Saturday, October 30, 2010

Burchell's Te Deum Laudamus

City of Dunedin Choir's next concert on 20 November will include a second airing of David Burchell's composition Te Deum Laudamus. A lovely work - we're all enjoying rehearsing this one, and looking forward to the performance. Here, from the master himself, is what David has to say about this composition:

Te Deum Laudamus ('We praise thee, O God') is one of the oldest hymns of the church, dating back to the fourth century.  The hymn 'follows the outline of the Apostles' Creed, mixing a poetic vision of the heavenly liturgy with its declaration of faith. Naming God immediately, the hymn proceeds to name all those who praise and venerate God, from the hierarchy of heavenly creatures to those Christian faithful already in heaven to the Church spread throughout the world. The hymn then returns to its creedal formula, naming Christ and recalling his birth, suffering, and glorification. At this point the hymn turns to the subjects declaiming the praise, both the Church in general and the singer in particular, asking for mercy on past sins, protection from future sin, and the hoped-for reunification with the elect.' (Wikipedia)

The hymn became a regular feature of the monastic service of Matins, and remains in regular use in the Roman Catholic Church in the Office of Readings found in the Liturgy of the Hours, and in thanksgiving to God for a special blessing on occasions such as the ordination of a Bishop.  It was incorporated by Thomas Cramner in the Anglican service of Mattins, and though this service is only infrequently used today the Te Deum is also appropriate to be sung at any festal occasion.

The hymn has been set to music by many composers, most frequently in Latin, but an extensive repertoirs of English language settings also exists, composed for the Anglican liturgy, and using the translation from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  The text is long, and somewhat unwieldy in places, providing composers with a challenge in creating a tightly-structured and musically cohesive work.

My setting of the hymn had a long gestation.  I started it in 1990 whilst I was Assistant Organist at New College, Oxford, and it owes something to Benjamin Britten's E major Festival Te Deum, with which I had recently become acquainted.  I had already composed settings of the two canticles for Evensong – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and also a Jubilate Deo, with which the Te Deum is usually paired at Mattins.  So I was keen to complete the set.

But inspiration dried up part-way through, and it wasn't until 2008 that I returned to the manuscript and had another go.  I don't think you can hear the join – but I don't think I would have written the broad tune of the closing section ('We therefore pray thee...') in 1990.  The piece was first performed at Mattins in 2008 by the Choir of St Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin.

For the City Choir's performance I have taken advantage of the presence of strings and timps for the other works in the programme, and have used them to enhance the original organ-only accompaniment.

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