'Tis a gift to be simple
Only one piece on our upcoming O magnum mysterium concert was composed before 1900: Cantique de Jean Racine, by Gabriel Fauré (1864-65), written when the composer was only nineteen years old. Fauré had been a student at the school of church music Ecole Niedermeyer for ten years, and entered the piece in the school’s composition contest, receiving first prize. He dedicated the work to composer César Franck, who conducted it in concert in 1875; it was published soon after this, and has been a part of the standard repertoire ever since. The young composer was still under the influence of such romantics as Mendelssohn and Gounod, which one recognizes in the long, sweeping melodies and climactic cadences; but Fauré’s strong musical personality shows through, in the simplicity and restraint of the setting, as well as in his respectful and appropriate text setting. The text is a paraphrase, by playwright Jean Racine (1639-99), of a Latin hymn from the breviary, Consors paterni luminis, published in 1688:
Word of God, one with the Most High, in Whom alone we have our hope, Eternal Day of heaven and earth, We break the silence of the peaceful night; Saviour Divine, cast your eyes upon us!
Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace, That all hell may flee at the sound of your voice; Banish the slumber of a weary soul, That brings forgetfulness of your laws!
O Christ, look with favour upon your faithful people Now gathered here to praise you; Receive their hymns offered to your immortal glory; May they go forth filled with your gifts.
Fauré chose to set the florid, artful French translation, rather than the original Latin text, and named his composition after Racine, rather than use the Latin title. Later, as a mature composer, Fauré was noted for the subtle brilliance and craft of his settings of the French language, which became a hallmark of his composition style in the twentieth century. His setting of the Racine text is so assured, so idiomatic, that one is almost unaware of it—until one deals with a less successful composer. This aspect of Cantique alone would point the way toward Fauré’s future stature, even if the musical elements were not equally assured.
The final piece on Chorale’s program is The Road Home, a 2005 adaptation by Stephen Paulus of the hymn tune “Prospect” (also listed as “The Lone White Bird”) from Southern Harmony (1835). The words are a newly-written text by poet Michael Dennis Browne, who frequently collaborated with Paulus on his vocal and choral settings. The Road Home was commissioned for the Dale Warland Singers by Timothy and Gayle Ober in 2001, with matching funds provided by the National Endowment of the Arts. The original tune is pentatonic, and has the stark, timeless quality associated with that scale; Paulus allows a more lush, modern sound in his accompanying harmonic setting. The result is a perfectly balanced evocation of wandering and the search for home, and contemporary sentiment, which has resonated with listeners throughout the world. In the years since its publication, it has become one of Paulus’ best-selling works, and has been recorded numerous times.
These two pieces, by Fauré and Paulus, share a restrained, modest simplicity, a lack of decoration or adornment. Both composers also composed larger, more ambitious works, works more difficult and demanding to perform. But it is interesting to note that Fauré, over the course of his musical life, strove more and more to find the simplest and most straight-forward approach to illuminating his carefully chosen texts; and Paulus’ legacy seems to be expressed, as well, in his simplest compositions.