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Time and its Passing

The Rodolfus Choir, Ralph Allwood (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2015
St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Dave Rowell & Robin Hawkins
Release date: December 2015
Total duration: 73 minutes 40 seconds

The Rodolfus Choir returns to Signum with a new collection of choral works drawn from composers spanning over 500 years.


'The fresh, unforced quality of these young singers brings a pleasant friction to grave-facing works' (Gramophone)
St Augustine of Hippo (354–430) pointed out that to ask what happened before God created the universe is to pose a meaningless question: God created time. Remarkably similarly, 1500 years later, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) made it clear that to ask what happened before the Big Bang is to pose a similarly unanswerable question: time began with the Big Bang.

The concept of time is so rich that it has inspired a large body of writing and musical setting. This collection is a tribute to my father, because I learnt so much about time from him. Mathematician and philosopher, theologian, musician and physicist, he was fascinated by our perception of time, and he and I had many discussions about its nature. In a trivial sense, music traces the passage of time, but also, as with all events, manipulates it. A watch traces a different pattern of time during events. But who is to say that the watch is ‘right’?

The sequence opens with a profound meditation from John Tavener, progresses with the Tallis/Mason to deep philosophical musings, the to the start of the day with To Morning by Gabriel Jackson, then to its tragedies and vicissitudes with The Three Ravens. Arvo Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis celebrates a most serene death, while Gerald Finzi glories in that youth which we all, however old, still have: we are every age we ever have been. The next Pärt piece sets time backwards, and with William Byrd we experience time backwards at the same time as forwards. Orlando Gibbons (What is our life?) asks the basic question, while Tom Recknell’s Ozymandias points to the ruins which remain even after the greatest have ended their days. In These hours, we are encouraged to enjoy our time here and now, but with God’s mercy (Henry VI/Ley). More musings on the nature of time in our lives follow from Herbert Howells and then Ben Rowarth, then Thomas Tallis puts time through all manner of gloriously coordinating contortions with complex and masterful counterpoint. And what, asks the Parry, about music itself when its time is spent? We know nothing about what happens ‘next’, so let us with the greatest music hope and pray (Victoria and Bach).

Oh, do not move
Written in 1990 and scored for SSATBB, this piece, as short as it is powerful, sets a concise but evocative text by Georgios Seferiades (‘Oh do not move; listen to the gentle beginning’). With long, sustained chords and a gentle, descending motif, Tavener uses the timelessness of Greek orthodox chanting as another way of expressing our subtitle, ‘Where, except in the present, can the eternal be met?’ (C. S. Lewis).

Thou wast, O God, and thou wast blest
Priest and hymn writer John Mason lived from 1645–1694. This text appears in his Songs of Praise, under the subheading ‘A song of praise for creation’. The words are set here to the haunting tune by Thomas Tallis—‘Third mode melody’—which was one of nine tunes written for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, immortalised in the 20th Century by Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. Although not conceived as a pair, Mason’s brilliantly profound text is matched by Tallis’s compelling tune.

To Morning
Our concept of time may be represented, in miniature, by the span of a day. Scored for five voices (with divisions) without accompaniment, Gabriel Jackson’s setting of William Blake’s To Morning incorporates an innovative and distinctive harmonic language and carefully-crafted phrase structure which beautifully reflects the imagery of the text. Rich texture, characteristic use of modulation and tantalising moments of silence lead into climactic tutti entries. The piece was written for Polyphony, directed by Stephen Layton.

The Three Ravens
A deeply touching story which takes place over one day, a poignant moment in it marked by the bell for Evensong. Edward Chapman (1902–1981) held a number of distinguished posts including Musical Director of the Highgate Choral Society. John Rutter and John Tavener were contemporary students of his at Highgate School. This masterly arrangement is scored for SATB (with division) and baritone solo, and uses an effectively broad harmonic palette for such a simple melody.

Nunc dimittis
Death has a habit of springing to mind when we contemplate the nature of time, and our ideal experience of it would be in the joyful way Simeon greeted his, as described in the Nunc dimittis. Arvo Pärt wrote his setting of the Latin Nunc dimittis text for the choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, where it received its first performance in 2001. Scored for unaccompanied SATB, voices gently unfurl to suggest harmonies rather than state them, over meditative pedal sections in his haunting triadic ‘tintinnabuli’ (from the Latin for ‘bell’) style of writing.

Haste on, my joys!
The sixth setting of the Seven Poems by Robert Bridges by Gerald Finzi (written between 1934 - 37), this work was written shortly after Finzi’s period as a teacher of harmony at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and is scored for unaccompanied SSATB. The joyful exuberance of the first lines of the poem is reflected to great effect by Finzi’s energised part writing and the rhythmic vitality at the beginning of the piece.

Esti dal (Evening Song)
Born in Hungary in 1882, composer and educator Zoltán Kodály was heavily influenced by Hungarian folk song melodies throughout his compositional career. Esti dal (‘Evening Song’) is based upon one such melody, and was written in 1938. The evocative text (English words by Geoffry Russell-Smith) stirs images of itinerant souls seeking refuge (“Lord, I wander ever straying; Wand’ring through the world, yet knowing. Thou wilt guard me, and my going.”), which perhaps takes on a poignant relevance viewed in the context of events in modern-day Hungary and surrounding territories. The version on this recording is scored for SATB.

… which was the son of …
A rare example of a story written backwards. Written in 2000 and scored for unaccompanied SATB, it is a setting of a text which is potentially very tedious, listing as it does the 75 forebears of Christ. It occurs in St Luke’s Gospel—chapter 3, verses 23-38—and describes the genealogy of Jesus. Commissioned for the Voices of Europe youth choir by the city of Reykjavík as part of their celebrations as European Capital of Culture year in 2000, it gently pokes fun at Icelandic names with their frequent use of the lengthily rolled “R” and achieves a remarkable range of musical variety and contrast, despite this hypnotically repetitive text. The influence of the triadic ‘tintinnabuli’ technique of writing is as much as feature in this work as it is in Pärt’s Nunc dimittis. And there’s rather a good punchline.

Diliges Dominum
With astonishing skill, William Byrd has written a piece that goes backwards as well as forwards. This fascinating work for double choir is a musical palindrome. One four-part choir sings the same music as the other choir, exactly in reverse. It was published in 1575 and is part of the Cantiones Sacrae (‘Sacred Songs’), a collection of works by William Byrd and his teacher Thomas Tallis. The text is taken from the Gospel according to St Matthew—chapter 22, verses 37 and 39.

What is our life?
One of two works on this disc based upon texts of Sir Walter Raleigh (possibly written while the poet was imprisoned and facing execution), this work dates from 1612 and is performed here in a scoring for SSATB. In the context of things temporal, the text of this poem depicts life as a ‘play of passion’. The way Gibbons sets this text to music is highly reflective of the poignant imagery conjured up, for example in the mourning chromaticism at ‘Our graves that hide us from the setting sun’.

Ozymandias was written for the Rodolfus choir in 2015, specifically for this CD release. It was premiered by the choir in a concert at St Dunstan-in-the-West, London, in July 2015. The text is taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name, first published in 1818. The poet tells a parabolic tale of an ancient king’s decline from greatness to near obscurity, through the discovery of a broken statue in the desert. The passing of time rips away all pretensions of power or fame, and leaves only small fragments from which posterity will judge.

These hours
Adrian Cruft lived from 1921–1987 and studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London. A setting of a poem entitled The Recommendation by clergyman Richard Crashaw (c1613-1649), it is scored for unaccompanied SATB.

A Prayer of King Henry VI
A former Precentor of Eton College, Henry Ley held a number of other distinguished posts, including Professor of Music at the Royal College of Music in London and Organist at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. This short SATB setting is of a prayer of Henry VI, written by the King for the Royal Foundations of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. The prayer expresses a delightful contradiction in our perception of fate. On the one hand it acknowledges that God has preordained us to that which we are and that He knows what He will do with us. On the other hand we pray earnestly for His mercy as he carries that out.

Even such is time
Written in 1913, this anthem for double choir dates from early in the compositional career of Herbert Howells. The second of two settings of poems by Sir Walter Raleigh included on this disc, this work, with its ingenious harmony, displays many glimpses of the compositional techniques and harmonic language which appear in the more well-known works from later in Howells’s career, albeit in the context of a distinctively earlier style of writing. The setting of the final two lines of the poem (‘But from this earth, this grave, this dust, My God shall raise me up, I trust.’) is truly rousing, with a highly effective and sudden increase in energy and momentum, leading to the climactic final chord. It also predates the thinking behind Howells’ masterpiece, Take him, earth, for cherishing.

The Evening Watch
The Evening Watch sets Henry Vaughn’s stunning poem for eight-part choir and soprano soloist. The poem features a conversation between the ‘body’ and the ‘soul’ of a man on his death bed, reflected here in the change of texture between the intense and poignant questioning of the body and the often more relaxed and flowing music of the soul. The soprano soloist provides yet another texture as the far off voice of the soul, echoing the worries of the body in the first part of the piece and then answering them the second, soaring above the active texture of the eight-part choir below.

Miserere nostri
Six of the seven voice parts of this piece are contrapuntally related to each other as they state the same theme at half and quarter speed. It sets the short Latin text ‘Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy on us’ (also part of Cantiones Sacrae). Amongst numerous intricate contrapuntal devices, one of the most distinctive is the beautiful canon between the two soprano lines, separated by half a bar, which extends throughout the piece. The genius of the work transcends its brevity, and there is perhaps no better example of Tallis’s ability to write beatific music in complex polyphony with phrases so perfectly suited to the human voice.

Music when soft voices die
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s significant 1921 poem is set here to music by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, scored for unaccompanied SATB voices and published in 1897. Known primarily for his extensive sacred compositional output, this part song is a fine example of one of Parry’s less well-known secular works.

Lux aeterna
Victoria’s Officium defunctorum ‘Office for the Dead’ (often referred to simply as the ‘Requiem’) was written in 1603 and published in 1605 and is for many people the greatest setting of the requiem. This movement, the Communion Antiphon, is scored for six voices and is one of the very finest examples of Victoria’s choral writing. As with most of the other movements in the work, the plainsong of the Mass is built into the polyphonic writing, in the second soprano part, appearing initially as an intonation at the beginning of the movement.

Et incarnatus est
The Mass in B minor (BWV232) is effectively a compilation by Johann Sebastian Bach of some of his greatest music, probably, we guess, with an eye to posterity. Et incarnatus est, with its glorious descending phrases indicating Christ’s ‘descent’ to earth is from the storytelling Credo. We know from the handwriting in Bach’s score that this was one of the last things he wrote, and it is with gentle irony that we include a text about birth as the final work in the collection.

Ralph Allwood & Timothy Teague © 2015

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