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    William Byrd, Te Deum laudamus

    William Byrd’s setting of this canticle traditionally sung at Morning Prayer is part of his “Great Service.” The adjective “great” means “large,” not “excellent.” And the noun “service” refers to the three services that were part of the daily Anglican liturgical life: Morning Prayer, Holy Communion, and Evening Prayer. The collection known as the “Great Service” includes three of the canticles appointed for use during Morning Prayer (Venite, Te Deum, and Benedictus), two texts from Holy Communion (the Kyrie and the Creed), and two of the canticles sung during Evening Prayer (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis). Byrd’s Great Service, writes conductor Peter Phillips, “is the most elaborate and the lengthiest setting…

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    J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, “Christ lay in death’s bonds” (Cantata BWV 4)

    Composed for use on Easter Sunday, Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of Bach’s best-known church cantatas. It is also one of his earliest, probably written in 1708 when Bach was organist at St. Blasius church in Mühlhausen. A distinctive feature of this work is that it uses — unaltered — all 7 stanzas from a Lutheran hymn. First published in 1524. Luther’s hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden was a loose German paraphrase of an 11th-century Latin hymn, one which we sing every Easter (in English): “Christians, to the Paschal victim” (#97). In addition to adapting the Latin text for use in congregational singing in German, Luther and his colleague…

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    Choral music for Easter, Part V — Bach, Easter Oratorio

    “Come, hurry and run, you nimble feet; reach the cavern that sheltered Jesus! Laughing and jesting attend our hearts, for our Salvation is raised.” The first chorus in Bach’s Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) captures the joy unleashed by the Resurrection. As Bach tells the story of the discovery the empty tomb, Easter joy is revealed to be complex. It is more than excitement; it comprises comfort, consolation, hope, love, praise, and thanksgiving. Below — at the bottom of this post — is a complete performance of Bach’s Easter Oratorio by the Netherlands Bach Society. But the first embedded video is a helpful 6-minute introduction to the work, featuring comments by…

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    Choral music for Easter, Part IV — Jean l’Héritier, Surrexit pastor bonus

    Many of the most memorable musical compositions that celebrate the fact of the Resurrection are — fittingly — thrilling and extravagant. Bring out the brass, unleash the timpani, pull out all the stops on the organ! But there are also works that contemplatively and with humble austerity reflect on the mysteries of the event which is the turning point of history. Such is the case with this setting of Surrexit pastor bonus (The good shepherd has arisen) by a little-known French Renaissance composer. Jean l’Hértier was born in northern France around 1480, and died sometime after 1551. He studied with the great master of the early Renaissance, Josquin des Prez,…

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    Choral music for Easter, Part III — Guerrero, Maria Magdalena et altera Maria

    In 2018, our choir had the pleasure of bringing into our celebration of the Resurrection a wonderfully delicate and evocative composition by the Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). Well, we actually only sang the first half of the work, as the complete work takes around 7 minutes to sing, which makes it a bit long for an Offertory in our service. The work is called Maria Magdalene et altera (Mary Magdalen and the other Mary). It describes the visit to the tomb of the women who were the first people to learn about the Resurrection. Here is the text of the first part of the motet: Maria Magdalene et altera…

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    Choral music for Easter, Part II — Philips, Christus resurgens

    Last year, on Easter Sunday, our choir sang a setting of Christus resurgens by Peter Philips (1561-1628). A boy-chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Philips refused to convert to Protestantism at the time of the English Reformation, and spent most of his life — and very successful career — in Catholic European regions. The text to Christus resurgens is one that we were planning on singing this year, in a setting by a different composer. Christus resurgens ex mortuis, jam non moritur, mors illi ultra non dominabitur.     Christ, rising again from the dead, dieth now no more. Death shall no more have dominion over him.Quod enim mortuus est peccato,…

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    Choral music for Easter, Part I — Richafort, Christus resurgens

    Back in the pre-quarantine era, the choir had begun work on an anthem for Easter Sunday morning. It has been my habit to find some of the most wondrous, most elaborate, most effusive music in the repertoire for us to share with the congregation as we celebrate the Resurrection together. And the choir has always worked hard — and remarkably, without complaining — to try to master the pieces I have selected. This year, we had planned on singing a piece by a composer whose work was new to us. Not much is known by anyone about Jean Richafort, who was born sometime around 1480, somewhere in the Netherlands. He…

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    Music for Passiontide XI — Holy Saturday responsories

    The first of the three nocturns in the Holy Saturday Matins begins with a reading from Lamentations 3:22-30. It is of the Lord‘s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. He sitteth alone and keepeth…

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    Music for Passiontide IX — Good Friday responsories

    Yesterday’s post explained the structure of the Maundy Thursday Matins in which the Tenebrae responsories were placed. The structure for the Matins on Good Friday is the same: three nocturns (groups of readings and chanted or sung responsories). Each nocturn contained three readings and a following responsory. As was the case on Maundy Thursday, the traditional readings in the first nocturn on Good Friday were all from Lamentations, the first being from 2:8–11. The Lord hath purposed to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion: he hath stretched out a line, he hath not withdrawn his hand from destroying: therefore he made the rampart and the wall to lament; they…

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    Music for Passiontide VII — Maundy Thursday responsories

    This post presents the series of 9 brief texts that were traditionally sung on Maundy Thursday as part of the Divine Office. Within the structure of the hours of prayer in the Western monastic tradition, Matins services were held at about 2 AM. On Maundy Thursday, Matins included three “nocturns,” i.e., groups of readings and prayers. The readings in the first nocturn on Maundy Thursday was from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a text which mourned the siege of Jesusalem in the 6th century BC. These readings were followed by chanted responsories with texts that described the various sufferings of Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed. Chanted in…