From the Archives

Eternal Light

English Cathedral Classics

Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978) — Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) — Mass in G minor
Herbert Howells (1892–1983) — Requiem

8 p.m. Saturday, June 2, 2007
St. Joseph’s Church
Providence, R.I.
[Travel Directions]

4 p.m. Sunday, June 3, 2007
St. Mary’s Church
Bristol, R.I.
[Travel Directions]

“An indulgent, guilty pleasure ...”

Like the concerts that have preceded it this season, “Eternal Light” advances the idea that choral music can be a way to see ourselves, our past and our future from a refreshed perspective. We see how composers of the 20th and 21st centuries can reach back to old forms and old texts, give them a contemporary sonic spectrum, and frame them in a way that lets them speak so that the 21st century can understand.

Howells, Vaughan Williams and other composers of their era were reviving an English polyphony from a grand era several centuries in the past. They were restoring English music, not as something derivative of Mendelssohn or other French- and German-trained composers, but as a musical voice that hadn’t been around since Purcell. Their mixture of old styles – modal counterpoint from the Renaissance, open chords, parallel fifths – with modern approaches succeeded in establishing a distinctly English style in which people like Benjamin Britten would feel completely at home.

And if Vaughan Williams, Howells and their contemporaries were the ones who restored that distinctly English voice, it may well be that Tarik O’Regan is the one who will carry their work forward.

There is so much to listen to and think about in our final concert this season. From a sonic perspective, it is almost an indulgent, guilty pleasure for lovers of choral music. Howells, O’Regan and Vaughan Williams simply give us so many beautiful sounds.

— Andrew Clark, artistic director

Tarik O’Regan – Magnificat (2000) and Nunc Dimittis (2001)

Still in his twenties, Tarik O’Regan has created a substantial body of work that has drawn attention and performances in the United Kingdom, the United States and around the world. His first full CD, VOICES (Collegium Records, 2006), which includes both pieces to be performed in this concert, received significant critical acclaim, including a double five-star rating from BBC Magazine. “O’Regan’s gift for lyric flight seems boundless,” The London Times said of him. “You might have to reach back to Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, or even Tallis, to find another British vocal work so exultant. He’s a composer of generous passion and imagination ...”

After graduating from Oxford University and completing graduate studies and a composing residency at Cambridge, O’Regan moved to New York in 2004, where he was a Fulbright Chester Schirmer Fellow at Columbia University. He also spent a year as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard, where he worked on his first chamber opera, Heart of Darkness, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella (libretto by Tom Phillips), for eight singers and 13 instruments in one act. In 2005 he began serving as a research affiliate at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, published and most often performed together, were commissioned a year apart by Timothy Brown for the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. “Both are large-scale settings, designed to stand as concert works in their own right or to be paired together for liturgical purposes at Evensong,” O’Regan writes in his introduction to the Novello edition. “In each movement I have tried to recreate the Renaissance practice of alternating chant and polyphony from a contemporary perspective.”

O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness and Stolen Voices, a 20-minute secular oratorio for chorus based on the diaries of children during war, are to receive their premières in 2007, the latter work to mark the United Nations’ International Day of Peace. “The old savageries of colonialism are reappearing in new and terrible guises,” O’Regan has written, “and the moral void that Conrad describes is clearly prevalent today.”

More about  Tarik O’Regan  |  Listen to a sample

Ralph Vaughan Williams – Mass in G minor (1921)

Vaughan Williams’ musical pedigree was rich and varied. He studied with the major British figures of the time – Hubert Parry, Charles Wood, and the great writer of Victorian part songs, Charles Villiers Stanford. Like Stanford, an Irishman known for his arrangements of traditional songs, Vaughan Williams had a strong interest in folk melodies and, in 1903, had begun to transcribe folk songs during his travels in the countryside. He also studied composition with Max Bruch in Berlin and with the gifted orchestrator Maurice Ravel in Paris.

Like Howells and his other contemporaries, Vaughan Williams was searching for – and adding to – a musical tradition that was unequivocally English and of a quality commensurate with “the imperishable glories of English prose.” He found much of his inspiration in the polyphony of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and other composers from the 16th century. His Mass in G minor was, in fact, the first truly English setting of the Mass since the Elizabethans.

Ironically, Vaughan Williams, who considered himself a benign atheist, wrote some of the greatest church music of his time, including the hymn “For All the Saints.” He served as musical editor of The English Hymnal and helped to edit The Oxford Book of Carols. “There is no reason,” he once said, “why an aetheist could not write a good Mass.” Indeed, Vaughan Williams intended his Mass in G minor to be performed in an actual liturgical setting rather than in concert. It was dedicated to his great friend Gustav Holst and was sung at Holst’s funeral in Chichester Cathedral.

Sir Richard R. Terry, who led the first liturgical performance at Westminster Cathedral, found it to be a work of immense power and significance for a nation that had just come through the horrors of a world war – a war in which Vaughan Williams served as medical corpsman and later as a commissioned officer. Terry said to Vaughan Williams, “I’m quite sincere when I say that [this] is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.”

More about  Ralph Vaughan Williams  |  List of works  |  Listen to a sample

Herbert Howells – Requiem (1936)

In a long and productive life – his published works span seven decades, from 1908 through 1978 – Herbert Howells gave the world a striking body of inventive, harmonically complex work for orchestra, chamber ensembles, voice and instrumental soloists, including nearly 200 sacred and secular works for chorus. While he was celebrated as a composer, organist, educator and orator during his lifetime, some music historians believe his work has not yet received the attention and prominence it deserves.

The Requiem comes from a difficult emotional period in Howells’ life, following the death in 1935 of his only son Michael, age 9, from spinal meningitis (possibly polio). He had already begun work on the Requiem in the early 1930s (the manuscript bears a small mark where the little boy apparently tried to write in a note). Like Brahms, Howells chose texts that seemed to him timeless and appropriate. “I sought immemorial prose; but I used only two lines from the Latin Requiem Mass ... knowing that one of them – et lux perpetua luceat eis – would govern the work – especially that one word lux – ‘light,’ ” Howells wrote. “Light indeed touches all but one of the six movements. ‘Blessed are the dead’ alone stands outside – and yet is inside of – that same light.”

Howells had had his own brush with death. Eye problems caused by Graves disease, an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid, suddenly worsened and forced Howells to step down as organist at Salisbury Cathedral; doctors gave him six months to live. He chose to undergo experimental radiation treatments – which, in 1917, meant weekly injections of radium for two years. He recovered and lived to be 90.

In the Requiem and the Hymnus Paradisi, a later work for chorus and orchestra which uses much of the Requiem’s material, Howells was able to achieve an emotional depth and intensity that seemed even to affect the composer himself. He withheld both works from performance until his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams persuaded him to allow a performance of Hymnus Paradisi at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival. The Requiem would have to wait until 1980, three years before the composer’s own death.

Although sacred choral music forms a large part of his work, he, like Vaughan Williams, did not consider himself particularly religious. “I am not a religious man any more than Ralph was,” he once said.

“The sudden loss in 1935 of an only son, a loss essentially profound and, in its very nature, beyond argument, might naturally impel a composer, after a time, to seek release and consolation in language and terms most personal to him,” Howells wrote. “Music may well have the power beyond any other medium to offer that release and comfort. It did so in my case, and became a personal, private document.”

More about  Herbert Howells  |  List of works  |  Listen to a sample