Philomusica presents

A Christmas Concert - In Excelsis Gloria

The first half of the concert describes the Nativity through selections connected by their music, and includes works by Tomas Luis de Victoria, Leo Nestor, William Mathias, and Jonathan Dove. The second half of the concert also describes the Nativity but through selections connected by their texts, and includes works by Jacob Handl, Michael Praetorius, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, a Gregoria chant, arr. Shaw/Parker, and a selection from Piae Cantiones, arr. Ades. The concert ends with a joyful medley of sing-along carols.

Saturday December 3, 2011 at 8 pm and Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 4 pm

Performances at Our Lady of Peace Church
1740 Route 130 North, North Brunswick

Program Notes

In order to mark the 400th Anniversary of his passing, Philomusica opens this concert with 2 pieces by the great Renaissance Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548 – 1611). The longer of these pieces is his “Magnificat Septimi Toni”. This piece is set in “alternatum” style, meaning that verses of the text alternate between the original Gregorian chant and newly composed polyphony. To acclimate our ears to this style of alternation, we begin with Victoria’s well-known “Ave Maria” for 4 voices. This piece opens with a short phrase of chant, which leads to the newly composed main body of the composition. The text of the prayer is in 2 sections: the first being the angel Gabriel’s greeting and announcement to Mary (set polyphonically), and the second is a request for Mary’s aid. It’s easy to hear the beginning of the second section – for the first time all 4 voice parts sing simultaneously in exactly the same rhythm (homophony). The longer “Magnificat…” is Mary’s response to the angel. It begins with a short phrase in chant on the single word,”Magnificat”, which is immediately followed by newly composed polyphony for the next part of the text. Besides alternating the musical style of each verse, Victoria builds in much more variety. For example, in verse 6, “Et misericordia…” (And His mercy is upon them…), he uses only the 3 upper voices: soprano, alto, and tenor. In verse 8, “Deposuit potentes…” (He has put down the mighty…), he sets the words for the 3 lower voices: alto, tenor, and bass. Verse 10 reverts back to all 4 voices, but for the first time the meter changes from 2 to 3. For verse 12, we return to a meter of 2, but Victoria expands the voice parts to 5. The piece ends as it began, with the final phrase in chant. That’s a lot of variety of sound in a 9-minute piece for unaccompanied choir!

We now have 3 shorter pieces to help us transition from the sounds of Medieval and Renaissance music to the sounds of the 20th century. The first of these is by the Welsh composer, William Mathias (1934 – 1992). The a cappella “In excelsis gloria” was composed in 1954 and uses a lot of open 5ths in the introduction and in the accompanying voice parts. This technique recalls the sound of open 4ths and 5ths in Medieval organum. However the composer also employs modern harmonies and numerous dynamic changes to place us in the 20th century.

The second piece is the Gregorian chant, “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”, whose short, repeated melody is fairly easy to remember.

The third piece, “A Child is Born”, for organ and choir, is subtitled “Variations on Puer Natus in Bethlehem”; that is variations on the previous chant. This 1990 setting is by the American composer Leo Nestor (1943 - ), professor of music at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. In order to accent the syllables as if they were being chanted, Dr. Nestor frequently uses uneven meters of 5 and 7. He is also very inventive in the amount and combinations of voices and organ. Both the first and last verses consist of unison voices and organ, but achieve very different effects. The opening verse has a very soft and gentle atmosphere while the last verse gives a feeling of triumph. It ends with a final glorious phrase in 5 parts – a closing “In Excelsis Gloria!

Jonathan Dove (1959 - ) is a British composer best known for his operas and choral music. His “Missa Brevis”, for choir and organ, was composed for the Cathedral Organists’ Association conference held in Well’s Cathedral in May 2009.

The “Kyrie” begins with open 4ths, first in the organ and then in the men’s voices (that same “Medieval” sound we heard to begin “In excelsis gloria”). The main musical material first appears in the 2 women’s parts in contrary motion, with the altos ascending as the sopranos descend. This contrary motion is then done in the 2 men’s parts at a slightly lower pitch, followed a final time by the women, again at a lower pitch. This section concludes with the men reversing direction at a significantly faster speed. The next section, “Christe eleison”, starts with the men’s parts in an ascending duet followed by the ladies in a descending duet. This new figure is repeated a total of 3 times, each time at a lower pitch. The third section, “Kyrie eleison”, begins with the women’s opening contrary motion duet, which the men overlap with substantially the same 2 parts. The movement closes with homophonic repetitions of the opening text. With many of the parts in contrary motion, a number of the note combinations seem to rub against each other. This technique, in addition to the minor tonality, really helps us to hear that this is a prayer for mercy.

The organ now takes the lead in the introduction to the “Gloria”. Dove uses a major key, loud dynamics, and changing meters to set up an exciting, dance-like atmosphere, which is then taken up by the choir. The middle section of this movement (“Agnus Dei, Filius Patris…”), where many composers use a significantly slower speed, is taken at the same fast tempo. Listen to the organ here and you’ll hear that fast speed. However, listen to the choir and the speed seems much slower. Dove has simply used notes of much longer and uneven duration in the voice parts! To introduce the last section, the loud dance-like figures from the beginning return to carry us headlong to the joyful conclusion.

The “Sanctus”, also a hymn of praise, begins with ringing, sustained clusters of notes in the organ, which are then taken up by the choir. This occurs 3 times. The following words,”Dominus Deus…” are set in a fast, repeated pattern of bell – like eighth notes. They have a very strong feeling of rushing forward because they are set in an uneven meter of 5. This movement continues right into the “Benedictus”, where the men continue the rushing figure while the women begin a canon of sustained notes. The “Benedictus “ text repeats using sustained a cappella notes, which overlap in 6 parts. The movement concludes with a final “Hosanna in excelsis” on the same sustained clusters, which began the movement. A joyful noise indeed!

The “Agnus Dei”, a prayer for mercy and peace, starts much softer and slower. It is set in the uneven meter, which here is used to place sung accents on the correct Latin syllables. When recited, this prayer has 3 stanzas. After a 6-measure organ introduction, Dove composes music for all 3 stanzas. The first 2 begin the same in the choir, but the second one ends differently in choir and organ. The third stanza begins with new music and a very full sound. The movement ends with the choir dying away repeating the same music and text (“…dona nobis pacem.”), for a beautifully peaceful conclusion to the entire mass.

The second half of our concert begins with 3 pieces that deal with prophesies concerning the Messiah. The music for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is basically Gregorian chant, while the text tells of the different roles the Messiah would fulfill. The short motet “Ecce Concipies”, by the Renaissance composer, Jacob Handl (1550 – 1591) is in 2 parts. It begins with the announcement to Mary that she is to be the Mother of God, composed mostly in polyphonic style. The second part, describing the Messiah’s reign and kingdom, is mostly homophonic. The familiar, “Lo, How a Rose e’re Blooming”, by Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621), also deals with prophesies and even mentions Isaiah.

The next 3 selections concern themselves with the fulfillment of the prophecies. “Hodie Christus Natus Est” was written in 1952 by the French composer, Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963). Poulenc employs jazzy syncopations and extended harmonies of 7ths and 9ths to emphasize the joy that “Today, Christ is born”. The English composer, Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) wrote his first major choral work, “A Boy was Born”, when he was just 19 years old. You are about to hear the short opening movement of that piece. This music seems to bring out the wonder of the text. The last piece in this section, “Gaudate”, is from a musical collection known as “Piae Cantiones” of 1582. This arrangement was done in1975 by the American composer, Hawley Ades, and exhorts us all to sing and rejoice!

Following that exhortation, what would be more fitting than 3 very familiar carols in which we invite you to join your voices with ours in a final “In Excelsis Gloria!

In May 2012, Philomusica will present a program TBA.

Saturday, May 5, at 8 pm at Crossroads Theater, New Brunswick NJ
Sunday, May 6, at 4 pm at Our Lady of Peace Church
More information to come!

Past Events:

Shakespeare, Brahms and All That Jazz - Spring 2011
Wine Tasting & Silent Auction - February 2011
A Festival of Magnificats - Fall 2010
In Praise and Remembrance - Spring 2010
What Sweeter Music - Fall 2009
Philomusica Celebrates Love - Spring 2009
Christmas through the Ages - Fall 2008
Celebrating Inspiration - Spring 2008
Awake, Awake - Fall 2007
Sounds of Devotion - Spring 2006
Echoes of Mystery and Joy - Fall 2006

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