Monday Music: Litany (William Walton)

I had all these lovely plans about a little festival of Lenten music for Holy Week, but in all honesty, between work and the fact that I’ve got choir rehearsals, music lessons, and Easter themed singing every day this week, I don’t think it’s feasible.  Actually, what I really need to do is figure out what we will be eating on all those days when I don’t get home until silly-o-clock.

Anyway, this Litany, by William Walton, is one we sang for Palm Sunday this year, and I kind of love it and hate it at the same time.  I really love the effect of all those harmonic changes and how sad and spooky and gorgeous it all sounds, but, with the exception of a few glorious bars towards the end, I actively dislike singing it.  Which is rather a pity, and also pretty unusual, but my relationship with 20th century music is vexed in general, so perhaps I should just accept that and move on.  It’s beautiful music, either way.

Walton wrote this piece in 1917, during the First World War and at a point, as our conductor reminded us, when things were looking pretty bad for the British.  Trying to find out more about this piece, I learned that Walton was only 15 when he wrote it, which seems awfully young to get so much sad resignation into a piece of music, but then, boys not much older than him were already in the army, and, for that matter, so were some 15-year-olds.  The war must have felt a lot closer to him than I can imagine.

The lyrics come from a poem written in 1633 by Phineas Fletcher, apparently inspired by Mary Magdalen washing Jesus’ feet with her tears shortly before his death.  Walton was not, in fact, the first to set them to music: I suspect that those who, like me, grew up in Anglican or Presbyterian churches will recognise them as a hymn by Orlando Gibbons (and this is one of the very few occasions when I like a Gibbons setting less than one by someone else – though having said that, this particular performance is spectacular).

DROP, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

I could have sworn that I’d sung another arrangement of this piece, but the only one I’ve been able to find is by Paul Mealor and had its world premiere last year, so that’s clearly not the one!  I include it here because it has the most gratuitous use of descant that I have ever encountered, and I’m a fan of gratuitous descants.  I’m not sure  it quite hits the mark for me – it starts in William Walton and ends in Walt Disney, and the word painting gets lost in the lush harmonies.  It’s gorgeous to listen to, but it lacks depth, or meaning, or something.  In my opinion, of course – you may think I am totally wrong.

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