Thursday, October 25, 2018

MUSICAL POLITICS: Motets of Influence


William Byrd (1540–1623) - Ne irascaris Domine
Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) - To Morning (2008)
Thomas Tallis (1505–1585) - Gaude gloriosa


Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) - Miserere mei, Deus
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) - The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997)
Byrd - Tribue Domine

SACRED MUSIC OFTEN SERVED NOT ONLY A LITURGICAL PURPOSE, but also a political one. The program explores music written for political gain and how politics of the time affected the music.

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were among Queen Elizabeth I’s most highly favored musicians. In 1575 she granted Tallis and Byrd, the two best English composers at the time, sole rights to the printing of music. The monopoly rewarded them with extra income but also generally supported the English music business, as the grant banned the importation of music printed abroad. Tallis and Byrd took advantage of this monopoly to produce a major printed music anthology for liturgical use in 1575—Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, a collection of 34 Latin motets dedicated to the Queen herself. The collection contains 17 motets, each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the Queen’s reign.

Unfortunately, the Cantiones was a financial failure. In 1577 Byrd and Tallis were forced to petition Queen Elizabeth for financial help, pleading that the publication had “fallen oute to oure greate losse” and that Tallis was now “verie aged.” The Queen subsequently granted them a leasehold on various lands in East Anglia and the West Country for a period of 21 years, the length of the patent and essentially an artist’s typical royal subsidy.

In 1589 Byrd published another collection of Latin motets, Cantiones Sacrae I. This collection was dedicated to Edward Somerset, Earl of Worcester, and contains many of his greatest motets, including Ne irascaris, Domine. Although the music was mostly non-liturgical and intended as chamber music, many of these pieces may have been written for England’s oppressed Roman Catholic community, as evidenced by the references to Jerusalem lying desolate and the pleas to God to remember his people in the lyrics.

Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. He was not required to write in as many styles as Tallis, since the political and religious situation in England had settled somewhat by Byrd’s tenure. Byrd’s musical challenges were more personal. He spent his life composing for a Protestant church as a devout Catholic. The new Protestant service required a compositional style that prioritized communicating the meaning of the text to the congregation, which amounted to primarily chordal textures in the vernacular. The Catholic tradition still favored Latin texts and a more elaborate musical style. Byrd’s music was a compromise and sat right in the middle—simpler than contemporary Catholic music but more complex than the Protestant aesthetic. Many believe that his music reflects his desire for the return of Catholicism in veiled terms, particularly in Ne irascaris Domine. It may have been this inner conflict that allowed Byrd to produce some of the most beautiful compositions of Renaissance vocal music ever written.

Byrd’s greatest piece, Tribue Domine, concludes the program. Unlike most of the other pieces in the 1575 Cantiones, the text is from a medieval collection of Meditationes (Meditations on the Life of Christ) attributed to St. Augustine. In this twelve-minute masterpiece, Byrd pulls out his full arsenal, contrasting polyphonic and homophonic textures as well as polychoral writing.

Tallis, teacher of Byrd, is regarded as perhaps the most important composer of the Tudor period. Not only did Tallis compose under four successive monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I), but he was capable of writing brilliantly in whatever musical style England required at the time. Henry VIII wanted to divorce the Queen so he broke away from the Catholic church in 1534, paving the way for the formation of the Anglican church, which favored simpler forms of writing. The Anglican liturgy during Edward VI’s reign introduced sacred music in the vernacular. At Mary’s accession in 1553, the Roman Rite was restored and the compositional style reverted back to the more elaborate and florid aesthetic style prevalent earlier in the century.

Tallis’s most epic composition, Gaude gloriosa, is one of the greatest motets ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At first listen, it sounds representative of the pre-Reformation style with its rather rambly and occasionally aimless nature. However, there is a sense of structure. Contrasting the relentless and demanding full sections are elegantly composed solo sections filled with imitation that is developed throughout—all indicative of the work of a mature composer in Counter-Reformation England. It is reasonable to think Tallis wrote it under Mary Tudor who might have enjoyed this fusion of old and new—a throwback to her youth with its deeply Catholic text, with a vision for the new Catholic church through the execution of the composition.

We learned in 1978 that Gaude gloriosa served another purpose. The monumental votive antiphon returned to the limelight when it was discovered during a renovation, hidden in a wall cavity at Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1978. Unlike the Gaude gloriosa we know, this version was set to English text attributed to Katherine Parr. Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen, published anonymously in 1544 a book, Psalms or Prayers which included 15 psalm-collages translated into English. It is the Ninth Psalm from this book that appears on the manuscript set to Tallis’s music. Katherine’s translation is followed by a prayer for the King, and another ‘for men to saie entryng into battaile.’ The text was written at a time when England was at war with Scotland and France and it could have been used as a performative rallying cry to garner support for that conflict.

“Se lord and behold, how many they be, which trouble me, how manie, which make rebellion against me. They saie among themselues of my soul: there is no helpe of god for it to trust upon. O lorde god, in the haue I put my hope and trust: saue me from them which doe perse- cute me, and deliuer me. Lest peraduenture at one time or an other take my life from me.”

Musicologist David Skinner suggests that Katherine Parr and Tallis knew one another and worked together as part of Henry’s public relations machine for the King’s political cause. More personally, it demonstrates Katherine’s passion for reform and Henry’s growing conservatism in the final years of his reign.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is the “world’s most performed living composer” according to Estonian World. After some time experimenting in neoclassical styles, Pärt decided to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism in his compositions, displeasing the Soviet establishment enough that they banned his early works. The Soviet Union’s restrictions on artistic expression, along with Pärt’s dissatisfaction with his own work, sent him into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th through the 16th centuries. His biographer, Paul Hillier, says, “He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note.” Out of this period of musical soul-searching emerged a unique compositional style that informed his music beginning in the 1970s—tintinnabuli (bell-like). The tintinnabuli style is a simple compositional technique that restricts the number of possible harmonies. The diocese at Karistad, Sweden, commissioned The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) for its 350th anniversary celebration. The text is from Matthew chapter 26, recounting an incident in which the disciples reprimand a woman for anointing Jesus's head with expensive ointment instead of selling the ointment and giving the proceeds to the poor.

Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) is one of Britain’s most popular contemporary composers, especially among cathedral and collegiate choirs. He evokes a variety of styles to create a distinctly modern sound, parts of his music referencing Josquin, Tavener, and even Stravinsky. Jackson, the son of a clergyman and former chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, grew up in the Anglican church; however, he doesn’t consider himself to be a conventional believer—this is somewhat unexpected, considering his liturgical music output. To Morning (2008) demonstrates Jackson’s sensitivity to text by capturing the rhythmic nature of poetry for a timeless, yet effective, expression. The short motet was included in the Choirbook for the Queen in 2011 in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee.

Gregorio Allegri was an Italian composer who sang in the Papal choir in 1629. His setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, Deus, is easily the most famous vocal work of the Renaissance, largely because of an edition from the early 20th century which includes a high C for the soprano in the odd-numbered verses sung by a quartet. Composed during the reign of Pope Urban VII, probably during the 1630s, the Pope forbade anyone from transcribing it by threat of excommunication. Legend says a 14-year-old Mozart visited Rome in 1770 and wrote out the piece perfectly from memory after one hearing at the Sistine Chapel, releasing the Vatican’s guarded secret into the world. Mozart was summoned to Rome and, to his surprise, praised for his musical genius. (Some theorize that Mozart’s father, Leopold, fabricated the legend to boost Mozart’s fame in Austria.)

Miserere has evolved since its inception. Originally the work was simply a succession of chords to which the psalm was chanted. Through the years of performance by the Papal choir, embellishments were added by the singers and the piece became a legendary work. In the spirit of this tradition, Joshua Haberman has developed further embellishments for this performance.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Sight-reading Class for dummies

Want to learn how to read music? Refresh those sight-reading skills? I am offering a sight-reading class for beginners! All are welcome. FREE! Questions, email Markdavin Obenza at

Trinity Parish Church (In the Choir Room)
609 8th Ave
Seattle, WA 98104

7pm-7:45pm on the following Thursdays:

June 7
June 14
June 21

*You are not required to attend every class.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Byrd Ensemble Bass Auditions

The Byrd Ensemble is holding Bass auditions for their 2018-2019 season. Register here by May 15, 2018.

The Byrd Ensemble is a Seattle-based professional vocal ensemble that performs chamber choral music, particularly Renaissance polyphony. The group of 10-12 singers presents a subscription series (4 programs) at St. James Cathedral and rehearses twice before each program. The Byrd Ensemble performs twice a year in Portland, OR and engages in recording projects with Scribe Records.

Saturday, May 19th at 6:00pm-9:00pm

Trinity Parish Church
609 8th Ave
Seattle, WA 98104

Strong reader. Can learn and prepare a full program of music in two rehearsals. (Singers will get music in advance).
Clear and firm sound. Medium to large voices welcome.
Excellent Intonation.
Experience singing in small groups.
Excellent musicianship.

Singers are not required to sing every concert. 

We pay $100 per service (3-hour rehearsal or concert).
$50 an hour for recording sessions.

Rates may vary depending on project.

Interested Bass applicants will sign up for a 15-minute slot and sing a Bass part of their choice from the pieces below with members of the Byrd Ensemble, and sightread one piece. Auditions will be recorded for internal purposes and will not be publicly released.

Tallis - Loquebantur
Tallis - In jejunio et fletu (will sing 1 whole step up)

Sign up by May 15, 2018. Feel free to email Markdavin Obenza at if you have any questions.

Depending on the number of applicants, we cannot guarantee that every singer will receive an audition spot.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chant, a starting point

Chant is timeless. At bottom, it is a simple melody unrestricted by bar lines and time signatures; however, upon reflection on the last thousand years of music, we know it is much more than that. Not only was chant our musical starting point, it is the foundation of Eastern and Western music. Renaissance composers such as Tallis and Sheppard frequently used chant as the basis for polyphonic composition, while more contemporary composers Pärt and Tavener took inspiration from it. Others like Tavener and Whitacre also employ chant but with a modern harmonic flavor. Just as music has evolved from it, we can also hear chant itself transformed throughout the ages.




Saturday, March 17, 2018, at 8:00 p.m.
St. James Cathedral
804 9th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104

Buy passes here.

Thomas TALLIS: Loquebantur variis linguis
Eric WHITACRE: Sainte-Chapelle
TALLIS: Videte miraculum
HILDEGARD: O viridissima virga
Arvo PÄRT: Magnificat


John SHEPPARD: Reges Tharsis
PÄRT: I Am the True Vine
John TAVENER: Two Hymns to the Mother of God
HILDEGARD: O virga ac diadema
PÄRT: Seven Magnificat Antiphons


Thomas Tallis (1505—1585) had the hard task of composing under four successive Tudor monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I) during a period of political and religious instability. While the Protestant Reformation flourished under the first two Tudors (Henry VIII and Edward VI), Mary I, a devout Catholic determined to crush the Protestant faith, restored the Catholic Rite to the English church during her brief reign. The church’s return to Catholicism called for a shift in compositional style with the return of Latin and polyphonic textures. It is possible Tallis secretly welcomed the return of Catholicism. During Mary I’s short time, he produced a large number of works for the principal feast days of the liturgical year, including Loquebantur variis linguis and Videte miraculum, written for Pentecost and The Feast of the Purification respectively. Tallis's Loquebantur (The Apostles spoke in many tongues) features quick points of imitation in a dense seven-part texture, depicting "many tongues." Videte depicts the birth of Jesus. All of the Renaissance pieces on the program are choral responds based on chant in the tenor part, and they alternate between full-choir polyphonic and chant sections. A respond is a musical structure where
parts of the music are repeated, usually taking the form ABCdBCdC (d=chant).

We know only a few things about English composer John Sheppard (1515—1558). He was employed at Magdalen College, Oxford 1543—1548 and the Chapel Royal 1552—1560. Unfortunately, much of Sheppard’s music has survived incomplete; however, because it was often the chant part that was missing (in the tenor) it has been possible to reconstruct his music. This is the case for Reges Tharsis, a responsory for the Feast of Epiphany scored for SSAATB, Sheppard’s favorite scoring for maximum harmonic punch.

Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), America's most popular choral composer, wrote Saint-Chapelle (2013) for the 40th Anniversary of the Tallis Scholars. Sainte-Chapelle tells a story of a girl’s experience standing inside Sainte-Chapelle, a Gothic royal chapel at the center of Paris. The piece illustrates her awe of the stained glass windows filling the chapel, creating a jewel-box space flooded with colors of yellow, burgundy, and green from all directions. Whitacre uses chant to tell the story. The piece begins with only men’s voices, which are joined by the women at “Sanctus,” functioning as a refrain.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098—1179), writer, composer, and philosopher, is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Hildegard left behind an enormous amount of illuminated manuscripts, scholarly writings, and songs written for her nuns to sing at their devotions. Hildegard is one of those rare identifiable composers in the history of Western music; most medieval composers were anonymous. Unlike the simple one-octave chants at the time, Hildegard’s melodies sound almost improvisatory: they are freer, ornate, and large- ranging. Her love for nature is reflected in the two Marian chants: O viridissima virga (O branch of freshest green) and O virga ac diadema (O branch and diadem).

Hildegard of Bingen

For the seventh year in a row, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) has been given the title of the “world’s most performed living composer,” according to “Estonian World.” After some time experimenting in neoclassical styles, Pärt decided to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism in his compositions, displeasing the Soviet establishment enough to ban his early works. Pärt, not pleased with his output, went into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th through 16th centuries. His biographer, Paul Hillier, says, “He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note.” Out of this period of musical soul-searching emerged a unique compositional style that informed his music beginning in the 1970s—tintinnabuli (bell-like). The tintinnabuli style is a simple compositional technique that restricts the number of possible harmonies. Imagine the harmonies generated by playing a major scale in the left hand and its equivalent arpeggio on the right.

Arvo Pärt

Calling back to the ancient styles of plainchant, Pärt uses drones. The solo soprano part in the Magnificat holds the pitch C, providing the tonal center for the piece. Pärt’s setting of the Magnificat, through varying note lengths, repetition, and no sense of meter, establishes a sense of timelessness. The half-step dissonances are sprinkled throughout alongside the rich harmony and pulls us into a state of contemplation and introspection. I am the true vine was composed in 1996 for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral in England. The work offers a twist on Pärt's tintinnabuli technique. Syllables of text are dispersed among the parts in such a way that each part is often completing another part’s sentence or word. Also, the distribution of the melody among the parts—bass to soprano, back down to Bass—resembles the vine depicted in the text. The Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1988; revised 1991), marks only the second time that Pärt set a German text. Perhaps the fact that it was commissioned for the Radio Chamber Choir in Berlin, a group whose broadcast performances reached audiences far and wide, suggested that the vernacular language would be the most appropriate choice. Each of these texts, in its normal liturgical context, functions as the antiphon to one iteration of the Magnificat, sung at Vespers on each of the seven evenings preceding Christmas Eve. In Pärt’s composition, these texts are set simply as a series of seven movements.

John Tavener

John Tavener (1944-2013) and Pärt are often described as mystic minimalists—a category (sometimes used pejoratively) to describe late twentieth-century composers who focus on religious themes. Like Pärt, Tavener developed his compositional voice after joining the Russian Orthodox Christian faith. His mother died in 1985, and he was unable to compose for a short time after. He eventually found the inspiration to write Two Hymns to the Mother of God (1985) in her memory. The melodies and harmonies recall both Western and Eastern Orthodox music. The first hymn comes from a text of St. Basil in praise of the Mother of God. Tavener sets it for double chorus in a strict canon, the second chorus repeating the material of the first, exactly three beats behind, creating a blurring effect. The second text is from the vigil service called the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Mother of God, an important observance in the Orthodox faith. The tenor part carries the main melody while the remaining voices sustain triads. Eventually all voices converge in a rich succession of consonant chords for the text: “O ye apostles, assembled here from the ends of the earth, bury my body in Gethsemane: and Thou O my Son and God, receive my Spirit.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Selected compositions for Vox16 concert and potential recording. Donate to make the CD happen!

Earlier this year we announced a call for new choral music to be included in our Locally Sourced concert on April 7, 2018 and possible recording project. The response was incredible, we received over 3 CDs worth of music! Many thanks to those that submitted, it was a pleasure reading through your submissions.

Here are the selected compositions:

John Gordon Hill - Evensong
John Gordon Hill - Lux Aeterna
Chris Fraley - Kyrie
Rick Asher - On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
Joy DeCoursey Porter - In Deo sola spec mea
Karen Thomas - Westron Wind
Peter Seibert - Gloria
Jeremy Kings - Lacrimosa
Caroline Mallonée - Light through Windows

We are pleased to feature a wonderful set of composers which offer a nice variety of style. Many of them are active composers and/or directors in the local choral scene. Support their work and Vox16 by contributing towards a CD recording of this music. Make sure to check out our perk levels! (Please let us know if you prefer your donation to be anonymous.)

MATCHING CHALLENGE: A donor will match donations dollar for dollar up to $1,500! Deadline December 31, 2017. UPDATE: CHALLENGE MET on Dec 31, 2017!


$10 - FAN
  • Free ticket to the Locally Sourced program
  • Free ticket to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Free ticket to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording
  • Two free tickets to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording, signed by the director
  • Two free tickets to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording, signed by the director and singers
  • An invitation to the concert after party and a drink on us!
$1000 - PRODUCER
  • Two free tickets to the Locally Sourced program
  • Digital download of the recording
  • Physical CD copy of the recording, signed by the director, singers, and composers!
  • An invitation to the concert after party with all of your drinks and food on us!

As of 1/1/2018


Rick Asher
Peter Seibert
Jeremy Kings
Joy DeCoursey Porter
Marianne Adler
Emily Denyer
Cara Payne
Aaron and Vera Giles
Deborah Stephenson
Peter Lifland
Wyatt-Stone Family
Chris Fraley
Colleen Adler
Rachel Adler
Dave Adler
Evelyn Guzman
TJ Callahan
Caroline Huebner
Claire English
Mike Metu
Adele Reese Kernan
Alexander Baldini
Dennis Strickland

Friday, November 24, 2017

A prelude to the Christmas season: Britten, Holst, and Howells

Saturday, November 25, 2017, at 8:00 p.m.
St. James Cathedral
804 9th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

Buy passes here.


Benjamin BRITTEN - A Ceremony of Carols
Gustav HOLST - Four Old English Carols
Herbert HOWELLS - Long, Long Ago
Harold DARKE - In the bleak midwinter
Kenneth LEIGHTON - Lully, lulla thou little tiny child
HOLST - Christmas Day

SINCE 2009, we have been one of the first area choirs to usher in the holiday season with our Christmas program Thanksgiving weekend. (Some say it’s too early and that we must be on the Macy’s calendar). After nine years it is starting to feel like a tradition, a prelude to the festive Christmas season ahead.

As I constructed this English Christmas program, I became aware of the importance of tradition at this time of year and the feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality that accompany it. On a personal level, many of the singers, including myself, have grown up singing these carols in our respective children’s choirs—I bet some of us have Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols memorized!

The composers no doubt felt similarly. Mid-20th century English composers paid homage to their Renaissance predecessors through their writing style and with great respect to the preservation of the carols. We see this in Howells’s penchant for polyphonic textures, Holst’s preference for uncomplicated carol settings, and Britten’s use of chant. And of nostalgia? I dare you to find something more nostalgic than Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter. We are honored you are here to share the start of your holidays with us, and we thank you for supporting our tradition.

The procession Veni, veni, Emmanuel comes from the “O Antiphons,” a set of Magnificat antiphons sung at Vespers over the last seven days of Advent. The O Antiphons date back to the 9th century and anticipate the birth of Jesus.

Harold Darke (1888—1976) became famous for his Monday lunchtime recitals held at St. Michael's Church, Cornhill where he gave more than 1,800 performances over his fifty-year service. Darke’s brilliance as an organist and expertise leading the St. Michael’s Singers prepared him well for his appointment in 1941 as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the absence of Boris Ord, who was called out to war. Darke is remembered for his much-loved In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti. The poem became a Christmas carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst. In 1909, Darke composed this setting, which was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008.

Kenneth Leighton (1929—1988), the most recent composer on the program, comes from the English tradition represented by Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Howells, and Walton. (If you are wondering why I have excluded Leighton’s much more popular contemporary John Rutter from an English Christmas program, it is not because there is a lack of good Rutter carols, but because Leighton’s music pairs much better with the other English masters on the program). Leighton composed his most popular carol Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child—a setting of the Coventry carol—in 1948 as a 19-year old Oxford student. The text describes the Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants of Bethlehem, in hopes to kill the child claimed by the Magi to be the “King of the Jews.” Leighton creates a dark mood through a repetitive instances of “Lully, lulla” that does not commit itself to a major or minor tonality—all of this underneath a haunting Soprano solo that soars above the choir.

English composer and organist Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is known for his large output of Anglican church music. He started composing early in life, studying under Charles Stanford at the age of eighteen. Howells’s colorful sound hearkens to the style of French impressionism—no wonder some call him an English Debussy. Howells composed Long, long ago poems by John Buxton, dedicated to the Lady Margaret Singers, Cambridge. Long, long ago, a carol-anthem, like most of Howells’s music, is not so much about distinctive musical themes. Instead, he uses a colorful musical atmosphere, a kind of scape as a vehicle for the words. Howells, a master of the musical art of deception, resolves tension in unexpected ways.

Vaughan Williams described his colleague Gustav Holst (1874—1934) as “the greatest influence on my music.” Holst also had a strong influence on the music of William Walton and Benjamin Britten. Holst, a composer for the people, believed that it was the composer’s duty to provide music for practical purposes—festivals, ceremonies, hymns or Christmas carols. Four Old English Carols (1907) demonstrates Holst's concern for economy. He sets the four traditional carols modestly and without too much musical complication that would obscure the simplicity of each carol. Holst’s Christmas Day, a “Choral Fantasy on Old Carols,” was composed in 1910 for the amateur singers of Morley College, where Holst had been teaching since 1907. This choral “fantasy” features a number of well-known carols—God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell, and Good Christian Men Rejoice.

The centerpiece of the program is Benjamin Britten’s (1913—1976) A Ceremony of Carols (1942), a collection of short pieces based on carols written in the 15th and 16th centuries. Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols while on a transatlantic voyage from the United States to England. While stopped in Nova Scotia, Britten obtained a copy of “The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems,” a set of lyrical poems in Middle English, where he found the text for the work.

With its popularity among children’s choirs, it may be surprising to some that A Ceremony was originally conceived for a female choir. The Fleet Street Choir (women’s choir) gave the first performance of the initial seven movements in 1942. It was only after hearing several memorable performances of the work by a Welsh boys' choir that Britten stated his preference for boys’ voices. Originally, Britten composed seven movements out of the eleven as a set of unrelated songs. In 1943, he decided to unify the work through the addition of four movements: “Procession” and “Recession” that frame the cycle, based on the antiphon chant from the Christmas Eve Vespers; “That yongë child” for solo soprano and harp; and the new “Interlude” for solo harp.

With this cycle, Britten saw a chance to write music that would blossom in a church or cathedral. The canonic writing of “This little Babe” creates an exciting effect. Three voices sing the same melody but a beat apart, resulting in an echo effect reminiscent of a reverberant cathedral—no doubt the results will be more dramatic in the acoustics of St. James Cathedral. “In freezing winter night” also uses canonic writing, but more to create an atmosphere. At the center of A Ceremony lies the “Interlude” for solo harp which is also based on plainchant. The “Interlude” has a bell-like quality which is also heard in “Wolcum Yole!” and “Adam lay i-bounden.” Britten was not alone in his fascination with bells—both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, influenced by music from the Russian Orthodox Church, professed a lifelong fascination with bells.

-Markdavin Obenza

Friday, October 27, 2017

RITUAL: Music from sacred tradition

BYRD ENSEMBLE, directed by Markdavin Obenza

RITUAL: Music from Sacred Tradition

OCT 28, 2017 at 8:00 PM
St. James Cathedral
804 9th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

Buy Passes


BYRD: Magnificat (Great Service)
PÄRT: Tribute to Caesar (1997)
TAVENER: Funeral Ikos (1981)
STRAVINSKY: Отче наш (Our Father) (1945)
BYRD: Domine quis habitabit


PALESTRINA: Magnificat primi toni a8
BARBER: Agnus Dei (1967)
GIBBONS: Hosanna to the Son of David
TAVENER: The Lamb (1982)
BYRD: Ad Dominum cum tribularer

This program explores sacred music from the Eastern and Western Christian traditions featuring Anglican and Catholic motets by Renaissance greats—Byrd, Palestrina, and Gibbons—complemented by the Eastern style of Tavener, Stravinsky, and Pärt. All of the composers, with the exception of Palestrina, Barber, and Gibbons, endured an incredible spiritual struggle; Byrd's longing for the return of Catholicism in Protestant England, Pärt's musical soul searching through periods of contemplative silence, Tavener's conversion, and Stravinsky's return to the Russian Orthodox faith no doubt had a spiritual effect on their musical output. Despite the fact that the motets were written over the span of 500 years, each one of these masterpieces shares a profound sacred ethos that transcends time.

England endured religious and political turbulence in the 15th and 16th centuries. Composers had the difficult task of adjusting to whatever musical style the church was enforcing at the time. None was better than Thomas Tallis, teacher of William Byrd (1540–1623), who composed competently under four successive monarchs. Luckily for Byrd, the situation in England had settled somewhat by his tenure. Byrd’s main challenge was composing for a Protestant church as a devout Catholic. The new Protestant service demanded that the music clearly communicate the meaning of the text. Composers often used chordal textures and set text in the vernacular to fulfill the new musical demands. The Catholic tradition favored slightly more complex music set to Latin texts and a polyphonic texture. Byrd’s music struck a unique balance between the two traditions, though many believe that his music reflects his desire for the return of Catholicism in veiled terms. Byrd’s Magnificat comes from his setting of the Great Service—the Anglican celebration of Matins, Evensong, and Communion. While the piece is “great” indeed, in the 16th century “great” did not mean excellent, but “large.” Stylistically, the Magnificat is a perfect example of a balance of the two traditions—a predominantly polyphonic texture with deliberate use of homophonic moments to bring out the message of the text in English.

We hear Byrd’s genius at the young age of 19 or 20 when he wrote the two magnificent psalm motets which conclude each half of the program, Domine quis habitabit and Ad Dominum cum tribularer. Domine, a setting of Psalm 14, only survives in a single source from the 1590s in score format instead of in partbooks, unusual at the time. The motet is scored for nine voices with three bass parts of equal ranges. The opening minor 6th interval is exotic, and the rest of the motet continues mostly in imitation, maintaining a dense, polyphonic, nine-part scoring throughout. Ad Dominum, a setting of Psalm 120, is scored for eight voice parts. Like Domine, Ad Dominum continues in straightforward polyphonic fashion but with an incredible gathering of momentum for a powerful ending on the text: “With those who hate peace I was a peacemaker: when I spoke to them, they battled me without cause.”

For six years in a row, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) has been given the title of the “world’s most-performed living composer.” What preceded his success was a long musical and spiritual struggle that began at an early age. After some time experimenting in neoclassical styles, Pärt decided to use Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and serialism in his compositions—this displeased the Soviet establishment enough to ban his early works. Pärt, not pleased with his output, went into several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. His biographer, Paul Hillier, says, “He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note.” Pärt spent years immersing himself in Renaissance vocal music and, more generally, Western music. Out of this period of musical soul-searching came what he calls his “tintinnabuli style” where one or more instrumental or vocal parts, basically melodic in construction, are placed against one or more additional parts projecting arpeggiations of a major or minor triad, the latter evoking “tintinnabulation” or the ringing of bells. Tribute to Caesar (1997), a setting of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, shows only subtle hints of the tintinnabuli technique.

John Tavener (1944–2013) was raised Protestant, but was interested in Catholicism. He eventually joined the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, where he developed his own unique composition voice as an Orthodox composer, employing a slow, almost minimalist unfolding of melodic material. Tavener’s Funeral Ikos is a setting of text from the Orthodox service for the burial of priests. Tavener’s interest in chant is obvious in the unmetered solemn verses, but the “Alleluia” refrain is distinctly his. The Lamb (1982), a short carol based on a poem by William Blake, was composed in one afternoon and sent to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge to be included in their annual Lessons and Carols service. The music is built on a simple melodic idea (opening G-B-A-F#-G) and its inversion (G-Eb-F-Ab-G), resulting in a remarkably spare, but bleak sound. Contrasting the melodic inversions are homophonic statements that sound comforting and melancholic in comparison—reminiscent of the “Alleluia” refrain in Funeral Ikos

Igor Stravinsky's (1882–1971) ballet music made him an international star. By the 1920s, his compositional style shifted from the “primitive style” of the ballet music to neo-Classicism, a style more tightly controlled and harmonically grounded. He once said “the more constraints I put on myself, the freer my compositions.” Shortly after World War I, Stravinsky underwent a religious re-conversion. As a boy, Stravinsky rejected the Russian Orthodox church, but in September 1925 Stravinsky reports to have experienced a miracle. While playing his own sonata one evening, he felt a miraculous healing of a painful abscess. On Easter the following year, Stravinsky rejoined the Orthodox faith, which fueled his choral compositions to the end of his life. One of the first pieces he wrote following his recommitment to the church was a four-voiced choral setting of the prayer Отче наш (Our Father), composed in 1926 to commemorate his return to the Orthodox Church. Stravinsky wrote the first version of this motet in Church Slavonic, the Russian Orthodox dialect that he considered the true "language of prayer." The piece is barely a minute and a half in performance and was intended for the Orthodox liturgy. Stravinsky maintains a strong sense of a tonal center throughout, while deliberately avoiding functional harmony, characteristic of the neo-Classical style. Strong beats of the text always fall on downbeats within the shifting metric patterns.

Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) was the most important composer of the Counter-Reformation. He was probably a choirboy at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and later served there as maestro di cappella for ten years from 1561. Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni for eight voices was copied into a large choirbook for the papal choir around the late 1580s and was not intended for public use. He composed the work for two choirs, which come together rarely for maximum impact; such as “omnes generationes” (all generations) and for the end of the work. Unlike Byrd’s setting of the Magnificat, Palestrina’s setting was not composed for Anglican Evensong, but rather for use in the Catholic office of Vespers.

Samuel Barber (1910–1981), the only American representative of the program, is best known for his Adagio for Strings from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. In 1967, Barber composed Agnus Dei, a choral arrangement of the Adagio. Many describe the eight-minute work as an example of  sentimental Romanticism, teasing out incredible servings of nostalgia. One can detect a faint essence of the Renaissance in the melismatic texture (many notes on one syllable), interweaving of contrapuntal lines, and through the ebb and flow nature of the piece.

English composer Orlando Gibbons’s (baptized 1585–1625) Hosanna to the Son of David is a jubilant setting of the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Christ is taking possession of his kingdom, with crowds of children waving palm branches, crying "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Hosanna, an anthem for six voices, may have originally been composed for a ceremony associated with the English monarchy. The exuberant music and the textual allusion to Christ the King would have justly honored a divine ruler.

- Markdavin Obenza


Described as “pure and radiant” (Gramophone), “immensely impressive” (Early Music Review), and “rich, full-voiced, and perfectly blended” (Early Music America), the Byrd Ensemble is garnering international acclaim for its performances and recordings of chamber vocal music, particularly Renaissance polyphony. The Byrd Ensemble, directed by Markdavin Obenza, is a Seattle-based professional ensemble made up of 10 to 12 singers from the Pacific Northwest. The group presents its annual concert series at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. The Byrd Ensemble is a nonprofit organization.

Since 2004, the ensemble has performed in the greater Seattle area and has toured across the United States, presenting concerts for the Gotham Early Music Scene in New York with Peter Phillips (director of the Tallis Scholars) and the Boston Early Music Fringe Series. In 2014, the Byrd Ensemble was one of sixteen groups—the only ensemble from the United States—chosen to sing at the London International A Cappella Choir Competition and worked with Peter Phillips, Mark Williams, and John Rutter, who described the ensemble as “a fine group that has achieved an enviable standard of tuning, blend, and ensemble.” The Byrd Ensemble presents an annual subscription series at St. James Cathedral in Seattle and regularly performs in Portland, Oregon.

The Byrd Ensemble became part of the Scribe Records label in 2011 and has since produced six records—four of which feature Renaissance polyphony— and have been reviewed by major early music publications: Early Music America, Gramophone and Early Music Review. Our Lady: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks (2011) featured reconstructions by musicologist Nick Sandon of music by lesser-known English Renaissance composers—Pasche, Merbecke, and Ludford—and included two world-premiere recordings. In the Company of William Byrd (2012), Music for the Tudors (2015), and Music of the Renaissance: Italy, England & France (2016) featured more mainstream Renaissance composers Tallis, Sheppard, Byrd, and White. In 2014, the Byrd Ensemble was included in the international edition of Gramophone Magazine for its recording of works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR MARKDAVIN OBENZA has dedicated his career to music. In addition to the Byrd Ensemble, Markdavin is also Director and founder of Seattle-based chamber choir Vox16 and Producer for Scribe Records, an independent record label. He is an active freelance singer who performs with the Byrd Ensemble and has performed with the Tudor Choir, Early Music Vancouver, and members of the Tallis Scholars. He is the Director of Choral Music at Trinity Parish Church in Seattle, WA.