Stories in Song: Choral Settings of Tales Familiar and New
Saturday March 16, 2019 at 8:00 PM
The ultimate dramatic thrill
Stories are powerful, but stories illustrated in music provide the ultimate dramatic thrill. Hear stories from the sublime to the ridiculous with Copland's In the Beginning, his stirring impression of the Biblical creation of the world; Britten's melodramatic rendering of illicit love in The Ballad of Lady Barnard and Little Musgrave; and everything in between!
Just announced! Mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko will join us to sing Copland's "In the Beginning."
- First Church Congregational
- 11 Garden Street
- Cambridge, MA
- More details
Concert Program Notes
Tonight Musica Sacra presents a concert of music organized around a new theme: stories recounted in choral music. The earliest poets sang their poetry—Homer's epic poems being an example; it is only more recently in human history that tale and music have become dissociated from one another. We reap the advantage of this dissociation by hearing interpretations of stories by musicians who did not originate them and who therefore can bring their own personal interpretations to them.
One striking aspect of tonight's program is the [nearly] unanimous decision of the composers to convey their story with a minimum of counterpoint* and a minimum of words set to melismas;* this allows the text to take center stage. Some works, such as In the beginning and Serenade, convey the text through a soloist, while most of the others, such as Barbe's Ung capitaine de pillars, Britten's Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, and Evett's Shiloh use homophony* as the primary texture. A few, such as Hamilton's Willow Song and Britten's Ballad of Green Broom, use one voice to sing the melody while the other voices supply the harmony with a wordless or punctuated accompaniment. All of these compositional devices allow the story of the text to be communicated to the listener with maximal power, while the composers reserve exceptions for dramatic effect and word painting.
Die Wasserfee, Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901); text: Hermann Lingg (1820–1905)
A prolific composer of music for both organ and chorus, Rheinberger is unknown to the vast majority of symphonic audiences despite the fact that he composed two symphonies. I consider many of his choral works to be unjustly neglected gems in the choral repertory. I particularly like this secular piece about a water sprite, who, like Homer's sirens, lures men to their deaths. When Musica Sacra performed this on WGBH's Morning pro Musica many years ago, the renowned host, Robert J. Lurtsema, didn't seem to appreciate this aspect, but I soon clarified it by telling him: you may want to join them, but you can't take your tank.
Piano arpeggios* open the piece in a minor tonality* to set the stage for this melodramatic tale. While the texture is predominantly homophonic,* Rheinberger creates variety through short imitative sections, recurrent expressions of thematic material in both minor and major tonality, and by the many pregnant pauses that follow the word horch (listen). Rheinberger employs imitative lines to describe the gliding motion of the seagulls riding the currents of air, and his duets depicting the movement of the waves are not only an aural representation of waves rising and falling, but a visual one for the singer as well. Late in the work fast arpeggios represent the harps referred to in the text.
Ung capitaine de pillars, Antoine Barbe (1505–c. 1564)
Both this piece and the le Cocq heard later in the program reveal aspects of the Renaissance not heard that often in its music: its crass frankness, bitchiness, and humor. That the le Cocq text skewers a Catholic priest demonstrates an ability to laugh at the Church pretty much absent in today's world.
Serenade op. 135 for women, Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
The inspiration for this piece came from a friend of Schubert's, who brought him this poem she had requested Franz Grillparzer to write for her. Schubert originally set it for men's voices and female soloist, but the woman requested that he reset it for women's voices, and that setting is what you hear tonight. Interestingly, Schubert did not just move the treble choral parts up an octave from the original parts, but made minor revisions to them as well as to the solo, leaving only the charming piano accompaniment unchanged.
Shiloh's Hill, Southern American folk song, arr. Rebecca Blum
This piece and the next form a powerful pair. The first is a well-known folk tune, arranged by a former Musica Sacra soprano for our concert commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and Battle of Gettysburg. It describes in unflinching terms the unrelenting brutality of the battle of Shiloh in April, 1862, which surpassed the casualties of any Civil War battle prior to that time, although it soon lost that distinction. Blum captures the pathos of the narrator's personal view as well as the chaos of close-fought battle. For the former, she creates a moment of major tonality to describe the personal attributes of the fallen soldiers and has one choral voice at a time name them while the others sympathetically hum an accompaniment. For the latter, she has the parts enter from bass to soprano in strict and close imitation, thereby also creating an aural picture of the forced march in unending ranks that defined battles of that era.
Shiloh from The Mask of Cain, Robert Evett (1922–1975); text by Herman Melville (1819–1891)
I find Evett's setting of Melville's poem Shiloh to be one of the most affecting pieces I have ever performed in my forty-five years as a conductor. The poetry is so simple and yet so poignant, and Evett capitalizes on that consummately. He unifies the piece by beginning and ending it with the same musical material; in the beginning it describes the flight of swallows, while at the end it describes the men fallen and left on the field dead or mortally wounded beneath their flight. Evett creates a moment of heart-wrenching drama by following his forte* dynamic for the phrase Fame and country least their care, which expresses both the ironic claim of glory in battle and the anger at wasted lives, with the piano* setting of What like a bullet can undeceive?. With that contrast Evett augments the power of that line one-hundred fold, and to my mind creates a more powerful anti-war statement than any heard before or since. I find it remarkable that this poem and Melville as a poet are not better known alongside the anti-war poetry of Walt Whitman and Rupert Owen.
In the Beginning, Aaron Copland (1900–1990); text Genesis 1.1–2.7
Copland's In the beginning owes its origin to a 1947 symposium at Harvard University designed to create a bridge between what composers were writing and what audiences wanted to hear through the education of music critics in the new, less accessible compositional styles. Harvard commissioned Copland to write a work for unaccompanied chorus set to a Hebrew text. Copland, not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a 'Jewish composer,' used the King James version of the creation story from Genesis; contemporaneous pieces, such as Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring, were already beginning to give him the reputation of being a quintessentially American composer. While one can argue the merits of trying to educate listeners to like music they inherently didn't like, it is much harder to dispute the power of this piece.
In order to keep these notes relatively short, I will list some of my impressions of the musical activity Copland brings to this text.
The opening solo: the lyric melodic line expresses God's beneficence in creating what eventually becomes mankind's domain. The descending lines with which the choral voices enter represent the descent of God's spirit to his creation. This tender mood recurs elsewhere in the piece as God describes creating the plant world and the creatures of the sea.
The recurring setting of and the evening and the morning: Copland provides a unifying function to the piece with this motif, always expressed in homophony;* this is made necessary by the disparate and, for the most part, unrelated musical passages that precede each of them. Typically they represent the new tonality of the subsequent section, which makes singing the notes accurately for the chorus akin to sticking a difficult landing in gymnastics.
Let there be light section which initiates the creations of the fourth day: the frenetic activity of the solo line calls to my mind the jagged kinetic power of electricity. The perfunctory iteration of and it was so reminds me of some one checking something off their list saying, "That's done!"
The canonic* section setting the creation of the sun and moon reflects God's intention immediately becoming realized.
The creation of fish and fowl: One of the few non-homophonic sections of the work allows the music to represent the sea as the text describes the creation of marine life. Even so, only one or two voices carry the text, while the others sing slow arpeggios* to limn the harmony. For this section Copland introduces the compound triple meter of two groups of three, a meter often used to describe water and its associated activities.
The creation of the beasts of the earth: Copland uses imitative inversion between the treble and bass voices to show how the beasts' creation mirrors God's intention.
Copland sets the oft-repeated line and God said in the solo voice, although there are some occasions where he has a lone vocal part intone it. The notable exception to this occurs when Copland relays God's decision to create man in His image: all four voices sing in unison in a forte* dynamic, and Copland replaces the tenderness of most iterations of this line with a ferocious intensity. It draws attention to God's power and to His momentous decision to create man to have dominion over the rest of his creation, and emphatically underscores man's creation in God's exact likeness.
God's resting on the 7th day: Copland sets this text with consonant homophony to reflect God's contentment with His creation and His generosity in creating it for humanity. However, Copland does not end his piece with the end of Genesis 1. He continues with the alternate version of creation recounted in Genesis 2 and ends with God's breathing life into man, thereby casting a humanistic tone to the entire work rather than a religious one. I have always found the majestically slow and consonant ending to be one of the most powerful moments in choral literature.
Tykus tykus, Vaclovas Augustinas (born 1959); text: Lithuanian folk song
Lithuanian composer Vaclovas Augustinas used a Lithuanian folk tune as the basis of his 2010 composition Tykus, Tykus. He creates a tripartite structure by reprising the opening musical material with which he sets the first verse, a constantly reiterated motif of rapidly repeating notes setting the text what a quiet lad, what a calm rider. These repetitions evoke the trotting sounds of a horse, and, indeed, later in the piece the singers mimic the sound of horse hooves by clicking their tongues. These repeated notes cease briefly in the middle section as the text first describes his deflowering of a maiden and then his leaping up to ride away to war. The major tonality and legato texture setting the first part of this middle section underscore the lover's attractiveness and powers of seduction, while the syncopated rhythms and closely imitated phrases setting the next part of it allude to the pounding of his heart as he senses the danger that prompts him to ride off to battle.
Sir Patrick Spens, Robert Pearsall (1795–1856); text: Scottish ballad
Robert Pearsall was primarily a self-taught composer who composed part-songs in an effort to revive and expand upon the Renaissance tradition of English madrigals. The text for this madrigal comes from a popular Scottish folk song describing an actual event in 13th-century Scotland in which Scottish men died after delivering a Scottish bride to Norway. It appeared in the 19th-century compendium of English folksongs known as the Child Ballads for the man who collected them.
Musically the part-song is in keeping with 19th-century style in that the text is delivered by the chorus in no-nonsense homophony. * Two elements distinguish it from many of its contemporaries, however: the fact that it is set for two five-part choruses, and its ending, in which Pearsall deviates from his brisk setting of the text to convey the bereavement of those mourning the dead. Pearsall creates some lovely word painting: his one imitative line in its descent describes the waves coming over the ship. Prior to that he employs a diminished 7th chord,* in a wide disposition of the voices to emphasize the deadliness of the storm.
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, Benjamin Britten (1914–1976); text: English ballad
Benjamin Britten also took his text here from the Child Ballads; his setting is consummately dramatic. The thematic music opening the work also closes it, thereby providing unifying bookends. In the opening major tonality you can hear the bells tolling for the private Mass in the high notes of the piano accompaniment; at the end the tonality becomes minor, and ponderous repeated notes in the right hand of the piano create a dirge to relay the death of both lovers and the remorse of Lord Barnard. Inside these bookends Britten continues the palindromic structure with fast tempos, first to paint the breathlessness of the page as he decides to run and tell his master of the wife's infidelity, and then to represent the frantic determination of Lord Barnard to catch them in the act. As the lovers debate whether or not they hear the Lord's horn in the distance, the piano provides its hunting call. The center of the work has one of my favorite settings in all of choral music. The singers impart the text in unison while the piano also comments in unison on their text; both elements are very irregular to suggest the Lord's stealthy and suspenseful approach. When the text arrives at Arise, thou little Musgrave, the voices sing stentorian chords in harmony to convey the power and self-righteousness of Lord Barnard's demand.
The Willow Song, David Hamilton (born 1955); text by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
The New Zealand composer David Hamilton set this song from Shakespeare's Othello to sound like a folk song, which is appropriate, considering its narrator is a woman lamenting having been seduced and abandoned, a common theme in folk traditions. We have performed several pieces by this unjustifiably unknown author over the years. The minor tonality* of the lyric melody, and the fact that one part at a time sings that melody while the other voices create the harmonies to accompany it, engender its folk-like nature, as does its opening iteration by the altos in the lower timbre of their register. Hamilton maximizes the drama inherent to the story by having the male voices of the tenor part sing the line of the feckless lover.
Ballad of Green Broom, Benjamin Britten; text anonymous
As with his other work on tonight's program, Britten here uses a traditional folk ballad for inspiration. The tale concerns a handsome lad who for once does not laze in bed but does his father's bidding. Because he is out cutting broom he catches the attention of a lady of a certain age who asks him to marry her, thereby underscoring that looks are everything in this world. Britten has fun with his melody, starting it rather slowly and then having it gain momentum as the story unfolds to the point of the commanding and yet somewhat desperate cry of the lady to her maid: Go fetch me the boy! The melody becomes jaggedly dissonant during the ensuing conversation between her and Johnny as Britten sets it in duet between two pairs of voices, the male ones representing the boy and the female ones representing the lady. The dissonance might represent the incongruity of the May–December match or the advanced age of the woman. In any event, the melody reverts to its major folk-like nature as it speeds up to a breathless ending representing the gossip of the townspeople over the match, while the women's voices simulate the tolling of church bells heralding the wedding.
Glossary of terms
- 1. arpeggio: a melody made up of the notes in a chord played in succession rather than simultaneously. The adjectival form is arpeggiated.
- 2. canon: two or more voices repeating an identical melodic line in close succession, so that the lines overlap. A round like Frère Jacques is an example of a canon.
- 3. counterpoint: the interplay of polyphonic lines. Contrapuntal is the adjectival form.
- 4. dynamic: the quality of loudness or softness to music.
- 5. forte: a loud dynamic, from the Italian 'strong'.
- 6. harmonic sequence: the restatement of a short series of harmonic progressions in successively higher or lower tonality.
- 7. homophony: a musical texture in which all voices move as one to provide the harmonic movement. Hymns and chorales are illustrations of homophonic texture.
- 8. Liber Usualis: See plainchant.
- 9. meter: The meter determines the emphasis of certain beats within the music. A waltz has a triple meter, while the U.S. national anthem has a duple meter.
- 10. piano: A soft dynamic.
- 11. plainchant: A unison melody that was the earliest form of music in the Christian church and modeled after chants in the Judaic worship tradition. While each European region developed its own melodies for the various parts of Christian worship, these chants were eventually codified into a book known as the Liber Usualis at the end of the 19th century. Every text in everyday worship- from liturgy to psalms to hymns- has music specific to it, although some services, like that of Holy Communion, have more than one. Some of the chants started out as part of an oral tradition that preceded musical notation, such that their exact age is impossible to determine, while others originated later in history.
- 12. polyphony: A musical texture of independent voices that may have similar melodic material and whose interaction creates the vertical harmony.