Service music

Second Sunday in Lent (March 8, 2020)

Our opening hymn, “Before thy throne, O God, we kneel,” expresses the spirit of Lenten self-examination with some remarkable details. “Sins of heedless word and deed” and “crafty trade and subtle snare” describe how both carelessness and deliberation can involve forms of disobedience.

The text to this hymn is the work of William Boyd Carpenter (1841-1918). As an Anglican priest, he served as chaplain to the Bishop of London and honorary chaplain to Queen Victoria. In 1884, he was consecrated Bishop of Ripon, a post which he left in 1911 to become canon at Westminster. Boyd was regarded as one of the greatest orators of the Victorian era, and many of his lectures have been published. The tune ST. PETERSBURG was written by Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortniansky (1751-1825), whose other compositions influenced later Russian composers, particularly Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

Throughout Lent we will be singing an Anglican chant setting of Psalm 51:1-13 as our Sequence hymn. You may listen to a choir singing this setting of this Psalm here.

The Sermon hymn today is “Come, ye disconsolate.”

At the Offertory, the choir sings a setting of the Offertory Proper for this Sunday by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). Here is the Latin and English of these two verses from Psalm 119:

Meditabor in mandatis tuis, quae dilexi valde:
I will meditate on thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly:
et levabo manus meas ad mandata tua, quae dilexi.
and I will lift up my hands to thy commandments, which I have loved. 

Here is a recording of Meditabor in mandatis tuis, sung by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Richard Marlow.

Last week, our choir sang Palestrina’s setting of the Proper for the first Sunday in Lent, Scapulis suis, a setting of Psalm 91:4, which begins “He shall cover you with his wings. capulis suis is one of the composer’s most frequently performed motets. Next week, we will sing yet another Palestrina Offertory proper, Ad te levavi oculos meos, his setting of the first verse of Psalm 123, “Unto thee lift I up mine eyes.”

Palestrina composed 68 Offertories (i.e., musical settings of the Offertory propers texts), many of which are included on the album featured in the above recording by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. As Stephen Rose explains in this album’s CD booklet, “In Rome the offertory was one of the main points in the service at which motets would be performed, and it was therefore highly appropriate that Palestrina should set the entire year’s texts to polyphony.”

Rose also describes the musical style that characterizes these Offertory motets:

In his offertories Palestrina uses melodies of his own invention, rather than taking the plainchant as his musical starting point. The motets epitomise his restrained compositional style. He uses dissonance only with careful preparation. He writes graceful and poised lines for each voice: an ascent at the start of a phrase will be balanced by a descent near its end; a spell of melodic activity will be followed by an emphasis on a single note; and melismatic passages alternate with syllabic ones. Features that would sound too secular, such as dance metres or graphic word-painting, are studiously avoided.

During Communion, the choir will sing one of Palestrina’s Communion motets. He composed two settings of a text from the Gospel of St. John 6:48-50, Ego sum panis vivus (I am the Bread of Life), one with four vocal parts, the other with five. We’re singing the first of these, which is presented below by the Regensburger Domspatzen (that is, the Regensburg Cathedral Sparrows), the cathedral choir at the Regensburg Cathedral in Bavaria. In this recording, the choir was conducted by Fr. Georg Ratzinger, the elder brother of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

The two Communion hymns — “Sion, praise thy Savior” and “Very Bread, good Shepherd, tend us” — are actually from a single Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, about which you may read more here.

Our closing hymn is “Praise to the Holiest in the height.” The text to this hymn is an excerpt from John Henry Newman’s famous poem, The Dream of Gerontius (1865). The text to the entire poem is available here. Edward Elgar set Newman’s poem to music in 1900. It was performed at the BBC Proms in 2015 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Proms Youth Choir, conducted by Simon Rattle. The soloists were Magdalena Kožená, Toby Spence, and Roderick Williams. That performance is presented below.