Harry Christophers to Lead Handel and Haydn's Bach and Byrd Program

Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers follows recent critical successes with another signature choral program: sacred music by J.S. Bach and William Byrd. Juxtaposing two great vocal traditions, this intimate program features three of Bach's motets alongside Byrd's moving Ave verum corpus and other pieces by the English Renaissance composer. All selections will be sung by H+H's superb chorus-"the Rolls-Royce of Boston chorales" (The Hub Review).

"In their own way, Bach and Byrd were pioneers in sacred music in their respective lifetimes," says Artistic Director Harry Christophers. "Both wrote with great passion and fervor for the church. But, sadly, one lived in constant fear of persecution because of his devout Catholic faith."

William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) was an accomplished organist and a favorite composer of Queen Elizabeth I. Yet much of his Catholic service music had to be suppressed for fear of arrest, costly fines, and death. Byrd responded to the times with music that is contemplative, sad, and joyful. One of the most sublime works scheduled on the Bach and Byrd program is the Agnus Dei from his Mass for Four Voices. Music historians have noted how the poignant final words of the movement, "Dona nobis pacem" ("Grant us peace"), could well be a personal plea for greater religious tolerance.

A staunch Lutheran, J.S. Bach (1685-1750) lived a life of greater security. Two of the works on the Bach and Byrd program (Jesu, meine Freude and Komm, Jesu, komm) are funeral motets composed by Bach for wealthy families. "These funeral motets are simply extraordinary, full of mindboggling symmetry and exceptional counterpoint," says Christophers. "Their technical and aesthetic challenges are virtually unparalleled."

The program ends on a celebratory note with Bach's Singet dem Herrn, music that had made a great impression on a young Mozart, then visiting Leipzig. "Hardly had the choir sung a few bars when Mozart sat up, startled," reported an 18th-century eyewitness. "When the singing was finished, he cried out full of joy, 'Now there is something one can learn from.'"

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by Peter Danish