The Composer Donald Hunt writes about Hymnus Paschalis
The composition of Hymnus Paschalis was inspired by the discovery of a beautiful plainsong tune in a book of Hymnale compiled and published by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in the late 1950s. The melody in question is one of several in the book originating from the 13th century Worcester Antiphoner in the Cathedral Library [MS160]. The Easter Hymn Ad Coenam Agni providi is a ferial setting in Mode 8 – the mixolydian mode.
The work (scored for orchestra and organ or, as in today’s performance, organ only) begins with a prelude based entirely on this plainsong melody, The three dominant pitches are the notes A, E and D, the Prelude beginning with an open chord using the first named notes, around which the melody is heard. A short transition builds up to a dramatic climax, but this subsides quickly to reveal another harmonised version of the plainsong theme. The Prelude ends with the same chord heard at the outset and, without any introduction, the chorus begins Hymnus 1, which is a vigorous movement for four-part chorus with an accompaniment that is both supportive and independent. The text is taken from medieval Easter prose.
The motto theme of Victimae paschali will become a prominent feature in the whole work, and is itself based upon characteristics from the plainsong, although the harmonic language now has a more contemporary feel. Each phrase of the text has its own feature, but the underlying energy is always pressing towards a culmination of choral and instrumental forces at Regnat vivus. There is a short break from this mood of exultation when Mary is asked the question What did you see on the way?, A gentle lullaby feature is repeated, with slight variation, five times, over which the sopranos declaim the words of Mary. A fanfare, at first distant, and then more immediate heralds a return to the opening mood and thematic material, but at this point in the work the temper of the alleluia is reflective as the tonality moves to the note D, but is unable sustain it. The note A again achieves prominence and, indeed, is ever present in the short instrumental prelude that follows; this is based on the hymn tune Rockingham, a traditional English melody adapted by Doncaster’s Dr Edward Miller in the late 18th century for the words When I survey the wondrous Cross.
The central section of the work (Hymnus 2) is devoted to a complete work-out of the plainsong hymn. Each of the eight verses is treated in a different way, but the last verse is one of jubilation: bells are rung and each voice taking up the final line of the hymn independently, before joining in unison Amen, but the organ has the last word as one final variant is played as if from the distance.
The note E is now firmly established and from this, the choir (actually three choirs) begin Hymnus 3 – Pascha nostrum – a shorter verse from the medieval prose. Mostly unaccompanied, the motto theme appears as a regular feature, but now transformed into something much more expressive and warm, as each choir in turn takes it up. The alleluias move heavenward with confidence and hope, but the real joy of the occasion is saved for a short moment of personal expression as each choir and each voice, as well as the accompaniment, take a fragment of the Worcester plainsong and repeat it at will to create a kaleidoscope of colour for the joy of the Easter message. Yet all is not finished – the note D has to make its mark, and the arrival of the Postlude suggests that this is what the whole work has been waiting for. The song of triumph is based on the hymn Vicrtory, a melody adapted from a Magnificat by Palestrina and normally associated with the hymn The strife is o’er.
Hymnus Paschalis was completed in January 1995 and given its first performance in Worcester Cathedral in the April of that year at a Festival which the Cathedral Choir shared with two choirs from the Netherlands [Breda and Haarlem]. It was repeated at the Worcester Three Choirs’ Festival the following year, accompanied by the Bournemouth. The work has enjoyed success in the United States where it is published.