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5&1, Part 15: A Choral Easter “He Is Not Here”

As Andrew reminded us in a piece posted just recently, Easter Sunday is when it’s all just getting started. It’s no accident that the Easter season in the church calendar lasts for several weeks. So as we get back into the swing of another series of 5&1 posts, I feel no embarrassment in starting with the theme. This is because that Sunday morning in Palestine triggered the greatest revolution the world has ever known. And it’s not done yet…

There’s such a vast treasury of music for and about the season, for the simple reason that the Church (in all her different manifestations during the last millennium) has been the single most significant patron of composers and musicians, bar none. With Easter being so fundamental to the faith, it’s no wonder that it became an aural focal point. So, it’s been painful to make selections! You will undoubtedly have your favourites, perhaps drawn from Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass or Easter Oratorio, and Vaughan-Williams’ 5 Mystical Songs. Instead, I’ve tried to pick out several choral wonders which will be less familiar.

1. Haec Dies (‘This day’)

William Byrd (1543-1623, English) John Rutter (conductor), The Cambridge Singers

Byrd was a composer whose genius enabled him to weather the stormy uncertainties of the English Reformation like his teacher and mentor Thomas Tallis. It seems that he actually became a Roman Catholic at a time when to do so was increasingly regarded as treacherous (the Pope declared in 1570 that Catholics had no obligation to swear allegiance to Elizabeth I since she was ‘the pretended Queen of England’ and excommunicated as a heretic).

Byrd was one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance and this concise anthem is one I always loved singing. It is simply a setting of the Latin version of Psalm 118:24 but is often sung at Easter. After all, this is the day that only the Lord could make, as Lord both of Creation and Redemption.

The different voices come in one by one, rather like bells peeling for Easter morning. Then the Exultemus (let us rejoice) gets the toes tapping, seeming to dare us to jump to our feet for a jolly jig. This is deep joy, Renaissance-style!

Translation: This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it. Alleluia, alleluia.

2. O Dulce Lignum (O Sweet Wood) from Passion & Resurrection

Ēriks Ešenvalds (1977- , Latvian) Hannah Consenz (soprano), Ethan Sperry (conductor) Portland State University Chamber Choir, Portland State University String Ensemble

Four centuries later, our subject is identical but the sound-world light years away. Ešenvalds spent his first growing up in the USSR state of Latvia, but he studied at the Latvian Baptist Seminary (he’s still very committed to his Baptist church) and later at the Latvian Academy of Music. He is now one of the most sought-after and celebrated choral composers and I’m on the edge of my seat every time I hear of a new work from his pen. This track is the final section in a four-part work for soloists, choir and strings called Passion and Resurrection.

It opens with a soprano solo, in Latin, accompanied only by the reverberations around her. It is stark, haunting and mysterious. We don’t really know where we are. Unexpectedly, the strings join her, with the choir quietly chanting. If anything, this deepens the mystery but it is utterly beguiling. After a couple of minutes, there is a brief pause; before a change of tone. The strings now sound cinematic, heightening our sense of expectation. The choir then sing in English and matters quickly escalate to the triumphant repetition of ‘The Lord is Risen!’

The chanting returns—but it is now what is going on. The early mystery of the piece was like the pre-dawn mist in that Jerusalem cemetery of old, the Latin solo a meditation on the horrors of Friday. It is a dialogue first between the two angels and Mary (Mariam in the original Greek) and then, miraculously, not the gardener but the Lord himself. The choir sings a gentle, rocking address to her, ‘Mariam.’ Her response (‘Rabboni’) is so tender and achingly beautiful. The sort of music that you cry happy tears to.

3. Christus Vincit

Sir James Macmillan (1959- , Scottish) Edward Higginbottom (conductor), Choir of New College, Oxford

Another fairly contemporary piece now. We’ve already encountered Macmillan in the 5&1s. In the Advent list, his extraordinary Percussion Concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel was the long piece. We’re at the other end of the musical spectrum now, with this 6-minute miniature for unaccompanied (or ‘a capella’) choir. The text is drawn from 12th century ‘Worcester Acclamations’, Christus vincit, and Macmillan wrote it for the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. This explains the meditative pace, composed specifically to allow for the vast acoustics of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.

On first hearing, it perhaps doesn’t sound especially triumphant. But there is so much going on in it, with its power growing with each listen. There is a dialogue between the choir and a very demanding soprano solo (or in this recording, treble solo) that seems to float in the stratosphere far above, with unsettling leaps (right up to a top B, two octaves above middle C which Macmillan insists should be quiet!) and haunting, meandering lines.

What I admire especially about this piece, however, is that it plots a different part from shouts of Easter joy and triumph. Those, of course, have their place. But the approach here is more settled, a meditation on deep, unwavering convictions which give grounds for hope, especially for a troubled world in which Christ does not seem to rule at times. This piece is insistent, convinced in what is true. That makes the final Alleluias all the more wondrous.

4. God is Gone Up (Op. 27, No. 2)

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956, English) Christopher Robinson (conductor), Christopher Whitton (organ), Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that, in actual fact, the Easter season ended yesterday! We have had several weeks of joyful celebration of the living Saviour, but yesterday was Ascension Day (in the western church calendar; Eastern Orthodoxy has it on June 10th this year). So here is a piece that celebrates that moment, almost comical as the disciples gormlessly gawp upwards in their initial confusion.

Gerald Finzi was a composer known for the ‘Englishness’ of his music, a protégé of the likes of the conductor Sir Adrian Boult and composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams (who helped him get a job teaching at London’s Royal Academy of Music). He hated London, though, and with his young family moved to the West Country, where he composed and grew apples! He is much loved for his choral works especially, many of which have become English cathedral staples (although you shouldn’t miss his Shakespeare songs and clarinet music). The irony of all this is that Finzi was actually of Italian and Jewish descent and was agnostic in religious matters. This didn’t hold him back—and this short anthem is a glorious reminder of the triumph of Ascension Day.

5. Easter Hymn (“Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto”) and Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (1890)

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945, Italian) Agnes Baltsa (soprano), Vera Baniewicz (contralto), Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Time now to flee the frigid wastes of northern Europe and relish some Mediterranean sun and melodrama. Time now for some Italian opera. Easter is not regularly featured on the operatic stage, because the themes of opera tend more to revolve around passionate loves and jealousies rather than the Christ’s passion and empty tomb. The main exception would be Wagner’s Parsifal. But there is also this 1-act gem, an opera that took the world by storm when it was entered into a competition in 1890. It manages to combine both forms of passion! Based on a short story and play called Cavalleria rusticana (‘rustic chivalry’) by Giovanni Verga, Mascagni won first prize, having to take forty curtain calls!

The action takes place one Easter morning in a Sicilian village square and revolves around a classic love triangle. Santuzza is a young girl who has been seduced by a soldier Turiddu, even though the latter is still in love with his former fiancée Lola (who married some other bloke while Turiddu was on military service). All a bit of a mess, frankly. But the backdrop is the Easter service taking place in the church behind, a fact that serves to expose the religious hypocrisies in the community as well as the repercussions of Turiddu’s behaviour. Santuzza is broken and feels unworthy, so is reluctant to go in. She asks Lucia to pray for her as she is sympathetic to her plight (despite being Turiddu’s mother). So, these two women sing while the church is filled with a glorious Easter hymn.

After that, I could hardly leave out the sheer gorgeousness of the Intermezzo, the opera’s most famous bit, which accompanies the villagers as they leave the square. Italian romanticism at its highest!

5th Movement (Im Tempo des Scherzos / In the tempo of the scherzo) from Symphony No. 2, The ‘Resurrection’ (1895)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911, Austrian) Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Berlin Philharmonic, Rundfunkchor Berlin

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for musical G-forces like you’ve never heard before. We have not encountered Mahler on our 5&1 journey before now but it has to happen at some point. The title of his majestic second symphony is a bit of a clue for why it must appear now. Yes, it comes as the one major piece of the 5&1, for the simple reason that it lasts half an hour. But it is itself only the fifth movement! The whole work lasts a gob-smacking 90 minutes. I still haven’t ever heard it live but it is overwhelming because there is never a dull moment. Glorious!

Mahler worked on it for six years and it quickly became one of his most popular compositions. It marked the first time he explicitly expressed his fascination and passion for questions of transcendence and the afterlife. He had been at a funeral of a close friend in which he heard some verses by Friederich Klopstock. He later said, ‘it struck me like lightning’. He set these words to music, adding several more verses of his own.

The movement is complex (unsurprisingly). But it opens with an orchestral cry of despair (drawn from the third movement) and then develops into what he called ‘the march of the dead’, culminating in ‘a Great Summons’ on the horns. Then the choir comes in, taking the Klopstock/Mahler text verse by verse. As if the sound couldn’t get bigger, Mahler throws in parts for an organ and church bells (which he purchased specially for performances). He would later write, ‘The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.’

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music, and stay tuned for Part 16 next week!


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