Monday, June 02, 2014

Two Musical Meditations for Ascensiontide

Yesterday I searched through my collection of recordings at home to see if I could find some Ascensiontide music to share with my family in the evening. I was surprised at how little specific music I could find, but I did come across two magnificent pieces: Thomas Tallis's office hymn Jam Christus astra ascenderat (which is more a Pentecost hymn but opens with a great reference to the mystery of the Ascension itself) and Gerald Finzi's anthem "God is Gone Up."

So, as we await in prayer the promised Paraclete, here are two beautiful (and very different!) musical meditations.

A translation:

Now Christ had ascended to the stars,
returning whence he had come,
having promised the Father's gift
that he would grant them the Holy Spirit.

The solemn day was approaching
which blessed time is marked
by the mystical seven-times-seven
rotation of the world.

During the third hour,
suddenly the whole world resounds,
and as the apostles pray,
announces the coming of the Lord.

Therefore from the light of the Father
there comes a beautiful and loving fire
which infuses the hearts of the faithful in Christ
with warmth of his word.

These consecrated hearts
you thus replenished with your grace;
forgive now our sins
and give us peaceful times.

Praise be to the Father with the Son,
together with the Holy Paraclete,
and may the son send to us
the grace of the Holy Spirit.

From the notes for Thomas Tallis’ Complete Works:
Towards the end of Henry VIII's reign, composers began to produce choral settings of Office responsories and hymns. Precise dates are difficult to establish, but the senior composers associated with these developments seem to have been John Taverner (d. 1545), whose musical employment (but not necessarily his activity as a composer) evidently came to an end in the later 1530s, and John Redford, who died in 1547. The new fashion was continued mainly by two younger composers: Thomas Tallis, by whom we have seven hymn settings and nine responsories, and John Sheppard, with about seventeen hymns and twenty responsories. …
          Tallis's approach to composing hymns and responsories is methodical but inventive. The hymns are essentially settings of the original plainchant melodies. When sung entirely in plainchant, hymns were performed alternatim, the two sides of the choir singing alternate verses to the same melody. Tallis preserves this alternatim structure by setting only the even-numbered verses and usually also the doxology in polyphony, leaving the other verses to be sung to the original chant. …
          It is easy to underestimate the craftsmanship and ingenuity of these hymn settings. They are all in five voices, with the plainchant in the top voice, but the variety that Tallis can achieve despite what might be considered a mechanical approach is quite astonishing. … Jam Christus astra ascenderat demonstrates another kind of unobtrusive craftsmanship: in the first two verses Tallis works the plainchant in canon in the treble and contratenor, while in the third the chant sails over an independent imitative texture that becomes ever more tightly argued as it proceeds. 
*          *          *

"God is Gone Up," an anthem composed in 1951 by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), sets to music a poem by Edward Taylor (1646?-1729):

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets' melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphic-wise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven's sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev'ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

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