The Holy Week calendar in Goa this year had a hugely significant event, and in one of its most magnificent settings: the Sacred Choral concert offered by one of the best choirs in the world, the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge (directed by Mark Williams) at the Bom Jesus Basilica, Old Goa, a day before Maundy Thursday.
The concert, sung a capella, was in two parts. First, the Journey to the Cross: Anthems and motets for Holy Week, in the Latin tradition, and after a brief interval, music from the United Kingdom across the ages, in the English tradition.
William Byrd (1540-1623) was the greatest English composer of the Renaissance. It was a particularly uneasy time and place to be a devout Catholic, in the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Byrd remained a Papist all his life, despite serving and writing for the Reformed Anglican Church. His motet Miserere mei is now a staple of ‘Anglican’ music, and was a rich full sound for the choir to begin their concert with.
The motets of Thomas Crecquillon (1505-1557), a Franco-Flemish Renaissance composer are paradigmatic of the contrapuntal style of that time. Pater peccavi in coelum (Father I have sinned before heaven) for eight voices is one of his more famous motets. The timbre of the counter-tenor, although in the range of the female voice, offered a unique colour to the polyphonic palette.
The line-up fast-forwarded to the 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). Timor et tremor is the first of his Four Lenten Motets, which he wrote in 1938-39. He underwent a profound religious awakening after the tragic death of his close friend in 1936.
Frank Martin (1890-1974) was one of the foremost 20th century Swiss composers. He withheld his Mass for Double Choir (1922) for four decades, convinced it was a “youthful sin”. Agnus Dei is simple in its construction, with the first choir largely in unison weaving an austere melodic line while the second choir forms a harmonic foundation beneath it.
Next we heard Tantum ergo Sacramentum (So great a Sacrament) from Four Motets on Gregorian Themes by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). This is a strophic hymn with text by the 13th century philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas.
The famous Miserere mei by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), for two choirs, was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the programme. This work is shrouded in secrecy and until 1770 only three authorized copies of it were extant and it was forbidden to copy or transcribe it. According to legend, the fourteen-year old Mozart heard it once when visiting Rome and wrote it down from memory the same day. The Jesus College choir took this composition to sublime heights in the Basilica that evening.
The last work in the first half of the programme was the dramatic, pathos-filled Crucifixus etiam pro nobis (He was crucified also for us) by Antonio Lotti (c. 1667-1740).
The second half began with an anthem for six voices, Hosanna to the Son of David by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), a contrast in style and mood to what had preceded it.
Henry Purcell (1659-1695), considered the greatest of all English composers of the Baroque period, stood out from his counterparts when it came to adventurousness in harmony. Hear my prayer, O Lord is a good example of this, with very dissonant chords such as minor ninths. Williams took this at just the ‘right’ tempo, exploiting its beauty and richness to the full.
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) composed his Magnificat for Double Choir as an olive branch to fellow composer Hubert Parry, with whom there had been a rift in friendship. Sadly Parry died before it was complete. The work uses the motet style of the sixteenth century as well as the intricacy and counterpoint of Bach.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wanted to write a Hymn to St Cecilia, not only because she is venerated as at patron saint of music, but he was also born on St. Cecilia’s Day (22 November). The text is by W. H Auden, who had collaborated with Britten before. It is a challenging work to sing, and the choir really shone here, with some magnificent solos.
John Tavener (b. 1944) has been described as “the most uncompromisingly religious composer of at least the past three centuries.” In his Hymn to the Mother of God, dissonances coexist with consonant chords to create a larger whole.
The concert ended with a hymn that could not have asked for a more apt setting, right next to the casket of St. Francis Xavier in the Basilica: San Fransisku Xaviera, by Raimundo Barreto (1839-1906) and lovingly arranged by Rev. Fr. Romeo Monteiro.
The choir had taken great pains to be as faithful as they could to the phonetic nuances of the Concanim language. The encore that followed was Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse devo, the last of the Vespers in his All-Night Vigil. The lush harmonies of this ‘last of the Russian Romantics’ were beautifully brought to the fore by the choir with impeccable intonation and perfect balance.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 5 April 2013)