Man is a strange creature. He is born with the body of a beast but is blessed (some say, "cursed") with what many think of as a "soul". In pursuit of the craving of that soul for going beyond itself, towards something thought to be higher, even the highest, he created the Hymn. From the most ancient of times, men have sung to that ideal, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God and quite early in its history, the Church has developed a rich repertoire of sacred music. It has never since died. An important part of such music in the Middle Ages was polyphonic choral singing. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), one of the most important English composers, was even given a patent for that. In 1973, a group of English singers gathered around Peter Phillips. The group devoted themselves to Renaissance sacred music and called themselves the Tallis Scholars. At their 40th anniversary, they decided on a world tour. They sang in 16 countries around the world. Last night, they came to the City Hall and offered us a goodly sample of their golden hits.
Their opening song was a 6-part Hosanna to the Son of David by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), first contemplative and then joyous.
Then we had a more energetic version of another hymn inspired by the same motive but as arranged by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). It has a completely different feel to it.
But that's not the only one we had from Gibbons. Another hymn called "O Clap your Hands", presumably to express the joy of meeting the Lord in heaven, singing of his greatness and the need of all man to submit to him "for God is the King of all earth", reigning even over the heathen, a pious but a bit presumptuous Christian wish.
The fourth offer was another hymn in Latin, "Laudibus in Sanctis" presumably meaning "praise for holiness" (of which God is the embodiment), written by another English composer William Byrd (1543-1623),urging the faithful to sing in praise of God's power, his nobility, his greatness with strings, pips, cymbals etc. A truly joyful song.
If we sing of God, how could we forget that mythical figure, the Holy Mother, Mary or Miriam, who is supposed to be able to give birth, as a "virgin", to Jesus the man, the Jesus who later became the Christ, one who dared to claim himself, to the horror of the orthodox Jews, to be actually and truly the "son of God" and who, to many Christians even nowadays, is not just metaphorically but is "literally" so, through a mysterious process they call "incarnation" ie. taking the form of a physical human body, through God emptying his godliness in what's called "aporia", rather like what happened in those stories of Olympian gods taking human or animal forms one reads about in ancient Greek myths. But according to Christian theology, to God, nothing is impossible! In fact, in the Christian tradition, the Holy Virgin Mary is called the "Mother of God", as if God needs a mother! But it's all a matter of "faith", thought to be something much higher than mere human reason, something which may "transcend" even common humanity. No wonder the Spanish Conquistadores fancied themselves to be rendering a great service for the "glory" of their God by slaughtering the huge numbers of infidel Incas and thought little of completely decimating them. But the Blessed Virgin Mary may represent an altogether different side of Christianity, it's the feminine side: she is all purity, all pity for human suffering and and is thought to be both able and willing to intercede, in her infinite mercy, for suffering humanity by using her special status of "the mother of God" (meaning Jesus, as under the mystical doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Jesus and God the Father are metaphysically and truly one, united by the Holy Spirit, that third person in that incomprehensible trinity, an entity which/who used to be called the "Holy Ghost"! ) for forgiveness the sins of all miserable "sinners" So we had Byrd's "Ave verum Corpus", praising her as the "solace in the pains of death" something which we all will have to face sooner or later. It's a song filled with a kind of solemn sorrow and melancholy, and reminds one a little of the style of Arvo Pärt.
We need to wait until the 5th offering of the evening to have a taste of Tallis, after whom the group is named. We had a song called "If you Love Me" taken from a quote attributed to Jesus:"If you love me, keep my commandment". The composer then added , "and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, even the spirit of truth", which doesn't appear anywhere in the bible. So some thought that the quote came from Solomon's dedication of the Jewish Temple. But whatever its origin might be, it was a beautiful song.
This was followed by a a fairly long number composed by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), a German Renaissance composer who adopted what's been described as the "expressive 'and "animated" "polychoral" style of Venice. The hymn was called Magnificat (an abbreviated version) embedding the Josef Lieber (Joseph's Song) and In dulci jubilo( in sweet jubilation). It's a 5-part song thought to be quite innovative because of it incorporates two short songs into the body of the much more traditional Magnificat, alternating in soprano and bass, to imitate the rocking of the cradle of the infant Jesus!
After the intermission, the concert resumed with what for me is my favorite, the Miserere by Gregoria Allegri (1582-1652), a heavenly song consisting of three parts: a full choir, a solo, and a third all men ensemble, a really uplifting masterpiece.
After heaven, we descended to earth again in the form of a companion piece to Gibbon's "The Silver Swan" written by a contemporary English composer Mathew Martin (b1976) which is supposed to mirror the original 5 parts by Gibbon, blending the old and the new into a delightful whole. The song was specially commissioned to celebrate the Tallis Scholars' 40th anniversary. From the water and the sky, we ascended/descended to solid earth with "The Lamb", the lyrics of which could very well have come from that late 18th and early 19th century child-like mystic engraver, painter, song writer and poet, William Blake.
We next had another contemporary English composer who just died last year, John Tavener(1944-2013), who learned much from the Eastern Orthodox choral tradition. The first was Song for Athene (Athene Harides, a cylcist who died in a tragic accident), a sad elegy constantly plagued by persistent bass notes, with the constant repetition of "Allelulias" at end of each line.
How could there be a hymn recital without J. S Bach (1685-1750), that prolific German who fathered several ten times more compositions in all forms for all kinds of instruments and voices than he did his dozen children. We had his "Komm, Jesu, Komm". With the singers broken in two alternating groups in typical baroque style counterpoints between the two, joined in unison only at the end, when they merged their voices into a harmonious whole.
The last scheduled piece was an ensemble joined in by all at the City Hall concert hall: the popular black spiritual "Amazing Grace". But the audience wasn't too enthusiastic though. But it was fun. It was an excellent concert. But I suppose the effect would have been much much better were it held inside one of those Gothic Cathedrals in which the sound would rise to the top of the church dome and its arched roof and then bounce back to create a second layer of sound at slightly delayed times thus creating a sort of sonic cushion over the direct sound emanating at ground level, something which would give the sound a much richer and more complex texture but....Overall, the quality was excellent though one could not help suspecting that it would have been even better had there been slightly more balance between the soprano and the mid-range and bass voices because at times, the soprano sound appeared a bit overbearing, destroying the overall unity of the choral sound.