Siglo de Oro’s Triumphant Performance Explores Both Sides of Religious Upheaval

13/11/2017

Various composers: Siglo de Oro / Patrick Allies (conductor), St. John’s Smith Square, London, 9.11.2017. (TStJP)

A Burning Desire for the Heavenly Kingdom: The Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Music

Walter Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
GoudimelEtans assis aux rives aquatiques
SheppardChrist rising again
PalestrinaTu es Petrus
TyePeccavimus cum patribus
Victoria Ave Maria a 8
ByrdO Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth; Infelix ego

Five hundred years ago, on 31st October 1517, Martin Luther nailed (though some scholars suggest that he actually glued) his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral. Credited as the founding act of the Reformation, Luther’s legacy would see Europe torn apart by religious divisions and sectarian violence. One often imagines the Reformation as a literary movement, associating it with the vernacular Bible and printing press. But no aspect of culture was left untouched by the religious changes sweeping Europe, and music was no exception. To commemorate this momentous event Siglo de Oro presented a programme of Reformation and Counter-Reformation music at St John’s Smith Square, intended to represent both sides of the religious upheaval.

Dressed in black suits and floor-length gowns, the group made an appealing visual impact from the first moment they trooped onto the stage. I personally am always delighted when performers come out dressed to the nines. Director Patrick Allies then explained the afternoon’s programme, and throughout the concert would step forward to elaborate on each section. Speaking articulately, he proved an excellent guiding hand.

The first section was dedicated to the Reformer composers Walther, Goudimel and Sheppard. Walter has been referred to as the father of Lutheran church music and the first cantor of Protestantism, one of the first composers to write for the Reformist movement. One of his best-known works, the hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, remains beloved today. A paraphrase of Psalm 46 (‘A might fortress is our God’), it hints at the violence and instability which accompanied Luther’s campaign and became known as the ‘Battle Hymn of the Reformation’. First sung as a simple melody it was then repeated polyphonically, leaving one wondering whether it was intended for a lay congregation or a professional choir. Though musically it was not a major departure from earlier ecclesiastical trends, the use of vernacular German was radical. Likewise with the next piece, Goudimel’s Etans assis aux rives aquatiques. A setting of Psalm 137 it was composed in French. Tragically its French Calvinist composer was killed during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1571, a reflection of the turbulence of the times. Soothing and evocative, the piece gave away nothing of the brutal context in which it was written. This was followed by Christ rising again, an Easter motet by the English composer Sheppard. Commissioned by both Edward VI and Mary I, he clearly had his wits about him. Christ rising again is sombre, reminiscent of plainchant. But besides being sung in the vernacular, its setting for tenor and bass also reflects the reality of Edwardian England, which saw choir schools closed, meaning that boys were no longer available to sing the soprano and alto parts.

The second section explores the music of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s resurgence against the Protestant threat. Here several bigger names such as Palestrina and Victoria pop up, and unsurprisingly Latin predominates. Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus is a shameless propaganda piece intended to bolster Papal authority, as based on Matthew 16. Its exquisite polyphony and angular melodies repeatedly soar heavenwards, its complexity a world away from the solemn Protestant pieces. Returning to England was Peccavimus cum patribus, composed for Queen Mary. There is some irony in this, as Tye, the composer, would later play an important role in the establishment of Anglican music and liturgy. Though described by Allies as a symphonic work it suffered in comparison to Palestrina, sounding dull after the ebullience of Tu es Petrus. Victoria’s Ave Maria conveyed one of the Counter-Reformation’s main attractions: its continued dedication to Marian devotion. Though less resplendent than the Palestrina, Ave Maria was still glorious, demonstrating the intense drama which Victoria excelled at.

Dedicated to Byrd, the third and final section explores the complex relationship between private faith and public allegiance. A protégé of Thomas Tallis, Byrd was a valued member of Queen Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal despite his recusancy. His religious convictions didn’t prevent him from composing for the Anglican Church either. His piece ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth’ demonstrates the inseparability of religion and politics in this era, as well as betraying Tallis’ influence on him. It also reveals how he and other composers laid the foundations for Anglican ecclesiastical music, using earlier traditions as inspiration. In contrast, Allies suggested that Byrd’s sober Infelix Ego (Unhappy I) expressed the anguish he felt due to his faith. Written by Girolamo Savonarola a century earlier while waiting to be executed, the text was widely disseminated around Europe and set to music by multiple composers.

Siglo de Oro offered a fascinating glimpse into the music of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. But ultimately it was just that: a glimpse. An entire day could never hope to fully delve into European music of the period, let alone one hour. The uneven programme contrasted some of the heavyweights of Renaissance music with lesser composers at the expense of the latter. The singing alone however was marvellous, each member clearly an accomplished singer and contributing to the performance overall. Singing acapella suited the more complex and polyphonic pieces though, less so the simpler melodies. As a performance the afternoon was a triumph, but as a study of the music of the period less so.

Thomas St John Pierce

For more about Siglo De Oro click here.

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