About this Recording
8.572737 - WHITBOURN, J.: Living Voices / Son of God Mass / Requiem canticorum (Powell, Cowan, Westminster Williamson Voices, Jordan)

James Whitbourn (b. 1963)
Living Voices • Son of God Mass • Requiem canticorum Give us the wings of faith • Winter’s Wait • A brief story of Peter Abelard A Prayer from South Africa • All shall be Amen and Alleluia


Music performance builds into its experience, we hope, both journey and story. For me and for the Westminster Williamson Voices, the experience of recording Living Voices and taking the journey that James Whitbourn’s music inspires has been both life changing and life affirming.

It has been almost ten years since I first came in contact with Whitbourn’s music. Its allure, for me as a conductor and for my singers, is its deep honesty, authenticity, and its ability in a very direct and meaningful music language to communicate life’s truths in a way that its very singing changes the way we live.

The Son of God Mass and Requiem canticorum, the two anchor pieces on this recording, provide for the listener, I believe, deep spiritual and human journeys into not only life and living, but the role of loss and remembrance in the human experience. The textures and sound palettes in these works leave unmistakable impressions in our ears. Likewise, the stunningly beautiful Give us the wings of faith combines the most intimate of musical textures to reveal a glimpse into the role of belief in our lives. All of the works on this recording took us on profound journeys, and we believe that you will hear us and our journeys as you listen to not only the choir, but the artistry of my colleagues. It has been our mission to bring this significant choral music to you in a deeply meaningful way.

The great teacher of the twentieth century, Nadia Boulanger said, “All that we know by heart enriches us and helps us find ourselves.” This recording and the music on it have allowed us to see ourselves a bit more clearly and to see the “insides” of life’s experiences. We feel fulfilled and changed by the experience of James Whitbourn’s music. We hope you hear that experience in what we have tried to capture here.

James Jordan
Professor of Conducting and Senior Conductor, Westminster Choir College of Rider University

Composer’s note

Son of God Mass has its genesis in visual imagery. Its seminal themes were composed in response to a series of strong images—sweeping vistas and astonishing landscapes of the Holy Land—shot for a series of fine documentary films made by the BBC between 2000 and 2001. After completing the orchestral score for the films, I decided to use the music as the basis of a new choral Mass setting. Re-working music in the context of a Mass setting is an idea which flourished during the Renaissance, when the so-called “parody Mass” was a common device for composers such as Palestrina and Sheppard—who used secular songs as well as sacred motets as the basis of their parody Masses. In this way, the Son of God Mass is a modern-day parody Mass.

The scoring of the Mass is for choir, organ and soprano saxophone and was written to be performed either liturgically or as a concert piece. Because—with the exception of the Kyrie and Gloria – movements of liturgical Mass settings are not intended to be heard one after the other, I added linking meditative movements that represent the progression of the liturgy and quote fragments from it. The liturgical movements (the Ordinary of the Mass) are scored for choir and organ, with the soprano saxophone added for the linking movements.

The use of the soprano saxophone stems from a vigil service for war-torn Bosnia, held a few years earlier, for which I had written some short, mantra-like phrases, sung first by the choir and then by the whole congregation, over which the saxophonist John Harle improvised. I returned to this sound world when writing Son of God Mass.

Winter’s Wait was written for the choir of King’s College Cambridge and is a setting of a modern poem by Robert Tear, a close friend whose death came just days before the present recording took place. Its melody shares its tonality with Peter Abelard’s beautiful hymn O quanta qualia, on which A brief story of Peter Abelard is based, but it bursts into the major for the final stanza.

Give us the wings of faith is a setting of Isaac Watts’s exquisite poem originally written in the first person, ‘Give me the wings of faith to rise,’ and was commissioned by the BBC. The poem has a visionary quality to it, but expressed in a direct way.

A brief story of Peter Abelard tells the story through music of the life and death of Peter Abelard, the medieval philosopher, poet and musician, born in France in 1079. The work is a series of variations on his hymn tune O quanta qualia, each of which paints an episode of Abelard’s life, each identified in the score. Abelard taught at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, lodging with Canon Fulbert, who admired his work. In time, he also became tutor to Fulbert’s beautiful seventeen-year-old niece, Heloïse. Abelard and Heloïse began a passionate love affair (Dance of Peter and Heloïse), which resulted in a son, Astrolabe. For the sake of Abelard’s position, they married secretly, and Canon Fulbert was present at their marriage. But Fulbert later reacted furiously to news that Abelard had sent Heloïse to a convent, believing that he had abandoned her in favour of his own career. In revenge, he had Abelard castrated (Revenge of Canon Fulbert). After his mutilation, Abelard became a monk, and he and Heloïse remained constant correspondents for the remainder of his life. He composed a hymn-book for Heloïse, who by then was Abbess of the convent of the Paraclete. Among the hymns was a visionary poem of the New Jerusalem, set to a beautiful melody in the Dorian mode, O quanta qualia. On his death in 1142, Abelard’s remains were taken to the Paraclete at Heloïse’s request, and her body was later laid to rest in the same tomb. Finally, their remains were taken to Paris and in 1817 they were buried together in one sepulchre (In Paradisum). A brief story of Peter Abelard was commissioned by Sarah Field and Simon Lepper for performance on alto saxophone and piano. A new scoring for soprano saxophone and organ has been made for the performers on this disc, Jeremy Powell and Ken Cowan.

A Prayer from South Africa is a concise setting of a prayer by Alan Paton (1903–88), the South African antiapartheid activist and writer. The music was commissioned by a former Canon of Cape Town Cathedral, Chris Chivers. The musical language reflects a harmonic style impressed upon me during my own visits to South Africa.

Living Voices was first commissioned by the BBC as part of a broadcast from Westminster Abbey of a service held after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The text, written by Sir Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate at the time, is an integral part of the piece and was part of the same commission. The work was first performed live in a concert in New York on the first anniversary of the 2001 attacks, along with the Son of God Mass.

Requiem canticorum has its thematic roots in two large-scale orchestral works written for the BBC Philharmonic, readers and soloists, the first of which, through the libretto of Michael Symmons Roberts, explored the fearful symmetry of two events both commemorated on the same day (6 August): the Feast of the Transfiguration and the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The second was a commemoration of the wounded Christ, an embodiment of the hurts and pains borne by human beings. Its text is a group of Latin songs, which can loosely be called canticles, that form a piece to commemorate those who are dead and to comfort those who are bereaved. The work forms a companion piece to the Son of God Mass and can be performed as a stand-alone work, but its movements can also intertwine with those of the Son of God Mass in a designated sequence to form a full Requiem Mass.

There are several other associations embodied within the music, the most obvious of which is the use of a familiar plainsong melody that forms the ancient Introit from the Mass for the Dead. It is the same melody used by Duruflé in his beautiful and evocative Requiem, and a melody that has been heard and sung through many centuries. The scoring of Requiem canticorum naturally links it with Living Voices and Son of God Mass and brings to mind all those who have lost cherished friends and family.

All shall be Amen and Alleluia was written for the building in which this recording was made, Princeton University Chapel. It was commissioned by James D. Moyer, an alumnus of Westminster Choir College, and the Pennsbury Community Chorus. Its magnificent words by the African bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) are a summation of a great philosophy of life and death.

James Whitbourn

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