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The Elements of Song
November 9, 2014
Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Lucy Harlow, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Rebekah Reddi, Jordan Rock, Eddie Rubeiz, Lizzy Schwartz, Paul Spanagel, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel
Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Silence & Music”
Thomas Morley arr. John Leavitt, “Fyer, fyer!”
Morten Lauridsen, “Quando son più lontan,” “Amor, io sento l’alma,” and “Se per havervi, oime” from Madrigali
Harry T. Burleigh, “Deep River”
John Bennet, “Weep, O Mine Eyes”
Alberto Grau, “Kasar mie la gaji”
William Billings, “Euroclydon”
Williametta Spencer, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”
William Horsley, “Come gentle zephyr”
Abbie Betinis, “Jerusalem Luminosa”
Claudio Monteverdi, “Ecco mormorar l’onde”
Loreena McKennitt arr. Jon Washburn, “Tango to Evora”
Ola Gjeilo, “Northern Lights”
Michael John Trotta, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind”
Notes on the Program
Across continents and history, a worldview based on the four elements––earth, air, fire, and water––pervades many philosophies and religions, from China to ancient Greece. The system of elements provided a basis for comprehending the natural world around us: our ancestors believed everything was made up of some combination of these elements. Though now perhaps less scientifically relevant, the elements still figure in our reckoning of the natural world, especially through our arts. Music and poetry are, like the classical elements, a universal experience through which we try to make sense of our world.
Some philosophies included a fifth element, known in ancient Greece as “aether.” Aether was thought of as pure essence or the breath of the gods. As singers, this concept resonates strongly with us. Though many of the pieces on today’s program explicitly reference one or more of the tangible four elements, the fifth is with us whenever we sing. We hope these pieces both connect you to the world around you and lift you up into the aether. With our powers combined, we offer you the elements of song.
Silence & Music
We open with one of our favorite pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed in 1953 as part of an effort by ten British choral composers to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Vaughan Williams dedicates the piece to his teacher, composer Charles Villiers Stanford, and the legacy of Stanford’s choral work “The Blue Bird.” Like Stanford’s earlier piece, “Silence & Music” builds upon lush harmonies and a soaring soprano melody. Birds themselves are another repeated motif: the later piece’s text––by Vaughan Williams’ second wife, Ursula––carries us from sea to earth to sky to the realm of music. Vaughan Williams paints this text exquisitely: listen especially for our voices mimicking the four weeping winds. “Silence & Music” reminds us of the centrality of the physical world in art: “wind and sea and all of winged delight lie in the octaves of man’s voice.”
The late sixteenth century found Italian-style madrigals very much in vogue in Elizabethan England. Thomas Morley capitalized on this popularity by becoming, and remaining, the best-known English secular composer of his time. This song is actually a “ballett,” a dance-like cousin to the madrigal. The lively music can seem at odds with the despair presented in the text: the speaker’s heart is burning, presumably from the consuming effects of unrequited love, and no one comes to help him. The piece nonetheless maintains its dance-like character at times, perhaps referencing the dancing flicker of real flames.
Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali draws inspiration—and text—from the earliest madrigals, but the effect is worlds away from Morley’s. Madrigali, a six-part song cycle from which we have excerpted three movements, is also known as the “Fire Songs”: each text that Lauridsen selected makes reference to fire, whether the sweet fire of passion or the cruel, burning fire of obsessive, unrequited love. Like Morley and his contemporaries, Lauridsen uses text painting to bring the fire to life: listen for our growing flames (“Cresce la fiamma”) in our first selection and the smoldering burn at the end of the second. Throughout the cycle, Lauridsen blends the stylistic qualities of early madrigals with his own contemporary harmonies, including his signature “fire chord”: a minor triad with an added second, which recurs throughout the cycle.
In this arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River” by Harry T. Burleigh, we turn from the potential danger of water to its spiritual significance. Though the origins of the song are unknown, Burleigh learned many spirituals from his grandfather who had once been enslaved. Burleigh’s arrangements of the tune for both chorus and solo voice were published in 1916 during his flourishing career as a composer and soloist in New York City; it is largely these arrangements that have made the song still so beloved and recognizable today.
Weep, O Mine Eyes
We remain with the element of water with this dark, melancholy madrigal by John Bennet. Here, however, we focus on seemingly innocuous tears. Their owner, looking to curtail his torment, begs his tears to grow as treacherous as the sea and thus end his life. Bennet composed the piece as an homage to John Dowland, a Renaissance composer known for his melancholy songs such aslike “Flow My Tears.” Similar to today’s other madrigals, Bennet’s piece employs text painting through lines that literally swell along with the tears.
Kasar mie la gaji
Water is starkly absent from Venezuelan composer Alberto Grau’s dramatic composition––instead we focus on the earth. The single repeated line, “Kasar mie la gaji,” loosely translates from the Hausa language of the African Sahel region to “The earth is tired.” In a quasi-minimalist style, Grau repeats the text over sections of repetitive phrasing, with a driving sense of rhythm throughout. The piece’s dissonance and vocal effects—including sighs and slurs—vividly depict the harshness of life in the world’s largest desert. And despite the distance and difference of the Sahel, this message applies to all our lives, as Grau wrote the piece as an environmental rallying call.
William Billings, largely regarded as the father of American music, takes us on a musical journey through a storm of Biblical proportions. Here we experience the dangerous side of water and air as the sea and wind torment the poor brave sailors. Listen as the agitation of the music grows with that of the sea and the sailors and then finally calms down as the storm and the song end with grateful, hymn-like phrases.
At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners
John Donne’s dramatic poem, set here by contemporary American composer Williametta Spencer, paints the scene of Judgment Day. As in “Euroclydon,” the elements––in this case, floor and fire––in the hands of a higher power bring destruction to humankind. The poem’s speaker brazenly calls for the Last Judgment, only then realizing that he may not yet merit a heavenly pardon. Listen as the music’s character changes from bold trumpeting to meek supplication.
Come gentle zephyr
English composer William Horsley was known for his glees, which were a cappella pieces composed for men’s singing clubs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The texts were often idyllic, like “Come gentle zephyr,” so that they could be sung in the delicate company of women. Many editions of the score mysteriously attribute the text to Raunie, but the poem is identical to one that appears in the comic opera libretto The Prude, written in 1777 by Irish author Elizabeth Ryves. The speaker here appeals to a zephyr, named for Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind. In traditional mythology, Zephyrus serves Eros; our suitor therefore hopes the gentle wind will carry his sighs to his beloved’s ear.
Innovative Minnesota-based composer Abbie Betinis is a favorite of the Chestnut Street Singers. In “Jerusalem Luminosa,” the element of light represents peace. Though one might expect a piece about peace to have a gentler, placid sound, here the two voice parts intertwine, playing off one another with occasional dissonance. Betinis explains that she presents here “another vision of true peace: not a peace that pacifies, but one that engages in the act of peace-making––of compromise, and of joy in collaboration.”
Ecco mormorar l’onde
Claudio Monteverdi’s importance to music is difficult to overstate: he is regarded as the father of modern opera, his work marked the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque period, and most importantly to our purposes, he was a prolific composer of madrigals. He composed nine books of madrigals; our selection today comes from his second volume. Monteverdi’s work and that of his contemporaries provided the inspiration for Lauridsen’s pieces, and here the text painting referenced in Madrigali is abundant. The poem beautifully describes the rising dawn, and Monteverdi’s music exquisitely brings it to life. Our voices paint the murmuring waves, the singing birds, and the golden light upon the mountain. Monteverdi’s work not only inspires many composers but is also a pleasure to experience.
Tango to Evora
Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt originally wrote “Tango to Evora” for the soundtrack to The Burning Times, a 1990 Canadian feminist documentary on the witch trials in early modern Europe. McKennitt’s version features harp and wordless vocals; this choral arrangement maintains the sultry rhythms and gradual build of the original. This is a mournful tango, commemorating the more than 60,000 people, mostly women, who were murdered during the Great Witch Craze. Like Morley’s “Fyer fyer,” “Tango to Evora” evokes images of flames, and the piece’s sensuality leaves us with a sense of yearning.
Composer Ola Gjeilo was born in Norway but has made his home in New York since 2001. He composed “Northern Lights” while on a wintertime visit to Norway, during which he found himself reflecting on his newfound love for American life and the strange sense of feeling like a foreigner in his native land. Gjeilo’s use of a text from the Song of Songs grounds his longing in physicality on a human scale, while the evocative title draws our thoughts to the wider heavens. Like the composer’s sense of home, the aurora borealis is both familiar and foreign, sweet but “terrible” in its beauty. The music echoes this feeling, merging the familiar with the ever-changing. At the end, as the aurora fades into the cold, black sky, the music fades faster than we expect—as do so many other fleeting moments.
Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind
Composer Michael John Trotta, now based in Virginia, previously lived in the Philadelphia area after studying and teaching at Rowan University. His setting of Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” from As You Like It, paints the scene of a growing winter storm, using our voices to musically and literally imitate the wind. Even the harshness of nature’s wrath, however, cannot compare to humankind’s cruelty to one other. The speaker of the poem, Amiens, is the attending musician to the court of Duke Senior, whose members have been exiled from their rightful court and are living in the forest; his bitterness towards his fellow man is perhaps understandable. Nonetheless, Amiens intersperses his commentary with a rollicking–if sly–wintry carol. This juxtaposition of the elements and emotion reminds us of our own ability to influence the world around us.
June 1, 2014
Michael Blaakman, Elizabeth Chegezy, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel
Antonio Estévez, “Mata del Anima Sola”
Gustav Holst, “I sowed the seeds of love,” “The Song of the Blacksmith,” and “I love my love” from Six Choral Folk Songs
Michael McGlynn, “Dúlamán”
Zoltán Kodály, “Mátrai képek”
traditional Hebrew arr. Peter Sozio, “El Yivneh HaGalil”
Veljo Tormis, selections from Jaanilaulud
Miguel Matamoros arr. Conrado Monier, “Lágrimas Negras”
Frode Fjellheim, “Eatnemen Vuelie”
traditional English arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, “The spring time of the year”
traditional Slovenian arr. Aldo Kumar, “Dajte, dajte”
traditional Slovenian arr. Karol Pahor, “Pa se sliš’”
Abbie Betinis, “Long Time Trav’ling”
Notes on the Program
As an ensemble, we have always liked adventures: music that takes us somewhere new, that tells a story or tugs at our heartstrings. We are also fond of pushing ourselves out of our musical comfort zone, whether by attending shapenote gatherings to learn the right brazen tone or by calling the Icelandic embassy to ask for pronunciation advice.
Tonight’s concert combines those two impulses simply and joyfully: in a sampling of some of our favorite folk traditions from around the world. This program isn’t meant to be exhaustive—after all, we’re not the choral version of Epcot, and we must leave some challenges untouched for future concerts––but it does remind us of another of our favorite things: the universal appeal of singing with others. As we prepare ourselves for new adventures this summer and next season, these lively, poignant, deeply felt pieces are just what we need.
Mata del Anima Sola (Venezuela)
We open with the stirring “Mata del Anima Sola,” which brings us the rhythms and moods of Venezuela. Composer Antonio Estévez was part of the country’s second generation of important composers, but he takes inspiration from much older national traditions. The ringing tenor solo channels the figure of the llanero, a “man of the plains” who herds cattle alone on the high plains. The choir backs the soloist by imitating the instrumental sounds of the joropo, a traditional rhythmic dance–akin to a waltz–that is the country’s most popular folk rhythm.
Choral Folk Songs (England)
Like many of his contemporaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the English composer Gustav Holst developed an interest in his country’s folk music. In fact, Holst was encouraged in this pursuit by his good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was an especially passionate proponent of English folk tunes. The melodies in Six Choral Folk Songs are drawn from throughout the country; of our selections today, “I sowed the seeds of love” and “The Song of the Blacksmith” are from Hampshire, while “I love my love” is Cornish. Interestingly, these arrangements were not Holst’s first work with these tunes: some five years earlier, he had incorporated “The Song of the Blacksmith” and “I love my love” into his Second Suite in F for Military Band, which remains a staple of wind band repertoire.
Michael McGlynn’s “Dúlamán” takes its text 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 one of our favorite pieces 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.
Mátrai képek (Hungary)
Zoltán Kodály’s Mátrai képek, or Mátra Pictures, is a boisterous compilation of folk songs from the Mátra region of his native Hungary. One of the most significant early figures in the field of ethnomusicology, Kodály was an enthusiastic student of folk songs, frequently going on research trips to remote villages with his friend and colleague Béla Bartók. Mátrai képek was composed in 1931, featuring five folksongs from Hungary’s mountainous northern region. Kodály’s setting emphasizes the narrative aspect of each tune, with stark emotional and dynamic contrasts: a depiction of the famous outlaw Vidróczki, a nineteenth-century bandit; an exchange between a village boy who yearns for a more cosmopolitan life and his no-nonsense sweetheart; a mournful plaint from one who has left his home; a playful and flirtatious exchange between a young woman working in the fields and a suitor who believes she deserves a gentler vocation; and finally, a rousing vignette of the comic dramas of country life, including uncooperative livestock, unwanted guests, and insufficient wine.
El Yivneh HaGalil (Palestine)
The sinuous tune of “El Yivneh HaGalil” dates from the fifteenth century, but the song became truly famous in the early twentieth century, when Zionist immigrants to Palestine used folk songs as a way to build community among people from disparate European backgrounds. The piece is deceptively simple, building in more complex harmonies as it grows to a ringing conclusion, and the text would have been understandably appealing to the early advocates for the new Jewish nation. Peter Sozio’s arrangement also includes the opening phrase of the fifteenth-century hymn “Adon olam,” which celebrates a benevolent and omnipotent god.
The contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis is one of our favorite composers, and his Jaanilaulud, a collection of Estonian folk songs celebrating midsummer, does not disappoint. In Estonia and other Baltic countries, June 24 is celebrated as St. John’s Day, a Christian holiday overlapping with the pagan holiday of midsummer. Celebrations begin the evening before, when each town lights an enormous bonfire meant to burn throughout the night. Many rituals include offerings to Jaani, who will guarantee fertility, a good harvest, and safety for livestock in the coming year.
Tormis’ setting includes folk tunes from throughout Estonia, providing a sampling of different regional traditions. Even as the composer juxtaposes these distinct melodies, certain themes and textures predominate: listen for distinct contrasts between the men’s and women’s parts, given prominence by Tormis’ request that the choir stand antiphonally. This arrangement makes it easier to hear the different parts playing leapfrog, singing similar or identical lines with overlapping entrances.
Lágrimas negras (Cuba)
The lilting salsa rhythms of “Lágrimas negras” take us to Cuba, where composer and lyricist Miguel Matamoros premiered this song with Trio Matamoros in 1930. The piece is written in the style of the bolero-son, a version of the bolero, a popular slow-tempo Latin dance. The bolero-son has long been Cuba’s most popular dance rhythm, which accounts for its seemingly discordant use in this lament of heartbreak and despair.
Eatnemen Vuelie (Norway)
We have long been fans of “Eatnemen Vuelie,” in which Norwegian composer Frode Fjellheim juxtaposes traditional Sámi yoik with a beloved northern hymn, but we never expected it to show up in a Disney movie. Surprise, surprise–the piece was featured recently in Frozen. Fjellheim begins with the yoik, a type of chant-singing practiced by nomadic Sámi herders as they roam the tundra alone. Yoiks are improvised and usually secular, often about the singer’s connection to nature or personal life. The Sámi are nonetheless a devoutly Christian people, and “Fairest Lord Jesus,” which Fjellheim weaves into the yoik melody, is one of their most popular hymns.
The spring time of the year (England)
As we have seen, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was especially interested in his country’s varied folk traditions. The composer discovered the text and melody of “The spring time of the year” during a local performance near Norwich in 1908; he then, in his words, “freely arranged” the song for choir. Vaughan Williams’ setting emphasizes the achingly gorgeous melody, with the interwoven choral parts allowing the tempo to swell freely. Ironically, given Vaughan Williams’ general reverence for folk songs, he chose to set only the opening two verses of the song’s traditional eight verses. His notes on the piece state that “the rest of the ballad is not very interesting,” but in fact, the full song tells a story of looming war and star-crossed lovers. Such drama may not have been what the composer imagined for his lush choral setting––and given how satisfying Vaughan Williams’ version is to sing, we certainly won’t complain.
Dajte, dajte (Slovenia)
It may seem as though the biggest challenge when assembling a program of folk songs is simply mastering those songs’ many different languages and styles. It’s true that these pieces come with a steep learning curve, but what may be even more challenging is recognizing that each of today’s selections represent only a small fraction of their respective cultures. “Dajte, dajte,” for example, arranged by Aldo Kumar, is a delightfully energetic ditty from the Istrian region in southwest Slovenia. It is also unabashedly misogynistic and ageist (and possibly anti-mothers-in-law). We recommend enjoying the rollicking melody and the percussive dynamics and ignoring the actual meaning of the text.
Pa se sliš’ (Slovenia)
By contrast, “Pa se sliš’” is simply a lovely lullaby. The Slovenian composer Karol Pahor grew up in the easternmost corner of Italy, near the Slovenian border. His father employed Istrian laborers, and the family would often join the laborers in singing traditional Slovenian tunes like this one.
Long Time Trav’ling (United States)
Abbie Betinis, recently named one of NPR’s top hundred composers under forty, is another of our favorite composers. We are especially fond of her attention to textual detail and her thoughtful partwriting, and both traits, along with a reverence for American musical history, are on display in “Long Time Trav’ling.” The work combines two popular nineteenth-century shapenote hymns with additional text from a third such setting. The interwoven solo lines are sung with gusto, shapenote-style, while the rest of the choristers interject as both distant chain gangs and sightreading shapenoters.
March 16, 2014
Michael Blaakman, Josh Dearing, Nathan P. Gibney, Rachel Haimovich, Amy Hochstetler, Michael Johnson, Elissa Kranzler, Kurt Marsden, Ken Olin, Rebekah Reddi, Patrick Ressler, Jordan Rock, Lizzy Schwartz, Dan Sprague, Melinda Steffy, Caroline Winschel
traditional English, “Agincourt Carol”
Joshua Shank, Two Songs of Release
Benjamin Britten, “Advance Democracy”
Arvo Pärt, “Da pacem Domine”
Kirke Mechem, “The Caged Bird”
Clement Janéquin, “La Guerre”
traditional Shaker arr. Nina Gilbert, “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn”
traditional Irish arr. Alice Parker, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”
William Byrd, “Ave verum corpus”
Stanford E. Scriven, “This Is the Day”
Sydney Guillaume, “Twa Tanbou”
Notes on the Program
This was a challenging concert to program. Owing to the structure of the concert season, each concert is titled and themed long before the full repertoire has actually been selected. We settled on the theme–“music of strife and reconciliation”–on the strength of several pieces that we thought could serve as anchors for the rest of the concert, but that left us with two-thirds of the program yet to finalize and a subtitle that seemed to mean both too little and too much. Wasn’t “strife and reconciliation” just a fancy way of saying “war and peace”? What was there left to say about either that hadn’t already been said, with more timpani and bravado than we could ever muster, by the great symphonic works of the twentieth century? What place did choral singing–too small for the bluster of Britten’s War Requiem, too large for the intimacy of mourning–have in grappling with the moving targets of strife and reconciliation?
Quite a bit, it turned out. In today’s culture, we still have moments of community singing during great triumphs or celebrations–think back to Olympic medalists and fans singing along to their national anthem, or to any Red Sox game in the past decade––but we do not usually sing in the midst of struggle or uncertainty. This is a relatively new development: not long ago, community singing–which is really just choral singing, minus the coordinated outfits and mandated rehearsals–was an integral expression of togetherness. This singing was accessible and vernacular, relating inspirational narratives or building off of easy-to-follow refrains. Many of the pieces on today’s program grow out of that tradition of music with an agenda. This is music on a human scale, meant for communities, not symphonies or soloists. We are honored to welcome you into ours.
We begin with an anonymous carol from fifteenth-century England, depicting England’s victory over France at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In our performance, the narrative verses are sung by a pair of soloists, hearkening to the medieval tradition of heralds, appointed messengers from each side who would watch battles from a safe distance, narrate the proceedings as necessary, and even announce the victors. At Agincourt, the English and French heralds watched together, both agreeing that against all odds––including being hugely outnumbered–the English had triumphed. The piece is jaunty and brazen, belying the battle’s gore and bloodshed. Thousands of soldiers died in hand-to-hand combat or by being trampled, but the outcome led to a new period in the Hundred Years War, with a seeming truce declared in a marriage alliance between the two countries.
Two Songs of Release
Our program notes often use “by contrast” as a segue, pointing out a single, discrete difference between two back-to-back selections. That segue is of little use in this transition; nothing can be further from the bright, bombastic “Agincourt Carol” than Joshua Shank’s Two Songs of Release. Composed in 2003, and inspired in part by the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Two Songs of Release treads very different territory than “Agincourt Carol”: there are no appointed winners, no neat conclusions, and no benevolent deities in the struggles that Shank depicts in angular, dissonant harmonies. Although the composer draws upon canonical texts about warfare––Walt Whitman’s writings on the Civil War can feel inextricably linked to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ great Dona Nobis Pacem, a pacifist cantata written in the 1930s––the setting draws our attention much more to individual actions than to the grander scale of conflict. Shank writes for our crisis-deadened, news-glutted era, inviting each of us to play a role in breaking through the noise and disruption to achieve healing and growth.
Benjamin Britten’s “Advance Democracy” brings us back to bombast, though the sense of personal responsibility persists. This piece is our closest approximation to propaganda; the strikingly earnest text, by British poet Randall Swingler, is openly Communist and anti-war. Written in 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of World War II, “Advance Democracy” pleads for an outcome that won’t lead to a second world war. Britten’s pacifism is well known from his War Requiem, composed in 1962, but “Advance Democracy” reveals the composer in a younger, more naïve stance. The piece is nonetheless stirring: listen for the contrast between the disjointed, staccato chant and the soaring, eerie obligato in the other voiceparts.
Da pacem Domine
“Da pacem Domine,” by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, brings us into a more meditative mood. Pärt is known for his unique compositional style, which he calls “tintinnabuli,” in which a piece unfolds around various inversions of single chords. His music also evokes pealing bells, with voices smoothly overlapping in complex patterns and overtones. “Da pacem Domine,” which draws upon a seventh-century chant, was written in 2004; although the piece had been specifically commissioned, Pärt wrote in response to the Madrid train bombings, which had taken place just days before he began work and which killed or injured nearly two thousand people. The result is an anguished call for peace, with the repetitive chords and achingly slow tempo inviting reflection rather than reaction.
The Caged Bird
We close this first half with further introspection, courtesy of American composer Kirke Mechem and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The text of “The Caged Bird,” originally titled “Sympathy,” is more famous today for its first line–which Maya Angelou used as the title of her autobiography–than for its whole; similarly, Dunbar himself is often overlooked in the canon of American poetry. The son of former slaves, Dunbar grew up in Ohio during the Jim Crow era, making his living as an elevator operator and even selling volumes of his poetry to elevator passengers. Mechem, whose father was also a poet, handles the famous text deftly, with stark dynamic changes and a quickening tempo highlighting the poem’s growing emotion.
Clement Janéquin is one of our favorite composers, and “La Guerre,” his onomatopoetic depiction of the French victory over the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, perfectly illustrates why. Listen carefully as the battle intensifies: what begins as a nationalistic song meant to stir up comrades evolves into the sounds of charging cavalry, sackbuts, and cannonfire. This was a decisive and unexpected victory for the French: after decades of Swiss supremacy, the French forces had taken an unprecedented stand, hauling hundreds of pieces of artillery–including dozens of huge cannons––through the Alps before the battle. The French army’s shock and delight will be apparent in their declarations of “Victoire!” at the end of the piece.
We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn
We move into a very different mood with Nina Gilbert’s arrangement of the traditional Shaker spiritual “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn.” The Shakers, a religious sect founded in the late eighteenth century, believed that they were preparing for the second coming of Christ. Their communities were structured very intentionally, with all members vowing celibacy, and their reverence was known to be enthusiastic: the name “Shakers” comes from high-energy worship services that included dancing, speaking in tongues, and receiving visions. Like many other American Shaker hymns from the mid-nineteenth century, “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn” was not formally composed—instead, the Shakers believed it had been sent to them as a “spiritual gift” in a communal vision. “Mother” refers to Mother Ann Lee, one of the sect’s founders; the hymn’s insistence upon penance and prayer reflects the community’s belief in an imminent rapture.
Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye
“Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” also dates from the mid-nineteenth century: it was first published in Ireland in 1867, several decades after the Kandyan Wars during the turn of the century. The Irish, themselves under English rule, were unwilling conscripts into England’s colonial war in Sri Lanka. Arranged here by the venerable American composer Alice Parker, the tune’s jaunty rhythms offer a chilling counterpart to the powerful text: the relentless thrum of the repeating chorus line–
“with your drums and guns and drums and guns”–suggests that the war machine will grind on regardless of individual tragedies.
Ave verum corpus
William Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus,” first published in 1605, returns us to a sense of introspection and personal struggle. This motet is considered one of Byrd’s most extraordinary compositions, with an unusual opening chord progression–alternating between major and minor–and very careful use of the traditional Eucharistic text. Byrd, like his teacher Thomas Tallis, was a devout Catholic; both men openly flouted the contemporary English laws mandating steep punishment for Catholics. We can hear this devotion reflected in “Ave verum corpus,” which stresses the word “verum,” underlining the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. The achingly beautiful ending of the piece–a prayer for mercy and a final “Amen”–emphasizes the pleading nature of the text, with prominent dissonance making the piece’s conclusion bittersweet.
This Is the Day
In contrast to the sectarian conflict behind “Ave verum corpus,” Stanford E. Scriven’s “This Is the Day” draws upon a text from the Bahá’í faith, which proclaims the essential equality of all people and the importance of peace and unity. Scriven’s setting, composed when he was just twenty years old, moves deliberately between suggestions of awe and grandeur and a more intimate, personal invocation. The piece has been warmly received by the international Bahá’í community, with featured performances at the country’s only Bahá’í House of Worship.
We close with “Twa Tanbou” by the contemporary Haitian-American composer Sydney Guillaume. Like “Agincourt Carol” and “La Guerre,” “Twa Tanbou” is a straightforward narration, here depicting three different drums squabbling over their relative merits. As the drums try to outdo each other, the rhythms of the piece get more complex, with Creole poetry interwoven with onomatopoetic drum language depicting different percussion sounds. Anyone who enjoys ensemble music will foresee the resolution to the drums’ conflict: when they all play together, they achieve more than they ever could have alone.