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2010-2019

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Nov
17

For Keeps

For Keeps


November 17, 2013
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Knut Nystedt, “Cry Out and Shout”
Thomas Tallis, “If ye love me”
Bob Chilcott, “Love”
Ivan Hrušovský, “Rytmus”
Paul J. Christiansen, “My Song in the Night”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Sicut cervus”
Abbie Betinis, Carmina mei cordis
Michael Tippett, “Steal away”
Samuel Hernández Dumenigo, “Padre Nuestro”
Jordan Rock, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
John Chorbajian, “Loveliest Of Trees”
Johannes Brahms, “In stiller Nacht”
Heinrich Schütz, “Selig sind die Toten”
Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Choral Concerto”

Notes on the Program
Like centuries of others before us, we come together today to seek solace and inspiration in music. The repertoire on this program spans six centuries of singing, but the common thread in each piece—a yearning for grace, trust, and comfort—feels as timeless as our gathering.

Cry Out and Shout
Knut Nystedt’s “Cry Out and Shout” is like a trumpet fanfare in choral form. Only forty measures long, its jubilant, ringing chords ably fulfill the instruction of the title phrase. The overall effect is triumphal, with the clarity of the opening reflecting Nystedt’s studies with Aaron Copland. This powerful simplicity continues through the middle section, in which parallel harmony in the women’s voices is matched by contrary motion in the tenor line. The bombastic treatment may not immediately inspire feelings of comfort or grace, but the repeated text—“Cry out and shout, ye people of God! The Lord is strength and song!”—offers a clear statement of trust and stability.

If ye love me
The text of “If ye love me,” which comes from the Gospel of John, suggests another very basic path to comfort and even salvation: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Composer Thomas Tallis may have had particularly hard-won ideas about his own comfort and salvation, as he clung devoutly to his Catholic faith even as England became a staunchly Protestant nation during the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son. “If ye love me” is actually a product of Edward’s reign, which mandated that church services and anthems be in English rather than Latin. Moving between homophony and polyphony, the piece spotlights Tallis’ trademark expressivity while also obeying another of the Reformation’s rules: “to each syllable a plain and distinct note.”

Love
In contrast to all this comfort and stability, Bob Chilcott’s “Love” feels markedly unsettled. Chilcott relies heavily on an Impressionist technique called harmonic planing: throughout the piece, the top three voices move in the same direction, by the same interval, at the same time. With the voice parts remaining constant relative to one another, the chord moves through the scale but never changes. The result creates a feeling of seasickness, as the chords plane out of the major scale but remain relatively consonant.

This rootlessness is appropriate, echoing the caught-between-worlds feeling described in Alfred Tennyson’s text. The verses come from Tennyson’s larger work In Memoriam A.H.H., which was written in memory of Tennyson’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at 22. Although the depth of the poet’s grief is obvious, this excerpt—and the poem as a whole—does not reflect the raw emotion of a recent loss. Tennyson spent almost seventeen years composing In Memoriam A.H.H.; the excerpt we sing here is indicative of a poet who will never cease to miss his beloved friend but who is at peace with both his loss and his own mortality. This overriding sense of comfort is given voice by the tenor and soprano soloists, setting love—not loss—as the touchstone of the work.

Rytmus
Ivan Hrušovský’s “Rytmus” is a study in pure rhythm, befitting the Slovakian composer’s status as an important voice in his country’s approach to music education. With only two lines of text, Hrušovský manages nonetheless to fashion an intricate pattern of pattersong, with the shifting chromatics and layered rhythms keeping the eighth-note pulse driving forward.

My Song in the Night
This arrangement of “My Song in the Night,” a tune that originated in the nineteenth-century Sacred Harp hymn collection, comes with a significant family legacy. The arranger, Paul J. Christiansen, was the youngest son of F. Melius Christiansen, a Norwegian-born choral conductor and composer who is largely credited with furthering the art of a cappella choral music in the United States. The Christiansens are especially associated with the choral traditions of the Lutheran church, with F. Melius founding the famed choir at St. Olaf College and Paul J. serving almost fifty years as conductor at Concordia College. Lush and expressive, Christiansen’s arrangement highlights the emphasis on blend and phrasing that his father made such an integral part of American Lutheranism.

Sicut cervus
After the plaintive longing of “My Song in the Night”, Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” brings us a different, simpler kind of yearning. The text, the first verse of Psalm 42, is clear and timeless, and Palestrina’s setting feels almost organic in its pellucid simplicity. “Sicut cervus” represents a quintessential Palestrina composition, and arguably his most famous: the motet structure grants each phrase of text a new melodic theme, which passes from voice part to voice part in lush, seamless counterpoint.

Carmina mei cordis
There is little that is simple about Abbie Betinis’ Carmina mei cordis, but the set’s combination of traditional chant with modern harmonics is remarkably striking. Both texts in the work are drawn from the Catholic liturgy: the text of the first piece in the set, “Aeterna lux, divinitas”, is actually traditional for early morning services, specifically those taking place at a time of year when the sun rises before the service begins. The text hails the light- and life-giving Trinity; accordingly, Betinis’ piece modulates between two primary modalities before unifying to form a third. Although the piece starts within a fairly limited chant register, the texture grows more complex as the voice parts modulate together, with the four voices eventually spiraling together into an exuberant canon.

The second piece, “Angele dei”, uses a text that is also sometimes known as the Prayer to a Guardian Angel. The chant elements return in the recurring soprano invocation, and Betinis continues to play with modality and rhythm, setting the soprano melody at odds with the mostly homophonic pulse of the lower three voices. She cites the choral music of Poulenc and Messiaen as her inspirations for “Angele Dei”, and we hear that lineage in the piece’s tension between consonance and dissonance.

Steal away
Though equally reverent, Michael Tippett’s “Steal away”, from the secular oratorio A Child of Our Time, has origins that are considerably less celestial than Betinis’ Catholic liturgy: the piece was composed in response to the events leading up to Kristallnacht in Germany. Structured to match Handel’s Messiah in shape and grandeur, A Child of Our Time proclaims both the composer’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 “Steal away”: in addition to being beautiful in its 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 innermost hope and despair.

Padre Nuestro
The sense of solace that we find in other pieces on this program is especially poignant in Samuel Hernandez Duménigo’s “Padre Nuestro”. Duménigo is Cuban, which is all we know of him beyond what he provides in this piece. We may infer from the piece’s jazz inflections that its composer is a product of the late twentieth century, but we have no access to information about his other works or even about whether he is still living. That this lovely setting made it through the embargo at all speaks to music’s enduring power to transcend such barriers; unfortunately, as the piece is unpublished, tonight’s performance carries with it no benefit for the composer. Knowing the deprivations that Duménigo must suffer, the familiar inward-looking lines of the Lord’s Prayer have special resonance, directing our thoughts to his community instead of to our own needs.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
At the far extreme from a composer about whom we know very little is our own Jordan Rock, who composed “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” for us in 2011. The text, by William Butler Yeats, 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.

Loveliest Of Trees
John Chorbajian’s “Loveliest Of Trees”, with text by A. E. Housman, suggests a more pragmatic view of bliss: we have little need of an imagined utopia if we take full advantage of the beauties available in daily life. The poem’s bittersweet tone is typical of Housman’s work: despite a brilliant career as a classicist, Housman was doomed to a lifelong and unrequited love for a college chum. Chorbajian’s setting emphasizes the duality inherent in the poem, shifting easily between the poet’s delight in the beauty of spring and quiet resignation to his own mortality.

In stiller Nacht
Continuing with this confluence of nature and emotion, we turn to “In stiller Nacht,” one of Johannes Brahms’ most beloved pieces. Although the piece is properly a lament, this folksong setting feels to us more like a lullaby. The texture is largely homophonic, with only occasional dissonance shading the poignant text as the phrases swell and contract. Like Brahms’ setting, the poem is not only secular but hugely Romantic, with the poet’s grief starkly reflected in —and perhaps even soothed by––the surrounding wilderness.

Selig sind die Toten
One of Brahms’ favorite composers was his countryman Heinrich Schütz, whose “Selig sind die Toten” takes a different approach to grief: blessed are the dead, for their works shall live after them. Brahms revered Schütz and used the same Biblical verses in the first and final movements of his Requiem. Schütz’s setting for six-part chorus hearkens to his own teacher: Giovanni Gabrieli, the master of polychoral composition. We hear the six voice parts trading off proclamations as if each representing different choirs; listen especially for the two interwoven soprano lines and the Tenor 2s’ triumphant “Ja!” half a measure before the rest of the choir.

Choral Concerto
We close the program with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Концерт для хора, or “Choral Concerto.” The text alone is 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. This simplicity spotlights the otherwise-subtle nuances of text and voice, allowing the singers to both celebrate and grieve the departed Theotokos.


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Oct
13

In His Care

In His Care


October 26, 2013
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Ben Guez, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Thomas Tallis, “Te lucis ante terminum”
Abbie Betinis, Carmina mei cordis
Bob Chilcott, “Love”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Sicut cervus”
Jussi Chydenius, “I am the great sun”
Michael Tippett, “Steal away”
Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Choral Concerto”
Knut Nystedt, “Cry Out and Shout”
Josquin des Prez, “Nymphes des bois”
Heinrich Schütz, “Selig sind die Toten”
Ivan Hrušovský, “Rytmus”
Samuel Hernández Dumenigo, “Padre Nuestro”
Paul J. Christiansen, “My Song in the Night”
arr. William L. Dawson, “In His Care-O”

Notes on the Program
Like centuries of others before us, we come together this evening to seek solace and inspiration in music. The repertoire on tonight’s program spans six centuries of sacred singing, but the common thread in each piece—a yearning for guidance, trust, and comfort—feels as timeless as our gathering.

Te lucis ante terminum
As befits an evening concert, we begin with one of the choral tradition’s oldest proofs against the fears and uncertainties of night and darkness. The text comprises the traditional compline hymn, sung at the final office, or church service, of the day. Despite the text’s venerable status––it dates to at least the eighth century, if not earlier—the hymn’s prayer for safety in the night strikes us ageless and all-encompassing, offering protection against everything from nightmares to sin. It certainly stirred Thomas Tallis, who published his setting of the text in a 1575 collection of Latin liturgical hymns. Such a collection was in direct violation of Queen Elizabeth I’s staunchly Anglican reign, which proscribed heavy penalties for practicing Catholics and the use of the Latin liturgy; we may infer that for Tallis, the solace and reverence he found in the hymn outweighed the potential threat of punishment.

Tallis’ setting retains the traditional plainchant of the liturgy in the first and third verses; we also follow the liturgy by having the cantor (in this case, the conductor) provide the incipit at the beginning. The second verse features Tallis at his polyphonic best, with the plainchant melody relegated to the sopranos and the other four voices briefly introducing each phrase while bringing new depth to the texture.

Carmina mei cordis
Several centuries later, we find contemporary American composer Abbie Betinis also drawing inspiration from the Catholic liturgical tradition. The first piece in the set, “Aeterna lux, divinitas”, is actually traditional for early morning services, specifically those taking place at a time of year when the sun rises before the service begins. The text hails the light- and life-giving Trinity; accordingly, Betinis’ piece modulates between two primary modalities before unifying to form a third. Although the piece starts within a fairly limited chant register, the texture grows more complex as the voice parts modulate together, with the four voices eventually spiraling together into an exuberant canon.

The second piece, “Angele dei”, uses a text that is also sometimes known as the Prayer to a Guardian Angel. The chant elements return in the recurring soprano invocation, and Betinis continues to play with modality and rhythm, setting the soprano melody at odds with the mostly homophonic pulse of the lower three voices. She cites the choral music of Poulenc and Messiaen as her inspirations for “Angele Dei”, and we hear that lineage in the piece’s tension between consonance and dissonance.

Love
Bob Chilcott’s “Love” takes that unsettled feeling even further with an Impressionist technique called harmonic planing or parallel harmony. Throughout the piece, the top three voices move in the same direction, by the same interval, at the same time. With the voice parts remaining constant relative to one another, the chord moves through the scale but never changes. The result creates a feeling of seasickness, as the chords plane out of the major scale but remain relatively consonant.

This rootlessness is appropriate, echoing the caught-between-worlds feeling described in Alfred Tennyson’s text. The verses come from Tennyson’s larger work In Memoriam A.H.H., which was written in memory of Tennyson’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at 22. Although the depth of the poet’s grief is obvious, this excerpt—and the poem as a whole—does not reflect the raw emotion of a recent loss. Tennyson spent almost seventeen years composing In Memoriam A.H.H.; the excerpt we sing here is indicative of a poet who will never cease to miss his beloved friend but who is at peace with both his loss and his own mortality. This overriding sense of comfort is given voice by the tenor and soprano soloists, setting love—not loss—as the touchstone of the work.

Sicut cervus
Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” brings us a different, simpler kind of yearning. The text, the first verse of Psalm 42, is as clear and timeless as the “Te lucis” compline prayer, and Palestrina’s setting feels almost organic in its pellucid simplicity. “Sicut cervus” represents a quintessential Palestrina composition, and arguably his most famous: the motet structure grants each phrase of text a new melodic theme, which passes from voice part to voice part in lush, seamless counterpoint.

I am the great sun
Departing from this cornerstone of the canon, 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 and layered repetitions are almost reminiscent of a pop song; appropriately enough, Chydenius is perhaps most famous for his work in the Finnish a cappella ensemble Rajaton.

Steal away
Though equally reverent, Michael Tippett’s “Steal away”, from the secular oratorio A Child of Our Time, has origins that are considerably less celestial than Causley’s Norman cross: the piece was composed in response to the events leading up to Kristallnacht in Germany. Structured to match Handel’s Messiah in shape and grandeur, A Child of Our Time proclaims both the composer’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 “Steal away”: in addition to being beautiful in its 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 innermost hope and despair.

Choral Concerto
We close the program’s first half with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Концерт для хора, or “Choral Concerto.” The text alone is 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. This simplicity spotlights the otherwise-subtle nuances of text and voice, allowing the singers to both celebrate and grieve the departed Theotokos. Interestingly, Tallis is not the only composer on today’s program who risked the ire of the church establishment: the “Choral Concerto” was never published in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime, because the slight changes he made to the traditional kontakion caused the piece to be banned by the Russian Orthodox authorities.

Cry Out and Shout
Knut Nystedt’s “Cry Out and Shout” is like a trumpet fanfare in choral form. Only forty measures long, its jubilant, ringing chords ably fulfill the instruction of the title phrase. The overall effect is triumphal, with the clarity of the opening reflecting Nystedt’s studies with Aaron Copland. This powerful simplicity continues through the middle section, in which parallel harmony in the women’s voices is matched by contrary motion in the tenor line.

Nymphes des bois
Josquin des Prez’s mostly secular “Nymphes des bois” also opens with an imperative, but here it is a call for mourning, not joy, as Josquin commemorates the death of his teacher Johannes Ockeghem in 1497. The text, written by fellow composer Jean Molinet, asks even the “nymphs of the woods” and “goddesses of the fountains” to express their sorrow. In a more touching 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 a contralto, a tenor, and a baritone—chanting the sacred Latin farewell.

Selig sind die Toten
“Selig sind die Toten”, written perhaps fifty years after “Nymphes des bois”, employs a Biblical text that echoes Molinet’s elegy: blessed are the dead, for their works follow them. Composer Heinrich Schütz fits into an admirable legacy of German composers who have set this text; his most famous colleague, of course, is Johannes Brahms, who revered Schütz and uses the same verses in the first and final movements of his Requiem. Schütz’s setting for six-part chorus hearkens to his own teacher: Giovanni Gabrieli, the master of polychoral composition. We hear the six voice parts trading off proclamations as if each representing different choirs; listen especially for the two interwoven soprano lines and the Tenor 2s’ triumphant “Ja!” half a measure before the rest of the choir.

Rytmus
If “Sicut cervus” and “Selig sind die Toten” are paragons of polyphony, Ivan Hrušovský’s “Rytmus” is a study in pure rhythm, befitting the Slovakian composer’s status as an important voice in his country’s approach to music education. With only two lines of text, Hrušovský manages nonetheless to fashion an intricate pattern of pattersong, with the shifting chromatics and layered rhythms keeping the eighth-note pulse driving forward.

Padre Nuestro
The sense of solace that we find in other pieces on this program is especially poignant in Samuel Hernandez Duménigo’s “Padre Nuestro”. Duménigo is Cuban, which is all we know of him beyond what he provides in this piece. We may infer from the piece’s jazz inflections that its composer is a product of the twentieth century, but we have no access to information about his other works or even about whether he is still living. That this lovely setting made it through the embargo at all speaks to music’s enduring power to transcend such barriers; unfortunately, as the piece is unpublished, tonight’s performance carries with it no benefit for the composer. Knowing the deprivations that Duménigo must suffer, the familiar inward-looking lines of the Lord’s Prayer have special resonance, directing our thoughts to his community instead of to our own needs.

My Song in the Night
This arrangement of “My Song in the Night,” a tune that originated in the nineteenth-century Sacred Harp hymn collection, comes with a significant family legacy. The arranger, Paul J. Christiansen, was the youngest son of F. Melius Christiansen, a Norwegian-born choral conductor and composer who is largely credited with furthering the art of a cappella choral music in the United States. The Christiansens are especially associated with the choral traditions of the Lutheran church, with F. Melius founding the famed choir at St. Olaf College and Paul J. serving almost fifty years as conductor at Concordia College. Lush and expressive, Christiansen’s arrangement highlights the emphasis on blend and phrasing that his father made such an integral part of American Lutheranism.

In His Care-O
We close with “In His Care-O”, a traditional spiritual arranged by the incomparable William L. Dawson. Just as the Christiansens have furthered the traditions of American Lutheran choral music, Dawson—along with Moses Hogan, another composer-turned-conductor—brought African-American spirituals firmly within the canon of American choral singing. Dawson’s interest in spirituals and folk music began in his childhood, when he would arrange—and sometimes rhythmically tweak—the traditional songs he heard at home and at church. Like all spirituals, “In His Care-O” carries with it a history of pain and hopelessness, but the jubliant refrain makes this a song of celebration, expressing not just comfort but salvation and joy.


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Jun
2

Ahoy, Stranger!

Ahoy, Stranger!


June 2, 2013
Christopher Barron, Josh Dearing, Bimal Desai, Bevin Durant, Ellen Gerdes, Nathan P. Gibney, Rachel Haimovich, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel

Eric Barnum, “The Sounding Sea”
Zoltán Kodály, “Norvég leányok”
Francis Poulenc, “C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince”
Robert Schumann, “Ungewisses Licht”
Gabriel Jackson, “A ship with unfurled sails”
arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, “Sometimes I Feel”
Einojuhani Rautavaara, “Lähtö”
David Ludwig, “The New Colossus”
Thomas Campion, “Never weather-beaten Saile”
Henryk Górecki, Szeroka Woda

Notes on the Program
As an ensemble, the Chestnut Street Singers have never sought to take our show on the road. For one reason or another–usually a combination of factors involving both time and money–we’ve always chosen to forego other venues and have embedded ourselves right here, in the blue-ceilinged church on Chestnut Street.

Despite this collective rootedness, we are nevertheless an ensemble of travelers. Our singers have taught in Asia, studied in Europe, worked in Africa. We are hikers and cyclists and walkers-to-work; we get stuck in traffic and swear at SEPTA and scout for free parking. Whatever the magnitude of our journeys, we are acutely aware of how these adventures–both large and small, farflung and very close to home––shape our lives and our music-making.

The Sounding Sea
How better to begin a concert than with an invitation to listen? Eric Barnum’s “The Sounding Sea,” using George William Curtis’ poem of the same name as its text, offers a compelling frame for our dual interests in this program: the pulsing, undeniable appeal of adventure alongside the lovingly bittersweet recognition that sometimes home is best. Barnum’s setting is a study in text painting, with the driving rhythms of the poem’s demand–Listen to the sounding sea–cutting through eerie vocal scoops. The character of the music changes as the narrator’s true perspective is revealed; the once-fierce sound of the sea turns to a nostalgic beckoning as the waves lap gently in the distance.

Norvég leányok
Zoltán Kodály’s “Norvég leányok” offers another view of the emotional repercussions of travel: the titular Norwegian girls give their smiles to “a foreign lad,” presumably a sailor, and they are left with no laughter for themselves at home. Kodály’s lilting melodic lines suggest both the girls’ unheard sighs and the ever-present sea breeze; the gentle persistence of raindrops–in both sound and text–throughout the piece situates us completely in this misty fishing village.

C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince
Continuing this scenario, Francis Poulenc’s “C’est la petit’ fill’ du prince” plays out the drama in miniature, presenting a romance’s entire narrative in this folksong-inspired jewel box of a piece. Here, the affections are explicitly grounded in music: the prince’s daughter is enchanted by a young sailor’s song. In a reverse of the traditional story of sirens or lorelais luring sailors ashore, it is the young girl who strikes out in search of the singer, joining him on board ship and traveling the world with her beloved and his fellows as she learns his song. The story doesn’t end happily, however; the ominous progressions in the choir’s lower voices underscore the princess’ despair as she realizes how thoroughly she has given up her heart.

Ungewisses Licht
Robert Schumann’s “Ungewisses Licht,” the second of his Four Songs for Double Choir, considers a voyage that is more internal than geographic. Schumann himself suffered greatly from the tumult of his own emotions; many scholars now believe he may have been bipolar, and he grappled for decades with crippling insecurity (especially as compared to his more successful but beloved wife), suicidal tendencies, and hallucinations. His work for double choir contains all the hallmarks of his Romantic genius, but his techniques in deploying the two choirs in this piece are suggestive. Although the poem sets up a binary–Ist es die Liebe? Ist es der Tod? [Is it love? Is it death?]–Schumann’s interplay between the two choirs, rarely putting the full forces of each ensemble in dialogue, suggests that the distinction between two extremes may not be so clear-cut. The wanderer’s uncertainty as to whether he sees sunrise or flame makes his situation even more precarious: he is bound either for damnation or renewal, but not both.

A ship with unfurled sails
“A ship with unfurled sails” places us in similarly uncertain territory, but here the questions resonate on multiple levels. The text, by Estonian poet Doris Kasteva, hearkens to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, which achieved modern independence only in 1991. That Kasteva’s long-awaited ship comes sovereign, unclaimed by any nation, indicates how deeply the strife of occupation had cut—no flag at all would be better than the standard of a hated occupier.

Gabriel Jackson’s setting of this enigmatic text grounds the poet’s own experiences in striking text painting. The haunting wavelets in the alto line keep the melody off-center, unsure, and the recognition that something glorious may be to hand–Imperceptibly all is changed. All arrives so secretly.––comes in phases, allowing for a surprising expression of pure joy before the narrator can collect herself.

Sometimes I Feel
“Sometimes I Feel”, a traditional spiritual arranged by the revered Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, is more explicit about the darkness one may be forced to endure. Dating from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the song is also sometimes called “Motherless Child”, as it depicts the plight of a slave child who has been forcibly sold away from her or his family. The tune may have endured in part because of the many more accessible interpretations of the text; later performers took the lyrics more as allegories, describing their pain at being so far from heaven, a homeland, or loved ones.

Notably, one reading suggests a glimmer of hope even in the darkest verses: if the speaker only feels like a moanin’ dove sometimes, then there are other times when she has more agency. Parker and Shaw’s setting, which grounds the men’s voices in a keening repetition of “sometime”, hints at this optimism even in the grimmest opening lines.

Lähtö
Leaving aside the emotional repercussions of adventure, nothing caputres the venturesome feeling of setting off for places unknown so perfectly as Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Lähtö.” 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.

The New Colossus
We open the second half of today’s program with gestures towards home. Philadelphia composer David Ludwig’s “The New Colossus” sets Emma Lazarus’ sonnet of the same name, which most of us recognize as the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Ludwig’s setting allows the poem–and indeed, Liberty herself–to speak freely, opening with chant-like rhythms that mimic the text’s natural cadences. With a long unison beginning, “The New Colossus” expands into polyphony only as Liberty begins invoking the multitudes she hopes to welcome: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free! The chant-like feeling returns in the poem’s final line, offering solace and welcome to all who might need it.

Never weather-beaten Saile
The chant simplicity of “The New Colossus” makes a nice pairing with Thomas Campion’s “Never weather-beaten Saile,” the only piece on today’s program that pre-dates the nineteenth century. Campion’s legacy includes over one hundred pieces penned for lute; we hear that inclination in the delicate progressions of “Never weather-beaten Saile,” a choral rendering of a tune originally set for lute.

Szeroka Woda
We close with Henryk Górecki’s Szeroka Woda, which suggests that the pleasures and frustrations of home can be as bittersweet as any departure.

Szeroka Woda dates from a transitional period in Górecki’s own compositional history. In contrast to the lush, expressive moods in Szeroka Woda, Górecki actually first achieved fame as a serialist; he was lauded as part of the forefront of the Polish avant-garde. In the early 1970s, his music began to more deeply reflect Polish folk traditions ranging from medieval chant to simple ditties. Szeroka Woda draws most of its melodic content from a nineteenth-century collection of traditional folk songs; Górecki’s settings reframe the original melodies with languorous tempi–so slow and flexible that we think of them as musical taffy–and frequent repetitions of brief phrases. The effect is deeply moving, with the universal themes of longing and rootedness translating these folk narratives into something much closer to home.


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Mar
10

Whither, Fairy?

Whither, Fairy?


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.

Trois chansons
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.”

Unicornis captivatur
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.


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