Saturday 8 May 2021

Messe da Pacem: conductor Rupert Gough and the choir of Royal Holloway rediscover a mass by Pierre Villette, unperformed since the 1970s

Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway (Photo Christopher Willoughby)
Rupert Gough and the Choir of Royal Holloway in the chapel at Royal Holloway (Photo Christopher Willoughby)

Rupert Gough
and the Choir of Royal Holloway's latest album, on Buckfast Abbey's Ad Fontes label, focuses on French sacred music with works by Pierre Villette from the 20th century, and more recent music by Yves Castagnet alongside the remarkable reinvention of a familiar piece by Maurice Ravel. Whilst the music of Pierre Villette is becoming better known, particularly in the UK, the centrepiece of the album is his Messe da Pacem which has not been performed since the 1970s and is here performed for the first time in Rupert Gough's new version for choir and organ. The album was recorded on the recently restored Cavaillé-Coll organ at the church of Notre-Dame d'Auteuil in Paris. I recently met up with Rupert via Zoom to chat more about Villette, Castagnet and making the album, along with what makes the choir of Royal Holloway such a distinctive collegiate ensemble.

Pierre Villette (1926-1998) was born in Normandie and as a boy sang in the choir of Rouen Cathedral. From the age of 14, he studied with Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) and attended the Paris Conservatoire where Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) was a fellow student (the two shared the first prize for harmony in 1945). Ill health forced Villette to move to the south of France and he was head of the Conservatoire de Besançon (1957–67) and later as director of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence (1967–87), with composition as a somewhat part-time activity. It was Donald Hunt (1930-2018) who was Master of Choristers and Organist of Worcester Cathedral (1976–96) who did much to bring Villette’s music to a wider audience in the UK in the 1970s.

Pierre Villette at the Conservatoire d'Aix, 1988 (Estate of Pierre Villette)
Pierre Villette at the Conservatoire d'Aix, 1988 (Estate of Pierre Villette)

Rupert was already interested in recording a disc of French sacred music and had identified the music of Yves Castagnet as something he would like to record when, by chance, he was sent the music of Villette’s Messe en Français which was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in 1981. Villette only wrote two masses, and his other mass was the Messe da Pacem. Scored for choir, echo choir, soprano soloist, full symphony orchestra, and one or two organs, the Messe da Pacem was premiered in Aix-en-Provence in 1970 with Villette playing the main organ part. Judging from the orchestral parts, Rupert does not think the Messe da Pacem has been performed since the 1970s.

He asked the publishers for a score, and they sent this along with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts. Rupert realised that the mass could work for just choir and organ; central to this was the realisation that Villette had written the Kyrie and Agnus Dei earlier and was originally thinking of just choir and organ. The other movements were added later and were more challenging to create an organ part for. The result is a bit tricky, Rupert commented that Villette rather liked to write with lots of notes.

Villette's musical style feels familiar and Rupert refers to it as post-Debussy and post-Poulenc with luscious harmonies, but there are jazz harmonies too. The final sequence of Villette’s Hymne à la Vierge (probably his best-known work and also on the disc) Rupert calls pure jazz, so Villette merges the sound-world of his teacher Duruflé with that of jazz.

The disc could well have been an all-Villette one, but a lot of his other works have been covered on disc, and Rupert was more interested in presenting new and exciting French choral works, especially as there has not been a lot since Duruflé and Jean Langlais (1907-1991). He was keen to record Castagnet's Messe Brève, which Rupert refers to as brilliant and he thinks that it is likely to enter the repertoire now that this has been published (and Rupert's arrangement of Villette's Messe da Pacem has also been published by UMP).

Choir of Royal Holloway at Maurice Duruflé's appartment in 2019
Choir of Royal Holloway at Maurice Duruflé's appartment in 2019

Villette’s music is not well known in France because Paris is very much the centre of musical life, and Villette left the city early due to his ill health. The recording for the disc was made with the aide of Frédéric Blanc, who is organist at the church of Notre-Dame d'Auteuil, and who lives in Maurice Duruflé's old apartment, but Blanc had never heard of Villette though subsequently, he found letters from Villette to his old teacher, Duruflé. Rupert comments that it is to Donald Hunt that we owe the discovery of Villette’s music in the UK, though Rupert wonders quite what works of Villette were in print at the time.

Yves Castagnet (born 1964) studied organ, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, orchestration and improvisation at the Paris Conservatoire, where he graduated in 1985 with many first prizes, including the organ prize. He combines a career as a solo organist with teaching at the Choir School of Notre-Dame de Paris (the Maîtrise). It is for the Maîtrise that Castagnet wrote his Messe Brève in 1990-91. Rupert sees Castagnet's music as evocative of Notre-Dame de Paris where the organ repertoire is dominated by improvisation. Castagnet has a distinctive voice, using resonant harmonies with a sense of the ambience of Notre-Dame de Paris and its organ. But Castagnet is very much an organist who happens to compose, he doesn't take commissions and has said 'I am not a composer'. Instead, he writes when he is moved. His Veni Sancte Spiritus (also on the disc) was written in 2013 for the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

Having settled on the works by Villette and Castagnet for the disc, Rupert was looking for something to link them and he liked the idea of exploring the legacy of French music, and both Villette and Castagnet had their roots in the music of Maurice Ravel (1874-1934), whilst adding a work by Ravel would add a bit of familiarity to the disc. So, Rupert looked at pieces that might adapt well and found that the Pavane pour une infante défunte (originally written for piano in 1899) worked and fitted the text. In fact, it worked so well Rupert had to check that no one had done it before. He is hoping that his arrangement will be published but the rights for this are complex and they had to wait many months to get the rights to record the work.

Rupert wanted to record the disc in France because of their distinctively different organ sound. But generally, French churches have a grand organ high on the tribune at the back of the church with a smaller choir organ in the chancel. This makes logistics difficult, which meant that they had to search for somewhere which would be practical to record a choir with a large organ. Rupert's former student Andrew Dewar (who is one of the organists on the disc) works in Paris (at the American Cathedral) and it was he who suggested Notre-Dame d'Auteuil.

The organ at the church of Notre-Dame d'Auteuil in Paris
The organ at the church of Notre-Dame d'Auteuil in Paris

Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899) built the organ at Notre-Dame d'Auteuil in 1855; it was rather small with 32 stops over two manuals. However, the instrument was renovated in 1912, expanded in 1937 with further renovations in the 1960s and 1980s, and then a full restoration in 2018. All this means that it is rather more of an accompanying instrument than many Cavaillé-Coll organs. Rupert finds it an outstanding instrument, particularly the way that it speaks in the building and it was a joy to sing there.

Rupert has been Director of Choral Music and College Organist at Royal Holloway, University of London, since 2005. The choir is quite different to many of the old collegiate foundations. Though Royal Holloway has a beautiful Victorian chapel, it is a secular college and college life does not revolve around the chapel. Royal Holloway was founded in 1879 by the Victorian entrepreneur Thomas Holloway (who made his money selling patent medicines). Holloway did not believe in organised religion but he wanted a regular Morning Service (which is still regularly sung), and currently, the college has both Anglican and Roman Catholic chaplains. Whilst the choir sings a weekly Evensong and a Sunday evening service along with the Morning Services (sung by a smaller group from the choir), the main focus is on concerts. Rupert regards his role with the choir as to help the singers to have the right experience for their chosen career (some go on to become professional singers and some do not, and soprano Sarah Fox, who is on the disc, is an alumna). This means that choir members are prepared for the experience of concerts and recordings. The choir's schedule is busy for a student and the singers have to learn to manage themselves. A lot of the choir members are music students, but not all of them, and Royal Holloway does a lot of combined degrees so there are people studying Music and a language or Music and Mathematics.

Rupert is also Organist & Director of Music at London’s oldest surviving parish church, St Bartholomew the Great. This maintains a professional octet, so his two roles are neatly complementary, though he points out that at the moment nearly half the ensemble at St Bartholomew's is made up of his former students. But their role at St Bartholomew's is very different, in a professional environment singers have to think fast on minimal rehearsal. Currently, they are looking at ways to combine the two, to give the choral scholars more opportunities.

For this academic year's Autumn term the students were at the college, and the choral scholars arrived early (before the other students) so that they could concentrate on recording and radio broadcast. Concerts have been on-line, and when we spoke this year's choir had yet to appear in a live performance. The singers had been back in college since the beginning of March and were working on recordings and preparing for the Summer programme which includes performances at the Presteigne Festival at the end of August where they will be performing music by Cecilia McDowall who is celebrating her 70th birthday this year. In June, the choir is recording the Requiem, for choir, organ and strings, by American composer Dan Locklair (born 1946) who is Professor of Music and Composer-in-Residence at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Also to come is a disc of music by the British composer George Arthur who has written several works for the choir.

Messa da Pacem - Choir of Royal Holloway, Rupert Gough - Ad Fontes

Maurice Ravel, arr. Rupert Gough - Requiem Aeternam
Pierre Villete - Messe da Pacem
Pierre Villete - Élévation
Pierre Villete - Hymne à la Vierge
Pierre Villete - Salutation angélique
Yves Castagnet - Messe Breve
Yves Castagnet - Veni Sancte Spiritus
The Choir of Royal Holloway
Rupert Gough (director/organ)
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Andrew Dewar (organ)
Liam Condon (organ)

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