May 9, 2015 Program Notes

This World and the Other

And my soul though stained with sorrow, Fading as the light of day…

In darkness and concealment, my house being now all stilled.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord: from this time forth for evermore.

Sheep can safely graze where a good shepherd watches over them.

Shepherd, shepherd leave decoying…

When we are in the tavern, we do not think how we will go to dust.

Tonight we present music about “this” world, with texts that express our preoccupations with spring, feasting and drinking, and love. And we’ll sing about the “other” world – about the comfort of going to heaven, the soul’s immortality, the “sheer grace” of faith. Some of the pieces we’ll sing tonight are concerned with big questions: who watches over us on earth and in heaven? How is our life on earth captive to our less-noble desires and to the whirl of Fortune’s wheel? And some of them deal only with the immediate pleasures of life (including lots of emphasis on, er, interpersonal relationships).

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The tune and lyrics of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” appeared in William Hauser’s 1878 shape note book Olive Leaf.

Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to the note heads in written music to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without the use of more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.

Shape notes of various kinds have been used for over two centuries in a variety of music traditions, mostly sacred but also secular, originating in New England, practiced primarily in the Southern region of the United States for many years, and now experiencing a renaissance in other locations as well. (Wikipedia)

Alice Parker, known for her many choral arrangements with Robert Shaw and for her New England choral group Melodious Accord, arranged this hymn for mixed chorus in 1967.

 

 

The famous “Sheep May Safely Graze” is from a dinner-time entertainment, the “Hunting Cantata”, written by J.S. Bach in 1716 for the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. The sheep in this case are not protected by Christ but by the noble princes and dukes of the area. The gorgeous tune has over time morphed into a song expressing a more Christian point of view.

 

“Shepherd, shepherd leave decoying” is from another, albeit longer, dinner entertainment – Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur (1691), with a libretto by John Dryden. The song is heard at the end of Act II, and nicely illustrates for our program tonight the perils of enjoying oneself too much: “In a pavilion in Arthur’s camp, Emmeline is concerned for her lover’s safety, but allows herself to be diverted by an entertainment from a group of shepherds and shepherdesses. The shepherds and shepherdesses sing of the joys of peaceful country life, love and marriage. The shepherds and shepherdesses leave, whereupon Oswald enters and captures Emmeline.” (Lindsay Kemp, www.barbican.org.uk)

 

Stephen Ledbetter writes that Felix Mendelssohn’s motet “Laudate Pueri” was “inspired by his experiences in Rome in 1830. Mendelssohn liked to watch the sunset from the top of the Spanish Steps, which offered a stunning view across the Tiber to the great dome of St. Peter’s (designed by Michelangelo) with the sun setting behind it. Standing there in front of the 15th -century church Trinità dei Monti, he could hear a chorus of cloistered French nuns singing the Office, as a kind of soundtrack to the glorious sunset. This experience suggested a set of motets for women’s voices. Laudate pueri Dominum is actually a replacement for the work he originally wrote as No. 2 in the set; he composed it on August 14, 1837 (long after leaving Rome), but there is a possible reminiscence of Palestrina’s “Missa Assumpta est Maria,” which the scholar Giuseppe Baini may have showed Mendelssohn during his visit.”

That influence on Mendelssohn of the Renaissance master Palestrina (1525-1594) makes an interesting connection in our program. Palestrina lived at the same time as John of the Cross, the activist monk and poet, whose text you will hear in “Dark Night of the Soul”. Some 300 years after Palestrina, Mendelssohn, well-versed in the music of the Renaissance and Baroque, composes a melody based on a medieval Gregorian chant such as Palestrina may have used. And of course later in the program, in Carmina Burana, we will sing medieval Latin and German texts – but no medieval melodies – taken from a collection of 11th and 12th century poems, the “Songs from Beuern”.

 

“Dark Night of the Soul” is a setting of part of a poem by the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. The poem was written in 1578 or 1579 when he was imprisoned for trying to reform the Carmelite order. The term “dark night (of the soul)” describes the journey of the soul as it leaves its earthly prison and travels toward reunion with God. Ola Gjeilo has commented, “I think there’s definitely a sort of cinematic quality to that piece. I really love to listen to a lot of film music, and most of my favorite living composers are actually film composers. So I felt that that should be reflected in my own music as well. Because I wanted to write music that I wanted to listen to myself. I think that piece really brought together a lot of things that I’m really passionate about, and I always wanted to give the piano more of a prominent role in a choral piece.” (www.seattlechoralcompany.org)

Another highly cinematic piece is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, scored for large orchestra, chorus and soloists. Tonight’s performance is using the composer’s own reduction for percussion, two pianos, chorus and soloists. Carmina Burana is a disparate set of poems, loosely tied together under the headings Fortune, Spring, In the Tavern, and Love. Each song has its own character, though in general Orff uses the same harmonic structures throughout and the emphasis is on simple harmonies and lots of rapid word setting. The influence of Stravinsky is apparent in Orff’s highly accented, mixed meter phrasing, and perhaps there is a hint Poulenc as well (thinking here of the somewhat odd word accents in #22 (“Ecce Gratum”).

 

The Wheel of Fortune serves as an organizing principle for the grouping of texts. The urges of pleasure and desire illustrated by the poems and music are oriented around the recurrent and implacable figure of Fortuna. Carmina Burana is revealed to outline a vast circle, ending with the chorus that begins the piece, as if to signal the eternal return of the cycle of life. Within this framework Orff maps out a tripartite scenario of sensual delights. These involve the innocence of nature (Part One: “In the Springtime” and “On the Meadow”), the social sphere of partying (the briefer, testosterone-heavy Part Two: “In the Tavern”), and the amorous and bittersweet awakening of courtship (Part Three: “Court of Love”).

The wheel’s rotations — ceaselessly repeated, much like human desire — are cleverly echoed in the repeated melodic material and refrains. Orff evokes a pre-Christian, pagan sensibility while relying on clever word painting that can sound both archaic and modern. (Among the most famous examples are the solo tenor’s high D’s to depict the not exactly comfortable situation of the swan being roasted in “Olim lacus colueram.”)

The wheel is similarly mirrored in the poems’ images of the cycle of seasons, the luck of gambling, social role reversals, the swan turning on its spit, and — in what are arguably the most enchanting sections of the score — the emotional ups and downs of sexual passion in the final story of “Blanziflor and Helena.” Throughout, Orff balances the score’s vigorous exuberance with moments of introspective tranquility, inviting us to an understanding of pleasure and pain as opposites of the same coin. (Thomas May, LA Master Chorale)

 

Working on Carmina Burana is a challenge for singers, in that they need to develop muscle memory to articulate the words rapidly, and it calls for a large palette of tonal color, but it is hugely fun to sing. “The text…celebrates the coming of spring in rather hedonistic ways.   It flirts with indecency, and to quote Kenneth Clark (1969) out of context, ‘like all forms of indecency, it’s irresistible.’” (Nick Strimple. Choral Music in the Twentieth Century)

 

Rerum tanta novitas in sollemni vere et veris auctoritas iubet nos gaudere,

“The universal renewal of recurring Spring and her authority compel us to rejoice.”

Happy Spring!

 

-Anne Watson Born

 

Working on Carmina Burana

Great rehearsal last night. I think we’re starting to see how to access Carmina. It’s a difficult piece to rehearse because the bulk of the work needs to be done by you, the singers, on your own, as you make the language your own. SO MANY WORDS! You need to develop muscle memory for the medieval Latin and German (remember, no Italianate qu sounds, always kv. No soft gs, only hard. Etc. etc.) So please do spend time each day speaking or singing the text.

 

What we can do in rehearsal together is the usual work of unifying the phrasing, the dynamics, and the articulation. Add to that the work we are beginning on sound – where we sound majestic (“Blanziflor”), liquidly beautiful (“purpuratum floret pratum”), or raucous (“Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo” and all of In taberna). We are beginning to work on retaining an open, deep tone even in fast tempi (“tempus est iocundum, o, o, o”). And we have started to take Orff’s accent marks seriously, leading to the exciting rhythmic propulsion that makes this work so popular.

 

So – good work! We’ll continue next week, and we’ll return to the transcendent “Dark Night of the Soul” as well.