Radiant Dawn

by Benjamin Perry

The Boston Cecilia’s next concert, Radiant Dawn, will feature the theme of light. As we near the solstice, we will perform music about light in winter, the season of darkness. In December, the sun sets early, our stores of Vitamin D run low, and the cold weather pushes us indoors. We overcome the darkness by focusing on the qualities of light in the human sense: the warm-heartedness, the kindness, and the generosity. The darkest and coldest time of the year is a time to bring warmth with celebration - Christmas, Hanukkah, Mawlid el-Nabi, and Rohatsu (Bodhi Day). It is in this spirit of joy, hope, and reflection that we present the music of Radiant Dawn.

One of the pieces on the program will be Morton Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Few composers have captured the essence of radiance so fully as Lauridsen. He is the most frequently performed American composer of choral music, and light is one of his central themes, particularly in Lux Aeterna. But what is it about his music that makes us experience this aural vision of light so readily? To quote his website: “His music has an overall lyricism and is tightly constructed around melodic and harmonic motives.” Lauridsen’s choral music has an overall lushness and cinematic exquisiteness to it. It contains dense and bright harmonies and clever voicings that bring the “light” out of the sound. All of these elements combine to create music that simply wants to be sung with enthusiasm and heart.

Cecilia will also perform Serenity, Ola Gjeilo’s setting of the beloved Christmas text “O Magnum Mysterium.” Gjeilo’s piece with its overlapping layers of sonorous chords and its beautifully simple melodies paints an image of light; it creates a sound-world that resembles light passing through the prism of colorful stained-glass windows. This aural image is paired with the text, with its emphasis on mystery and blessedness, and is emphatically communicated through Gjeilo’s compositional techniques.

The holiday concert will also feature Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, as well as a cappella pieces of Eric Whitacre, James Macmillan, and Gabriel Guillaume. Organist Kevin Neel, cellist Shay Rudolph, and baritone John Bitsas will join the Cecilia chorus to celebrate light in this holiday season with Radiant Dawn.

Benjamin Perry is the Assistant Conductor of The Boston Cecilia

Armistice: The Journey for Peace

by Benjamin Perry

Boston Cecilia’s first concert this season is entitled Armistice: The Journey for Peace. The concert includes music and poetry that explore war and sorrow, death, and the response of hopefulness even in difficult times. Humans have been known to wage ruthless wars and harden their hearts, but it is also in human nature to seek peace and understanding. Throughout history there are countless stories of soldiers putting their weapons down, even for a moment, to honor love and peace even in the midst of war. Our music is a celebration of those moments, where our more evolved and compassionate consciousness shines through.

Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of all wars, will take place on Sunday November 11, 2018, the centennial of the 1918 Armistice. In 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice, or temporary cessation of World War I hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany. World War I was known as the “war to end all wars.” Both sides suffered an immeasurable loss of life, but at least the fighting was over. When news of the Armistice broke out in London, the streets were full of people exclaiming the end of war and, not surprisingly, singing - something we have done for millennia to celebrate peaceful times. One year later after the armistice, in 1919, November 11 was declared “Armistice Day" in America.

On November 11, 1921, an unknown soldier, who had already been laid to rest at a cemetery in Europe, was placed aboard a ship to Washington D.C. It was to fill the new "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier". News of the event was broadcast far and wide causing thousands of people to flock to see the body and pay their respects. There was a funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue and each state sent in floral arrangements to adorn the tomb. Taps was played and the casket was placed into the tomb at 11:00 am. The President requested that all flags be flown at half-mast. That single unknown soldier not only symbolized America’s losses, but the losses of the world at large and the blood shed on Earth’s soil. The music played at the occasion symbolized the rest and peace of the nation after war, music that was fought for by those who died.

It seems fitting that we make music 100 years later that responds to this moment, fully acknowledging war's inevitable existence and working to learn something from it. The music we make wields a power that, if we let it, can work to conquer fear in our world. Music inspires peace, and the immediacy of our need for music is ever present. Armistice Day serves as a reminder that war and violence can end. And the music in this program is a reminder that, amidst the pain and suffering of the world, there is hope. Among the pieces performed in this concert is Howell’s Requiem, a work which beats its heart in direct acknowledgement of the mortality of our world. Another piece on the program, Jeffrey Van’s A Procession Winding Around Me, sets the Civil War poetry of Walt Whitman to music for choir and classical guitar. These works, along with the others on the program, serve to awaken our hearts and minds in times of deep despair and look for peace; indeed, they promote an almost “armistice-like” spirit. We hope you will join us in this meditative experience as we explore through music a Journey for Peace.

Benjamin Perry is the Assistant Conductor of The Boston Cecilia

Composing 'Canticle'

by Kile Smith


Saints bless the world, even when the world doesn’t know it. Saints who write, though, let the world know it, and if we pay attention, their words can go all the way in, regardless of our tradition. St. John of the Cross, one of those blessings, created some of the deepest and finest mystical literature the world has ever known. “Deepest” speaks to the spiritual in his writing, and “finest,” to the literary, for St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul and The Spiritual Canticle are recognized as writings of the highest order.

His writing is clear, and it is sensual. He draws images and words directly from the biblical Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs). The bride and bridegroom, flowers, the stag on the hill, and foxes in the garden all populate and animate The Spiritual Canticle.

Although the words are clear, they are not always easily understood. The language of the Bible and the language of the troubadours may be foreign to some of us, and mystical meaning is, by its nature, often hidden. But anyone who has ever been in love will not miss the frustration or even anger here:

         Alas! who can heal me?
         Give yourself at once to me,
         do not send me
         any more messengers today
         who cannot tell me what I want.

Or will not know the pull of this feeling:

         The bride has entered
         the sweet garden of her desire;
         she rests in delight,
         resting her neck
         on the sweet arms of the Beloved.

St. John of the Cross uses experiences we know in this world to show us a world deeper still. It is a world we may have guessed at or may have even hoped for, but it is a world we do not yet know.

The challenge I felt in setting this text was the layer upon layer of meaning inhabiting each stanza, even surrounding every word. The way I dealt with it was to center in on, and to try to convey, one emotion.

Music cannot explicate text, after all. I love creating music for words, I always have, but music does not teach. What it does is open a window into the soul. I look into mine and attempt to create, in sound, what I feel. If I have done it well, someone else will feel it, too.

I cannot take full credit for the interesting combination of instruments in Canticle. Craig Hella Johnson is the music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble in Cincinnati that commissioned this piece. Craig and I were discussing what the commission would be, and when he liked my idea of this text, we agreed it should be accompanied by something unusual. He mentioned a choral work he liked, Dominick Argento’s 25-minute Walden Pond, which uses three cellos and harp.

I fell for the cellos immediately, and wondered about making them a quartet. Canticle, though, needed enough variety in the sound to carry it for over an hour. We both wanted to avoid piano, if only to aid the otherworldliness of the text. Harp has a percussive quality in its plucked sound, but is still another string instrument. No, I should just go right to percussion, I thought. Marimba is lovely, but that would be a lot of dark wood sounding with the cellos. It should be something brighter, but not so bright as glockenspiel. It should have the flexibility of playing chords, and it should be able to carry over the choir and cellos.

Vibraphone quickly became the obvious choice. To that I added a bass drum, which I fell in love with when I wrote The Consolation of Apollo for choir, bass drum, and crotales. You may not have spent too much time thinking about it, but the bass drum is capable of a great range of personality. At a soft volume it carries very well. The only “special” technique I call for is crumpled paper to be placed on it at one point (the drum is mounted horizontally). The percussionist slaps the paper with one hand, making a nice “chiff” sound. This is in No. 10, “My Beloved Is the Mountains.”

Finally, the tambourine appears here and there throughout the work. I heard it right away, though, for the beginning “Where have you hidden yourself,” in which I imagined music of the 16th-century Spanish Renaissance and a troubadour playing guitar (provided by the cellos, pizzicato).

There are a few composerly techniques in Canticle, such as voices moving in opposite directions in “O crystal spring! If only on your mirrored surface…” and, in “The little white dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch,” a simple round that keeps mutating into something fairly elaborate. But mostly, Canticle is composed, as is all my music on texts, with text-painting. That is, I keep the words ever before me, and the feelings they enkindle. I write the music to that.

Anyone who follows the words, and who grows to love them as I have, will grow into the music. My hope is that the music and the words will go all the way in.

Impoverished, Called, Discalced, Canonized, Revered

John de Yepes y Alvarez was born in Castile in 1542 to a family on the verge of poverty. After his father’s death, he was enrolled in a religious school for indigent children. Authorities recognized something about him which led them to advance him to acolyte, then hospital orderly, then theological student in his “college years.” At 23, he became a Carmelite and entered the prestigious University of Salamanca.  

These were turbulent times in Europe. In her History of God, Karen Armstrong calls the 16th century a time of transition characterized by anxiety: “The laity were especially dissatisfied with the medieval forms of religion that no longer answered their needs….Great reformers…discovered new ways of considering God and salvation….[and] urged the faithful to rid themselves of peripheral devotion to saints and angels and to concentrate on God alone.”

The Boston Cecilia premieres 'Christ's Nativity'.

In its 142-year history, The Boston Cecilia has performed much of the choral canon of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps we have a special connection to Britten, given that he was born on Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day, November 22nd, in 1913. It is thought that Britten’s close friend and collaborator, W.H. Auden, had this in mind when he wrote the text for his and Britten’s final collaboration, Hymn to Saint Cecilia—a piece which Cecilia has performed multiple times. Cecilia also had the privilege of giving the American premiere of Phaedra, Britten’s last vocal work, composed in 1975. Now, in its upcoming Christmas concerts, Cecilia has the opportunity to share a work that is infrequently encountered: Christ’s Nativity, a Christmas suite for chorus. To the best of our knowledge, the complete suite has never been performed in its entirety in Boston.

“The nth Art” of Peter Torpey and "Luminosity"

On October 22nd, The Boston Cecilia will present the Boston premiere of James Whitbourn’s Luminosity as the centerpiece of a concert celebrating illumination in the time of darkness. Composed for the Westminster Choir College and the Archdream Dance Ensemble, Luminosity is scored for chorus, dancers, viola, tanpura and tam-tam. Conductor Colin Lynch had seen Peter Torpey’s elegant lighting design for the Boston Camerata’s performance of The Play of Daniel, and asked if Torpey would collaborate with Cecilia on Luminosity. I talked with Peter Torpey about his work and his plans for the concert.

AND IT WAS GOOD: Reflections on 20th Century American Choral Music in a 21st Century World

There is little doubt that the advance of technology, international communications, and access to educational opportunity has changed the complexion of musical composition during the 21st Century. There is much beautiful music being written these days. Maybe too much. And boundaries, styles and trends have been blurred more than ever before. None of this is surprising, given our 21st Century world, and it will be interesting to see what the world's 22nd Century population surmises as they reflect on the current musical landscape. As an Englishman, born in the late 1960s, my first exposure to American Choral Music was, predictably enough, hearing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1973. For the decade or so after that, I was basically unaware of American Choral Music, as I became steeped in the Anglican Choral Tradition.

"This Little Babe"

My parents, immigrants fleeing the onset of World War II, came to the United States with their young family as refugees in 1940 -the year I was born. They were grateful and proud to be welcomed in America. As assimilated German Jews, their religion was German art and culture, mainly music. Christmas was celebrated in the German style, with candles (lit !) on the tree, and much music. Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent and daily in the week before Christmas, we gathered around the piano with my father atthe keyboard to sing traditional carols from the book by Henri Van Loon and Grace Castagnetti.


Because my school and college were both all-female, I have sung A Ceremony of Carols many times. Benjamin Britten originally imagined it as sung by women, but upon publication it was scored for boy trebles, with two soloists and harp. It works both ways. Learning these carols as a young teenager in high school was a challenge. I’d never encountered the shifting rhythms, clusters of dissonance, and other techniques Britten uses for expressive effect, let alone 5/4 meter! These have all become idiomatic in the language of 20th century music, but to me back then they were astonishing.


This is the first in a three part series outlining the upcoming season for The Boston Cecilia. The next two articles will focus on the December and April concerts, but we begin our 141st season with a spectacular program of Handel and Mozart in Jordan Hall at The New England Conservatory in Boston. The two works to be performed are Handel’s youthful and exuberant setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, and Mozart’s oratorio that draws on the Psalms of David…and substantial quantities of music from his Great Mass in C Minor…entitled Davide Penitente.


Choruses and audiences LOVE double-choir music, most famously the Bach motets Komm, Jesu, KommFurchte dich Nicht, and Singet dem Herrn. But most of us have only the most general idea where this kind of choral composition originated.

The standard one-line answer is that the balconies in the magnificent St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice allowed for two separated musical forces, and that choirmaster Giovanni Gabrieli fully developed the impressive effect of alternating or echoing choirs.



The late David Evett

When I first looked at the program for the 2014 Cecilia GalaI noticed Nicholas White’s auction offering:  a composition with the text of your choosing. I mused over what text I might choose. What bit of scripture or ancient poem... Hey wait a minute! I know a guy...

Dad wrote poems for most of his life. Many were for special occasions -- for a marriage, or special birthday, or notably his own 50th wedding anniversary. He did have a book of poems for the general audience published by Cleveland State University Press in 1985, though this never attracted much notice. But standing above all were the poems he wrote every year at Christmas, beginning in 1972 and continuing through 2010, before his death in 2011. They took many forms and covered all kinds of topics, though usually they blended national news, big family developments, and imagery from Advent and the Nativity.

Being on something of a deadline, they were always written in anguish and desperation. Dad might take a break from grading that term’s papers, or perhaps put aside the duty and the blank page and head out with the dog into the cold. But eventually it was always done, and it was always brilliant, and beautiful.

So, with our commission in hand, Mom and I began to go through everything, trying to settle on a poem that would work as a piece of music for a general audience. We whittled the set down to two, and, unable to decide between them,  threw ourselves on the mercy of the composer to make the final decision. He couldn't decide either, and much to our delight commenced to produce a set of the two together.

The poems are from 1976 and 1978, on either side of the great fulcrum of our family history -- the sabbatical trip to England in 1977. ‘76 was was spent planning, sending countless letters in advance to secure places to stay with friends and colleagues, and arranging access to the Elizabethan houses and artifacts that were the object of Dad’s research. The year was also spent saving every dime to finance the trip.

The Angel (1976 -- but the second in the set) seems to spring from the excitement  and optimism of those days. Big ideas come to you. They send you out into the world to seek discovery. “The Angel appears -- he says Glory!”

By 1978 we had long been back, but profoundly changed by the experience of living in England for five months. First there had been the theater, as we went to just about everything the Royal Shakespeare Company put on in Stratford and London. Helen Mirren in As You Like It! Judy Dench and Ian McKellen in Macbeth! Henry VI parts I, II, and III! Then there was the music. Evensong at Kings College and visits to almost all the great Cathedrals. We discovered that bargain tickets for the London Symphony could be had for those fifteen years old and under, and when I heard the Hungarian Dances and 1st Symphony of Brahms, I was hooked for life.

The 1978 poem, His Unresisting Love, has the ambition and expansiveness one acquires when traveling abroad and returning home; the broadening of perspective that comes from living with people of different habits and concerns. It uses the device of alternating Latin and English lines (macaronic), after the manner of In Dulce Jubilo, or even more aptly, Benjamin Britten's Hymn to the Virgin. A Hymn to the Christ Child if you will.

One of Dad's best qualities was his ability to make our little corner of the world seem so special. Whether it be an old house in Cleveland, or a parish church in Brookline, if Dave Evett is present you know you can expect the best; art and ideas worthy of anyone's attention. This place! This company! THIS NIGHT!



ust over thirty years ago, in September of 1985, I was awarded the organ scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, which would result in my spending three years as an undergraduate at Cambridge University from 1986 to1989. The transformative experiences I gained in that position are too many to recount. However, one of the moments that stays with me from my audition and interview was when Tim Brown, the director of music at Clare, presented me with the choir’s latest recording. It was an LP of music by William Byrd, T. L. da Victoria, and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies entitled In Nativitate Domini. I remember being intrigued by the repertoire on the disc and noticed how well the two different compositional periods complemented each other.


Whether consciously or subconsciously, I followed this model when I formed Tiffany Consort in New York City. We would program concerts with music by composers of the same nationality who lived several centuries apart: Thomas Tallis and Michael Tippett, William Byrd and Benjamin Britten, Guillaume Machaut and Francis Poulenc, John Taverner and John Tavener, and so on. For this season’s Boston Cecilia December concert, I will pair the composers William Byrd and Francis Poulenc. I am returning to the William Byrd motets from his Gradualia II, which I heard on the Clare Choir recording thirty years ago. This time, the Byrd motets will alternate with Poulenc’s well-loved Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël. Personally, I enjoy the ebb and flow this creates with regard to elements of texture, tonality and mood, as well as the more predictably contrasting—even jarring—harmonic and stylistic language of the two composers.

Also on the program is Edward Naylor’s Vox Dicentis. Naylor was organist of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and he wrote this sumptuous piece of choral music in 1911 for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. My first memory of this piece was a performance by Clare Choir in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge! With carols arranged and composed by two great musicians associated with Cambridge, Sir David Willcocks (King’s College), who died last month, and John Rutter (Clare College) who celebrated his 70th birthday last month, this concert could quite appropriately be titled The Cambridge Connection! However, there is more to the program than these offerings, including The Brookline Connection.

Last year, Charlie Evett, longtime member of Cecilia, commissioned me to compose music for two of his father’s poems. David Evett was deeply involved in the life of All Saints Church in Brookline, where he also sang in the choir. Charlie will write more in the next blog in this series regarding his father’s life and poetry, but I am pleased to announce that the December concerts will include first performances of both God’s Dream and His Unresisting Love, the latter being the text from which this concert takes its title. Both pieces are written for unaccompanied chorus.

This program brings together many styles and musical moods, and I hope that it does so in a way that will take the listener on a journey. Each of the texts exhibits elements of mystery, questioning, insecurity, wonder, doubt, and joy. Some of the music will be instantly appealing. Some will require further listening. My hope is that the program as a whole will capture the feelings that can only be achieved through the great mystery of musical expression.

Puer natus est nobis – William Byrd
O magnum mysterium – Francis Poulenc
Dies sanctificatus – William Byrd
Quem vidistis pastores dicite – Francis Poulenc
Tui sunt coeli – William Byrd
Videntes stellam – Francis Poulenc
O magnum mysterium: Beata Virgo – William Byrd
Hodie Christus natus est – Francis Poulenc
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – Piae Cantiones, arr. D. Willcocks
His Unresisting Love – Nicholas White (world premiere
God’s Dream – Nicholas White (world premiere
Vox Dicentis: Clama– Edward Woodall Naylor
Good King Wenceslas – Piae Cantiones, arr. D. Willcocks
Sans Day Carol - Traditional arr., J. Rutter
What Sweeter Music - John Rutter
The Cherry Tree Carol – Nicholas White (world premiere)

You can listen to the 1985 Clare College Choir recording of the William Byrd motets here.



Developing choral programs for performances in late October and early November has always been a richly rewarding task for me. As a lifelong “church” musician, with Anglican Choral music coursing through my veins, I have found no shortage of intensely beautiful repertoire to present for concerts that reflect the passage of life. With the feast days of All Saints and All Souls in close proximity, the wealth of powerful text settings by composers who are drawn to great poetry as vehicles for their poignant melodies, and hauntingly evocative harmonies, provides an almost overwhelming palette from which to choose.

The upcoming October 18th concert of The Boston Cecilia features three composers who were writing in the early part of the last century. All three are remembered more for their choral music than for their symphonic or chamber compositions. None of them were cathedral organists toiling away in vast, stony acoustics, but all of them wrote for cathedral choirs and are, to this day, among the most highly regarded composers of cathedral repertoire. Their music, performed both in churches and concert halls all over the world, continues to influence the finest composers writing today.

The six Songs of Farewell by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) give us a glimpse of a private man, who sensed that his own life was drawing to a close. These “motets”, as Parry referred to them, were written two years before his death in the midst of World War I, and they represent his choral masterpiece. The texts are personal; the only truly sacred one being “Lord, let me know mine end” from Psalm 39. The writing throughout, particularly in the last two pieces, is rich with varied sonorities, contrapuntal techniques and virtuoso vocal lines that test the mettle of any choral ensemble.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) wrote Lo, The Full Final Sacrifice in 1946 in response to a commission by the Rev. Walter Hussey for St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton. Three years prior, Benjamin Britten had received the same commission, and the result was Britten’s Rejoice In The Lamb. Finzi’s compositional style springs from that of Hubert Parry, and while his music is conservative in its tonal idiom, his sensitivity to the text of 17th century poet Richard Crashaw is achingly beautiful. The 15 minutes of syllabic text setting culminates in one of the most serene and elegantly crafted, melismatic Amen sections in choral music.

The Requiem of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was written in 1932. Although originally intended for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, it was not released for publication until 1980. Written three years before the death of the composer’s young son, it provided the basis for Howells’ masterpiece for choir and orchestra, Hymnus Paradisi, his response to the deepest and most profound loss of his life.

All of these pieces are intensely personal. I find them to be profoundly moving and never tire of hearing, singing or conducting them. My own compositional output has been strongly influenced by the music of these great musicians; these men who experienced profound depression, personal tragedy, or great struggle in life, and out of it created enduringly serene and beautiful music.

"So to live is heaven, To make undying music in the world,” wrote George Eliot in her poem, The Choir Invisible. I set the poem to music two years ago, in response to a commission from St. John’s Cathedral, Albuquerque. Whether consciously or subconsciously, my composition of this piece was influenced by works such as Finzi’s Lo, The Full Final Sacrifice, and his other anthems, along with the music of other Anglican masters like Stanford, Howells and even Britten. I feel a deep allegiance to composers from this Anglican music tradition. As a composer, I have been moved not so much to reinvent or create bold new statements, but rather to revel in the challenge of finding something fresh to say within that tonal palette. As I was composing The Choir Invisible, my friend and colleague, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, passed away. We had been occasional collaborators and dinner companions on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, back in the day! RRB’s sense of melody and his harmonic language has always reached me on an emotional level, so his legacy too became part of the compositional process of this piece.

The final offering in this October program will be the first performance of my setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem, Regret Not Me. John and Susanne Potts asked me to compose music for this evocative text. Rich with bucolic, pastoral imagery, the poem casts a melancholy spell as the narrator looks back over his life. In the third stanza, he breaks off from telling the reader of his heavenward journey, and ruminates quite suddenly on his surprise:

I did not know
That heydays fade and go,
But deemed that what was would be always so. 

How we wish that those heydays, those good times that we remember could always be so. However, the inevitability of change is there at every turn. For me, the comfort lies in the knowledge that this powerful music from a century ago endures. It challenges the choral artist, soothes the receptive audience member, and enriches those who--as George Eliot wrote in The Choir Invisible--“inherit that sweet purity for which we struggled, failed and agonized.”

This is powerful music. Please join us.



The German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) by Johannes Brahms is one of the most important works this composer produced. The opening three movements were first performed in Vienna during December 1867, and movements 1-3, 6 and 7 were performed in Bremen on Good Friday 1868. The first performance of the entire work took place at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on February 18th, 1869. Since then, the German Requiem has been one of the most frequently performed of all works in the oratorio repertoire. The compilation of Biblical texts on which it is based, all chosen by the composer, reflects a “sense of religiosity common to all mankind,” characteristic of the spiritual thinking of the mid 19th century. Despite certain reminiscences of earlier settings of the Requiem, Brahms’s work was viewed from the outset – quite correctly – as being entirely novel in both conception and execution.

Although the Requiem is usually performed with full orchestra, Brahms also arranged the piece for four-hand piano accompaniment. The piano version of the piece was first performed at the home of Sir Henry Livingston in 1871. On April 11th, The Boston Cecilia will present this more intimate arrangement of the Requiem.

In 1868, before the first performance of the complete work, the full score, orchestral and choral parts, and the vocal score (with the complete voice parts and piano solo reduction of the accompaniment by the composer himself) were issued by the publisher Rieter-Biedermann. This publishing house, founded in 1849, had a close association with Brahms during the 1860s and early 1870s. The musical material of the German Requiem printed by Rieter-Biedermann was augmented by the composer’s piano duet arrangement. The piano version of the German Requiem represents more than a mere arrangement of the orchestral parts for piano duet. It is a reworking of the entire score, including the vocal parts, to form an autonomous keyboard composition; this sets the accompaniment for our concert apart from a normal piano reduction intended for rehearsal purposes. In his quest for a piano duet texture which sounds well and is wholly pianistic in character, the composer proceeded in a manner which approaches creative reworking and fresh shaping of existing musical material. This applies, for example, to the many doublings by which particular melodies are brought out. In our performance, in order to preserve the luminous, transparent nature of certain solo and choral lines which would not be doubled in the orchestral version, we have made judicious cuts to the piano duet accompaniment, thereby leaving the chorus or the soloists undoubled by the piano.

By making this arrangement of the German Requiem for piano duet, Brahms was following a practice which was widely current during the 19th and early 20th centuries, of publishing symphonic works in transcriptions of this kind. Before the existence of recordings, arrangements such as this offered the public the best opportunity to become familiar with the composition in its entirety. Undoubtedly piano duet arrangements of this kind also represent a particular and once-popular class of publication for domestic music-making.

A presentation of Brahms’s well-loved masterwork in a form that is less familiar to the ear, like this one with an alternative form of accompaniment, gives us a unique opportunity as performers. In effect, as a chorus, we are able to approach the voice parts with a new perspective. Performing the piece then takes on a feeling of chamber music: a more direct, and in some cases more subtle, form of musical communication. There is a re-imagined clarity to the choral writing which, in combination with a truly pianistic accompaniment, presents the piece to the listener in a whole new way. Brahms’s masterpiece remains intact. The communication of it becomes fresh and newly invigorated.

Adapted, with additions, from Wolfgang Hochstein’s 1989 foreword to the Carus Edition.

Note: Paul Max Tipton, the baritone soloist for Cecilia’s April 11th performance, recently recorded this piano version of the Requiem for Seraphic Fire. (Listen - Clip 1) (Listen - Clip 2)

SIR JOHN TAVENER (1944-2013)


When Sir John Tavener died almost exactly a year ago in November of 2013, the London Evening Standard headline read, “John Tavener: Farewell to Classical Music’s Cult Hero.” Probably the only classical composer to have been promoted by the Beatles, he was indeed both a brilliant classical composer and something of a cult hero. Ringo Starr and John Lennon were impressed by his cantata The Whale, and in 1970 it was released on their Apple label. The cantata’s text is the story of Jonah and includes instructions for snorting and yawning sounds by the chorus, to create the effect of whale sounds. Tavener achieved fame, fortune and a connection to the British royal family when his Song for Athene, a song composed after the death of a young Greek girl who was a family friend, was played at the funeral of Princess Diana. He was made a knight in 2000 just a few years later. His work ranged ever more widely. He composed Veil of the Temple in 2003 as an all night vigil. It was scored for four choirs, several orchestras and soloists, and lasted seven full hours. His Prayer of the Heart was written and performed for pop performer Björk, and in 2007, he wrote a piece called The Beautiful Names, the text of which is the 99 names of God in the Muslim tradition.

The composer had been captivated by music from the age of three and eschewed formal theory teaching for improvisation. Tavener was a man of contrasts, simultaneously fascinated with the intensity and asceticism of the Russian and Greek Orthodox traditions, yet flamboyantly dressed and delighting in good food and fast cars. A journalist once described him as “a mystic who drives a Rolls Royce.” Devoted – and even perhaps disturbingly attached – to his charismatic mother, he was not able to sustain a relationship with a woman and have a family until after his mother died when he was close to 50 years old. His most important collaborator was a mother figure, a Russian Orthodox nun named Mother Thekla. From the 1980s on, she either wrote or adapted nearly all of his texts until late in his life when – almost certainly as the result of tension between his wife Maryanna and Mother Thekla – he broke off their partnership.

John Tavener was surrounded by music as a child.  Although his grandfather had a building business which his father later ran, father, grandfather, and many other family members played musical instruments. Tavener had perfect pitch and began improvising when he was three years old.  In his book The Music of Silence A Composer’s Testament, a series of reflections and responses to interviews by his friend and editor Brian Keeble, Tavener wrote:

“But by far the most powerful musical experience I had at this time was hearing Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum. I heard the first broadcast performance from St Mark’s, Venice, when I was twelve years old. That completely overwhelmed me and made me really want to compose. For two or three years after it, I was imitating the sounds I’d heard.”

Perhaps beginning with Stravinsky and then enhanced by his relationship with Mother Thekla, Tavener would become more and more at home in the Russian Orthodox Church. His compositions are striking for their focus on text.  He has a message, a spiritual message, to impart. He felt at home in the Orthodox Church because it was about immersion in the spiritual rather than an intellectual analysis of it. In his postlude to Tavener’s book, Keeble wrote, “Tavener’s belief that music is a way to ultimate truths capable of being integrated into life’s every moment necessarily hangs upon a religious and metaphysical vision of reality.”

In later life, Tavener was increasingly interested in Eastern religions and their unique tones.  For some time, he had had little patience for music without a message, “frivolous music without the purpose of spiritual enrichment.” Tavener appreciated the way that music was woven into the fabric of both spiritual and everyday life in eastern culture. In an interview with the New York Times in 2000, Tavener said, “I listened to Indian music, Persian music, all music from the Middle East. I listened to American Indian music. I listened to any music that was based on traditional ideas. That’s when I started to question what on earth happened to this Western civilization and why the sacred seems to have been pushed out gradually by the domination of the ego.”

However, while recovering from cardiac surgery in 1991, Tavener listened again to Beethoven’s Late Quartets, and he began to return to the work of other modern composers as well.  Although in his book, Tavener does not dwell on the impact of his medical problems on his spiritual life, it is hard not to see it as significant. He knew that he and his brother likely had Marfan’s syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that caused both his long-limbed body type and heart abnormalities. He had a stroke in 1980 when he was only 36 years old, and while recuperating read the introduction to The Life of St Mary by Mother Thekla that began his long and fruitful collaboration with her. About ten years after the stroke, he had cardiac surgery. He told Ivan Hewett, a reporter for the Telegraph in what would become his last interview, “my consultant keeps telling me sudden death could come at any moment.”

In The Music of Silence, Keeble asks Tavener what “state of being and what expectations would you like listeners to bring to a performance of your music?” Tavener replies, “First of all, I do not say ‘Do this, do that, Listen to this, Look out for that.’ That is the way of Western classical music.  Rather I would say: here is something that is before all ages coming to birth – something new – something already known.  But it is not what I have done that is important, rather the spirit that has animated it. Close the mind and open the heart.  Expect nothing and you may receive ‘something.’”

Opening the heart seems an apt description of the way one might receive a performance of his song “The Lamb.” Tavener composed this utterly simple song in one day in 1982 for his then three-year-old nephew Simon. In The Music of Silence, Tavener writes “The Lamb’ came to me spontaneously and complete. I read Blake’s poem ‘The Lamb’ from the Songs of Innocence and as soon as I read it, the music was there…. Also, symbolism in the use of chords appears in The Lamb – there’s a joy/sorrow chord in it (Tavener refers here to the chord A-C-G-B) , on the word ‘lamb’ , which I was to use many times later.” For Cecilia’s Music Director, Nicholas White, hearing the second ever performance of this piece at age 15 was compelling: he was hearing something “radically different from any other carol” he’d heard before.

At our Christmas concerts on December 5th and December 7th, The Boston Cecilia will
perform “The Lamb” as well as a less-known set of pieces, Ex Maria Virgine. This latter cycle sets texts united by their focus on the person of Mary, Mother of God. It was commissioned by the Clare College Choir, completed on Christmas Day 2005, and “dedicated to HRH, The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall in joyful celebration of their marriage.”

It is hard to consider the constant refrain of homage to the mother Mary without thinking of Tavener’s powerful attachment to his own mother and his sense that she was crucial to his development as a composer. Tavener wrote about his piece: “I have set both familiar and less well known elements and linked them with an expanding and contracting phrase Ex Maria Virgine. This refers to Mary, Mother of God, and should be sung with great radiance and femininity.” The cycle uses the words of conventional English carols like “Ding! Dong! merrily on high” and texts from Greek and Islamic sources in a piece that challenges the listener. There is at once a sense of disconnection; is this medieval England or ancient Byzantium?  Is that Latin or Aramaic? and then unity. Somehow the dissonant and melodic sections, the different languages, the angry words about the “The Empress of Hell” and the “lulla lulla” of the lullaby to rock the infant Jesu,  all come together, united by the repetition at the end of each of the ten sections with the “expanding and contracting” phrase Ex Maria Virgine.

Perhaps in the later years of his life, some of the conflicts within this compelling, and passionate composer were also coming together. He had held onto his early fascination with Russian tradition, explored eastern religious and mystical tradition, focused on sacred texts and eschewed much of modern music, but he returned to Beethoven, Handel and others, and in his very last years set sonnets of Shakespeare to music. His funeral was in the Anglican Cathedral of Winchester but presided over by a senior Orthodox bishop.

On December 5th and December 7th, The Boston Cecilia will excitedly undertake the complexity of the brilliant and enigmatic John Tavener as we celebrate both his legacy and the Christmas season.



In 1982, when I was 15 years old, I first heard The Lamb by John Tavener. This second-ever performance of the carol was included in the Christmas Eve radio broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols, live from King’s College, Cambridge. A much smaller audience had heard the very first performance of this newly-composed work at Winchester Cathedral two days earlier. I remember feeling that I had just experienced something radically different from any other carol I had heard before. The truth was that several million listeners across the world had just had the same experience, and the reputation of the composer, in the space of three minutes, had been propelled to a whole new level of renown. The music was stark, yet gentle; dissonant, yet comforting; simple, yet haunting. I think I made my decision shortly after that to pursue an organ scholarship at Cambridge University, which had me living, literally, in the shadow of King’s College Chapel for the three years of my undergraduate career. As it happens, I had followed in the footsteps of one of Tavener’s school friends and fellow composers, John Rutter, who had studied music at Clare College twenty years before me.

When John Tavener died, just a little over a year ago, I began thinking of how we might pay tribute to him with The Boston Cecilia. I had been aware of a series of commissions that Tavener had written around 2005, which resulted in a sequence of carols entitled Ex Maria Virgine.  This sequence had been recorded by Tim Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge in 2008. As I listened to the recording, made in the grand surroundings of the Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge, I decided that it would provide the ideal challenge for The Boston Cecilia and a great way of celebrating the life of John Tavener at our December concerts. The luxurious acoustics of The Church of the Advent and All Saints, Brookline, along with their fine organs, would create an ideal vehicle for this eccentric music.

Also on my mind at this time was Richard Rodney Bennett, whose music had captured my interest at a very early age when I learned several of his compositions for piano. Later on in life, we ended up as neighbors on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I was fortunate in getting to know Richard, talking about his film scores, and discussing choral music, occasionally over dinner at a local restaurant. In the year 2000 I had conducted the New York premiere of his large-scale work for choir and organ, The Glory and the Dream, and the organist for the performance was none other than Barbara Bruns, for whom Richard had the highest praise. Richard died on Christmas Eve of 2012. As I had long been familiar with his Christmas carols, I instantly thought that these would provide a perfect complement to Tavener’s works, so I went about assembling the program that will be performed by The Boston Cecilia on December 5th and 7th, 2014.

According to Tavener, The Lamb was written in an afternoon and is built on a simple melodic idea and its inversion. Tavener’s tempo direction for the piece is explicit and simple: “With extreme tenderness – flexible – always guided by the words.” For those of us who are devoted to the art of choral singing, there is surely no better way of conducting ourselves.



For a bass, the middle of the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms stands out as one of the most “fun” passages in the choral literature. The tricky rhythms and Hebrew language are challenging enough to keep you on your toes, and the brisk tempo and dramatic dynamics are irresistible.

I first performed this in high school, and we drilled and drilled this section until it was completely burned into our subconscious, but I never had the slightest idea what the words meant. That didn’t stop us basses from saluting each other with a stout “V’roznim!” as we passed each other in the halls on the way to class.

Here is a bit of the Hebrew text:

Lamah rag'shu goyim
Ul'umim yeh'gu rik?
Yit'yats'vu malchei erets,
V'roznim nos'du yaḥad
Al Adonai v'al m'shiḥo.

Now I come to discover this is from Psalm 2, “Why do the Nations rage”. In his translation, Robert Alter presents this verse as:

“Why are the nations aroused,
and the peoples murmur vain things?
Kings of the earth take their stand,
and princes conspire together
against the Lord and His anointed.”

Of course this text is familiar to most of us from the bass aria in Handel’s Messiah. Here is a recording from Boston Cecilia’s one and only performance in 2000, with Mark Risinger as the bass  soloist. We see again that when you’re a bass being angry can be an excuse to have a grand time.

Interestingly, this part of the Chichester Psalms springs from the original request to the composer. In early December 1963, Bernstein received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, requesting a piece for the Cathedral’s 1965 music festival:

“The Chichester Organist and Choirmaster, John Birch, and I, are very anxious to have written some piece of music which the combined choirs could sing at the Festival to be held in Chichester in August, 1965, and we wondered if you would be willing to write something for us. I do realize how enormously busy you are, but if you could manage to do this we should be tremendously honoured and grateful. The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of the Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both. I only mention this to give you some idea as to what was in our minds.”

He goes on to say, “Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” and indeed, the second movement has material taken from the Prologue of West Side Story.

This passage is just as evocative now as it was in 1965. When Chichester Psalms debuted at Lincoln Center on July 15th, “Operation Rolling Thunder” had been underway in Vietnam for 3 months — a “limited” bombing campaign against the communist controlled north. 60,000 American troops had been deployed to Vietnam and had begun “Search and Destroy” missions. Ho Chi Minh appeared on the cover of Time magazine the next day.

Bernstein was very active in social causes throughout his life. In March of 1965, he participated in a “Stars for Freedom” rally in Montgomery, Alabama to support the march from Selma led by Martin Luther King. 

Importantly, in the Chichester Psalms, the raging of nations gives way to the overarching message of peace that begins and ends the second movement, albeit with some final murmurs of vain things. In the last movement, flowing melody and a hushed final unison beautifully express Bernstein's hopes for peace and unity through music.



Antonín Dvořák was born near Prague in 1841, then part of Bohemia, in the Austrian Empire. He was an impoverished music teacher and composer until winning the Austrian State Prize in 1874, and again in 1877. His prolific output of folk-inspired music captivated some and repelled others. Promoted by Johannes Brahms in particular, Dvořák’s compositions were hailed in Prague and Vienna. By 1882, his works had captivated London, and a series of concerts with the Royal Symphony followed.

As Dvorak's fame spread, Boston caught the fever. The Cecilia, as it was then called, was accustomed to a steady fare of German and English compositions and programmed his new works beginning with his Stabat Mater (American premiere) in its eighth season, in 1884. This was repeated in 1885 and followed in 1886 by The Spectre's Bride. Audiences and critics were mostly enthusiastic, and these pieces and Dvořák's Patriotic Hymn saw a total of nine performances through 1891.

In 1892, Dvorak secured a sponsored chair at New York's National Conservatory of Music. Most biographies note that his princely salary of $15,000 was half again as much as that of the mayor of New York. Dvořák had come to the United States, he said, to learn about the roots of genuinely American music. His inquiries would lead him to African-American sources, including the spiritual which supposedly inspired the "Goin' Home" theme in his New World Symphony. He also spent a summer composing in a Czech immigrant community in Iowa.

In November of 1892, he came to Boston to conduct Cecilia in the Boston premiere of his Requiem. Margaret Ruthven Lang, daughter of founder and music director B. J. Lang, chronicled these first 30 years and reported on the visit. Cecilia was at that time a subscription organization, with no tickets sold separately. However, its habit was to perform a Monday evening Wage Earner's Concert before each Wednesday concert.

When Dvořák was told of this, he wrote in a letter, "December 1 will be for the wealthy and intelligenzia, but the preceding day my work will also be performed for poor workers who earn $18 per week, the purpose being to give the poor and uneducated the musical works of all times and nations. That's something, isn't it? I am looking forward to it like a child."

The performance was evidently not problem-free. While reviewers called Dvořák "simple, modest, a man of great talent," he was also "almost entirely lacking in personal magnetism, [with] little force to control either singers or musicians." Another wrote, "Now and again there was false intonation, but if a composer insists on writing ear-baffling and voice-trying intervals, he must take the consequences." One defender seized on a colleague's term of "barbarous" as "Boston slang for 'Slavic' or 'not German.'" Evidently, reviewing was as much a performance art as was music-making.

Over the next four years, Cecilia performed Dvořák pieces (including his Eia Mater) just twice. The Dvořák craze had subsided. But with time Bostonians' ears were less baffled and voices less tried by the intervals Dvorak composed. Today it is hard to imagine his Mass in D Major as perplexing. Modern voices and ears will perceive the music in Cecilia's October 19th performance with a modern sensibility, to hear its beauty, as originally written for organ, choir, and solo voices.



Sancta Caecilia I by Kendra O'Donnell, oil on paper, 2013.

 Our chorus, growing out of its infancy in the Harvard Musical Association, became independent in 1876. Originally called The Cecilia, then The Cecilia Society, under Donald Teeters it became The Boston Cecilia. We all know that Cecilia is the patron saint of music. Who was she? Why are we named after her?

     The earliest known account of Saint Cecilia is found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a list of martyrs traditionally attributed to Saint Jerome, dating from the late 6th century. In the early medieval period news traveled more slowly than today, and evidence was harder to verify. Both history and legend grew by accretion as generations handed down stories. Then as now, people filled the gaps with projections from their experience and imagination: maps with serpents and sea dragons in terra and aqua incognita and such. Sometimes misinformation became part of the canon.

    In the modern era, Cecilia’s story has been said to have “no historical value,” “difficult to ascertain the factual nature of,” and even to be “a pious romance.” Lest we obscure her further, we should step back for a longer perspective on our own culture as well as hers. Narrative may be a better word for her story, as the record of her life and death is very old and unclear. What matters is what she means to us at any given time.

     For us music lovers, the crux of Cecilia’s story is the antiphon of the Vespers on her Feast Day, November 22nd. The passage, describing her nuptials, goes thus: Cantantibus organis, Caecilia virgo in corde suo soli Domino cantebat dicens: “Fiat cor meum et corpus meus immaculatum ut non confonedar.” (“As instruments sang out, the virgin Caecilia sang in her heart to God alone, saying: ‘May my heart and my body be spotless, lest I be thrown into discord.’”)  The second Latin word in this passage, organis, means musical instruments, but it has been misconstrued to mean organ, that is, pipe organ. This is the reason that Cecilia is so often depicted with her hands on the organ manual or keyboard.

     Cecilia was born to a senatorial family in Rome, in the second or third century AD, a Christian from her birth in this period of political and religious turmoil. She was betrothed to Valerianus, also of a patrician family, but a pagan. After their marriage ceremony, when the bridal couple withdrew to the wedding chamber, Cecilia told her husband that she was promised to an angel who jealously guarded her virginity. Understandably, Valerianus asked to see the angel. Cecilia told him to go to the third milestone on the Via Appia, where he would meet the bishop, Pope Urbanus I. He did as she directed and found the pope who baptized him, then her groom returned to Cecilia. An angel is said to have appeared to the couple and crowned them with roses and lilies.

     Valerianus and his brother Tiburtius, who also converted to Christianity, gave generously and performed good works, but were martyred by the Roman prefects. Cecilia had the brothers buried in a tomb, but shortly thereafter she too was imprisoned.  For professing her faith, she was condemned to death by suffocation in her bath. After this attempt on her life failed, the prefect ordered her to be decapitated. Once, twice, thrice, goes the story, the sword of the executioner failed to cut off her head. He fled, leaving her bathed in her own blood. Three days later, after providing generously for the poor and arranging for her house to become a place of worship, she succumbed.

     Pope Urbanus had Cecilia entombed in the Catacomb of Callistus, close to the ancient crypt of the popes where he himself was soon buried. That would indicate her date of death to be late second century to early third; 230 is often given as the year of her martyrdom. Urbanus had a church built over her house and dedicated to her, in what is now the Trastevere quarter of Rome; the church was rebuilt by Pope Paschal in 822. Her relics, as well as those of Valerianus and Tibertius, were reburied there. Later archeological excavations have uncovered Roman buildings, and a side chapel of the church purportedly shows the bath in which Cecilia was nearly martyred.

     Over the centuries, Cecilia’s cult grew, only strengthening her myth. Artists, sculptors, poets, and musicians celebrated her in their works. Raphael, Domenichino, Gentileschi, Reni, Tiepolo, Guercino, and Poussin are among many artists who painted her from their imaginations, especially during the Renaissance, often with musical instruments and keyboard. The sculptor Moderno witnessed the opening of her tomb in 1599; he made a marble sculpture of her with the three sword marks and blood, which he swore was the way in which he saw her body uncorrupted.

    Cecilia became the patroness of the Academy of Music which was founded in Rome in 1584, and numerous musical groups during the Renaissance paid tribute to her in their names. Composers were inspired to write for her, including Lasso, Palestrina, Scarlatti, Handel, Haydn, Purcell, Gounod, Charpentier, Liszt (three times), Parry, Howells, Finzi, and Britten. This should keep The Boston Cecilia supplied for some time with music in honor of our patron saint.

     Boston Cecilia Overseer Kendra O’Donnell has painted three of her own imagined portraits of Saint Cecilia, two of them for concert programs in the 2013-2014 season. You can see the roses and lilies which were the angel’s gift to Cecilia. You will also find her Roman house in flames, as her executioners tried to suffocate her in her bath. The music in two of the images is from Purcell’s Ode to Saint Cecilia. In the third, the necklace of notes is from the Osanna in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, our March 21st, 2014 concert at Jordan Hall. 

Sancta Caecilia II by Kendra O'Donnell, oil on paper, 2013.

Sancta Caecilia III by Kendra O'Donnell, oil on paper, 2013.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, an online resource, provided information for this post. Thanks also to Brian Burke, Celia Lewis, and Patrick O’Donnell.