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Brahms - Tucapsky - Stainer - Bruckner - Jongen - Handel - Mozart - Vivaldi - Haydn - Schubert - Vaughan Williams - Bach - Mendelssohn - Dvorak - Verdi - Rutter - Britten - Faure
Johannes Brahms - Requiem - How lovely are Thy dwellings
Johannes Brahms (1833 -1897) was a German composer and pianist. Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria. In his lifetime, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable. He is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs”.

Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. He worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends). Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.

Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters.
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Antonin Tucapsky - Five Lenten Motets
Antonin Tucapský was born in 1928 in Opatovice (part of Vyskov), Moravia, former Czechoslovakia. In 1947 he graduated from the Teachers’ Training College in Valasské Mezirící. He studied in Brno before beginning his career as composer, teacher and conductor. From 1950 to 1951 he studied Choral Conducting at the Janácek Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Brno.

In 1951 he graduated from Masaryk University, Brno, in Music Education and Musicology. Privately he studied composition with Jan Kunc, who was a pupil of Leos Janácek. In 1951 he took up a teaching post at the Higher Music School in Kromeríz. In the same year he became a member of the well-known Moravian Teachers’ Male Voice Choir and from 1964 to 1972 he was a choirmaster of that choir.In 1955 Tucapský moved to Nový Jicín, where he accepted a teaching post at the Teachers’ Training College and also conducted the local mixed choir. In 1959 he moved to Ostrava and became a lecturer at the Pedagogical Faculty there. From 1961 he conducted the Children’s Choir of Ostrava Radio.

In 1964 he became Musical Director of the Moravian Teachers’ Choir. With this famous body of male-voices he gave many concerts in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe and recorded regularly for Ceský rozhlas (Czech Radio) and the Supraphon recording company. In 1969 he gained his PhD for his book “Janacek’s Male Choruses and Their Interpretation Tradition”.In 1975 he moved to England and became a Professor of Composition at Trinity College of Music in London, where he remained until his retirement in 1996.

In 1985 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of Trinity College of Music. There he had more time to develop his compositions, mostly choral or chorally based, having first performances in this country. Conversant with the various compositional theories and trends of the twentieth century, Tucapský remained essentially a tonal composer.

During his career he received various awards and prizes for his compositions and cultural activity. Masaryk University, Brno, his alma mater, bestowed on him Doctor Honoris Causa in 1996. From 1975 Tucapský devoted much of his time to composition rather than choral conducting.

His compositions have been published mostly in England, but also in the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Canada the USA.
Antonín Tucapský died on September 9, 2014 at the age of 86.
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Sir John Stainer - The Crucifixion
Sir John Stainer, was born June 6th, 1840, in London, England and died on March 31st, 1901, in Verona, Italy. He was an English organist and church composer and a leading early musicologist.

As a boy Stainer sang in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1847–56). At the age of 16 he was appointed organist at the newly opened St. Michael’s College, Tenbury, a school for church musicians. Named organist at St. Paul’s in 1872, Stainer served in that prestigious position until 1888, when he resigned because of failing eyesight.

He was a founder of the (later Royal) Musical Association in 1874 and taught at the National Training School for Music, opened in 1876. Knighted in 1888, Stainer was professor of music at the University of Oxford from 1889 to his death.

Stainer’s Romantic church music is now mainly performed in England, although his best-known oratorio, The Crucifixion (1887), is also performed in other English-speaking countries. He wrote songs as well as cantatas, services, anthems, and other music for the church service. He also published treatises on the organ and music theory and collaborated on a dictionary of musical terms.

Stainer’s most lasting contribution is his compilation Early Bodleian Music, with musical examples from the 12th to the 16th century, and Dufay and His Contemporaries (publication begun in 1898), an edition of 15th-century music prepared with the help of his children. Both publications helped open the way to the study of Medieval and Renaissance music, which during Stainer’s time was almost unknown.
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Anton Bruckner - Sacred Motets
Anton Bruckner 1824 - 1896Josef Anton Bruckner, was born in Ansfelden, Austria and died in Vienna. He was best known as a composer of a number of highly original and monumental symphonies, but was active as an organist and teacher, writing much sacred and secular choral music.

His father was a village schoolmaster and organist in Upper Austria, and Bruckner showed early talent on the violin and spinet, and by the age of 10 was deputising at the church organ. In 1835–36 he studied in Hörsching with his godfather, J.B. Weiss, a minor composer.
After his father’s death in 1837, Bruckner entered the monastery-school of St. Florian as a choirboy. This splendid Baroque foundation, with its magnificent organ, was to remain Bruckner’s spiritual home, a place to which he returned in 1845 after qualifying as a teacher.

Bruckner had an intense Roman Catholic faith, and his deep reverence is evident in his motets. Os justi and Ave Maria typify his style: refined but rich and expressive chromatic harmonic language, block harmonies, alternating with more polyphonic passages and revealing a renaissance-like, ethereal quality. Locus iste, perhaps the most straightforward of the settings, reflects an almost Mozartian elegance and form, whilst Afferentur regi, also in the simpler four parts, has the added colour of three trombones punctuating the text. Ecce sacerdos is aptly more grand, and requires both brass and organ to create its dramatic effect, though contrasted with typical softer utterances by the choir in block chords.
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Joseph Jongen - Mass Op 130
Joseph Jongen was born in Liege in 1873, and became the leading Belgian composer in the first half of the 20th century. He travelled widely in student years and beyond, and he and his family came to England as refugees during the First World War. In 1920, he became a professor at the Brussels Conservatoire, later becoming Director until his retirement in 1939.

His Messe en l’honneur du Saint-Sacrement, Op 130, is a late work, written in 1945 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the inception of the Festival of Corpus Christi. The result was a striking work, with poignant and expressive harmonies, that is very approachable by mixed voiced choirs, and with short solos that can be taken by members of the choir. It was to a large extent forgotten for 40 years, but now, happily restored to its rightful place, the work has been performed widely in recent years throughout the world.

“one of the most beautiful and accessible pieces of 20th century choral music I know”  John W. Ehrlich, Music Director, Spectrum Singers, Cambridge, MA.

“Jongen’s Mass is a deeply impressive work. Moments of magisterial grandeur, captivating tints of impressionistic colour, masterly handling of the instrumental resources and beautifully paced choral writing elevate it to one of the best Mass settings from the mid-20th century.” Gramophone (January 2007)
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G.F.Handel - Messiah
The love affair that British classical music audiences have with this oratorio is quite phenomenal. Since its Dublin premiere in 1742, it has been performed by choirs across the land every year since at least 1745.

Handel composed his most famous piece in 1741, and continued to work on it after its initial performan ce, finally arriving at the version we know today in 1754. Impressive solo arias, like ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ and ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion’ are interspersed with compelling chorus numbers, telling the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and final victory over sin and death.

During Victorian times, there was a phase when Messiah was performed by ever expanding musical forces – there almost seemed to be a competition to see just how big a chorus and orchestra could be crammed onto one stage before they fell through. Earlier, Mozart even got in on the act, with his own arrangement of Messiah, which was not, it has to be said, to everyone’s taste. One critic remarked that it ‘resembles elegant stucco work upon an old marble temple ... easily ... chipped off again by the weather’.

Hallelujah Chorus
The rousing ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus is one of the most famous pieces of Baroque choral music, and by far the most widely-known section of the work. Audiences tend to stand during performances – a tradition that allegedly began when King George II stood up during the chorus at the oratorio’s debut London performance.

The forgotten man behind the success of Messiah is the librettist, Charles Jennens, who adapted the words of the King James Bible, which Handel set to music. Handel’s approach to setting the text is, at times, amusing – in the chorus ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’, the mood changes in the middle of the sentence, resulting in a rousing choir declaring their fondness for the wooly animal. Joking aside, Handel’s ability to capture the mood – from passionate rage to serene pastoral moments – is what makes this one of the most enduring choral works of all time.
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Requiem Mass
Baptised as Johannes Chrystostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus, Mozart (1756–1791) was arguably the most gifted musician in the history of classical music. His inspiration is often described as ‘divine’, but he worked assiduously, not only to become the great composer he was, but also a conductor, virtuoso pianist, organist and violinist. Mozart’s music embraces opera, symphony, concerto, chamber, choral, instrumental and vocal music, revealing an astonishing number of imperishable masterpieces.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, in 1756. Mozart’s father, Leopold, was an ambitious composer and violinist. Though he was and still is considered a genius, he was also said to be tactless, arrogant and apparently had a scatological sense of humour.

Mozart composed his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus when he was only 11. A year later the Emperor Joseph II commissioned him to write La finta semplice.

In August 1782 he married Constanze Weber. The Mozarts’ marriage seemed to be a happy one. Constanze was easy-going, free-spending and usually pregnant, though only two of their six children survived. Post-marriage, some of Mozart’s best started to appear - the Haffner and Linz symphonies and five string quartets, for example.

Between 1784 and 1786, he composed nine piano concertos and three of these concurrently with The Marriage of Figaro. The year 1787 saw the premiere of Mozart’s second opera, Don Giovanni.

Mozart had a great run of successes in his final years - Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the Clarinet Quintet in A, three of his 41 symphonies; Cosí fan Tutte, three piano trios, the Coronation piano concerto, two piano sonatas and three string quartets.

However, by 1790 his health had begun to fail and his work rate slowed. He did regain sufficient energy by the following year to compose his most famous opera, ’The Magic Flute’, the Clarinet Concerto, and of course parts of his most celebrated Choral work, the Requiem, but he died, before completing the work, in Vienna in December 1791, before his 36th birthday.
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Antoni Vivaldi - Gloria
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was an Italian Baroque composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher and cleric. Born in Venice, he is recognized as one of the greatest Baroque composers, and his influence during his lifetime was widespread across Europe.

He is known mainly for composing many instrumental concertos, for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. His best-known work is a series of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons.

Many of his compositions were written for the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pieta, a home for abandoned children where Vivaldi (ordained as a Catholic priest) was employed for over 30 years.The wonderfully sunny nature of the Gloria, with its distinctive melodies and rhythms, is characteristic of all of Vivaldi’s music, giving it an immediate and universal appeal. The opening movement is a joyous chorus, with trumpet and oboe obligato.The Et in terra pax, in B minor, is a real contrast, imitative and expressive chromatic texture evoking the motets of the Renaissance era. Laudamus te, a spirited duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano, gives us some hint of the skill of Vivaldi’s young singers.After two short, contrasting choral interpolations, the Domine Deus, Rex coelestis is in the form of dialogue between the soprano and solo oboe.

The joyful Domine Fili unigenite chorus is in the ‘French style’, dominated as it is by the dotted rhythms characteristic of a French overture. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei features the alto soloist, the chorus providing an antiphonal response, qui tollis peccata mundi, to each intercession.The bold harmonies of the following section, Qui tollis, provide a change of tone colour, and complement the intercessional alto aria, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris.

The string accompaniment contains recollections of the opening movement, and prepares for the following movement, Quoniam tu solus sanctus, which takes the shape of a brief reprise of the opening movement’s broken octaves. The powerful older-style double fugue on Cum Sancto Spiritu ends the work in uplifting fashion.
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(Franz) Joseph Haydn - Nelson Mass - The Heavens are telling...
(Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732 -1809) was a prominent and prolific Austrian composer of the Classical period. He was instrumental in the development of chamber music such as the piano trio and his contributions to musical form have earned him the epithets “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet”. Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family at their remote estate. Until the later part of his life, this isolated him from other composers and trends in music so that he was, as he put it, “forced to become original”.

At the time of his death, aged 77, he was one of the most celebrated composers in Europe. Part of his duties was to write a new mass each year for the name-day of Princess Esterhazy. In 1798, Napoleon’s forces were amassing, threatening the stability of the whole of Europe, with Vienna itself in trepidation for what seemed a likely invasion. Haydn’s Mass for this year was titled Missa in Angustiis (’mass for times of distress’), This title was only superceded later after Nelson’s stunning victories in the Battle of the Nile, and, later the Battle of Trafalgar, brought him international fame. The mass was performed in his honour during a trip to visit Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt, and the soubriquet was added some time after this date.

One might expect a Mass for such troubled times to be dark, and there are undoubtedly moments of brooding and dramatic intensity. However, the bold gestures of the opening Kyrie in D minor give way to joyous movements and a jubilant finale. The orchestra does not include woodwind, and the use of trumpets and timpani in the accompaniment creates a military feel (which perhaps also contributed to the work’s eventual name). The mass is also notable for the ‘fireworks’ demanded of the soprano soloist, in the central part of the Kyrie, through the glittering Gloria and beyond. But whilst most contemporary mass settings make a clear distinction between arias and choral sections, the solos and ensemble passages in the Nelson Mass generally remain closely integrated with the chorus.

The Qui tollis section of the Gloria starts surprisingly in Bb major, where the bass is accompanied by some lovely scoring for the strings and organ. The soprano returns us to D major, leading the chorus in Quoniam tu solus sanctus and the Gloria ends with a choral fugue. An arresting opening to the Credo has the sopranos and tenors competing in canon with the altos and basses to the sound of fanfaring trumpets. Et incarnatus begins with a gorgeous aria for the soprano soloist, before this emotional centre of the piece is taken up by the chorus who then lead a glorious D major Et resurrexit to finish the section.

After a penitential Sanctus and sprightly Osanna, the Benedictus is a world apart from the calm, prayerful setting usual for this period. Haydn’s setting begins with a stormy orchestral introduction, moves through a series of exchanges between soloists and chorus, and culminates in a strikingly dramatic passage, almost foreboding in intensity. Then the soloists take centre stage in the altogether calmer Agnus Dei whilst the chorus returns triumphantly for the work’s joyous finale.
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Franz Peter Schubert - Mass in Eflat Major
Franz Peter Schubert (31st January 1797 - 19th November 1828) was an Austrian composer of the late Classical and early Romantic eras.Despite his short lifetime, Schubert left behind a vast oeuvre, including more than 600 secular vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of piano and chamber music.Amongst his best-known works are the Symphony no. 8 in B minor (The ‘Unfinished Symphony’), the incidental music to the play ‘Rosamunde’, the ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet, the String Quintet in C major, the last three piano sonatas, and the Song cycles ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ and ‘Winterreise’.

Born to immigrant parents in Vienna, Schubert’s uncommon gifts for music were evident from an early age. His father gave him his first violin lessons and his older brother gave him piano lessons, but Schubert soon exceeded their abilities. In 1808, at the age of eleven, he became a pupil at the Stadtkonvikt school, where he became acquainted with the orchestral music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

He left the Stadtkonvikt at the end of 1813, and returned home to live with his father, where he began studying to become a schoolteacher; despite this, he continued his studies in composition with Antonio Salieri and still composed prolifically. In 1821, Schubert was granted admission to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as a performing member, which helped establish his name among the Viennese citizenry.

During the following 7 years, despite failing health and a lack of real critical acclaim and success, perhaps in part due to his shy and retiring personality, he continued to produce a phenomenal amount of work, including his greatest works in all genres. It is poignant that only in his last year did he give his first and only concert of his own works, to much acclaim, for he died at the young age of 31, without the widespread recognition as an undoubted musical genius which followed soon after his death, and which stands the test of time today.

His Mass in E flat was intended for concert, not liturgical use, and hence Schubert had no qualms in omitting occasional passages of text in the longer movements. It shows the composer’s lyricism and a Beethovenian architecture, rather appropriate as it was first performed in the church in Vienna where Schubert had served as a pallbearer for the other great composer’s funeral.

The Kyrie, in 3/4 time, sets the calm, lyrical mood of the mass, orchestra in dialogue with the chorus over a brooding ostinato in the bass.The Gloria begins with a jubilant exclamation, then explores themes of blessings, praise, and grace, finally exploding into the triumphant fugue of Cum sancto spiritu.The Credo begins with a quiet timpani roll, setting the tone for a reverent expression of faith, before a more vigorous affirmation.

Solo voices give beautiful lyrical substance to the et incarnatus est, before an intense chordal treatment of the crucifixus by the choir. Opening ideas in this movement return for the et resurrexit, the Credo ending with a fugue, et vitam venturi, mirroring the structure of the Gloria, rounding things off with a joyous affirmation of the life to come.

The Sanctus choral exclamations show expansive harmonic progression, followed by lively Osannas, whilst the Benedictus floats forward with uplifting prayers between choir and soloists.The Agnus Dei demonstrates a certain dark turbulence in its use of constricted intervals and minor keys, before the Dona nobis section brings us back more happily to the major key and less complicated harmonies, and, despite an unexpected return to that opening darkness, peacefulness is finally established.
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Felix Mendelssohn - String Symphony
Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a childhood prodigy, and a prolific composer from his teens onwards. As an adolescent, his works were often performed at home with a private orchestra for associates of his wealthy parents amongst the intellectual elite of Berlin. Amongst these were a series of 12 String Symphonies, or ‘Sinfonias’, buoyant and lively works written between the ages of 12 and 14. The E flat Sinfonia has the typical 3- movement form, the Minuet movement unusually incorporating two contrasting Trios.
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Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Sea Symphony - Five Mystical Songs
After the death of Purcell in 1695, very few English composers made a mark on the world stage until later in the 19th century. Eventually the tireless efforts of Charles Stanford, Hubert Parry and others brought about the long-awaited English musical renaissance, which reached its full flowering with the emergence of Edward Elgar. He was followed by a whole new generation of talented composers, the leading figure of which was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who for half a century remained one of the most influential figures in English music.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the work of the American poet Walt Whitman seemed to many to capture the essence of the new age, portraying an optimistic vision of a world inspired by human and scientific endeavour and the spirit of adventure. The radical, humanistic philosophy of Whitman’s verse held a particular appeal for Vaughan Williams. Having set some songs to Whitman texts he began to think about writing something on an altogether larger scale. Two years after Toward the Unknown Region in 1907, he completed A Sea Symphony, the great choral and orchestral work which, more than any other, put Vaughan Williams firmly on the musical map when it was first performed in October 1910 (only a few weeks after his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis).

A choral work was an ambitious choice for a first symphony, but Vaughan Williams proved more than equal to the challenging task. British choral music had enjoyed a long and distinguished tradition, from Purcell and Handel through to Stanford, Parry and Elgar, but the striking originality of the Sea Symphony, the masterly handling of the orchestral and choral forces, its boldness, energy and vivid orchestration, set it apart as a wholly new and important addition to the choral repertoire. As well as hailing the arrival of a new and powerful voice in English music, Vaughan Williams had succeeded in creating a definitive musical style drawn from genuinely English roots, rather than continuing, as his immediate predecessors had chosen to do, in the Austro-German tradition that had dominated European music since Beethoven’s time.

The composer selected verses from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for the first three movements and from his Passage to India for the last. Whitman uses images of brave sailors exploring the vast oceans as a colourful metaphor for the voyage through life of the human soul.
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Johann Sebastian Bach - St Matthew Passion
Bach - One of the greatest composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach came from a family of musicians, stretching back several generations. He was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany, on March 31, 1685, where his father, Johann Ambrosius, worked as the town musician, and taught the young Johann to play the violin. At the age of 7, Bach went to school where he received religious instruction and studied Latin and other subjects.

His firm Lutheran faith would infuse all his religious musical works. After the death of both of his parents when he was just 10, he went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph, a church organist in Ohrdruf. Johann Christoph provided further musical instruction for his younger brother and enrolled him in a local school. Bach had a beautiful soprano singing voice, which helped him secure a place at a school in Lüneburg at the age of 15.

Sometime after his arrival, his voice broke and Bach concentrated more on playing the violin and the harpsichord, under the influence of the fine local organist, Georg Böhm. In 1703, he took up his first job as a musician, playing the violin and deputising as an organist at the court of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar.As Bach’s reputation as a performer grew, it was his great technical skill that earned him the position of organist at the New Church in Arnstadt. He was responsible for providing music for religious services and special events as well as giving musical instruction.

An independent and sometimes arrogant young man, Bach did not always get along well with his students and church officials. He did not help his situation when he disappeared for several months in 1705, travelling to Lübeck on foot to hear the famed organist Dietrich Buxtehude, extending his stay there without informing the authorities back in Arnstadt. By 1707, Bach was glad to leave for a position as organist at the Church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen. This move, however, did not turn out as well as he had planned. Bach’s musical style, with its fondness for counterpoint and complexity, clashed with the church’s pastor who unfortunately believed that church music needed to be simple.

After a year in Mühlhausen, Bach took up the post of organist at the court of the Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar. Here he wrote many church cantatas and some of his best compositions for the organ, including the famous “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” one of his most popular pieces.

In 1717, and with his reputation burgeoning, Bach accepted a position with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The Prince, a violinist himself, had a passion for music, and whilst in his employ, Bach devoted much of his time to instrumental music, composing concertos for orchestras, dance suites and sonatas for multiple instruments. He also wrote pieces for solo instruments, including some of his finest works for violin and cello. In tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg, in 1721 Bach created a series of orchestral concertos, the “Brandenburg Concertos,” considered to be some of Bach’s greatest works. That same year, Prince Leopold got married, and his new bride discouraged the prince’s interest in music, resulting in the dissolving of the court orchestra in 1723. Bach naturally sought a new position, and in 1723 became the new Cantor at St. Thomas’s School and Church in Leipzig, where he would remain for the rest of his life. With new music needed for services each week, Bach resumed writing cantatas.

The “Christmas Oratorio,” for example, is a series of six cantatas that reflect on that Festival. He also continued to write organ and instrumental works, but it was also this stage in his life which saw the composition of the great choral works, the B minor Mass and the “Passions”, musical settings of the bible stories dealing with Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The most monumental of these settings is the “Matthew Passion”, performed then, as now, in the lead-up to Easter.

This extended musical interpretation uses recitatives and choruses to tell the story, the Evangelist linking the narrative material in the recitative sections, with important solo sections for Jesus, his words accompanied by a halo of strings. There are also parts in the recitative for Judas, Pilate, Peter, the High Priest, and two maids. Within the narrative are interpolated accompanied recitatives and arias which comment directly or reflect on the story and its implications for the listener.

Lutheran chorales also punctuate the drama, these serving two functions. As they were the hymns of the day, they allowed the audience a break from the dramatic intensity of the story, with familiar tunes with which they could readily identify, and indeed join in. In their increasingly expressive, even anguished harmonic arrangements, the chorales simultaneously allowed an emotional and spiritual response to the unfolding drama. All the musical elements are moulded into an impressive and unified structure, which in full lasts over 3 ½ hours, though this evening’s performance will be to some extent curtailed, as is customary.

This phenomenal work was first performed at St Thomas’s Church as part of a service on Good Friday, 1729. Whilst his work was often ignored after Bach’s death in 1750, it was a performance of this very piece, 100 years later, by Felix Mendelssohn, that helped reinvigorate his music, and propel his reputation to the forefront of the performing canon. It has been a mainstay of the choral repertoire since that time.

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Felix Mendelssohn - St Paul
Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy and cultured Berlin family. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a renowned philosopher and his father, Abraham, was a highly successful banker. After Felix became famous Abraham would sometimes joke, ‘I used to be known as the son of my father; now I am known as the father of my son!’

 Felix was a precociously gifted child, so much so that the finest musicians of the day hailed him as a second Mozart. This comparison was by no means without foundation; by the time he had reached his mid-teens Mendelssohn had composed a large number of mature works, including twelve string symphonies and his first symphony for full orchestra, written when he was only fifteen. He was sixteen when he wrote the String Octet, and the wonderful overture A Midsummer Night’s Dreamfollowed a year later. Mendelssohn’s extraordinary gifts were not confined to composition; he went on to become a brilliant pianist and organist, a fine string player and an inspirational conductor. He was also a very good artist and was widely read.

Yet another dimension to Mendelssohn’s glittering career was his far-reaching influence as an organiser and administrator. As a result of his tireless efforts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Leipzig Conservatory, which he founded in 1843, he raised performance standards to new heights and created many opportunities for contemporary composers and performers. He made a major contribution to the revival of interest in Bach’s music, which at that time was virtually unknown to the general public. In 1829, when he was still only twenty, he conducted the first public performance of the St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s death, an event which, probably more than any other, provided the impetus for the 19th century rediscovery of Bach. He was also a great admirer of the music of Handel and Haydn, whose oratorios he conducted in Leipzig.
Mendelssohn visited England many times, where he was received with adulation, feted by the press, and became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

In 1831 Mendelssohn was commissioned by Johann Schelble, conductor of the Cecilia Choir and Orchestra of Frankfurt, to compose an oratorio. Mendelssohn knew his Bible extremely well and invariably turned to it for inspiration when considering a new choral piece. It has been suggested that he chose the life of St Paul as a subject for his first oratorio because, like St Paul, the members of his own family were converted Jews, but this idea seems far too simplistic for a man of Mendelssohn’s considerable intellect. A much more likely reason is quite simply that it offered tremendous dramatic possibilities.

Mendelssohn began work on the oratorio in March 1834. The libretto was compiled by Pastor Julius Schubring, a childhood friend whose help he regularly enlisted. When the opportunity arose, Mendelssohn was in the habit of playing his latest composition to his father Abraham, whose opinion he held in great esteem. Following Felix’s visit to the family home in March 1835, his father had written a lengthy critique of the new oratorio, to which Mendelssohn responded, ‘I am at a loss to understand how you, with no technical training in music, can have such acute musical judgement’. Evidently Abraham had unerringly identified weaknesses in St Paul that the composer himself had overlooked. And so, when Abraham died suddenly in November 1835, the oratorio assumed an added significance, becoming Mendelssohn’s musical tribute to his revered father.  The first performance on May 22nd 1836 took place not at Frankfurt as intended, since Schelble was seriously ill, but at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Düsseldorf.

Its first performance in England was given in Liverpool in October 1836, and the following year Mendelssohn himself conducted it at the Birmingham Festival, to enthusiastic acclaim. He enjoyed an even greater triumph ten years later, when Elijah received its first performance at the same Festival.

Given Mendelssohn’s high regard for the choral masterpieces of Bach, Handel and Haydn, it is no surprise to find that St Paulis modelled on similar lines, with an integrated scheme of recitatives, arias and choruses. His use of chorales to demarcate important points in the story and to reflect on the action is clearly influenced by the Passion music of Bach. One of Bach’s favourite chorales, ‘Wachet auf’ (Sleepers, wake), is heard at the very beginning of the overture and later on in the chorus. Handel’s influence is also evident in the dramatic use of the chorus, which at times is central to the action, as for instance when the outraged mob calls for Paul to be killed, whilst at other times it provides appropriate commentary on the unfolding events. Of course, the work is full of Mendelssohn’s own innovations, the most striking of which is his use of a four-part chorus of women’s voices – used only once in the whole piece – to represent the voice from heaven, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’.
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Antonin Leopold Dvorák - Stabat Mater
Antonín Leopold Dvorák (1841-1904) was the first Bohemian composer to achieve worldwide recognition, noted for turning folk material into the language of 19th-century Romantic music.
Dvorák was born, the first of nine children, in Nelahozeves, a Bohemian (now Czech) village on the Vltava River north of Prague. He came to know music early, in and about his father’s inn, and became an accomplished violinist as a youngster, contributing to the amateur music-making that accompanied the dances of the local couples.

His obvious talent led to him to move to Zlonice at 12, there to live with his aunt and uncle and begin studying harmony, piano, and organ. He wrote his earliest works, polkas, during the three years he spent in Zlonice. In 1857 a perceptive music teacher persuaded his father to enroll him at the Institute for Church Music in Prague. There Dvorák completed a two-year course and played the viola in various inns and with theatre bands, augmenting his small salary with a few private pupils.

Whilst the 1860s were trying years for Dvorák, hard-pressed for both time and the means, even paper and a piano, to compose, he nevertheless wrote two symphonies, an opera, chamber music, and numerous songs. They lay unheard in his desk, but showed a development in style, earlier echoes of Beethoven and Schubert becoming increasingly tinged with the influence of Wagner and Liszt. Among the students Dvorák tutored at this time were the sisters Josefina and Anna Èermáková. Though he fell in love with the elder sister, she did not reciprocate his feelings, and in 1873 he actually married Anna, a pianist and singer. The first few years of the Dvoøáks’ marriage were marked by tragedy. Anna had given birth to three children by 1876 but by 1877 had buried all of them.

In 1878, however, she gave birth to the first of the six healthy children the couple would raise together. The Dvoráks maintained a close relationship with Josefina and her husband, Count Václav Kounic, buying a summer house in the small village where they had settled, and spending every summer there, a place where Dvorák composed some of his best-known works.

In 1875 Dvorák was awarded a state grant by the Austrian government, and this award brought him into contact with Johannes Brahms, with whom he formed a close and fruitful friendship. Brahms not only gave him valuable technical advice but also found him an influential publisher in Fritz Simrock, and it was the publication of the Moravian Duets (1876) for soprano and contralto and the Slavonic Dances (1878) for piano duet that Dvorák first attracted worldwide attention to himself and his country’s music. His spreading fame abroad led to greater success and security at home.

He began to travel more widely, and in 1884 made the first of 10 visits to England, where the success of, especially, his choral works, was a source of constant pride to him, the Stabat Mater (1877) and Te Deum (1892) continuing to hold a prime position in the repertoire. After successful trips to Russia, Dvorák accepted the post of director of the newly established National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892. Though he found much to interest and stimulate him in the New World, he soon came to miss his own country, and he returned to Bohemia in 1895. The final years of his life saw the composition of several string quartets and symphonic poems and his last three operas, and he died in 1904 in Prague, something of a national hero.

Dvorák’s setting of Jacopone da Todi’s 13th century poem Stabat Mater comes from a place of great personal tragedy, yet expresses tremendous hope. In 1875 Dvorák’s oldest daughter died only days after her birth. The grieving Dvorák turned to the ancient text of the Stabat Mater, which describes Mary’s grief at the death of her son. He completed an outline of the work but found it too painful and could not finish any of the movements. Two years later, his second daughter died when she drank from a bottle of phosphorus used to make matches. Shortly after, his first-born son died of smallpox.

The 36-year old composer returned to the Stabat Mater sketches and completed the work within a month. It is one of the towering monuments of choral music, the longest and most serious setting of the Stabat Mater text. Although conceived and written on a massive scale, Dvorák’s setting is very personal, focusing almost exclusively on the act of grieving as a path to the comfort of paradise.

A highly structural work, the most profound music in the Stabat Mater is in the first and last movements: both are lengthy and are the only movements to use all four soloists, choir and orchestra. They are also the only movements in triple meter. They share thematic material, which builds to tragedy in the opening movement and yields to transcendence in the final movement. The second and next-to-last movements are written for soloists and orchestra only, with no choir. The third and seventh are for chorus and orchestra only with no soloists. The fourth and sixth are for soloists accompanied by half the choir (women in movement four and men in movement six). The fifth movement, which forms the keystone of the arch, is for choir and orchestra with no soloists, and is the only movement in a compound meter, synthesizing the triple meter of the outer movements and the duple meter of the middle movements into 6/8 time.

Dvorák’s great gift as a musician is his ability to write beautiful, lyrical, melodies. And they abound in the Stabat Mater, yet the whole has a unity of purpose illustrated by almost every movement ending in a coda, as it were of resolution. None is more telling than the last movement where, without orchestra, the choir breaks out unaccompanied into an amazing hymn of praise: “When my body dies, grant that to my soul be given the glory of paradise,” before the quiet ending which tells us that the journey is over and suggests that Dvorák believes his children are in a better place. It is one of the most powerful declarations of faith in the history of music.
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Guiseppe Verdi - Requiem
Guiseppe Verdi 1813 - 1903 - Born in Parma of a poor and illiterate family, Verdi showed early musical promise. At 18 years of age he studied with a musician from La Scala, Milan.
On the death of his wife and two children he vowed to compose no more, but on receiving a libretto from the director of La Scala of Nebuchadnezzar, his genius flowered. He married a singer from the opera house and became internationally famous. Rigoletto, Il Travatore and La Traviata were produced in the 1850s.

On Rossini’s death in 1867 Verdi suggested that he and others would write a requiem, but the project fell through. In 1873 Manzoni died, Verdi was moved, holding Manzoni in high esteem, and suggested to the Mayor and Council of Milan that he compose and publish, at his own expense, a requiem. Much of the Rossini requiem sketches was incorporated in this work; sponsored by Milan’s Civic authorities the work was performed on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Later, three performances at La Scala were followed by presentations in Paris, London and Vienna.

Some years before his death, Manznmi had given Verdi a photograph inscribed “To Guiseppe Verdi, a glory of Italy”. Verdi, for his part, said of Manzoni’s poem
“I Promesi Sposi” - ’It is a consolation for humanity”.
Surely the same could be said of the Requiem.
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John Rutter CBE - Composer (Patron of our choir)
John Rutter was born in London in 1945 and received his first musical education as a chorister at Highgate School. He went on to study music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he wrote his first published compositions and conducted his first recording while still a student.

His compositional career has embraced both large and small-scale choral works, orchestral and instrumental pieces, a piano concerto, two children’s operas, music for television, and specialist writing for such groups as the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the King’s Singers.
His larger choral works, Gloria (1974), Requiem (1985), Magnificat (1990), Psalmfest (1993) and Mass of the Children (2003) have been performed many times in Britain, North America, and a growing number of other countries.He co-edited four volumes in the Carols for Choirs series with Sir David Willcocks, and, more recently, has edited the first two volumes in the new Oxford Choral Classics series, Opera Choruses (1995) and European Sacred Music (1996).

From 1975 to 1979 he was Director of Music at Clare College, whose choir he directed in a number of broadcasts and recordings. After giving up the Clare post to allow more time for composition, he formed the Cambridge Singers as a professional chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording, and he now divides his time between composition and conducting.
He has guest-conducted or lectured at many concert halls, universities, churches, music festivals, and conferences in Europe, Africa, North and Central America and Australasia.

In 1980 he was made an honorary Fellow of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, and in 1988 a Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians. In 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred a Lambeth Doctorate of Music upon him in recognition of his contribution to church music.
He was honoured in the 2007 Queen’s New Year Honours List, being awarded a CBE for services to music.
(WDCS - John visited Wombourne Choral Society in 2009 and conducted the weekly rehearsal.)
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Benjamin Britten - The Evening Primrose
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten OM CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor and pianist. He was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, with a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962) and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1945).

Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the son of a dentist, Britten showed talent from an early age. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London and privately with the composer Frank Bridge. Britten first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy was Born in 1934. With the premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to international fame. Over the next 28 years, he wrote 14 more operas, establishing himself as one of the leading 20th-century composers in the genre. In addition to large-scale operas for Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden, he wrote "chamber operas" for small forces, suitable for performance in venues of modest size. Among the best known of these is The Turn of the Screw (1954). Recurring themes in his operas include the struggle of an outsider against a hostile society and the corruption of innocence.

Britten's other works range from orchestral to choral, solo vocal, chamber and instrumental as well as film music. He took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, including the opera Noye's Fludde, a Missa Brevis, and the song collection Friday Afternoons. He often composed with particular performers in mind. His most frequent and important muse was his personal and professional partner, the tenor Peter Pears; others included Kathleen Ferrier, Jennifer Vyvyan, Janet Baker, Dennis Brain, Julian Bream, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten was a celebrated pianist and conductor, performing many of his own works in concert and on record. He also performed and recorded works by others, such as Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart symphonies, and song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.

Together with Pears and the librettist and producer Eric Crozier, Britten founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and he was responsible for the creation of Snape Maltings concert hall in 1967. In his last year, he was the first composer to be given a life peerage.
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Gabriel Fauré - Requiem
Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1945 - 1924) was a French composer, organist, pianist and teacher. He was one of the foremost French composers of his generation, and his musical style influenced many 20th-century composers. Among his best-known works are his Pavane, Requiem, Sicilienne, nocturnes for piano and the songs “Après un rêve” and “Clair de lune”. Although his best-known and most accessible compositions are generally his earlier ones, Fauré composed many of his most highly regarded works in his later years, in a more harmonically and melodically complex style.

Fauré was born into a cultured but not especially musical family. At the age of nine, he was sent to the Ecole Niedermeyer music college in Paris, where he was trained to be a church organist and choirmaster. The Ecole Neidermeyer’s pedagogy differed greatly from that of the Paris Conservatoire. Among his teachers was Camille Saint-Saëns, who became a lifelong friend. When he became successful in his middle age, holding the important posts of organist of the Église de la Madeleine and director of the Paris Conservatoire, he still lacked time for composing; he retreated to the countryside in the summer holidays to concentrate on composition.

By his last years, Fauré was recognised in France as the leading French composer of his day. An unprecedented national musical tribute was held for him in Paris in 1922, headed by the president of the French Republic.
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