I was fortunate in my earlier life to sing Baroque and Renaissance music as part of the Shenandoah Valley group Canticum Novum. Custer LaRue, one of the eight-to-twelve singers depending on the gig, was definitely our ringer. I’ve seldom heard such a pure soprano voice. Along with a number of recordings and other highlights in her career, Custer was the “singing voice” of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Vanity Fair. (Custer also sang a solo at our twins’ baptismal service, accompanied by yours truly on guitar. While I doubt it made her musical resume, it was definitely a highlight of my musical career.)
The other ringer was Carol Taylor. An award-winning choral director at McGill University, Carol fell in love with the sound of tracker organs and then fell in love with George Taylor, who happens to build world-class tracker organs (with his partner John Boody) in little Staunton, Virginia. I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to sing with Custer, and with Debbie Hunter, Lucy Ivey, Shari Shull, Kay Buchannan, Constance Harrington, Peter Hunter, John Boody, Mark DuVall, and Dick Coleman, (plus others) under Carol’s magnificent direction.
It is possible that our son Andrew’s move to a professional career in music came because of what he heard around the house growing up. In fact, when his Madrigals group at Brown University sang their senior concert, Andrew floored me with his introduction to the Magnificat (Short Service) by Orlando Gibbons — a beautiful piece with a quick scale up in the soprano part for the word “servant” that always struck fear into every treble’s heart for centuries, in no small part because it always fell just after a page turn somehow! In any event, getting back to his introduction, Andrew said it was important to him to have this piece included because he had heard it as a young boy on a recording of his father’s early music group, and always loved its simple beauty. He noted that I was in the audience that evening, and then the Madrigals sang that wonderful composition — bringing memories from my heart and tears to my eyes.
Suffice it to say that Andrew and I share a deep love for unaccompanied vocal ensembles singing beautiful and intricately-crafted compositions from the classical canon. When I realized that my Saturday Music post would fall on the final day of Holy Week, I reached out to Andrew — who is in his London flat, sheltering in place during his final year at the Royal College of Music — and asked for some help. He was all in!
For this edition of Saturday Music, I’m pleased to present this curated selection by Andrew Bearden Brown of five of his favorite pieces of the season. (Selections by ABB; notes and any mistakes by DJB.)
Tallis Scholars, Lobo, Versa est in luctum
We’ll begin with the Tallis Scholars, who “over four decades of performance and a catalogue of award-winning recordings have done more than any other group to establish sacred vocal music of the Renaissance as one of the great repertoires of Western classical music.” In this video, we hear their version of Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum. Lobo, who was active in the later Renaissance, composed his most famous motet in 1598 upon the death of Phillip II of Spain. The motet is for six voices, and the performance notes for the piece indicate that, “Out of the slow river of beautiful notes, stunning phrases sometimes emerge, or bold homophonic internal gestures divert the forward motion somewhat. The full choir is present almost throughout, and Lobo creates, with his wall of gorgeous sound, an appropriately majestic work of mourning.”
Versa est in luctum cithara mea,
et organum meum in vocem flentium.
Parce mihi Domine,
nihil enim sunt dies mei.
My harp is turned to grieving
and my flute to the voice of those who weep.
Spare me, O Lord,
for my days are as nothing.
VOCES8, Byrd, Ne Irascaris Domine | Civitas Sancti Tui
The English composer William Byrd has long been a favorite, and in this video VOCES8 sings Byrd’s double motet Ne Irascaris Domine and Civitas Sancti Tui in the Gresham Centre in London. The Catholic Byrd wrote these motets in the 1580s as a protest against the Elizabethan Catholic persecutions, and the text refers to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. One online commentator wrote, “This is perfection (and an exceptionally brilliant piece of writing by William Byrd). The perfection of the upper voices (not the slightest hint of a vibrato), and the sonority of the lower voices make for a magical performance of this epic masterpiece.” VOCES8 regularly performs in the U.S.; ranks among my personal favorites thanks to the wide range of music they perform with impeccable style and taste; and finally, in full disclosure, has added Andrew as a singer on occasion in recent months with the Choir of the VOCES8 Foundation.*
Ne irascaris, Domine, satis
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce, respice, populus tuus omnes nos.
Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.
(Isaiah 64 v. 9)
Be not angry, O Lord, still,
neither remember our iniquity for ever.
Behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people.
The holy cities are a wilderness.
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.
TENEBRAE, Howells, Like as the Hart
Tenebrae, under the direction of Nigel Short, is one of the world’s leading vocal ensembles renowned for its passion and precision. Their version of Like as the Hart by the English composer Herbert Howells is a beautiful and thoughtful rendering of this classic, which is based on Psalm 42 vv. 1–3. Howells taught composition at the Royal College of Music for almost 60 years, and this particular composition — which I sang back in the day — has long been another favorite of mine.
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks,
so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul is athirst for God,
yea, even for the living God.
When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
My tears have been my meat day and night,
while they daily say unto me,
“Where is now thy God?”
THE SIXTEEN, Poulenc, Vinea mea electa
The Sixteen stands today among the world’s greatest ensembles, “peerless interpreters of Renaissance, Baroque and modern choral music, acclaimed worldwide for performances delivered with precision, power and passion.” Their performance in this video of French composer and pianist Francis Poulenc’s motet Vinea mea electa is another beautiful reading that is especially meaningful for Holy Week. Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (Four Penitential Motets), FP 97, are four sacred motets composed in 1938–39. He wrote them on Latin texts for penitence, scored for two choirs (eight unaccompanied voices). Andrew notes that they are remarkably economical given their tonal and sonoral complexity. Vinea mea electa (Vine that I loved as my own), is a responsory for the matins of Good Friday.
Vinea mea electa, ego te plantavi: quomodo conversa es
in amaritudinem, ut me crucifigeres et Barrabam dimitteres?
My chosen vineyard, I planted you : how have you turned
into bitterness, so as to crucify me and free Barabbas?
CAMBRIDGE SINGERS, Durufle, Ubi Caritas
Finally, we’ll end with the Cambridge Singers, under the direction of John Rutter, singing one of my all time favorite pieces of choral music, Maurice Duruflé’s setting of Ubi Caritas. This hymn of the Western Church, long used as one of the antiphons for the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, comes from a Gregorian melody composed sometime between the fourth and tenth centuries. Duruflé’s choral setting makes use of the Gregorian melody, but incorporates only the words of the refrain and the first stanza.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Where charity and love are, there God is.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
Let us exult, and in Him be joyful.
Let us fear and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other (and Him).
Whatever your religious tradition or beliefs, Andrew and I hope you can enjoy the beautiful choral music of Holy Week.
More to come…
NOTE: For those looking for the fourth and final installment of my Saturday Music series on the trio I’m With Her and its individual members, we’ll return next week with a celebration of the music of Sara Watkins.
*Shameless parental promotion: to hear Andrew sing with VOCES8, check out the tenor aria Ach mein Sinn at the 31:00 minute mark of the video of the Bach St. John Passion. And while it is in the wrong season, I have to send you to the VOCES8 rendition of the Philip Stopford setting of the Coventry Carol, the traditional English carol dating from the 16th century. Stopford’s Lully, Lulla, Lullay — filmed by VOCES8 in St. Stephen’s Walbrook Church, London — is so haunting, and soprano Eleonore Cockerham’s soft, clear, yet ethereal voice is a treasure. I love this carol and this version.