Our Eastertide concert ‘Behold the Lamb’ takes its inspiration from the ancient and enduring sacred text ‘Agnus Dei’, and its musical interpretation by various composers throughout the ages.
The programme begins and ends with two different arrangements of the Easter Sequence, ‘Victimae paschali laudes’ (‘Praise the Paschal victim’). The first is the original Gregorian chant version and the second, my own arrangement for choir and organ with the free-flowing Gregorian melody now framed within a robust ¾ metre
Between these musical ‘book ends’ we span the centuries beginning with a plainsong setting of ‘Agnus Dei’ from the Sarum Use, (the liturgy that developed in the Middle Ages at Salisbury Cathedral and which was observed over much of southern England and Wales), then on to a setting by the 15th century English composer John Dunstable that is based on that plainsong melody.
From the 16th century, Victoria’s ‘Ad cenam agnus providi’ (‘The Lamb’s high banquet we await’) is based on an Office Hymn used at Vespers between Easter and the Ascension. Its energetic 8 verses alternate between Gregorian chant and polyphony. Another ancient hymn – of which there are countless settings – ‘Ave verum corpus’ will be sung in three versions: the original Gregorian chant; a setting by William Byrd; and one by Gabriel Fauré. In each case, the effect each composer creates can only be described as voluptuous and evocative of profound love.
William Byrd’s setting of ‘Agnus Dei’ from his Mass for Four Voices concludes the first half of the programme. The architecture of this work is such that the whole (in terms of there being only four voices) is much greater than the sum of the parts. Byrd’s treatment of dissonance in the ‘dona nobis pacem’ section provides us with one of the most poignant moments in all of music.
The second part of the programme includes two organ preludes by Bach (‘O Lamm Gottes unschüldig’) and the chorale on which they are based, before travelling on through the centuries by way of Fauré.
The very modern sounding piece ‘The Lamb’, a setting of a William Blake poem of the same name, is poetry in music. Blake presents us with three aspects of what the ‘lamb’ signifies in a spiritual sense, and Tavener expresses these three interlinked aspects of ‘lambness’ by taking his very simple opening phrase and subsequently combining it with itself in inverted and retrograde form. The one therefore becomes three… Although this is an academic process, the result never seems contrived. Rather, the composer seems to be simply and gently ‘playing’ with the phrase. The piece was composed in just one afternoon as a birthday gift for his then three-year-old nephew!
Rehearsals for this concert have been an enlightening journey through musical history, one which we hope our audience will experience as well!