We began with a suitably cheerful piece, the Cockaigne Overture by Elgar. Whilst his Enigma Variations had proved to be a success in 1899, the Dream of Gerontius, on which wrote at the end of the manuscript score “this is the best of me”, was initially a failure and caused Elgar to become dispirited. Nevertheless, he received a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society which resulted in the Cockaigne Overture which he described as “cheerful and Londony, ‘stout and steaky’ … honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar.” Cockaigne was originally a term used for an imaginary country of luxury and delight which is of dubious etymology. The first performance was in the Queens Hall London in 1901 and was an instant success and became one of Elgar’s most popular works although it is performed less frequently nowadays.
The music gives a lively musical portrait of Edwardian London. It begins with a quiet theme which leads into an unbroken sequence of snapshots of London, the cockneys, the church bells, a slightly ragged brass band contrasted with a grand and imperious military band. It has been compared to the prelude of Wagner’s Meistersingers von Nuremburg. George Bernard Shaw wrote of the overture “But if you say that Elgar’s Cockaigne overture combines every classic quality of a concert overture with every lyrical and dramatic quality of the overture to Die Meistersinger, you are either uttering a platitude as safe as a compliment to Handel on the majesty of the “Hallelujah” Chorus, or else damning yourself to all critical posterity by uttering a gaffe that will make your grandson blush for you. Personally, I am prepared to take the risk. What do I care for my grandson? Give me Cockaigne.”
After that we listened to The Chagall Windows an abstract work by John McCabe. McCabe was a British Composer and pianist born in Liverpool in 1939 and died in 2015. In his early career he was better known as a virtuoso pianist. In 1974 he saw photographs of the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall in the Synagogue of the Hadassah Hebrew university in Jerusalem and was much taken by them and determined to put his feelings into music. At the same time Granada TV were planning a documentary on the birth of an orchestral work from commission to first performance and chose John McCabe as the composer with the Hallé Orchestra as the commissioner. They flew him to Jerusalem to see the windows which depict the twelve tribes of Israel. The work is not programmatic but rather a single movement symphony shaped by the subject matter of the twelve windows.
With a somewhat abrupt change of style we heard the medieval choral work Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. Tallis has often been described as the father of English Church music. His religious faith was however somewhat ambiguous, which at the time of the reformation could be helpful. The origins of the piece are somewhat obscure but there is a story that on hearing Ecce Beatam Lucem, by the Italian composer Alessandro Strigio the Duke of Norfolk bemoaned the fact that no English Composer had written as good a piece. Apparently, Tallis, who was present undertook to compose such a piece and Spem in Allium was the result. The work is linked with Nonsuch Palace, at that time the London residence of the Earls of Arundel, although it later passed to the crown. Spem in Allium was written for 8 separate choirs each with 5 voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It has been supposed that the first performance took place in the octagonal banqueting suite at Nonsuch Palace a room which had four balconies each of which was occupied by a choir. The text is taken from the Book of Judith and the opening words are “I have never put my faith in any other but in thee, God of Israel”.
The recording we heard was by the Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips. Other recordings exist by the Kings Singers and Harry Christopher’s Sixteen which were of course only made possible by multi-tracking.
As an encore we heard the Miserere by Allegri. This was written to be performed for the pope by the Sistine Chapel choir and was apparently never allowed to leave the chapel to prevent it being hijacked by protestants, although reportedly Mozart heard it in the chapel and wrote it down from memory. Of course, only males were allowed to sing in the Sistine Chapel Choir which did create a problem for the higher voices, which was solved by surgical assistance. The affected singers had some consolation as they were much in demand by the ladies of the court who were able to conduct informal liaisons with them without fear of any unintended consequences!