Notes from Geoffrey Whittington, choir member, relating to the pieces we’re performing on 23 March 2024:

The ‘Ave Maria’, the Hail Mary, is a traditional Catholic prayer of praise for Mary, the mother of Jesus, often set to music. In this concert we present a range of settings or similar pieces praising Mary from different countries and times.

Holst – Ave Maria
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is a well-known English composer. His long term post as Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith (which he started in 1903) naturally led to him writing or arranging many pieces for women’s voices. This piece has a mass of flowing, interweaving lines with two soprano and two alto lines in each of the two choirs. It shares the power and beauty of multi-part works by Stanford and Pearsall which the choir often sings.

Mealor – O Sanctissima Maria
Paul Mealor is a Welsh composer born in 1975. A high proportion of his output is for choruses, but he has also written symphonies, operas and chamber music. His motet ‘Ubi Caritas et Amor’ was performed at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011. Since 2003, Mealor has taught at the University of Aberdeen. This work is dedicated to the Chapel Choir of King’s College, Aberdeen. It has conventional rhythms but with subtle shifting of certain notes in some chords. Mealor’s harmonies are similar to those of the American, Eric Whitacre.

Busto – Ave Maria
Javier Busto (born 1949) is a Spanish choral composer who is self-taught after originally studying medicine. He has founded various choirs and he is on the jury of some choral competitions. This gentle piece brings some fresh rhythms and piquant chords to a traditional form. The choir was privileged to sing this work in the Cathedral of Santiago da Compostela during a mass attended by 1,500 pilgrims.

Byrd – Ave Maria
William Byrd (1540 – 1623) was the foremost composer in the time of Elizabeth I and James I. It is a relatively short, conventional piece in five parts, but unusually in a minor key.

Gorecki – Totus Tuus
Henryk Gorecki is a Polish composer, born in 1933. He uses an accessible, minimalist style and became known to many through his popular Third Symphony (1976). This piece was first performed in 1987 at a mass in Victory Square, Warsaw held by Pope John Paul II. ‘Totus Tuus’ is a traditional way of signing off letters in Latin, regularly used by Jean Paul.

Clemens non Papa – O Maria vernans rosa
Jacobus Clemens (c 1510 – 1555) was a Franco-Flemish composer. Little is known about his life but he was succentor at Bruges in 1544. He wrote a large variety of music and was the first to set Dutch translations of the psalms polyphonically. This piece set for five voices is full of interest. The choir is performing the first half of it.

Philips – Salve Regina
Peter Philips (1560- 1621) was an organist and composer who was born in England. As a Catholic he spent his whole career on the continent, first in Rome and later in Antwerp. He was a versatile musician, composing keyboard works , madrigals as well as sacred vocal music. This 8-part work for double choir is very impressive; listen out for the quiet, restrained section at the words ‘O Clemens, O Pia’ (clement, loving) before the surprisingly lively final triple time finish.

Poulenc – Salve Regina
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), the great French composer, is particularly famed for his gifts for glorious melody and unusual harmonies and these are strongly evident in this highly-wrought lovely work. The choir has sung it many times and every time the extraordinary harmonic progressions (like those in his ‘Gloria’) are striking.

Lassus – Ave Virgo Redemptoris Mater
Orlando di Lassus (1532-1594) was originally a Flemish composer but he worked all over Europe including France and Italy and spent most of his career at the Bavarian court in Munich. Lassus was also successful with madrigals and chansons as well as with sacred music. This 8-part work in two choirs is a powerful, serious work often using tied notes to increase the tension and interest in all parts.

Pärt – Virgencita
Arvo  Pärt (born 1935) is the leading Estonian composer. After an initial period of avant-garde and radical work, he has followed the minimalist ‘tintinnabuli’ style since the 1970s, writing many religious inspired pieces. He moved to West Berlin in 1980. This piece was written in 2012 and is inspired by the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. It is almost completely based on the opening figure with leaps of a sixth or seventh. It is generally subdued but has a powerful climax just before the end.

Dubra – Ave Maria
Rihards Dubra (born 1964) is a contemporary Latvian composer. He has written several religious works including a Te Deum as well as this piece. The Ave Maria is a restful piece partly as the result of the many alternations between 3/4 and 4/4 time and because of a sudden change of key towards the end.

Rachmaninov – Bogoroditse Dyevo
This is the sixth movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil or Vespers op. 37, written in 1915. Its Russian title means ‘Rejoice O Virgin’ and it is a very powerful, smooth-lined movement with challenging very long phrases. The choir performed the entire Vigil in October 2022.

Parsons –  Ave Maria
Robert Parsons (1535-1572) was an English church musician and composer. He was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and he was influential on William Byrd, who succeeded him after Parsons’ early death. This unusual, lengthy and moving piece is written in five parts, strangely switching from baritone and bass parts at the beginning to two alto parts after 17 bars. Its devotion and purity have meant it has long been a favourite of many choirs.

Lassus – Ave Regina Caelorum
The Ave Regina is a very stately, grand piece in six parts. There is an unusual section of a few bars where the upper voices sing much faster notes in thirds by way of contrast.

Victoria – Ave Maria
Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548 – 1611) was the greatest Spanish composer of the Renaissance and a main-stay of the choir’s programmes. Although born and dying in Spain, for a large part of his early career he worked in Rome. His music is fresh and expressive. This 8-part Ave Maria is a relatively early and conventional, yet powerful work, making great use of the two choirs in antiphony.

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