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Sing, Muse!

Sing, Muse!

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.

The Lamb
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.

Os justi
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.

Great Trees
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.

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Songs to the Midnight Sun

  • First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
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Songs to the Midnight Sun

May 6, 2012: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

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

Lähtö, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–)

Sommarpsalm, Waldemar Åhlén (1894–1982)

I am the great sun, Jussi Chydenius (1972–)

O nata lux, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585)

O nata lux, Morten Lauridsen (1943–)

Hail, gladdening light, Charles Wood (1866–1926)

Draw on sweet night, John Wilbye (1574–1638)

Syngur sumarregn, Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir (1964–)

With a Lily in Your Hand, Eric Whitacre (1957–)

On suuri sun rantas’ autius, traditional Finnish, arr. Matti Hyökki

Sügismaastikud, Veljo Tormis (1930–)

       1. On hilissuvi  

       2. Üle taeva jooksevad pilved  

       3. Kahvatu valgus  

       4. Valusalt punased lehed

       5. Tuul kõnnumaa kohal

       6. Külm sügisöö

       7. Kanarbik

My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land, Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

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. Even as we were reveling 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 Far North’s 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 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 non-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 those in the northernmost latitudes. 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.


Syngur sumarregn

   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 the piece doesn’t quite settle on a tonal center; in “Syngur sumarregn,” that quality 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 stormclouds, and the soloist and choir only transition to a cheerful-sounding major chord when the nighttime sun breaks 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 this northern 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 in “Syngur sumarregn,” 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 atonal 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 northern 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.

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This Green and Pleasant Land

  • First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
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This Green and Pleasant Land

March 11, 2012: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Christopher Barron, Bimal Desai, Rachel Haimovich, Ranwa Hammamy, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Jordan Rock, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, and Rick Womer

The Coolin                                               Samuel Barber (1910–1981) 

O Lady Leave That Silken Thread          Gustav Holst (1874–1934)

Jordan                                                     William Billings (1746–1800)

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav                      Naomi Shemer (1930–2004)

                                                                                       arr. Gil Aldema

Dúlamán                                                     Michael McGlynn (1964–)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree                                Jordan Rock (1982–)

Kasar mie la gaji                                                Alberto Grau (1938–)

Rest                                           Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground                   J. David Moore (1962–) 

Locus Iste                                              Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)

The Blue Bird                           Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)

Silence and music                   Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Faire is the Heaven                      William Henry Harris (1883–1973)

I Got Shoes         Robert Shaw (1916–1999) and Alice Parker (1925–)

Lux Antiqua                                                     Jordan Nobles (1969–)

Going Home                                          Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

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.


“The Coolin”

   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.


“Locus Iste”

   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.


“Lux Antiqua”

   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.


“Going Home”

   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: Antonin 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.     

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