(Easter, a revised broadcast from 2012)
Is it wrong, Lord, to ask you to spare all
Is it wrong, Lord, to ask you to spare all
Such a night as this, in Gethsemane,
Or let them never taste the cup of gall?
Lost in despair, they pass from company
And earn judgement of even their last hours
By those whom they leave, or worse in our eyes,
Perish alone and unremarked, though flowers
Or brief-blooming innocence fall or rise.
In our hearts we know more than we admit
Of how we have travelled to where we are;
And yet, still less than yours can our spirit
Bear what comes of all thought familiar.
Our journey leads to a shrine raised to chance
Outgloried by true cures in acceptance.
(Copyright Mike Burrows 3/4/2012)
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. Today’s programme is a celebration of Easter. We had hoped to bring you a new anthology, but sadly, Rupert Kirkham, who usually presents Classical Break, is unable to be here in the studio. Our thoughts and best wishes are with him. Spring Pilgrimage culminates in the observance of Easter: something of the feelings on setting out is evoked in Allan Gray’s music for the Powell and Pressburger film, A Canterbury Tale, the story of a latterday pilgrimage to Canterbury made at the height of the Second World War by two soldiers, one British, one from Oregon, and a land-girl, all seeking some rite of spiritual healing. Here, one has the Canterbury peal, the traditional pilgrim’s hymn, Angelus ad Virginem, and a reading from the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, read by Esmonde Knight.
A Canterbury Tale, Prelude, Gray
As for me, it is one thing to write for Classical Break, but quite another to voice it; so here is an edited version of last year’s Easter programme, spoken by Rupert.
Track One: Kod Bethlehema, Trad
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme is a celebration of Easter. You have just heard Kod Bethlehema, a song of pilgrims to Bethlehem, a Christmas song, but not the less apt for that. Easter is a time of rebirth after a time of fasting and other observances of atonement, including pilgrimage. Spring is here: the very derivation of the word Easter has to do with Spring, rather than Christ - Eostre or Eastre was the Saxon or German goddess of fertility. At Easter, we give chocolate eggs and hares and perhaps rich, spicy fruit-cakes when we do because the Christian Church seized unto itself symbols of procreation and an important religious festival,thus superimposing the sufferings and death of Christ, and His rising again from the dead on the tremendous mood-swing of renewal represented by this season of the year. Those who fasted and sought forgiveness for their sins through Lenten self-punishment and the turning away of the mind from distractions of the flesh, found Easter Day at last.
Easter is a time of rebirth after fasting and other observances of atonement, including pilgrimage. Spring is here: the very derivation of the word Easter has to do with Spring, rather than Christ - Eostre or Eastre was the Saxon or German goddess of fertility. At Easter, we give chocolate eggs and hares and perhaps rich, spicy fruit-cakes when we do because the Christian Church seized unto itself symbols of procreation and an important religious festival, thus superimposing the sufferings and death of Christ, and His rising again from the dead on the tremendous mood-swing of renewal represented by this season of the year. Those who fasted and sought forgiveness for their sins through Lenten self-punishment and the turning away of the mind from distractions of the flesh, found Easter Day at last.
In the years of Jesus’ ministry in Palestine, Jerusalem was the gig for any travelling preacher. Christ prepared himself for it just as any pilgrim was to do. Then, what happened was going to happen. His arrival in the City on a donkey was greeted by a greater or lesser showing of popular support, but by the time of his arrest, he must have seemed a danger to smooth governance by King, Priests, merchants, the financial services-sector, if not the occupying power.
Ride On Ride On In Majesty is a favoured Victorian hymn for Palm Sunday, with words by HH Milman and a tune, Winchester New, adapted from a chorale from a Lutheran Handbuch of 1690.
Track Two: Ride On Ride On In Majesty
This is Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme is one of music that evokes Easter. It is not always the case that a nationalist-supported figure who stirs up trouble in an unhappy province is unpopular with Empire, if he divides satisfactorily the religious, cultural and political forces that pose a threat to the continued, lucrative occupation of his country. By the time of his condemnation, the crowd, given a choice of pardoning Christ or a known bandit and murderer preferred to see released the bandit and murderer. This must have been a defining moment in itself. Perhaps Barabbas was simply someone who - in the eyes of ordinary people - would make life the more interesting for the Romans and ruling classes of Judah. Wielding argument - and once, a whip - Christ had offended the rich, powerful and corrupt of his own land, but not defeated neither them - nor the Romans.
Let’s remind ourselves of the nature of God, The Son. If Psalm 23, The Lord Is My Shepherd - often associated with Christ and Easter - has been set by many composers. John Blow (1649-1708), was one of the first intake of choir boys at the Chapel Royal after the Restoration. So began a largely successful career that culminated in the position of organist at Westminster Abbey, at St Pauls and again at Westminster Abbey after the death of the younger man who had replaced him there, Purcell. After a brief introductory passage, a theme in triple time that Blow re-employed in chamber music is played through repeatedly on the accompanying instruments, two violins, viola, bass violin, theorbo (a kind of lute) and organ. Alto, Tenor, Bass and Bass voices sing the first verse, Soprano, alto, tenor, Bass and the second, the full choir entering for the latter stages: the piece has the feel of a passacaglia or chacony, the ‘spirit’ of the chief melodic idea always present, variations taking place in voice and instrumentation, involving the opening idea in addition. It is a lovely piece, courtly in sound, but full of clever touches in layout, to ensure that even the organ, functioning as a supernumery bass, is noticed for its own sake as much for its sustaining tone. Apparently, Charles The Second approved of the minuet-rhythm in this and other anthems of the time: not only for its lively associations, but because he could beat time to it. To my ears, it harks back to the days of La Folia, a one-time favourite for instrumental treatments in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The spare counterpoint is undoubtedly due to a fashion for block chord harmonizing in contrast to the older polyphonic tendency in church music - perhaps Charles the Second preferred this simpler approach, too.
Track Three: 23rd Psalm, John Blow
Easter is a time when man craves forgiveness and seeks to express gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice. To be brought face to face with the sufferings and death of the Shepherd and appointer of Fishers of Men is a personal thing; to be worthy is an impossibility; to be a doubter is to suffer in turn, and all men have done enough evil in their lives to be a doubter of both self and God’s capacity for forgiveness.
A piece that seems to go to the heart of spiritual boldness and helpless suffering is The Dream of Gerontius, which sets passages from a poem by Cardinal Newman. It tells of a soul’s passage from deathbed to purgatory. The word Gerontius is from Latinized Ancient Greek and means literally, Old Man. No end of a sinner brought to book, was Elgar’s own view. As in no previous British Oratorio, the orchestra sings, prays, agonises, praises along with the choir and a sub-chorus - another innovation. The style is operatic, the melodic lines, harmonies and tonal relations would in 1900 have seemed those of a Wagner or Verdi. Arias, conversations in recitative, leading motives standing for Sickness, Death, Judgement and various aspects of doubt, love, fear and forgiveness, grip the listener and compel him to suspend his disbelief. The sheer force of a vision, of every thought, musical or poetic, strikes home in a manner that grips one from beginning to end, on a journey into eternity.
Let’s hear the prayer of the dying man, a mixed firm credo and appeal for strength to face death and judgement that are certain. Sanctus Fortis: “Strong Spirit, Spirit of God, from the depths I pray to You, pity me, my Judge, spare me, Lord!”
Track Four: Sanctus Fortis from The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar
Elgar’s next Oratorio, The Apostles, is one of two that he completed on the theme of Christ’s ministry and the Acts of The Apostles. The second was called The Kingdom. He intended a third, The Judgement, but first, the strain of completing the first two and later, the First World War and death of his wife supervened. A few fragments survive of the third oratorio, some worked into the 3rd Symphony, lately completed by Anthony Payne. The first two are thus, a torso, but in themselves are glories of literary syncretism bringing together texts from both the new testament and apochrypha, Wagnerian leading-motives, diatonic and chromatic harmony that melds Franck and Strauss and a peculiar English quality perhaps owed to the much put-upon cathedral composer SS Wesley. There are crowd-scenes, arias, recitatives. Solo voices, large choirs and huge, Late Romantic orchestra - including a Hebrew shofar or ramshorn provide colours unique to Elgar and perhaps a little owing to a holiday-cruise in the Aegean. The Apostles and the Kingdom rank with his symphonies and concerti in imagination, resource and inspiration. Were they the work of a German other continental composer, It’s hard not to believe that they would be known to many abroad. As a tour de force, they are irresistible, but they contain some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring and touching music penned by even Elgar.
In the Scene of the Oratorio, Christ has been arrested and tried and the zealot who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot, has returned his payment for Christ’s betrayal, and been ejected from the Temple. Let’s hear his powerful bass-register soliloquy ending in suicide. Judas is a basso profundo part unusual in British oratorio. This is dark music, lost deep in night. It was a passage that terrified Elgar as he was writing it, and with good cause. His faith was uncertain and he had had to play down his Catholicism to gain national acceptance; there’s evidence that he identified greatly with Judas, and subscribed to the theological view, daring at the time, that Judas had betrayed Christ in order to compel his Master to make a show of His Divine Power. Certainly, Lady Alice had to ban the subject of suicide from the Elgar dining-table at this time; visitors were tactfully warned, conversation as tactfully steered away from it...
Track Five: The Apostles, Without the Temple, Elgar
We should not forget the proliferation of another Easter symbol - of the cross, woven from thatch-reeds or osier-twigs. The cross of four arms is almost latterday to two thousand years ago, when the Romans didn’t waste wood, but simply crossed the Tee. Then again, the cross is ‘The Tree’,and trees have always been objects of worship - many springing to green life and blossom at Eastertime, as crops were sown, troths plighted and babies made.
Now the movement, Golgotha, Scene 5 from Elgar’s The Apostles. One draws near the cross to muted strings: the image of the crucified Lord strikes the onlooker - Christ cries out in the heavy and sombre brass, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthami’, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ The chorus sings, Truly, He was the Son of God; Mary and St John - contralto and tenor, sing brokenly of their pain and despair at Christ’s suffering at the hands of His people. As in the Judas soliloquy, there is a Moussorgskian pungency to this music, in this case admitting some warmth in the love of Jesus’ Mother and favourite disciple, traditionally placed beside the cross in many examples of church-statuary - in Wells Cathedral for one prominent example - and paintings.
Track Six: Golgotha, from The Apostles, Elgar
The Ave Verum Corpus is a hymn dating back to Pope Innocent Vl, and has been set by thousands of composers, many of them unknown. It apostrophizes the body of Christ after the ordeal of the cross, and begs that the sight of it can console us in our last hour. We hear it in a setting for male voice choir by Gerald Hendrie (1936- ), for 21 years Professor of Music at the Open University. This was written for the Gentlemen of Ely Cathedral and employs bare fifths and fourths harmony and appoggiatura in an unaccompanied chant; its slow-moving or stilly uncanniness heightened by the tritone - diminished fifth or augmented fourth, a divisive interval known to the Mediaeval church as Diabolus in Musica, the Devil in Music, and later much-employed in all forms of Western music as a harmonic or tonal intensifier; its use here is perhaps the more disturbing for being quiet. Instead of expressing terror and pity in high-coloured tragedy, this piece might perhaps be compared with Shakespeare’s use in his later tragedies of a blank verse freed by monosyllables and enjambment at moments of great intensity: apparent simplicity conceals art and enshrines humankind’s truest, loneliest responses to life and death.
Track Seven: Ave Verum Corpus, Gerald Hendrie
We come to the end of our programme with...what? The Ascension is a month away. Christ rose again after three days to share life again with those who followed Him. SS Wesley’s grandfather Charles, brother of John, wrote some of the greatest hymns bequeathed us, often adapted from the works of first rate composers; Rejoice, The Lord Is King was sung every Easter at School assemblies as in church and never failed to move, thanks to its fine words, strong melody, striking fourth line to every quatrain, and earnest refrain. The tune, known now as Gopsal, was adapted from Handel. It was first published in Hymns for Our Lord’s Resurection in 1746. This is a hymn of joy and renewal and so ends this programme. Here it is performed in an arrangement complete with baroque descant and trumpet obbligato, by Paul Leddington Wright.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM. We hope you enjoyed our programme and will join us for further journeys in music. A happy Easter to you from all of us here!
Track Eight: Rejoice, The Lord Is King, Handel/Charles Wesley
© Mike Burrows 3/4/12