Double Takes: One Text, Two Perspectives

Saturday May 13, 2023
Double Takes: One Text, Two Perspectives

Have you ever wondered how a poem might inspire different composers?

This is your chance to find out at Musica Sacra’s final concert of the season, “Double Takes.” Works from the Renaissance to this century and from Finland to America will provide you the opportunity to hear composers’ interpretations of the same text, allowing you to pick your favorites at the end of the night.


  • Ave Maria, by Josquin des Prez and Ludwig Senfl
  • Sure on this Shining Night, by Samuel Barber and Morten Lauridsen
  • William Blake’s The Lamb, by John Tavener and Adolphus Hailstork
  • Sommarnatten, by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Nocturne by Adolphus Hailstork
  • Set Me As a Seal, by William Walton and Daniel Pinkham
  • Full Fathom Five, by Charles Wood and Matthew Harris

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Musica Sacra and I welcome you to the last concert of our season, Double Takes. The theme for this program is one I have used two other times in my career, because I find it fascinating to experience how two composers can take the same text and interpret it so differently in their music. As you will hear tonight, some composers have the same idea of the text’s import but different ways of expressing it, while others have a completely different impression of the text’s meaning. We will be interested to discover which version resonates more with you.

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Ave Maria

Josquin des Prez synthesized the early Renaissance style of his Flemish predecessors Obrecht and Ockeghem with that of the Italian Renaissance style learned through his years in Italy as a director and a singer. In doing so, his music ushered in the style of the High Renaissance, emulated by composers throughout the 16th century and stylistically perfected by the late Renaissance composer Palestrina. Apparently Ave Maria is his earliest work, appearing first among the selections comprising the first volume of motets ever printed. As evident in this motet, Josquin initiated the practice of characterizing and isolating each line of text with its own musical line repeated in imitation among the voices. Also evident is his other major innovation of providing musical variety by the use of different vocal textures: duets between two voices; alternating duets of the high voices with the lower ones; juxtaposing three voices with one voice; breaking up the text to create some shorter lines imitative of each other to illustrate single words (listen to the section setting Coelestia, terrestria,/ Nova replete Laetitia); and using the unified texture of homophony.* Josquin reserves this homophony for the very end of the piece to set the plea for the Virgin to remember the supplicant; as such it expresses the humility of the supplicant in juxtaposition to the florid counterpoint* extolling the virtues of the Virgin. He emphasizes this humility by his final chord of open intervals of three unisons and one fifth with no third.

The Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl wrote a fabulous homage to Josquin’s piece with his version of the same poem, although some might argue it to be more of a demonstration of one-upmanship than tribute. Senfl increases the voices from four to six, thereby affording him opportunities to create more complex textures, and explores the expression of each line at greater length. Perhaps the ultimate smackdown, however, comes from his dedication of one of the voices exclusively to the direct quote of the opening line in long note values to signify the end of each line’s exposition. My favorite example of his showmanship occurs in his taking the final four notes of the line setting the last syllable of the text cuius annunciatio and turning that into a flourish of its own, a little imitative dialogue among the five voices. Senfl, like Josquin, changes to triple meter for variety during the Ave vera virginitas section of the poem. He draws attention to the final verse by prominently featuring each line of Josquin’s setting in the top voice. To this listener, however, his ultimate supplication to be remembered is not half so effective as that of his predecessor, since he cannot resist embellishing it with dense counterpoint* and having the final chord contain a third as well as a fifth. I guess he had never heard the expression “less is more.”

Full fathom five

The Irish composer Charles Wood may not be a familiar name in the compositional canon, but his students Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal Academy of Music, of which he was a founding member, certainly are. While primarily a church musician, Wood also composed some well-received and popular secular music, including this part song. I love his treatment of Shakespeare’s text. The arpeggiated* melody he uses to illustrate the final line Ding-dong bell permeates the music, serving as a unifying force, while the major tonality*, in its contrast to the sad import of the text, hints at the tale’s deceptive intent. My favorite illustration of the text serves to underscore the sea-change into something rich and strange: Wood abruptly changes the D major tonality* to B flat major and then has it migrate again into G minor before resolving back to the original key.

In stark contrast, Matthew Harris goes whole hog in presenting the story as true by setting the text as a melancholic dirge. He underscores the marine nature of the supposed death with a 6/8 meter, used by composers to set texts pertaining to the sea, The final chord to set Ding-dong, bell, with its hollow open fifth lacking a third, sounds the mournful knell alluded to immediately prior.

The Lamb

Many of us devoted to the broadcast of Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on NPR each Christmas Eve have heard Tavener’s version of William Blake’s poem The Lamb. Tavener’s setting is strophic to match the form of the poem, with only the addition of the lower voices in verse two to provide variety. The sopranos sing a solo melody on the first line, while the second musical line is accompanied by the altos in an inverted mirror image of it—i.e., if the melody rises a major third the accompaniment falls a major third—to create a musical Rorschach blot. This pattern repeats in the next two lines with new melodic material stated first in solo and then in mirrored accompaniment. The resulting dissonance seems incongruent with the docility described in the poetry, but the simplicity of the strict structure underscores the lamb’s innocence, as does Tavener’s prevailing style of assigning only one note per syllable. Tavener adds the lower two voices and slows the tempo to provide a homophonic* accompaniment to the original melody for the last four lines of the stanza. The structure of the second stanza follows that of the first virtually identically, with the addition of the lower two voices in octaves with the treble voices for the initial six lines as the only difference.

I imagine that Hailstork’s version of The Lamb is unfamiliar to most of you, as it was to me. Published in 1994, it concluded his cycle of Five short choral works. Hailstork conveys the innocence of the lamb with a lovely melody sung by the sopranos as the alto and tenor lines wordlessly accompany them. The basses enter in a canon* at the third on the third line of the poem, and for the next four lines the other two voices gradually imitate with words the melody that continues in the soprano; the ensuing bloom of the musical texture depicts the mystery of creation described in the text. This textural bloom culminates in a major key with the four voices in homophony* for the first time to emphasize the text Making all the vales rejoice. For the second stanza Hailstork’s music modulates* from E minor to A major and then abruptly shifts from A major to A flat major. Because the melody embraces the tritone* between the fourth and seventh degrees of the scale, however, the resulting sound is distinctly modal*. The tonality* only announces itself on the line I a child and thou a lamb, resulting in a wonderful musical climax before subsiding in vocal register and dynamic to conclude the piece in F major.

Sure on this shining night

Barber’s setting of Sure on this shining night has always held a place in my heart as one of my favorite pieces of choral music ever written; I have always felt a powerful sense of peace in its transporting beauty. This seems particularly impressive considering that it originated as a piece for soloist and piano, which Barber later rearranged for chorus and piano. The words of James Agee certainly inspired him; he set Agee’s prose for soprano and orchestra in his composition Knoxville, Summer of 1915, another work of transporting beauty. In this work Barber begins and ends with a dialogue of melody in canon* at the third between the soprano and tenor or alto voices, while in the center section he allows the sopranos to hold forth as the other parts take phrases of the melody to accompany them. This new texture, along with the dynamic* and tessitura* of the voices, results in a dramatic climax for the line All is healed, all is health. That and his simple use of a stress on the word weep for the phrase I weep for wonder get me every time.

Lovers of choral music differ on which setting of Agee’s prose they find more affective (and effective), Barber’s or Lauridsen’s. Where Barber treats the text succinctly and transparently, Lauridsen delineates the first two stanzas by giving each its own melody repeated twice, first in solo men’s voices with piano and then in the soprano with the other voices accompanying. Where Barber’s version draws attention to the phrases I allude to above, Lauridsen emphasizes the word shining with an oft-repeated lengthy melisma* and uses it in the work’s climactic moment of dynamic* and tessitura*. Because this word comes towards the end of the text, however, and Lauridsen, like Barber, wants to create a symmetry in the music, he takes the opening phrase of the text and repeats it four times in an ever decreasing dynamic* and tempo to express the sense of wonder and awe Agee alludes to.

Sommarnatten and Nocturne

The music of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Sommarnatten forms a triptych, opening and closing with dreamlike music that bookends a more active middle section, inspired by its Swedish text (set to a Finnish folk tune), which alludes to a social dance on a bridge on a summer night. In this faster middle section, the voices imitate each other polyphonically*, such that each voice has the same melodic material at different times. The aural effect calls to mind pairs of dancers, each doing the same dance to the music but complete in themselves, like a kaleidoscope of waltzing pairs in a ballroom. Rautavaara achieves the trancelike beginning and end sections by means of slow chord vacillations between G major and D minor in the lower voices accompanied with a repeating motif by soprano solos in an accelerated version of the first half of the melody that the middle voices sing in octaves. This melody in the inner parts outlines a D minor seventh chord, while the soloists alternate between D minor and B minor in their faster iteration of it. Because the G major and B minor triads have in common the minor third of B to D, and the triads of D major and B minor share the major third of D to F#, the interplay among these chords—especially the D major’s F# in opposition to the D minor’s F—creates an otherworldly sense of simultaneous congruence and incongruence.

Like The Lamb, Nocturne also appears in Hailstork’s Five Short Choral Works. Hailstork consummately captures the reverie embodied in this poem by Jim Curtis; it is as much a love song reveling in being outside under the summer’s night sky as it is a poem to his lover. You can hear the susurrating sounds of the grass and leaves as the work begins in the lower voices singing similar phrases at staggered intervals while repeating the words summer night to accompany the melody in the soprano. When the poem turns to contemplation of the night sky, Hailstork calls attention to the change by moving to a polyphonic* texture which climaxes in a forte* dynamic to illustrate the ardor of the narrator as he urges his love to join him in the experience. As with the selections by Barber, Lauridsen, and Rautavaara, Hailstork sculpts a symmetric form by returning to the dreamlike music of the opening section.

Set me as a seal

Walton’s version of Set me as a seal appeared on my very first program with Musica Sacra 43 years ago, but I have never reprised it until now. It is one of my favorite works of Walton and far more contemplative, to my mind, than many others of his I have performed. I hear the poet in ruminative solitude muse on the nature of love in luxuriant harmonies. There are moments of dramatic passion, as in the setting of the line For love is strong as death, but their loud dynamic and homophonic* treatment illustrates the ultimate power of death as their primary focus.

Pinkham’s setting, on the other hand, is mostly homophonic* and thereby emphasizes the passion of the speaker as they supplicate their beloved directly. This year marks the centennial of Dan’s birth, and this piece, the final movement of his Wedding Cantata, has got to be one of my favorites. He underscores the poet’s passion by iterating three times Love is strong, each time emphasizing a different word of the phrase. This has the effect of showing love to be equally powerful as death, which Pinkham avers emphatically by omitting the final comparative phrase as death from his setting. He ends the movement with a tender Amen expressed four times, two of which lead to unexpected harmonies in their cadence; in their totality they serve as a benediction to the listener.

© 2023 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.