Musica Sacra

Bach, Pärt, and Martin

March 8, 2014

Passionate Expressions of Faith

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On Saturday, March 8, join us to experience three masterworks of choral music exploring the Christian faith: Bach's Jesu, meine Freude, Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box, and Frank Martin's Mass for Double Chorus.

Martin kept his Mass for Double Chorus to himself for 40 years, seeing it as a private conversation with God. In Jesu, meine Freude, Bach explored his innermost thoughts about salvation from this world of the flesh. And, in Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box, as put forth by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, archbishop of Volokolamsk, "the straightforwardness, the harmony and even the palpable monotony correspond to the spiritual search of contemporary man."

Covid-19 Protocols

Musica Sacra is requiring that all performers, volunteers, and audience members show proof of vaccination against Covid-19, or a negative PCR test within 3 days or an antigen test within 6 hours in order to attend concerts in-person. Additionally, we require that masks be worn at all times by audience members and performers. Audience members will be spaced apart in the sanctuary to allow for social distancing.

Performance Venue

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Performance Notes

What do tonight's works by an earthy 18th century German Lutheran, a 21st century mystic Orthodox Estonian, and a 20th century Swiss, the son of a Calvinist minister, have in common? They each represent a deeply powerful and personal expression of Christian faith. At this time of the beginning of the Lenten season, a period of introspection and self-examination, it seems appropriate to hear these three works as an example of Christian faith in practice. However, perhaps because their composition is so rooted in faith, they also stand as consummate expressions of the musical arts.

Musica Sacra has championed the works of Arvo Pärt for two decades, giving the second US performance and New England Première of his Passio in 1994 and our first performance of his haunting Magnificat later that same year. With this concert we add The woman with the alabaster box to our repertory. Written in 1997 as a commission honoring the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese of the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran faith, it sets the story from Matthew's Gospel concerning the pouring of expensive oil on Jesus' head in his final days before his betrayal by Judas to the Romans. The story, as you can see by reading the text, is straightforward; its meaning, however, is less so.

In preparing this piece, I have been astounded to notice that it is the first of Pärt's choral works I've studied that does not follow his usual compositional method. Raised Lutheran in the Estonia of Soviet Russia, Pärt converted to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1976, where he experienced the role of plainchant in worship. It was at this time that he developed his characteristic style, which he named tintinnabuli, Latin for bells, and described it thus: I build with primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation. In developing this style, Pärt championed the late 20th century compositional style known as minimalism, along with such composers as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.

Typically Pärt eliminates personal choice in his composition by strictly following self-devised formulas for rhythm and melodic movement. Two voices sing only the tones present in a single triad, while the other two sing only in scalar motion, wherein they move only stepwise in ascent or descent. As a result, the choral texture is almost always homophonic, with each voice moving together as a whole to produce a series of harmonic progressions, as you would hear in a hymn. In this work, however, Pärt does not follow this pattern. Instead he works mainly with a scale in the Phrygian mode, in which the half steps fall between the 1st and 2nd degrees of the scale and the 5th and 6th degrees of the scale, and he often raises the 7th degree in expressing the scale, creating the interval of an augmented 2nd between its 6th and 7th degrees. The words of Jesus, intoned by the basses, present this scale as a series of ever widening and then narrowing intervals, departing from the first degree of the scale but always returning to it before proceeding to the next degree. Another departure from his usual style is heard when voices of similar timbre- tenor or mezzo- move together in parallel motion, as the tenors do in representing the question posed by the disciples. The overall effect of these deviations results in a work that is much more dramatic and expressive than others following his style more closely. As such, it breaks the rules of minimalism, as explained by the curators of The American Century, the Whitney Museum's 1999 retrospective of 20th century art:

The Minimalists used standardized units and repetitive structures as a way to downplay the role of personal choice and individual expression in the artistic process- affirming instead the purely physical properties of their work.... By rejecting the idea that art expresses the personality of its maker, Minimalism shifted the focus onto the viewer.

As a conductor and choral singer, I hold a special place in my heart for the motets of J.S. Bach. In singing them, I become intimately acquainted with their creator, a man who died two hundred and fifty years ago. I revel in Bach's consummate skill as a contrapuntal and harmonic writer. I enjoy his intelligence, sense of humor, and enthusiasm; I am touched by his strong Lutheran faith. Though familiar with these motets for over thirty years, my admiration for them and the man who wrote them only grows. I don't find it at all surprising that Beethoven's library contained these motets as the only example of Bach's vocal works.

Various theories exist regarding Bach's reasons for composing his motets. One of the motets, Lobet den Herrn, is known to have been composed for a funeral; since a motet was often commissioned for a funeral, one theory is that Bach composed them all for funerals. This theory also makes sense from the standpoint of the texts Bach selected, all of which would be suitable for a Lutheran funeral. Phillip Spitta postulated that, because of their extensive length and musical development, Bach wrote them to stand in for cantatas in the church service. Christoph Wolff hypothesizes that Bach used his motets as vocal exercises to prepare his students at the St. Thomas School for the rigors of contrapuntal singing demanded by his cantatas and to teach them "the knowledge and fear of God" as well as "the vivid knowledge of divine essence and will" set forth by the school's educational philosophy.

Whatever the reason for their composition, Bach followed the tradition of the German motet, basing each on a German Lutheran chorale, with which listeners would be familiar, and wrote them in a cappella style, for which there is no independent instrumentation. Bach composed Jesu, meine Freude for five-part chorus, alternating harmonizations of the chorale with freely composed movements that bear no relation to the chorale‘s melody set to texts from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

Jesu, meine Freude is one of my favorites of Bach's choral works. Like all of his works, it manifests Bach's strong Christian faith and his acute awareness of his humanity with its attendant weaknesses and impermanence. As a work written for chorus without orchestra or soloists, however, it does this exclusively through the variety of the choral arts, providing a compendium of Bach's mastery of the choral idiom. Especially though, I love Bach's indulgence in descriptive word painting within it. In the first free composed movement Bach follows the word Nichts (nothing) with silence, creating a void of sound. The silence would be longer but he interrupts it to have the chorus reiterate Nichts quietly, reminding the listener why there is no sound. When the phrase does finally resume, it resumes with Nichts sung one last time but one beat later than expected, hammering home the void of silence. In this same movement, the second fugal subject drops a tritone, the weirdest interval in traditional harmony, to convey the ill effects of following the desires of the flesh. Bach reiterates the onomatopoetical sounds of kracht und blizt in the second chorale setting to create "thunder and lightening" within the music. Two movements later, the words steh, or stay, and hält, or hold, are "held" by the singers, while elsewhere within the movement the basses sing a musical tantrum of sixteenths on the word Tobe to express rage. All five voices sing extensive melismas, a musical line on a single syllable, low in their vocal range to express brummen, or grumble. The fugal subject of the sixth movement contains a long melisma on geistlich as a musical incarnation of the spirit. Bach even works in some irony in the antepenultimate chorale setting, in which the alto sings the chorale while the sopranos and tenor accompany. For this text, in which the singers bid farewell to life's vices and passions to gain eternal life, one would expect Bach's music to emphasize the joy and eagerness in the anticipation of salvation. Instead, the musical figure of the soprano voices, in which they reluctantly release their held notes down a half step, expresses regret; one hears only the sorrow at having to leave earthly pleasures. Bach may have been a good Lutheran, but here he's clearly in touch with his feet of clay!

Frank Martin wrote his setting of the Mass early in his life before going on to become a composer of serial music; in serialism, the best known example of which is Schoenberg's 12-tone system, a composer adheres to a strict sequence of tones, basing the entire composition on this one sequence. He composed the first four movements in 1922 and the Agnus Dei four years later. Then he kept the work to himself for forty years, finally allowing it a performance in 1963. Martin considered his setting of the mass intensely personal and even referred to it as a private conversation between himself and God. This certainly influenced his withholding it from the world, but there may have been other reasons as well. Apparently he considered it too flawed to be worthy of the Lord; he also felt that the typical Swiss choir would not be able to give a good performance of it. Perhaps he felt it undermined his reputation as a serial composer. In any event, he did ultimately decide to have it performed, and we are all the richer for it.

A striking element of this composition is its seemingly idiosyncratic nature. Typically a composer uses recurrent elements—such as harmony, phrase, rhythm and texture—to unify the whole. Instead, Martin allows each phrase of the mass to inspire him differently, and the recurrence of thematic material seems more serendipitous than unifying. The scoring of the work for two equal choruses of mixed voices affords him a large palette from which he can create a diversity of sonorities. At times, he uses the choruses as equal counterparts to each other, having them call and respond antiphonally as works for double chorus had done since the Renaissance era. This texture is responsible for the thrilling escalation of excitement characterizing the Hosanna section of the Sanctus. At other times he employs the two choirs as a single choir of 8 voices, whether they act polyphonically, as they do in Et resurrexit from the Credo and at the opening of the work in the Kyrie, or whether they function harmonically to build up clusters of tones, as they do at the beginning of the Gloria.

A third texture Martin creates is one not heard so starkly in any earlier works for double chorus, one in which he assigns the two choirs completely different roles. One chorus intones the notes of a single chord in even eighth notes while the other choir sings in unison a newly composed chant. Interestingly, Martin uses this texture only when the text takes on the voice of the Christian sinner asking pity of Jesus: during the Christe section of the Kyrie; the Agnus Dei section of the Gloria; and the final movement of the Agnus Dei. The only other time something similar to this happens, in the Benedictus, Martin adds overtones of fourths, not inherent to the overtone series, above the chant intoned by the basses, thereby creating an otherworldly sense.

While the textural elements of the work suggest no unity, a study of the mass reveals it to be organized around the pentatonic scale as represented by the black notes on the piano. Martin employs this pentatonic scale in its entirety only intermittently, making it seem like an indulgent compositional quirk. The first half of the opening line of the Kyrie states this scale: a sequence of five notes that, in ascent, is comprised of a whole step, a minor third, two whole steps, and another minor third. Martin abandons the pentatonic scale midway through the line, however, by introducing a grace note a semi-tone above one of the degrees and by having the final note of the first phrase fall a half tone below another one of the degrees.

We do not hear this pentatonic scale again until Martin uses it in the Credo as the theme for Et resurrexit (He rose again); after six imitative iterations in two different registers he abandons it. Yet what opens the Sanctus? That same scale, layered to create a chord in the male voices. The sopranos enter above, their line comprised of the scale's descent and ascent. When the text of the Sanctus progresses to "Heaven and earth are full of your glory" the first chorus creates a musical representation of God's glory by a sequence of chords; the lowest two voices in the chords conform to the pentatonic scale while moving in parallel fifths in a 5/8 meter, perhaps a numerological reference emphasizing God's glory. Martin uses the five note scale again in this manner to set Hosanna, and that's it; he does not resort to it again for the remainder of the Mass.

This pentatonic sequence of whole steps interspersed with minor thirds acts as a fulcrum by which Martin can shift easily among tonalities and modalities. Modal scales, like the major and minor ones, are comprised of a sequence of six whole steps and two half steps to reach the octave. It's the placement of the tritone separating the half step intervals within the scale that defines the tonality or modality. As an example, in major tonality the half steps come between the 3rd and 4th degrees of the scale and the 7th and 8th degrees of the scale. By moving the half step intervals down to the 2nd and 3rd degrees and the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale, the Dorian mode ensues. If those half step intervals are moved down another whole step, the Phrygian mode is created. And so on.

By using any degree of his pentatonic scale to start a mode, Martin broadens his reach considerably. As an example, the opening sequence of the Kyrie, by introducing the two half steps mentioned earlier, establishes the entire line in the Aeolian mode, which is equivalent to the minor scale. I identify it as the Aeolian mode, however; if Martin were using it in a harmonic sense as a minor scale, he would raise the 7th degree of the scale to make the g into a leading tone of g#.

Martin can also move easily into any mode or tonality by transposing his pentatonic scale. In the Kyrie, the sopranos quote the alto line first up a fourth, then again up another fourth, and then down a third. The line then continues to evolve away from the pentatonic formula; ultimately, its peregrinations allow Martin to make his first identifiable harmonic cadence on an E major chord. Just as the listener thinks "Aah—I know where I am," Martin denies that tonality by starting the next section of the Kyrie in C major. Martin uses these harmonic shifts, transpositions, and filling in of the pentatonic scale's minor thirds to suggest myriad tonalities and modalities before finally ending the movement on an E major chord. In the first movement, Martin takes the listener on an incredible journey; in a generalized harmonic framework, though, it seems tame: starting in a minor and ending in a minor's dominant of E major.

Knowing this about the Mass does not explain its seductive sway on the listener, however. Part of its appeal lies in Martin's use of texture and rhythm to create variety in the whole. Sometimes one voice is in solo and then imitated, as at the beginning of the Kyrie and in the setting of Et resurrexit. Martin will also build a dense layering of different keys heard simultaneously, known as polytonality; the lushness created thereby creates the sense of wonder heard in the Et incarnatus est section of the Credo, as well as the ecstatic homage to God at the climax of the Sanctus. Meters shift constantly. Compound meters might suggest joy, as heard in the 6/8 meter of Gratias agimus tibi from the Gloria, or they may be a numerological allusion, as illustrated in the numerous 5/8 and 5/4 measures throughout the Mass.

The listener's imagination assigns dramatic intent to some of Martin's themes. The diminished triad setting eleison (have mercy) in the Kyrie makes the supplicant sound pathetic. The descending scalar line of some of the voices in the homophonic intonation of et incarnates est suggests the Holy Spirit coming from above as strongly as the artistic iconography of the dove painted in Annunciation scenes. The Crucifixus setting in the Credo uses four descending whole tones to outline the interval of a tritone, long called the devil in music because of its extreme dissonance. This sequence of whole steps evokes the anguished cry of Christ on the cross as well as the grotesque posture of the crucified. The theme's solo statement refers to the solitary suffering of Christ, while the response of two voices, one of which has the same theme, suggests the presence of the two criminals crucified alongside Christ as relayed in Luke's Gospel. In the Agnus Dei, the dirge-like setting of the second chorus suggests the intolerable weight of Christ's burden; the listener associates that burden not only with the sins of the world but also with the cross that Christ carried to Golgotha for His crucifixion.

Martin achieves yet more variety by juxtaposing perfect intervals and their implicit tonalities with repeated melodic material; you will hear this in the last two movements of the work. In the Benedictus section of the Sanctus one choir intones Benedictus in open fifths; meanwhile the other choir has a repeated phrase sung in tandem parallel fourths on various degrees of an e major scale. One set of parallel fourths sounds eerie enough; two fourths stacked in trio sounds downright bizarre as the fourths become by turn augmented, perfect, and diminished. In the Agnus Dei Martin creates a melodic ostinato, or repeated melodic pattern, with the chant in the first chorus. It is juxtaposed by an increasingly dense series of chords underneath. However, as with a Rothko painting, in which the eye may perceive each plane as background or foreground, the ear never determines which choir accompanies the other. Martin's copious use of ninth chords in the second choir suggests to me another numerological reference; the number 9 signifies to Biblical numerologists both completion and renewal. Or does the numerological significance of the ninth chord result from the stacking of five tones separated by thirds upon each other? Either way, I find it hard to resist the idea that Martin made use of numerology to augment his praise of God.

In performing and listening to sacred choral music by a devout Christian you know that the composer is fully committed to presenting his craft in its most refined form. His composition results from and bears witness to his strong faith; it also testifies to the glory of the being he considers to be his maker and the creator of all. As such, these works usually rise above those inspired by more egotistical or mercenary motivation. It is with that knowledge that we offer you tonight's program: Passionate expressions of faith.

© 2014 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.