MUSIC FOR ST. MICHAEL & ALL ANGELS – Sunday, September 27, 2020

Factum est silentium – Richard Dering (c. 1580-1630)

view video here:

Richard Dering was an English Catholic musician who went into exile in the Spanish Netherlands. By 1617 he was organist to the convent of English nuns in Brussels, and in the same year published his first collection of Cantiones SacraeFactum est silentium comes from a second collection which appeared in 1618; its declamatory, dramatic style shows clearly the influence of the new Italian Baroque which Dering’s compatriots in England were somewhat slower to embrace. The text for this motet, Dering’s best-known choral work, is the Benedictus antiphon for the office of Lauds on Michaelmas Day.

Factum est silentium in caelo,
Dum committeret bellum draco cum Michaele Archangelo.

Audita est vox millia millium dicentium:
Salus, honor et virtus omnipotenti Deo.
Millia millium minestrabant ei et decies centena millia assistebant ei.

There was silence in heaven
When the dragon fought with the Archangel Michael.

The voice of a thousand thousand was heard saying:
Salvation, honour and power be to almighty God.
A thousand thousand ministered to him and ten hundreds of thousands stood before him.


The company of heaven, Part three: Ye watchers and ye holy ones – Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

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In the late 1930s the BBC had been producing a series of special programs to mark the major religious festivals of the Church of England. In July of 1937 Britten received a contract to compose a score for the program celebrating Michaelmas. He began writing in early August, completing the score in full on September 22, just in time for the feast day. As with the previous BBC programs of this type, the librettist Ellis Roberts assembled the text of The Company of Heaven, combining biblical texts and verses of suitable hymns (mostly on the theme of angels in general, not just Michael) along with passages from Christina Rosetti, Emily Brontë, William Blake and John Bunyan.

Britten had complete freedom to choose which parts he would set to music. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he left most of the narrative texts for readers unsupported by music and concentrated on the lyrical texts. These he set to varied orchestral colors and styles, starting with a somber single-line orchestral passage that wanders chromatically (to suggest the primordial chaos), building with timpani punctuation. But after the first spoken passage, Britten introduces a hint of the hymn tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN, which is traditionally sung to the words “Ye watchers and ye holy ones,” with which Britten will end the piece in a splendid declamation. It is this ending which I have included in the link above.

The Company of Heaven is one of Britten’s least known pieces because he, no doubt, considered it merely “incidental music” in a less important category than his song cycles, orchestral works and operas. But it offers us a wonderful glimpse into the work of the very talented 24-year old composer just starting on a brilliant career and reveals that the composer we know from the later masterpieces is already fully present.

O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord:
Praise him and magnify him forever.

O Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright Seraphs, Cherubim and Thrones,
Raise the glad strain,
Cry out Dominions, Princedoms, Powers,
Virtues, Archangels, Angels’ choirs,

O higher than the Cherubim,
More glorious than the Seraphim,
Lead their praises,
Thou Bearer of th’ eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord,

O friends in gladness let us sing,
Supernal anthems echoing,
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,

Heaven is here,
And the angels of Heav’n.

(Athelstan Riley, 1858-1945)


Alleluyas – Simon Preston (b. 1938)

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Simon Preston, the acclaimed English conductor and composer, is particularly well known as a concert organist with a long and distinguished career. He spent three years as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, where the organist and director of music was the legendary Boris Ord. According to Preston, when he approached Ord for organ lessons, “he was actually rather grumpy about the whole thing and tried his best to stall me.” Eventually, he was given permission to start lessons with Hugh McLean, King’s organ scholar at the time, later organist-choirmaster at Ryerson United Church in Vancouver, and much later, my own teacher.

Preston was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey from 1981 to 1987, a post which he relinquished to embark on an international concert career.

Preston has composed a number of works for the organ, of which Alleluyas, written in the style of Olivier Messiaen, is the most well-known. After the initial improvisatory gesture, Alleluyas is built from the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas—the one fast and spikily rhythmic, the other a series of richly scored jazzy chords. It is played here by Daniel Cook, Master of the Choristers and Organist at Durham Cathedral. The piece is headed by a quotation from the Liturgy of St James:

At his feet the six-winged Seraph;
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya, Lord most high.


Gerald Harder