Program Notes By Dennis Keene

O Magnum Mysterium  - Tomás Luis de Victoria 1548-1611

Victoria was born in Spain, but spent the bulk of his career in Rome. This is probably his most famous work, and typical of many of his greatest motets: mystical, highly emotional, and evoking strong and changing moods. It also displays his genius at composing for the choral instrument - how he groups together different voice parts to combine an ever-changing orchestration of choral timbres.

Jesu Dulcis Memoria - Tomás Luis de Victoria 

Victoria composed several famous motets – such as Vere languores and O vos omnes – which are intensely devotional, and which feature strong emotions often brought out through harmonic tension. Remember, he composed at the height of the Catholic Counter-Reformation when the church was trying to re-capture the people through the direct, personal appeal of great art. This motet is the most concise of this genre.

O Quam Gloriosum  -  Tomás Luis de Victoria

This piece couldn’t be more different from Jesu Dulcis Memoria! Composed for the great feast day of All Saints, it is filled with joy, ceremony, and optimism.

Sicut Cervus - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina c.1525-1594 

In my opinion, this work’s fame and universal adoration are totally justified. It is an inspired piece of art, flawless in its construction – the quintessential Palestrina motet. Each phrase of text is given a melody which is sung in turn by each of the four voice parts, while the other parts are simultaneously engaged in other beautiful melodic material. In other words: perfect counterpoint. Then the next phrase of text arrives with a new melody, treated the same way, and so forth to the end. What makes this particular motet so special is that all the principal themes and all the accompanying counterpoint melodies are of an extraordinary beauty, and they all harmonize and balance together with the perfection of a great Raphael Madonna. Further, they perfectly portray the very special text which Palestrina has chosen to illuminate with his art.

Crucifixus - Antonio Lotti c.1667-1740

In the early part of the 17th century, as the Renaissance style was coming to a close and the new Baroque style was developing, there was a movement of composition which took great delight in the exaggerated use of dissonance. Followers of this style loved the clashing of two notes just a half-step apart, and of diminished chords and other harmonic “crunches.” This highly-charged style was used in instrumental music as well, and continued, here and there, straight through to Bach. In the early 17th century, the most famous choral example of this is the work we perform tonight. Lotti brilliantly contrasts moments of great tenderness with those of brutal harmonic crashing. Although not in the score, I feel it dramatically appropriate to have the low basses add a low C to the final chord. 

Ascendo ad Patrem - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

After a Crucifixus it seemed appropriate to go to an Ascension. And fortunately Palestrina composed one of his most appealing motets on that very text. The piece gives a terrific example of word-painting on the first word “Ascendo” (I ascend): the voice parts leap up an entire octave. 

Stabat Mater (for double choir) - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

One of Palestrina’s most famous compositions, it is nonetheless atypical of his normal compositional style. Instead of the usual independent counterpoint of each voice part which we find in most of his pieces, the very long text of this piece called for a continuous, chord-like setting. It is remarkable that in this single movement, lasting a full 8-9 minutes, our involvement never slackens. He keeps our interest constantly, through his melodic inspiration and remarkable combinations of groups of voice parts (from one choir or the other or sometimes from both choirs.) The famous poem clearly inspired Palestrina to compose an amazingly direct illumination of the words. The piece has been famous and beloved for centuries. Even Richard Wagner considered it a unique masterpiece of antiquity, and made an edition with all his own interpretive marks. (We will not be using his version!)

Exultate Deo - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina  

Exultate Deo is one of Palestrina’s finest animated motets. Each section vividly expresses its phrase of text: notice in particular “Buccinate in nomenia tuba” (“Blow the trumpet.”) This piece was on our wildly popular CD “Beyond Chant.” And when the CD first came out and was at the top of the Billboard Charts, WQXR announcer Greg Whiteside played this piece on his show every morning for a week!

Super flumina Babilonis - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

This is one of Palestrina’s most evocative motets. The psalm text tells of the Children of Israel who have been captured, exiled from Jerusalem, and made slaves. With great poetry Palestrina depicts them on the banks of a river, longing to return to their homeland. This was one of the very top requests from those of you who cast votes for this program

Exaltabo te - Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

This is one of my very favorite works of Palestrina. The first phrase (“I will exalt you, O Lord”) is set to a beautiful rising melody of praise. “For you have lifted my soul up” depicts, in more hushed tones, both the former despair and the new optimism. “Nec delectasti” becomes quite animated with new rejoicing. As “I cry out to thee” (“Domine, clamavi ad te”) all the voice parts swell wide open in their upper registers. “For you have healed me” (“Et sanasti me”) ends the piece with its wonderful downward sweeping scales, depicting unending gratitude and optimism.

Tu Pauperum Refugium - Josquin des Prez c.1450-1521

In tonight’s program, this is the only piece from the Early Renaissance; and it represents an entirely different world than all the other works in this concert. It is one of the greatest masterpieces of Josquin des Prez, a composer I would place as one of the very few greatest composers of all time – right up there with Bach. One could go through this magnificent motet measure by measure, showing miraculous details – such as when the sopranos and tenors almost seem lost when they sing “via errantium – the road or the way of the erring people,” or at the end when the text implores that our souls not be left to death, and all the voice parts descend to their lowest pitch levels. For us performers, we are in constant awe of this great composer, because every single phrase, every single chord setting is tied to a word, a thought, an emotion. But there is another element of Josquin’s music that even goes beyond this perfection: his music simply dwells in another world than the one we live in. 


Justorum Animæ - Orlandus Lassus 1532-1594

This motet concerns the souls of our loved ones who have died. With tender confidence it depicts a life after death as being beautiful and comforting. When there are notes of doubt, they are soon resolved. Notice the extraordinary ending. On the words “they are in peace,” all the vocal counterpoint suddenly ceases as each voice part enters a chord-like texture in a luminous major key, hovering in peace.

O Sing Joyfully - Adrian Batten 1591-1637

Renaissance England produced an almost limitless number of excellent choral composers. Batten is known today as one who crafted tightly-composed, appealing works which perfectly express their texts. This is probably his best piece, with wonderful contrasting sections, each one not a note too long. It is also the first piece is this program written in English. During the Renaissance, it would therefore correctly be referred to as an “anthem,” in contrast to a piece with a Latin text: a “motet.”

O Sacrum Convivium- Thomas Tallis 1505-1585

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd represent the summit of late Renaissance English music. Both composers were Roman Catholics who lived in England during the period of history when the official church changed back and forth from Catholic to Anglican Protestant. Thus we have works by both of them in Latin and in English. This motet is one of the glories of Tallis’s lofty works composed in Latin. It conjures up a world that is not meant to be human, but to draw the listener into a deeply spiritual realm.

If Ye Love Me - Thomas Tallis

See how different this English text-work is! There is a directness that is in complete contrast to the mysticism of the prior motet. Has any Renaissance composer written such a simple piece as this so successfully? It is truly amazing what a lovely, gentle world he creates with so few notes in such a short duration.

Exsultate Justi - Lodovico Viadana c.1560-1627

We leave Britain temporarily for the next two pieces for some programmatic contrasts! Viadana may not occupy a high tier in the Pantheon of composers, but he certainly composed a classic here. With its appealing buoyancy, freshness of melodies, and lively interplay between the voice parts, it is difficult to resist this joyous work.

Selig sind die Toten - Heinrich SchÜtz 1585 -1672 

I thank those of you who requested this piece, because I deeply love it too. Schütz is generally acknowledged as the greatest Early Baroque composer from Germany; and this work has elements of both Renaissance and Baroque styles. It is scored for six vocal parts – three for women and three for men. Each section displays a unique combination of voices, of course always in service of expressing the meaning of the text. This is our only piece in German tonight. And it must be in German, because one of Schütz’s great gifts was his setting of the rhythmic contours of the German words. The way he has set these words tells the performer how the phrase goes, which notes are more important or emphasized. And he clearly sets up differing sections, each one completely unique. Further, it was Schütz’s great gift that he could combine all of this into an organic unity of such profound beauty.

Ave verum corpus - William Byrd c.1540-1623

We turn to William Byrd for our two final works. His Ave Verum Corpus  is probably his most famous and often-performed work. It is certainly one of the most inspired creations of the late Renaissance in England. I may well have conducted this piece in concerts and religious services more often than any other piece of music. But it never fails to draw me into its sublime and deeply emotional world.

Praise our Lord - William Byrd

We end our Anniversary Renaissance journey in great celebration with this brilliant anthem. Byrd may start the work in a clear, simple manner. But soon the music explodes with some of the most complicated vocal counterpoint imaginable. We’ll try to keep it from falling apart! We may even try to keep it as clear as possible, so you can hear all the lively interplay between the voices. Whatever happens, we’ll all revel in the concluding “Amen” which starts quietly and, little by little, grows to a glorious conclusion!