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Scent from above

Scent from above

 

O nomen Jesu
Peter Phillips (1560 – 1628)

Trahe me post te
Francisco Guerrero (1528 –1599)

Bevea Fillide mia
Claudio Monteverdi (1567 –1643)

There is no rose of such virtue
anon (c.1420)
Coventry Carol
anon (c.1591)
Bethlehem Down
Peter Warlock (1894 – 1930)

Hodie Christus natus est
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621)

***

Sicut cedrus exaltata sum
Felice Anerio (c.1560 – 1614)

In dulci jubilo
Johannes Eccard (1553–1611)
Adam lay ybounden
Boris Ord (1897 – 1961)
Laudate Dominum
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621)

Tota pulchra es a 4
Orlande de Lassus (1532 – 1594)

La bocca onde l'asprissime parole
Claudio Monteverdi (1567 –1643)

Quasi cedrus
Francisco Guerrero (1528 – 1599)

Laudibus in Sanctis
William Byrd (1530 – 1623)

 

Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.
Extract from Perfume, Patrick Süskind

The cloves that stud a Christmas orange and lend their incense to mulling wine add an exotic mystery to our cold winter. Just as the Magi’s lives are illuminated by the nativity, and they come bearing the wealth of the Orient in tribute to the Christ-child, the darkness of December is momentarily dispelled by the sensory and artistic charms we cast at Christmas, which elevate the season with scent and spice. Like music, scent has the ability to bypass the self-conscious; sound and smell share that artifice, by which a busy mind might be turned back from the stresses and concerns of modernity to the contemplation of the divine.

 

The counterpoint of sound and scent forms the starting point from which Eo Nomine’s concert this evening draws its inspiration. In many of the works performed, the composer has engaged with the imagery of scent in the text to present us with music that evokes the Christmas season with all its multi-sensory resonance. The texts themselves occupy a span of over two thousand years, from the Psalms and Song of Solomon to the twentieth century, via fifteenth-century England and early seventeenth-century Italy. What is common to all these works is a sense of the wonder and mystery that is at the heart of Christian theology regarding the incarnation of the ‘Word made flesh’.  Scent and spice are mentioned frequently in the poetic texts that the composers of tonight’s works chose to set, yet the direct relationship between this sensory imagery and the music itself can ultimately be one only of allusion and evocation. To the intended audience however, this evocation would have held as real a significance as the very myrrh and frankincense brought by the Magi themselves. The manifold ways - through exotic scents, tastes, songs and sounds - by which we lend Christmas its mystery all recall and mirror the original mystery of that first night in the stable.

 

The concert unfolds out from an introspective start. The starkly homophonic opening of Philips’s o nomen Jesu gives way to the ecstatic longing of Guerrero’s Trahe me post te, its text from the Song of Solomon prefiguring the adoration due to the Virgin Mary for her role in the incarnation. Adoration of the Virgin cannot have been distant from Monteverdi’s mind in Bevea Fillide mia, the first of two of his secular madrigals in tonight’s programme. Next come three beautiful and justly famous English carols, There is no Rose, Coventry Carol and Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, the latter written allegedly to finance a drinking session on Christmas Eve, a story evocative perhaps of another aspect of this season! The triumphant fanfare-like figures of Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est close the first half in joyous alleluia.

 

Sweelinck, Monteverdi and Guerrero also feature in the second half. Sweelinck’s Laudate Dominum (Psalm 117) is a typically joyous evocation of the peoples of the world coming together in praise of God. La bocca onde l’asprissime offers this half’s secular charm in a short tale of love overcoming disdain. The emotional turning point on the word soavemente (sweetly) is touchingly harmonised at a point of dramatic stillness. Guerrero’s Quasi Cedrus sets a text combining verses from the Apocrypha’s Ecclesiaticus with the Song of Solomon in a mode of bittersweet longing, as if the object of desire is distant or removed. The concert resumes, however, with Felice Anerio’s setting of the same passage, Sicut Cedrus, which takes a far more ecstatic and expectant tone, lingering melismatically on the words ‘balsam’ and ‘scent’, giving these expressions of luxury yet more impact. Eccard’s in Dulci Jubilo and Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybounden both set medieval texts, and are favourites of the Christmas choral repertoire. Orlando de Lassus’s Marian antiphon Tota pulchra es offers further adoration of the Virgin Mary in sensual language evocative of the Song of Solomon. Finally William Byrd’s celebrated setting of Psalm 150 (rendered in elegiac couplets) Laudibus in Sanctis, completes the concert in triumph and dance.

 

Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?
Song of Solomon, III.6

Programme notes by David Price