts of the Magnificat, its opening phrases, like the entirety of the Nunc dimittis, reveal a shadowy yet rhapsodic otherworldliness.
British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) has been called “the most thoughtful of the composers who formed the core of the English musical renaissance . . .” One of the jewels of the small number of works composed by Finzi is “God is gone up,” whose exultant text is taken from the “Sacramental Meditations” (Meditation Twenty) of Edward Taylor (1642?-1729), considered America’s first major poet. Finzi’s robust treatment of portions of this praise-psalm, interspersed with tender and lyrical passages, keeps the listener on the edge of his seat.
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As the final evensong of the 2012-2013 season draws to a close, the Anglican Singers wish to express once again heartfelt thanks to the clergy and people of St. James for their continuing loyal support.
Until next fall.
Anne Carr Bingham