armistice: the journey for hope - fall 2018
by Dr. George Case
SCHUMAN: Carols of Death (1959)
William Howard Schuman (1910-1992) is tied to American classical music of the twentieth century in two important ways. As a successful symphonic composer and inaugural Pulitzer Prize winning composer for his 1943 Cantata No. 2: A Free Song on the text of Walt Whitman, Schuman was well known to audiences particularly during the middle part of the twentieth century. Yet, we rarely hear his works performed today.
As a music educator, Schuman’s work is perhaps more lasting. He taught composition at Sarah Lawrence College – after which time he wrote and dedicated the Carols of Death to the Laurentian Singers at Sarah Lawrence University. He left Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 to become the president of the Juilliard School, where he founded the Juilliard String Quartet. In 1962 he would leave Juilliard to become the first president of the newly founded Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. As a leader and educator at the pre-eminent arts institutions of the mid-twentieth century, Schuman leaves a musical and educational legacy matched by few others.
For his Carols of Death, Schuman returned to the poetry of the American bard, Walt Whitman. The text, like the text chosen by Jeffrey Van for A Procession Winding Around Me, is from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The words of A Procession Winding Around Me ask the question of how we reconcile our humanity from the pervasiveness of war. The words of the Carols of Death ask how we encounter our humanity during our life - as we think about what comes after this existence - and speak to the inevitability of death in our world.
PURCELL: Hear My Prayer, O Lord (c. 1682)
As the foremost English-born master of the Baroque period, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) provides one of the great examples of English counterpoint in his anthem Hear My Prayer. The composition is striking in a number of facets: first, its use of entirely motivic content in all voices throughout; second, the masterful link of motive to emotion; and finally, the macro-architecture of the composition. From the most detailed level of composition, Purcell evidences King David’s yearning to connect with God in the chromatic rising principal motive of Hear my prayer, O Lord. The secondary and tertiary motives of “and let my crying come unto thee,” either ascend through a modal switch from minor to major as King David reaches towards God and then fall at the final note or descend through major to minor, perhaps as David’s prayers are answered. Most striking, however, is that the three motives happen simultaneously within an overall architecture of a rising and demanding cry to God from what can be understood, perhaps, as the collective soul of humanity.
TOMKINS: O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem (1668)
Thomas Tomkins is perhaps best known for his madrigals and his adherence to Renaissance compositional techniques well into the Baroque period. Born in 1572 in Wales, Tomkins most likely studied with William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, among other famous English composers of the time. While the Renaissance period lasted later into the 17th century in England than in any other country on the continent, Tomkins still found himself writing in a style the musical world had passed by. His anthems and his madrigals are firmly in the style of the late Renaissance and are even somewhat less adventurous than those of his teacher and the generation before him. However, his lack of forward thought does not in any way mar this simple and expressive setting of Psalm 122 (Book of Common Prayer).
BYRD: Bow Thine Ear, O Lord (1589)
The loss of Jerusalem is an inspiration for William Byrd (1539-1623) in his setting of Bow thine ear, O Lord. Composed in 1589 and published in Cantiones Sacrae I, Bow thine ear, O Lord is a motet inspired by Byrd’s own Ne irascaris Domine - Civitas sancti tui. The text of the Latin motet reads as follows:
Ne irascaris Domine satis,
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.
Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.
Be not angry, O Lord,
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.
Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.
The second half of the Latin motet becomes the English motet in contrafactum – a substitution of text to substantially identical music. Byrd chooses to employ similar textual themes, as well. The same themes of the desolation of Jerusalem exist in Bow thine ear, O Lord. However, Byrd changes the focus to meditate on the destruction of Jerusalem.
Bow thine ear, O Lord, and hear us:
Let thine anger cease from us.
Sion is wasted and brought low,
Jerusalem desolate and void.
Byrd uses sighing figures in the head-motives of each section of the motet, which emphasize the despair over the loss of Jerusalem. All four head-motives use only five notes and encompass the span of a fifth, except the final head-motive. Set to the text, “desolate and void” this head-motive descends but avoids the fifth and final note until the final cadence that would complete the fifth of the five-note content we have seen in the other three motives. This provides a real sense of arrival on the word “void,” and gives us a sense that we are in the nadir of despair over the loss of Jerusalem. The homophonic section in the middle of this motet is a striking mournful call to God.
In this way, Byrd’s motet serves to end our Renaissance meditation on the desolation of a land or people ravaged by war and conflict.
HOWELLS: Requiem (1932/1980)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was no stranger to grief in his lifetime, and this personal grief served an inspiration for many of his choral works. Though elegiac music can be found throughout British music of the early to mid-twentieth century, Howells’ music strikes an especially poignant tone with audiences and singers, alike. Perhaps, it is Howells’ experience with the bankruptcy of his father in his youth or the loss of friends and colleagues in WWI, which contributed to his understanding of grief. He dedicated his Elegy for viola, string quartet, and string orchestra to a fellow student from the Royal College of Music who died in that war. Yet, no experience, save the loss of a child, could account for the understanding of grief Howells exhibits in his music. Howells’ son, Michael, died from polio in 1935 and it would be natural to say that the rest of Howells’ life carried the memory of this loss.
The Requiem is a work connected to these losses and one that has remained a beacon to all who experience loss. It is a reminder of hope, yes, but it is also a meditation on grief. Howells began composing this work in 1932 prior to his son Michael’s death; however, the work remained unpublished and unknown until 1980. Though it is not a direct response to Michael’s death in 1935, since it was begun earlier, the Requiem does serve as a predecessor to the composer’s Hymnus Paradisi, published soon after Michael’s death. The Requiem serves as musical fodder and material for the Hymnus Paradisi.
The model for the Requiem in fact comes from a short Requiem written in 1915 by Walford Davies – also in D Major – to commemorate the deaths of friends killed in war. Howells borrows Davies structure – the Burial Service from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Latin Requiem Mass, and Psalm Settings (where Davies sets Psalm 130, Howells chooses to set Psalm 23) – for his own Requiem.
VAN: Fourteen Angels (2016)
Jeffrey Van’s Fourteen Angels occupies a place of transition and importance in our program. Commissioned by Kurt Wolf, a student of Van’s, to honor his friends Christine and Jerry da Silva after the loss of their infant child, Elena, Fourteen Angels speaks to the comfort one needs in the face of grief and loss. Engelbert Humperdinck employs this same text from 14th Century Rhineland Catholicism in his children’s opera Hansel and Gretel. These fourteen angels refer to a group of saints who in Roman Catholicism were venerated for their protection against diseases and loss. Coming in our program in the shadow of Howells’ Requiem, we intend this as a turning point from the reality of war, strife, and grief in our world to the hope of Reconciliation found in A Procession Winding Around Me. It is a simple prayer for consolation and peace.
VAN: A Procession Winding Around Me (1991)
In 1989, Minnesota composer Jeffrey Van toured the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania where 43,000 soldiers lost their lives in the American Civil War. He cites this experience – in his words, one akin to the horror of visiting a concentration camp – as an impetus to write his A Procession Winding Around Me. It is not surprising that - like William Schuman - he chose to set the poetry of Walt Whitman. Also, like Schuman, Van employs an economy of musical material to highlight text. His setting is sparse, spare, and direct.
Whitman experienced the horrors of the Civil War. His brother was wounded and killed in battle, and Whitman’s poetry on his experience of tending his brother’s bedside provides a voice for the effect the war had on him and on America. His poetry has therefore been set by composers as varied as Vincent Persichetti and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Norman Dello Joio and now Jeffrey Van. Accompanied only by guitar, the feeling is of an intimate gathering of friends or relatives speaking of the wisdom of the ages. Perhaps this wisdom is Whitman’s own words,
Van chose four poems of Whitman’s, all from his collection Leaves of Grass. The first, By the bivouac’s fitful flame, speaks of the procession evoked in the title. The poem is of a young man sitting by a campfire during a war thinking of, “life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those that are far away.” It is on this text that Van provides one of the most gorgeous a cappella moments in the whole piece. The second poem, Beat! Beat! Drums!, is the incarnation of war. Whitman uses the noise of humanity and its creation of war to describe how these things drown out “the child’s voice,” and “the mother’s entreaties.” Van’s setting is appropriately noisy; the guitar becomes more percussive than in the other settings and rhythmic complexity increases. It is in this movement that Whitman reminds us that all around us are the reasons to cease war; we have all of the information necessary and all the experience that peace should require. Yet, still war persists. The third movement, entitled Look down fair moon, shows the aftermath of the war. The imagery is of the dead lying out for all of nature, for all of man to see. We see the carnage brought on by our choices and our actions. Yet, Van and Whitman offer us reconciliation and redemption. Whitman saw hope outside of war, and it is his final poem Reconciliation where we see this.
“Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again,
and ever again, this soil'd world.”
Van’s music is subtle, poignant, and without pretense. This is striking when compared with Whitman’s gilded language. Yet, translation is not lost, and we find ourselves mightily affected by his intimate setting, as if Van and Whitman themselves are speaking directly to us.ably popular choral piece A Ceremony Of Carols begins the concert. It is written for three part treble voices, setting a text from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, in Middle English. Britten wrote the piece in 1942 while at sea, going from the United States to England. The set of ten songs is framed by processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon Hodie Christus natus est, and a harp solo based on the chant forms an effective centerpiece.