18 September 2016 – Holy Cross Day

September 14 marks the observance of The Holy Cross, one of the Holy Days set aside in the Book of Common Prayer. Here at Trinity we transfer this day to the nearest Sunday, providing a respite from the march of Ordinary Time (those “green” Sundays from Trinity Sunday onward). According to legend, the True Cross was discovered by St. Helena (the mother of Constantine the Great) during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built on this site and the observance marks the dedication of this church in 335. It was actually a two-day festival: although the consecration of the church was on September 13, the cross itself was brought outside the church on September 14 so that all could come to venerate it.

Marcel Dupré’s (1886-1971) Stations of the Cross began its life as an organ improvisation. A professor at the conservatory in Brussels approached Dupré about a recital of poetry and organ improvisation; the poem that was chosen was Le Chemin de la Croix by Paul Claudel (1868-1955). The plan was to read separately each of the fourteen stanzas of Claudel’s poem with Dupré improvising a musical commentary after each one of them. The concert took place in Brussels in February of 1932 and was so successful that Dupré wrote down his improvisation, leaving us with the score we now know today. The Eighth Station (“Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem”) is a cantabile movement featuring a plaintive melody in the tenor voice (heard on the trumpet stop) played against relatively simple, block-like accompanying figures on an secondary manual.

A translation of Claudel’s original poetry for the Eighth Station:

Ere on the hill’s steep side He climbs one further step,
He lifts His hand o’er those who followed Him
In tears — some women poor, each carrying her own child.
Let us look on and listen, too, for Jesus speaks.
The lifted Hand shows Him Who, Man, is more than man.
This scene reveals the God Who suffered for our sake.
And, since He is our God, His act is for all time.
This day in very truth God suffers for our sins.
From what, then, and at what a price has He saved us?
Our tongue is beggared when we say “for this the Son
Was forced to tear Himself from His own Father’s side.”
If this the price at which we’re saved, what then is hell?
If our sick souls ask this, what of the Christless dead?

Christopher Tye (c. 1505-before 1573) was an English Renaissance composer, notable for successfully navigating the dangerous waters (i.e. staying alive) as the new Church of England swung back and forth between Protestant and Catholic sensibilities (and consequently musical idioms and languaging). He trained at the University of Cambridge and became master of the choir at Ely Cathedral. He served as the music teacher of Edward VI and was held in high esteem as a composer (it is likely that only a small percentage of his compositional output survives). He is perhaps best known for the tune Winchester Old, now commonly sing to the text “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night.” The anthem Give almes of thy goods is typical of early English sacred choral music in the vernacular. This short anthem is predominantly syllabic, the words clearly declaimed in all voices with limited contrapuntal technique so as not to obscure the meaning of the text.

Quirino Gasparini (1721-1778) was an Italian composer of the early classic (“Gallant”) period. He actually studied for the priesthood but largely devoted his life to music, becoming maestro di capella at the cathedral in Turin. His output is predominantly sacred although he wrote several operas, including a 1767 setting of Mitridate which three years later was set by a 14-year-old Mozart for the 1770 Milan carnival. Gasparini’s short, four-voice motet Adoramus te (originally attributed to Mozart) is a simple, yet effective setting of this antiphon for the Good Friday liturgy (it is also a common responsory during Stations of the Cross). In spite of its brevity, the motet shows an effective use of chromaticism and small points of imitation.

The Praeludium in C is one of the best known of the organ works of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707). Buxtehude was the organist at the Marienkircke in Lübeck from 1668 until his death and the chief propagator of the North German organ style of the middle baroque. The chief characteristic of Buxtehude’s praeludia is the notion of Stylus phantasticus (“fantastic style”). First articulated by Athanasius Kircher in 1650, theorist Johann Mattheson wrote (1693) of the style that:

“In this style, the way of composing, singing, and playing is completely free, with the least amount of restrictions imaginable. One discovers one idea after another, connected only by harmony and not by words or melody, so the musician can demonstrate his virtuosity. Every unusual harmonic progression, ornament, turn, and amazing color are presented, without regard to meter or tonality, without formal themes or bass lines.

For example, the Praeludium in C opens with pedal solo, punctuated by chords at the cadences. It is followed by alternating sections of contrapuntal work with those more homophonically inclined. It ends with a short but brilliant chaconne (a varied repetition over a repeated bass figure—listen to the pedal line) and a final keyboard flourish that confirms the key of C major.

(illustration: Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Engraved by E. Challis after a drawing by W. H. Bartlett, published in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, about 1850.)