A Guardian Angel
As spiritual beings, angels are considered divine intermediaries between heaven and earth. Over the ages they have inspired artistic flights from musicians and writers, enshrining them in art. Saint Ambrose is traditionally credited with promoting antiphonal voices in sacred music, calls and responses uniquely explored in A Guardian Angel.
The title of this collaborative programme is taken from the engraving that precedes Biber’s Passacaglia in the Rosary Sonatas. Published in 1681, it contains unprecedented complexity and technical challenges. The Passacaglia is the only unaccompanied movement and is preceded tonight by Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Michael Praetorius’ simple hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary.
In response to Biber’s vision the singers narrate the visitation of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. The chant Angelus ad Virginem is elaborated upon by Hieronymous Praetorius in the resplendent setting of Angelus ad Pastores Ait. Praetorius uses two antiphonal choruses, passing the music back and forth to creates a great sense of the joy of this text. This celebration is continued with the violin music of Nicola Matteis, a Neopolitan who by repute was “certainly never mortal man exceeded on that instrument, he had a stroke so sweet, and made it speak like the voice of a man.” (John Evelyn’s Diary 19th November 1674).
Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging is a popular German carol which began life as a pilgrimage song, the inclusion of Kyrie eleison in the text pointing to its medieval origins and the penance that went with pilgrimage. The text tells us of the quiet joy Mary has in carrying Jesus, the rose growing amidst thorns.
Angels were summoned by God to protect Elijah in the wilderness in a story famously set by Felix Mendelssohn and represented in the chorus Denn er hat seinen engeln beföhlen über dir (For he shall give his Angels watch over thee). Also scored for antiphonal choirs, Mendelssohn casts the upper four voices in angelic resemblance, with the lower quartet providing warm reassurance.
Men and Angels, by British composer Alec Roth, uses the poem ‘Antiphon II’ by George Herbert and was originally composed as a piece for choir. Roth has specially written a violin part for this programme. He sets his verses out like a play script, with parts for ‘Chorus’, ‘Men’ and ‘Angels’. This works well on the page but is of no help when the text is sung, so Roth’s title ‘Men and Angels’ is helpful, enabling the listener a clue as to what is going on. The upper voices (soprano, alto) sing the words of the Angels, the lower voices (tenor, bass) the Men, and both groups combine for the Chorus.
Masterpieces though they are, Bach’s oft performed Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are not isolated achievements. A 1720 copy of the violin works included the manuscript for his Partita for solo flute BWV 1013 and its inclusion, coupled with various unidiomatic passages and that it is unaccompanied, means that it could equally well have been for violin. ‘Borrowing’ is in the spirit of the era and Rachel has made the flute partita her own.
Interspersed between the Partitas, VOCES8 perform two pieces with themes of the nativity story. Benjamin Britten’s antiphonal piece A Hymn to the Virgin, composed when he was only 16 years old, gives way to the expectant and jubilant celebration of Jesus’s arrival in the tale of The Three Kings by Jonathan Dove, in which Dove uses a gentle lullaby to narrate the Epiphany story; the old and frail King brings the most radiant gift of gold with the work exploding into life depicting its glittering glory.
Bringing the concert to a rounded close, Owain Park’s new work Antiphon for the Angels amalgamates words by two ancient authors; the original Latin and English translation of a text by Hildegard von Bingen is bracketed with a choral reinvention using St Ambrose’s prayerful Behold the radiant sun departs.