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

By Nicholas White


Randall Thompson (1899-1984) - Alleluia
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) - In the Beginning
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - Reincarnations
Mary Hynes
Anthony O’Daly
The Coolin

Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) - Two Pieces
Little Elegy The Road Home
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) - Nocturnes
Sa Nuit d’Ete
Soneto de la Noche
Sure On This Shining Night

Randall Thompson - Farewell

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.

The next piece of American Choral Music to which I was exposed was Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. I learned of this piece while undertaking a choir tour to the USA in 1988. My first tour of the States had happened the previous year, and the program was made up entirely of British – or, at least, European – choral music. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there was a market for British choirs traveling to America in the 1980s and 1990s that was different to the situation we find today. Yes, elements of Anglican Choral Style have become more and more influential upon the way in which choirs function in our churches and concert halls over here. Equally though, there was a wall of ignorance and naïveté surrounding American Choral Music – even acknowledging its existence – that has now been broken down. Knowledge of, and appreciation for, international musical styles has increased exponentially over the last twenty years. The very best American choirs rival the very best European choirs, and compositions for these ensembles are able to traverse boundaries that are significantly changed since the last century.

In designing this program, I was intentional about featuring music that comes from the 20th Century, versus the 21st Century. While some of this music was penned after 2000, the foundation of the style is from an earlier time. Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky in 1940 for the opening of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Surprisingly subdued as a “fanfare”, Thompson once wrote that…

…the Alleluia is a very sad piece. The word "Alleluia" has so many possible interpretations. The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous. It is a slow, sad piece, it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I first heard Aaron Copland’s In The Beginning when I moved to Abilene, Texas in 1992. The excellent choir at Hardin-Simmons University, under the direction of Dr. Loyd Hawthorne, was preparing the piece for a contest. This substantial, polytonal piece, with its dramatic role for mezzo-soprano was composed for Harvard University's Symposium on Music Criticism in May 1947. The premiere was performed by the Collegiate Chorale at the Harvard Memorial Church, Cambridge on 2nd May, almost exactly seventy years ago, conducted by Robert Shaw.

As a teenager, Samuel Barber had developed an appreciation for his Irish heritage, had discovered the poetry of James Stephens, and had set one of Stephens’ poems as an art song. Barber set three poems, based on verse by the Gaelic poet Antoine O Reachtabhra (1784-1835), in what became his Reincarnations, one of his best-known choral works. He worked on the pieces separately in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The first performance of all three pieces as a single work was given at the Juilliard School in the summer of 1949.

It is worth pointing out that all three of these composers’ most popular choral works were created at the midpoint of each of their lives, all receiving their first performances during the 1940s, with the Barber taking place during the birth year of our next featured composer. Stephen Paulus, who died in 2014 following a devastating stroke, created some of the most beautiful choral music of the second half of the 20th Century. His Little Elegy was actually written in 2010, setting a poem of Eleanor Wylie (1885-1928), and exhibits the tenderness and sensitive word-setting that is a feature of Paulus’s very best choral writing. Not shying away from wide vocal ranges and dynamic contrasts, the piece maintains an intimacy that gives the impression that the listener is in a tender conversation from start to finish. The Road Home, written for the Dale Warland Singers, is based on a simple melody from The Southern Harmony Songbook (1835) and sets a text of frequent collaborator, Michael Dennis Browne.

Morten Lauridsen rose to international fame with his 1994 setting of O Magnum Mysterium, a piece which has become a staple of Christmas choral performances across the globe. Lauridsen’s thoughtful, carefully written, and evocative music earned him the label of “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment For The Arts in 2006. His musical style, as well as his teaching at the University of Southern California, has influenced a generation of American choral composers, as well as choral directors who have fallen under his spell. Nocturnes consists of three mixed chorus pieces, two with piano accompaniment, set to poems of Rilke, Neruda, and Agee. These three related works bask in the glory not only of Lauridsen's choral writing but also in the use of three languages within the set.

I only became aware of Randall Thompson’s piece Fare Well in the last couple of years and, as I played it through to myself, I was struck by the understated beauty and simplicity that Thompson creates. It was written in 1973 for the combined choruses of Calhoun, Kennedy and Mepham High Schools, in Merrick, New York. There is a poignancy to the piece that is reminiscent of Alleluia. However, there is also a realness to it – less of heaven, more of earth – that differentiates it from the piece that begins this program. It allows more space for the listener to reflect on the beauty of both text and music and is, in my opinion, an example of the best American Choral Music. There is something about it that tastes of America. It feels as though it gave birth to much of the American Choral Music that has followed it. Again, in my opinion, it is a better piece of music than Alleluia and, for whatever reason, it has never achieved the same level of recognition. This, after all,  is the conundrum that has been around for centuries. A certain piece of music by a certain composer becomes popular and that composer is forever identified with it, while other – maybe better – works lie dormant. In this time of technological advancement, increased communications, media-driven bias, and all of the 21st Century norms, it will be fascinating to see the way in which creative landscapes will change and develop over the next one hundred years.