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Mahlerman offers a feast of great music for Easter Sunday…

On this day last year seasoned Dabblers may remember that we travelled east, to the bleak wastes of Russia, and found Easter nourishment in the company of Sergei Rachmaninoff and his musical father Tchaikovsky. This year we discover inspiring music closer to home in Italy, Flanders, and 20th Century Albion.

It is September 1910 and in Gloucester Cathedral at the Three Choirs Festival the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is receiving its first performance, conducted by its creator Ralph Vaughan Williams. The piece was an instant success and marked a turning point in the fortunes of the 38 year old composer. For the rest of the concert the great man took his seat next to a dumbstruck Herbert Howells, a raw 18 year old aspirant who, 26 years later in 1936 would produce a masterpiece of his own, the six movement Requiem, written in the shadow of the death of Elgar (1934) and, more poignantly, the passing of his own son Michael of polio in 1935, a blow from which he never properly recovered. Here, the third movement Requiem aeternam(1) moves, almost imperceptibly from desolation to a kind of hope.

Almost exactly 400 years earlier, across the English Channel in Mons, Belgium, the Flemish master Orlando di Lasso took his first breath. But curiously, apart from the lists that contain Rene Magritte and Jean-Claude Van Damme, the ‘Muscles from Brussels’, he rarely features in any manifest of famous Belgians. So beautiful was his speaking and singing voice that, as a child, he was thrice kidnapped to be placed in choirs as far apart as Sicily and Munich. It is a measure of his reputation as a composer of sacred music in all forms that at this period, the first century of printing, he left more than 2000 compositions at his death in 1594. The Lagrime di San Pietro, the ‘Tears of Saint Peter’ are a set of madrigals that date from the last year of his life. Here, the last of the set of 21, Vide homo; music to stop the clocks.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in 1754, described the opening heartbeats of the Stabat mater of Giovanni Pergolesi as ‘the most perfect and most touching to have come from the pen of any musician’ and it does indeed have the timbre and feel of an age beyond the 18th Century – the harmonic language, and the composer’s grasp of chromaticism, make this extraordinary piece unique for its time, particularly when we consider that Pergolesi was in the last year of his life at the age of 26, dying of tuberculosis a few weeks after finishing it. Here, the incomparable German countertenor Andreas Scholl is joined by his sister Elizabeth. Gottfried von der Goltz conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester.

Back in 1994 the BBC commissioned a work from the rising (now risen) Scottish composer James MacMillan. The result was the Seven Last Words from the Cross, which the Beeb subsequently screened on the seven separate nights of Holy Week. MacMillan and his wife Lynne are lay Dominicans and his Roman Catholic faith has strongly influenced most of his work, not least in the effort required to make sense of the dramatic events that led up to these seven ‘utterances’. Here, the third movement comprises a setting of words from a Good Friday antiphon Ecce Lignum Crucis, and takes its name from the words of Jesus quoted at the conclusion ‘Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

5 thoughts on “Passio

    John Halliwell
    March 31, 2013 at 14:02

    Lagrime di San Pietro: last night I put the clocks forward; now they’ve all stopped! Glorious!

    I wonder what the 18 year old Howells whispered to his great pal, Ivor Gurney, as the relatively unknown Vaughan Williams stepped down from the rostrum after conducting the Tallis, apparently to silence from a 2000 strong audience of Elgar devotees who had come to listen to The Dream of Gerontius: ‘Well Ivor, after that I think I’ll give up music and become a potter in Bourton-on-the-Water. I hear Japanese tourists are paying a fortune for toby jugs.’ Thankfully, he stuck at it and all those years later gave us a great Requiem; I find today’s extract very moving. It is mystifying how such a piece remained practically unknown until 1980. It made me think, MM, of other ‘unknown’, but outstanding English choral works and first to come to mind was Edmund Rubbra’s Missa in honorem Sancti Dominici:

      April 1, 2013 at 09:41

      According to Pamela Blevins, in her book on Gurney and Marion Scott, Howells and Gurney ‘wandered the streets all night, so great was their excitement’ after the performance of VW’s Tallis Fantasia. The piece does sound very effective in Gloucester Cathedral, where I once heard it in a storming concert that also included Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi (another of those under-appreciated English choral works) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. After all that I felt like wandering the streets too, but settled for a stiff drink.

        John Halliwell
        April 1, 2013 at 12:59

        I wonder if the performance of the Dream of Gerontius had been eagerly anticipated by Howells and Gurney but proved somewhat anticlimactic after the astonishing impact of the Tallis? How I would have loved to have attended the concert you mention, Philip. The great cathedral must have a marvellous acoustic; I seem to remember televised performances of VW’s Lark (Iona Brown) and the Tallis Fantasia (Andrew Davis/BBC SO); I’m sure both were from Gloucester, and even in mono sound they were wonderful.

          April 2, 2013 at 18:46

          Yes, Gloucester Cathedral has a lovely acoustic – there’s echo, but not too much, so things remain clear – and it’s my experience that you don’t have to be in a good seat to appreciate it. Not all English cathedrals are so good. At another memorable Gloucester concert I heard the Monteverdi Vespers, with echoing soloists spaced around the building: marvellous.

    March 31, 2013 at 20:25

    Marvellous as ever, MM. And thanks for adding to the list of notable Belgians.

    I’ve had the Messiah on today – the great thing about it is that it’s both Christmassy and Easter-y, so you get a double dose.

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