An operatic finale to Holy Week at Christ Church Southgate!

Posted on April 5, 2013

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Sophie, Liz and Howard rehearse the Benedictus from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, after the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday

Sophie, Liz and Howard rehearse the Benedictus from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, after the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday

Richard worked the choir hard over Easter, offering some new and challenging – and some not so new (but still challenging!) music to conclude Holy Week. We were delighted to be joined once again on Easter Sunday by Liz Partridge, David Theodore and their orchestra to accompany our performance of Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass.

The selection of music for the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday included a piece beloved by our new Music Director; a setting of Issac Watts’ hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Edgar F. Day (1891-1983) who worked as Assistant Organist at Worcester Cathedral from 1912 to 1962. While the setting was little known amongst members of the choir, the text, composed in 1707, is one of Watts’ most famous and one of the first English-language hymns to use the word “I”. The chromatic harmonies make this acappella work a difficult sing!

We performed parts of Palestrina’s Missa Brevis during The Great Vigil on Saturday evening. Despite the name (which has been the subject of much – inconclusive – research), this is a substantial work and so we sang just the Sanctus, Benedictus and the first of the two part Agnus Dei. Considered the master of polyphony (music where two or more voices each have a melody – rather than one voice being accompanied by chords sung by the others), Palestrina completed the Missa Brevis in 1570; one of over 100 settings he composed and considered the most popular. The purity and clarity of this acappella Renaissance work was a stark contrast to the razamatazz of the congregational Gloria (during which some of us were able to put our experiments with iPhone ‘bell’ apps to good use, in the absence of the more traditional hand bells!) and helped to set an appropriately reflective tone for the First Eucharist of Easter. Perhaps one of the most beautiful sections of the work is the flowing Benedictus – a trio of solo voices perfectly performed for us by Sophie Hammer (soprano), Liz Hill (alto) and Howard Leithead (tenor).

Liz Partridge, David Theodore and their orchestra joined us to accompany our Easter Sunday performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass

Liz Partridge, David Theodore and their orchestra joined us to accompany our Easter Sunday performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass

Our setting for Easter Sunday was first heard on the same day 234 years ago by communicants in Salzburg Cathedral, where Mozart had been appointed court organist and composer on his return from Paris. Completed on 23rd March 1779, the Mass in C Major was premiered thirteen days later, on Easter Sunday (April 4th) 1779. One of the most popular of Mozart’s settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, we were incredibly fortunate to perform the piece accompanied by acclaimed violinist Liz Partridge and her husband, the celebrated oboist David Theodore and their friends.

The “Coronation” Mass was composed to meet the requirements of the Archbishop to whom Mozart was contracted – for a ceremonial but compact structure – and gained its regal epithet some time later, due to its reputed performance during the coronation of either Leopold II in 1791 or his successor Francis I in August 1792. The marching rhythm set by the strings and the muscularity of the choral entry to the Gloria, the positive, emphatic repetition together with the bursts from the two trumpets, set the celebratory tone from the start – and meant that by the end of the mass, the musical simplicity of the “still days” at the start of the Paschal Tridiuum was long forgotten!

Alison St Denis (soprano), Liz Hill (alto), Phillip Dawson (tenor) and Clive Woodhouse (bass) were selected to sing the solo passages, principally in the form of a quartet, providing brief periods of contrast from the festal throng of the choir and orchestra.

The musical highlight of the morning was undoubtedly the beautiful solo at the start of the Agnus Dei, sung by Alison St Denis; a vocally taxing passage at any time (and especially so at 10.45 in the morning!) Those who noticed that the piece had an operatic flavour will not be surprised to learn that Mozart re-used this part of the score for the Countess’ Dove sono in the third act of Le nozze di Figaro.

We concluded the Easter Day service with two extracts from the Messiah; Since By Man Came Death and the Hallelujah Chorus – works we will reprise on our trip to Winchester on 6th April !

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