The various Christian liturgies have provided a vast reservoir of texts and structural models for composers for at least a thousand years. In the beginning, their sacred contributions were restricted to worship; it would have seemed heretical to perform religious music outside of the church context (and continued so into comparatively modern times: Handel felt constrained to announce the first London performance in 1743 of Messiah - a non-liturgical work, though one whose focus is the drama at the core of Christianity - not with its title, but simply as "A Sacred Oratorio").
But just as painters and sculptors of the Renaissance, living in a world dominated by Reformation and Counter-Reformation inquisitions, used biblical references as source texts for their explorations into form, color and perspective, composers have employed the structures of the Eucharist and Vespers services to mold extended choral and orchestral creations for the concert hall. No doubt they hoped that in doing so they would make contact with the deepest resonances within their listeners while peacefully coexisting with the always-suspicious religious authorities. The Lutheran Bach completed a monumental Latin mass (the so-called "B-minor", though it is mainly in the key of D major), perhaps hoping for employment at the Catholic court in Dresden . Beethoven composed the gargantuan Missa solemnis to celebrate the ascension of his patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria to the rank of cardinal. And Verdi wrote his Requiem in memory of the patriotic novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Each of these composers knew that his work's dimensions would preclude its use even in the most solemn rites. In our own time, Leonard Bernstein, offered free choice in deciding what to compose as an inaugural work for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, selected the plan of the mass for a sprawling, eclectic disquisition on the relationship between God and Man, or at least between LB and his audience.
In comparison to the mass, Vespers, the daily evening liturgy of Catholic and Orthodox life, offers a much looser framework for a composer's imagination. Like the mass it contains both fixed and ever-changing elements. Composers as a rule have limited themselves to the unchanging portions of the mass, leaving the daily readings (the Proper as opposed to the Ordinary) to be recited or chanted by the celebrant. But the essential components of the Roman Catholic Vespers - five selections from among the 150 chapters of the book of Psalms, plus the canticle of Mary from the gospel of Luke - are far more flexible, offering almost limitless scope for a composer's evocation of mood. While the Magnificat of Mary is part of every Vespers service, the specific psalms vary daily throughout the year. Though European composers, from as far back as Machaut in the 14 th century, have devoted themselves to settings of the entire Ordinary of the mass, complete Vespers have been the exception rather than the rule. Even when composers did prepare full Vespers settings (usually choosing the psalms designated for Marian feasts such as the Immaculate Conception or the Annunciation), the works that resulted tended to be less unified than their masses are, their individual movements more easily - and acceptably - selected for performance in isolation.
Hong Kong is among the great cultural meeting points of the world. Unlike in European capitals, no one sect is historically or culturally dominant. In assembling The Hong Kong Vespers we have attempted to reflect the diversity that gives Hong Kong its unique richness with music whose generating ideas arise from Roman Catholic, German Lutheran, Russian Orthodox and Anglican practice, as well as traditional Chinese philosophy.
Sir Edward Elgar was a Catholic living in a heavily Protestant society in which Catholicism was still disadvantaged. Like his compositional forebears Byrd and Tallis (who lived during a period fraught with religious warfare), he composed for both his own religious tradition and that of the surrounding majority. With regard to liturgical music if not theology, there was in practice little difference between them beyond the linguistic one: Latin or English. Elgar's setting of Psalm 29 was written in 1914 for the Sons of Clergy Festival at St. Paul 's Cathedral in London . Its dramatic, point-to-point response to the text, thundering with glory and subsiding into a confidently strong peace, though not intended expressly for a Vespers service is appropriate as an invocation for our musical rites.
At the other end of Europe, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his All-night Vigil just one year later, in 1915. Rachmaninoff had concluded that his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of 1910 lacked stylistic unity, and resolved to incorporate authentic Russian Orthodox chant melodies into the fabric of his second sacred choral work, consulting the director of the Moscow Synod School to find sources. Nine of the Vigil 's fifteen movements include traditional chants; five of them are taken from ancient znamennïy collections and two each from the somewhat simpler, 17 th -century 'Greek' and ' Kiev ' traditions. The Revolution drove Rachmaninoff from Russia soon after, leaving him feeling cut off from his roots for the remainder of his life. As with Francis Poulenc after him, the religious impulse that generated his two great sacred compositions informed much of his later secular music; Rachmaninoff's final work, the Symphonic Dances for orchestra, includes in its coda a quotation from the All-night Vigil .
Mozart, born in the Catholic portion of the German-speaking lands, composed voluminously for the church. He grew up under a theocracy; Salzburg, his hometown, was ruled by a Prince-Archbishop, and most of Mozart's liturgical works were written for the cathedral there. Mozart composed his second complete setting of Vespers, the Vesperae solennes de Confessore, in 1780. This was shortly before Idomeneo, his great opera seria for the Munich court, and one year before the final break with Prince-Archbishop Colloredo and his move to Vienna . Like its predecessor, the Vesperae solennes de Dominica of 1779, the Vespers of a Confessor reflects the reformist ideas of Mozart's employer, with concise word setting and without the florid arias and ensembles then prevalent in Italy even in sacred music.
Joyce Wai-chung Tang was born in Hong Kong . She earned an MA in composition and an MPhil in electro-acoustic music from the Hong Kong Baptist University . She furthered her studies at the Summer Academy of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Music (IRCAM) in Paris, and is currently pursuing a PhD in musicology at the University of Hong Kong . Her compositions have been jury-selected for performance in major contemporary music festivals and conferences, including the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World Music Days in the UK and Hong Kong, the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) in Hong Kong, Michigan and Beijing, Journées d'Informatique Musicale (JIM) in Paris, the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Nashville, the Asian Composers' League Contemporary Music Festival in Seoul, and the Musicarama Festival in Hong Kong. Her recent pieces include Between Memory and Reality, for percussion and tape, commissioned by the Hong Kong Composers' Guild; Drunk With Flower Shadows, for soprano and chamber ensemble, commissioned by the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong; Stretch, for cello and zheng, commissioned for the 2004 Hong Kong Arts Festival; and an upcoming concerto for percussionist Thierry Miroglio.
Han Shan (Cold Mountain) refers to the mountains of Fujian province, to which the eponymous Tang dynasty hermit-poet may have fled following a rebellion or simply in disgust at city life and the civilized world during the 8 th or 9 th centuries C.E. His identity is known to posterity only by the subject of his poems, which he scratched into rocks and bamboo, and onto the sides of cliffs and houses. Han Shan was famed as an eccentric, and stories of his delight in poking fun at inflated scholarly egos have circulated for a thousand years. His themes, reflecting a deep understanding of Taoist and Buddhist thought, include frustration with the modern world, the loneliness of the solitary dreamer and the persistence of nature in relation to ephemeral life. Joyce Wai-chung Tang has set two of his poems, her spare, open textures reflecting Han Shan's loneliness and the wavelike motion of canons suggesting the constant flow of the natural world.
Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is among his most familiar works. Its provenance is uncertain; at the time, Monteverdi was employed as maestro da cappella at the ducal court of Mantua, where his output consisted primarily of madrigals, ballets, theatre music and the operas Orfeo and Arianna . Much of the Vespers is in a relatively old-fashioned, learned style. Its final psalm, Lauda Jerusalem, assigns the tenor part a stream of Gregorian chant, around which the six-part double chorus weaves its contrapuntal elaboration.
And finally, Bach. The Magnificat canticle was a regular part of evening services in the Lutheran tradition of his day, sung in the vernacular on ordinary Saturdays and Sundays. But on the three major feast days it was sung in Latin, in polyphonic style. The first version of Bach's Magnificat, in E-flat major with an orchestra of strings only, was created for his first Christmas in Leipzig, in 1723. In addition to the text of the canticle, to which was appended the traditional doxology, Bach inserted four additional sections with specific references to Christmas. His revision was prepared between 1728 and 1731, and involved a change of key to D major in order to accommodate an expanded orchestra which includes trumpets (particularly suited to that key) and with transverse flutes replacing the original recorders. The Christmas interpolations were removed, making the new version appropriate for any major feast day. Bach's Magnificat has long been a favorite of choral societies despite the fiendish difficulty of its part-writing. In the twelve short movements that make up the work the remarkably economical composer used his instrumental forces with unusual dexterity, reserving the full orchestral sound for the big choruses (and not even for all of these) while coloring each solo movement distinctively, never repeating the instrumental tone of one aria in another.
- Jerome Hoberman -