The Sixteen Choral Pilgrimage at St Albans Cathedral
On Saturday 30th September, world renowned choir, The Sixteen, return to St Alban's Cathedral as part of their 2017 Choral Pilgrimage, based on music by Poulenc and Palestrina. This year The Choral Pilgrimage centres around the themes of conflict and atonement. Palestrina’s mass based around the famous L’Homme Armé tune was immensely popular in the 16th century and its warlike nature serves as a timely reminder of the savagery of conflict, something which deeply affected Poulenc. Poulenc’s Un soir de neige, composed in December 1944, reflects both the inner feeling of peace generated by Christmas and the bleak solitude of another winter of occupation in France.
An introduction from Harry Christophers:
For the Choral Pilgrimage 2017, I will be exploring the legacy of two composers whose work, for me, represents the very pinnacle of sacred music – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Francis Poulenc. Both honest composers, they never try to appear other than they are. Palestrina is the master craftsman whose work composers from all ages have attempted to emulate, while Poulenc’s music always bears a human face and he himself felt he put his best and most authentic side into his choral writing.
Palestrina’s legacy and impact on sacred music worldwide is second to none. Composers through the centuries have studied and learnt from his gift for writing exquisite polyphony. Palestrina penned over 100 masses, and I have chosen some of the movements from his mass based around the famous L’Homme Armé tune. This song was immensely popular in the 15th century and its warlike nature serves as a timely reminder of the savagery of conflict, something which Poulenc was deeply affected by. Poulenc’s Un soir de neige, composed in December 1944, reflects ‘both the inner feeling of peace generated by Christmas and the bleak solitude of another winter of occupation in France’. The texts by Paul Éluard, though secular, nevertheless possess a sacred tone. A parallel can be drawn with Palestrina’s settings of the Song of Songs. Originally Hebrew love poetry, written down possibly 300 years or so before the birth of Christ, these are texts which in Renaissance times were used in praise of the Virgin Mary, and were often considered too sensual and erotic to be read.
But how important is a composer’s personal faith, when they are writing sacred music? Palestrina spent his whole life in the service of the church and in his preface to the Song of Songs, which he dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII, he apologised, and indeed ‘blushed and grieved’, for possessing light and vain ideas in the past! Francis Poulenc was born and bred a Catholic but lapsed during and after World War I, preferring to live a witty hedonistic life in 1920s Paris where he took great delight in tweaking the noses of the powers that be at moribund establishments.
Poulenc ironically enjoyed huge popular success, and never really looked back until he received the devastating news in 1936 of the death in a horrendous car crash of a friend and colleague, PierreOctave Ferroud. He sought solace in a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of the Vierge Noire at Rocamadour, and as a result he regained his faith. With his renewed faith, Poulenc composed sacred music of unique quality that for me makes him stand out among more recent composers. The French musicologist and critic Claude Rostand once said of him: ‘In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.’ I rather like that, and it comes across in his music, especially in the way he sets his liturgical texts. Every sentence has a different inflection, a personal stamp – he’s telling us ‘this is what these words mean to me’.
Poulenc and Palestrina lived more than three centuries apart, and their musical language is completely different. Yet they share a perspective on sacred music that is both intensely personal but also immediate in its expression.
Discover more about this year's pilgrimage in our exclusive behind-the-scenes trailer featuring interviews with Harry Christophers and some of our singers.
Poulenc Salve Regina
Palestrina ‘Surge amica mea’ and ‘Surgam et circuibo civitatem’ from Song of Songs
Palestrina Parce mihi, Domine
Poulenc Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence
Palestrina Peccantem me quotidie
Palestrina ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ from Missa L’Homme Armé
Poulenc Un soir de neige
Palestrina Salve Regina
Poulenc ‘Agnus Dei’ from Mass in G
More information and tickets can be found here.