choir

PREPARING FOR CHICHESTER PSALMS

BY CHARLIE EVETT

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.

I WONDER... WHAT IS A CAROL?

BY NICHOLAS WHITE

A preview of the upcoming Christmas program by The Boston Cecilia

A good Christmas carol needs to have a good tune. Whether or not one subscribes to this concept, the dictionary definition of the word carol suggests “a song of joy or mirth, a popular song or ballad.” For me, the most memorable expressions of joy around the holiday time come from the most simply tuneful, rhythmically playful and sublime musical offerings. In our December program, we will offer a broad palette of carols that, I feel, fit that description. 

Some of the most effective programming choices seem to happen subconsciously, just as much as they follow lengthy, serious consideration. This year’s program, entitled “No Small Wonder” is no exception. In assembling this program of mostly 20th Century works from England, Wales and America, it strikes me again that beautiful choral music transcends national boundaries and language. Well over half of the program actually uses a mixture of English and Latin within the same composition, and these macaronic offerings underscore the power of melody and song in the effective communication of the Christmas message.

John Jacob Niles’ haunting melody to I Wonder As I Wander is given elegant treatment by John Rutter as the program softly begins, with undulating harmonic support from the choir. This is followed by the crisp, clean rhythms of Samuel Scheidt’s Puer Natus In Bethlehem, the buoyant melody of the soloist reflecting the excitement of the message, and provoking an exuberant choral response. Robert Lucas Pearsall’s radiant arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo has become a favorite of choirs across the world. Pearsall translated the German words into his own English version, and maintained the original alternation with the Latin phrases, ending with an extended development of the music for the words “O that we were there.” 

Carols are intended to be sung by everyone. Following the short organ solo, one of Bach’s fantasia-style chorale preludes on the In Dulci Jubilo tune, the audience will get a chance to join in the singing. The First Nowell is from 18th-century Cornwall, arranged by David Willcocks in various harmonizations for the choral forces. The audience is invited to join in the singing of the refrain throughout. 

Ave Rex by Welshman William Mathias was first performed in December 1969 by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir in Llandaff Cathedral. It was commissioned by the choir and is a sequence of three contrasting anonymous medieval carols framed by a dramatic setting of the invocation Ave Rex itself. The three carols are a high-spirited Alleluya; an introspective setting of There is no Rose and finally the cheery and joyful Sir Christèmas. The work concludes with a reprise of the sequence’s opening material.

The second half of the program begins with the work from which this concert takes its name. Paul Edwards wrote this lush, jazz-inspired setting of Paul Wigmore’s poem with its recurrent phrase “no small wonder” in 1983, and it has become much loved by choirs during the last three decades. The foundation of the organ provides a rich, warm bed of harmony for the simple melody. Indeed, it is the harmony that provides the greater part of the intrigue in this piece.

Peter Warlock (born Philip Heseltine) was a music critic and composer of some notoriety, his chosen pseudonym reflecting his interest in occult practices! The set moves from the simple, yet powerful, unison setting of Adam Lay Ybounden, through the poignant setting of Bruce Blunt’s poem Bethlehem Down with its earthy imagery, on to the gentle Balulalow and culminating in the riotous exuberance of Benedicamus Domino. These four of Warlock carols demonstrate a rich variety of textures that are undeniably from the pen of a master craftsman with a distinctive musical voice.

Distinctive musical voice is a quality that can certainly be applied to the French composer on the program tonight. While we are not featuring any delicate early French Noëls here, Barbara Bruns will play one of the most popular of Olivier Messiaen’s works for organ, the final movement from his nine-piece cycle La Nativité du Seigneur, known as Dieu parmi nous, or “god among us.” Messiaen’s unique harmonic language and virtuoso writing for the organ builds to a grand toccata that, with the thrusting descent of the pedal line, symbolizes God coming down from heaven.

John Goss was a professor of harmony at the Royal Academy of Music from 1827-1874, and was also organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. His setting of Edward Caswall’s text has again been arranged by David Willcocks, inventively varying the combinations of voices. The audience is invited to join in the refrain of See amid the Winter’s Snow

Richard Wayne Dirksen spent his entire career at Washington National Cathedral, where he was influential in many areas, most especially in musical leadership, creation and teaching. A Child My Choice was written quickly, in response to the need for some music to fill out the time on a live Christmas broadcast. Dirksen’s setting of Southwell’s words has subsequently become a favorite of choirs all over the United States. The simple, lilting 5/4 time and straightforward opening harmonies belie a depth of emotion that comes through in the middle of each verse. In short, this carol represents the very best example of simplicity reaching the listener in a profound way.

The final three pieces on the program are shining examples of the type of carol that any listeners would want to allow to simply wash over them as they sit within the walls of some gothic cathedral church, as the snow falls outside and the candlelight glimmers within, to usher in the holiday season is. Grayston Ives was a member of The King’s Singers, and subsequently Informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford. Sweet Was The Song is an example of his lyrical style, written with a full understanding of vocal elegance, and reminiscent of Rutter’s earlier carol, What Sweeter Music. Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday we celebrate as I write these notes, is best known for his Ceremony of Carols. His elegant A Hymn to the Virgin, for double choir, composed in 1930 during an enforced spell in the infirmary at Gresham’s School when he was only sixteen years old, shows Britten’s mastery of compositional techniques and choral textures from a very young age. Another macaronic text, the solo quartet interjects Latin phrases in response to the choir’s lines of poetry in honor of the Lady, flower of everything.

We end with one of John Rutter’s earliest carols, for which he wrote both words and music. Published in 1967, The Nativity Carol alternates lines of heart-on-the-sleeve poignancy with a simple refrain of the Christmas message. Achieving everything that its predecessor, In The Bleak Midwinter by Harold Darke, achieves, Rutter’s carol has in its own way become a classic example of the sound of Christmas.

TAKE HIM EARTH FOR CHERISHING: 50 YEARS AFTER JFK

BY DEBORAH GREENMAN

John and Jacqueline Kennedy, photo courtesy www.maryferrell.org

On November 22, 1963, forty-six year old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the nation's thirty-fifth President, was assassinated on a Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.  The first music performed in his memory may well have been at Boston’s Symphony Hall.  People who were at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Friday afternoon concert were given the shattering news by Erich Leinsdorf who then conducted an impromptu performance of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. 

And not long after Kennedy's death, British composer, Herbert Howells, was asked to write a piece for a joint Canadian-American Memorial Service.  The piece, the motet Take Him Earth for Cherishing, was completed the following spring, and was first performed November 22, 1964—the first anniversary of Kennedy’s death—by the Choir of the Cathedral of St George from Kingston, Ontario.  George N. Maybee conducted in Washington’s National Gallery.  The concert featured commissioned works, not only by Howells, but also by a Canadian, Graham George, Professor of music at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and an American, Leo Sowerby, the Director of the College of Church Musicians of Washington Cathedral.  Graham George’s piece was set to Herrick’s text, “In God’s Command Ne’er Ask the Reason Why”; Sowerby’s was a setting of six verses of Psalm 119.

November 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, so it seems fitting that Boston Cecilia, led by its new director Nicholas White, will perform the motet on November 2nd at All Saints Church.  The November 2nd concert will also include three pieces by Charles Villiers Stanford, Howell’s first professor of composition; Stanford called Howells “My son in Music.”

At the time that Howells was asked to compose a piece in memoriam, he was well known as the composer of a choral symphony of death and transfiguration, Hymnus Paradisi, composed in memory of his beloved son Michael who died at age nine of polio.  Howell’s anguish is vividly recorded in his diary with the words, ”One feels the futility of all the things one usually sets value on when one is faced with reality.”  The title of the Hymnus comes from Prudentius, a fourth century scholar in the judiciary of Emperor Theodosius who wrote Hymnus Circa Exsequias Defuncti, translated by Helen Waddell as Hymn for the Burial of the Dead.  (Much later it was suggested that Howells change the title to the more manageable Hymnus Paradisi.)

The first two lines of this poem—initially intended for the Hymnus itself —became the epigraph for the Hymnus.  Those lines “Nunc suscipe, terra, favendum, gremioque hunc concipe molli,” Waddell translates as “Take him earth for cherishing, To thy tender breast receive him.”  Nearly fifteen years after composing the Hymnus and thirty years after the death of his son, Howells would return to those lines for the motet in memory of Kennedy.    

In a sleeve note to an Argo (RG 507) recording of the piece, Howells wrote:

I was asked to compose an a cappella work for the commemoration (of Kennedy). The text was mine to choose, Biblical or other. Choice was settled when I recalled a poem by Prudentius (AD 348-413). I had already set it in its medieval Latin, years earlier, as a study for Hymnus Paradisi. But now I used none of that unpublished setting. Instead I turned to Helen Waddell’s faultless translation:

Take him, Earth, for cherishing,
To thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
Noble even in its ruin.

Here was the perfect text—the Prudentius ‘Hymnus Circa Exsequias Defuncti’. The motet is sung here as intended—wholly for unaccompanied voices. Formally it is roughly A-B-A; in texture variably 4- to 8-part. Tonality anchors (first and last) on B, but admits chromatic phases, as at:

Ashes that a man might measure
In the hollow of his hand.

Finally, a near-funeral match tethered again to B, but in the more consoling major mode.
— sleeve note to an Argo (RG 507) recording of Take Him Earth For Cherishing

Howells composed Hymnus Paradisi as a way of working through the pain of his son’s early death.  With Take Him Earth for Cherishing, he would return to the words of the Hymnus epigraph to bring consolation to an entire nation.  Take Him Earth for Cherishing would then be performed at Howells’ own Memorial Service in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge in May of 1983, nearly twenty years after it was first performed in memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

 

BOSTON CHORAL AUDITIONS 2013 - THE AUDITION IS THE FIRST STEP

BY NICHOLAS WHITE

Greetings, and welcome to The Boston Cecilia Blog!

We are about to begin the final few audition sessions for The Boston Cecilia, as we start our exciting 138th season of concerts. Having just recently been through the three year search process that resulted in me taking on the enviable position of Music Director, I feel qualified in talking about the audition process!

What are we looking for in a new singer? What will be asked of you? Why would you subject yourself to any form of scrutiny? Let me offer some answers to those questions.

Every effort is made to put you at ease. After all, we want to hear your voice at its most relaxed and free. We are looking for voices with personality, but voices that also work well in a choral texture. The ability to blend with fellow singers is crucial. The ability to read music well- a skill that is all too often lacking these days – is highly desirable, as is the willingness and ability to learn your part outside of rehearsals. A good sense of humor and a commitment to energetic teamwork is a must. All of these skills are worked on and developed during rehearsals, but they are good prerequisites.

The audition will start with some vocalizing for a light warm-up and a general idea of vocal range.  This will be followed by some sight-reading (on one’s own voice part) and finish with singing a piece that you have prepared for the audition, if you have one. Our assistant conductor, Barbara Bruns, will be there to accompany your piece, so bring an extra copy of your music if you would like an accompanist.

Auditioning for Cecilia is the first step towards being involved with performing Cecilia's diverse and rich repertoire. This coming season features some of my very favorite choral works. We begin on November 2nd with Maurice Duruflé’s sublime Requiem, along with works by Stanford and Harris and Herbert Howells’ incredible setting of the poem Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing. On December 6th and 8th the concerts will feature glorious music for the Christmas season, including Ave Rex by William Mathias and deeply touching carols by Warlock, Leighton, Dirksen, Pearsall and others. The most thrilling concert is saved for March 21st – J.S. Bach’s birthday – when we will present Bach’s Mass in B Minor with period instrument orchestra at NEC’s Jordan Hall. I couldn’t be more excited and energized to get working on this repertoire!

So, if you are a singer looking for your next challenge, why not consider joining us? There is still time to sign up. Rehearsals begin on Monday September 9th at 7:30pm, but we are still hearing potential chorus members well into September. Perhaps The Boston Cecilia is the next stop on your musical journey? Visit our Auditions page for more information or give us a call at 617-232-4540.