Lux Aeterna (and not Ligeti)

The Honddu Valley in Wales

The Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II from Westminster Cathedral was on BBC Radio 3 as we drove from Abbey Dore into Wales to Llanthony Priory. This extraordinary Augustinian Priory was founded in 1118 in the beautiful and remote valley of Honddu in the Black Mountains to celebrate poverty and isolation. This really was life on the edge of civilisation, and finally hardship and Welsh raids caused the Priory to be abandoned for the more hospitable Llanthony Secunda in Gloucester. Today the ruins of Llanthony Prima remain as an extraordinary tribute to the power of the monastic movement.

The Mass for the pivotal 20th century Pope disappeared into static as FM reception disappeared at Llanthony, so for the return journey we turned to Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna (also the title of a superb Brilliant Classic's box set of Flemish polyphonists) which fortuitously was in the car's CD changer. I had got to know this work through the RCM recording of 1998 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Paul Salamunovich which I had imported from the US. Since that pioneering recording this remarkable work has gained a justified place in the choral repertoire, and has recently received the endorsement of a recording by Polyphony with East Anglia's 'home band' the Britten Symphonia conducted by Stephen Layton.

But here I have to make a confession. Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna troubles me. Not because it is not a fine work, but because whenver I hear it I also hear Elgar with a sprinkling of Rutter. What troubles me is not this apparent derivation, but more that I am unsure as to whether derivation in an art work is a sign of weakness. In my wrong-headed way I categorise composers into those 'derivatives' such as Rutter, Lauridsen, and many more who I visit on the overgrown path, and the true originals who are the ultimate destination - Bach, and the polyphonists and their precursors.

John Rutter now strikes me as an interesting and rewarding composer to visit while exploring the path, but most definitely not a destination. I will always be moved by parts of his Requiem. The recording by King's College Choir, Cambridge directed by Stephen Cleobury was almost permanently in the car CD player in France one summer. The final Lux Aeterna movement will always be linked for me to the view of Buis les Baronnies as you drive up the D5 in the Drome, rugged border country similar to the Black Mountains.

Near Buies les Baronnies in the Drome, France

But as I explored more overgrown paths the derivative nature of Rutter started to trouble me. My journies led me further to Herbert Howells, his Requiem, Motets, and other sacred music, plus of course his sublime Hymnus Paradisi. Geographically Howells' came from rural Gloucestersire not far from Llanthony, while stylistically his path leads back to the destination of Tudor polyphony. (His two keyboard works, Lambert' and Howell's Clavichord are well worth seeking out. These are tributes to musician friends - including Edmund Rubbra, see below - in the manner of Elgar's Enigma Variations, but in the style of Tudor Keyboard pieces. There was a version on CD played by John McCabe on Hyperion but it is now deleted. Thankfully Hyperion didn't attempt the impossible task of recording a clavichord, does anyone know of a recording of that most intimate of keyboard instruments that sounds natural?)

Further down another overgrown path I discovered the delights of the sacred music of Edmund Rubbra. I already knew his his symphonies, the Lyrita LP of Norman del Mar conducting No 6 and 8 was a vinyl favourite of mine, and is one of the Lyrita LP's that has fortunately been reisuued on viynl. (Harold Moore Records exclusively distribute these CD reissues, follow this link to see the full range of composers available - well worth exploring). Rubbra converted to Catholicism in 1948 at the age of 47. Many of his great choral works post-date his conversion, including two masses and the Nine Tenebrae Motets (for excellent recordings of these go no further that the Choir of St John's College Cambridge on Naxos). But for me Rubbra's unknown masterpeice is his Symphony No 9, the Symphonia Sacra. The path here has us all the way back to Bach as the structure of this choral symphony mirrors the Passions, the theme is the Resurrection with each of the four sections ending with a Latin hymn (set by Rubbra), while three sections also include a Lutheran Chorale. Rubbra was a brave man to compose on this theme and in this style in 1972 (This was year which brought the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes died, the start of the US bombing of Hanoi, not to mention Don McLean's American Pie, Alice Cooper's Schools Out, and the Moody Blues Nights in White Satin, and the introduction of the pioneering 'Pong' video game).

Surely Rubbra's Symphonia Sacra should now take its rightful place in the repertoire alongside other 20th century choral masterpieces such as Tippett's A Child of Our Time?

Edmund Rubbra

For our visit to the Black Mountains we stayed at The Old Post Office in Llanigon which serves the most superb vegetarian breakfasts, and is also just outside 'the book town' of Haye-on-Wye. We ate at the Felin Fach Griffin, both are highly recommended.

Regular readers will know my fascination with pilgrimages. There is a project to develop a Cistercian Way pilgrimage route linking all the Welsh Cistercian abbeys, medieval and modern.

To appreciate the real beauty of the Black Mountains, and to understand the challenges of travel for the Augustinian Cannons try pony trekking with Tregoyd Mountain Riding - but don't fall off your pony as one of our party did!

Books bought on this trip
Hay-on-Wye (see also my other post - Wot no computers) :
A Sport and a Pastime -
James Salter £2.50
Monasteries of Norfolk - Richard le Strange £6
Only Birds and Fools - J.Norman Ashton £4.95 (remainder)
The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst £1.50
Good Vibrations -
Evelyn Glennie £6

In Worcester:
Miss Smilia's Feeling for Snow -
Peter Hoeg £1.45

In Malvern:
Amber, Furs and Cockleshells -
Anne Mustoe £7.99 (new)

On the trip I read
Sam Taylor's much hyped first novel The Republic of Trees. Despite patches of fine writing I found it very disappointing. It was superficially clever, clearly derived from The Magus and Lord of the Flies without really adding anything new for me. I guess it's different strokes for different folks....

I also bought in Hay the CD The Hermit by folk guitarist
John Renbourn as an antidote to too many masses in minor keys.

John Renbourn

And to bring this post full circle the Westminster Cathedral Choir's recording of Victoria's Officium defunctorum of 1605 under David Hill was waiting on my doormat on my return, supplied by the ever efficient (and cheap) Caiman via Amazon's 'New and used' link.


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