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.