“Sounds of the Cathedrals” Program Notes

Sounds of the Cathedrals

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Vatican, Sistine Chapel

Miserere Dei, Deus

Gregorio Allegri, 1582–1652

 Composed during the 1630s, this setting of Psalm 51 perhaps has one of the most famous stories of all the pieces on tonight’s program. Gregorio Allegri worked at the Sistine Chapel in the a capella (from the chapel) choir during the reign of Pope Urban VIII. Allegri’s compositional training included counterpoint in the style of Palestrina, and the motets he composed while under Pope Urban accentuated specific acoustic properties of the highly resonant Sistine chapel. The papacy at that time preferred a musical style of simplicity and conservatism, reminiscent of the late sixteenth century, despite the growing favor for monody from the seconda pratica (the second practice, found in music from approximately 1600 forward) in church music.

Miserere Dei is shrouded in secrecy, as traditionally the papal choir only sang the piece during the Tenebrae Offices of Holy Week. If anyone transcribed, copied, reproduced, or performed the music for any other cathedral, they faced punishment by excommunication. Yet in the year 1770 a young fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Rome and attended the Wednesday service during a performance of Miserere Dei, Deus. He returned to his rooms and wrote the entire motet from memory, returning again on Friday for a second hearing to double-check his work. Mozart traveled heavily during his youth, and at some point he came across Dr. Charles Burney, who took the piece to London and had it published in 1771. The pope heard of Mozart’s famed publication and summoned him to Rome. However, instead of excommunication, Mozart received praise from the Holy Father for his musical genius and discriminating ear.

The piece alternates in plainchant, and two choirs both sing the Psalm in falsobordone, a practice of harmonizing the psalm with root-position chords, similar to the fauxbordon style found in the Dufay piece later in tonight’s program. The highly specialized Renaissance ornamentation, known only to papal singers and closely guarded by the Vatican, gave the piece its longstanding mystery. Today, many consider it one of the most important and best-loved choral works of all time, due to the stunning setting of the psalm.


Worcester Abbey

Alleluia; A Nywe Werke

Anonymous, 15th Century

Found in the Selden Carol book of Worcester Abbey, this English Christmas carol comes from the fifteenth-century tradition of contenance angloise (English consonance). The merry carol continually returns to the burden (refrain) on the word Alleluia, alternating with the verses in two or three voice medieval textures. Each verse portrays a sprightly tale of the Virgin Mary and the birth of her son, Jesus Christ. The voices interweave seamlessly, making it difficult to follow any individual part. The middle voice presents the main melody, and the outer two voices sing in parallel harmony with a long succession of parallel thirds and fifths, demonstrating the distinctive “sweet” sound found in English composers of the time. This type of harmony influenced the writing styles of Dunstable and Dufay (both later in tonight’s program), who both set songs in parallel harmony, which is based on the English tradition. The language reflects the middle-English pronunciation of the early fifteenth century


Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace

Christe Qui Lux es et Dies 

William Byrd, 1543–1623

This ancient hymn, “Oh Christ who art the light and day,” may come from as early as the sixth century, as it can be found in the Rule for the Virgins written by St. Caesarius of Arles. The hymn may originate in the body of chants attributed to St. Ambrose, as it has a similar metrical construction to other hymns from that collection. Historically, this Office hymn is sung at Compline during Lent, and several composers have interwoven the chant in polyphonic settings.

William Byrd wrote a five-voiced version of the hymn in which he set all seven verses. The first and the last are sung by the tenor, with verses two through six sung in homophonic harmony. Beginning with the bass voice, Byrd sets the original chant (cantus firmus) in each voice, moving upward verse by verse.

Despite the political turmoil between the Church of England and Rome, William Byrd remained a Catholic at heart throughout his life. He wrote music in all styles depending on the liturgical or secular needs of the monarch he served as a member of the Chapel Royal, primarily James I and Elizabeth I. However, much of his music stems from mass services in which he and fellow Catholics worshiped privately in their homes. Thus, several compositions are meant for three to five voices, allowing a mass service to be easily sung by a small ensemble.

Byrd likely composed Christe Qui Lux es et Dies during the Elizabethan era. The hymn could have been sung as an Anglican anthem instead of a Catholic liturgical function, despite the chant’s provenance, since Queen Elizabeth officially sanctioned Latin for use in the Chapel Royal.

Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace 

O Nata Lux de Lumine

Thomas Tallis, 1505–1585

The Chapel Royal began not as a place, but rather as a body of priests and singers that accompanied the monarch on his or her journeys through the country, or possibly to war. Later, the name Chapel Royal became associated with several buildings at each monarch’s residence. These residences include Hampton Court, the Tower of London and St. James’s Palace, which now houses the headquarters of the Chapel Royal. Over time, the English Chapel Royale became increasingly associated with Westminster Abbey, sharing nearly all singers and staff by the mid-seventeenth century. Although the Chapel Royal still existed after the seventeenth century, much of the formal ceremony associated with the monarchy (weddings, funerals, and baptisms) occurred at Westminster Abbey.

A versatile composer, Tallis stood on the precipice of the fall of Catholicism in England and the beginning of the Anglican Church. Despite the religious turmoil, Tallis remained a favorite of each subsequent ruler due to his multifaceted skills. He served under four monarchs including King Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elisabeth I. Tallis composed in a highly adaptable liturgical style appropriate to both the Latin Catholic rite and the new English tradition. O nata lux de lumine comes from the Catholic rite, a hymn dating from the tenth century for the Office of Lauds during the morning of the Feast of the Transfiguration. He set only two verses from the hymn, highlighting the biblical setting when Jesus appears to the disciples in a mystical light and shimmering clothing. The fragment of the hymn illuminates the Christian call to be one with Christ’s “blessed body.” Tallis sets the motet in a primarily chordal format, with a compelling melody in the soprano. At specific cadential points, one can hear the sourness of “cross relations,” or the simultaneous sounding of both the F and F-sharp, drawing attention to dissonance before the final cadence.



Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey/Monastery

Maria Matrem (fr. Llibre Vermell de Montserrat)

Anonymous, 14th Century

The original Maria Matrem chant comes from a body of melodies collected by St. Ambrose of Milan between the fourth and eighth centuries A.D. This collection eventually developed into the Ambrosian Rite, the only other Papal, divinely accepted chant beyond the Gregorian Rite. A variation of Maria Matrem appeared in medieval Catalonia at the Montserrat Abbey/Monastery (northeastern Spain and southern France) in a collection entitled Libre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), named after its red velvet cover. A center for learning and the home of the “Black Virgin” statue, Montserrat was a desirable location for large numbers of pilgrims. The pilgrims often expressed jubilation upon their arrival by singing and dancing in the church area around the shrine. Although the Monks of the Santa Maria de Montserrat Monastery appreciated and understood the pilgrim’s celebratory exultation, the monks felt much of the music was largely secular and unbefitting to such a holy place. Instead, the monks assembled a collection of music suitable to the revered shrine, with sacred texts. Most of the pieces in the book are actually secular melodies of the fourteenth century, set with new religious texts.

Toledo Cathedral

Versa est in Luctum

Alonso Lobo, 1555–1617

Alonso Lobo composed Versa est in Luctum during his time as maestro de capilla (director of music) of the Toledo cathedral. This six-voiced motet is one of his most well-known compositions due to the circumstances surrounding its creation. King Philip (a member of the Habsburg family, important patrons of music with close ties to the Burgundian court) died in 1598, and Lobo wrote this motet for the King’s funeral services. The funeral services took place in Madrid, fifty miles north of Toledo, where the Archbishop of Toledo officiated at the Requiem. Due to the Archbishop’s presence, Lobo and the Toledo Cathedral choir performed music for the official exequies (funeral rites). However, Lobo wrote the motet at the Toledo Cathedral, and then traveled to Madrid for its performance.

Four years later this motet received publication with six other motets and six masses in the collection Liber Primus Missarum (Madrid, 1602). Lobo’s compositional style combines the transparency of Palestrina, the imitative passages of the polychoral Venetians, and the luscious beauty of his fellow Spaniard, Tomas Luis de Victoria. Many consider him to be one of Spain’s finest Renaissance composers.



Saint-Brieuc Cathédrale in Brittany

Lux Aeterna (Dorioù ar baradoz)

Goulven Airault

* This year’s commissioned composer

*World Premiere

Goulven Airault’s composition, Lux Aeterna, comes from the communion portion of the Requiem Mass and the Breton hymn, Kantik ar baradoz (the inspiration for this composition), which is sung at funerals during the last farewell in Brittany. This ancient hymn describes the joy that the soul experiences at death when it separates from the body and enters paradise. The Sanctus text accompanies the melody and comes from the liturgy of the Eucharist, when the faithful sing with the saints and angels of God’s glory.

Lux Aeterna-Doriou ar Baradoz is a short composition, but unambiguous in its expression: it addresses the question of death, not as the end, or despairing of the end, but rather the passage which drives us toward eternal light, the divine and merciful Love.

“Despite violence and terrorist attacks which have occurred in my country and in all the world recently, I want to transmit a sense of deep peace from my heart. It is through hope and faith that makes us capable of forgiveness. It is only through God’s love and the forgiveness of sins that will enable us to find peace.”

—Goulven Airault

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Alleluya Nativitas (Organum)

Perotinus, 1160–1225

Musical art from twelfth-century France arose alongside the decorative architecture and sculpture of the period. Moving away from the Romanesque churches with round arches and frescos, architects of this period developed the Gothic style, seen in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. With its soaring vaulted ceilings, pointed arches, flying buttresses, slender columns, and large stained-glass windows, polyphony of the period mirrored the architecture in its growth.

Originally associated with the University of Paris and sung in the cathedral, Notre Dame polyphony is the first polyphony composed by writing the music down, not through an oral or improvisatory tradition. Composers of this method, notably Perotin and Leonin, valued an ornate style of two or more independent voices called organum. Each piece could have three to four voices, all on a different melodic line, with the original chant most likely elongated in the tenor voice (from the Latin tenere, meaning “to hold”).

Simultaneous to these polyphonic developments, the Notre Dame school created the first notated rhythm. Called rhythmic modes, they were patterns grouped in threes, made up of long and short notes and notated by a musical symbol called a ligature. Each ligature group of three modeled the meters found in poetry; they are the first instances of notated rhythm in western music. Tonight’s example, Alleluya Nativitas, displays two male singers orating polyphonic lines of ligature groups in three, while the rest of the men sing the original chant found in the tenor line. This style of music is quite difficult for modern performers to sing due to its alien structure, as compared to modern notation and harmony.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Windows to Paradise (In Paradisum)

Dr. Kira Zeeman Rugen

*Regarding the exquisite stained glass found in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

*World Premiere

Kira Rugen wrote “Windows to Paradise” from the observer’s perspective inside Notre Dame cathedral which houses elongated and glorious stained-glass windows. Indirect light passes through the windows encircling the cathedral, casting diffused beams, manifesting numerous shades of color, and even blurring the visual distribution of light. The colors illuminate the interior of the stone structure, and occasionally the sun shines exquisitely and brightly through a single pane, allowing one to bask in the full glory of a kaleidoscope of light.

Notre Dame’s stained glass serves the function of telling a biblical story, expressing themes on morality, or depicting religious symbolism. Dr. Rugen draws upon the idea that the biblical story and religious symbolism is a call from God to raise our spirit to Him, both physically after death and metaphysically during life. The windows then become the passageway by which believers travel on their way to paradise to be at peace with God.

In Kira Rugen’s work, she initiates the piece with dovetailing harmony, which undulates in and out of consonance, symbolizing the blurred and colorful light reflected in the cathedral. The next section interweaves a soloist singing the In Paradisum chant, set in a reflective mode, with the choir’s exquisite chords. The song morphs into a section of tightly sonorous chords which represent the brilliant color of stained glass when the sun shines directly upon the windows. It ends simply, with a poignant hymn based on the In Paradisum chant, and a series of joyful chords which represent oneness with God and his ultimate ability to impart peace.    


Weimar Court Chapel

Fugue, BV 545 (1708-1717)

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750

Bach’s historical status has been elevated to the pinnacle composer of the Baroque period, and for some, of Western music. However, during his lifetime his renown only extended to the areas in which he resided. He composed keyboard, instrumental, and choral works for the chapels and churches which employed him. However, little of his music received publication during his lifetime.

During J. S. Bach’s time at the Weimar Chapel under Duke Wilhelm Ernst, he produced an abundance of music for the organ. Duke Ernst ruled with generous sponsorship toward court music, and in hiring Bach as Konzertmeister, he insisted that the young musician fully explore his talent on the organ. Bach not only oversaw the remodeling of the organ in the chapel, he also gave numerous recitals, and it is here that he wrote most of his major organ and harpsichord compositions. Fugue, BV 545 comes from this period of Bach’s life, and tonight Cornua Irae will perform a transcription of this organ work for horn quartet.


St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (12th century St. Thomas Monastery)

Immortal Bach

arranged by Knut Nystedt, 1915–2014

Based on the chorale “Komm Süsser Tod” (1725 by) Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750

When J. S. Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, he took on the role of chief musician at the St. Thomas Church and School, teaching private lessons, composing, copying, and rehearsing music for the church service. Yet his position grew, as eventually he became the director of music for four churches in the region, requiring him to elicit the help of his students as deputies.

While Bach alternated between churches to conduct the major cantatas, his students took on the lesser works for the opposing Sundays. He composed heavily, often one major work for church per week, as well as providing music for town ceremonies, university functions, weddings, and funerals. He worked with the finest musicians in the region, so much of his output reflects the complexity and expertise expected from professional-level players and singers.

Bach composed this chorale tune, Komm Süsser Tod (Come Sweet Death), soon after his new job began at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church in 1725. He composed it originally as an aria (a solo song with basso continuo) published in Musicalisches Gesangbuch in 1736. Bach then regularly set the tune in subsequent organ passacaglias and fugues, cantatas, and four-part chorales meant for worship. This 2005 rendition is an atmospheric interpretation by composer Knut Nystedt from Norway, which received two Grammy nominations in 2007 on the disc “Immortal Nystedt.”

Bach’s remains were moved to St. Thomas church in 1950, 200 years after his death.


Cathedral of Cambrai

Ave Maris Stella

Guillaume Dufay, 1397-1474 and John Dunstable, 1390–1453

Guillaume Dufay had a broad spectrum of talents. In addition to his activities as a composer, he labored as a doctor of Canon Law, regularly participating in various ecclesiastical events. Much of Dufay’s output reflected his dedication to canonic duties, as it furthered the larger role that liturgical polyphony played in the Church. A wealthy, cosmopolitan, and powerful man working at the Cambrai Cathedral (northern France, Belgium region), his friendship with Dunstable furthered his compositional technique. Their practices are so similar that researchers often discuss the English and Flemish styles in terms of cousins rather than rivals.

This work, Ave Maris Stella, places Dufay at center stage as an international composer. Inspired by English harmony, Dufay applied the fauxbourdon technique in several of his hymns, antiphons, and simpler office chants. Ave Maris Stella begins with the plainchant in unison, and then during the burden (chorus) the top voice has the chant; the middle line appears consistently a fourth below the chant and was likely improvisational. The bottom voice moves similarly in a parallel sixth below the top voice, but would not have been improvised. The resulting effect sounds eerily archaic to modern ears due to the parallel fourths, and yet strangely familiar due to the relatively new fascination fourteenth-century Europeans had with the ‘sweet’ sounds of an ‘English inspired’ consonant third. Verse four comes from Dunstable’s version, and verse six comes from Dufay hand, both in sine fauxbordon (freely composed).


St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney Islands

Nobilis Humilis

Michael McGlynn

The St. Magnus hymn, or Nobilis Humilis, celebrates St. Magnus of Orkney. Magnus, Earl of Orkney lived on the western shore of Scotland during the Norwegian invasion of 1098. The Vikings subjugated Magnus and his family, forcing them to serve under the Norwegian kings. The Norwegians saw his gentle and pious nature as weak when he refused to fight during a Viking raid. He held to his religious convictions and sang psalms as the battle surrounded him. The Viking chieftains chose to execute him for his “treachery,” and before his death, Magnus, Early of Okney prayed for his executioners. His remains now rest in St. Magnus Cathedral of the Orkney Islands, which locals built in the memory of St. Magnus, whom they venerated considerably.

The central melody and text of this song, set originally in two parts, dates from the mid-thirteenth century. Found in a thirteenth-century manuscript owned by the Uppsala University, the hymn describes St. Magnus of the Orkneys. The chant Superba namque colla, which begins this piece, was written in honor of St. Patrick and comes from a fifteenth-century Irish source.

Return to Italy

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Rome

O Magnum Mysterium

Dr. Anne Kilstofte

*Local Phoenix Composer

*World Premiere

“O Magnum Mysterium tells quite simply of the mystery of Christmas Eve.  I have always found Christmas Eve to be an event of quiet joy and humility. The text tells of the lowly circumstances into which Christ was born, including the stable with the animals. All of this is found in the traditional Latin text and the text painting is meant to show the difficulties of this evening as much as its wonder. 

            The cathedral that inspired this work is St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. I spent a great deal of time there in 2006 and again in 2008. The many artworks inside and out are inspiration alone, but the fact that the dome was designed by Michelangelo, completed under the auspices of several Popes, and finished after Michelangelo’s death shows the endurance and selflessness of art.”

—Anne Kilstofte

Sistine Chapel, Vatican Rome

Missa Pope Marcellus, Agnus Dei 

Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina, 1525–1594

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina worked for most of his life in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. His music became the model revered by composers’ generations after his death. His style, synonymous with the term Stille antico (old style), characterizes the height of Renaissance polyphonic composition. He wrote predominantly in the sacred genre, and he wrote more Masses than any other composer to that point. Although the Council of Trent (held during the Counter-Reformation) made scant changes to music’s desired construction, officials did affirm that the text must always be understood in polyphonic music. As the legend goes, Palestrina saved polyphony from condemnation by the Council of Trent by composing stunning music that did not obscure the words.

His music embodied the ideas of the Counter-Reformation: music should be pure, elegant, and have an understandable text, but also vary in rhythm, melody, and sonority. His form and harmonic structure sounds transparent, yet he juxtaposes overlapping five- to six-voiced polyphony with homophonic textures, culminating as the ideal compositional perfection for Renaissance sacred music. A hallmark of Palestrina’s style includes the strict use of dissonance, where composers discreetly suspend offending notes long enough to encourage the listener to desire resolution, which he then presents with serenity and grace. Tonight we will sing the Agnus Dei from the work that “saved” polyphony, Missa Pope Marcellus


St. Marks Cathedral, Venice

Canzon Seconda a Quattro (1608)

Giovanni Gabrieli, 1554–1612

Giovanni Gabrielli worked as the Maestro de Musica at St. Marks Cathedral in Venice, Italy between 1585 and his death in 1612. He had a notable education, including instruction from his uncle, Andrea Gabrieli (also Maestro de Musica at St. Marks), and renowned German composer, Orlando de Lassus. He published his first set of Sacrae Symphoniae (sounding together) in 1597, a collection of ensemble works for instruments alone. The collection became a famed publication during his lifetime, and inspired a crop of young composers to study under him, which helped spread the “Venetian style” around Europe and the conquistador American provinces.

In the year 1568, the church established a permanent ensemble of first-rate instrumentalists (mostly of cornets and sackbuts). Due to the resources available to him at the cathedral, Gabrieli composed a number of ensemble works called Canzon (meaning song). In these first instrumental pieces, hallmark musical designations occurred for the first time in printed scores. Gabrieli is the first composer to call for instruments only instead of voices. Previously, music could have been composed for interchangeable instruments or voices. Due to that fluctuation, modern researchers find it difficult to determine which scores were for instruments, for voice, or for both. Furthermore, since the middle ages, instruments had been called by their relative volume known as haut et bas (high and low, or loud and soft). By writing pian’ e forte (soft and loud) in his score, Gabrieli became the first composer to indicate dynamics.


St. Marks Cathedral, Venice

Hodie Christus Natus Est à 8

Giovanni Gabrieli, 1554–1612

An old Italian city, second only in importance to Rome, Venice thrived as a chief port for merchants and traders and accumulated vast wealth and power. Venice’s glory lay within the method in which it displayed its riches and wealth. The Venetians spent lavishly on public music and art as a means of intimidating potential enemies and impressing other cities that might aspire to that level of glory. The enormous St. Marks Basilica housed massive eleventh-century Byzantine domes, gold-plated ornaments, tile mosaics, and stained-glass masterpieces.

Most importantly for the development of music, the church cased four vast pillars with four organs housed on the posts. Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli composed music for multiple choirs. The Gabrielis placed those choirs, cori spezzati (divided choirs), in the pillars with the housed organs, and they sang as physically divided choirs. Sometimes they sang unaccompanied or doubled by instruments, or one choir might be an ensemble of cornettos and sackbuts, while another an ensemble of strings.

Tonight’s piece, Hodie Christus Natus Est, is a motet for eight voices separated into two choirs. French horns are not appropriate to the period of the late sixteenth century, as they didn’t appear until the mid-seventeenth century. However, they do have a beautiful brass sound that resembles the bold textures asked for during the late Renaissance. Today, most of Gabrieli’s motets are performed by brass ensembles. We end tonight’s program with this lively Christmas text to send you off with a jubilant and joyful symphony of sound!




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