Friday, 2 March 2012

No tedium with this 'Te Deum'

When the Victorian crowds rose en masse to roar their approval of Sir Arthur Sullivan's Te Deum, they were doing what I suspect any open-minded listener would have done. The piece fell out of favour with the passing of the Victorian Age as the succeeding century seemed less keen on the shame-free confidence, Handelian fugues, Mendelssohnian religiosity and operatic arias and choruses of this very Victorian brand of choral music.  Given how enjoyable the work is, it's good that it now seems to be making a modest comeback and that these 'negative' qualities, of which it partakes, are no longer the source of intellectual worry they once were. 

The opening section's full-throated, hymn-like choral cry of 'We praise Thee, O Lord' lifts the spirits and the fugue at 'To Thee, all angels cry aloud' combines Handelian elements with those - especially in the delightful homophonic passage at 'the Heavens, and all the powers therein' - of Sullivan's own age. 

My favourite section is the second, 'To Thee cherubim'. It takes the form of a dialogue between the soprano soloist, who sings the opening line to a magical phrase, and the chorus singing 'Holy, holy, holy' to the accompaniment of Mendelssohnian brass and a strong hint of the 'Dresden Amen' known today from Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony and the prelude to the first act of Wagner's Parsifal. When Sullivan brings them together, he does so impressively. 

You'll find elements of plainchant, Protestant cadences, Baroque bass lines and another Handelian fugue (at 'Thou art the king of glory') in the splendid third section, 'The glorious company of the Apostles'.

'When Thou tookest upon Thee', the fourth movement, is an operatic-style aria with obbligato oboe, lyrical and Italianate, and is wholly winning - especially when Sir Arthur switches it from B minor to B major.

The following section, 'We believe that Thou shalt come', opens chordally and chorale-like but quickly switches to a waltz-like siciliano, bringing operatic style straight back into the piece. The lovely phrase 'Make them to be numbered with thy saints', however, continues to have the flavour of a chorale about it.

'O Lord, save Thy people' takes vicar-and-congregation-style responses as its starting point. At 'Day by day', though, it turns into a jaunty, entertaining Baroque-style chorus.

The closing movement holds two surprises (spoilers!). The first is that its main theme is the hymn known as 'St. Anne', aka 'O God, our help in ages past'. This is sung, in full, to the accompaniment of brass and organ, with the words of the 'Te Deum' fitted with endearing awkwardness. When a sturdy fugue burst in, the hymn theme rings out against it (Bach-like, Mendelssohn-like) on trumpet. The second - and bigger - surprise follows, namely the entry of a military band playing an extraordinarily jolly march tune that could have come straight out of a Savoy opera. Against it, Sullivan cunningly counterpoints 'St. Anne'. Does this shotgun marriage work? Oh yes! It provides a rousing conclusion to an interesting and loveable piece.  

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