BBC Radio 3 – Music for the Hours – The music of The Divine Office

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For the culmination of the Capturing Twilight season, Radio 3 presents Music for the Hours – a day punctuated by moments of musical reflection. This is inspired by the daily rituals of the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, which formed the basis of the earliest Christian services, particularly in the monastic tradition.

BBC Radio 3 – Music for the Hours – The music of The Divine Office

The music centres on medieval chant and the incredible Renaissance vocal polyphony that arose from this tradition, with complementary choral works from contemporary composers, recorded specially for Radio 3 by the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.

Here Peter Phillips explains the planning which went into Music for the Hours

We may not always think of it, but the sequence of services which make up the Divine Office has provided a showcase for some of the most performed texts in the sacred music repertoire, for 1500 years. Canticles like the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, hymns like Te Lucis ante terminum and Vexilla regis, psalms like the Miserere, and Laudibus in sanctis, have come down to us through these eight services, each with its own liturgy, each playing a significant role in the days and nights of every monk and nun to follow the Rule of St Benedict.St Benedict

St Benedict first collected these services together in 516, codifying previous practice and making them the pillars of daily worship in the religious communities. In his Rule he organised the 24 hours into eight three-hour segments, each one containing an Office – the first (Prime) to be sung at 0600, the eighth (Lauds) at 0300 in the next day, before the sequence started again at 0600 without pause. In between these services the faithful would sleep, eat and work as the Abbot or Abbess instructed them, with no sense that midnight was the beginning of the day, or that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep was a prerequisite for satisfactory living.

The three-hourly structure went through the day and the following night, just as we shall present it on the broadcasts, though we will begin modern-style at the beginning of the new day just after midnight, with Matins. The original sequence would have been: 0600 Prime, 0900 Terce and (probably) Mass, 1200 Sext, 1500 None, 1800 Vespers, 2100 Compline, 0000 Matins, 0300 Lauds. We have had to modify these timings very slightly to fit in with current schedules.

Planning the music for such a feast of prominent texts gave me wonderful opportunities to explore the whole gamut of polyphonic composition, including recent writing. Like many people who are involved with singing courses, Compline is probably the Office I came to know best, popular because it prepares its participants for sleep (these days – this was just what it didn’t precisely do in the original Rule). Through singing Compline I came to enjoy the way this service is put together – beginning with the Introduction, followed by the three psalms with their antiphons, the hymn and chapter, the Nunc dimittis, the Pater noster, the dismissal, the Marian antiphon – and wondered how the other seven might work.

Some decisions were made before the actual music was chosen. I decided the Offices of daylight (slightly depending on where you are and the time of year) – Prime, Terce, Sext and None – should be sung by women, and should include music by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Eventually I had to leave Terce out of this neat arrangement, but the other three and Matins are introduced by her music, the one at Matins which launches our cycle, entitled In principio, is one of the great compositions of the pre-polyphonic period. In our broadcasts the women then sing all the chant, including the psalms, as the men do in the other services.

Since the Pater noster occurs in the liturgy of all eight services I wanted to show how it was set by composers from different backgrounds. To this end you will hear renaissance settings by John Sheppard (in English), William Daman (in old English), Jacobus Gallus (double choir in Latin), and 20th century ones by Igor Stravinsky (in Church Slavonic), and John Tavener.

The scope of these services also enabled me to plan other complete cycles. I have long been an admirer of Victoria’s 8-voice antiphons Salve regina and Ave Maria – two of the masterpieces of the High Renaissance repertory.

But I knew there was more from him in the double-choir Marian category, and at last I was able to programme all five of them, adding the Regina caeli, Alma redemptoris mater and Ave regina caelorum. I also played a little with Tavener and Taverner. I went to Arvo Pärt for the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis settings.

Finally I had to choose a setting of the mass. High Mass is not counted among the Canonical Hours, but since it was said or sung at least once in every 24 period, it has made sense to tack it onto one of the existing Hours, a practice which probably goes back to St Benedict himself. Terce, early in the working day, has always been a good option for this.

I decided on Lassus’s Missa Bel’Amfitrit’altera, with all its bright sonorities and suggestions of light, conceived along the lines of the festal masses traditionally sung in St Mark’s, Venice.

Around this polyphony you will hear much of the proper chant associated with these liturgies, as sung to this day at Westminster Cathedral.

Since polyphony is so often based on chant melodies, it adds a dimension to both to hear the two forms next to each other. I hope you will find these Hours, as darkness, twilight and light come and go, as deeply satisfying to listen to as we found to record.

What is the Divine Office? Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley explains the history and meaning of this monastic observance.

Download the programme of music for all of the Divine Offices on Radio 3.

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