O Viridissima Virga
O Viridissima Virga, a choral work accompanied by an ensemble of Organ, Piano, Guitar, Vibraphone, French Horn and Trumpet, explores the Christmas story through the poems of women writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Christina Rossetti and Alice Meynell. The poems are framed by two settings of hymns to the Virgin Mary, written by the 12th century Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen.
Here are some short excerpts taken from a recording of the first performance by the choir of St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street.
Musically, Advent and Christmas are often packaged in hearty or sentimental celebrations of holly, ivy, shepherds, kings and a certain infant sleeping peacefully in the manger, so it's good to be reminded that the joyful arrival of the Messiah – like the arrival of any baby – was also fearful, mysterious and disturbing. Harry Escott, best known for his scores to films such as Hard Candy, A Mighty Heart, Deep Water and Shifty, has returned to his roots as a cathedral chorister to write O Viridissima Virga, a stunning new piece for choir and ensemble that meditates on the Nativity entirely from a female perspective.
He sets poetic reflections on the Christmas story by Christina Rossetti, Emily Hickey, Alice Meynell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, enclosed within two Hymns to the Virgin by the 12th century Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. The framing allows him to explore the infinite possibilities of Hildegard's own plainchant, mellifluous and pure at the opening and then densely reworked in his own powerful polyphony at the close. Each of the intervening movements is an elegant vignette that could stand alone as an Advent anthem. Most notable among them is Alice Meynell's Unto us a Son is Given – an instant classic, beautifully crafted and gloriously sung by St Bride's superb professional choir. Mary's growing sense of foreboding for the torments awaiting her infant son is achingly captured by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and powerfully portrayed in Escott's pungent writing: "Awful is this watching place / Awful what I see from hence. Sleep, sleep, my Holy One!"
His choice of instrumentation for the ensemble is crucial to the work's overall effect; vibraphone and horn putting warm, concentrated points of light into the choral texture, and guitar and percussion adding an exciting edge and urgency. It's not often that a new work feels as though it's been in the repertoire for years, but this one does. It glowed under the intelligent direction of Matthew Morley, who cleverly paired it with Britten's cantata St Nicolas, which rollicked along – drowning sailors, pickled boys and all – and featured an outstanding soloist in Matt Long, surely a tenor with a very bright future.Stephen Pritchard Review of the first performance - The Guardian