Music Notes for Ash Wednesday & Lent I



55 Forty days and forty nights HEINLEIN
336 In the cross of Christ I glory WYCHBOLD
Take up thy cross, the Saviour said BRESLAU
781 Lord Jesus think on me SOUTHWELL
61 The glory of these forty days SPIRES


Gregorio Allegri Miserere (Psalm 51)

A recording by the Tallis Scholars may be found here:

Gregorio Allegri’s glorious setting of Psalm 51 will be sung by the St. Thomas’ Parish Choir for the Ash Wednesday Eucharist at 7.00pm on March 1. Ivan Moody’s notes below give an interesting insight into the history of the piece.

The music of Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) falls in many respects between that of Palestrina and Lotti. His famous Miserere is a simple setting of the penitential Psalm 50 (51). His polyphonic setting alternates with the chant, which would customarily have been used, in this case a simple monotone, reflective of the solemn nature of the occasion. This Psalm would have been performed at the end of the Tenebrae services [on Wednesday] of Holy Week at the papal chapel. It would have been sung in complete darkness while the pope and cardinals knelt before the altar. Allegri’s setting, which may date from 1638, has had a checkered history. The papacy refused to allow any copy to leave the chapel, realizing that they were in possession of a work of considerable renown. There is a story that it was Mozart who first broke this barrier of secrecy by copying the work out from memory. Whatever the truth of this, there developed several versions of the piece in manuscript sources, which show how the added ornamentation changed over the years. Whereas usually in the papal chapel, such added ornamentation would have changed from performance to performance, in the case of this work, because it was sung in darkness, the embellishments – though elaborate – were memorized and were thus recorded on paper. This did not prevent changes occurring later in its history, and the version heard today is based on a sketch made by Mendelssohn of the ornamentation. It is the case that this is hardly what would have been heard in Allegri’s own time, but it is also true that music takes on its own life when it leaves the hands of its creator: thus Allegri’s Miserere and the present tradition of performing this version. — Ivan Moody

William Byrd ‘Kyrie eleison’ from Mass for Five Voices

A recording by the Tallis Scholars may be found here:

It was only recently established by bibliographical analysis that William Byrd’s three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass—in three, four and five parts—were almost certainly published in the early 1590s, coinciding with Byrd’s move from London to a Catholic enclave in Stondon Massey, Essex. The Mass for five voices, scored for treble (or soprano), alto, two tenors and bass, is thought to have been the last of the three to have been composed, probably in late 1594 or early 1595, and is, by any reckoning, a masterpiece. It is probable that Byrd composed his Latin liturgical music for use in the domestic chapels maintained, often at considerable personal risk, by recusant Catholic families. Here they would probably have been sung by a small group of singers, perhaps one to a part. This does not of course preclude performance by a larger group, and indeed these works have been well established in the choral liturgical repertory since their rediscovery in the early years of the twentieth century.

Unlike most of the Mass-settings of the Continental polyphonists, Byrd’s Masses are not based strictly on a single theme or other unifying material, but rather are freely composed. Many of the movements begin with a similar opening motif, or ‘head motif’, but then go their own way. The Mass for five voices represents something of a distillation of Byrd’s Latin style. It is highly compact and closely argued. The practicalities of liturgical performance in Byrd’s day dictated an economy of style and scale and suggested a restrained, rather than opulent, approach. The vocal texture, constantly varying in scoring, always enables the text to come across with great clarity and closely reflects, and also clarifies, its structure. For example, Byrd adjusts the scoring of each successive invocation of the Agnus Dei; first, three voices are used; then four; finally, all five. In the masterly Credo Byrd seems to place special emphasis on the phrase ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’, which for the Catholic composer undoubtedly had particular resonance. – © 2010 James O’Donnell

William Byrd Ave verum

A recording by The Sixteen may be found here:

Gradualia includes the four-voice motet Ave verum corpus, which sets words specified in the Catholic liturgy for use on the feast of Corpus Christi. Today no composition by Byrd is performed and recorded more often than this one, partly because it is such a gem, partly because it offers such rich opportunities for expressive singing, and partly because it is technically not hard for choirs to sing. Nonetheless this motet, like Byrd’s Masses, attained its popularity only in the modern era; being strictly a Catholic work, it was totally shunned by English church musicians until its revival by Catholic choirs late in the nineteenth century. In an age of greater religious tolerance its popularity quickly spread, and by a pleasing twist of fortune Byrd’s Ave verum corpus is now a staple not only of Catholic choral worship, but of Anglican too. Ave verum corpus at Evensong: again, Byrd would have been amazed. — © John Milsom 2014.



55 Forty days and forty nights HEINLEIN
781 Lord Jesus think on me ST. BRIDE
337 When I survey the wondrous cross ROCKINGHAM


I want Jesus to walk with me Traditional Spiritual arr. Roderick Williams (b. 1965)
Deep River Traditional Spiritual arr. Giles Brightwell (b. 1970)

The Choir will be singing two settings of spirituals on Sunday, one with piano and another, a capella specially arranged by me.