Whither, Fairy?, March 10, 2013
Sing, Muse!, November 4, 2012
Songs to the Midnight Sun, May 6, 2012
This Green and Pleasant Land, March 11, 2012
Axis of Medieval, November 6, 2011
I Hear America Singing, June 12, 2011
The Food of Love, March 20, 2011
Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals, October 24, 2010
Music to Hear, June 6, 2010
March 10, 2013
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Bevin Durant, Ellen Gerdes, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Rachel Haimovich, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel
Scott Perkins, “The Stolen Child”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Three Shakespeare Songs
Josquin des Prez, “Nymphes des bois”
Thomas Greaves, “Come away, sweet love”
Maurice Ravel, Trois chansons
Sarah Hopkins, “Past Life Melodies”
György Orbán, “Daemon irrepit callidus”
Ola Gjeilo, “Unicornis captivatur”
Notes on the Program
The spectrum of earthly superstitions and otherworldly beliefs is wide and varied, peopled with strange beasts and stranger mysteries, but it is an enduring presence in human understanding of the world—or worlds—around us. Today’s program illustrates some of the hypotheticals on that spectrum. That this repertoire comes from such a broad span of time and space—we feature texts and composers from nine centuries and three continents––underscores the fact that questions of other worlds and other beings are much older and more natural than our own rationality would have us believe. To wonder is uniquely human—much like making music. How appropriate, then, to turn both faculties onto the not-quite-human mysteries that haunt the edges of our consciousness.
The Stolen Child
Generations of myths hold that children are particularly attuned to the otherworldly, and William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” is one of the most beloved and timeless depictions of this notion. There’s no shortage of stories in which malevolent fairies simply kidnap a defenseless human infant, but Yeats, drawing upon the Irish folklore of his childhood, creates instead a scene of deliberate wooing and enchantment, in which the child is invited to “come away” rather than simply snatched. Composer Scott Perkins focuses here on the first three stanzas of the poem, in which the child features only as a listener, not a victim; Perkins’ setting of the poem is the prologue to his larger Yeats-centered work, also called The Stolen Child.
The effect is spookily inviting, with Perkins’ lilting mixed meter adding a furtive undertone to the fairies’ beckoning. The lament that “the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” recurs with each invitation, with the repeated chromatic descent serving to neatly mirror the fairies’ feigned despair at the state of the human world.
Three Shakespeare Songs
Of course, if one follows the invitation to fairyland, one cannot help but assume that William Shakespeare’s characters are wandering somewhere nearby. Shakespeare’s fairy folk figure most prominently in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written in the mid-1590s at the cusp of his most prolific period, and The Tempest, his last complete work before his death in 1616. In both texts, the supernatural characters inhabit liminal spaces between human civilization and the wilderness; like Yeats’ fairies, Shakespeare’s sprites and nymphs deliberately ensnare the human characters in compromising situations—and then, more nobly, lead them out again.
Appropriately for texts that are at once so famous in British literature and so emblematic of human trials, Ralph Vaughan Williams originally composed his trio of “Shakespeare Songs” for a British choral competition in 1951. That the set was intended to showcase a choir’s technical prowess is clear from the broad range of styles and techniques spanned within the relatively brief pieces. “Full Fathom Five”, taken from a scene in which a survivor of a shipwreck is deliberately separated from his fellows, features undulating wave-like rhythms and haunting dissonance to underscore the sprite Ariel’s deception. The sudden tonality changes and sense of awe in “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” evoke the composer’s Sixth Symphony, written in 1947; Vaughan Williams frequently explained the symphony’s last movement by referring to the lines that end “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers”: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” In “Over Hill, Over Dale”, the dissonance from the first movement returns, but more gently: these fairies mean no ill to the other creatures in the woods.
Nymphes des bois
Not all fairytales involve supernatural creatures meddling in human affairs—sometimes, these beings are simply our peers, sharing our joys and sorrows and reflecting our own cares. Such are the titular nymphs in Josquin des Prez’s “Nymphes des bois,” composed to mourn the death of his teacher Johannes Ockeghem. The text, written by fellow composer Jean Molinet, calls upon “nymphs of the woods” and “goddesses of the fountains” to express their sorrow. In a testament to Ockeghem’s legacy, the nymphs are not the only ones who mourn: the text also names several of his students—Josquin included—as having lost their “good father”.
Josquin begins by cleverly mimicking the contrapuntal style for which Ockeghem was most famous. He then structures the piece’s polyphony around the introit chant of the Latin funeral mass—requiem aeternam—and weaves the four composed choral lines around a fifth voice intoning an augmented version of the original chant from the Liber Usualis. Composing a secular work around a sacred chant was common practice in the Renaissance for composers keen to avoid the church censors; listen for the “tenor” line—sung here by two contraltos and a baritone—chanting the sacred Latin farewell.
Come away, sweet love
On quite the other end of the Renaissance spectrum, Thomas Greaves’ approach can be summed up in a single word: frolicking. For a second word, try “flirting”—these nymphs are neither mischievous nor menacing nor melancholy, and their playful skipping provides a charming vessel for Greaves’ polyphony.
Maurice Ravel’s Trois chansons, for which he wrote both the music and the text, feature unexpected depth and cleverness behind their fantastical subjects. “Nicolette”, the first of the trio, reveals Ravel’s wry, ironic humor: the story seems to rehash the familiar Little Red Riding Hood tale, with poor Nicolette besieged by terrors and temptations from all corners. Nicolette is savvier than Little Red, however—when an old, ugly, incredibly rich suitor comes to call, Nicolette runs straight into his arms. “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis,” the second movement, offers more insight into Ravel’s non-musical life: it speaks of a beloved who has gone away to war, perhaps never to return, and the Trois chansons were composed in late 1914 and early 1915 just as Ravel himself was preparing to enlist in World War I. The composer’s likely preoccupation with getting news of friends and loved ones at the front may account for the second movement’s dreamlike narrative. Perhaps to avoid lingering for too long on the unpleasant implications evoked in “Trois beaux oiseaux,” Ravel returns to wordplay and silliness in “Ronde,” the third and final movement. Young men and women are warned against ever going near the woods of Ormonde, which are peopled with terrible creatures—or at least, the woods used to be full of terrible creatures, until the local busybodies scared them off.
Past Life Melodies
Sarah Hopkins’ “Past Life Melodies”, composed after the death of her father in the late 1980s, makes far different use of the composer’s inner emotional state. Unlike Ravel’s penchant for wordplay and Josquin’s clever mimicry, Hopkins transmutes her grief into an otherworldly soundscape of overtones and what she calls “heart songs”. The piece is deliberately meditative, inviting introspection and calm in the face of eerie overtones and unexpected, buzzing harmonies.
To achieve this effect, Hopkins draws upon several cultures’ unique musical techniques: the chant melody is inspired by the Aboriginal singing culture in the composer’s native Australia, where she spent eight years studying the musical traditions of the indigenous peoples. The overtone singing or throat-singing––in which two of our most versatile singers manage to sing two notes at once by manipulating the natural resonance of their voices—is a technique perfected by the seminomadic herders of Tuva, in southern Siberia, where throat-singing is revered for its ability to sound like a musical version of natural sounds like wind and water. Still, Hopkins’ interest in throat-singing may also stem from her experience in Australian music, as the technique also closely mimics the sound of a digeridoo.
Daemon irrepit callidus
For all the eeriness that “Past Life Melodies” evokes, it never sounds explicitly threatening, and even Ravel’s much-feared hobgoblins and ogres turn out to be little more than village lore. Not so the titular devil in György Orbán’s “Daemon irrepit callidus”—this ninety-second piece offers more perceived danger than the rest of the program combined. There are no nosy villagers to intervene, either: one must simply stand fast against the Devil’s temptations in order to remain worthy of the heart—and therefore the love and salvation—of Jesus.
The Christian text is the work of the Goliards, a secret band of clergy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who dared to mock and question the contradictions and excesses of the Catholic Church. Their most famous output, the sex- and drinking-crazed texts that became Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, is openly blasphemous and lewd. “Daemon irrepit callidus” shows more restraint but maintains the Goliards’ typical honesty in its description of the torments of temptation.
Orbán, a contemporary Transylvanian-born Hungarian composer, evokes those torments fully in his treatment of the text. The jarring chromatic lines that signaled weeping in Perkins’ “The Stolen Child” here serve as an unnerving reminder of the constant slow creep of temptation, while an unexpected hint of a waltz rhythm underlines the insidious nature of the Devil’s efforts, which go so far as to feature “trickery / amidst praise, song, and dance.”
We close with Ola Gjeilo’s “Unicornis captivatur”, another example of a contemporary composer taking inspiration from a medieval text. Gjeilo (pronounced “yay-lo”) is a U.S.-based Norwegian composer and pianist; although many of his choral works use standard liturgical texts, “Unicornis captivatur” has a more colorful narrative. The poem, which features wondrous beasts and more-wondrous resurrections to illustrate the story of Christ, comes from the Engelberg Codex, a late-medieval manuscript from a Benedictine abbey in Engelberg, Switzerland.
Gjeilo’s investment in the awe and wonder expressed by the allegorical text is clear in his joyous, almost dance-like treatment of the “alleluia” refrain. This madrigalian spriteliness contrasts nicely with the chorale-like figures in the verses, which bloom to seemingly inveitable progressions while retaining a rich and warm harmonic texture.
November 4, 2012
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Bevin Durant, Ellen Gerdes, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Rachel Haimovich, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Caroline Winschel
Part I. Seeking Out Wisdom
Williametta Spencer, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”
Benjamin Britten, Hymn to St. Cecilia
John Tavener, “The Lamb”
Part II. Struck By Genius
Anton Bruckner, “Os justi”
Eric Whitacre, “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”
Olivier Messiaen, “O sacrum convivium!”
Part III. Stumbling On Inspiration
Daniel Goldschmidt, “Haiku By Basho”
Veljo Tormis, “Helletused”
Malcolm Dalglish, “Great Trees”
Notes on the Program
We’ve all heard the arguments: Creativity is an organic process, not to be rushed or forced. Genius can’t be prodded. Inspiration and respiration are etymological siblings, so the one should be as simple and effortless as the other.
This is a dangerous line of thinking. It suggests that the process of creativity should somehow be a smooth one, that an aha! moment will always arrive on schedule and that an artist will then have all the information she needs to move forward.
Today’s program teaches us differently. These visions of the creative process reveal that artists can’t rely solely on unpredictable flashes of inspiration; creativity is a muscle, and it must be exercised. Creative work is hard work—there’s little else as revealing and as nerve-wracking as trying to be innovative by oneself—and it demands regular effort and steely-eyed determination. It often requires stretching. Sometimes it even hurts.
At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners
With that in mind, we begin with a plea for wisdom gone dangerously wrong: Williametta Spencer’s “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”, using John Donne’s seventh Holy Sonnet as its text, asks God and all the angels to call forth Judgment Day and finally separate the sinners from the saved. The piece begins with the singers deployed as if in a trumpet fanfare, ringing out open fifths to reach the four imagined corners of the world. This brashness is tempered as Donne’s speaker begins to realize the enormity of what he has invoked, with the singers reverting to chant-like simplicity as the implications of the speaker’s request becomes clear.
The startlingly triumphal ending underscores the twist Donne deploys halfway through the poem, when the speaker concludes that what he seeks isn’t the last judgment—it’s redemption for his own sins. Even in that awareness, however, he falls short: in petitioning God for salvation, the speaker realizes that the absolution he wants took place centuries ago on a cross in Calvary, and his own sacrifice pales in comparison.
Hymn to St. Cecilia
That kind of unsought self-awareness strikes even more keenly in Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, which also features a plea to the heavens. In this case, however, the plea is directed to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and what she delivers is not universal judgment but intimate critique.
Although Britten’s interest in St. Cecilia follows a rich tradition of English composers writing odes in her honor, he did not use one of the traditional Latin writings on the saint. Instead, his friend and frequent collaborator W. H. Auden wrote a Cecilian text expressly for Britten’s use.
The piece includes a number of the conventions established by earlier St. Cecilia odes: a hymn-like plea to the muse serves as a kind of refrain, and the third movement features invocations of several different musical instruments. But the arc of the poem itself hits a far more personal note. Though couched in imagery of inspiration and music-making, Auden’s text fiercely criticizes the young composer for his seeming unwillingness to accept and nurture his own sexuality along with his creativity. The message failed in its intended effect—Britten never returned Auden’s romantic interest, and their working partnership ended with this piece—but the images of corruption and purity raised in Hymn to St. Cecilia would color Britten’s work for decades to come.
John Tavener’s “The Lamb,” set to the poem of the same name by William Blake, continues this imagery of otherworldly wisdom being delivered to an innocent. Appropriately for such a wholesome piece, “The Lamb” was written in a single afternoon—Tavener has said that the piece came to him “fully grown”—and dedicated to the composer’s nephew for his third birthday.
The ease and simplicity of the piece’s composition are reflected in its structure, which relies heavily on retrograde and inversion to embellish an otherwise-plain melody. “The Lamb” opens simply, but as the poem’s narrator begins unpacking the comparisons between a lamb and the Christ child, the women’s parts invert, moving in different directions but using the same intervals. The effect is eerie, as if the voices were mirror-images of one another—appropriate for a moment when the speaker serves as a mirror for the lamb itself. This mirror-like effect recurs later in the piece when Tavener employs retrograde, causing each choral part to suddenly retrace—backwards—the notes it has just sung.
As the piece unfolds, the singers are kept at a restrained intensity, with each voice part spanning less than an octave in range. The use of unison and the repeated return to a familiar tonality reinforces the lullabye-like simplicity of the poem: an unassuming question with a tremendous answer.
It comes as no surprise that so many of these pleas for wisdom and inspiration address the heavens—when mortal efforts fail, where better to look?—but it is interesting that so many of these pleas are met with disquieting or unexpected results. Unlike the Spencer and the Britten, however, Anton Bruckner’s “Os justi” suggests that in some cases, the wisdom of heaven is soothing and reassuring.
Composed in 1879, “Os justi” reflects the conflicting sensibilities present among musicians in nineteenth-century Europe. Bruckner is justly famous for his place in the Romantic pantheon, and he was revered by his contemporaries—Gustav Mahler among them—for his lush, monumental symphonies and his virtuosic organ improvisation. Bruckner’s choral output is less famous but equally significant; he wrote more than thirty motets, each one testifying to his strong Roman Catholic faith and incorporating the long, chant-like phrases of Renaissance composers.
Forward-looking in its use of sweeping melodic lines and sumptuous harmonies, “Os justi” is also anchored in the music of centuries past. Tellingly, Bruckner dedicated the piece to the music director at the school where he taught; the director was an ardent admirer of Palestrina and other early composers, which may explain Bruckner’s inclusion of a plainchant Alleluia at the end of the piece. Given that the psalm Bruckner used speaks of a believer who is steady in his understanding, this final return to such a familiar and accessible musical form seems especially fitting.
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
No such comfort is accorded by Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”—where Bruckner’s subject was soothed by his convictions, Whitacre’s depiction of Leonardo da Vinci reveals an inventor tormented as much by his talent as by his curiosity.
Whitacre and his longtime collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri approached the piece as if writing a short opera, with Silvestri piecing together a libretto from both his own poetry and da Vinci’s writings. The result is a striking and dramatic narrative: we follow da Vinci as his fitful sleep is interrupted by visions of flight (and falling), as he wrestles his ideas into concrete plans, and as he finally ascends the highest tower, completed flying machine in tow, and prepares himself to leap either to his glory or to his death.
Musically, Whitacre begins with the singers deployed as if in a Greek chorus, commenting on the inventor’s anguish without inhabiting it. As the drama grows, however, the choir becomes more integral to da Vinci’s frenzy: we hear the imagined siren call of the winds themselves, beckoning da Vinci to fly; the achingly effortless ascent of the pigeons whose wings da Vinci studies for new ideas; and finally, the whooshing, clacking takeoff of the flying machine itself. Its creation may have been torment—but its creator can fly.
O sacrum convivium!
The tension between the anguish of learning and the wonder of understanding is explored to very different effect in Olivier Messiaen’s “O sacrum convivium!” Messiaen’s deeply held Catholicism comes to the fore in his setting of a liturgical text honoring the Communion ritual; as in Bruckner’s “Os justi”, Messiaen’s choice of text suggests a certain peace and calm that comes with having made a deliberate and personal commitment to a faith.
Unlike Bruckner, however, Messiaen’s setting serves to challenge us as much as to inspire us. The complexity of the harmonic structure reminds us that Messiaen drew from varied and unusual sources for his inspiration; by 1937, when “O sacrum convivium!” was written, he’d become fascinated with Asian musical traditions and electronic music while still making his living as a virtuoso organist. Playing on this duality, “O sacrum convivium!” feels almost jazzy in its harmonies, bringing an unexpected sense of modernity to the sacred Communion ritual.
Haiku By Basho
Of course, many of us don’t ever experience the extremes of anguish or rapture depicted in these visions of heavenly or otherworldly inspiration. Our daily lives are no less thoughtful and creative for the lack of these celestial forces, and we find beauty and inspiration in mindfulness rather than in genius. Such discoveries are often all the sweeter for being so unexpected; seeing or understanding something in a new way is just as transforming as receiving a thunderbolt from the gods.
Daniel Goldschmidt’s “Haiku By Basho” offers just this kind of gentle stimulation, pairing lilting choral lines with texts by Matsuo Basho, who is commonly recognized as the greatest master of haiku. Indeed, the traditional haiku form seems especially appropriate for these musings on quotidian beauty: although many of us remember our elementary-school lessons on haiku’s strict rhythmic structure, these poems are more defined by the ways in which they each juxtapose two competing or seemingly unrelated themes and ideas. Haiku generally also have clear seasonal references, anchoring them in the daily and recognizable life of the writer.
The three used here serve as eloquent exemplars of their poetic form. Basho—who was constantly attuned to the poetry of his daily life, taking his pseudonym from the banana tree outside his hut—offers a wry, mournful depiction of the changing seasons, and Goldschmidt’s settings serve to embellish the unassuming beauty of the text. We are transported even as we recognize Basho and Goldschmidt’s understanding as our own.
Veljo Tormis, a contemporary Estonian composer, may be himself the master of the balance between familiarity and otherworldliness. Keenly attentive to the importance of folksong in Estonian culture, Tormis has frequently explained his work by averring, “I do not use folksong. It is folk music that uses me.” He serves as a kind of medium for his country’s folk traditions, channeling the tunes that his people preserved during generations of Soviet occupation into spellbinding modern constructions.
“Helletused,” which means “childhood memory,” bridges that gap precisely. Like many Tormis pieces, it draws simultaneously on several elements of Estonian heritage. The “childhood memory” to which Tormis refers is in fact a national one: in rural Estonia, school-age children share the responsibilities of tending to their families’ livestock, and each family develops an unique call with which to herd their animals. Because the calls differ by family, the children use their calls not just to control cattle and sheep but also to howdy their friends in distant pastures.
Although many in Estonia would recognize this tenet of herding culture, “Helletused” is also keyed to a very particular childhood memory, that of Aino Tamm (1864–1945). Tamm was the first professional singer in Estonia, and like many of her generation, she learned traditional herding calls and folksongs in childhood. The first call in the largely wordless “Helletused”—“alleaa”—is one of Tamm’s own calls from her youth. This motif is particularly famous in Estonian folk music, as it first appeared in “Lauliku lapsepõli,” or “The Singer’s Childhood,” a beloved folksong setting that was composed for Tamm by Miina Harma (1864–1941), the country’s first professional composer. Tormis brings this connection of inspiration and collaboration full circle by quoting the first line of “Lauliku lapsepõli” in “Helletused”; amid the frenzied call-and-response riffing of the two soprano soloists, a quartet interjects with the only text in the piece: “Kui ma olin väiksekene” (“When I was a little one”). As Harma’s piece details how a singer learned songs and words from the natural world around her, we may intuit that Tormis finds similar inspiration not only in his country’s folk traditions but also in the creative work done by his predecessors.
That reverence for the beauty we can find in ourselves and in our own lives serves as the ultimate counterpart to the anguished search for inspiration we saw earlier. Malcolm Dalglish’s “Great Trees,” set to the poem of the same title by Wendell Berry, sums up that contentment nicely. Excerpted from Dalglish’s larger work The Hymnody of Earth, “Great Trees” reveals Dalglish’s appreciation for American musical traditions, using folksy, bright harmonies and nuanced, lilting rhythms.
Although much of The Hymnody of Earth features accompaniment from percussion and hammered dulcimer (Dalglish’s instrument of choice), “Great Trees” is far more hymn-like, paying special attention to Berry’s text. The choir’s sound crescendos in pace with the gentle growth of the trees themselves, and the deliberate pauses within each verse hearken to the green stillness of the untrammeled woods.
Dalglish leaves us in a contemplative, inviting space—perhaps just the atmosphere that might best nourish our own creativity. The prospect seems less daunting, somehow, after witnessing the trials and triumphs on display in this repertoire; knowing that inspiration and invention require just as much sweat as they do genius—thank you, Thomas Edison—makes it easier for us to exercise those underused creative muscles.
If what we create is as much a product of our will and our intellect as of fleeting moments of inspiration, then no, inspiration will never be as effortless as respiration. It shouldn’t be. We sing today of poets and believers, inventors and pioneers, and we recognize that none of these compositions would have been improved by having been easier for their composers.
The last phrase of “Great Trees” speaks to this marriage of genius and effort, bringing invited beauty before an attentive audience: “O light come down to earth, be praised!” In giving voice to this music, we are praising these composers while also taking part in their creative processes; by interacting with their art—either by performing it or by experiencing its performance—we become the final element in this cycle of inspiration and fulfillment. Here, finally, we find a true link between inspiration and respiration: breathe deep, friends. It’s time to sing.
Songs to the Midnight Sun
May 6, 2012
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Ellen Gerdes, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Dan Widyono, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer
Einojuhani Rautavaara, “Lähtö”
Waldemar Åhlén, “Sommarpsalm”
Jussi Chydenius, “I am the great sun”
Thomas Tallis, “O nata lux”
Morten Lauridsen, “O nata lux”
Charles Wood, “Hail, gladdening light”
John Wilbye, “Draw on sweet night”
Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, “Syngur sumarregn”
Eric Whitacre, “With a Lily in Your Hand”
Traditional Finnish, arr. Matti Hyökki, “On suuri sun rantas’ autius”
Veljo Tormis, Sügismaastikud
Edward Elgar, “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land”
Notes on the Program
A confession: when we started working on this program, we didn’t have a clear sense of what we meant by “northern.” Thinking about northern music in itself was difficult–without looking at today’s repertoire, how many northern composers can you name besides Sibelius?–but the idea of building a concert program around such a geographically and linguistically distant region felt audacious. We couldn’t even speak about our cultural impressions of the Far North without relying on what felt like reductive and contradictory stereotypes: reindeer on the tundra, the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, Björk in her swan dress, Ikea.
In a way, the arc of tonight’s program reflects that early uncertainty. As outsiders, we couldn’t easily parse the Nordic countries’ progression from clans of medieval Vikings to today’s incredibly community-minded social welfare policies, and the shifting intricacies of separate-but-related languages, indigenous cultures, and national loyalties threatened to overwhelm. Stepping outward, we realized that much of our hesitation stemmed from simply feeling daunted by the very alien geography with which we were reckoning: we couldn’t conceive of life in a place that felt so defined by its extreme weather, by its active volcanoes, by its almost-unbroken winter darkness and almost-unceasing summer light.
By taking those two extremes–winter darkness and summer light–we were able to begin imagining the rhythms of a place that so dramatically diverged from the cycles of our own days. We also began to see reflections of those themes and uncertainties in the more familiar sounds of North America and the United Kingdom, offering us a kind of control group against which to measure our first encounters with true northern music. Even as we reveled in Philadelphia’s early spring, we imagined that the very pace of life–and of change, and of love, and of worship–must feel different during the ever-brighter days of the northern spring and summer, and we knew that the music we sought would reflect this unmoored feeling. We expected, too, that absent the tremendous church-commissioned choral canon of the rest of Europe, the music of the Far North would feel different in our ears and voices, perhaps bound more to its ancient land than to the relatively recent arrival of the Christian faith. Knowing only that we would be immersing ourselves in foreign and unusual sounds, we started our rehearsals hoping for an adventure–and we weren’t disappointed.
We begin with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Lähtö,” which perfectly captures the venturesome feeling of setting off for places unknown. Like all Finnish composers, Rautavaara works in Jean Sibelius’ long shadow–indeed, he studied and later taught at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki–but here brings in echoes of other musical traditions. In “Lähtö,” we are urged onwards by the constant percussive gallop underlying the melody. The melody itself makes use of a Middle Eastern-sounding alteration between the natural and lowered second, creating a tenuous balance between major and minor tonality and hinting at the exotic and far-off promise of the narrator’s destination.
“Sommarpsalm,” by contrast, brings us a wonderfully familiar sound and sentiment, celebrating the coming of summer in Waldemar Åhlén’s beautiful setting of a Swedish folk hymn. Although the Nordic countries have been largely Christian since the early Middle Ages, this kind of conventional-sounding hymn setting is more the exception to their sacred music than the rule. Åhlén, however, an accomplished organist and church music director, resisted the twentieth century’s focus on modern techniques and instead favored the warm, traditional sounds of English-inspired hymnody.
I am the great sun
Like Åhlén and Rautavaara, Jussi Chydenius’ “I am the great sun” takes inspiration from far-flung traditions: the text, by Cornish poet Charles Causley, was based on a seventeenth-century stone crucifix in Normandy, which was engraved with what became the first line of the poem; and the unearthly drone and eerie overtones with which the piece begin come from the throat-singing practiced by the Tuvans of southern Siberia. For all its exoticism and piety, the piece’s slow build-up is almost reminiscent of a pop song; appropriately enough, Chydenius is perhaps most famous for his work in the Finnish a cappella ensemble Rajaton.
O nata lux
Chydenius’ unorthodox setting of a sacred text brings us neatly to a trio of less-northern sacred pieces that nonetheless complement the sounds we hear from these northern composers. The use of light as a metaphor for Christ is a familiar trope in all Western cultures, and it becomes all the more powerful when we consider the season-long darkness endured by early Christians in the Northern Hemisphere. We turn first to Thomas Tallis’ setting of “O nata lux,” published in 1575 in the Cantiones Sacrae, a joint venture with William Byrd and one of the first sets of sacred music printed in England. Although Tallis and Byrd were both staunch
Vikings Catholics, Queen Elizabeth I granted them a twenty-one-year monopoly on polyphony and on printing choral music. Despite this royal dispensation, “O nata lux” makes conservative use of polyphony; its simplicity both reinforces the text’s plea for communion and hearkens to the unembellished clarity of true northern music.
O nata lux
Morten Lauridsen’s take on “O nata lux,” on the other hand, is thick with individual melodies, with each of the four voice parts spiraling out of one another as they leapfrog through Lauridsen’s signature dense chords. Although Lauridsen’s “O nata lux” is as clearly sacred as Tallis’, the freedom of the tempo allows the piece to feel far more intimate and organic than what we traditionally think of as church music. Some of this may be attributed to Lauridsen’s unusually secluded compositional practice: since 1975, the composer has spent his summers alone on a remote island in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, composing on a fifty-dollar piano inside a rebuilt general store.
Hail, gladdening light
As we can hear from its warm Anglican sound, Charles Wood’s anthem “Hail, gladdening light” was likely not composed on an uninhabited island or a cheap piano. Indeed, this piece’s polychoral structure hearkens to the late sixteenth century, when Tallis’ contemporaries–many of them working in cathedrals that had multiple discrete choir lofts––refined the antiphonal style of individual choirs singing alternating phrases. For all his reliance on this centuries-old tradition, Wood, an Irish composer and organist, has much in common sonically with his teachers Charles Viliers Stanford and Charles Hastings Parry and his students Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells; “Hail, gladdening light,” a traditional evensong hymn, makes use of a broad range of textures and dynamics and two soaring soprano lines to evoke the majesty of god.
Draw on sweet night
Because “Hail, gladdening light” anticipates the “sun’s hour of rest,” it seems a natural segue to contemplating night as a respite from the northern summer’s near-constant sunlight, and John Wilbye’s “Draw on sweet night,” published in 1609, yearns for nightfall as time of refuge and catharsis. By the time of Wilbye’s flourishing at the turn of the sixteenth century, Tallis and Byrd’s monopoly on polyphony had expired, and we hear Wilbye’s mastery of the new style quite clearly in “Draw on sweet night.” Wilbye is also renowned as one of the best-known English madrigalists, and his keen sense of the text and careful use of “false relations” between major and minor modes are especially evident here.
Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, a contemporary Icelandic composer, seems especially well qualified to testify to the soothing qualities of the fleeting summer night, and like Wilbye, Rúnarsdóttir focuses on the intimate calm of nightfall. We hear here one of our favorite attributes of northern music: as in “Lähtö,” the piece doesn’t quite settle on a modal center, which adds to the organic feeling of listening to a brief summer rainstorm. The repeated dissonant chords in the choral parts evoke the shadow of gathering storm clouds, and the soloist and choir only transition to a cheerful-sounding major chord when the nighttime sun breaks briefly through the gloom in the last verse.
With a Lily in Your Hand
Eric Whitacre’s “With a Lily in Your Hand” also illuminates an intimate moment in night’s darkness, but this piece has none of the calm reflection we heard in “Draw on sweet night” and “Syngur sumarregn.” In fact, the piece is a bit of a departure even for Whitacre: known especially for his use of dense, luxurious chords, the composer here makes use of insistent, jarring rhythms interspersed with wrenching, electric harmonies. Such anguished chords do well to illustrate the piece’s text, in which the poem’s narrator is determined to return to his lover despite the obstructions of space and time; intrigued as we are by notions of cultures drifting and changing over centuries, the poet’s willingness to admit to such obstructions feels refreshing.
On suuri sun rantas’ autius
Indeed, the notion of planning a return to a cherished place–or a cherished person–despite a long absence recurs frequently in northern folk repertoire. “On suuri sun rantas’ autius” is one of our favorite such folksongs; in this arrangement by Matti Hyökki, we especially like the warmth with which the choral voices envelop the melody line. Like a great deal of northern music, “On suuri sun rantas’ autius” centers around open fifths–rather than the major and minor triads that are more traditional in other European repertoire–and travels through more dissonance than we might expect before settling into its final chords. Despite such surprising melodic structure, however, this piece speaks to us as viscerally as any Western folksong.
Veljo Tormis’ Sügismaastikud, or Autumn Landscapes, is a particularly dazzling and heartfelt depiction of the effects of time and distance on a well-loved place. Although less internationally famous than his countryman–and former pupil–Arvo Pärt, Tormis is certainly Estonia’s most famous composer, personally responsible for reviving and preserving the country’s significant culture of folksongs and public singing. Sügismaastikud is the rare Tormis piece that doesn’t contain actual fragments of folksong, but instead–coupled with the poetry of Viivi Luik, written when she was eighteen–it offers a privileged glimpse at the fleeting and ephemeral beauty of the Estonian countryside.
Tormis’ interest in folksong underlies his tendency to create unadorned and clear choral works: though technically polyphonic, for instance, Sügismaastikud rarely pits one voicepart against another, instead highlighting the moving lines in one part with shimmering sustained chords in the others. As we heard elsewhere, those chords rarely seem to easily settle into an identifiable tonality, remaining slightly unmoored from what we expect to hear even as they create beautiful and singable melodies. This organic quality pervades most of Tormis’ work, and it is rarely more evident than in “Tuul kõnnumaa kohal,” the fifth movement: the women’s voices move in carefully controlled parallel motion, but their precision culminates in the eerie sound of wind over the barren fields. Such careful use of text painting occurs regularly in Sügismaastikud, and we can hear not only the glissandi of rushing winds but also the dissonant staccato of falling autumn leaves and the cascading melody of racing clouds on a windy day.
Given our own interest in charting the passage of time in these high latitudes, we are understandably drawn to Luik’s delicate, frank poetry. Her awareness of loss–noting, for instance, that “this same summer / will ne’er return here”––seems far too knowledgeable for a teenager; one wonders just what a young woman in Soviet-occupied Estonia would have seen and understood to have been so clear-eyed so young. At the same time, we marvel at how eloquently she captures the cyclical nature of time and experience, as when she discovers the controlled burn of moorland heather replacing the glow of late-afternoon autumn sunlight. The piece ends with an unfinished feeling: as the heather blazes in the growing dark, the final chord swells past consonance–employing here strategically deployed sopranos to replicate the natural overtones we heard earlier––and we are reminded that the landscape and our place in it never stop changing.
My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land
In a more Romantic mood, we conclude with Edward Elgar’s tone poem on the same theme. “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land” takes its text from Scottish poet Andrew Lang, and the delicacy of Elgar’s setting complements the clarity we heard in Tormis. As with Luik’s text, our awareness here is not simply of the beauty of the northern landscape but also of the perfidy that landscape commits when it does not respond to our own suffering or growth. Although that betrayal–and our own mortality–comes as the concluding shock of the piece, Elgar focuses most of his energies on the unhurried evolution of the “northern land” itself, wistfully underscoring our fleeting presence in comparison with its verdant permanence.
Just as we had hoped, this sun-soaked northern music takes us through an unfamiliar geography, one in which the landscape exerts its pull over us with far more delicate tools than snow and ice. We find an electric, haunting quality in this repertoire, and even as its striking tonality unsettles us, it reels us in. The latitude and the weather and the vowel combinations of the Far North may yet be foreign and unpredictable, but these sounds have become our own.
This Green and Pleasant Land
March 11, 2012
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer
Samuel Barber, “The Coolin”
Gustav Holst, “O Lady Leave That Silken Thread”
William Billings, “Jordan”
Naomi Shemer, “Jerusalem of Gold”
Michael McGlynn, “Dúlamán”
Jordan Rock, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
Alberto Grau, “Kasar mie la gaji”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Rest”
J. David Moore, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground”
Anton Bruckner, “Locus Iste”
Charles Villiers Stanford, “The Blue Bird”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Silence and music”
William Henry Harris, “Faire is the Heaven”
Robert Shaw and Alice Parker, “I Got Shoes”
Jordan Nobles, “Lux Antiqua”
Antonín Dvořák, “Going Home”
Notes on the Program
This is a strange time for a concert about paradise. Given the upheaval of the past year–blizzards in October, daffodils in January, vexed farmers muttering about imminent summer drought–it would be easy to feel as though we could no longer rely upon the natural world. Our unease comes from more than the vagaries of our own weather: we have watched from afar as storms and cold and tornadoes rend distant communities, and we have kept silent tallies of the probability that such calamities would strike our lives.
What helps us face this uncertainty, oddly enough, is history: we are far from the first to have lived through a seemingly unending cycle of natural disasters. The scale of our concerns may be more global, but the mere fact that earlier generations faced the same upheaval is comforting. We might think of early ventures to this country, when fleets of ships carrying whole communities were routinely swallowed by hurricanes; or of the centuries-long process of desertification in northern Africa, which forced untold generations of farmers into wandering and famine; or even of the cholera outbreaks that routinely ravaged nineteenth-century European cities before the advent of proper sanitation. The record of human history is pockmarked with these local tragedies, but the history continues each time regardless.
In fact, our ancestors did not simply carry on in the aftermath of disaster–they responded. After nursing the injured or rebuilding the bridges, they implored their children to learn from their own misfortune and hubris; in Japan last year after the tsunami, villagers along the coastline uncovered centuries-old stone tablets indicating the high water points of ancient tsunamis, each one engraved with a warning against building on the vulnerable lowlands. As increasingly global communities, we can collectively adapt to new challenges and change our habits–and perhaps most importantly, we can uphold our continued yearning for a safe, verdant space that is somehow insulated from these catastrophes. Our willingness to try again propels us forward from disaster, but it is our perpetual belief in that attainable paradise that inspires our new efforts.
We take our title today from William Blake, who deplored the pollution and exploitation he saw in eighteenth-century London even as he proposed the “green and pleasant land” of the British Isles as a latter-day Jerusalem. That contradiction seems appropriate for the close of this eerily mild winter. We can respond to the larger concerns in our world without giving up hope entirely, and we know that our salvation–however we may define it–begins with our own efforts. We can make a paradise here.
In that spirit, we begin with Samuel Barber’s “The Coolin,” fully embracing the contradiction of finding lovers’ bliss on a cold, wet hillside. It seems appropriate to begin a place-centered concert with Barber, who was himself a native Philadelphian. Despite those laudable roots, the composer frequently referred to himself as a “throwback Irishman”; “The Coolin” is the last of Barber’s three Reincarnations, composed for the Curtis Institute of Music with text based on traditional Gaelic songs. We can hear echoes of Barber’s Irish inheritance in the Celtic style of “The Coolin,” as his frequently pentatonic melodies scale very large, dramatic ranges in each voice part. The voices thus lilt and sigh along with the wind, and the narrator and his beloved find themselves transported even as darkness falls over the hill.
“O Lady Leave That Silken Thread”
Gustav Holst’s “O Lady Leave That Silken Thread” also calls upon lovers in nature, but it does so in quite a different key. (Nyuk nyuk.) Here, the outside world is genuinely paradisiacal, wreathed with otherworldly flowers and intoxicating perfume. Although the vocal parts are less sophisticated than those of Holst’s later works, this call-and-response texture–composed when Holst was barely twenty–evokes the raw ardor and joy of the narrator urging his lover outside on a heaven-sent spring day.
However trippingly we sing the interwoven lines of Holst’s flirtation, it can never match William Billings’ “Jordan” for sheer exuberance. Indeed, we consistently enjoy Billings for his brazen, earnest sound, and this Sacred Harp tune about an earthly Biblical paradise does not disappoint. In this context, Billings’ forthrightness seems doubly significant: his chosen text–taken from an earlier Protestant hymn–suggests that the singers see clearly (if timorously) the path to paradise before them. Although we tend to think of Billings for his influence on the musical developments that followed his lifetime, it is worth remembering the ways in which he may have been shaped by the politics and religion of his own era; as a citizen of Boston, the self-proclaimed “shining city on a hill,” Billings may well have absorbed early belief in American exceptionalism, suggesting here that inhabitants of his “model city” might be especially able to “stand where Moses stood.”
“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”
Following Billings’ eighteenth-century vision of a holy city, we turn to Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” translated as “Jerusalem of Gold.” Written only three weeks before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, the song immediately became an anthem for the Israeli Defense Forces, celebrating the liberation of eastern Jerusalem and the Old City from the Jordanian occupation. Indeed, unlike Billings’ fairly vague and unattainable paradise, Shemer’s Jerusalem is a habitable, human-scaled place, complete with wells and marketplaces–temporarily inaccessible, perhaps, but not out of reach.
Michael McGlynn’s “Dúlamán” is similarly earthbound–literally, as the text is extracted from a traditional Irish folksong narrating a nonsense conversation about amorous seaweed. Although the driving rhythms and the lightning speed of the Irish make this great fun to sing, we also like the nationalism embedded behind the silliness: the much-praised lover is repeatedly lauded as Gaelic seaweed, with literal and figurative roots firmly in Irish seabed, and the song itself dates from a period in Irish history when the coastal poor regularly relied upon seaweed as proof against famine. Although the lyrics praise the seaweed for his beret and his fine shoes–suggesting, perhaps, that he’ll be a promising match for the young girl–the song’s history reveals that the idea of the seaweed as salvation is less nonsensical than it might seem.
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
Pausing in this Irish mood, we’re proud to premiere our dear friend and fellow singer Jordan Rock’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which he composed for us this winter. Yeats’ text–one of our favorites–recalls the small island where the poet summered as a boy; lovely though it may have been, Yeats’ recollection is improved by time, and his imagined Innisfree is more utopian–and blessed with much milder weather–than the actual place. Jordan’s setting reinforces the poet’s real-life presence within his idealized vision, drawing upon a repeated triplet rhythm to mimic the natural cadence of Yeats’ own readings of the poem and changing the piece’s tonal mood as the poet’s thoughts move from utopian Innisfree to real-world Dublin.
“Kasar mie la gaji”
Earthly though we have been in this first half of the program, neither Barber’s windswept hill nor McGlynn’s nutrient-rich seaweed can compare with the genuine ferocity of Alberto Grau’s “Kasar mie la gaji.” Although Grau himself is Venezuelan, he takes his single line of text, which translates as “The earth is tired,” from a common phrase among the people of the Sahel, a semi-arid belt marking the southern border of the Sahara Desert. The theatrics of Grau’s work–sighs meant to evoke the susurration of wind across the savannas, heavy groans indicating bone-deep fatigue–make plain his environmental consciousness. This piece betrays the fears mentioned earlier; for all that we might strive to repair what we have wrought upon the planet, there can be no denying that the earth is tired.
We step back from Grau’s fierce invocation of environmental strain for a soothing, calm response in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Rest.” Here we begin a slow ascent from the very earthly sensuality of the first half of the concert. “Rest,” which uses Christina Rossetti’s poem by the same name, delineates the liminal space between earth and heaven, mortality and afterlife, and sleeping and waking. Vaughan Williams does not describe an eternal contentment, but the sweet yearning of the piece makes it clear that in this in-between moment, the anticipation of paradise is paradise enough.
“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground”
J. David Moore’s “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground” makes use of the same technique–isolating a single moment of thoughtful contentment–in a very different way. Written for the eight hundredth anniversary of the poet Rumi’s birth, the piece’s palindromic structure makes each syllable a meditation on the importance of attentive, intentional living. Taken from a much longer poem on the same theme, this call for thoughtful, deliberate action seems the best response to the crippling fear engendered by our own anxieties about the world.
Rounding out this set of pieces devoted to single, holy places, Anton Bruckner’s “Locus Iste” brings us the most traditional approach: written for the dedication of a votive chapel in the New Cathedral in Linz, the piece consecrates hallowed ground as touchingly as any spoken blessing. Although Bruckner was widely considered the last great Romantic-era composer, “Locus Iste” feels achingly neoclassical, hearkening to Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” The piece is notably low in our collective vocal register, with the basses serving as standard-bearers for each new line of text, and this effect anchors the transcendent text to the earthbound foundation of the chapel and our voices, linking heaven and earth in both music and architecture.
“The Blue Bird”
Bruckner’s trick of eliding earthly and celestial forces in “Locus Iste” is very much at play in Charles Villiers Stanford’s “The Blue Bird,” too, but here the link is simply a bird, soaring high above the reflective surface of a placid lake. Although much of Stanford’s oeuvre fell out of favor in his declining years, “The Blue Bird” remained consistently popular in the immediate aftermath of World War I, with the quiet rejoicing of the text–“the sky above was blue at last”–made more poignant by the memory of darker days during the war.
“Silence and music”
“The Blue Bird” has had such perennial appeal that Vaughan Williams turned to it for inspiration in 1953, when he and nine other British composers were commissioned to write new choral pieces celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Vaughan Williams’ contribution to the “Garland for the Queen” is explicitly dedicated to “the memory of Charles Villiers Stanford and his Blue Bird,” and the piece’s structure–a pure soprano line soaring above the other three voice parts–mimics “The Blue Bird.” The text, written by Vaughan Williams’ second wife, Ursula, picks up on the elision seen in “Locus Iste” and “The Blue Bird,” but with a far more sophisticated tone. The result is a lyrical hymn to the power and depth of music–and silence, music’s necessary counterpart–and to our ability to find the full range of human and divine emotion within the few octaves spanned by our voices.
“Faire is the Heaven”
Encouraged by Ursula Vaughan Williams’ conviction that divinity is accessible in our music, we turn now to more celestial versions of paradise. William Henry Harris’ “Faire is the Heaven” is by far the most literal and Christian of our selections, but the familiarity of the sentiment is enhanced by Harris’ resonant, joyous setting. Here we make use of the face-to-face antiphonal setup of the English church choirs for whom Harris composed, and we take special pleasure in the segues between the two choral parts, listening for the music to grow more complex as Spenser’s text brings us closer to a confrontation with divinity itself.
“I Got Shoes”
Where “Faire is the Heaven” proclaims the beauty of heaven by listing the beauties of its inhabitants, “I Got Shoes” takes off from a far simpler notion: if we become angels in heaven, we get wings–and a robe, and a harp, and yes, shoes. The cuteness quotient of Robert Shaw and Alice Parker’s setting of this traditional spiritual makes it easy to forget its harrowing origins; like so many spirituals, “I Got Shoes” reworks the anxieties of enslaved African-Americans for whom even basic needs–like shoes–were inaccessible in this world. The refrain–“ev’rybody talkin’ ‘bout heav’n ain’t a-goin’ there”–hints at widespread hypocrisy within the churchgoing community; in heaven, then, one would find not only justice but true believers.
The trouble with programming a selection of pieces about celestial paradise, however, is that we don’t all identify with the visions sketched in “Faire is the Heaven” and “I Got Shoes.” As a counterpart to Harris, Parker, and Shaw, Jordan Nobles’ “Lux Antiqua,” which premiered this fall in Seattle, offers an exciting and engrossing portrait of the literal heavens. Written for “spatialized choir” so that the singers appear as pinpricks of light and sound within the night sky, “Lux Antiqua” shifts in and out of a structured tempo, making recognizable patterns out of its deliberately unearthly incantations. The text is simply a litany of star names; as these stars are some of the brightest and most familiar to us, these names are centuries old, having served as inspiration and touchstones for even longer than most religious traditions.
Compelling though the far reaches of the heavens may be, few of us are ready to live out the rest of our days there, so we close with something rather more familiar: Antonín Dvořák’s “Going Home.” What is recognizable here is made more remarkable by the fact that Dvořák didn’t actually intend to write a traditional spiritual—in fact, he wasn’t even writing for chorus. The music of “Going Home” was written as the Largo of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony (“The New World”). William Arms Fisher, an American musician who attended the symphony’s premiere as one of Dvořák’s guests, was so struck by the melody of the Largo movement that he later turned that theme into a traditional spiritual, penning the authentic-sounding lyrics himself.
In drawing upon Dvořák’s melody and traditional African-American spirituals simultaneously, Fisher demonstrated shrewd resourcefulness, calling upon both his understanding of traditional musical forms and his excitement over the new approaches sketched in the Ninth Symphony. Dvořák, having previously urged American composers to make better use of the great wealth they inherited from their melting pot of musical cultures, was pleased with Fisher’s innovation, seeing the adaptation as a victory for the entire musical community rather than an exploitation of his own work.
Such ingenuity and generosity characterize much of the history of choral writing––and indeed, of choral singing. As singers, we tend to pay attention to the desires and influences of single actors: we talk about the composer’s wishes or the narrator’s voice or the conductor’s vision, but we rarely talk about the inherent community of choral singing. Today’s program spans a range of individual efforts to pinpoint or cultivate paradise, and the cumulative power of that range is in its diversity. As J. David Moore reminds us in the cascading women’s entrances of his piece, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground–hundreds of ways to express our devotion to, our appreciation for, and our creativity in our own beloved communities. We sing together each week in tacit understanding of this fact, and we perform today before you all in celebration of the bonds that link us to one another, to the greater Philadelphia community, and to the generations of choral singers and composers whose work we inherit. Yes, we may have also inherited an imperfect world–but together (and with a strong downbeat) we can face it.
Axis of Medieval
November 6, 2011
Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer
Albertus of Paris, “Congaudeant catholici”
Abbie Betinis, “Jerusalem Luminosa”
Thomas Tallis, Three Psalm Tunes
Samuel Barber, “Easter Chorale”
Francis Poulenc, “Tristis est anima mea”
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Концерт для хора
William Blitheman, “In Pace”
Maurice Duruflé, Quatres motets sur des themes grégoriens
“Orientis Partibus” (c. 1200)
“Agincourt Carol” (c. 1415)
Guillaume de Machaut, arr. Jordan Rock, “Douce Dame Jolie”
Claude Debussy, Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Zoltán Kodály, “Jézus és a kufárok”
Franz Biebl, “Ave Maria”
Notes on the Program
If we built a time machine and managed to bring Albertus of Paris (fl. 1146–1177) to the same moment as Abbie Betinis (1980–)—admittedly not everyone’s first goal upon building a working time machine—the meeting might not go very well. Albertus, who served as cantor at Notre Dame in the middle decades of the twelfth century, would certainly be stymied by Betinis’ American English, and he would likely be surprised—if not downright outraged—by her literacy and her independence and her penchant for wearing pants. The awkwardness of the contrived interaction would be our own fault, and our friends would shake their heads disapprovingly. What do they expect? they’d mutter. They don’t even speak the same language.
And our friends would be right: the language barrier would surely be insurmountable, and Albertus simply wouldn’t know what to make of Betinis—unless we brought them here today. If they sat with one another for the opening of today’s concert, they would hear Albertus’ “Congaudeant catholici,” the earliest extant example of three-voice polyphony, followed by Betinis’ two-part “Jerusalem Luminosa,” which premiered in 2001 mere blocks from Notre Dame. The pieces have more than Parisian geography in common, and their time-traveling composers might have found that they did, too.
Given that in the mid-twelfth century, polyphony for two voices was still relatively new—the earliest surviving examples date from the early tenth century, and by Albertus’ time polyphony was still controversial within the church—Albertus’ venture into writing music for three independently moving voices would have been a daring exercise. For all that the structure of his piece sounds somewhat familiar—a moving, melismatic melody line atop the droning voices below—we can hear Albertus testing the limits of the expanded polyphonic form, inviting dissonance in the middle voice where we expect only unsophisticated consonance. In our imagined scenario, Albertus might have traveled those centuries with all his twelfth-century prejudices and biases intact, but he would nonetheless be a medieval maverick, willing to seek out innovation and energy in new and unorthodox places.
We may therefore imagine that perhaps the performance of his own groundbreaking “Congaudeant catholici” would sufficiently distract Albertus from the surprises of the twenty-first century. Proud of his innovation, he would bask in his unexpected dissonance, and then he would recognize—perhaps with a frisson of surprise—the techniques of his own era in Betinis’ “Jerusalem Luminosa.” The opening monophonic alleluia—all the women in unison on a chant melody—would sound quite familiar, as would the two-voiced reiteration of the same theme, with the altos holding down the drone beneath the sopranos’ chant. The piece then spirals off into an ecstatic game of harmonic leapfrog, but it never loses touch with those medieval cornerstones. Albertus, one of the forefathers of modern music, would feel at home in the first two phrases of Betinis’ twenty-first-century piece, and in that moment, our time travelers would indeed speak the same language.
So much of medieval music history is about language and attempted communication that imagining the meeting of our hypothetical time travelers isn’t a wholly frivolous idea. The advent of polyphony called for new ways to communicate, for as music progressed beyond the monophonic plainchant of the early church, singers could no longer reliably learn everything by ear. The concurrent spread of Christianity added to the problem of faithful transmission; if the liturgy needed to be sung the same way in each of the far corners of Christendom, the musicians would need a consistent way to notate their new pieces.
Medieval music is therefore significant not only for its polyphonic innovations but also for its creation of a system of musical notation. Modern notation was codified in the early eleventh century, and the manuscript for “Congaudeant catholici,” for example, reflects many of the new conventions. Notes are arranged relative to one another on a lined staff, and different voice parts are clearly indicated on different staffs or even in different colors of ink. The handwriting is archaic and the rhythms seem unclear, but this is still recognizably—and singably—music.
For all that Albertus and Betinis might have been able to speak clearly to one another’s polyphony across an eight-hundred-year gulf, theirs was not the only approach for the musicians working within that time span. Indeed, debates about the morality of polyphony raged until the sixteenth century, when extreme factions at the Council of Trent proposed banning polyphonic singing—along with professional musicians and organs—for fear that the independently moving parts would distract from the sacred text. Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585), whose homophonic psalm tunes seem quite distinct from the melismas of “Congaudeant catholici,” knew well the shifting loyalties required of early church musicians, and his musical genius was undoubtedly matched by a keen political savvy. Tallis served as a high-ranking church musician under several different—and vastly divergent—English monarchs, tailoring his music to suit the prevailing political and religious trends of each reign and remaining in favor with each successive ruler. A devout Catholic, Tallis was nonetheless a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, whose Anglican reign discouraged the liturgical polyphony that had been popular under Mary I. Tallis’ psalms—written in 1567 as a set of nine for the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury—reject entirely the florid Catholic polyphony he had employed during Mary I’s reign, relying instead upon vernacular English and clear, open homophony. Although the psalm tunes remained obscure for generations after their composition, they have lately enjoyed a renaissance: Ralph Vaughan Williams used the Third Tune as the eponymous theme in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, providing us with both a handy example of the continued links between early modern and contemporary music and one of our favorite symphonic pieces.
Samuel Barber (1910–1981), who shares his birth year with the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia, clearly saw no need to embellish on the early modern themes from which Vaughan Williams took inspiration. Instead, his “Easter Chorale,” also titled “Chorale for Ascension Day,” picks up neatly where Tallis left off four centuries earlier. Indeed, the continuity is so seamless that we can segue directly from Tallis’ Third Tune into Barber’s “Easter Chorale,” traversing the centuries in a single page turn. For Barber, the stripped-down homophony that Tallis employed to curry favor with puritanical Anglicans serves here simply to highlight the grandeur and exaltation of the piece’s text and occasion, as the “Easter Chorale” takes its secondary title from its original purpose: Barber composed the work in honor of the April 1965 dedication of the central tower at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The text, written by Pack Browning (1940–), who was then a graduate student at Berkeley, celebrates both Christ’s resurrection and the natural world’s return to springtime activity. The poem is sufficiently vibrant and evocative as to require very little embellishment from Barber’s music; instead, Barber treats the text reverently, allowing the varying intensity of his music to reflect the moods of the poem. Interestingly, the piece’s inherent exaltation is keyed to one of today’s literal high points: the “Alleluia!” refrain marks the first moment on the program at which our voices reach fortissimo, celebrating a very different but equally notable kind of ascension.
If Albertus and Betinis illustrate one form of early music and Tallis and Barber build upon another, then Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) neatly straddles both options. His “Tristis est anima mea,” the fourth and final movement of Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence, merges melismatic flourishes with unadorned chant, resulting in a chillingly dramatic mélange. In contrast to Barber’s “Easter Chorale,” which celebrates the purely triumphant moment of the resurrection, Poulenc’s “Tristis est anima mea” is in a different mode, spotlighting Christ in the moments before his execution. Poulenc makes effective use of text painting to heighten the drama: after the opening soprano solo peals upward in true melismatic fashion, the full choir comes in with hushed urgency, imploring the listener to escape before the executioners arrive. As the narrator gets closer to admitting the dreadful truth of his fate—“You will take flight, and I will go sacrifice myself for you”—the four choral lines become more frantic and disjointed, with dissonant runs trading off between voice parts. Once the terrible pronouncement has been made, however, calm settles, and an objective narration steps in with chant-like simplicity. Nevertheless, this quiet resolution cannot disguise the enormity of the moment, and the piece closes with its complexity intact: the baritones, now serving as the narrator, ascend on uneasy arpeggios while the rest of the choir shimmers on delicately inverted chords. This is resignation, not resolution, made more dramatic by the use of very old techniques to tell an even older story.
To achieve similar dramatic intensity, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) took a different approach for his Концерт для хора, or “Choral Concerto.” The text here is equally powerful: Rachmaninoff features the Kontakion for the Dormition, the traditional prayer for the feast day commemorating the death—or “falling asleep,” hence “dormition”—resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Mary, the “Theotokos” or “God-bearer.” The prayer seems like an obvious candidate for loud proclamation and exaltation, but Rachmaninoff focuses most of the choir’s energies on more intimate, intensely concentrated gestures. As we saw with Tallis and Barber, this kind of simplicity spotlights the otherwise-subtle nuances of text and voice, allowing the singers to both celebrate and grieve the departed Theotokos. Interestingly, medieval composers were not the only artists who faced censorship from anxious church officials: Rachmaninoff’s “Choral Concerto” was never published in his lifetime, because the slight changes he made to the traditional kontakion caused the piece to be banned by the Russian Orthodox authorities.
An even subtler, gentler form of dormition prayer comes via “In Pace” by William Blitheman (1525–1591). Here, the text is a prayer for the narrator himself; the calm with which the poem invokes the poet’s perpetual slumber is reminiscent of Christina Rossetti’s famous “Rest,” which glorifies a “stillness that is almost Paradise.” Blitheman, however, does not let the mood of the text act as a soporific; instead, he cleverly combines several early musical elements without allowing the junctures between the genres to overwhelm the piece. Although the bulk of the piece is set as a traditional four-part motet, the phrases are interwoven with interjections of plainchant. The chants fill the interstices between the choral phrases, and the piece ends not with the expected motet resolution, but with yet more chant—a reminder, perhaps, that all things must end as they began.
In that spirit, the second half of today’s program also begins with chant. Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) makes his medieval inspirations clear in his title: Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens are indeed based upon Gregorian themes, with the original chant melodies woven into the choral settings. Such technique is typical of Duruflé, whose Requiem also relies upon familiar liturgical chant, and as a result the four-part choral pieces never stray far from their medieval chant roots. Just as the clear melody lines show the influence of the earliest polyphony, the extended sections of mixed meter clearly stem from the days before bar lines and standardized rhythmic notation.
Our two anonymous medieval carols highlight a different tradition, providing examples of the non-liturgical music of the period. “Orientis Partibus,” a three-part ditty written in France around 1200, is a cheerful mockery of the traditional “O Magnum Mysterium.” Instead of celebrating the “great wonder” of lowly animals being present for the birth of Christ, “Orientis Partibus” simply celebrates a lowly animal: “an ass, handsome and most strong.” The jaunty, interweaving parts are an early example of a profane—that is, non-sacred-––conductus, liturgical versions of which would have been sung while holy texts were being carried to the lectern. “Agincourt Carol,” which dates from 1415, serves an entirely different purpose: in describing King Henry V’s unexpected and bloody victory over the French at Agincourt during the Hundred Years War, it works as a kind of early journalism, narrating the battle and its aftermath for those who remained at home (as long as they could understand the words).
“Douce Dame Jolie,” originally written by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377) in the fourteenth century, rounds out our secular medieval programming. Machaut composed prodigiously, and his secular works center almost entirely on the three formes fixes—the ballade, rondeau, and virelai—dictating the rhythmic and rhyming structure of poems and music. “Douce Dame Jolie” is a virelai, a dance-like setting with a pattern of recurring rhymes. Our version, arranged by baritone Jordan Rock, pays homage to the dance origins of the genre in the insistent rhythmic interjections behind Machaut’s melody line. Jordan also provides us with slightly more text painting than Machaut’s original tune had made possible: the narrator, crazed with passion, begs his beloved to let him die rather than suffer further. The tone clusters that build in intensity throughout the third verse suggest that the narrator may be wishing for something other than to end his life, even though he does claim to be “without base thoughts.”
As an heir to the troubadour tradition of poetry and music, Machaut supplied music for many of his poems, but Charles d’Orléans (1394–1465) focused his output solely on poetry. Imprisoned in England after being captured at the battle of Agincourt, d’Orléans wrote most of his poems while in captivity. As a nobleman—indeed, he was heir to the French throne, which contributed to England’s desire to keep him in custody—he was afforded relative comfort during his twenty-four-year captivity, and he became friendly with his captors. Interestingly, all of his poems are in French in the traditional ballade and rondeau forms, suggesting that his learned fluency within the English nobility did not outweigh his French cultural heritage. Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) settings of three disparate d’Orléans poems honor their mixed medieval and early modern origins: the hemiolae in “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” remind us of the rhythmic instability in chant, the thrumming choral pulse in “Quand j’ai ouy la tambourin” serves as a vocal version of the percussive tambourin, and the quartal harmonies prevalent in “Yver, vous n’estes qu’un vilain” hearken back to medieval idealization of the interval of a perfect fourth.
Returning to sacred text, Zoltán Kodály’s (1882–1967) “Jézus és a kufárok” relies similarly upon medieval techniques. Like Debussy, Kodály focuses heavily upon the quartal harmonies so revered by medieval composers. Text painting also returns to the fore; as the Biblical text describes the chaos and confusion of the interrupted market scene, the independent voice parts scurry up and down sixteenth-note runs, instigating a kind of call-and-response cacophony.
We close with Franz Biebl’s (1906–2001) “Ave Maria,” an entirely different kind of call-and-response. Biebl takes his cue from the medieval tradition of antiphonal choirs, in which the two choirs would have been arranged spatially along the cruciform arms of the nave of a church, the better to reflect the sacred significance of their music. Like Blitheman, Biebl interjects chant into his polyphony, here using the Angelus—Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel––alongside the traditional Ave Maria text. Biebl’s “Ave Maria” has achieved canonical status in contemporary choral repertoire, bringing these medieval echoes to yet another generation of singers.
It is these echoes and traces that make medieval music’s legacy so poignant. Modern music owes its development to the medieval composers who defied their church employers for the sake of writing polyphony; they risked termination—or worse—when they insisted upon integrating their new techniques into the church’s traditions. Ironically, however, the fears of the church elders may yet have been realized: the original efforts to ban polyphony or classify it as demonic music stemmed from a fear that increasingly sophisticated music would distract from the liturgy, gaining primacy over the sacred text. In a way, that’s exactly what has happened: the experiment of polyphony succeeded, and pieces like “Congaudeant catholici” are known and sung now not for their sacred text but for their musical interest. The musical frames that were once vessels for their holy words have become sacred in their own right, venerated by generations of musicians who worship this shared culture of intricacy and enlightenment. The words, as it turns out—and as Albertus and Betinis could have told us—are immaterial. The music is what sustains us.
I Hear America Singing
June 12, 2011
Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer
Edmund Dumas, rarr. Jordan Rock, “Long Time Traveler”
William Billings, “Euroclydon”
Aaron Copland, Four Motets
William Walker, “Sweet Prospect”
arr. James Erb, “Shenandoah”
John B Hedges, Landis Settings
Michael Tippett, “Nobody knows” and “Steal away”
Lester Jenks [Harvey B. Gaul], “A Ballad of Tree-Toads”
Eric Whitacre, “With a Lily in Your Hand”
Abbie Betinis, “Long Time Trav’ling”
Notes on the Program
We begin with leaving. Then again, most American stories begin with departures of some kind: from Spain, bound for adventure and mercenary glory; from the western coast of Africa, in bondage; from rocky English shores, for salvation. The arrivals are what make the stories famous, but the departures–wrenching and exhilarating, nerve-wracking and hopeful–are what make them stories.
Grounded in this common tradition of departure, today’s program traces a shared culture of rootlessness and amalgamation, of roadside exchange and perpetually forward motion. It is a concert of reinvention and self-reference, such that some of the singers joked about making a game out of the citations and reprises, Pin-the-Tail-On-What-You’ve-Heard-Before. Our title comes from the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, which we read not for its sentimental image of discrete voices singing discrete songs but for its reminder that indeed, these voices and songs cannot help but build on one another, just as songbirds riff on inherited tunes to create new cacophony. The process of music-making is necessarily cumulative, but today’s cross-section reveals that the layers of tradition and time are not firmly fixed atop one another: this history is not linear, and these journeys frequently overlap. We set out today alone, but we will meet others along the way.
We open with an explicit demonstration of those meetings given voice: a dual arrangement of Edmund Dumas’ “Long Time Traveler,” which was originally published in the 1859 edition of The Sacred Harp under the title “White.” The title was an homage to Benjamin Franklin White (1800–1879), editor of the first three editions of The Sacred Harp songbook and progenitor of the American traditions of both Sacred Harp and shape note singing. Although Sacred Harp and shape note singing are not technically synonymous, they have become nearly so, in large part because of White’s songbook. Shape note singing, invented in the late eighteenth century as a method to facilitate the teaching of singing and sight-reading, relied upon a system of four shapes–a triangle, a square, an oval, and a diamond–that each represented both a syllable and a musical pitch. Rather than use the seven-syllable do-re-mi solfege that is familiar to today’s singers, shape note used just four syllables–fa, sol, la, and mi–to cover all possible notes. The shapes and syllables are firmly linked–a triangle, for instance, is always pronounced “fa”–and their relativity to one another is fixed, such that mi, for instance, is always a half-step lower than fa. The Sacred Harp, first published in 1844, standardized the many competing variations on shape note, cementing both its reliance on only four notes and its simple harmonic structure, distinct from the more complex music being written contemporaneously in Europe.
Jordan’s rearrangement of “Long Time Traveler” takes its cues from two settings of the hymn: an unadorned three-part arrangement by the Wailin’ Jennys and the traditional, four-part version from the third edition of The Sacred Harp. The arrangement by the Wailin’ Jennys, a Canadian folk trio, serves us especially well as an aural demonstration of the kind of tag-team creativity that this program exemplifies; as additional voices join in and the harmonies build, the very simple tune at the piece’s core grows to something more transcendent.
It is admittedly unorthodox to start a concert with this kind of slow build-up, but the metaphor––of travelers meeting to combine their “varied carols”––is irresistible. So, too, is the reverence inherent in this opening trio: this is by far our most sacred concert this year, and beginning with a single, contemplative voice singing about the promise of heaven locates us carefully alongside the travelers whose steps we shadow. For the nineteenth-century Americans who would have sung simple harmonies like this and learned hymns out of songbooks like The Sacred Harp, departure and uncertainty were familiar and bittersweet parts of life in the United States. Americans of this era certainly knew more itinerancy than their European counterparts, simply because they had–and maybe still have–a tendency to move around a lot, whether for gold or for war or for better prospects elsewhere. In leaving, they knew that despite the advantages of efficient railroads and a well-organized postal service, they might not return to the places of their cherished beginnings. The moment of departure thus becomes a moment of reflection, setting out for parts unknown–to sea, to a new town, to an afterlife–while holding close to what sustained them.
Such reverence may be harder to find in the Sacred Harp setting of the hymn. Shape note singing is traditionally loud, twangy, and brazen in tone, meant for whole communities rather than trained singers alone. Shape note singings have no consistent conductor; instead, singers take turns leading pieces, with everyone encouraged to mark time with their free hand. A new piece would typically be sung through on syllables alone, as we do here, before the words are added in on the repeat.
The sheer volume of shape note singing may be unique to that style, but the twangy, rustic harmonies are not. William Billings, largely regarded as the father of American music, employed similar sounds in his prodigious output of hymns and patriotic tunes. Tellingly, Billings’ ultimate downfall as a composer was not his deliberately facile tunes but rather his legions of imitators. Without the benefit of copyright protection for his work, Billings’ most popular pieces–those that would have been the most lucrative for the composer to own–were reprinted, copyright-free, in songbooks like The Sacred Harp. Thus deprived of both the rights to and steady income from his work, Billings died in penury. Billings is not the only artist on this program whose work suffered reappropriation owing to the lack of copyright protection, but happily, most Billings tunes are today recognized as such. “Euroclydon,” named for the Biblical windstorm that causes a shipwreck, couples Billings’ signature harmonies with an affecting narrative of near-disaster, salvation, and homecoming. Betraying his ear for older musical traditions, the composer makes special use of text painting to depict his sailors’ torment, even as the final phrases of the piece sound suspiciously hymn-like.
Although Aaron Copland is best known for his deliberate reliance on similarly rustic or folksy sounds, his Four Motets evince an unexpected delicacy even as they strum those same open fifths. Composed in 1921 during his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, Four Motets was Copland’s first choral composition; the precipitous key changes and unusual use of parallel motion suggest that their composer was still refining his approach to choral writing. Tellingly, Copland’s Four Motets are his only motets; his later, more famous works are firmly linked to American folk traditions rather than the more formal European structures he worked with in Paris. As Boulanger wrote to Copland, however, the pieces “sound in the voices in a stunning manner,” and the harmonies that sounded rustic and countrified in earlier works here begin to shimmer.
With William Walker’s “Sweet Prospect” and James Erb’s setting of “Shenandoah,” we see continued use of these traditional sounds. Walker, White’s brother-in-law and collaborator on the first edition of The Sacred Harp, composed “Sweet Prospect” in the early 1830s, and the tune was included in the original printing of The Sacred Harp. By contrast, the text is not original to Walker or The Sacred Harp: Samuel Stennett, an eighteenth-century British minister, penned the verses for a hymn setting of his own. In appropriating Stennett’s text for his own composition, Walker acts as another magpie in this cultural chronology, freely making new use of existing work. “Sweet Prospect,” scored here for women’s voices, returns to themes and sounds we recognize from “Long Time Traveler”: twanging open fifths, communal time-keeping, a relish for the text, and the promise of heaven.
Juxtaposed against the brazen Sacred Harp sounds of “Sweet Prospect,” James Erb’s “Shenandoah” comes as a lovely, soothing reprieve. In setting “Shenandoah,” Erb joins a long line of reinterpreters, not reappropriators: the origins of the song are murky, with most experts agreeing only that it was first sung on the East Coast in the early nineteenth century. Because the melody is inherently singable, it was passed on orally through several different communities in the nineteenth century, many of whom added verses or interpretations that are still familiar today. One version frames Shenandoah as a Native American chief whose daughter plans to elope with the singer; another suggests that the song may have been sung by escaped slaves, who traveled through the river so as not to leave a scent trail on land. Erb’s arrangement treats the text quite simply, without wading into additional narrative verses, but the voices are structured so as to bring out the inner movement of the melody: the women sing one verse in canon, and when the men return on the chorus, all voices pulse the nasal consonants of “Shenandoah,” creating a rippling, rhythmic effect that suggests the very sounds of the river itself.
Amid this musical conversation of inheritance and inspiration, it is our joy and privilege to sing the world premiere of John B Hedges’ Landis Settings, which was composed this winter for the Chestnut Street Singers. Philadelphia is a natural site for this premiere: after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and earning a Master of Music at Westminster Choir College, Hedges returned to postgraduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he worked with Joan Hutton Landis, now Professor Emerita of Humanities, whose poetry is featured in the work. Hedges’ connection to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Street Singers is not merely academic: his older sister, Allison, is a dedicated member of our ensemble.
We gave Hedges very few suggestions for the directions his work might take, other than musing that it might be nice to include text by a contemporary female poet. Much to our delight, however, the three movements of Landis Settings fit neatly and evocatively alongside the rest of today’s program, complementing the more traditional pieces with a modern aesthetic all their own. Landis’ poems do similar work, paying homage to familiar traditions and icons–“Amherst Noon,” in particular, is a poignant portrait of Emily Dickinson––with a wry and cosmopolitan sensibility. Landis Settings thus couples tradition and innovation, hearkening to both 1940s jazz and the mid-century motivic atonality made popular by Schoenberg and achieving what Hedges referred to as “a bluesy, juicy jazz harmony vein.” Fittingly, Hedges also plays with citations and self-references within the work itself; his use of augmentation in both the melodies and rhythms allows the piece to hook more easily in our minds as we hear similar themes and phrases repeated in different contexts and voice parts. It has been an honor and a pleasure to sing Landis’ texts and Hedges’ music, and we are delighted to premiere this work on today’s program.
Though the modernity of Landis Settings might initially catch us off guard, the underlying blues techniques have a sweet familiarity, like something that we almost recognize but that has been distorted by time. The two selections that follow, from A Child of Our Time, use the same strategy of tweaking well-loved traditions, but these draw from spirituals, the precursor to Hedges’ blues. Michael Tippett, the only non-American composer on today’s program, wrote A Child of Our Time in response to the events framing Kristallnacht in 1938; the oratorio, structured to match Handel’s Messiah in shape and grandeur, proclaims both Tippett’s pacifism and his belief in the inherent goodness of all people. Interestingly, although the 1944 premiere was a critical and popular success, many objected to the inclusion of spirituals and jazz elements, denigrating them as improper for performance as classical music. Unsurprisingly, we feel quite the opposite about Tippett’s spirituals: in addition to being beautiful in their own right, we find it very telling that Tippett–a young Englishman wracked with terror and guilt over the emerging fascism in Germany and his own country’s militarism––relied upon African-American spirituals as the most poignant expression of his own despair. Rather than being a niche tradition, bound only to shameful periods of American history, spirituals thus become an eloquent, cosmopolitan genre, universally accessible for expressions of both hope and anguish.
As the musical traditions of spirituals led to Hedges’ blues, so too did the same heritage inform the barbershop sounds made popular in the early twentieth century. Lester Jenks’ “A Ballad of Tree-Toads” gives our men a chance to spotlight their facility with both close barbershop harmonies and tongue-twisting lyrics. Lester Jenks was one of many pseudonyms used by Harvey B. Gaul, a prolific composer and arranger and talented organist who lived in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century. The absurd text of the “Tree-Toads” was originally printed in The Pittsburgh Post, of which Gaul was one of the editors. Its silliness acts as a palate cleanser, but it also reminds us that Gaul, like many of his fellows on today’s program, took just as much inspiration from the mundane as from the classical.
We close this evening by pairing two luminaries in contemporary American music, both of whom are celebrated for combining innovative rhythms and voicings with lush choral sounds. Eric Whitacre, who recently made headlines with his YouTube-based Virtual Choir, has cemented his status as the golden boy of American choral music, known especially for his use of nebulous, pan-diatonic chords. “With a Lily in Your Hand” is thus a bit of a departure from Whitacre’s usual style; although there are plenty of wrenching, electric harmonies, they are interspersed with insistent, jarring rhythms. This complex syncopation is distinctly Spanish, alluding to the linguistic origins of Federico Garcia Lorca’s text. The juxtaposition of lush chords and frenetic rhythms thus pits the poet’s stated intention to return to his lover against the obstructions of space and time. Abbie Betinis, recently named one of NPR’s top hundred composers under forty, creates similar contrasts between promises and doubts in “Long Time Trav’ling,” which she specially recommended to us after hearing about this program last fall. Betinis herself has a storied pedigree as an American composer; she is the great-niece of Alfred Burt, whose annual Christmas card carols included such favorites as “O, Hearken Ye” and “Caroling, Caroling.”
In “Long Time Trav’ling,” Betinis’ reverence for American musical history is evident; the work combines two popular–and by now, familiar to us all–nineteenth-century shape note hymns with additional text from a third such setting. The interwoven solo lines are sung with gusto, shape note style, while the rest of the choristers interject as both distant chain gangs and sight-reading shape noters. For all that the text and the core melodies come from the shape note tradition, the work’s complexity goes far beyond the deliberate simplicity of The Sacred Harp, with competing lines seeming to undercut the texts’ optimistic proclamation that “we’ll meet again.” As the piece swells to its final crescendo, it switches feverishly between major and minor modes, indicating that these travelers are well aware of the perils they face in leaving friends behind. In closing our inaugural season with such a work, however, we aim to make our intentions clear: we have cherished your part in this season’s journey, and we dearly hope we’ll meet again in the fall. Indeed, we have reason to be optimistic, for although “Long Time Trav’ling” ends without closure or resolution, it does not leave us without recourse. We can feel that the journey is unfinished, but we know how to find our way home from here.
The Food of Love
March 20, 2011
Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer
Malachi and Phineas Shapiro, whisper chorus
Jean Belmont Ford, “If music be the food of love”
William Billings, “I Am the Rose of Sharon”
Pablo Casals, “Nigra Sum”
Healey Willan, “Rise Up, My Love”
Paul Hindemith, “Wahre Liebe”
Z. Randall Stroope, “I Am Not Yours”
John Bartlet, “Of all the birds that I do know”
Claude Debussy, “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder”
George Kirbye, “Farewell, False Love” and “The Tyrant Love”
Pablo Casals, “O Vos Omnes”
Blake R. Henson, “O Vos Omnes”
Paul Hindemith, “Frauenklage”
Blake R. Henson, “Dream of Heaven”
David Del Tredici, “Acrostic Song”
Notes on the Program
The title of today’s program may be recognized as the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which the lovesick Duke Orsino urges his musicians, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Our title, however––and our opening piece, by the celebrated American composer Jean Belmont Ford (1939–)––comes from Henry Heveningham’s seventeenth-century riff on Shakespeare’s famous prompt, turning Orsino’s plaint into a proper love poem. While Orsino seeks to drown his sorrows in melancholy music, asking for “excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die,” Heveningham’s narrator uses music as flirtation, drawing upon the sensual language of appetite to proclaim the beauty of the listener. It is in the spirit of Heveningham’s poem, celebrating the charms of music alongside those of a beloved, that we have assembled today’s program of love songs.
Ford’s piece is only the first reimagining of a familiar romantic text; “I Am the Rose of Sharon,” “Nigra Sum,” and “Rise Up, My Love” represent three distinct treatments of similar—sometimes identical—verses from the Song of Solomon. Religious interpretations of the Song of Solomon posit that the famously explicit text can be read as an allegory of the Judeo-Christian god’s relationship with Israel or with the Christian church, but more recent scholarship has illuminated similarities between the Song of Solomon and other ancient erotic poetry. For William Billings (1746–1800), Pablo Casals (1876–1973), and Healy Willan (1880–1968), the stanzas seem to signify very clearly as love poems, continuing the flirtatious pursuit begun by Ford. Appropriately for a springtime concert, each composer spotlights the text’s proclamation of spring as a season of renewal and sensuality.
Although both Casals and Willan were twentieth-century composers, their lush styles hearken back to earlier trends in music. Billings, too, a self-taught musician who is often considered the father of American music, bypassed the prevailing sounds of his day in favor of rougher, almost medieval-sounding harmonies. The inherent sprightliness of Billings’ “I Am the Rose of Sharon” contrasts nicely with the more mature colors of “Nigra Sum” and “Rise Up, My Love.” In particular, Willan’s “Rise Up, My Love” has a languorous quality that forecasts the speaker’s amorous intentions.
In “Wahre Liebe,” the last in this set of romantic overtures, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) continues that depth of sound. Here again, both the text and the music seem drawn from earlier traditions, with the delicate Renaissance-style harmonies complementing the references to the twelfth-century tale of Tristan and Isolde. Those lovers, however, for all that they symbolize pure devotion, were drawn together owing to a magical love potion; by contrast, Hindemith’s gallant declares that his feelings outweigh even Tristan’s in both purity and ardor.
If, as we hope, the lovers in these first pieces succeed in their seductions, Z. Randall Stroope’s (1953–) exhilarating setting of Sara Teasdale’s “I Am Not Yours” might seem an appropriate entrée to the next phase of their relationships. “I Am Not Yours” strikes a different tone from the flirtatious texts with which we began today’s concert; the narrator here need not convince her beloved of her feelings. Instead, the poem reads as though she is simply waiting for an appropriate opportunity to act on her infatuation. The poem’s historical context, however, suggests that it may be less an intent for assignation than a sign of resignation: Teasdale herself, a lyrical poet in the early twentieth century, did not enjoy a happy romantic life. Her unhappy marriage ended in divorce, and she was rumored to have harbored lifelong feelings for a friend and former lover who considered himself financially unable to marry her. “I Am Not Yours,” published only months after Teasdale’s wedding, may have betrayed her inner tumult on––and, perhaps, her resignation to––marrying another man.
Happily, John Bartlet’s (1565–1620) “Of all the birds that I do know” and Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” have no such tragic backstory. Indeed, they capture all the giddiness and abandon of new romance. “Of all the birds that I do know,” popularized by the King’s Singers in their Madrigal History Tour, wins the prize for being the most overtly suggestive piece on the program: although the poet celebrates a singing sparrow named Philip, the chorus indicates that Philip may actually be a woman—and she may actually be vocalizing something other than song. Like “Of all the birds,” “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” is a well-loved choral piece, and Charles d’Orléans’ earnest text is only the first of its many charms. Like the poem’s titular woman, the composition boasts many virtues: the tessitura in all four parts lends itself to very easy and lyrical singing and the voices move in parallel motion while the insistent three-versus-two rhythms—a hemiola, in which one part’s triplet rhythm is set against another part’s duples—keep the melodies moving smoothly forward.
Of course, Shakespeare himself would remind us that the course of true love never runs smoothly, and the delight embodied by Stroope, Bartlet, and Debussy may be finite. Things certainly took a tragic turn for George Kirbye (1565–1634), whose “Farewell False Love” and “The Tyrant Love” begin our descent into romantic despair. Unfortunately, Kirbye’s disappointment in love may not have been balanced by overwhelming professional success; today, his works are little sung and rarely published. As a madrigalist, Kirbye eschewed the light style made popular by his English contemporaries like Morley and Weelkes, preferring instead to work with serious texts, often in a minor mode. Like the Italians whom he imitated, Kirbye devoted careful attention to text setting, framing line and tempo to reflect the content of the verses.
Given Kirbye’s relative obscurity, today’s performance may be the Philadelphia premiere of “Farewell False Love” and “The Tyrant Love.” (In fact, this may very well be their world premiere—our research has turned up no extant recordings and only incomplete performance records.) However, his sense of betrayal and resignation after having been crossed in love is likely just as familiar to modern audiences as Charles d’Orléans’ eager infatuation.
Much of today’s program features juxtapositions between musicians of similar eras but different styles, as in the contrast between Kirbye and Bartlet, who were born in the same year but approached their work with vastly different sensibilities. We continue our exploration of the lovelorn, however, with a pairing by composers of different generations but deliberately similar styles: two settings of “O Vos Omnes” by Pablo Casals (1876–1973) and Blake R. Henson (1983–), respectively. The text comes from Lamentations, which, unlike the Song of Solomon, is distinctly religious, bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem and the wrath of an angry god. In the excerpt that becomes “O Vos Omnes,” however, the text is entirely secular, signifying only the speaker’s bleak despair.
For all that Lamentations itself is selectively excerpted, the Casals and Henson pairing demonstrates true fidelity to source “text.” The Casals original, composed in 1942, generates a rich, somber tone, suggestive of Casals’ own stylings as an accomplished cellist. Henson’s homage, published in 2006, cites the first two measures of Casals’ piece before plunging into a gentler—but equally moving—setting of the same text.
After stewing in Kirbye’s rage and wallowing in Casals and Henson’s sorrow, our narrative of lost love culminates in Hindemith’s “Frauenklage,” the second of his Five Songs on Old Texts. Like “Wahre Liebe,” the first in that collection, “Frauenklage” evokes earlier musical trends, using twentieth-century tonal language to evoke Renaissance harmonic patterns. The individual parts are written in traditional motet style, but they are layered upon one another to create complex polytonality. The text also returns us to an explicitly female narrator for the first time since “Nigra Sum,” although the quiet grief of Hindemith’s lamenting lady would likely seem totally foreign to Casals’ flushed and eager beauty.
Such privileged sorrow, however—the mature understanding that love can be cherished and celebrated despite the gentle ravages of time—is the necessary final development in today’s sequential narrative. Henson’s “Dream of Heaven” is part love song, part lullaby; his use of Samuel Rogers’ (1763–1855) “The Sleeping Beauty” marks the first text on the program in which the lover encourages his beloved to continue without him. The narrator may be telling an alternate version of the traditional fairytale, or he may be its unsung hero: after having presumably wrestled his way through the thickets and thorns surrounding the sleeping princess’ tower, he pauses in his moment of anticipated triumph and allows the young woman to “sleep on secure above control.” The lovers with whom we opened the program were appealingly romantic in their pleas, but the narrator of Rogers’ poem is almost certainly more admirable: in refusing to disturb the sleeping princess, he cherishes and respects her beauty and her mind more than he would have in waking her to live as his queen.
Henson’s setting of the text is unabashedly comforting in moments when the narrator is speaking to the princess, and the music reaches a fever pitch only when the narrator fears that the young woman might be stirring into wakefulness. When the moment of anxiety passes, however, Henson returns to the soothing melodies with which the piece opened, reinforcing the lullaby of his own composition with the familiar strains of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” arcing through the soprano and alto lines.
The portrait of a young woman being allowed to grow up gracefully recurs in David Del Tredici’s “Acrostic Song,” although to more sorrowful effect. Del Tredici (1937–), who trained as a serialist in the mid-twentieth century, shocked the musical world with the 1976 premiere of the lush and neo-romantic Final Alice, of which “Acrostic Song” is the fifth act. Final Alice was originally composed for soprano soloist and a modified orchestra, conceived as a series of elaborate arias drawing upon the poetry in and inspirations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The text for “Acrostic Song” is the concluding poem in Through the Looking-Glass, which was written five years after Alice’s Adventures and almost ten years after the fateful boat trip on which Charles Lutwidge Dodgson made up a story about Wonderland to entertain young Edith, Lorina, and Alice Liddell. Alice Liddell, who was ten years old at the time, became the inspiration for Alice herself, and she is memorialized in the poem, which spells out her entire name—Alice Pleasance Liddell—in the first letter of each line.
Much of Alice’s Adventures is wracked with anxiety about Alice growing up; owing to a combination of magic potions and Wonderland accidents, Alice is repeatedly too large to function properly in Wonderland, unable to fit through the door to the White Rabbit’s garden and eventually so Amazonian as to be able to use the Queen of Hearts and her court as playing cards. The poem at the end of Looking-Glass, however, written when Alice was already an accomplished young lady, does not begrudge her this inevitable and natural maturation.
Like Henson, Del Tredici treats the text with reverence, even shifting to minor tonalities for the most mournful passages of the poem. As a kind of elegy for a lost summer’s day, “Acrostic Song” is not nearly as calming as “Dream of Heaven,” but with its invocations of dreams, it becomes almost as lullaby-like. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” returns in the sopranos’ insistence that life is “but a dream,” and Del Tredici’s deliberate repetition of short phrases of text breaks the verses into nonsense syllables, as if language itself has yielded to the inexorable degradation of time. The piece, like the poem, ends without achieving resolution; for Alice––as for the Sleeping Beauty and as for each of us––there is more to the story, yet to be told.
Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals
October 24, 2010
Bimal Desai, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Cory O’Niell Walker, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Ellen Womer, Rick Womer
Don St. Pierre, piano; Lisa Schilansky, discontinuo
Gerald Finzi, “My Spirit Sang All Day”
Pierre Certon, “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus”
Thomas Weelkes, “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!”
Henry Purcell, “I Gave Her Cakes” and “Tom Making a Manteau”
P.D.Q. Bach, ed. Peter Schickele, “Please, Kind Sir,” “Jane, My Jane,” and “Nellie Is a Nice Girl”
Kenneth Leighton, “Madrigal”
Thomas Morley, “Sing We and Chant It”
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, arr. Keith Abbs, “Can’t Buy Me Love”
John Farmer, “Fair Phyllis I Saw”
Roland de Lassus, “Matona mia cara”
Morten Lauridsen, Madrigali
Gabriel Fauré, “Madrigal”
Clement Janéquin, “Au joly jeu”
Notes on the Program
By definition, madrigals are secular works. In practice, they are also a uniquely flexible musical genre, as evidenced by the eras spanned in today’s program: this concert features works from the early sixteenth century, when madrigals first came to popularity in Italy, France, and England, juxtaposed against nineteenth- and twentieth-century interpretations of those first exemplars.
As is true today, a secular piece in the sixteenth century dealt with non-sacred subjects, including, to our delight, sex and drugs. Many madrigals draw upon the amorous poetry made popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chronicling both romantic success—as in John Farmer’s “Fair Phyllis I Saw,” in which Phyllis and her lover “fell a-kissing”—and despair, such as Morten Lauridsen’s “Io piango,” which laments, “So trapped by Love am I / That ever I lie in torment.” To further stress the significance of the text, madrigals draw heavily on “text painting,” a Renaissance technique in which the melodic lines reflect the meaning of the lyrics in pitch, rhythm, and expression.
Notably, these pieces are all written in the vernacular; we sing today in English, French, and Italian but, unusually for a chamber chorus, we have nothing in Latin. Indeed, many historians posit that the word “madrigal” came from the Latin “matricale,” which means “in the mother tongue.” In the Renaissance, Latin was the language of learned scholars, clerics, and bureaucrats; everyday vernacular was the language of lovers and revelers.
The choice of text was not the only way in which Renaissance composers made their secular intentions clear. Madrigals, like many other pieces from the Renaissance, are polyphonic works, in which multiple independently moving voices create an intricately textured melody. In the late sixteenth century, the church tried to ban polyphonic music, fearing that the moving parts would be a distraction from sacred text. Composers eager to embrace the new technique prevailed over their church sponsors in the latter half of the century, but by then the conflict had been well established. To write in polyphony in the early sixteenth century, as several of today’s composers did, was to flaunt the church’s established code of conduct. In other words, Elvis Presley was not the first musician whose “moving parts” scandalized traditional authorities.
In the interest of underlining the pervasiveness and adaptability of these themes, today’s program is deliberately arranged in non-chronological order, with complementary elements appearing and reappearing in works from different eras and aesthetics. We open with Gerald Finzi’s vibrant “My Spirit Sang All Day,” the third of his Seven Partsongs set to poems by Robert Bridges (1844–1930). Finzi (1901–1956), a luminary in early twentieth-century British songwriting, had a thorough grounding in English literature and was noticeably conscious of text in all of his compositions, setting musical phrases to reflect the emotional progression of the poems. Here, Finzi echoes Bridges’ frequent interjections of “O, my joy!” with equally lively—and equally joyous—crescendos and vivacity.
Pierre Certon’s “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus” and Thomas Weelkes’ “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” serve to firmly anchor our repertoire in texts of revelry, not just love. Interestingly for composers celebrating the joys of liquor and tobacco, both Certon (c. 1515–1572) and Weelkes (1575–1623) were primarily employed by the church; the former served as master of choristers at Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, and the latter held a series of organist positions at English churches and cathedrals. Both, however, made their fame as secular composers, and both encountered trouble with ecclesiastical authorities: as a young man, Certon was nearly jailed for playing ball at Notre Dame and refusing to attend Mass, while Weelkes was discharged from his post at Chichester Cathedral because of public drunkenness.
Weelkes could have benefited from Certon’s instruction: in “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus,” Certon brags about his ability to drink copiously without getting sick, advising his fellows to imitate his accomplishment. Weelkes’ piece, however, is notably more intricate; in the opening verses, Weelkes employs a hocket, a medieval technique in which the rhythm of one voice—here, the alto line––is deliberately opposed to those in the other parts, creating a sort of hiccup (“hoquet” in French) in the rhythm. “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” extols the purported virtues of smoking tobacco, which became wildly popular in sixteenth-century Europe after Columbus’ crew brought it back from the Americas. Although Europeans generally smoked recreationally, they had learned of the indigenous American practice of using tobacco medicinally, which accounts for Weelkes rejoicing in tobacco as a panacea.
Men were not alone in their interest in such products; Henry Purcell (1659–1695) chronicles a seduction by way of gift-giving in “I Gave Her Cakes,” in which a suitor presents a young woman with several types of alcohol, cakes, and jewelry while peppering her with kisses. Whether because of the gifts or because of the kisses, the young woman does seem to relent, and the pair is “wondrous merry.”
Purcell’s “I Gave Her Cakes” is more a descendant of madrigals than it is a true madrigal. Instead, “I Gave Her Cakes” and “Tom Making A Manteau” are both catches, a polyphonic form popular in the seventeenth century, when traditional madrigals were on the wane outside England. Like madrigals, catches are unaccompanied, secular, and attentive to their texts. Unlike madrigals, catches are sung in the round, such that different parts enter at different times, and the lines can be carefully layered to reveal unexpected innuendo once all parts join in.
It is worth noting that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both madrigals and catches were overwhelmingly composed and sung by men. When women are factored in, they exist only as objects, usually of a man’s sexual conquest, and there are no extant madrigals composed by women crowing about the returned kisses of a male paramour. This is unsurprising: few women would have had the necessary linguistic or musical training available to their brothers. Any woman who did have such opportunities would have been too genteel to dream of putting her name to a bawdy or rollicking song.
Because Purcell’s catches were written to be sung by men’s voices alone, they don’t translate well to a mixed-voice setting; the juxtaposed lines are meant to be sung within the same vocal register. Rather than preserve their original arrangement, however, we found it more suggestive to grant Purcell’s catches to the women of the choir, putting a new spin on the old heteronormative texts.
As a counterpart, the men present three catches from P.D.Q. Bach’s Art of the Ground Round. Bach’s catches were obviously inspired by Purcell, as they use the same technique of overlapping voices revealing new texts. Bach (1807–1742?), however, interprets catches within the baroque tradition, adding a part for discontinuo, performed today on the euphonium. Baroque pieces commonly had continuo parts consisting of a simple line played by a bass instrument and an ornamental keyboard part. By contrast, Bach preferred the bass line alone, especially later in life, when his age and girth prevented him from comfortably reaching both ends of a keyboard simultaneously.
Kenneth Leighton’s “Madrigal,” using text by John Fletcher (1579–1625), introduces a modern interpretation of the madrigal form and completes the battle of the sexes laid out in the catches. Here, though, Leighton (1929–1988) repudiates the endless madrigalian reliance on love poetry; dissonant chords underlie the poet’s ominous warning that lovers commit themselves to betrayal when they commit themselves to one another.
We return to the traditional madrigal setting in “Sing We and Chant It,” by Thomas Morley (1557–1602). Morley’s piece is an old chestnut to Renaissance choirs, with its bright melodies and its earnest promotion of the good life. The cheerful “fa la la” of Morley’s chorus is, interestingly enough, neatly echoed in Keith Abbs’ madrigalian setting of The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” adding actual rock and roll to this program of musical revelry. “Fair Phyllis I Saw,” by John Farmer (1570–1605), and “Matona Mia Cara,” by Roland de Lassus (1532–1594) flesh out our selection of classic madrigals. “Fair Phyllis,” in particular, is a sterling example of text painting; as Amyntas searches “up and down” for wandering Phyllis, the four voice parts echo his movements. “Matona,” on the other hand, reveals just how much bawdiness can be hidden behind lovely melodies; the joke is that the narrator, a German soldier, speaks such poor Italian that he doesn’t realize the full meaning of his words.
Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali draws inspiration—and text—from the earliest madrigals, but to a very different effect. A major figure in twentieth-century American composition, Lauridsen (1943–) is known for the lush density of his choral pieces. Madrigali, a six-part song cycle, is also known as the “Fire Songs,” because the piece draws extensively on a sonority called the “fire chord,” which opens the set and recurs throughout. The cycle blends stylistic qualities of early madrigals, like text painting, hockets, and counterpoint, with Lauridsen’s signature contemporary harmonic structure.
Like the Lauridsen Madrigali, Gabriel Fauré’s “Madrigal” bridges the divide between Renaissance madrigals and contemporary composition. Fauré (1845–1924) himself nimbly occupied the liminal space between the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century and the burgeoning modernism of the twentieth. “Madrigal” employs Fauré’s customary lyricism against the now-familiar refrain urging pleasure instead of solitude. Interestingly, for all that “Madrigal” is a nineteenth-century composition, it is frequently performed by ensembles that otherwise limit themselves to the music of the Renaissance.
We close today with a return to the true Renaissance madrigal in the form of Clement Janéquin’s “Au joly jeu,” the oldest piece on the program. Janéquin (c. 1485–1558), like Farmer and Purcell after him, depicts a light-hearted scene of flirtation and coy playfulness, in which the melodies bounce along as merrily as the couple described in the text. We find Janéquin’s work especially fitting as a closing piece because of its vintage: as Janéquin was one of the first composers whose music was printed using the modern techniques of movable type, he embodies the shift from medieval to modern practices of composing and performing. So, too, do madrigals and their descendants forge a connection between the music—and musicians—of the sixteenth century and those we enjoy today.
Music to Hear
June 6, 2010
Maura Caldwell, Bimal Desai, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer
David Shapiro, piano; Jennifer Winschel, bass
Knut Nystedt, “Lobet den Herrn”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Sicut cervus”
Jackson Berkey, “God Be In My Head”
William Byrd, “Ave verum Corpus”
Philip Stopford, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”
Kinley Lange, “Esto Les Digo”
Nils Lindberg, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”
Clément Janequin, “Le Chant des Oyseaux”
George Shearing, Music to Hear
Notes on the Program
When Chestnut Street Singers was founded in the winter of 2010, the ensemble’s original mission was clear: the group was to be a Renaissance choir. Almost immediately, however, the singers realized that although they loved singing Victoria and Palestrina, they didn’t want to deny themselves the privilege of working with more contemporary, albeit still Renaissance-inspired, works.
It is therefore very appropriate that we open today’s concert with Knut Nystedt’s setting of Psalm 148, “Lobet den Herrn.” Nystedt, one of the luminaries of twentieth-century Norwegian composition, is well known for his homages to Bach; indeed, the psalm text is best known musically in its Bach setting. Beyond his dedication to Bach, however, Nystedt frequently bases his choral works on medieval and Renaissance harmonies and textures. This juxtaposition—contemporary elegance with Renaissance techniques—perfectly exemplifies Chestnut Street Singers’ approach and ideology.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” and Jackson Berkey’s “God Be In My Head” offer a similarly complementary pairing. Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) is one of the best-known composers of the Italian Renaissance, famous both in his own lifetime and in musical scholarship. Most notably, he is often credited as the “Savior of Church Music”: when some church officials tried to ban polyphony from sacred music, fearing that the moving parts would interfere with the intelligibility of holy texts, Palestrina forcefully defended his technique. Like “Sicut cervus,” Jackson Berkey’s “God Be In My Head” features a simple, sacred text embellished by moving textures. The piece opens with a traditional chant incipit, and as it was commissioned in 1993 as an easy-to-memorize “signature piece” for the University of Wisconsin, the text repeats even as the harmonies build.
William Byrd’s “Ave verum Corpus,” which was published in 1605 with other pieces using private devotional texts, hearkens back to the Renaissance. Byrd (1540–1623) nimbly composed in many of the forms current in England at the time, ranging from consort music to secular English tunes to sacred music for both Protestant and Catholic communities. “Ave verum Corpus” appeared in Byrd’s collection of Gradualia, which contained more than one hundred motets using Catholic liturgical texts. Byrd was nonetheless favored by England’s Protestant monarchy; in 1575, Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Thomas Tallis a joint twenty-one-year monopoly on the patent for printing music and ruled music paper. They celebrated by producing an elaborate set of motets dedicated to and lauding the queen. Although his career as a printer was a financial failure, Byrd was overwhelmingly popular and successful as a composer during his lifetime. Today he is remembered even by non-musicians on November 21, when he—along with Tallis and John Merbecke—is venerated with an Episcopal feast day.
Like Byrd, Clément Janequin (c. 1485–1558) also has a place in the histories of both performed and printed music. Janequin was a Parisian contemporary of Pierre Attaingnant, who, several decades after Gutenberg, was the first to use single- impression movable type for printed music. Attaingnant published over 1500 chansons, but his output overwhelmingly featured Janequin above all other composers. As a result, few composers were more popular during their lifetimes than Janequin. The bulk of Janequin’s work is secular, and some of his most famous pieces are long, sectional chansons mixing onomatopoeia with traditional text. Besides “Le Chant des Oyseaux,” Janequin also composed “La Chasse” and “La Bataille,” which, as their titles suggest, call for the singers to imitate the sounds of a foxhunt and a battle.
Along with Nystedt, Philip Stopford, Kinley Lange, Nils Lindberg, and George Shearing represent the more contemporary composers on today’s program, though all of them dabble in earlier forms and traditions. Besides the obvious musical references to the traditional sound of Renaissance-era choirs, their textual choices are equally evocative. Appropriately for a springtime concert, we have the pleasure of featuring two complementary settings of “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, first published in 1609. While Stopford, Lange, and Lindberg are earlier in their careers—in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden, respectively—Shearing is a well-established jazz pianist and composer in both his native Britain and in the States. His virtuosity in jazz and swing reinterpretations of classical techniques is especially evident in the five-part set “Music to Hear,” featuring Shakespearean texts, close jazz harmonies, and accompanying piano and double bass.