Program Notes: Harris, Madrigals, and Elgar

In putting together this program, we immediately chose William Harris’s (1883-1973) “Faire is the Heaven” as the cornerstone because it represents the pinnacle of English choral writing of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  This 1925 setting of Edmund Spenser’s 1596 epic poem “An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie” – and based on only two of its 43 stanzas! – utilizes the singers’ entire range without being flamboyant or attention-grabbing.  The harmonies are extremely complex, with modulations from key to key taking place throughout.  One voice part may hold and the others all pivot around that one held note into a new tonality.  The writing seems effortless, self-assured, profound, and almost inevitable.  While the poem describes various parts and pieces of heaven, it admits to the impossibility of describing God, and yet, the music does that for us.  Joining our two choirs together makes it possible to produce the warm eight-part texture demanded in this work.  You will see why it is considered to be one of Harris’s finest works and one of the most challenging.

English madrigal writing peaked between 1580 and 1630.  The musical form had originated in Italy as an expression of humanistic values, with secular text (not sacred), written in the language of the people (not Latin).  With the advent of sonnet writing in England, madrigals became both fashionable and popular there as well.  Madrigals were generally short, composed of 3 to 6 voices, with texts ranging from bawdy to amorous to mournful.  They were so popular in England, that singing clubs sprang up devoted to their performance.

Our four madrigals today cover the full range of themes, from the joyful and romantic to the intensely sorrowful.  Thomas Greaves was a lutenist in service to Sir Henry Pierrepont, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, as well as being a composer.  Greaves published “Songes of sundrie kinds” in London in 1604, which included four madrigals, one of which was today’s “Come Away, Sweet Love.”  This piece features the fa-la-la-la-la patter that was such a fun and integral part of many madrigals.  John Bennet’s “Weep O Mine Eyes” takes us in the other direction, down the path of sadness.  It appeared in his first published collection, “Madrigalls to Fovre Voyces,” in 1599.  The fa-la-la’s return with “Sing We at Pleasure,” also published in 1599, by the well-known – if not notorious – Thomas Weelkes.  All happiness and love, it is written for five voices, and you can see why people loved singing these sparkling and fun pieces.  Our final madrigal, Orlando Gibbons’s most famous, is “The Silver Swan” from 1612.  This elegant and plaintive piece, for five voices again, tells of the swan who had no voice until death approached and finally, she sang.  The last line of the text, “More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise,” is often considered to be a lament for the death of the English choral tradition.  Indeed, following Gibbons, innovation in the form languished for nearly two centuries until a revival in the later 19th Century by Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, and others.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) struggled as a composer until in his forties, when his “Enigma Variations” became extremely popular.  As a Roman Catholic in Anglican England, he considered himself to be very much an outsider.  The success of his works, though, has made him one of England’s best-known and loved composers.  His warmth and expressiveness in writing make him approachable, with great emotional communication.  Our “Lux Aeterna” is a  choral arrangement of Elgar’s “Nimrod,” Variation No. 9 of the Enigmas, created by John Cameron in 2016 as a tribute on Armistice Day.  It weds Elgar’s sublime music with a text from the Requiem Mass: “Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”  The beauty of this eight-part work is a supreme illustration of the fusion of sound and poetry and is a fitting conclusion for our concert. 

It is an honor to have the Canticum Novum chamber choir with us for this performance, and we thank them!

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