Love is Come Again

Program: #21-15   Air Date: Apr 05, 2021

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In early spring of 1963, John Elliot Gardiner’s mother created an Easter play for their small church in Dorset; for the 55th anniversary, it was recreated for a special recording project we hear this week.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from the recording Love is come again with the Monteverdi Choir and John Eliot Gardiner. It is on the Soli Dei Gloria label and is CD SDG 731.
Monteverdi Choir, Various, John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists - Love  Is Come Again - Music
From Limelight: John Eliot Gardiner comes from interesting stock. His father was a rural revivalist with an interest in naturism, his grandfather was an Egyptologist and his great uncle, Balfour Gardiner  was a composer, whose Evening Hymn is still a great favourite with Anglican choirs. Balfour Gardiner also established a farm in Dorset with which John Eliot is still involved. Apparently this involvement has earned the conductor the nickname “Uphill Gardiner” because of his unusual farming methods.

It is in this rural context that John Eliot’s mother, Marabel staged an Easter play every year from 1963 to 1984. Her son provided the music, and this evocation of the play is his homage to her. The music chosen for the play spans the eleventh to twentieth centuries and is often English in origin. Gardiner felt free to adapt music (even Britten) where necessary to serve the play’s narrative and dramatic purposes, using Schütz’s Story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Victimae paschali laudes chant for recitative-like storytelling.

Larger-scale items have been added for this recording including Cornysh’s Woefully arrayed and Rheinberger’s Abendlied. These mingle successfully with Gesualdo’s O vos omnes, Tallis’s If ye love me, Taverner’s Dum transisset Sabbatum, Scheidt’s Surrexit Christus hodie and Gabrieli’s Surrexit pastor bonus. Lesser-known items such as Jean L’Héritier’s Surrexit pastor bonus and the Ego sum panis vivus attributed to Leonora d’Este add interest to an already satisfying program.

Another distinctive feature of this disc is the recording venue: Saffron Hall in Saffron Waldon, Essex. The hall lends the recording a relatively dry acoustic which results in a fairly intimate encounter with the music, for example in the plangent account of the Cornysh. Gardiner’s excellent singers including tenor, Hugo Hymas and soprano, Angharad Rowlands make for a rich listening experience.

From the liner notes:
It is the early spring of 1963 in Dorset, and the endlessly creative Marabel Gardiner—stage director, art historian and singer—is working on a new play to mark the Easter festival in her local church. She enlists the help of her son John Eliot, who is midway through his undergraduate studies at Cambridge, to curate a programme of live music for the drama. Between them, and with much support from family, friends and the local community, they create the Springhead Easter Play, ‘Springhead’ being the name of the Gardiner family home. The play is all in mime, and is punctuated by a specially constructed sequence of plainchant, motets and carols.


A year later, John Eliot Gardiner heads back to Cambridge after the first revival of the Easter Play to conduct a student performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers (1610) in his college chapel. The Monteverdi Choir is born; the rest is history. Yet for the next twenty years, until the final performance in 1984, John Eliot will make time every Easter to join his mother and the parishioners of St Andrew’s Church, Fontmell Magna to perform the Springhead Easter Play. It is clear when we sit down to discuss his memories of the play that it was not only a personal highlight of the year, but a profound musical and spiritual experience.

This recording presents much of the music from the original play. It may be thought of as a companion to the Monteverdi Choir’s 1998 CD Once as I remember, which told the story of an earlier Marabel creation, the Springhead Christmas Play, performed in the house itself. Both were structured around a series of tableaux, the Easter Play narrating the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ through a combination of the different Gospel accounts. The listener is invited on a journey in music, from the horrors of Calvary to the wonders at the tomb, on the road to Emmaus and at the Sea of Galilee.

Marabel Gardiner spent a seminal year in Florence in her late teens, where she gained a deep knowledge and lifelong love of Italian Renaissance art. Paintings such as Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Resurrection’ and Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ were a constant inspiration. John Eliot recalls in his notes for Once as I remember ‘a dignified, ritual-like purity’ to her theatrical style: both the Christmas and Easter Plays had ‘a touching mixture of formal, stylised and naive elements’. Stillness and meditation were key elements of the drama. Marabel’s handwritten production notes for the plays demonstrate the imagination and care which went into the design, dress and stagecraft of the performances.

Music provided both the narrative thread and moments of reflection. An evangelist (John Eliot himself) would sing the Gospel texts, using an adapted English version of Heinrich Schütz’s Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi (Story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ). A mixed group of amateur and professional singers from the Monteverdi Choir would combine to perform the polyphony, while neighbours from the local farming community would represent the various disciples and act out the story. The Easter weekend at Springhead was eagerly anticipated by those members of the Monteverdi Choir who would join the locals. As well as the play itself, Carol Savage, an early member of the choir, recalls ‘music and dancing in the barn, and feasting and recitations on the grass outside’. A local farmer, Ralph Coward (always cast as one of the Emmaus disciples), would recite poems by William Barnes in the Dorset dialect; Rosalind Gardiner, John Eliot’s older sister, would play the violin for Playford dances, which were called by their father Rolf (Simon Peter in the Easter Play) and led by Marabel ‘with her straight back, in a long dress decorated with a huge brooch’.

Now John Eliot Gardiner and today’s Monteverdi Choir return to the soundtrack of those weekends at Springhead. Some larger-scale works have been added to the original programme, such as ‘Woefully array’d’, a setting by William Cornysh of a poem attributed to John Skelton, and the ‘Abendlied’ of Josef Gabriel Rheinberger. But the spirit of the Easter Play is retained: a dramatic retelling of the Resurrection story, employing disparate musical styles and frequent shifts of focus and perspective, all held together by the creative vision of a Dorset mother and her son.

The Crucifixion
The Easter Play opened in near darkness. Two women and two disciples would kneel at the nave altar, staring upstage, seemingly into the void. They were in fact contemplating the imagined figure of the crucified Christ, who was not portrayed in person at any point in the play. A lone voice would sing the English ballad-carol ‘The seven virgins’, otherwise known as ‘The leaves of life’. The text tells the story from the Apocryphal Gospels of Mary’s visit to her son at Calvary, and his words to her from the cross. The carol’s exact origin is unclear: the first known version of the text is found in a Manx carol book of 1826; the tune was later collected by Cecil Sharp in 1923.

The Crucifixion tableau was further accompanied by a selection of music for Holy Week, in this instance Cornysh’s ‘Woefully array’d’ and ‘O vos omnes’ by Carlo Gesualdo. These starkly contrasting works capture the spirit of the Easter Play in their direct, declamatory style and sharply articulated shifts of mood, as Christ himself exhorts the listener to contemplate his suffering and sacrifice.

Easter Morning
The Resurrection scene would begin with the women going early in the morning to Jesus’ tomb, as told in the Gospel of Mark. John Taverner’s ‘Dum transisset Sabbatum’ sets the text, using the cantus firmus technique of a plainchant melody inserted into the middle of the choral texture, here sung by the baritones.

The scene continued with a carol for Easter Day, ‘Love is come again’, a version of the French Christmas carol ‘Noël nouvelet’ with words by the Anglican priest and poet, J. M. C. Crum. An addition for this recording is a setting of the Easter Monday responsory ‘Surrexit pastor bonus’, by the French Renaissance composer Jean L’Héritier, a more reflective and serene take on the Resurrection narrative.

Mary Magdalene at the tomb
As Mary Magdalene weeps by the tomb, we hear Thomas Morley’s ‘Eheu! Sustulerunt Dominum meum’, in a translation by John Eliot Gardiner. This motet first appeared in Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke of 1597 and sets Mary’s response to the angels’ question in John 20:13: ‘Woman, why weepest thou?’.

Heinrich Schütz’s Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi was published in 1623 and first performed that year in Dresden. It tells the Easter story in a series of choruses, duets and recitatives accompanied by viol consort—a precursor to Bach’s Passions a century later. Marabel and John Eliot Gardiner adapted some of its sections for the Springhead play, translating the text into English. Another adaptation follows: ‘Bless’d Mary Magdalene’ is based on a fifteenth-century carol, better known to the text of the ‘Ave Maria’.

The road to Emmaus
As well as the Schütz Historia, a number of other works were adapted for the Easter Play, such as the medieval Easter Sunday hymn ‘Victimae paschali laudes’. Here, the evangelist narrates the journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). At Springhead the disciples were portrayed by two local farmers, complete with travelling cloaks and shepherds’ crooks. John Eliot recalls the challenge of singing the narration ‘to fit with the walking pace of these two old gentlemen locked in a mimed conversation—on their way to market, as it were’. The choir picks up the story with two motets: Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’, composed at the age of fifteen, and the first part of William Byrd’s ‘Alleluia. Cognoverunt discipuli Dominum’, again in translation.

The disciples now realise they are dining with the risen Christ, and return in haste to Jerusalem where the rest of the disciples are gathered. Jesus appears to them with his familiar greeting, ‘Peace be unto you’. The joyous conclusion to this scene is a sequence based on the seventeenth-century German hymn ‘Die ganze Welt’ and Samuel Scheidt’s ‘Surrexit Christus hodie’. First we hear the Jesuit priest Jacob Gippenbusch’s arrangement of the hymn, then Scheidt’s similar melody (also known to a Christmas text, ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’), and finally Percy Dearmer’s ‘Hilariter’, a translation of ‘Die ganze Welt’ for the Oxford Book of Carols.

The lake side
The final scene dramatised Jesus’ appearance to Simon Peter at the Sea of Galilee. The Easter hymn ‘O filii et filiae’ was adapted for the first part of the Gospel text, alongside a plainchant ‘Kyrie eleison’. Since Schütz did not go beyond the Emmaus scene in his Historia, some lateral thinking was required for the remaining evangelist section, and inspiration was found in the music of a composer for whom John Eliot Gardiner had sung as a boy treble: Benjamin Britten. Jesus’ question ‘Lov’st thou me?’ fits perfectly to a motif from Britten’s 1952 work for Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, later published as the second of his five Canticles.

Interspersed with the chant are two polyphonic works. Leonora d’Este was a nun, the daughter of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia. It is possible that she composed a number of motets for female voices, including this five-part setting of ‘Ego sum panis vivus’, published in 1543. The scene closes with a response from the lower voices, ‘If ye love me’ by Thomas Tallis.

The instrumental forces for the Easter Play would normally consist of a continuo team of organ and cello. For this recording the choir could not pass up the opportunity to join the English Baroque Soloists for something a little more grand. Giovanni Gabrieli wrote his Symphoniae sacrae (1597) for St Mark’s, Venice, where he was organist. His setting of ‘Surrexit pastor bonus’ from that collection consists of ten vocal lines in two antiphonal choirs.

The Easter Play would always close with the singing in canon of ‘Non nobis, Domine’, as the whole cast processed out of the church. A close friend of the Gardiner family, the composer John Gardner, wrote this solution of the anonymous canon for the Springhead Easter Play with the voices entering at the fifth. It quickly became the iconic song of all Springhead musical gatherings, usually sung in a circle around the great paulownia tree in the courtyard.

The Springhead Easter Play follows in a centuries-old tradition of Passion Plays and Easter dramas, from those of the medieval monasteries to today’s spectaculars at Oberammergau. The Resurrection story continues to provide evocative source material for dramatists and composers to this day, but for John Eliot Gardiner it is at heart a story of ordinary folk trying to make sense of the world around them at a febrile and dangerous time. When I ask him what was so special about those weekends at Springhead, he cites the reassuring seasonal rituals that mark the turning year and the collaboration of people from different walks of life (young musicians from London, members of the local farming community in Dorset) in retelling the story—much like the disciples, a disparate group. Marabel Gardiner’s succession of tableaux focused on the experience of the disciples and their reactions to the unfolding drama; in so doing, the play demonstrated the very real transformative power that the Resurrection story can still have for us now.

Much of the music on this recording will be familiar, in one form or another, to choral singers the world over. Music is a common language in periods of confusion and difficulty; it too can help make sense of the world; it too has a transformative power. The Monteverdi ensembles hope that this recording will evoke something of what Carol Savage remembers as ‘those happy days’ at Springhead, and offer a moment of reflection in these troubled times.

The Seven Virgins Trad., Herefordshire
O vos omnes, Carlo Gesualdo 1566-1613
Woefully array’d, William Cornysh 1465-1523
Dum transisset Sabbatum, John Taverner c. 1490-1545
Love is come again, Trad., French
Surrexit pastor bonus, Jean L’Héritier c.1480-1552
Eheu! They have taken Jesus, Thomas Morley 1557/8-1602
But Mary stood without the sepulchre, Heinrich Schütz 1585-1672
Bless’d Mary Magdalene, Trad., English
And behold two of them went that day, Wipo of Burgundy c.995-c.1048 (attrib.) Victimae paschali laudes
Abendlied, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger 1839-1901
Alleluia. And it came to pass, William Byrd c.1543-1623
And they said to one another, Wipo of Burgundy (attrib.) Victimae paschali laudes / Verily the Lord is risen, Heinrich Schütz, Historia Der Auferstehung Jesu Christi
Die ganze Welt, Herr Jesu Christ, Jacob Gippenbusch 1612-1664 / Surrexit Christus hodie, Samuel Scheidt 1587-1654 / Hilariter, Trad., German
Peter saith, I go a-fishing, after Jean Tisserand d.1494, O filii et filliae
Kyrie eleison, Missa Orbis factor
Ego sum panis vivus, Leonora d’Este 1515-1575 (attrib.)
Lov’st thou me?, after Benjamin Britten 1913-1976, Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac
If ye love me, Thomas Tallis c.1505-1585
Surrexit pastor bonus, Giovanni Gabrieli c.1554/7-1612
Non nobis, Domine, Anon., arr. John Linton Gardner

Composer Info

John Elliot Gardiner, Carlo Gesualdo 1566-1613, William Cornysh 1465-1523, John Taverner c. 1490-1545, Jean L’Héritier c.1480-1552, Thomas Morley 1557/8-1602, Heinrich Schütz 1585-1672, Wipo of Burgundy c.995-c.1048, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger 1839-1901, William Byrd c.1543-1623, Jacob Gippenbusch 1612-1664, Samuel Scheidt 1587-1654, Jean Tisserand d.1494, Leonora d’Este 1515-1575, Benjamin Britten 1913-1976, Thomas Tallis c.1505-1585, Giovanni Gabrieli c.1554/7-1612

CD Info

CD SDG 731