The master of this motet was Charles V. Stanford, an Irishman who lived from 1852-1924 and who had an extremely distinguished career as a composer, teacher, and conductor. Out of the extensive list of his accomplishments I’ll just mention that he was one of the founders of the Royal College of Music, which is still around today. He produced over 200 works, including symphonies and operas, but nowadays the performances of his works are limited to some of his church music and an iridescent, shimmering piece “The Blue Bird” which the Cherry Creek Chorale performed in May 2019. Head over to that post if you’d like to read about it.
Two interesting tidbits about Stanford’s productive years: 1) He really, really wanted to be recognized for his operas and wrote nine of them. Only one had any success to speak of, Shamus O’Brien, which premiered in 1896 and ran for 82 performances. But it was a comic opera, not at all what he’d been writing previously in the genre. Alas! And while that number of performances was pretty good, guess who his comic opera competition was? None other than Gilbert & Sullivan. (Arthur Sullivan was also Irish, by the way). So Stanford was probably never going to get much traction if he’d pursued that path. But his serious operas got basically no traction, with a review of one, Savonarola, calling the music “crushingly tiresome.” 2) He was known for his combative personality. Here’s a description from his time on the board of the Royal College:
Stanford was known as a hot-tempered and quarrelsome man. Grove [a colleague] had written of a board meeting at the Royal College ‘where somehow the spirit of the d—-l himself had been working in Stanford all the time – as it sometimes does, making him so nasty and quarrelsome and contradictious as no one but he can be! He is a most remarkably clever and able fellow, full of resource and power – no doubt of that – but one has to purchase it often at a very dear price.” (Wikipedia)
As the 20th century began, his music waned in popularity, with Edward Elgar’s music being more attuned to the fashion of the day. The two men ended up having quite a feud in the years before World War I. Stanford had helped Elgar out when the younger man was a struggling composer, getting Elgar’s works publicity and performances, but now Stanford resented his dominance. Elgar, on the other hand, made cutting remarks about Stanford. Kind of a shame! It’s the old story, with the new generation looking upon the last as being fossilized and frowsty, and that older generation seeing all their principles going up in smoke. In this case it’s clear that Elgar won the competition, with his works continuing to be widely known and appreciated while Stanford’s are just as widely obscure.
We can be glad that the great body of work that Stanford produced hasn’t totally vanished from sight, though. The piece that the Cherry Creek Chorale had scheduled for its May 2020 concert was “Beati Quorum Vita” from a set of three sacred motets that Stanford wrote fairly early in his career. Let’s get the whole “motet” thing out of the way first, shall we? Talk about super-vague definitions! “Motet” contains the French word “mot” meaning “word.” Yes, the word means “word.” So,
In western music, a motet is a mainly vocal musical composition, of highly diverse form and style, from the late medieval era to the present. The motet was one of the pre-eminent polyphonic forms of Renaissance music. According to Margaret Bent, “a piece of music in several parts with words” is as precise a definition of the motet as will serve from the 13th to the late 16th century and beyond. (Wikipedia, again)
“Beati” is a setting of the first verse of Psalm 119 in Latin: “Beati quorum via integra est, qui ambulant in lege Domini.” A literal translation of the Latin goes something like this: “Blessed or happy are those whose life is full of integrity and uprightness, who walk in the law of the Lord.” I can’t help pointing out a couple of cool Latin words in the text. First there’s “quorum,” which in Latin is simply the plural of “who” or “whom,” not, as we use the word in English, a minimum number of participants that must be present in a meeting for voting to be valid. “Integra” is clearly present in our word “integrity,” which we use to mean “moral” or “just,” but which in Latin means “complete, whole, intact.” It’s the same Latin root from which we get the word “integer,” meaning “whole number.” Way more than you might have wanted to know, but I think it’s fascinating. “Ambulant” of course gets used in English as “ambulatory,” meaning “able to walk,” but also as “ambulance,” which is actually, if you think about it, a vehicle with all sorts of hospital equipment and not just a way to get people quickly to a regular hospital. Guess what? Ambulances were originally called “field or walking hospitals,” or, in French, “hôpitaux ambulants.” Okay, okay—I’ll stop. (But you do see the word “legal” in “lege,” don’t you?)
“Beati” is very beautiful and very brief, scored for unaccompanied SSATBB. If the Chorale is able to re-schedule it in a later concert I hope our peerless Artistic Committee will at least consider doing all three motets in the set, as the other two are also brief and just as beautiful. I won’t try to do any commentary on the others for now, but I’m posting videos for all. Note the group that does the “Beati”—VOCES8. You won’t believe how much sound those eight voices produce! I couldn’t find them doing the others, so I have different groups for those. Take in this vocal smorgasbord!
And, in a bit of (I think) serendipity, the Stanford Choir (from Stanford University in the US; not associated with Charles Stanford) sings “Justorum animae” along with the Trinity College Choir at Trinity College, Cambridge University–where Charles Stanford directed the Cambridge University Musical Society and was the organist at Trinity for several years. (Stanford also succeeded in getting women admitted to the choir.) I don’t know if the Stanford Choir made sure to get in a performance at Trinity because of this association or not, but the results are great: