Beginnings…

It was a great pleasure to take my first rehearsal with the choir this weekend just past – I have to confess to feeling rather apprehensive in advance, partly owing to concerns over the distance I have to travel (will my car break down, will I get lost?!) and of course over how I would be received by the choir. I needn’t have worried! A fabulous group – attentive, open to new ideas and with the skills to start putting them into practice straight away. I’m really looking forward to a new term of excellent music-making! I will perhaps write a few thoughts in due course about building a relationship with a new choir.

It’s also a great pleasure to introduce new music to the choir, in particular one of my favourite Renaissance composers Jacob Handl (Gallus). I feel that, while some of his works are rightly famous through being anthologised, the breadth and depth of his range of expression and his skill at handling different textures mean that he should be more widely known.

We looked at three of his works, firstly “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”, his setting of the first two verses of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s great hymn for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This is sinuous polyphony, very linear and horizontal, in six parts (SAATBB), a disposition aligned with the music of Lassus and the late Franco-Flemish style. Often an echo dialogue is created between the three upper and three lower voices, before all six combine richly.

Next on the list was his “Adoramus te, Christe”, the confessional antiphon for Good Friday. This follows the Venetian double choir style, two SATB choirs calling and responding before combining. I find the return of the opening music particularly affecting, and the ending particularly generous.

Finally we touched on perhaps his most famous piece, the SATB setting of “Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus”, a hymn-like setting of one of the Holy Saturday responsories. The homophonic simplicity of the writing and lack of dramatic gesture amplifies the power and pathos of the text and has clearly affected composers and audiences through the ages: in Bach’s Leipzig, it would follow the singing of the Passion on Good Friday, and Handel (the other one!) incorporated it in his funeral anthem for Queen Caroline. It has since been anthologised a number of times and the simplicity of the writing makes it accessible to liturgical choirs of even quite modest resources.

More news of and musings on Handl and his contemporaries soon!

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