Preview: Sweet was the Song

Sweet was the Song

On 12 & 13 December, we present our new Advent programme, Sweet was the Song, at St Peter's Church in Stockbridge and Temple Church in London. Below is a preview of the programme, written by several members of our creative team!


It is sometimes easy to forget that, at the time of the birth of Christ, his mother Mary was probably about fourteen years old, and was almost certainly terrified. Infant mortality rates in first-century Judea were extremely high, and the risk every mother took in birthing a child was immense. The human dimension to Mary’s story is far removed from the Mary throned in glory in Christian churches around the world.

Choral music throughout history has, of course, celebrated Mary in majesty, and it would be wrong to ignore that rich vein of musical material. However, this concert would like to provoke broader questions: to what extent does the story of Mary the woman affect the story of Mary the divine? And what does that mean for us?

Hildegard of Bingen was also fourteen years old when she was offered to the monastery of Disibodenberg in 1112. She rose quickly through the conventual ranks, and like so many intellectuals of her time excelled in multiple fields; she was a visionary theologian, writer and church administrator as well as composer. Her Alleluia virga mediatrix soars beyond the normal confines of monophonic chant, and stands among the first examples we have of music written by a female composer. Sir John Tavener was also deeply inspired by the women of the Christian Church, and wrote numerous devotional Marian settings. His Mother of God, here I stand doubtlessly reveals a deep personal connection with Mary, as does the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov, “wholly giving” itself to her.

It is a huge pleasure to be able to programme two settings of Marian texts by young composers. Our Associate Composer Marco Galvani’s Alma redemptoris mater and Owain Park’s The Mother of God reveal the two extremes of the Marian story: one, a Latin devotional text handed down across the ages, and the other a setting of W. B. Yeats, expressing the “terror of all terrors” felt by the Virgin Mary.

The programme then turns to two great masters of the Renaissance. Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting of the well-known Ave Maria text dates from the very end of the 16th century, while Josquin’s Inviolata, integra et casta es dates from the very beginning. One can trace the musical developments of the century between the two pieces, but one can also get a sense of the range of devotional texts employed by religious writers of the time. The Ave Maria is a solemn, devotional text, but Inviolata takes Marian devotional to a mystical, almost libidinous level, with its “entreating hearts and mouths” - the writing is reminiscent of some of the personal theology of St Teresa of Ávila.

Edvard Grieg’s religious views were somewhat less clear-cut. Little of his output is for the church, and during his life he confessed to a number of religious anxieties, finding God more easily in nature and landscape than in any organised religion. Nonetheless, his Ave maris stella has become hugely popular as a piece for simple devotion. In a half entirely devoted to Marian reflections, it is only right to end with a setting of the most famous words of the Mother of God herself. Hieronymus Praetorius spent most of his life in Hamburg, forging a career as an organist and composer that spanned the last decades of the 16th century and the first decades of the 17th. His Magnificat quinti toni is a jubilant and complex setting for two choirs.

Hafliði Halgrimsson is an Icelandic composer who lives in Scotland. His Joseph and the Angel reflects on the third, least-celebrated element of the Christmas story: Joseph, Mary’s husband. Halgrimsson sets words from the 1396 Sloane Manuscript in a simple fashion, building the texture up as the piece progresses. Jean Mouton’s Nesciens mater appears simple, but is in fact a compositional masterpiece of dazzling virtuosity. The piece is a quadruple canon at the fifth; the musical material in four of the voice parts is repeated exactly two bars later at a different pitch in the remaining four voice parts. To craft a coherent and beautiful piece under these strictures is an astonishingly complex task, but one that Mouton completed with consummate skill.

A set of two lullabies to the baby Jesus follow, the first a composition by another of our Associate Composers, Oliver Tarney. This setting of the famous Balulalow text, originally written for men’s voices but sung here in an arrangement by the composer for full choir, features some of the programme’s more extended harmonies, with many phrases starting on a unison and opening out into warm, expansive and dissonant chords. The second in the set, Thomas Hyde’s setting of Sweet was the song, is a softly rocking setting of the well-known text by William Ballet, taken from his seventeenth-century Lute Book, now held in Trinity College, Dublin. This simple lullaby lilts along, propelled by gentle dissonances.

Roderick Williams is perhaps best known as a baritone; however, his reputation as a composer is growing rapidly and tonight we are thrilled to present his stunning O Adonai. Beginning with aleatoric writing for the sopranos - the consort of angels whose cosmic presence continues throughout the piece - the texture expands to include a lower voice chorus and baritone soloist (Brian McAlea). Returning to more conventional textures, the second ‘O’ antiphon in tonight’s programme is Cecilia McDowall’s shimmering O Oriens, originally commissioned by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford.

Videte miraculum is the Responsory at First Vespers of Candlemas, here set grandly for six voices by Thomas Tallis. Tallis uses the plainchant melody as a scaffold in the polyphonic sections around which the other parts elaborate. Majestic polyphonic sections alternate with sections of simply presented plainchant, with the music from the full sections repeating in a form made popular by composers like John Taverner. As Andrew Carwood says, “This is Tallis at his finest: a rich palette of colours, enhanced by suave melodic writing with a slow-moving harmonic pulse tinged with heart-achingly gorgeous cadences.” The repeated cries of ‘Maria, Maria’ hark back to Advent, but as our programme draws to a close, this piece also looks forward to the miracle of Christmas.

Much of that programme has focused on the theme of the Incarnation, of the infinite God being captured miraculously in a finite, human child - of heaven being transposed onto earth. The Norwegian farewell song Herrens Venner inverts this union of heaven and earth: it promises that, through Christ, finite humans can also be made infinite - that earth can be transposed back onto heaven.

At the centre of both of these images is the figure of Mary, the mediator, or Mediatrix: her womb is the in-between place where heaven meets earth, ‘illuminating all creatures’ (venter tuus omnes creaturas illuminavit), as Hildegard of Bingen writes. The theological outcome of this is that earth can also meet heaven. In much religious Norwegian folk music, this striving for the heavenly, for release from the daily burdens of life, is expressed with a desire that verges on the erotic. Herrens Venner declares that no farewell on earth is ever final: ‘In the world beyond, a greeting will resound once again to life and soul’. Our bookending of these themes in the programme forms a musical Mediatrix to and from heaven and earth, and is our own (provisional) farewell.