Adventures in Programming
Chorale’s current project features some of the most unusual programming we have ever put out there. We have paired two major a cappella works which, on the surface, bear little resemblance to one another: the magisterial Missa Papae Marcelli by G.P. da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), and The Peaceable Kingdom by Randall Thompson (1899-1984). The two works are approximately the same length, and require similar vocal forces; and they are both pieces with which most choral musicians are broadly familiar, but which few of them have actually sung. The Mass is cited in music history texts as the pinnacle of Palestrina’s writing, reflecting the compositional elements which influenced generations of church musicians which followed him; and Randall Thompson, the “dean of American composers,” has been afforded a similar status by twentieth century American musical critics. Both men, and their works, are revered, hoary monuments, referenced but somehow no longer current. Our goal, this spring, is to encounter them where the rubber hits the road, in performance, and rediscover what made them so important in the first place. The League of Composers commissioned Thompson in 1935 to write a major work for unaccompanied chorus. He chose as his point of departure a primitivist painting entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), “the preaching Quaker of Pennsylvania.” It illustrates Isaiah XI:6-9:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
In the middle distance, William Penn negotiates with the Indians by the shore of the Delaware River.
Inspired both by the painting and by the passage it illustrates, Thompson studied the book of Isaiah and selected eight passages referencing themes of peace and violence, and of good versus evil. In general, Thompson’s compositional style is conservative-- he prefers triadic harmonies, melodic sequences, imitative passages, Renaissance modality, and Venetian polychoral texture—but the stark contrasts in the Isaiah text inspire vivid, imaginative text-setting, appropriately dissonant harmonic passages, and large sections of recitative-like declamation, alternating with luscious, lyrical sections. He is able to express a variety of moods effectively, keeping interest and anticipation high. And the composer’s ordering of his text sets up a successfully dramatic narrative trajectory-- the work as a whole has a satisfying shape and arch, with a reassuring climax. I have, myself, had the opportunity to sing quite a lot of Thompson’s choral music over the years, and find this to be the most successful and satisfying of his major works—and also the freshest and most creative, considering the passage of years since he was actively composing. “Primitivism,” with Thompson as well as with Hicks, refers to conception, rather than execution; both men have the sophistication and skill to accomplish major works, but are freed from the rigidity of their respective disciplines by Isaiah’s prophetic vision and language. Chorale and I are finding this to be a fresh, intriguing piece to work on, quite different from anything else we have ever performed.