Scapulis suis, Chorale's 15th Anniversary Commission

Javier CentenoIn commemoration of our 15th anniversary, Chorale commissioned Spanish composer Javier Centeno to compose an a cappella choral work for us. As text, I selected the Offertory from the First Sunday in Lent, which is actually a reordering of Psalm 91:

Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi et sub pennis ejus sperabis scuto circumdabit te veritas ejus.

He will overshadow thee with his shoulders:  and under his wings thou shalt trust. His truth shall compass thee with a shield.

Dicet Domino: Susceptor meus es non timebis a timore nocturno a sagitta volante per diem.

He shall say to the Lord: Thou art my protector, thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night [or] of the arrow that flieth in the day.

Quoniam Angelis suis mandavit de ut custodiant te in omnibus viis tuis.

For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways.

I love this text, especially the first section: I automatically conflate it with Movement 60 of Bach’s Matthew Passion, in which the alto soloist describes Jesus standing with outstretched hands, and choir II has those fiendish interjections—“Wohin?  Wohin?  Wo?”—where?  Later, the alto sings "ruhet hier, ihr verlassnen Küchlein ihr, bleibet in Jesu Armen." “Rest here, you lost chicks, come home to my arms.”  One of the most precious moments in the entire Passion.  I find here a rare Christian image of God as feminine, nurturing, protective.  So I am exploring this new work in different ways, trying to feel how the composer expresses this image, what about his music and text setting is special and personal.  Centeno’s harmonic and melodic language are diatonic and accessible; but his phrase structure and rhythmic vocabulary are complex, irregular, and somewhat unsettling, effectively questioning and undermining the comfort and assurance implied by his beautiful sounds. One senses trouble, danger—nothing specific, just a suspicion that things are not as lovely as they seem. A soprano solo arches over the murmuring, brooding sounds of the choir at crucial points-- and not just the number of choristers, but the complex writing itself, requires a powerful, spinto-like sound throughout the soloist’s range—nothing delicate or boy-treble about it. One senses in this solo the image and character of God, fighting for her chicks, protecting them from the coming storm. One particular line of the text, “scuto circumdabit te veritas ejus “ (His truth shall compass thee with a shield), serves as a recurring refrain, pulling the listener back to comfort and assurance. The piece ends with two pages of wordless “Ah” from both soloist and choir, as a sort of coda.

The choir and I have enjoyed digging into this. It is not like most of the music we sing, which tends to be more intellectually and logically structured; this piece is built on emotion and feeling, and as such is somewhat more difficult to us to grasp. After several weeks of rehearsal, I feel that we are finally getting it-- and find the effort immensely rewarding. I can tell that Scapulis suis is a wonderful addition to the choral repertoire-- and feel very privileged that Chorale gets to sing it first.