A unique genius is about to pay a visit to Cecilia!

by Larry Herz

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He was born in 1882 - composed an overture for his school orchestra at age 15, and a mass for chorus and orchestra the following year. During college and graduate school, he became among the first collecting ethnomusicologists, until WW I got in the way.

He won fame for a work he called a psalm celebrating his nation. Made it big in Europe. Was shocked by how little and how poor the musical instruction in his country was. Developed principles for early music education which were named after him and spread widely. His name was resurrected in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where his system of hand signals for notes was needed for interplanetary communication.

He was so celebrated that when he refused to divorce his Jewish wife and the Gestapo arrested him, the public outcry forced them to release him. She died when he was 75. After a year, he remarried...his 19-year-old student. His career started out by demonstrating that there was a real national music that wasn’t the commercialized Gypsy music it was usually taken for; he wrote a distinctive body of instrumental and choral music; and he ended with a system of principles for musical and rhythmic instruction taught all over the western world. This genius is Zoltan Kodály.

“Now as I was young…” : Reflections on 'Fern Hill'

by Deborah Grose

An older man reminisces about his charmed youth. He speaks in the straightforward vocabulary of a child immersed in the natural world. The colors (blue, white, green and gold) are basic; the emotions (happy, easy, carefree) are uncomplicated. His boyhood is populated by plants, animals, and the recurring rhythms of heavenly bodies, as he runs, climbs, walks, sleeps, plays, sings, races, and flies. No other humans come into view. Rather, his antagonist is time, whose name he utters on six occasions. Nostalgia turns bittersweet as he acknowledges the inevitability of change and loss and death. In so doing he conjures our awareness that past and present - youth and maturity - innocence and worldliness are opposite poles, but are inextricably linked, even while neither end can fully apprehend the other.

The Hope of Loving

by Benjamin Perry

Poets write of love as that which gives us purpose, that human capacity of deep connection and genuine compassion that makes our lives meaningful. In the fourth movement of Jake Runestad’s The Hope of Loving, the words of Meister Eckhart communicate our need for love. The language is plain and simple, yet penetrating and evocative:

“What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?

It is the hope of loving, of being loved.

We weep when light does not reach our hearts.

We wither like fields if someone close does not rain their kindness upon us.

My soul has a purpose, it is to love.” - Meister Eckhart

So, according to Eckhart, love literally “keeps us alive.” It is both our purpose and an absolute necessity in life. Just as flowers require sunlight to thrive, so do we as humans require the warmth and connection of other beings to flourish. Just as plants need water to survive, we too need kindness to “rain down upon us.”

Eckhart describes another aspect of love: love’s ability to pull humans through the toughest of times; It allows us to endure even the most difficult circumstances. A beautiful example of love’s capacity to shine through amidst dark times is found in the writings of Nelson Mandela. Even while enduring the harsh conditions of prison during the apartheid, he had the capacity to love. He explained that the most painful part of that experience was living with the fear that he might lose his love for his captors. The guards had to be changed out a number of times because they ‘cracked,’ meaning Mandela’s love for them was so present that they could no longer be the ones to keep him locked up. For someone in such extreme circumstances to unflinchingly generate love, goodwill, and compassion for their oppressors is inspiring evidence of our innate goodness as humans and a testament to our deepest sense of love.

The words of St. John of the Cross, in the third movement of the Runestad, add another dimension. He says: “Tenderly, I now touch all things knowing one day we will part.” The word ‘tenderly,’ used in this context, is evocative because it shows a recognition of our impermanence as beings in this world - the beauty that comes from living life to the fullest because of how fleeting and precious life is. In this sense, love proves to be an act of gentle presence. For if we live our lives residing in the fullness of the present moment we truly appreciate the relationships and the beauty that surround us. In the end, it is clear that love is at the same time a necessity for our survival and an element of self actualization. It permeates our entire spectrum of needs.

This poetry is evocative, and Runestad’s music beautifully captures the sense of the words. He carefully sets the text by using creative harmony, exciting rhythmic figures, and the idiosyncratically delicate and soulful sounds of a string quartet accompaniment. Indeed, he brings these sentiments to life in a fresh and exciting way that allows us to reflect on our most primal needs while bathing in a beautiful sound space.

Benjamin Perry is the Assistant Conductor of The Boston Cecilia

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

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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.

SINGING "A CEREMONY OF CAROLS"

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.

HANDEL, MOZART AND THE PSALMS OF DAVID

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.

WHERE DOES DOUBLE-CHOIR MUSIC COME FROM?

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.

HE SAYS GLORY! THE CHRISTMAS POEMS OF DAVID EVETT

BY CHARLIE EVETT

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!

CONNECTING WITH MYSTERY THROUGH MUSIC

BY NICHOLAS WHITE

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.

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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.
 

HIS UNRESISTING LOVE: MUSIC FOR CHRISTMAS
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.
 

"SO TO LIVE IS HEAVEN: TO MAKE UNDYING MUSIC IN THE WORLD..."

BY NICHOLAS WHITE

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 BRAHMS REQUIEM AS CHAMBER MUSIC

BY NICHOLAS WHITE

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)

BY DEBORAH GREENMAN

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.

SWEET WAS THE SONG: MUSIC FOR CHRISTMAS

BY NICHOLAS WHITE

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.