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Programmes for Lent: Reproaches, Lamentation and Penitence

Corvus Consort (vocal ensemble)

This full-length concert programme explores how composers from the Renaissance to the present day have responded to Lenten themes of repentance, lamentation and petitions for mercy.



Both halves begin with a setting of the Improperia or Reproaches, a liturgical text in which Jesus rebukes his people: Victoria’s (Latin) and Sanders’s (English) settings were published more than 400 years apart, and Sanders’s setting is a particularly powerful work, which deserves better recognition beyond the sphere of church music.

The first half continues with a setting of excerpts from the Stabat Mater by the Consort’s director, Freddie Crowley, and then Emendemus in melius by Renaissance composer and theorist Vicente Lusitano, whose 1555 book of motets makes him the first ever published black composer. The half ends with Francis Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, a dramatic set of four works, which give a real masterclass in Poulenc’s wide range of harmonic, melodic and textural techniques.

The second half features William Byrd’s Ne irascaris, Domine, whose second part, Civitas sancti tui, is particularly popular. The motet is an example of Byrd’s recusancy, with the images of desolated Jerusalem symbolising the plight of the Catholic faith in Elizabethan England. The programme ends with James MacMillan’s setting of Psalm 51, ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, a text particularly famous for its setting by 17th-century Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. MacMillan’s Miserere, written in 2009 for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, contains echoes of Allegri’s work, reimagined into a rich contemporary soundworld in a piece full of drama, beauty and deep emotional outpouring.

Tomás Luis de Victoria – Popule meus
Freddie Crowley – Stabat Mater
Vicente Lusitano – Emendemus in melius
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence
Interval
John Sanders – The Reproaches
William Byrd – Ne irascaris, Domine
James MacMillan – Miserere

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This hour-long programme juxtaposes Renaissance and 20th-century soundworlds by interspersing Francis Poulenc’s atmospheric Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence with works by Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis and Tomás Luis de Victoria.

This programme structure illustrates the ways in which Poulenc’s compositional language was inspired by Renaissance choral music, and also accentuates the fact that the 21st-century listener must always hear Renaissance music through a contemporary lens.

Sancte Deus is a little-known early work by Tallis, which sets a selection of excerpts from different Holy Week texts. It is structured in several short sections, and has an especially beautiful opening, where the first cadence emerges out of a single note, and the intensity builds progressively through the first three phrases.

The three short works by Tomás Luis de Victoria come from the Responsories for Holy Week, which are often sung at special services called ‘Tenebrae’. Victoria wrote many polyphonic settings of the different responsories, which are intended for matins services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week — each service of matins contains three sections called ‘nocturns’, each of which contains three responsories. The three featured here are for the second nocturn of matins on Holy Saturday, and are some of Victoria’s best-known Tenebrae Responsories, for the beautiful way in which they capture the atmosphere of Holy Week.



The programme ends with Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, which is perhaps one of the most popular pieces of choral music today, often sung on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. It is particularly famous for its soaring soprano solo, which was almost certainly not part of the original, but emerged during the work’s convoluted history of transcriptions and editions.

Thomas Tallis – Sancte Deus
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence: Timor et tremor
Tomás Luis de Victoria – Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday: Recessit pastor noster
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence: Vinea mea electa
Tomás Luis de Victoria – Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday: O vos omnes
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence: Tenebrae factae sunt
Tomás Luis de Victoria – Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday: Ecce quomodo moritur justus
Francis Poulenc – Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence: Tristis et anima mea
Gregorio Allegri – Miserere mei, Deus

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Some other works that could be featured in similar programmes:

Robert White – Miserere mei, Deus
Thomas Tallis – Lamentations of Jeremiah
Edgar Day – When I survey the wondrous cross

This last piece, by Edgar Day, works particularly well for an uplifting end to a programme, as its final section breaks out from the more meditative mood of most other Lenten repertoire into a truly joyous final cadence.

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Corvus Consort
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