RUBBRA: Nine Tenebrae Motets / Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis

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Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986)

Sacred Choral Works

Edmund Rubbra was born in 1901 to poor, working-?¡class parents in Northampton. His father was employed in a boot factory and the young Edmund was running errands to supplement the family income long before he left school at the age of fourteen to work as a railway clerk. His mother sang in the local Congregational church choir and took care to encourage his musical development at the piano. In 1920 he gained a scholarship in composition to Reading University where he studied with Gustav Hoist, study which was further encouraged by an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1921. Rubbra left the RCM in 1925 and supported himself by teaching privately; composing, contributing to music journalism and playing the piano. During the course of his war service with the Royal Artillery he was seconded to give chamber music concerts (he was an excellent pianist) and formed an ensemble which later became the Rubbra-Gruenberg-Pleeth Trio. From 1947 to 1968 Rubbra lectured in music at Oxford and was awarded a fellowship at Worcester College, Oxford in 1963. From 1961 to 1974 he also served as professor of music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He died at his home in Gerrards Cross in 1986.

Rubbra is a composer who defies easy description. He embraced traditional forms and structures with ease but with a unique voice and a sophisticated concept of tonality and harmony. This concept seems to grow from the starting point of a composer such as Debussy, where harmonic inventiveness is always logical but often breath-takingly wonderful. Tonality is clear but not set in stone and the context in which it is presented opens up endless possibilities. This combined with Rubbra's innate sense of melody and a love of counterpoint shines through in his compositions.

The other defining characteristic of Rubbra was his firmly held religious belief. Of his colleagues few had definite ideas of faith. Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten and Tippett always felt uncomfortable with set forms of religion and indeed both Britten and Tippett had to sublimate their personal feelings in order to produce music for the Church, but for Rubbra spirituality was the starting point for work, an inexhaustible wellspring from which flowed not only choral and vocal music but also much of his instrumental and orchestral writing. His reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1948 was to prove the inevitable point of rest for a man who had begun his spiritual journey many years earlier. His belief was not simply a gut reaction, its gestation period was lengthy and when it finally emerged it was intellectual, wide-ranging, consistent and deep. Reflected in his output are not only the influences of major Catholics such as Thomas Aquinas, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Teilhard de Chardin (whose name the Eighth Symphony bears) but also English metaphysical writers and elements of Buddhism and Eastern mysticism.

The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A flat major, Op. 65, and the Missa Cantuariensis, Op. 59, were both written for the Anglican rite. The two Evensong canticles composed in 1948 are remarkably bold and original compared with the rather more polite versions offered by late Victorian and Edwardian writers. There is an unusual sense of muscularity at the opening of the Magnificat, underlined by the surprising, slightly threatening use of the diminished fifth and a majestic tempo. Throughout there is sensitivity to just accentuation and word stress, most obviously in the Nunc dimittiswhere a unison melody in octaves between the upper and lower voices stretches languorously around the text. The Gloria is sung to the same music in both cases, still muscular but with self-?¡assurance replacing angst, in spite of the notorious writing of simultaneous duplets and triplets in the organ accompaniment.

The Missa Cantuariensis written during the last years of the Second World War was the result of a conversation between the Reverend J .W. Poole, the then Precentor of Canterbury Cathedral, and the Cathedral Organist, Gerald Knight. The far-sighted Precentor wished to encourage musicians to write for the liturgy and realised (with great clarity) that it was essential for the Church itself to encourage new music. The Mass was first performed on 20th June 1946 in St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield in London with the Sadler's Wells Chorus conducted by Alan Melville: it was first sung in Canterbury Cathedral on 20th July 1946 conducted by Gerald Knight and has remained a regular part of the repertoire.

This was Rubbra's first and largest of his four settings of the Ordinary. It is essentially a festal piece scored for double choir. The full eight-part texture is used throughout with occasional antiphonal effects (at the words Christ have mercy upon us) and reductions in scoring (at the Benedictus) and it makes full use of the vocal ranges. Following the use of the 1662 and 1928 Prayer Books the Gloria is placed at the end of the service. This is a work rooted in the Anglican tradition with even occasional nods in the direction of Tudor polyphony (the Amen of the Gloria, for example), all that is except for the Creed. Rubbra himself drew attention to the difference. It is the only movement to use organ and its unison writing is heavily reminiscent of accompanied Gregorian chant. Rubbra 'felt strongly that the Credo should somehow be isolated in its texture from the other movements, in order to underline the difference between a solitary personal statement of belief and the act of corporate worship and appeal'. The succinct Sanctus and Benedictus show excellent dramatic pacing whilst the Agnus Dei once again delights in the polyphonic heritage with its downward minor sixth intervals used for particular poignancy in the sixteenth century.

A comparison of the Latin and English sacred music of William Byrd reveals a remarkable fact. Both are well crafted and equally beautiful but there is an extra dimension to the Latin music, a deeper spirituality, which is somehow not present in the more serene Anglican writing. The Missa in honorem Sancti Dominici, Op.66, and the set of Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, the nine Tenebrae Motets, Op.72, Nos.1-9, leave the listener in no doubt as to their provenance. These pieces are worlds apart from the Anglican music. The Mass was written as a personal response to his own conversion on the feast day of St Dominic (4th August) and was first performed on 26th October 1949 at the Royal Academy of Music in London, in the presence of the Queen, by the Fleet Street Choir conducted by T.B. Lawrence. It is apiece tailor-made for the liturgy, concise but spacious, with each section clearly characterized according to the text. The mystical elements are particularly obvious at the salient moments - the Kyrie, the Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus of the Credo and the Agnus Dei. Lennox Berkeley thought it 'beautifully done - dignified and simple' and went on to say how much he admired 'the way you managed to find a suitable style without falling into the pastiche of polyphonic music, which so easily happens'. There is no hint of 'old wine in new bottles' here, instead this piece, more than any other, helps to place Rubbra more completely in the tradition of twentieth-century European religious writing. He described it as having 'red blood' running 'through its veins' - not simpl
Disc: 1
Missa Cantuariensis, Op. 59
1 I. Magnificat
2 II. Nunc dimittis
3 Kyrie
4 Gloria
5 Credo
6 Sanctus
7 Benedictus
8 Agnus Dei
9 Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Cyril Scott, Op. 6
10 I. In monte Oliveti
11 II. Tristis est anima mea
12 III. Ecce vidimus eum
13 I. Amicus meus
14 II. Judas mercator pessimus
15 III. Unus ex discipulis
16 I. Eram quasi agnus innocens
17 II. Una hora non potuistis
18 III. Seniores populi
19 Meditation for Organ, Op. 79
20 Kyrie
21 Credo
22 Sanctus
23 Benedictus
24 Agnus Dei
25 Gloria in excelsis
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