Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Music for Candlemas

Here is the music list for Candlemas at St. Paul's, Philadelphia (TLM):

Herbert Howells: Missa sine nomine
Richard Sheppard: Hodie Beata Virgo Maria
Propers from the Liber Usualis

On the organ:
Jean Langlais: Offertoire from Hommage a Frescobaldi ("Lucis Creator")
Kevin Allen: Alma Redemptoris Mater

Herbert Howells is most famous in the Anglican Church, but he has left us a number of things that are definitely Catholic, like this Mass without name, also called the Mass in the Dorian Mode. Written for Richard Terry and the Westminster Cathedral Choir, which has a long tradition not only of resurrecting Renaissance polyphony but also of commissioning new works, this Mass was performed within weeks of Howells's arrival in London in 1912.

Some have called it a study in counterpoint, and it is, as subtitles such as "canon in unison" attest. But the piece is, as you might expect, much more interesting than what you would find in a book by Fux. Howells even includes dynamic and expressive markings, not to mention a few harmonically juicy moments that give away the date of the composition. The dissonances at the minor 2nd on downbeats in the Agnus Dei are particularly lovely.

All the same, Howells embraces the full tradition of polyphony in this work, and I dare say English polyphony. The work reminds me far more of Byrd and Tallis than of Palestrina. It has a flair that the English are so famous for, and which Palestrina, in his placidity, usually lacked. That's not to say that placidity doesn't have its place, of course.

In spite of being diagnosed with Grave's disease early in life, Howells lived to be ninety-one. This might have been helped along by the fact that he was ineligible to be drafted during World War I precisely because of his illness. As a side note, Howells's Clavicord is a fine collection of really neat pieces that keyboard players might want to look up. It's totally off the church music map, and that's a nice, um, counterpoint sometimes.

I cannot find any information on Richard Sheppard. If he is the same person as the other composer, Richard Shepherd, I cannot substantiate it. (Neither of these are to be confused with John Sheppard! Nicknames are useful, I suppose!) At any rate, this little motet was composed in 2009 and is quite lovely and I dare say simple enough to find its way into the repertoire of many choirs.

The Langlais prelude is one instance in which this particular composer's quirkiness works well. Like Howells, he takes a traditional form and builds on it with 20th century harmonic material. A kind of brooding dance is played in the manuals, its effect highlighted by a 16' stop in the Great, making a kind of darkness through which the light of the Cantus Firmus Lucis Creator, played in the pedal, can sing through.

At this point everyone knows Kevin Allen. This setting of Alma Redemptoris Mater comes from his collection of Twelve Gregorian Preludes, and it's one of my favorites. Both grand and buoyant, it explodes the myth that seems to be out there that Gregorian chant is just for funerals and the Agnus Dei in Lent. Kevin's treatment of this piece seems to me to be a fitting way to say goodbye to the Christmas cycle and the singing of this beautiful antiphon.
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