Musical compositions fit for a king
Concert features music for royalty
When composer Paul Mealor was commissioned to write a work for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton last year, his offering joined a long tradition of music performed for royal occasions.
By all accounts, Mealor’s original setting of “Ubi Caritas et Amor,’’ a beloved element of the Latin Mass taken from an ancient Christian hymn for Holy Thursday, was one of the high points of the English royal wedding. The translated text reads “Where charity and love are, God is there.’’
This weekend Mealor’s work is a highlight of the Pilgrim Festival Chorus’s concert program, titled “Music for Monarchs.’’
“Music over the years has been composed for special religious events. Some wonderful music has been written for coronations and royal festivals,’’ chorus director William Richter said last week. “It’s big music.’’
Richter called Mealor’s composition “joyous, timeless, hold-on-to-your-seat music.’’ The piece’s “eight-part harmonic palette’’ presents challenges for singers, but offers ease and enjoyment for audiences, he said. “The audience can close their eyes and be part of that momentous day by basking in the gentle melodic sounds they’ll experience.’’
Mealor described his work as “gentle, delicate, and meditative’’ in an article he wrote a year ago in the English newspaper The Guardian. “The ancient, sixth-century plainchant of ‘Ubi Caritas’ is blended with 21st-century harmony to create a work that, I hope, is both new and reflective of the past.’’
The six pieces chosen for “Music for Monarchs’’ span four centuries but continue to please anew when they are trotted out for royal occasions. They include works by some of the world’s greatest composers - Mozart, Purcell, Handel, Mussorgsky, and Charles Hubert Parry - to be sung by the chorus’s 80 members and soloists from within and without the chorus, accompanied by Elizabeth Chapman Reilly on organ and a small orchestra.
The chorus boasts “members with all levels of experience,’’ including higher degrees in vocal performance and “phenomenal voices,’’ Richter said. Three of the four soloists in Mozart’s “Coronation Mass’’ are chorus members: Plymouth residents soprano Jodi Mulcahy, mezzo soprano Lea Tyler, and bass David Tyler. Tenor Benjamin Mafera, who grew up in Marshfield, was recruited for the piece.
Mozart composed the piece as an Easter Mass within time constraints imposed by a bishop, leading to his decision to use his soloists as a quartet rather than give them individual solos, aside from a soprano solo in the Agnus Dei. Scholars say the work became known as the “Coronation Mass’’ after it was performed for two royal coronations in Prague in the 1790s. Handel composed his coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest’’ for the coronation of Great Britain’s George II in 1727. Highly popular with English monarchs, it has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, probably because the final section includes the chorus “God Save the King! Long live the King!’’ The text comes from the Bible Book 1 Kings, which tells that Zadok the priest anointed King Solomon. If you like Handel’s “Messiah,’’ Richter said, you’ll like this music, too.
Regarded as the great English composer of the 17th century Baroque, Henry Purcell composed “Let my prayer come up to thy presence’’ based on Psalm 141. Like Handel’s anthem, it has been performed at many coronations over the centuries.
A work with a much different provenance, the “Coronation Scene from Boris Gudunov’’ is part of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera about a commanding figure in Russian history. Unlike the wholly celebratory anthems, Mussorgsky’s 19th-century “Coronation Scene’’ is fraught with dramatic tension.
“A member of the Russian imperial family by marriage, [Boris Gudunov] has contrived the death of the rightful heir to the throne and has become tsar,’’ writes music historian David Lloyd-Jones. “The opera concerns Boris’s struggle with his conscience.’’
The piece’s two solo voices will be sung by tenor Mafera and chorus member bass Lynne Hare. The concert winds up with more English music, “I was glad when they said unto me’’ by Parry. Written in 1902, the text is from Psalm 122, a prayer for the peace and prosperity of Jerusalem. At the height of their empire, the British often drew parallels between Jerusalem as a recipient of divine favors and their own nation. Parry also set William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,’’ which became a favorite hymn in the Church of England.
Twenty-first-century British composers tend to have more humble visions. Mealor wrote that the meaning of “Ubi Caritas’’ is a two-fold plea: “firstly a prayer about love and secondly about service.’’ Just as Jesus came to serve, he wrote, the royal couple whose marriage he celebrated “are about to enter a long period of service to the nation.’’
Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.