Music for Ascension Day: Patrick Gowers – Viri Galilaei

Forty days after Easter, today marks the Feast of the Ascension. Despite being one of the four ‘pillars’ of the Church’s liturgical calendar (along with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), this feast has never attracted composers quite as much as the others. i imagine it’s a combination of the relatively short shrift given to it in the Gospels, as well as – dare i say it – the slightly comic idea of Christ ascending into the clouds (there’s a well-known painting of this scene (i forget which), with Christ’s feet hilariously protruding from the base of a cloud). It’s no doubt the lack of alternative material that has led to Gerald Finzi‘s God is gone up becoming the sine qua non on this particular day. Not that that should take anything away from Finzi’s piece; it’s superb, and contains some of the most exquisite words ever set to music:

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphicwise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

Equally well-known and established for today is Olivier Messiaen‘s organ cycle L’Ascension. While i think it’s far from being Messiaen’s greatest work, it has its moments; i prefer it in the organ version, particularly the new third movement, which will probably be heard in most cathedrals and churches at the conclusion of today’s services. So much for the well-known pieces; in preference to Messiaen, i prefer Charles Tournemire‘s music composed for today, and also for the Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension. They form parts 23 and 24 of his magnum opus L’Orgue Mystique, weaving the original plainchant melodies for the day into new, modern forms. It’s functional music, intended to punctuate the appropriate points of the Eucharist; nonetheless, for all its functionality, it’s among the most radical and innovative of 20th century Church music – how and why Tournemire is so frequently overlooked remains a mystery. His Ascension music, in my opinion, is the most exciting of his entire cycle, and the best of them is his Postlude for the Sunday within the Octave; if only this piece was heard as much as Messiaen’s.

A marvellous alternative to Finzi is Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, which i first heard almost exactly three years ago, during a broadcast of Choral Evensong from St George’s Chapel Windsor in May 2005. It remains the most exciting new anthem i’ve heard in the last few years, so here’s the recording from that broadcast. At nearly 8 minutes’ duration, it’s considerably longer than the average anthem, and its scope is similarly wide, juxtaposing soloistic passages with coruscating tuttis (when listening to the central “Alleluia!”, just try to prevent a shiver running down your spine). The final chorale is a touch relentless, but on a day as joyous as today, why not?


Posted on by 5:4 in Seasonal
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3 Responses to Music for Ascension Day: Patrick Gowers – Viri Galilaei

  1. Paul Emmons

    It's wonderful to see such appreciative remarks about the Tournemire suites! Only today, I opined in the Ship of Fools forum that his Postlude for Sunday after the Ascension approaches Messiaen's Outburst of Joy in value, as well as in challenge to the player. To anyone skeptical of this recommendation, I can now cite your words, which are even more enthusiastic.

  2. 5:4

    Paul, I'm so glad you share my enthusiasm for Tournemire's music, and i'm glad you're recommending it to others! Since i wrote those words (three years ago!), my own love for L'Orgue Mystique has grown considerably, and i've already arranged some of the pieces for instrumental forces. More people need to hear this amazing music!

  3. Pingback: Mix Tape #11 : Joy | 5:4

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