From the President – Summer 2010 #5

Te Deum / Sir William Walton

Dear Colleagues,

A few things have been filtering their way through my mind this week; one is this week’s piece named above, the second is the text of the “Te Deum,” and the final thought is a book I have been reading called “Creating the Special World: A Collection of Lectures by Weston Noble.” I am hoping I can draw these three thoughts together in a short presentation of this work. If you do not know the Walton setting of the “Te Deum” text, I hope you will venture to order one and listen. It is not a long composition; maybe some 10 minutes in duration, and it is certainly not something that many of us will be turning to for our next performance. But it is worth knowing……………..

We praise thee, O God;
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee,
the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels,
the Heavens, and all the Powers,
the Cherubim and Seraphim proclaim without ceasing:
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Hosts!
The heavens and the earth are full
of the majesty of they glory.
The glorious chorus of the Apostles,
the admirable company of the Prophets,
the white-robed army of the Mat ryes praise thee.
Throughout the whole world
the holy church gives praise to thee,
the Father of infinite majesty;
they praise your admirable, true,
and only son;
and also the Holt Spirit, our Advocate.
You are the King of glory, O Christ.
You are the eternal son of the Father.
To deliver us, you became human, and did not disdain the Virgin’s womb.
Having blunted the sting of death, You
oned the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You sit at the right hand of God,
in the glory of the father.
You are believed to be the Judge
who will come.
Therefore, we beseech you,
come to the aid of your servants, whom
you have redeemed by your precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy saints
in glory everlasting.
Save your people, O Lord,
and bless your inheritance.
Govern them, and extol them
from now into eternity.
Day by day, we bless thee;
and we praise your name for ever,
yea, for ever and ever.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day
without sin.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord,
have mercy upon us.
Let thy mercy be upon us, O Lord,
as we have trusted in thee.
In thee, O Lord, I have trusted:
let me never be confounded.

I hope that you all will forgive me for relating the entire text of the piece to you, but it is such a meaningful and profound text, beautifully written and so attractive to so many composers throughout history; as I sit here and reflect on the many setting that I know of this text, I am struck by the number of different ways that it has been read and viewed and set to music. And to this very day composers are still struck by its significance and beauty. It is said that it was “composed” around 387 A.D., supposedly spontaneously composed and sung alternately by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine on the night of the latter’s baptism. There are other claims of authorship, but I rather like to imagine that the one I quoted is true; no one really knows for sure!

There is much very interesting research about this text and its origins and meanings; it is probably enough here to say that since the 6th century it has been sung at the end of Matins on Sundays and feast days except the Sundays of Advent and those Sundays from Septuagesima to Palm Sunday. There is more, but let that suffice for now.

This piece, also known as the “Coronation Te Deum” was heard as the final music at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953 at a service in Westminster Abbey. The setting is for chorus with full orchestra, organ, plus additional trumpets, trombones and side-drums; not something that would be easily mounted for performance around here! In actuality the chorus is SSATTB, but at times there is a Choir 1 and a Choir 2, with an Alto, Tenor and Bass Trio also at work. There are other occasional divisi’s in the choral texture which make this a challenging work.

This music changes character so frequently and often so dramatically that it takes one by surprise. However, this is not unusual for works by Walton; indeed, if you know his dramatic oratorio “Belshazzar’s Feast,” you will quickly see a resemblance in this work to that one! The opening 55 bars is an extremely dramatic extolling of the majesty and power of God; I do believe it is one of the more hair raising moments in all of choral music (of course there are many to choose from!). At measure 56 the choir divides into two choirs as it sounds the words “To Thee, Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,” only to be interrupted by a wonderful, pleading cry at the “Holy, Holy, Holy” section. There is a most striking change of tonality here, from E Major to C Major, that is most effective and recurs again later in the piece.

A most effective section to follow, “The glorious company of the apostles….) is one of my favorite parts, with the upper voices singing “praise;” as if from angels above. The first section ends with a chant-like setting of the text “Thine honorable, true, and only son…..” But out of nowhere, after a long pause, comes a huge brass fanfare, full, dramatic and chilling in its intensity, announcing “Thou art the King…..” This is an interesting moment, as the brass fanfare ends decidedly on the dominant in G Major, but the choir enters “fff” in Bb Major! It is thrilling! The choirs and brass move quickly through this text, unrelenting in majesty and power, until “We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge,” using a descending interval from “G” to G# (octave lower) to send the message of terror, only to be followed by a beautiful, even prayerful moment that brings us back to the beginning material again.

Enough….there are many more beautiful moments to follow; in fact, many of the most beautiful moments in the piece are yet to come; but for me I am always moved by the words “let me never be confounded.” Indeed, some of the most stirring and beautiful moments in choral music have been written and inspired by the import of those words….none more profoundly evoked than in the last six measures here, when Walton moves us from Bb Major through a series of “pp” shifting tonalities back to D Major.

In Weston Noble’s book he is asked to explain what that “special feeling” is that we all experience from time to time, when all seems to be in place and working correctly; Robert Shaw has described it as when “the Dove descends.” I was surprised but pleased to read his rather long explanation of how this happens, and what it is that we do indeed feel as musicians when the moment arrives. The first place Mr. Noble went was right to the bible, with quotes from a few verses! He used that to explain the inner self, our spirit and our soul In fact, he boiled it down to a balance of the spirit, the soul and the body, and when everything is in line, we are momentarily whole… is an unforgettable moment. And our religious and spiritual well being is at the center of it all….and how I wish I could talk to my students about these things without fear of retribution from administration and parents. Because if we could……..?

This Te Deum has many moments where you can be transported…..give it a listen! My recording is on the EMI Label, CDC-7475122….the CBSO Chorus and Choristers of Worcester Cathedral with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Louis Fremaux, Conductor. Barbara Robotham, mezzo, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, and Brian Rayner, Baritone. Also on this CD are Walton’s Gloria, Orb and Septre Coronation March, Crown Imperial Coronation March and his delightful Facade Suite.

There are two complete performances below…..the first is preferable (from my perspective) from Westminster!


Frank Whitcomb

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