This spring's early music
When putting our Da pacem, Domine program together, I did not intend to be dogmatic about chronology or style. Circumstances require that all of our selections be unaccompanied; theme dictates that texts, and mood, be of a contemplative, peaceful nature, suggestive both of sadness and of joy. I considered, too, the general preferences of the singers: after a season heavy on major, orchestrated works, I thought they would welcome something smaller, more intimate, more nuanced. All of this had to be passed through the refining filters of available rehearsal time, vocal and musical resources, and some hopeful guesses about what our audience would appreciate. Not surprisingly, we ended up with a program heavy on twentieth century. We are a large group (sixty singers), and half of us are women. Most choral music composed before the eighteenth century is better served by smaller ensembles staffed with early music specialists, especially counter tenors and women who can sound like boys; most choral music composed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is accompanied by keyboard or other instruments. With notable exceptions, important a cappella choral music took a break during this period, to re-emerge in the twentieth century as a vital, center-stage art form.
Nonetheless, we did include a few pieces of earlier music, which suit our size, our sound, and our preferences.
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), the greatest German composer before Bach, studied extensively with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice (1609-1612), and returned to that city in 1628 to meet and work with Claudio Monteverdi. He learned progressive, polychoral techniques from them, and composed a good deal of music in this grand, elaborate style, for multiple choirs of voices and instruments, as court composer to the Elector of Saxony, in Dresden. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), however, gradually took its toll on his opportunity to produce such works: the longest and most destructive conflict in European history, it devastated, among other things, the musical infrastructure of Germany, and pushed Schütz toward a simpler, more austere style later in his career. In the forward to his 1648 publication, Geistliche Chormusik, he describes the contents as “sacred choir music with 5, 6, and 7 voices to be used both vocally and instrumentally…the general bass can be used at the same time if liked and wanted but it is not necessary.” The twenty-nine pieces in the collection react to the events of the time with traditional Biblical texts, several of them pleas for peace. Chorale will sing the 5-voice motet, Die mit Tränen Säen, a setting of Psalm 126:5-6—
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. They go out with weeping, bearing precious seed, and come back in joy, bearing their sheaves.
Schütz expresses the text’s contrasting elements—tears/joy, go out/come back, sow/reap—with remarkable economy of means, juxtaposing long and short phrases, dissonant and consonant harmonies, painfully slow passages with quick, joyous ones, all in a strikingly efficient composition, short and simple enough for the reduced forces with which he was working at the time.
One of the “notable exceptions” referred to above is Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), who put some of his best efforts into composing choral music. Associated with the Roman Catholic Church throughout his life, Bruckner was able to combine elements of his daring, avant garde symphonic style with the conservative, Gregorian-based music required by the church hierarchy, and produce a body of church music, both a cappella and accompanied, unsurpassed by other composers of his century. Chorale will sing one of his Marian motets, Virga Jesse floruit (1885), which sets a Gradual text from the Feast of the Assumption:
The rod of Jesse hath blossomed: a Virgin hath brought forth one who was both God and man: God hath given back peace to man, reconciling the lowest and the highest to Himself.
Like Schütz, Bruckner skillfully expresses the contrasts in his text-- God/man, lowest/highest—through direct, efficient musical means, especially through the careful notation of dynamic change, from ppp to fff, and the use of a very wide vocal range: from the top soprano note to the lowest bass note spans three and a half octaves.
A generation later than Schütz, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is celebrated as England’s greatest and best-known native composer, at least up to the twentieth century, despite his short life. Nominally organist of Westminster Abbey, he contributed to all the musical genres available to him, both instrumental and vocal, and is as noted for his secular, theatrical compositions, as for his church anthems. Chorale will sing Hear my prayer, O Lord, which exists only as an incomplete fragment in the library of Cambridge University, though it is thought to form the opening movement of a longer anthem. Only two and a half minutes long, the piece consists of the working-out of only two short motives, each set to a particular line of text from Psalm 104: 1) Hear my prayer, O Lord, and 2) and let my crying come unto Thee. The first is a concise, chant-like phrase consisting of only two pitches; the second, contrasting, phrase consists of a longer, rising chromatic motive. Over the course of only thirty-four measures, utilizing only these two motives, Purcell gradually amplifies the vocal texture, and intensifies the harmonic complexity, until all eight voices combine in an overwhelming, dissonant tone cluster, before resolving in the final cadence.
In the latter years of the twentieth century, a number of composers attempted to “complete” Purcell’s fragment, by composing companion movements, using elements of Purcell’s work but expanding them with modern harmonic and rhythmic procedures. Chorale will sing the
completion composed by British composer and conductor Bob Chilcott (b.1955). Published by Oxford university Press in 2002, OUP’s catalogue describes it as “a technical 'tour de force', meticulously sculpted from the distilled essence of Purcell's original and yet always recognizably Chilcott. The music is involved, passionate, and frequently contrapuntal. This is a beautiful and convincing work imbued with an unsettling melancholy.” There you have it.