On Saturday 15 October 2022, the Sine Nomine Singers presented “Vast Ocean of Light” – singing a varied and fascinating selection of European music, dating from the 16th century to the present day. The concert was at St George’s Church, Bickley and was accompanied by Stephen Davies on the organ and strings from the Cosine Players.
Our publicity letter described the concert in more detail:
Vast Ocean of Light is the title of one of the works we will be singing, by the English composer Jonathan Dove, (b. 1959), and it seems appropriate, along with the beautiful image of the dove we have chosen for our poster, as in this country we face an uncertain future, dealing with our collective sense of bereavement and with Europe currently being torn apart by war. So, in a reflection of these troubled times, our choice of programme moves through passion, obsession and anxiety until finally settling on spiritual affirmation and peace.
Jonathan Dove – whose name, coincidentally and conveniently, is shared by the international symbol of peace – is one of the most popular and accessible of contemporary English composers. His work includes a large and varied choral and song output. About this work, Vast Ocean of Light, which sets words by the prolific English poet Phineas Fletcher (1582 – 1650), Dove has written: “Light, and the idea of light, has always been a source of inspiration to me … I was struck by the immensity of the vision in these lines, in which he sees light as a manifestation of the divine.” Similarly, in the other anthem we have chosen, Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars (Amos 5:8; Psalm 139), for double choir and organ, Dove continues to explore the theme of light, star-light in particular. The anthem begins with a musical image of the night sky, a repeated organ motif of twinkling stars and ends in a joyful dance, finally coming to rest in serenity.
There is probably no more famous dove in classical music than that popularised by German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – ’47) in his anthem for soprano soloist, chorus and organ, Hear My Prayer (based on Psalm 55:1-7), which we will sing in between the two works by Jonathan Dove. Hear My Prayer is set for soprano solo, chorus, and organ or orchestra, and was composed in 1844. In the Victorian period this was one of Mendelssohn’s most popular sacred compositions, with its expression of religious anxiety and tension moving toward resolution in its justly famous and radiant soprano solo.
Then, as a complete contrast, we will be singing two madrigals by the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa (1560 – 1613), which take us away from religious contemplation and into the murky world of erotic obsession. Famous, indeed notorious, in his lifetime, owing to his murder of his first wife and her lover, Gesualdo as a composer was completely forgotten in the centuries following his death, until his manuscripts were discovered by chance and transcribed by the 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971). As well as the secular madrigals, we will be singing Gesualdo’s Tres sacrae cantiones (three sacred songs), which Stravinsky completed. That Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is almost incontestable, and he may have given expression to this in his music, which is extraordinarily powerful, conveying raw emotions in a revolutionary chromatic style that would not be encountered again in European music until the 20th century. His wildly chromatic music is among the most experimental and expressive of the Renaissance.
Another similarly great figure of the Italian Renaissance, but lacking the former’s lurid biography, Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) was a successful and prolific composer of both secular and sacred music, and a pioneer in the development of opera. The motet Beatus Vir, which was probably composed in 1630, is a setting of Psalm 112 and a superb example of Monteverdi’s dramatic style, demonstrating plenty of virtuoso passages for the singers, and is one of the most joyful and exhilarating pieces of 17th century Italian choral music you are likely to hear. The piece is scored for six-part chorus and soloists, and in our concert the choir will be accompanied by Stephen Davies on the organ, and Cory Ferguson and Ellie Fletcher on violins.
Almost a contemporary of these two Italians, English composer William Byrd (c. 1540 – 1623) also wrote beautiful and expressive religious music, and we will be singing the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei from his Mass for five voices. Byrd became a Roman Catholic sometime during the 1570s, and it is probable that, in Protestant England, he composed his Latin liturgical music for use in the domestic chapels maintained, often at considerable personal risk, by recusant Catholic families, where they would have been sung by a small group of singers, perhaps one to a part. One of three settings of the Mass that Byrd composed, the Mass for five voices, scored for soprano, alto, two tenors and bass, is an undisputed masterpiece.
We move back into the 19th century to give a foretaste of our spring concert on Saturday 4th February 2023, when we will be giving a full performance of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897). This October we will sing two movements from it, Behold, all flesh is as the grass and How lovely is thy dwelling place. The German Requiem is not a conventional liturgical Mass for the dead,but a setting of texts that Brahms selected from the Luther Bible to reflect his personal feelings about death. Behold, all flesh was composed shortly after the attempted suicide of Brahms’s dear friend Robert Schumann, and starts in a sombre manner, with the suggestion of a funeral march, as the chorus proclaims the inevitability of man’s fate. A lighter central episode provides brief respite, and the movement ends with the energetic statement “But yet the Lord’s word standeth for ever”, transfiguring darkness into light and leading to a glorious conclusion. The other movement we have chosen to sing, How lovely is thy dwelling place, was composed, like the rest of the Requiem, after his mother’s death in 1865. The lush harmonies and melodic beauty of this tender movement have made it one of the best-loved choruses of the 19th century repertory.
Light is a theme running through this concert, and the evening will close with a performance of Hail, Gladdening Light, by Charles Wood (1866 – 1926). Woodwas an Irish composer and teacher, whose students included Ralph Vaughan Williamsand Herbert Howells, and is now primarily remembered as a composer of Anglican church music. Hail, Gladdening Light is an expressive anthem for double choir, with a stirring accompaniment on the organ, which has remained popular with choirs. It has a warmth and richness of emotional expression appropriate to the text, and gives a strongly affirmative end to the evening’s entertainment – so much needed at this time, like the dove of peace, which is also a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian art.