I was driving home after rehearsal one night and heard a Bach piece, unfamiliar to me (turned out to be the Overture in French Style in B minor). Listening to it I had both a feeling of comfortable understanding (“okay, that’s what he’s doing, that’s where it’s going; I got this”) and a sense of confusion (“geez there are a lot of notes, what the heck?!”). About ten minutes in I stopped thinking and just gave in to beauty. We include program notes to give markers of what’s happening so that you can “follow” it; we include historical information for “context” – but really what we want is to communicate, in some small, ineffectual way, what it’s like to be inside of this music. We have lived with this music for 10 weeks, and in addition to our common goals as a choral ensemble, each of us has a particular relationship with these works. I hope some of that will be communicated tonight – and meanwhile, here are some very cool facts for your edification.
J.S. Bach Motet No. 3
In all likelihood, this motet (in Margaret Bent’s pithy definition, “a piece of music in several parts with words”) was composed for the funeral of the postmaster’s wife in 1723 in Leipzig.
It was traditional in Leipzig that the passing of every citizen was formally observed in one of the city’s churches. Students from the Thomas School were required to be among the official mourners at those civic events, but their number and the elaborateness of the music they performed were determined by the contribution that the deceased’s family or estate made to the proceedings. (Bach earned considerable income from this source and lamented the paucity of deaths among the townspeople during one extended healthy period.) (Richard E. Rodda).
I imagine the postmaster was not ungenerous, as this is the longest and most monumental of all of Bach’s motets. Whether it would have been performed with instruments as we are tonight, or a capella, is an open question.
The heart of BWV 227, Jesu, meine Freude, is the chorale melody. The text was written by Johann Franck, the tune by Johann Crüger. I am reminded of some of my favorite cooking shows, where the chef somewhat smugly announces that he has prepared “Salmon, three ways” – in this masterful motet, Bach sets the chorale melody 5 different ways in 6 of the 11 movements. Bach did not compose the chorale melodies that he included in his compositions throughout his life. Most of the hymn tunes in Bach’s cantatas, organ works, Passions and motets were composed earlier:
Literally thousands of these melodies were written by hymnodists (mainly German, in Bach’s case) in the century or two before Bach. Some were adapted from popular songs, even love songs. Martin (“There’s no reason why the Devil should have all the good tunes”) Luther wrote thirty six himself. (Bernard S. Greenberg)
The chorale has six stanzas, in “fruitful dramatic alternation” (John Eliot Gardiner) with verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8. The musical settings of these texts have as well a beautiful symmetry: movements 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 are the chorale stanzas, and the Romans texts are set as follows: the 2nd and 10th sections share the same music, with no. 10 being half the length; the 4th and 8th settings are both trio textures (SSA in no. 4 and ATB in no. 8); and the 6th movement, the center of the work, is a glorious fugue.
The work begins with a straightforward setting of the chorale tune, reminding one why Bach’s chorale settings have been studied for generations of music students. The second movement illustrates the text beautifully with dramatic pauses, dynamic shifts, and its walking rhythms (“wandeln”) disrupted by syncopated, lurching rhythms (when you’re not following the way of the spirit).
After another masterful exercise in voice leading in the 2nd chorale stanza – with an added voice (Soprano II) – we hear the women’s voices: “Denn das Gesetz des Geistes”; the text is about the spirit, the third part of the holy Trinity, so Bach uses higher voices in triple meter.
The most complex setting of a chorale verse follows. The chorale melody is outlined in the two soprano parts but is certainly not as obvious to the ear. I love what John Eliot Gardiner says about this section: “In the fifth movement Bach conjures the medieval image of ‘the old dragon’ with the graphic vividness of a Cranach or a Grünewald. Then he opposes it with the powerful image of Luther himself, fearless in his isolated rebellion (‘ich steh hier und singe’) and like the archangel Michael, brave and unmovable in his defiance (‘in gar sichrer Ruh’). We sense how Bach too ‘stands here and sings in confident tranquillity’, and exhorts us to do the same. If one wanted to pick a single example of how Bach chose to harness his compositional prowess and capacity for invention to articulate his zeal and faith, this would be it.”
Now we are at the center of the work, a wonderful fugue. The musical interval of a 4th is the main cell of the musical material (e.g., “so anders Gottes Geist”). The subject has two contrasting ideas: repeated eighth notes and a long “fleishlich” followed by sixteenth note runs on “geistlich” [Spirit].
The movement ends with the somber reminder “Wer aber Christi Geist nicht hat (Anyone, however, who does not have Christ’s Spirit, is not His)”.
In the next chorale stanza you’ll hear the choir swatting at flies (“Weg, weg mit allen Schätzen”) as they resolutely send temptation away. Listen for the beautiful tenor suspension at the cadence. This is followed by a low-voiced trio setting in a siciliana rhythm; the music becomes chromatic at “so ist der Leib zwar tot” and joyfully melismatic on “Geist.” The trio texture morphs into a higher-voiced, tender setting of verse 6 of the chorale, with the altos carrying the melody.
“So nun der Geist” is a mirror image of the second movement, “[which] speaks of those who are ‘in Christ’, whereas the next to last movement turns the idea around referring to the Spirit of Christ dwelling ‘in you’. Much of the same musical material is utilized in both verses.” (Michael Beattie)
The final chorale stanza setting is musically the same as the first movement, but, as with all great music, we feel different after the journey. “Weicht, ihr Trauergeister,
denn mein Freudenmeister, Jesus, tritt herein.” (Hence, you spirits of sadness,
for my Master of joy, Jesus, comes here).
Cooman Shawkemo Dreaming
The title Shawkemo Dreaming (2009) refers to Shawkemo, a region of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. This work is one of a variety of pieces deeply connected to the landscape of Nantucket. Overlooking the harbor and conservation preserves, Shawkemo imparts a sense of peace, amidst gentle wind and sky. The work begins with bell-like tolling through which a freely lyrical melody is unfolded. This melodic material is developed, building to small climaxes, before the work settles into a reposed conclusion. (Notes by the composer)
Gjeilo Sunrise Mass
This work by Ola Gjeilo is what I call a ‘basking piece’ – you can just let its gorgeous waves wash over you. The composer’s text-setting process is pretty much the opposite of Bach’s in that the music doesn’t always express the mood or meaning of the text. The composer has said,
The reason I used English titles, seemingly unrelated to the (mostly) Latin texts, for the movements in this setting of the Mass has mainly to do with the initial idea behind Sunrise Mass. I wanted the musical development of the work to evolve from the most transparent and spacey, to something completely earthy and grounded; from nebulous and pristine to more emotional and dramatic, and eventually warm and solid – as a metaphor for human development from child to adult, or as a spiritual journey.
“Ola Gjeilo was born in Norway in 1978, and moved to the United States in 2001 to begin his composition studies at the Juilliard School in New York City. He is currently composer-in-residence with Voces8 and DCINY. A full-time concert music composer based in New York City, Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) is also very interested in film, and his music often draws inspiration from movies and cinematic music.” (olagjeilo.com)
The floating, ethereal chords heard at the beginning of the work present a harmonic and melodic progression that will be heard throughout the Sunrise Mass:
The overlapping entrances by the different voices create shimmering dissonances which dissolve and then reform; the music is indeed “transparent and spacey.” It becomes more metered as the composer lays out the iconic “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison” text over the same chord progression.
This movement opens with active, soft string writing and the angelic violin theme, later sung by the sopranos. As the piece gradually opens up into the full choral texture, the pace picks up for the joyful “Laudamus te” theme. At the text “Domine Deus, Rex coelestis” (“Lord God, King of heaven”) the texture changes:
I wanted a change of texture. I wanted the choir to have a chance to shine. It’s also a little reminiscent of the repeated notes of the Brahms’ (1833-1897) Requiem and the third movement. It has a pedal forever and has that syncopated rhythm. That’s one of my favorite musical moments of all time. The Brahms’ Requiem was unbelievable. This is the most regal, obviously, part of the movement. It’s about a king, Rex. It’s in one key center, and I wanted it to be very bombastic, strong, and unshakable. (quoted in Posada)
Following this is a return of the “Laudamus” theme and the movement comes to a close with a quiet “Quoniam” section and a capella “Amen” chords.
The earthly bustle of urban life is evoked by the strings in the opening. The men present the Credo theme, which will recur throughout the movement. For the “Crucifixus” text Gjeilo brings back the Spheres/Kyrie theme, and later, as a transition back to the Credo motif, he again employs the Spheres theme, albeit in a unison texture with a forte dynamic.
The issue for a composer with the Credo text is that there are a lot of words. In the early Mass settings of Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries, the choir is asked to sing through the text quite rapidly, and there is a similar passage here, with Gjeilo’s setting of the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” section, a central statement of belief. The music builds as the voices pass a long, chant-like Amen up in pitch to the fortissimo close.
Identity and the Ground
The final movement of the Mass opens with a reprise of Spheres, with the addition of a solo violin. “According to Gjeilo, the solo violin symbolizes the individual and the emergence of a conscious ‘self’; thus this movement is called Identity.” (Rugen). There is a pause, then The Ground begins with Gjeilo’s homage to Bach, a chorale (“Pleni sunt coeli”). The movement builds through the Agnus Dei text and closes quietly with a reprise of the Amen chords from Sunrise, with the solo violin.
The music of the Sunrise Mass goes from dark and dreamlike, to more emotional and dramatic, and eventually warm and grounded. It’s important to me that there is a positive evolution in artistic expressions, to move everything forward. That it has the capacity to help bring us deeper into ourselves rather than the other way. I really do think that’s the main point of art. I don’t know if I in any way am one of them, but I think true artists have the ability to share something very important; to express a deeper connection with something sacred; soul, or God, or nature, or whatever we perceive it as, through art. And I always believed that gift should be used to uplift and remind ourselves of who we really are and what’s truly important in our lives, whatever that may be. (Rugen)
Posada, Eric. Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass: a Conductor’s Guide. Texas Tech University, 2015
Rugen, Kira. About Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise: Symphonic Mass for Choir and String Orchestra. Arizona State University, 2010