Shade and Light: Musical Expressions of Grief and Joy

Saturday October 28, 2017
Shade and Light: Musical Expressions of Grief and Joy

We pair the hauntingly beautiful setting of the Requiem Mass by the little known Portuguese Renaissance composer Manuel Cardoso with Bach’s exuberant setting of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied.

“Both Cardoso’s Missa pro defunctis and Bach’s Singet dem Herrn were composed for funerals, but their similarity ends there. Cardoso’s music expresses the sadness of life’s passing and trepidation about the soul’s fate, while Bach’s celebrates the deceased’s entrance into everlasting life. As a result, one is hauntingly beautiful, while the other exults joyously. We pair these with the only two choral works of Elliott Carter, set to poetry of Emily Dickinson, written early in his life, in which he captures respectively the moods of serendipitous happiness and pensive melancholy.” — Mary Beekman

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

The motivation for naming tonight’s concert Shade and Light originates in the contrasting moods of tonight’s music. Carter captures the essence of wonder in the first piece on tonight’s program and the depths of melancholia in the piece opening the second half. And, while both Cardoso and Bach composed their music to commemorate the dead, Cardoso’s setting of the Missa pro defunctis is a sombre reflection on life lost, while Bach’s is a celebration of the deceased’s entrance to life everlasting. In addition, the title is apt for this time of year when the deciduous trees begin the process of losing their foliage.

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Elliott Carter wrote very few pieces for chorus and these two, with texts by Emily Dickinson, are far more accessible to the average listener than the majority of his music. In Musicians wrestle everywhere, Carter creates a highly syncopated line and passes it among the voice parts in dense imitative counterpoint* to represent the boisterous chaos of the angels’ silver strife. When describing musically what the sound is not—band, or tambourine—he creates a homophonic* march for the depiction of the band and rhythmic snap to convey the sound of the tambourine being struck. In Heart not so heavy, Carter superimposes upon the slow tempo of the sustained chords with which he sets the opening words a solo line with dotted rhythms passed among the voices to embody the lighthearted mood of the whistler. The whistling itself is illustrated with triplet note values. The tonality moves from minor to major to describe the effect of the whistle before returning to the initial theme and minor tonality as the narrative returns to the depressed narrator. While the sustained notes once again reveal the heaviness of heart, the return to the major tonality to end the piece conveys the hope of the narrator for a brighter future.

Although probably unknown to many of today’s audiences, Manuel Cardoso was the most widely published Portuguese composer of the 17th century. Raised in Evora, he entered the Carmelite order and spent much of his life as the choirmaster and organist at the Carmelite Convento do Camo in Lisbon. For his Missa pro defunctis, also known as a Requiem in reference to the first word of the service for the deceased, Cardoso creates a dense texture by setting it for six voices. For most of the movements, he employs all six, but for a few of them, he achieves a more transparent texture by using only four voices, either in the higher registers or for the traditional soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Regardless of the number of voices used, one voice, most often in the treble register, intones the plainchant of the mass as it appears in the Liber usualis, the collection of chants codified and used by the Catholic Church in their worship services. Those prayers spoken by present-day churchgoers were sung in Catholic communities as a means of amplification. Begun by a single priest, they were then sung by the entire community; similarly, Cardoso has the first phrase of the chant intoned as a solo by a single voice part, a common practice for masses of the Renaissance era.

During the Renaissance the modern concept of tonalities did not exist; instead composers used modes. These scales, like our present day major and minor, proceed by a series of half and whole tones to the octave above their starting point. In a major scale the half tones occur between the 3rd and 4th degrees and the 7th and 8th degrees (think of a keyboard and the absence of black notes between e and f and b and c). In the modal language this mode was called the Ionian and the minor scale was known as the Aeolian. Composers of sacred music frequently used the Dorian mode, which has a half step between degrees 2 and 3, as the minor scale does, but which has the other half step between 6 and 7, in contrast to the minor scale’s degrees of 5 and 6. Most of the Renaissance Requiems I have encountered have used this Dorian mode, perhaps to underscore the somber and dolorous nature of the service. In contrast, Cardoso employs the Ionian mode for much of his setting, thereby emphasizing the redemption of the deceased rather than the uncertainty of his fate in the afterlife.

While the texture of the work may be monochromatic—most of it has a polyphonic* texture with very few homophonic* passages—the progression of harmonies created by the interaction of the independent voice parts is often astounding, taking the listener in a direction unanticipated by our modern ears. As an example, in the first movement attend to the phrase et lux perpetua luceat eis. In general the tonality in this movement vacillates between F major and its relative minor of D, but when the singers get to the word eis, the harmonic progression, which our ears expect to go from the dominant to the tonic, proceeds instead from the dominant to its dominant, which is an audible yank of the harmony to an extremely unexpected place. Even if you don’t understand what I just wrote, your ears will hear that passage as quite surprising. The beauty of it is that, as the word eis (them) is sung, the major chord shines a musical light on it, depicting in musical terms the text: let eternal light shine upon them.

As is not unusual for music of his time, Cardoso uses very little word painting to describe what is going on emotionally within the text. One large exception to this is his music for the Offertorium. In this movement the text describes the torments of damnation that will afflict those unredeemed by Jesus, and Cardoso illustrates these torments with a number of cross relations. Many Renaissance composers of polyphony*, most notably the British composers of the Tudor era, employed this compositional device as a means of drawing attention to a particular word that often had an unpleasant association. In a cross relation, as each voice follows the rules of counterpoint*, you will hear one voice sing a raised note, while another voice sings the note at its original pitch, creating a dissonance of a half tone in close proximity or even simultaneously. Cardoso makes use of these to draw attention to the words Libera and poenis. He also uses the vocal line to illuminate the meaning of a word: the melody of a falling minor triad describes cadant or fall.

Occasionally Cardoso draws attention to words in other movements. In the first Christe for four voices, there occurs a progression that is extremely unorthodox for its time in two respects. First, Cardoso writes the soprano line such that an f# immediately follows an f, an extremely unconventional voice leading for its time. Simultaneously, the vocal line with the chant moves from an a to a b flat, causing the two voices to create a diminished 4th, a vertical interval usually avoided by the strict rules of Renaissance counterpoint. In the final Kyrie a suspension* underscores eleisonhave mercy—and Cardoso makes use of this device in several places for a piteous effect.

Bach composed his five motets early in his career, most of them to commemorate the death of some one of note in the Leipzig community. This hypothesis stems, for those motets like Singet dem Herrn whose purpose is not definitively known, from his calling them ‘motet’ and giving no indication for the use of any instruments, even those involved in a basso continuo*. Choral music like this in the Lutheran tradition would most often be sung at occasions associated with the dead, such as a funeral or burial service. Though the joyful nature of the majority of the text of Singet dem Herrn would seem to belie this purpose, the text of the chorale juxtaposed with the freely composed commentary upon it in the middle of the three movement work ruminates on our transience upon earth.

Bach creates wonderful variety of texture in his use of the two choruses, by no means restricting them to the alternating imitation of each other that is typical of the form. The first movement begins with the text Sing to the Lord a new song. One chorus states singet in 2 chords over and over again in an exhortation to sing. The other chorus however, has each part enter imitatively while singing an extended melisma* on the word singet, thereby embodying the act of singing by representing both the abstract concept of singing and the new song simultaneously. The homophonic injunction to sing persists throughout the first movement, even when the text progresses and a fugue is introduced to set it; this persistent insistence on singing God’s praise unifies the movement. Elsewhere in this movement Bach creates a sense of consummate excitement by describing in musical terms Israel rejoices; the inner voices of each chorus sing rejoice together on the beat, but the outer parts of each anticipate the iteration as though their excitement in telling the story will not allow them to wait for the others.

In the second movement of this motet, Bach alternates one chorus singing a four-part harmonization of the chorale verse Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet expounding on human frailty with free-composed polyphony in the other chorus asserting God’s ability to protect them. The final movement starts with the antiphonal texture we associate with music for double chorus: one chorus states a musical idea and then the other answers this idea either identically or in a variant that allows it to travel harmonically. At the end of the movement Bach reduces the two choruses to one for a fugue setting the words All that hath life and breath praise the Lord. The reduction of the texture from eight parts to four gives this directive a powerful insistence. It is no wonder that Mozart, upon hearing a performance of this work in 1789 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach spent the majority of his musical career, cried out, “Now, there is something one can learn from!”

Music has the power to reach us to the core of our being, whether it moves us to tears or joy. We hope that tonight’s concert may inspire in you the full range of emotions that life has to offer while also allowing you to revel in its beauty.

© 2017 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.