New Release: Byrd Motets, Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540-1623) lived amid the Catholic-Protestant religious turmoil which spanned the reigns of monarchs Elizabeth I and James I. Byrd wrote music for Anglican church  services, yet for most of his life he remained a dissident Catholic. As organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, his salary was suspended, perhaps because the Puritans found his organ and choral music to be too elaborately polyphonic. His over 110 Motets, published in …

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Bach’s “Easter Oratorio”: A Celebratory Retrofit

J.S. Bach’s Easter Oratorio was first performed at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on Easter Sunday, 1725. But most of this music was not written with Easter in mind. Instead, it was recycled from the now lost secular “Shepherd Cantata,” written a month earlier to celebrate the thirty-first birthday of Bach’s patron, Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. A year later, Bach recycled the cantata again for the birthday of Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming. The Easter Oratorio opens with an …

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Merry Christmas

I want to wish all readers of The Listeners’ Club a Merry Christmas and, for those who celebrate other traditions, a happy, restful holiday. As 2017 draws to a close, thank you for your loyalty to this blog over the past year. As part of your soundtrack for the day, enjoy contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s serene setting of Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter: Recordings

Francis Poulenc: Four Motets for Christmas

Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, completed in 1952, are inspired by four scenes from the Nativity story. The first, O magnum mysterium, captures the awe and mystery of the birth of Jesus, and praises the Virgin Mary with a hushed reverence. The second, Quem vidistis, asks the shepherds, “Whom did you see?” The third, Videntes stellam, transports us to the serene, starlit night through which the Magi travel, bearing their gifts. The final motet, Hodie Chistus natus est, is a …

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Christmas Liszt

When considering sacred Christmas music, Franz Liszt probably isn’t the first composer to come to mind. But Liszt, in fact, wrote a strange outlier of a Christmas Oratorio. It forms the first part of the sprawling Christus, composed between 1862 and 1866, which follows the example of Handel’s Messiah, dramatizing the life of Jesus Christ from birth, to passion, to resurrection. Liszt’s Christmas Oratorio unfolds over a long, Wagnerian arc. Its five movements feel as much like a …

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The Bach Motet that Inspired Mozart

On Friday, we considered the musical influence of J.S. Bach on Mozart. Born in 1756, six years after Bach’s death, Mozart became fascinated with Bach’s counterpoint around the time he moved from Salzburg to Vienna. In 1789, he traveled to Leipzig and performed on the organ Bach had played at St. Thomas Church (pictured above). Bach was music director of the church from 1723 until his death in 1750. According to an eyewitness, the German …

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Mozart’s Mass in C Minor: An Unfinished Monument

Some interesting questions surround the creation of Mozart’s “Great” Mass in C minor. First, it was written in Vienna between 1782 and 1783 at a time when Mozart was in demand for operas, not sacred music. He had resigned his post in Salzburg in August, 1777, escaping the provincialism of an Archbishop with a penchant for unsophisticated church music as well as his overbearing father, Leopold. Then, there’s the question of why Mozart left …

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