Program Notes for Chorale's March 27 Concert

Chorale’s March 27 concert, performed on the eve of the Christian Holy Week, presents musical settings of texts that explore death from both sides, and pose two questions: what becomes of those who die, and what remains to those left behind? The work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94) epitomizes, perhaps more than any other composer’s, the musical aesthetic of the Counter-Reformation. Never a musical trailblazer, Palestrina expertly assimilated and refined the polyphonic techniques of his predecessors to produce a seamless musical texture. Universally recognized as models of clarity, balance, and textual intelligibility, his motets and masses were constantly referred to by theorists to illustrate their theses. In fact, so highly esteemed was Palestrina during his lifetime that in 1577 he was chosen to rewrite the Church’s main plainchant books, following the guidelines established by the Council of Trent.

Palestrina’s legendary mastery of counterpoint is matched only by his musical restraint; the beautiful melodies spun within his contrapuntal web are perfectly balanced, each word—each syllable—receives the proper stress and length, and the overall effect is at all times supremely pleasing and varied. It is no surprise that his contemporaries referred to him as “The Prince of Music.” The nobility and reverence of his music is heard in our program’s 2-part motet, Sicut cervus, considered by many accounts to be the most outstanding example of religious choral art from the Renaissance. A setting of the Tract for the Blessing of the Font, taken from Psalm 42, and designated for Holy Saturday (a week from this evening), this motet exquisitely conveys the soul’s longing for union with God. We can hear this longing, yearning quality of the motet, captured in the extended notes at the beginning of its phrases and the constant reaching in the melodic line. It is this especially expressive and emotional quality which makes this particular motet more appropriate that other works by Palestrina for a larger choir such as Chorale.

British composer John Tavener (b. 1944) is best known for his religious, minimalist choral works, composed from within the context of the Russian Orthodox faith. He describes his compositions as “icons with notes rather than colours,” and seeks to minimize the signature of the artist-composer in his quest to illuminate text and meaning. Tavener composed Svyati (O Holy One) for choir and solo cello in 1995, and writes, “The text…is used at almost every Russian Orthodox service, perhaps most poignantly after the congregation [has] kissed the body in an open coffin at an Orthodox funeral. The choir sings ‘Svyati Bozhe’ (Holy God) as the coffin is closed and borne out of the church, followed by the mourners with lighted candles. The cello represents the Priest or Ikon of Christ…As in Greek drama, choir and priest are in dialogue with each other.” In Chorale's performance, the solo cello, played by Sophie Webber, sounds from an alcove hidden in the rear of the church, while the choir responds from the chancel.  The sound gently, yet insistently, carries the listener into an otherworldly realm.

At the age of ten, Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) went with his father tosee the Cathedral at Rouen. The young boy thought it was just a visit. He had no idea until that evening that he would not be returning home to Louviers: his father had enrolled him in the boychoir school! Duruflé’s experiences singing in that great cathedral were to influence him throughout the rest of his life, as all of his music has its basis in Gregorian chant. His pieces are further characterized by clear forms coupled with traditional counterpoint, their beauty stemming from full, romantic harmonies.

Duruflé published a mere fourteen works total, but each is meticulously crafted. The most famous and influential is undoubtedly his first choral work, Requiem, Op. 9 (1947). It exists in three versions: one for large orchestra and organ, and another for organ only, both dating from 1947, and third version for smaller orchestra and organ from 1961. The Duruflé Requiem is entirely unique in its application of medieval melody and modern orchestration. Duruflé writes very few new tunes for this piece; rather, he resets Gregorian chant in a typically twentieth-century harmonic and orchestral milieu, weaving the chant melodies into the entire compositional framework. In the composer’s own words, “At times the text is paramount, and therefore the orchestra intervenes only to sustain or comment. At other times an original musical fabric inspired by the text takes over completely…. In general, I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style and have tried to reconcile, as far as possible, the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation.”

The result is a triumph; however, there is still more at work in Duruflé’s chef d’oeuvre: not only is the composer brilliantly reworking Gregorian chant, he is also consciously referencing and responding to the entire Requiem tradition. The text of the Requiem Mass has inspired composers since the High Renaissance. Polyphonic settings of the “Mass for the Dead” became a standard part of composers’ repertories from the days of Ockeghem. This tradition continued for centuries, yielding the well-known settings by Mozart and Berlioz, who first made the Requiem a work of truly monstrous proportions. Verdi followed in this tradition, as did Dvorák, and many lesser-known composers like Charles Villiers Stanford. These compositions accentuate the darker, infernal side of death, as often illustrated by the intense drama of the “Dies irae” section, boldly proclaiming the approach of a terrible judgment day. At the height of the Requiem’s compositional popularity, Gabriel Fauré defied this tradition by emphasizing a tender, even comforting aspect of death, interpreting it as a departure from this troubled world and a hopeful arrival in a place of peace and eternal rest. Fauré went so far as to completely eliminate the “Dies irae” text from his musical setting.

While Duruflé’s Requiem consciously evokes the letter of Fauré’s setting in many ways, it creates a much more complex musical experience. The proximity of World War II still cast a long shadow in 1947, and the piece is not without its darker side. The orchestration often sounds uncomfortably against the plainchant-inspired melodic contours and sensuous harmonies, endowing the piece with extraordinary inner drama. Exquisite eloquence clashes with vehement cries as the tenderness of the “Pie Jesu” confronts the tension and intensity of the “Libera me”—and the now-reinstated “Dies irae” section.

Duruflé’s Requiem does deliver on the promise of eventual rest its title implies: the bliss of celestial peace does indeed glisten gloriously in the fading fermata of the final “In Paradisum” (marked to be held “très long”). But it is won only after fierce spiritual struggle.

notes (mostly) by Justin Flosi