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Music review: The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross, by Théodore Dubois

12 April 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears a French work seldom performed in England


Théodore Dubois

Théodore Dubois

OF THE French composers of the late 19th century who should be remembered for more than a mere handful of works, one of the least fortunate was the long-lived Théodore Dubois (1837-1924).

His aspiration was to be remembered for his operas; but his hopes were not fulfilled. Instead, he is still celebrated for his famous organ Toccata, and in France, for his setting of The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross, which continued to be performed annually at the Madeleine in Paris until the 1930s.

This work has just been revived — a rare if not unique occurrence in England — by the Wooburn Singers, in Holy Trinity, Cookham (famous on account of Stanley Spencer, of course), in Berkshire.

The choir was founded by the late Richard Hickox, whose father was Vicar of Wooburn; what impressed me was that its standards had not only been maintained under its current music director, Tom Hammond-Davies, but quite possibly enhanced. Their ensemble singing excelled in every respect. This was evident in Debussy’s tricky, although touching, Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans , notably the lightly tripping third song. (Debussy’s short piece Danse sacreé et profane — played by the accomplished harpist Tamara Young — also made an agreeable addition to the programme.)

Parry’s Songs of Farewell were performed as a further tribute to their composer, who died just over a century ago. Several qualities of the singing stood out in this, too: first-class enunciation, especially of consonants; the finely judged pacing (the fifth song not least), including, above all, telling pauses or silences; and moments of perfect unison singing.

One of the chief merits of the Dubois work is its satisfying structure. Each of the utterances of Christ on the cross prefaces and concludes a movement, enfolding a passage of text which either extends Christ’s words or provides narrative (“And the people cried: crucify him!”). There are moments of extreme violence (“Woe! Thou that destroyest God’s temple descend now from the cross”) and a particularly savage outburst as darkness descends “and the veil of the temple was rent.” Each of these is capably reflected in the music, which includes periodic unaccompanied passages — for example, in a highly atmospheric moment for the men alone.

These outbursts Dubois contrasts with moving words from the Stabat Mater (inserted at “Mulier, ecce filius tuus”). Here the baritone soloist, Brian McAlea, captured again the emotional pain, and an organ passage played on the oboe stop was especially plangent. One of the composer’s best conceits is his use of repetition, especially for the choir (who captured the dynamic contrasts and periodic expressive modulations most ably), of words or whole phrases, so that each movement dwells on and underlines the thought behind it. The work emerged as a profound meditation.

As head of the Paris Conservatoire, Dubois loathed the young Debussy’s innovations; but it was inevitable that the latter should have taken such a different turn. Dubois’s style suggests more the mid-19th century than the developments that unfolded as he grew older. There is largely an absence of the chromaticism that can enhance the word-setting; the introductory link to the fourth section seems too twee; and there are a few moments of banality. But the work benefits from an effective part for tympani, played on this occasion by the admirable Tristan Fry.

The choir, precise and often forceful in response to Hammond-Davies’s well-timed conducting, made a handsome case for a neglected work, and enabled its most dramatic parts to shine.

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