Music Notes for Candlemas - St Bartholomew the Great

Music Notes 2015 – Candlemas: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Contrary to most people’s belief, Christmas is not yet quite over at the time of
writing. Some people who are aware of just how long it lasts will still have signs of
the season about their homes even now. Often in such homes, anything green is
resolutely expunged before sundown on January 5th when the Epiphany truly
begins. Instead, gold or silver may have been left as ongoing decoration – or, for any
practising extreme decorating, there may be a special cache of glittering items to
come out just for the Epiphany. Nevertheless, in the past leaving the greenery all the
way to Candlemas was an established custom. In his poem Ceremony Upon Candlemas
Eve Robert Herrick (1591–1674) wrote as follows:
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall:
In fact, this way of decorating a house was borrowed from the church, where the
same kind of herbs and branches were used to make the place festive and seasonal.
On January 14th 1712, a letter appeared in the then still new Spectator, founded in
1711 by Joseph Addison (who wrote The spacious firmament on high and other hymns)
and Richard Steele. The author purported to be one Jenny Simper – a punning name:
the author was really one of the paper’s founders. It is worth quoting both for its wit
and for its information about decorating for the season:
I am a young Woman and have my Fortune to make; for which Reason I come constantly to
Church to hear Divine Service, and make Conquests: But one great Hindrance in this my
Design, is, that our Clerk, who was once a Gardener, has this Christmas so over-deckt the
Church with Greens, that he has quite spoilt my Prospect, insomuch that I have scarce seen
the young Baronet I dress at these three Weeks, though we have both been very constant at
our Devotions, and don’t sit above three Pews off. The Church, as it is now equipt, looks
more like a Green-house than a Place of Worship: The middle Isle is a very pretty shady
Walk, and the Pews look like so many Arbours of each Side of it. The Pulpit itself has such
Clusters of Ivy, Holly, and Rosemary about it, that a light Fellow in our Pew took occasion to
say, that the Congregation heard the Word out of a Bush, like Moses. Sir Anthony Loves
Pew in particular is so well hedged, that all my Batteries have no Effect. I am obliged to
shoot at random among the Boughs, without taking any manner of Aim. Mr. SPECTATOR,
unless you’ll give Orders for removing these Greens, I shall grow a very awkward Creature
at Church, and soon have little else to do there but to say my Prayers. I am in haste, Jenny
Whatever we make of Ms Simper’s Complaint, 2nd February is Candlemas, and one
way or another, Christmas will really be over. At the Priory Church, we celebrate
this feast for practical reasons on the most convenient Sunday, which this year is the
day before – i.e. this coming Sunday. The setting is by an English composer whose
life crossed over with that of Herrick, William Byrd (1540–1623), and is his Mass for
Five Voices.
Joseph Kerman, a leading scholar in Byrd studies and world-respected musicologist
who died in April last year, divided Byrd’s output into a series of more or less clear
stages. The first of these covered his progress from being the somewhat frustrated
organist of the very Protestant Lincoln Cathedral to the Chapel Royal, where he
would have found many musicians and composers much more congenial to a
Catholic convert. His music during this time seems full of challenges he set himself:
mastering cantus firmus settings (music based on a plainchant melody), canons,
imitations of other composers’ styles and procedures, and so on. Then in 1589 and
1591 he published his Cantiones sacrae, quite suddenly a much more confident and
also impassioned set of motets of extraordinary richness, strongly expressing both
personal religious devotion and coded anguish at the situation of Catholics in
England at the time.
Byrd’s three mass settings, for four voices, then for three, and finally for five, were
published in 1592–3, 1593–4 and 1594–5 respectively and mark a distinct third period
in his compositional activity. Finally in 1605 and 1607 come his Gradualia, a collection
of more than 100 settings of Mass Propers – texts specific to a particular feast or
season – that provide a complete liturgical cycle for the year. That third period in
which the three masses appeared coincides with Byrd moving from Harlington in
Middlesex to live with his family in Stondon Massey in Essex, close to the estates of
Sir John Petre, a notable Catholic patron, around whom an entire, if discreet,
community worshipping in the Catholic tradition had formed. It can surely be no
coincidence that at the moment that Byrd joined such a community, he also began to
generate a great cycle of works specifically suitable for such an environment.
The Mass for Five voices, which, unlike the four-part and three-part settings, is
written for the vocal forces that Byrd usually found most conducive to getting the
texture he wanted, is nevertheless surprisingly austere in its style. This is not a
triumphalist work in any sense – how could it be, given the situation? Rather, it is
restrained and reserved. Because we sing a congregational Credo, we will miss the
most telling moment of this setting, when he places the words Et unam sanctam
catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam (…and in one holy catholic and apostolic church…)
between two sections for reduced vocal forces to produce maximum contrast, and
then bashes out the text with full choir in solid chords, lest anyone miss the
significance. The whole work finishes with an Agnus Dei in which the final plea for
peace seems to be deliberately undermined by an inability of the music to settle until
the final cadence, and even then it just stops rather than producing any kind of
satisfying conclusion. It is as if in this refusal to produce a comforting conclusion
Byrd wants to say that there was no peace for him and his confrères in the Catholic
The motet at the Offertory is one of the “propers” Byrd published in his first book of
Gradualia in 1605. The text An old man held up the boy is illustrated with a leap to a
higher note each time portabat comes around, and when the Virgin is described at the
end of the piece as adoring her son, the music is tender and delicate. In Luke’s
Gospel, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for a
number of purposes, one of which is to complete the ritual purification considered
necessary after childbirth. There they meet Simeon who had been promised that he
would not die before he had seen “the Lord’s Christ”. His response to the encounter
is what we know as the Nunc Dimittis. The Alleluia, translated here by David Fraser,
goes as follows: An ancient held up an Infant, but the Infant upheld the ancient. A Child he
was that a Virgin bore, and kept her as Virgin evermore. The one whom she brought forth, she
did adore.
We get a second chance to hear a setting of these words at Evensong, when the
anthem is the same text, but this time with music by the Spanish composer Tomás
Luis de Victoria (1548–1611). In fact, whereas Byrd was setting an Antiphon, Victoria
sets a Responsory of the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary that uses
broadly the same text. He is certainly not ashamed of emotion in his music. He takes
every opportunity to enrich a musical texture, or provide some kind of pointed
musical effect at every emotive point. In this case, the text begins with The old man
held the boy, but the boy guided the old man. Victoria shows the parallel by setting the
phrases in two related sections of music. The text continues The Virgin remained a
virgin after the birth, and then she worshipped him whom she had borne, and again, he
creates sections of related polyphony that show the close connection between the
Virgin mother and her child, concluding with a warm and tender passage that
describes her adoration of her son. Both the expression of faith and the warmth of
the feelings involved on both Simeon’s and the Virgin Mary’s part are unmistakable
in the music.
The two Evensong canticles are, a little unusually, by different composers on this
occasion. The first is an eight-part Magnificat, also by Victoria, and set in Latin. This
comprises a number of contrasting sections that set each part of the text successively
in Victoria’s marvellously expressive language. It is referred to as a Magnificat Primi
Toni, which refers to a particular pitch that defines a “mode” or, as we might see it
“key” in which the piece is written. Victoria wrote a number of Magnificats, but most
of them alternate plainchant with polyphonic sections, while this one is polyphonic
throughout. He splits his voices not into two equal choirs, but rather one highervoiced choir and one lower and contrasts them with one another. Of course, this
gives him opportunities for illuminating the text as the concepts of the Magnificat
switch from one idea to the next. It is a wonderfully colourful work.
The Nunc Dimittis, of course, gives us another chance to think of Simeon, this time in
his own words as set by Josquin Des Prez (1450–1521). Josquin also puts his fourpart choir into two vocal groups, beginning with an extensive low-voiced passage
for tenor and bass that paints an effective picture of the elderly and – it sounds –
somewhat stooped Simeon as he prays now to be allowed to depart in peace. This is
answered by the upper two voices, and the music passes backwards and forwards
between the two pairs until the tenor joins in with the soprano and alto, and
gradually the parallel structure breaks down and they all join together in a four-part
texture, expressing Simeon’s joy at his eyes having seen God’s salvation. The
momentum pauses for just a moment before the tenor sets off again dueting with the
bass. The text tells us that this salvation has been shown before the face of all people.
As the multiplicity of these people comes into view and the Gentiles are mentioned,
the texture becomes more and more multi-voiced until we come to the end with all
singing together. It is an elegant piece from just a little earlier than the rest of the
music we have heard and highly effective.
At the end of Evensong, we go to the Lady Chapel for the final Candlemas
Ceremonies. These include a second Nunc Dimittis – yet another reference to Simeon
– which in this case is sung to the setting by Byrd that again comes from the first
book (published 1605) of his Gradualia. In his introduction to both the 1605 and 1607
volumes, Byrd went out of his way to draw attention to his own advancing years –
although in fact he was to live a further eighteen years after the publication of the
first volume. He was obviously seeking sympathy by this reference, perhaps to
deflect anger at the publication of this unashamedly Catholic work in Protestant
England. Nevertheless, it may also be that he was uncomfortably conscious of the
passage of time, and Simeon’s words perhaps had a special significance and hence
provoked from him this beautiful setting.
The final piece is a setting of Alma Redemptoris Mater, the Marian Antiphon that has
accompanied us at the end of Evensong since Advent Sunday, by the Italian
composer, Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676). In fact, Cavalli wasn’t his name at all. He
was actually born Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni. In the earlier parts of Downton
Abbey, we saw the old below-stairs tradition of referring to the personal servants of
visiting house guests by the name of the house guest, not the servant’s own name.
“Cavalli” is an example of this, because the name by which we know this composer
is actually the name of his employer, Federico Cavalli. Apart from his progressive
ascent through the many hierarchical layers of the music department of San Marco
in Venice until he achieved Maestro di Capella, “Cavalli’s” main claim to fame is as
one of the first composers of opera, a new art form that was about to explode across
the whole of Europe. In the end, he wrote more than forty operas, although about a
third of these are lost to us. However, his role at San Marco also led to his writing a
significant number of church works. These included settings of the Marian
Antiphons, scored for choir and continuo. This one is delightful, with the text split
up into contrasting sections unified by a repeating harmonic pattern. This involves a
falling bass line that comes back again and again and becomes a kind of fingerprint
in the piece. This is a wonderful way to conclude Candlemas, and with it, Christmas.