Lumen easter AF012

Lumen Christi – A Sequence of Music for the Easter Vigil
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Simon Johnson
Peter Stevens (organ)
rec. 2023, Buckfast Abbey, Buckfastleigh, UK
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Ad Fontes
Ad Fontes AF012 [72]

Easter and the forty days preceding it are one of the most important stages in the ecclesiastical year of the Christian Church of the West. Passiontide finds its culmination in the three days before Easter, known as Triduum Sacrum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday. In the Catholic Church, the last stage is the Easter Vigil, which takes place at Saturday night, on the brink of Easter Day. The disc under review includes music which is part of the liturgy of Easter Vigil: a combination of plainchant, polyphony and organ works. The meaning is summed up by the organist, Peter Stevens, in his liner-notes: “The Easter Triduum begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, a service which ends in silence with the watching at the Altar of Repose until midnight, as we remember the Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday both begins and ends in silence. And so, on Holy Saturday evening, we gather in silence and in darkness, recalling on one hand the sudden darkness and the desolation that accompanied Christ’s death, but also anticipating the hope-filled silence of the empty tomb.” 

It is useful that he goes on to describe in detail how the Vigil proceeds, especially for those – like me – who are not familiar with it. It is divided into four sections. The first is the Service of Light (Lucernarium), whose main part is the Easter proclamation, Exultet, sung in English: “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven”. The author of the text is not known; among those to whom it has attributed, are Augustine and Ambrose.

The second section is the Liturgy of the Word. “In all, the Church provides nine readings for this part of the service, seven of which are taken from the Old Testament. (…) Each reading is followed by the singing of a prescribed text, reflecting the action we have just heard.” In this recording, the readings are omitted, and we also hear only four vocal items. Andrew Reid’s Exodus Canticle is a setting of the first six verses from the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter 15. This is the song of Moses and the people after their passing of the Red Sea, and the destruction of the Egyptian army. It follows the reading of the narrative of this event. The connection to Easter is that the exodus from Egypt is a prefiguration of Christ’s salvation of his people by his death and resurrection. Laudate Dominum by Tomás Luis de Victoria is for eight voices in two choirs. This section ends with a Gloria by Monteverdi and – sung in Gregorian chant – Alleluia. Confitemini Domino. The latter is a setting of verses which appear in several psalms. According to the track-list the Gloria is taken from Monteverdi’s Missa Ave Domine Iesu Christe. However, his work does not include such a mass; it seems to be a modern assembly of separate mass sections in Monteverdi’s oeuvre and which Gloria is performed here is not specified.

The third section is the Liturgy of Baptism. Again, here is a connection that may not be obvious, and needs explanation. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, referring to the Exodus, states that “our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (ch 10, vs 1-2). This section opens with the Litany of the Saints. “[As] we approach the moment of Baptism, we ask for the prayers of the saints to accompany us, and especially those about to be baptised, on our journey.” This is sung in Gregorian chant; the cantor sings the invocations, the full choir the prayers. It is followed by Matthew Martin’s motet for choir and organ Vidi aquam, a setting of the antiphon for the sprinkling of water at the beginning of Mass during Eastertide; the text refers to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.

The last section is the liturgy of the Eucharist, the fixed part of each mass. It opens with a motet for Easter by Jean L’Héritier, Surrexit pastor bonus, set for six voices. L’Héritier is one of the lesser-known composers of the Renaissance. He was from France, but worked for most of his life in Italy, especially in Rome and Mantua. Copies of his works have been found across Europe, attesting to his status. The motet includes some false relations, which reflects the text, referring to Jesus’s Passion, very much like Luther’s famous hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden. Sanctus and Agnus Dei are again sung in Gregorian chant. Next we turn again to Palestrina, whose motet Angelus Domini descendit is about the angel’s descending from heaven, and rolling back the stone of Jesus’ tomb. The motet is in two parts, each of which ends with an Alleluia. It includes several moments of text illustration, the most obvious of these the descending figure at the start. The Communion is Psalm 117, sung in Gregorian chant. The verses are performed by a few singers; each of them is followed by an Alleluia sung by the full choir, all with organ accompaniment. The latter plays a substantial role in Matthew Baker’s setting of the Easter hymn O filii et filiae, sung in English. The organ also rounds off the event with Jean Langlais’ Incantation pour un jour saint.

As I usually only review recordings of early music in ‘period style’, I must warn the reader that he or she should not expect ‘authentic’ performances of the early music items here. The Choir of Westminster Cathedral is clearly substantially larger than almost any choir composers of the Renaissance have ever seen or heard. Part of the Gregorian chant is in English, and accompanied by organ. This is not some kind of liturgical reconstruction, but rather offers an impression of what today an Easter Vigil may be like. It is common practice in British cathedrals – either Catholic or Anglican – to mix old and new. Although I am certainly not a fan of contemporary music, it cannot be appreciated enough that cathedral choirs offer composers of our time the opportunity – or inspire them – to write music for the liturgy. Whether one likes a piece like Baker’s O Filii et Filiae or not, if it was the intention to bring the Easter Vigil to a rousing end, it certainly works. The ecstatic joy at Christ’s resurrection is musically embodied here in a perfect manner.

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral is a top-class ensemble which has made many recordings, in particular for Hyperion, often with Renaissance polyphony. This is the second disc for the label Ad Fontes; the first, ‘Vexilla regis’, with music for the period from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday, I have not heard. If you like this disc, you may well consider investigating that one, too. This latest is an impressive testimony to the quality of the choir and the way music of all times can be used in contemporary liturgy.

Johan van Veen

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[Service of Light (Lucernarium)]
Gregorian chant
Lumen Christi
[Liturgy of the Word]
Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594)
Jubilate Deo
Andrew Reid (*1971)
Exodus Canticle
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)
Laudate Dominum
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594)
Sicut cervus
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
[Missa Ave Domine Iesu Christe]:
Gregorian chant
[Solemn Alleluia] Confitemini Domino
[Liturgy of Baptism]
Gregorian chant
Litany of the Saints
Matthew Martin (*1971)
Vidi aquam
[Liturgy of the Eucharist]
Jean L’Héritier (c1480-c1551)
Surrexit pastor bonus
Gregorian chant
Mass I:
Agnus Dei
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Angelus Domini descendit
Gregorian chant
[Communio] Alleluia – Psalm 117 (Confitemini Domino)
Gregorian chant
Pontifical Blessing & Dismissal
Martin Baker (*1967)
O filii et filiae
Jean Langlais (1907-1991)
Incantation pour un jour saint