This Fall, Philomusica
Mass for 4 Voices
Hodie Christus Natus Est
Three Carols by Alfred Burt
Traditional Carols for
Program Notes for Echoes of Mystery and
The opening of the "Kyrie" seems to reflect these difficult times. It begins in a minor key with the hollow sound of a downward leap of a 4th or a 5th in all voices, one after another, which gives an austere feeling to the first plea for mercy. The "Christe" section is basically made up of a five note downward scale in all voice parts. The final "Kyrie" section employs two simultaneous, different melodies, which add a sense of urgency to the final plea for mercy. Note at the end of each of the three large sections, which are all in a minor key, the final chord is a major chord. This was standard practice in Renaissance music to help the listener know when each large secti! on of a movement or piece was finished. As you'll hear, Byrd continues this practice in all the other sections of this Mass.
After the opening intonation, the "Gloria" begins with the 2 ladies' voice parts singing the same downward leap of a 4th which opened the "Kyrie," followed by a 2 part rising scale in the men's voices praising God. Various terms of praise now alternate between 2 part men and 2 part women, finally coming together homophonically (all voices moving in the same rhythm at the same time) at the words "Gratias agimus tibi…" ("We give thanks to you…") before returning to more counterpoint as the text continues to praise God. "Dominus Deus Agnus Dei…" which begins the petition part of the "Gloria," is taken at a somewhat slower tempo and begins without the soprano section. Up to the! last petition in this section ("Qui sedes ad dexteram patris…") 3 rather than 4 voices are employed, resulting in a more quiet and reserved sound for these petitions. For the final praise section of the text ("Quoniam tu solis sanctus…") we are back to the beginning tempo and all voices are used. The "Gloria" ends with downward rushing figures on the word "Amen," which somewhat undercuts the joyful character of this final section.
Like the "Gloria," the "Credo" also begins with only 2 part women's voices, but soon adds Tenor and then Bass to give us the 4 part texture. In the first big section of the "Credo," which professes belief in God the Father and Son, the texture changes frequently from 2 to 3 to 4 voices, giving a kaleidoscopic variety of vocal color. The 2nd section which deals with Christ's birth and death is taken somewhat slower. As the text s! peaks of the Crucifixion, Byrd uses only the three upper voices homophonically, then ends with those voices overlapping on the words "…passus et sepultus est" ("… died and was buried"). At the words "Et resurrexit…" we are back to 4 part counterpoint at our beginning speed. After dealing with Christ's Resurrection into Heaven, there is a beat of silence followed by 4 part homophonic singing to introduce the Holy Spirit ("Et in spiritum sanctum…"). There is one more point of rest (silence) before the text "Et in unam, sanctam, catholicam…" - words which were especially meaningful to Byrd as a practicing Catholic in a Protestant land. At the end, listen for the downward rushing melismas first in Soprano then in Alto in the final "Amens," giving a real weight or gravity to the ending.
The "Sanctus e is the first movement to begin with an upward moving theme in all parts to express the word "Holy" when applied to God (the aural equivalent of looking stop - motion photography of a flower opening). The 2nd section, "Pleni sunt coeli…" ("Heaven and earth are full of your glory…") is somewhat faster, but does not come to a full cadence or stop at the end. In this way the composer takes us right on to the "Benedictus," which is part of the "Sanctus" prayer but is traditionally set in a more subdued manner. The "Benedictus" climaxes on a series of "Hosannas" end on a full, definite cadence.
Most of the text of the final prayer, the "Agnus Dei," is repeated three times in a row. For its initial appearance Byrd employs only the 2 female voice parts. The next repetition is marked by the 1st entrance of the Tenors, who are then jo! ined by the Basses and Sopranos. When the Altos finally re-enter, we begin the final repetition, which uses all the voices. The closing words of the final section are "…dona nobis pacem" ("…grant us peace"). Byrd sets this plea with a downward moving melody in all voices, which for the last twelve measures of the piece remains basically in the same range in the three upper voices while the Basses keep getting lower. Byrd seems to end the whole Mass with a plea to which even he is unsure of the answer.
Before the Mass for Four Voices, Philomusica presents three composer's perspectives on the ancient Christmas text O Magnum Mysterium ("O Great Mystery"). Byrd begins his setting with only the three lower voices in a minor key. He also begins slow enough to give us time to contemplate this "… Great Mystery." The 2nd se! ction "Beata virgo…" begins with duets for the women followed by the men, before using all four voice parts. The 3rd section, an "Ave Maria" verse employs only the three upper voices. This leads us back for a repetition of section 2 to end. The Spanish composer Victoria (1540 - 1611) points up the "Great Mystery" by hiding whether we are in a major or minor key until the 7th measure, where the minor 3rd first appears. In the "Beata virgo" section, this composer alternates both modes. Victoria closes the piece with an "Alleluia" section, most of which is in triple meter (a meter chosen to express joy), and which finally and definitely ends in major. The French composer Poulenc (1899 - 1963) had a different way of depicting this mystery. He definitely begins in minor with only the three lower voices. He then takes them through five measures of unusual, mysterious harmonies befo! re the Sopranos enter with the main melody. Poulenc sets the "Beata virgo" section in major before returning to the beginning text and music in minor. The very last chord is major - the same Renaissance convention that Byrd used in his Mass for Four Voices.
The 2nd half of our concert opens with three perspectives on the Christmas text "Hodie Christus natus est" ("Today Christ is born"). Although he begins in a minor key, Byrd uses a lot of syncopation to add to the positive emotions of the text, and ends with a series of "Alleluias" in joyful triple meter. The Dutch composer Sweelinck (1562 - 1621) begins the same text in major and changes frequently between duple and triple meter. In addition he intersperses the text with frequent cries of "Alleluia" and "Noe" (a form of the word "No! el"). Poulenc also begins in major and employs both syncopation and frequent meter changes to express the joyful nature of the words.
On a lighter note we turn to three carols written in the mid-twentieth century by Alfred Burt (1921 - 1954), a minister's son and jazz trumpet player. Continuing a tradition started by his father, Rev. Bates Burt, Alfred wrote the music each year for a new Christmas carol to be sent as a Christmas card to friends and family. The words were written either by Rev. Burt or by an organist and family friend, Wihla Hutson.
The last section of this concert will include some familiar carols. We hope you will raise your voices with ours in a seasonal Joyful Noise.
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