Let all mortal flesh keep silence – Edward C. Bairstow (1874-1946)
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Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow was born in Huddersfield on August 22, 1874. After a spell teaching in Windsor, Sir Edward Bairstow (1874–1946) was articled to Sir Frederick Bridge at Westminster Abbey in 1893. He also held an appointment as Organist and Choirmaster at All Saints’, Norfolk Square, in London until 1899 when he went to Lancashire to take up the post of Organist at Wigan Parish Church. In 1906 he moved to Leeds Parish Church; he was appointed Organist of York Minster in 1913, a post he held until his death in 1946.
In Bairstow’s works the technical construction subservient to the music which often feels as if it is almost continuously unfolding on a vast canvas. His approach is scholarly and meticulous, showing the influence of Bach and Brahms. Let all mortal flesh keep silence was published in 1925. It achieves its mysterious effect at the outset by using tenor and bass parts in octaves, followed by upper voices only at the words ‘and lift itself above all earthly thought.’ This high-pitched texture returns as the words ‘the Cherubim with many eyes’ chime out with a short, arpeggiated ostinato figure in the bass part. The final dramatic alleluias lead to a restatement of the opening material with a dark choral accompaniment. The St. James’ choir last sang this piece at Evensong in June of 2019.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence
and stand with fear and trembling,
and lift itself above all earthly thought.
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God,
cometh forth to be our oblation,
and to be given for Food to the faithful.
Before Him come the choirs of angels
with every principality and power;
the Cherubim with many eyes, and wingèd Seraphim,
who veil their faces as they shout exultingly the hymn:
O nata lux – Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
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Born in Colfax, Washington, Morten Lauridsen studied composition at the University of Southern California with Ingolf Dahl, Halsey Stevens, and others. He joined the USC faculty in 1967 and has taught there ever since. He was designated “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 and he received the National Medal for the Arts in 2007.
In 1997 Lauridsen composed the choral cycle Lux aeterna, which was premiered that year by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Each of the five connected movements in this cycle contains references to light, assembled from various sacred Latin texts. In the composer’s words: “I composed Lux aeterna in response to my mother’s final illness and found great personal comfort and solace in setting to music these timeless and wondrous words about Light, a universal symbol of illumination at all levels – spiritual, artistic, and intellectual.”
The text of O nata lux, the middle movement of the cycle heard here, is the ancient office hymn for the feast of the Transfiguration. This movement was last sung by our St. James’ choir on the Last Sunday after Epiphany in 2019; the entire cycle was sung in concert by our choir in 2006. The music itself is light-filled, at once sensuous and spare.
O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
Dignare clemens supplicum
Laudes precesque sumere.
Qui carne quondam contegi
Dignatus es pro perditis,
Nos membra confer effici
Tui beati corporis.
O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with loving-kindness deign to receive
suppliant praise and prayer.
Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be members
of thy blessed body.
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1) – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
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In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor (Director of Church Music) in Leipzig. During his first year in that position, he composed new works for almost all liturgical occasions, each with an emphasis on biblical texts. In his second year in his new position, he composed a cycle of chorale cantatas, with each cantata based on one Lutheran hymn. The opening chorus of Cantata 1, heard here, falls into the latter category.
Lutheran Leipzig observed several Marian feasts, including Annunciation, for which Bach wrote this cantata, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully the morning star shines). It is based on Philipp Nicolai’s seven-stanza hymn of the same name, which itself was primarily associated with Epiphany. This opening movement is a chorale fantasia for the chorus, with the cantus firmus of the chorale melody sung by the sopranos.
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Voll Gnad und Wahrheit von dem Herrn,
Die süße Wurzel Jesse!
Du Sohn Davids aus Jakobs Stamm,
Mein König und mein Bräutigam,
Hast mir mein Herz besessen,
Schön und herrlich, groß und ehrlich,
reich von Gaben,
Hoch und sehr prächtig erhaben.
How beautifully the morning star shines,
full of grace and truth from the Lord,
the sweet branch of Jesse!
You, the Son of David from the root of Jacob,
my King and my bridegroom,
have possessed my heart;
beautiful and glorious, great and noble,
rich with gifts,
exalted and most magnificently sublime.