Ooh la la lass! – Trip to Newcastle Cathedral (Part 2)

Posted on February 12, 2012


The warm up put us in the mood for the French extravaganza that was to follow!

MORE SLEAZE!” he cried. Our warm up consisted of shrugging our shoulders while turning down the corners of our mouths, pursing our lips to accommodate a pretend cigarette holder, blowing smoke rings from an imaginary Gaulois and waving our hands as if to fluff up a poodle; all of which very much served to get us in the mood for the French extravaganza that was to follow.

The setting for the Mass was Vierne’s Messe Solennelle(Op.16) written between 1898 and 1900 while he was Widor’s deputy at St. Sulpice, but premiered on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1901 after the composer had become titular organist at Notre-Dame (beating over 500 applicants to the post – the first time the title had been awarded since the seventeenth century).

The Messe Solennelle was originally composed for two organs

Written in dedication to the organist Théodore Dubois, the organ takes the reins from the oustet and doesn’t let go. The work was originally composed for two organs and was first performed by Vierne on the orgue-de-choer with Widor at the pedals of the principal organ. We sang from a 1979 edition arranged for one instrument and played expertly, as always, by our own David Hinitt.

The four bar rising and falling introduction to the Gloria becomes a leitmotif separating each passage.

The setting remains in C sharp minor until the end of the mass, but there’s no time for lamentation or longing as the choir launch into the Gloria with bombastic forte fortissimo in resolute and determined chorale – the only way to compete with the Cavaillé-Coll organs of St Sulpice! “Et in terra pax hominibus”. The driving, marching beat is used to annunciate key phrases in the first stanza “bonae voluntatis” “Laudamus te” and of course “Glorificamus te” with the first three syllables rising in unison or sung together in close harmony and dividing on the fourth, emphasing the 4/4 time signature – and perhaps also a historical reference to earlier musical forms? The work was composed during the Papacy of Leo XIII and is seen by some as a rebellion against his modernism; but despite harking back to an earlier age, the piece was not considered traditional enough by his successor – it fell out of out of favour following St Piux X’s Musical Reforms, which encouraged a return to Gregorian Chant and (among other things) banned the use of percussive instruments in church! What a party pooper!

The longing of the C# minor comes to the fore in the Domine Deus

The ‘longing’ of the C sharp minor comes to the fore for the Domine Deus, when the chorale splits and each section sings a solo line, characterised by a dotted rhythm that tries – but fails – to keep hold of the start of each phrase against the pulsating beat of the organ below. The lower voices divide to begin the Qui tollis in clashing chords, responding to the organ. This section is coloured by changing dynamics; ‘world’ and ‘mercy’ emphasised by sforzando’s (the musical equivalent of a flash from the tip of Harry Potter’s wand). The Qui sedes is introduced by ascending chromatic passages on the organ, mimicked more slowly by the choir.

The familiar opening melody and energetic tempo returns after a dramatic pause for the Quoniam tu solus sanctus; perhaps my favourite part of the whole Gloria is the cheeky crotchet rest before the penultimate “Dei Patris”!

The Sanctus is, fittingly, more serene and celestial – the voices entering one by one, divided by the organ, coming together in unison and in full voice to proclaim “Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua”. The marching beat of the Gloria returns for the short but passionate “Hosanna.”

The organ falls silent for the only time during the Mass in the opening chroral phrases of the Benedictus

The Benedictus  is a conversation between the organ and choir (who begin unaccompanied – the only time the organ falls silent in the entire mass) – the voices only rise above piano to declare a joyous “Hosanna.”The Messe Solennelle concludes with the solemn Agnus Dei resolving into C# Major for the final line of the mass (Grant Us Peace) with the soprano and tenor sections offering a saucy French flourish in the penultimate “pacem”.Speaking to a young Jean Langlais, Vierne said;

“Mon chéri, you will see that you can give up everything in life: health, happiness, money; but, believe me, there is one that you will never give up: music.”

True to his word, the composer died at the console of the Notre Dame organ on 2nd June 1937 as he gave his 1750th organ recital, despite the attempts of his pupil, Maurice Duruflé to revive him;  a slip of his foot sounding a final low E, which people assumed was the first note of one of his acclaimed improvisations. An organist to the very last.

The Motet; Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine, was a prize winning piece written in 1864 when the composer was just 19 years old. The hymn (cantique) is Jean Racine’s seventeenth century translation of a fourth century Latin text attributed to St Ambrose; Consors paterni luminis (O Light of Light) traditionally used at Tuesday Matins (St Ambrose is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern to the Western Church). After the familiar introduction, the voices rise in progression in response to the text; beginning with the basses “Verbe égal au Très-Haut” (Word of God, one with the most High), joined by the tenors “notre unique espérance, jour éternel” (in Whom alone we have our hope, Everlasting light). The Alto’s join with the line “de la paisible nuit” (of the peaceful night) with the full choir from “nous rompons le silence” (we break the silence)

Singing with the Cathedral choir was a great experience and one we hope to share when we return to the Vierne Mass for our 150th anniversary service!

Set to Db major – a key which Berlioz described as “majestic” and Widor described as the best key for the flute, the second verse begins with a repeat of the melody by the organ, introducing the choir who sing a soft but impassioned chorale; “Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante” (Pour the fire of your powerful mercy upon us) building in dynamic to “que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix” (all of hell flees at the sound of your voice). The last half of the final line is scored in the same way as the opening – the voices rising from the bass to a forte dynamic; “qui la conduit à l’oubli de tes lois!” contrasting with the soft entry of the third verse which, in order to reflect the meter of the hymn, is subtly different than the first (a fact which can catch a singer unawares!). The final line is sung forte and then recapitulated pianissimo; “Reçois les chants qu’il offre, à ta gloire immortelle, et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé!” (Receive the hymns which they offer to your immortal glory and to your gifts, so that they may return fulfilled).

We most certainly took those words to heart! Singing with the cathedral choir for a Eucharist was a rare opportunity and a fulfilling experience! We hope to share it with you when we return to the Vierne for our special 150th Anniversary service on 15th July

For more about the life of Vierne, please revisit my article about World Sight Day from October 2010, online here; https://confirmedreports.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/seeing-is-believing-sunday-3rd-october-2010/