A Song of Farewell

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Music of Mourning and Consolation

Gabrieli Consort
Paul McCreesh

£12.00

MP3 Album also available from iTunes.

To access a wealth of information about this recording, please follow the links below.

Programme

Running order:

Drop, drop, slow tears - Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) arr. Percy Dearmer (1867-1936)
A litany: Drop, drop, slow tears - William Walton (1902-1983)

Christe, qui lux es et dies (1) - Robert White (c.1538-1574)
A child's prayer - James MacMillan (b.1959)

In manus tuas (1) - John Sheppard (c.1515-1550)
Into thy hands - Jonathan Dove (b.1959)

Funeral sentences - Thomas Morley (1557/8-1602)

They are at rest - Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Requiem - Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
     i Salvator mundi
     ii The lord is my shepherd
     iii Requiem aeternam (1)
     iv I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
     v Requiem aeternam (2)
     vi I heard a voice from heaven

Lord, let me know mine end from Songs of Farewell - C. Hubert H. Parry (1848-1918) 

Reviews

A Song of Farewell was featured as BBC Music Magazine’s Recording of the Month in the May 2012 edition.

"...A daringly slow tempo – far slower than most choirs could manage technically – with no sense of strain whatever in supporting the voices; the little dynamic swell on ‘vengeance’ in verse two; a perfectly poised pianissimo to start verse three. Already in Gibbons’ ‘Drop, Drop. Slow Tears’ there are numerous indications of the elevated artistry Paul McCreesh and the 22 singers of the Gabrieli Consort bring to this beautifully planned and executed programme. ... McCreesh has a knack of making telling textual observations without artfully ‘interpreting’ the music. This intelligent unobtrusiveness of gesture produces a superb account of Howells’ Requiem. ... This is a superlative, unmissable issue..."

"...Budding singers, composers, conductors and producers everywhere take note: this is how it’s done ... All we can do is applaud..." Classic FM Magazine, April 2012

“Paul McCreesh has devised such a satisfying programme of mostly short a cappella pieces that the effect is the reverse of depressing ... An excellent disc..." The Gramophone, May 2012

"…I could go through each piece and wax lyrical. Instead I will say that the CD could be enjoyed simply track by track, or, and this is rarely recommendable, straight through in one sitting, I did both and especially appreciated the latter before retiring for a easy night’s sleep. … a fascinating mélange of approaches to the subject of death and of how we each face it. It should be said immediately that the singing is exemplary and the recorded balance flawless…"Musicweb International, 2 July 2012

"This is a disc of staggering beauty and effortless sophistication. … The Gabrieli’s enormous skill is their super-sensitive response to the texts and an extraordinarily fine control of dynamic, balance and line. … A disc of the year without doubt."Musicweb International, May 2012

"…Expressive, emotive, switching easily between the styles of the various centuries, there’s also a satisfying avoidance of any soft-focus delivery intended to up the emotional ante, particularly in the Requiem."BBC Music Online, 13 June 2012

"Gorgeously melancholic British funeral music for unaccompanied choir … beautifully sung by Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort…"The Times, 17 March 2012

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Robin Tyson, David Clegg and Sally Dunkley for their help in developing this programme. This project was very kindly supported by donations from Stephen Barter, Richard Brown, John Cryan and by Trevor Page, in memory of Gladys Mary Page and in celebration of her lifelong Christian faith.

Paul McCreesh

Interview

Paul McCreesh in conversation with Greg Skidmore, a member of the Gabrieli Consort and a DPhil student in musicology at the University of Oxford.

A Song of Farewell is not a very cheery title for a concept album – dare I say it! What drew you to this idea?

Well I hope I am not especially morose, but it’s quite amazing just how much wonderful sacred music there is on the subject of death. There’s an old saying that ‘the devil has the best tunes’ – in fact, I think it’s the grim reaper that has them! I was interested in creating a reflective programme, drawing on music from many periods, uniting certain common themes and concepts. Death is a central and inescapable truth, for every generation. Medical advances may yet cause us to redefine longevity, but, thankfully, immortality is beyond our grasp.

What was your starting point in compiling this programme?

The work that stood out from an early stage was Howells’ sublime and powerful Requiem. This is the major work on this disc and its central point of focus. I also wanted to include a setting of the old Funeral Sentences because of the wonderful text. There are so many beautiful phrases (...he cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower... ...man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live...)– somehow, the central truths of human existence have never been more eloquently expressed. The elegant simplicity of the Morley setting, sung at royal funerals for many years, allows true reflection on these exquisite words.

You have subtitled this disc Music of Mourning and Consolation. What, for you, is the relationship between mourning and consolation and how is this represented in the music?

One might argue that most funeral music has an intrinsic sense of consolation – this is especially so in the English tradition. The music is not primarily concerned with the day of judgement; rather, it’s about the passing of time, the transience of our lives, the sense of moving on and the pain of loss; all contrasted with the desire of a visionary afterlife. These are all concepts that have given rise to profoundly expressive words and music.

Some of the texts also dwell on real sorrow – for instance the Phineas Fletcher text used by Dearmer and Walton. Is there a tension between this and the elements of mourning and consolation?

In the Christian tradition, there is seemingly constant conflict between the unworthiness of the sinner and the need to attain purification for the afterlife, so these tensions are a central part of belief.

Why did you include Robert White’s Christe, qui lux es et dies and James MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer, two pieces that seem less directly concerned with death?

In a programme such as this there is always a temptation to include music that is not strictly speaking funereal, because the metaphysical connection between evening (or compline) and the end of life is so strong. This beautiful evening hymn was set by many English composers often, as here, in a note for note setting of the chant. Again, the conceit of seeking God’s protection from the perils of life’s journey, especially at the moment of death, is elegantly expressed. Almost all of James MacMillan’s music, including his symphonic repertoire, is deeply influenced by his Catholicism. A Child’s Prayer was written in response to the Dunblane massacre which took place on 13th March 1996, when a gunman shot 16 children at a primary school. Whilst the text is suitable for general use, MacMillan writes two separate lines for high voices, an especially poignant representation of children’s voices.

Within the programme, you have clearly paired together some of the works. What is the rationale behind these pairings?

Some of these pairings were relatively obvious. Percy Dearmer’s hymn setting of Drop, drop, slow tears – a 17th century poem and 17th century hymn tune cunningly married off in the 20th century – presumably provided the source of inspiration for Walton’s expressive setting. Other connections had to be sought out and some emerged by accident! I looked at the beautiful Sheppard settings of In manus tuas and realised that they share the title of Jonathan Dove’s setting of a reflective medieval prayer. For me, it is interesting to explore the connections that link human beings of all generations: the world can change beyond recognition and yet we can still respond to words written in the 12th century or music written in the 16th century.

When performing or listening to a sacred programme such as this what, if anything, is incumbent on the performer or the listener in terms of their relationship with Christianity?

I can only answer this in terms of how I personally relate to this music, in the context of my own beliefs. I was baptised into the Catholic tradition but would struggle to profess any particular religious conviction. However, I do think that there is something at the heart of religion – perhaps more than anything the quest for the ultimately unknowable – which I find deeply attractive. This is possibly why so many people are still drawn to religion, in spite of so much scientific evidence questioning the validity of theism. It is almost as if the desire for an afterlife is enough to persuade us to set aside the more rational scientific arguments.

How does this inform your approach to performing these works?

I am constantly imploring singers not to be frightened of expressing the emotions of the text: to sing not just with an understanding of the literal meaning of the words, but also with an appreciation of their sense within a religious or spiritual context. Of course there is also a danger, when working with professional singers, that they fail to relate to some of these texts through over-familiarity. I want to challenge people to think differently about music.

Do you find that the 20th century music here is more personal or intimate than the earlier repertoire? Or would you reject that claim?

That’s a very interesting idea. Firstly, one must bear in mind that we perform the earlier repertoire as concert music, whereas in fact it is all music written for the ritual of worship, so we are listening to it entirely out of context. Secondly, of course we know so much more about the more recent composers and their lives, so the personal resonances are that much more apparent. The 20th century works here are often quite personal to the composers – Parry wrote the Songs of Farewell towards the end of his life, for example, presumably in response to his advancing years; Howells’ Requiem, though written three years before his son died, was withheld from publication until long after Michael’s death and was clearly a deeply personal work which became inextricably linked with his terrible loss.

Do you think we feel a greater sense of connection to the more recent composers because we know so much more about them, whereas we know so little about someone like Robert White? Does this affect our relationship with the music?

It has to really, doesn’t it? The tragedy of Michael’s death was the barometer by which all Howells’ emotional experiences were measured, as I’m sure they would be for any human being in such circumstances. Knowing background like this can surely only serve to heighten our experience of the music. At the other end of the spectrum, it amazes me that (to my knowledge) we don’t know the name of a single architect of a Gothic cathedral. That sense of anonymity in the creation of art (if it was even regarded as art) is intriguing. The culture of attaching a sense of personal fulfilment to the creation of art only surfaces properly in the Baroque period, and reaches its zenith in the 19th century. In earlier times artists were craftsmen: an exquisite medieval chalice doesn’t have an artist’s initials on the bottom. A composer of sacred music might have had an emotional connection with the idea of death or religious fervour, but it is more than likely that composing was just something he did, much as the cobbler made shoes. Essentially, this is functional music that we nostalgically imbue with an emotional content.

As someone who grew up drawn to early music I have a little trouble with the idea – much though we know it to be historically verifiable – that early musicians were more craftsmen than artists. If this is indeed the case, how then do we find a legitimacy to the emotional connection that we have with that music? Do you have to manufacture it?

Sometimes, yes. I believe that our perception of the best renaissance repertoire would differ wildly from that of John Sheppard or William Byrd. I think we are drawn to particular types of renaissance music – melodic polyphony, dense counterpoint and ethereal beauty. I am not convinced that this is the aesthetic by which contemporaries judged this music. Monteverdi, for instance, claimed that Willaert was one of his most illustrious predecessors. I have tried to make Willaert’s music work for me – really, I have – but it just doesn’t. It makes me think that there must be something in that music that was important then but which doesn’t transfer to most of us today. One thing that I fight against in my performances of early music is the idea that it must always sound ethereal and pretty; all the evidence suggests that the world then was very coloured and very visceral – indeed it was often also very violent. One thing it wasn’t was exquisitely pure and beautiful. We look at all old music through the prism of history, with a certain romance for a bygone age. Whilst of course this is doubtless part of the attraction, for me the beauty of so much early music lies in its relative objectivity. It is exactly for this reason that I have always eschewed many over-employed ‘modern’ tricks, such as changing tempo, pitch, exaggerating dynamics and ironing out angularities to create that purity so beloved of the English choral tradition. Having said all that, the ‘early’ pieces in this particular programme do seem to express a delicate and restrained beauty.

As attitudes to composition and appreciation of music have developed over the centuries, do you think that people’s thinking about death has also changed?

I think people in earlier periods were much more pragmatic about death as they would regularly have seen parents, siblings or neighbours die. That is not to say that a grieving mother felt less pain on the death of her child, but that life was accepted as being inherently fragile. As death was always imminent – media vita in morte sumus – there was an acceptance of the transience of life and a more passionately held belief in the afterlife. I think perhaps we have lost something of that medieval visceral experience, except for the few people for whom faith is an absolute in their lives.

Despite this change in attitudes, death remains inescapable. Do you feel as though modern, scientifically-minded man has a better way of approaching death through art and music?

It occurs to me (in middle age) that the very noise of the world in which we live can dull our senses to such an extent that we can become blind to the realities of emotion. We can live in a fool’s paradise in which we avoid thinking about death until the last possible moment. If I have something of the preacher in me, I would say that maybe we need to be more aware of the passing of time, of the natural world and our fleeting time on earth. If we fail to devote time to enjoying relationships and nurturing friendships, to having conversations about life and love and to enjoying the beauty of a full moon or the sunrise, then maybe our experience of life is fundamentally lacking. Part of my vision as an artist is to try to live life with a greater connection to the emotional world. Music is a large part of my passion for life, but it’s absolutely about life first and foremost. If I am not now falling into the trap of romanticising the past, I wonder if our renaissance and medieval forebears experienced life with much greater intensity, for all the apparent harshness of their existence. I envy that – maybe I was just born in the wrong century!

Much of the music on this disc was written within the last 100 years or so. How does that music fit into the picture that you are painting?

The music may be relatively recent, but very few of the texts are contemporary. I think the very nature of writing music in the 21st century on a medieval text must connect us to that past. That’s what I love about music, and about sacred music in particular. There is something in this music that is both of its time and timeless – a central truth for all time. I’m not sure whether the absolutes of belief are essential: I think that there are truths here that are as relevant to a profound theist as to a deeply cynical agnostic. At the very least there is emotional and spiritual content here which demands discussion, reflection and, I hope, a response within our souls.

Biographies

Gabrieli Consort & Players

Founded by Paul McCreesh in 1982, Gabrieli Consort & Players are world-renowned interpreters of great choral and instrumental repertoire, spanning from the renaissance to the present day. Their invigorating performances encompass major works from the oratorio tradition, virtuosic a cappella programmes and mould-breaking reconstructions of music for historical events. Gabrieli are acclaimed for their performances of Handel oratorios and Bach Passions and their past recordings with Deutsche Grammophon have garnered numerous international awards.

Gabrieli are regular visitors to the world's most prestigious concert halls . They are associated artists of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław and have embarked on an exciting partnership with the city's foremost choir, the acclaimed Wrocław Philharmonic Choir, with whom they collaborate on international touring.

Gabrieli are increasingly committed to working with young musicians. In October 2010, the Gabrieli Young Singers' Scheme was launched, establishing partnerships with four leading youth choirs, giving young singers the opportunity to train and perform with Gabrieli's professional musicians. The next recording in this oratorio series will bring this scheme to the recording studio, as members of each choir join Gabrieli and the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir for a recording of Mendelssohn's majestic oratorio, Elijah.

Paul McCreesh

Paul McCreesh has established himself at the highest levels in both the period instrument and modern orchestral fields and is recognised for his authoritative and innovative performances on the concert platform and in the opera house. Together with the Gabrieli Consort & Players, of which he is the founder and Artistic Director, he has performed in major concert halls and festivals across the world and built a large and distinguished discography for Deutsche Grammophon.

McCreesh works regularly with major orchestras and choirs, and the larger choral repertoire, such as Britten's War Requiem, Brahms' German Requiem and Haydn's The Creation and The Seasons, feature increasingly in his work. He has established a strong reputation in the field of opera conducting productions of Handel, Gluck and Mozart at leading European opera houses.

McCreesh is passionate about working with young musicians and enjoys established collaborations with Chetham's School of Music and many youth orchestras and choirs, both in the UK and internationally. He has been Artistic Director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival since 2006 and has been Director of Brinkburn Music (in Northumberland, UK) for many years.

Multimedia

Photos of the Gabrieli Consort during the recording of A Song of Farewell at the Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral.
© Trevor Page

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