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Eric WHITACRE (b.1970) Sainte-Chapelle (2013)
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford
PDF booklet includes Latin text and English, French, German & Spanish translations
GIMELL GIM802 [8:37]
Available only as a download here

The Tallis Scholars were founded by Peter Phillips in 1973 – their very first concert was given in November of that year. In the four decades that have followed the ensemble has built an enviable reputation as leading specialists in Renaissance polyphony and their discography reflects that. I believe that they do sometimes include contemporary pieces in their concert programmes but to the best of my knowledge they have only once recorded the music of our own time. That was a disc of music by Sir John Tavener which was, as I recall, the very first of their discs that I bought; I suspect that’s no longer available. However, their fortieth anniversary concert in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 7 March 2013 included, besides music by Allegri, Byrd and Tallis, works by four contemporary composers, two of which had been commissioned for the occasion.
Eric Whitacre’s Sainte-Chapelle was one of the commissioned works. This premičre recording was made around the time of the concert, I believe, and it has been rush-released as a digital single – a ‘first’ for Gimell.
The inspiration for the piece came from a visit that Whitacre paid to the Gothic Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité during a trip to Paris. Whitacre has said:
“At around the time of the invitation [to compose the piece] I visited Paris and was captivated by its sheer beauty, and particularly Sainte-Chapelle, the 13th century 'Holy' chapel. Some 6,458 square feet of tall stained glass windows lead relentlessly to an intricate rose window within this mesmerising, Gothic edifice. I turned to my long-time friend, collaborator, poet and historian, Charles Anthony Silvestri to work on the text for the piece, and he crafted the story of an innocent young girl, hearing angels in the stained glass gently singing the 'Sanctus' text.”
Whitacre talks in more detail about the piece and the process of its composition here. The text is in Latin and Whitacre’s setting of it is for a cappella choir in five parts (SSATB). As is his usual practice when the ensemble sings Renaissance music, Peter Phillips has two voices to a part, except that here there are three basses and three second sopranos.
Silvestri’s text tells a touching little story and he combines this effortlessly with the words of the Sanctus from the Mass. The music to which Whitacre has set it is quite marvellous. He begins with the male voices singing a verse of the text in the style of plainchant, the music eventually expanding into two parts. This in itself is something of a masterstroke for it immediately establishes a sense of spaciousness and antiquity; indeed, the music sounds timeless and that will be a characteristic of the whole piece. Whitacre doesn’t introduce the female voices until 1:36 when the words ‘Sanctus. Sanctus. Sanctus’ are first heard to gently luminous music. Holding back the ladies’ voices until this point is inspired because the change of texture at this point in both the music and the narrative is highly effective. Much of the music that follows is fairly quiet but gradually and impressively Whitacre builds the piece up until ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ (6:00), a passage which is majestic and exultant. Thereafter the music winds down again to a rapt, hushed ending.
It seems to me that Sainte-Chapelle is a significant achievement by Eric Whitacre. The musical means employed appear, on the surface, to be simple yet in truth the music is sophisticated. It makes a very direct impact through a simplicity of means and utterance. I find two things very striking. One is the air of mystery that Whitacre’s music conveys. The second is that he seems to have effected a seamless marriage of old and new in this piece; the music is undoubtedly of the 21st century, especially in its harmonic language, but I would think that it could fit very well indeed into a programme of the Renaissance music that is the staple fare of The Tallis Scholars. Moreover, inclusion of the piece in such a programme would not be, by any means, a question of tokenism. This is a very beautiful and compelling composition which I had to play again immediately after hearing it for the first time.
I’ve reviewed a number of discs of Eric Whitacre’s music in the last few years for MusicWeb International and, to be honest, I’ve found his output somewhat uneven. However, at his best, he is an extremely effective and communicative composer. Sainte-Chapelle represents him at his very best, I think; I can see this piece being taken up by many other choirs though only ensembles which have cultivated absolutely first class vocal control will be able to do justice to its demands.
The performance by The Tallis Scholars is superb. The singing is flawless, as is the balance between the parts. The clarity and control that one has come to expect as a matter of course when they sing Renaissance music is every bit as apparent here. I don’t know what the piece sounded like at its first performance in the vast acoustic of St. Paul’s Cathedral but on their ‘home’ territory in Merton College Chapel the ensemble gives the music a wonderful sense of intimacy and they have been recorded expertly by engineer Philip Hobbs
The recording has been issued in download format only from iTunes at present. Details are also available on the Gimell website.
If this digital single is a success – and bearing in mind the composer and artists involved that must be very likely – then I hope that amid the ensemble’s hectic concert schedule this year Gimell will find time to record the other fortieth anniversary commission, Ave dei patris filia by Gabriel Jackson and release that as a second digital single.
The Tallis Scholars have now embarked on a world tour, which will offer a number of opportunities to hear Sainte-Chapelle. Details of the concerts can be found here.
John Quinn
The Tallis Scholars mark their fortieth anniversary with a beautiful, compelling new piece by Eric Whitacre