The best classical music for St George's Day
What are the great classical works that have helped shaped English music? As we celebrate St George’s Day, our experts look back over the centuries and name their six key pieces.
The Medieval period (1250-1485)
Dunstable: Veni Sancte Spiritus – Veni Creator Spiritus
Dunstable, referred to now as Dunstaple, was born in 1390 or thereabouts, worked in France between 1422-37 at the court of Henry V’s regent, the Duke of Bedford, and died in 1453. Many sources, in his lifetime and shortly after, acknowledge him as a crucial inspiration to Binchois (1400-1460) and Dufay (c1400-1474), who was arguably the most eminent composer of his time, and perhaps the main bridge between medieval and Renaissance music.
One measure of Dunstaple’s importance in the eyes of his contemporaries is the number of surviving manuscripts of his works, which have been found across Europe as far as Estonia. Dunstaple was a master of contenance angloise, the style characterised by sweet-sounding thirds and triads, with all voices consonant with each other.
Veni Sancte Spiritus – Veni Creator Spiritus is probably the most illuminating example of his wonderful blending of technical complexity with emotional directness and warm humanity. It’s a motet built around a late 12th-century hymn and is, to use a 20th-century term, ‘isorhythmic’. That’s to say that rhythms and melodies are repeated but with varying results due to both being of differing lengths. Though quite short (five to seven minutes, depending on the interpretation), it is packed with fascinating detail: in the second section Dunstaple reduces the note values by one third, then further reduces them by half in the third section, giving a ratio of 3:2:1.
What happened next…
Dunstaple helped to popularise English discant, where the chant that formed the basis of a piece would be harmonised by adding voices at intervals of a third and a sixth above. Until his time these intervals were considered dissonant in mainland Europe, whereas they had long been regarded as acceptable in England. Dunstaple’s use of triads, the brightness of his harmonies and the airiness of his melodies, were adopted and developed by Dufay and thus contributed to the evolution of mainstream European music.
The Tudors (1485-1603)
Tallis: Miserere nostri
Thomas Tallis steered a remarkable passage through the choppy waters of religious upheaval, faithfully serving four monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I). Somewhere along this difficult journey he composed his Miserere nostri, a three-worded, three-minute work whose construction, symbolism and sheer aural beauty make this one of the shortest yet most compelling masterpieces of all time. It was quite possibly during the short reign of Queen Mary that Miserere nostri was composed.
When Elizabeth I later granted Tallis and his younger contemporary William Byrd an exclusive licence to publish music, Miserere nostri quickly appeared in print. The piece is set for seven voices. The Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary had significance during the reign of Queen Mary. And when Tallis and Byrd published the Cantiones sacrae in 1575, Miserere nostri was printed as the final piece in the collection – the last word, as it were, in the musical achievements of the day.
Miserere nostri contains a ‘Canon 6 in 2’: the Tenor part is freely-composed, but the other six voices are built from only two musical building blocks. For all of its breathtaking craftsmanship and numerological significance, Miserere nostri is also achingly beautiful. It moves inexorably to its conclusion as it offers up its gut-wrenching Tudor prayer: ‘Have mercy on us, O Lord’.
What happened next…
At the end of the 16th century, Thomas Morley recognised that canons were a highly effective means of compositional education (‘whosoever will exercise himself diligently in that kind, may in short time become an excellent musician’). However, while far from neglected, Tallis’s canonic tour de force is these days often overshadowed by his 40-voice motet Spem in alium. Yet both are great works. When in 1585 William Byrd poignantly wrote that ‘Tallis is dead and music dies’ he was speaking too much for his own time.
Tallis wrote spectacular music whose influence allowed the English Golden Age to extend from the House of Tudor into the House of Stuart and beyond.
The Stuarts (1603-1714)
Purcell: Hail, bright Cecilia
During his short but prolific career, Henry Purcell graced St Cecilia’s Day celebrations with a series of impressive odes and a large-scale ceremonial setting of the Te Deum and Jubilate. Hail, bright Cecilia was the fourth and final ode commissioned from Purcell by the gentlemen of the Musical Society at Stationers Hall in London.
The first performance of his new ode was given on 22 November 1692 with at least 13 soloists (including the first female singer in such a work) and a full orchestra of trumpets, drums, recorders, oboes, bassoon and strings. Lasting 50 minutes, this was Purcell’s longest, grandest and most carefully structured choral work, the like of which audiences had never heard.
The grandeur of the music is apparent from the very first bars. A ringing fanfare shared between trumpets, oboes and strings develops into a ten-minute Italianate symphony – one of the longest such overtures of the time. In the solos, Purcell took the art of writing arias over a repeated ‘ground bass’ to new heights of sophistication, and ‘Tis Nature’s voice’, with all its extravagant ornamentation, ranks as Purcell’s most expressive declamatory song.
But what must have surprised and impressed listeners most was the massive choral writing which opens and closes the work and provides its core – the richly expressive ‘Soul of the world’. With Hail, bright Cecilia a favourite at some of the country’s earliest public concerts, it marked the start of the British secular choral tradition.
What happened next…
Judging by the number of surviving manuscript copies of the piece from the late-17th and 18th century, Hail, bright Cecilia became Purcell’s most popular large-scale work and, along with the ceremonial St Cecilia Te Deum and Jubilate of 1694, kept his style alive in an England which increasingly worshipped at the altar of George Frideric Handel.
The British secular choral tradition, borne of works like Hail, bright Cecilia, blossomed during the 19th century, giving rise to masterpieces like Parry’s Blest pair of sirens. During the 20th century Purcell’s music was revived by a wide spectrum of composers from Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippet to Peter Maxwell-Davies and Michael Nyman.
The Georgian era (1714-1837)
Messiah was the seventh and most famous of Handel’s oratorios. Premiered in Dublin in April 1742, it confirmed the wisdom of his decision to expend much of his creative energies during the latter part of his life to writing oratorio.
It is interesting to note that Messiah was unique among Handel’s oratorios. Whereas works like Israel in Egypt and Samson were essentially biblical dramas that happened to have been performed without stage action, Messiah is essentially a narrative, its text drawn from the Bible (mostly the Old Testament) and constructed in three parts, the first celebrating Christ’s birth, the second the Passion and the third a powerful affirmation of faith. In choosing to set such material outside the realms of the church, Handel realised that he was courting controversy and when the work was eventually performed in London at the Kings Theatre in 1745 it was simply billed as a ‘new sacred oratorio’ in the hope that clerical sensibilities would not be offended.
The real breakthrough for Messiah occurred five years later when he mounted annual performances of the work at the Foundling Hospital (an organization for underprivileged children) which from 1750 onwards attracted ever increasing popularity. Some 30 years later the historian Charles Burney was to write most aptly of Messiah that ‘this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios, more than any single production in this or any other country.’
What happened next…
Frederick Delius’s frequently quoted remark from 1909 that Handel ‘paralysed music in England for generations and they have not yet quite got over him’ holds more than a grain of truth. Quite simply, British composers were totally intimidated by Handel’s achievement and during his lifetime and for many years later no one could possibly match the brilliance and majesty of its invention.
Ironically, while the popularity of Messiah was to stifle the development of British oratorio until the landmark first performance Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in 1900, it was to prove liberating for composers on the continent. For example, Mozart’s musical style was immeasurably richened by his experience of re-orchestrating Messiah in the 1780s. Some years later Haydn, attending a performance of Messiah, claimed that ‘this man is the master of us all.’
The Victorian age (1837-1900)
Parry: Blest Pair of Sirens
Though popularly portrayed as the nadir in the history of ‘the Land without Music’, Queen Victoria’s long reign actually teemed with music-making, and arguably integrated music into the social fabric more thoroughly than before or since.
But at the height of Continental Romanticism, gifted native composers could hardly compete with the acclaim lavished on visiting continental stars, while British opera, symphonic and instrumental music languished in the shadow of the cathedral-dominated ‘cantata market’. A movement for reform and subversion was early active, however. George Grove founded London’s National Training School for Music – forerunner of the Royal College of Music.
More like this
The great movement for increased excellence in music which gave rise to the phenomenon we call the ‘British Musical Renaissance’ was initiated by idealistic Victorians, including the Englishman Hubert Parry. Parry, who joined the staff of the RCM as soon as it opened and eventually became its principal, was skilled as no British composer had been for a century in choral, orchestral and chamber music. He proposed a bolder choral music, stemming from Purcell, that would complement the riches of English poetry with vigorous and sophisticated music, robust and idiomatic in its wordsetting.
Most influential was his magnificent setting of Milton’s ‘Ode on a Solemn Music’, Blest Pair of Sirens, composed for the Bach Choir in 1887. With its huge, ardent melodic paragraphs, perfect in proportion and enacting, rather than depicting, the essence of Milton’s paean to the ‘sphere-born, harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse’, Parry’s work established itself more firmly than any composition by his colleague and rival Stanford. It made manifest a new and visionary strain in British music which impressed and inspired his successors.
What happened next…
Parry’s work was highly influential – especially on his pupils such as Vaughan Williams, Howells and Dyson, but also on Elgar, from an essentially different background, who in 1904 called Parry ‘the head of our art in this country’. The choral tradition that he rejuvenated continued to be one of the glories of British music in succeeding decades. And though the composers who came of age in the 1930s often affected to dismiss Parry, even Tippett’s Child of Our Time and even Britten’s War Requiem ultimately owe him a significant debt.
The 20th century (1900-present)
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
The story of English music’s rebirth in the 20th century takes in some legendary happenings. Regarding what’s truly meant by ‘influential’, let’s consider a work for strings – lasting only 15 minutes, and first heard at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. The setting was appropriate. The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was the first great flowering of an interest in English church music that Vaughan Williams had been pursuing for some years.
While compiling a new edition of the English Hymnal, he had been impressed by Tallis’s sombre Phrygian-mode tune for the 1567 Psalter for Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Fantasia that was to grow from this had another source also. Vaughan Williams naturally knew the Baroque concerto grosso, with its solo and collective string groups, and Elgar had taken up the same idea with brilliance in his Introduction and Allegro of 1905.
The Tallis Fantasia uses similar resources, but in a different way: not as a virtuoso display of symphonic-style development, but an anti-virtuoso summoning of musical space. On one level this is achieved by the presence of three distinct ensembles: a string quartet, the main string orchestra, and a smaller one placed at a distance.
These multiple perspectives create a remarkable equivalent, in musical terms, of the proportions of cathedral architecture. Everything grows from different elements of the same idea – the Tallis tune itself which moves and breathes with a particular kind of ease and freedom, bypassing classical tradition altogether.
What happened next…
Reaching back to the realm of Tudor church music, the Tallis Fantasia had come up with a new vision of what music itself actually was, and of how it could work. Spatial deployment of voices and instruments has since become a standard musical resource: Britten’s War Requiem is one major example, Tavener’s Ultimos Ritos another. And the application of pre-Classical methods in a modern context has encouraged some of English music’s boldest explorers – for instance the ritual, medieval-style structures of Birtwistle, or Maxwell Davies’s use of cantus firmus techniques. Sometimes the unlikeliest musical revolution is indeed the deepest.
This article was first published in the October 2008 issue of BBC Music Magazine.