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From Purcell to Pärt

Henry Purcell - Hear my prayer

Our programme begins with Henry Purcell’s beautiful ‘Hear my prayer’ for double choir.

It opens quietly, with a deceptively simple motif, variations of which are then gradually added to the texture in imaginative ways. The word ‘crying’ is often underlined with tense harmonic dissonance as the music builds continually, to reach a remarkably anguished climax, before subsiding to the barest of final chords. Purcell’s manuscript suggested that more bars were planned, and after only three minutes of music one might well be tempted to wish for them. But this short anthem is perfect just as it is.

Antonio Lotti - Crucifixus

The Venetian composer Antonio Lotti wrote his famous 8-part Crucifixus in around 1718, originally as part of a mass. It starts slowly and quietly, in the lowest bass voice. As the volume and intensity build up, repeated suspensions (notes briefly at odds with their neighbours) highlight the tragedy of Christ’s execution. In the middle section, faster-moving quaver phrases lift the mood, gradually to be displaced by powerful descending scales on the word ‘passus’: the moment of death. After a spectacular high point, the harmonies continue twisting and turning darkly as the music slowly recedes, eventually finding peace, and a gentle shift from minor to major, at Jesus’ burial.

Jonathan Harvey - Remember, O Lord

Jonathan Harvey's Remember, O Lord was written in 2003 for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The work twists and turns around the opening darkly scored chords with complex and rich harmonies unpinned by deep sonorities from the lower voices. There is a serious and sombre mood throughout which emphasises the humility of a life in the service of God.

Arvo Pärt - ...which was the son of...

Born in 1935, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world for the majority of years since 2011. His 2000 work for double choir “Which was the son of…” sets a challenging text from the Gospel of Luke that traces Jesus’ lineage back to God through a list of 75 ancestors. The music alternates between declamatory sections and more lilting passages. Constantly moving forwards, it savours the ancient names, sometimes with almost comical delight, before eventually coming to rest at Adam, and finally, God. This work features on Triodion, the first of three albums of Pärt's choral works which our musical director Stephen Layton recorded with Polyphony, and which went on to win a Gramophone award. The photograph shows Stephen working with the composer during those recording sessions in the Temple Church in 2003.

John Tavener - Funeral Ikos

John Tavener wrote Funeral Ikos in 1981, setting a text from the Greek Order of the Burial of Dead Priests, four years after his own conversion to the Orthodox church. The words were translated by the American writer Isabel Hapgood in the nineteenth century, and reflect movingly on the Christian journey to paradise. ‘If on an orphan thou hast shown compassion, the same shall there deliver thee from want. If in this life the naked thou hast clothed, the same shall give thee shelter there’. Each section is sung as a chant, in unison, and completed with a repletion of the word Alleluia, gently embellished with Tavener’s distinctively beautiful harmony.

Jonathan Harvey - Come, Holy Ghost

The beautiful Gregorian chant behind ‘Come Holy Ghost’ has inspired composers from Bach to Duruflé. Jonathan Harvey’s version for double choir dates from 1984, when he was exploring the use of tapes and electronics in his compositions, and is infused with a similar sense of adventure. The plainsong melody is repeatedly layered over long-held chords, creating an otherworldly spiritual sound which shifts unsettlingly between tonalities. In the final section the singers all improvise their own parts from fragments of tune, creating a chaotic murmur which grows in ecstasy before returning to the calm and familiarity of unison plainsong.

Arvo Pärt - Seven Magnificat Antiphons

The centrepiece of our concert celebrating 30 years with Stephen Layton is Arvo Pärt’s ‘Seven Magnificat Antiphons’. These were written in 1988 in the composer’s trademark style, where some voices are set within a single major or minor chord while others follow chant-like lines on a related scale. This creates a spiritual atmosphere coloured by gentle dissonances, which Pärt likened to the sound of bells ringing.

The texts are German settings of the ‘O Antiphons’, from the early Roman church, each addressing Christ in a different way, which traditionally supplemented the Magnificat in the lead-up to Christmas.

Each of the seven is distinct and may be performed on its own. When heard together, however, there is a natural connectivity and progression through the group which heightens their impact.

You can hear Stephen’s acclaimed recording of this work here

Jonathan Harvey - The Angels

Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) was an avant-garde composer of instrumental and elegctronic music who also wrote a significant body of highly original choral music grounded in the English cathedral tradition. His remarkable motet ‘the Angels’ sets a contemporary poem by Bishop John Taylor in which the singing of angels is imagined, ‘like a painting, one chord of limitless communication’. The first choir presents the text in gently snaking chromatic melodies, enveloped with shifting chord clusters of wordless vowels from the second choir. This beautiful, otherworldly sound rises and falls throughout the piece, reaching full bloom twice, at the words ‘God’ and ‘holy’, with mesmerising chords that ring like angelic bells.

John Tavener - Mother of God, here I stand

We are delighted to be including John Tavener’s exquisite ‘Mother of God, here I stand’ in our programme celebrating 30 years with Stephen Layton. This anthem was the highlight of The Veil of the Temple, Tavener’s epic all-night vigil, first performed in 2003 by Stephen, the Choir of the Temple Church and the Holst Singers. Read more about it here. The photo is of director Stephen Layton discussing the score with John Taverner during rehearsals for the first performance (photo: Nina Large). Its calm, beautiful hymn tune conveys the complete devotion of someone praying before the Virgin Mary - not to be saved, nor to give thanks, nor seeking forgiveness - just for her.

Gustav Holst - Nunc Dimittis

Gustav Holst wrote his Nunc Dimittis for double choir for Westminster Cathedral, where it was performed on Easter Day in 1915. It was then all but lost, until his daughter Imogen Holst reconstructed it for a performance in 1974 at the Aldeburgh Festival. After a subdued and memorable opening which evokes the lighting of candles, the music becomes rich and relatively fast-moving. The final 'Gloria' is particularly joyful, and seems a fitting conclusion to our concert celebrating 30 years with Stephen Layton.

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