Benjamin Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin”: VOCES8

Benjamin Britten composed A Hymn to the Virgin at the age of 16 while a student at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, England. Yet there is nothing remotely youthful or immature about this brief work for unaccompanied double chorus. It unfolds with a sense of haunting mystery and quiet lament that seems timeless. The anonymous text, dating from around 1300, comes from the Oxford Book of English Verse. In an expansive, antiphonal dialogue, the main chorus sings in …

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Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”: Wandering, Rebirth, Exultation

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” wrote Igor Stravinsky, provocatively, in his 1935 autobiography. Listen to Stravinsky’s monumental Symphony of Psalms, completed five years earlier in 1930, and you may disagree. There is nothing remotely sentimental in the cool, neoclassical architecture of this music. It would be hard to put into words what is being “expressed.” Yet what emerges is powerful, moving, and transcendent. Set in …

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Britten’s “War Requiem”: Libera me

In observance of Memorial Day, here is the final segment of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  One of the defining works of the twentieth century, the War Requiem combines the traditional Latin Mass for the dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen in the trenches of the First World War. It was premiered on May 30, 1962 on the occasion of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. The original fourteenth century structure (pictured above) …

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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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