Program Notes for Voices Aloft May 13, 2012, 3 p.m., Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

Today's concert focuses on three canonic, desert island works, two motets and a mass, which, together with their respective composers, reside at the very pinnacles of their respective genres.  Chorale has chosen to present them because they are particularly suited both to the sacred space which is Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and to the Chapel's magnificent E.M. Skinner pipe organ.

The motets of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) comprise a very small subset in his overall compositional output:  he personally used that label for only six works, which he composed for special occasions, probably funeral services.  Like their historical, sixteenth century models, they for the most part lack separate instrumental parts; instruments would likely have been used in performance, both as continuo and for doubling the voice parts, if they were available, but most of the motets are performable without instrumental accompaniment, and would have been performed so for special graveside services.  The texts, all in German, are based on biblical quotations and chorales; Komm, Jesu, komm is the only one which utilizes freely-composed poetry.

Bach composed Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229, before 1732. No autograph or substantiating materials survive; only a copy, made by Bach’s pupil, Christoph Nichelmann, has come down to us. The text is taken from the first and last stanzas of a funeral hymn written by Paul Thymich (1656-1694). Bach sets the first stanza for double four-part choir, giving each phrase of text its own individual musical treatment, in which texture and expression are constantly varied, in madrigal style.  The first forty-three bars, in triple meter, proceed in typical early Baroque polychoral fashion, with blocks of sound exchanged antiphonally between the two choirs; at measure forty-four (der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer), however, Bach abruptly shifts texture to a single, eight-part choir, for an expressive fugal exposition.  Then, at bar sixty-four, he returns to double four-part choir, but switches to an energetic quadruple meter (Komm, komm, ich will mich dir ergeben) for fifteen bars, pulling the listener from the halting fatigue and resignation of the earlier, triple meter phrases, toward the lilting, 6/8 setting of the affirming text, “You are the way, the truth, and the life,” paraphrased from the Gospel of John, which occupies the next eighty-eight bars, more than half the duration of the entire motet.  Bach then sets the final stanza more simply, as a homophonic, four-part chorale-- a rare case in which Bach has composed the chorale melody himself, rather than setting a pre-existent melody, already familiar to his listeners.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), raised in an orthodox Jewish family, converted to Lutheran Christianity in 1898. Though he later returned to Judaism, his conversion was presumably sincere and heartfelt; and he responded musically to his new faith by setting Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s Christmas poem, Friede auf Erden, opus 18, for unaccompanied 8-part choir, in 1907.

The text begins with a description of the shepherds receiving the angels’ tidings of “Peace on earth,” and visiting the Christ child, moving from an undefined but minor-colored key center to D Major, as the focus of the poem shifts from earth to heaven, from humanity to God.  This use of tonality, and particularly of D major, continues throughout the work, and serves its major structural idea:  Schoenberg introduces all of his musical materials, his melodic and harmonic blocks, in this opening section. He then transforms them when they appear subsequently in the work, according to the character of the text he is setting, moving between consonance and dissonance as the poet contrasts the works of God, with the works of humankind.  The second section describes the history of the world since the birth of Christ, as a time of war and bloody deeds, utilizing these motifs in a painfully dissonant harmonic matrix; only when the text describes the intercession of the angel voices, imploring “Peace, peace on earth,” does the music resolve into a recognizable major tonality.  D Major returns with the work’s climax, when the text describes the building of a kingdom that seeks peace on earth, where swords will be forged, not to menace, but to flame for justice, as peace becomes reality for future generations.

Schoenberg was thirty-three years old when he completed the work, young in terms of the brutal geopolitical realities of the twentieth century.  He subsequently served in World War I; his health deteriorated under the strain, and he developed asthma and other ailments.  He virtually ceased composing for four years.  Then, in 1923, his wife died.  In a 1923 letter to the conductor Heinrich Scherchen, he described Friede auf Erden as “an illusion for mixed choir, an illusion, as I know today, having believed, in 1906, when I composed it, that this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable.”  Fortunately for succeeding generations of singers and listeners, he could not withdraw the work; we are allowed to experience his grand vision, with its beauty and its pain, for ourselves, and to be inspired by his youthful hope.

Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was one of the most admired and celebrated organists of his time.  Born nearly blind as a result of congenital cataracts, he nonetheless received a thorough musical education, first in his home town of Poitiers, and then, beginning in 1880, at the Institution National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. He was noticed there by composer and organist César Franck, who, from 1886 to 1890, gave Vierne private harmony lessons and included him in his organ class at the Paris Conservatoire. Vierne entered the Conservatoire as a full time student in 1890 and, after Franck’s death, became the student and protégé of Franck’s replacement, Charles-Marie Widor.  In 1892 Vierne became Widor’s assistant at the church of Saint-Sulpice, and won the Conservatoire's first prize for organ in 1894. In 1900 he took over as principle organist at the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and stayed in that position until his death (at the keyboard, in the midst of a concert!) in 1937.

Among the great fin de siècle French organists, Vierne is considered the greatest improviser. The few improvisatory performances that were recorded are said to sound like finished, polished compositions. Typical among French composers of his time, his music is characterized by elegance and formal clarity, with a restrained harmonic palate.  Reviewing his Symphony No. 2 for organ, completed in 1903, no less a critic than Claude Debussy wrote, "M. Vierne's symphony is truly remarkable. It combines rich musicality with ingenious discoveries in the special sonority of the organ. J.S. Bach, the father of us all, would have been well pleased...."

Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, Opus 16, for two organs and chorus, premiered at St. Sulpice on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1901, with Widor and Vierne playing the two organs.  Today’s performance features an arrangement of the work for one organ, appropriate to the physical arrangement of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.  Vierne's mass, unlike such "concert" works as Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, was clearly intended as a liturgical work, albeit one of grand proportions, demanding both a great organ and a great organist for its presentation. Vierne treats liturgy as theater, alternating the high, thunderous terror of the Kyrie and the joyfully majesty Gloria with such ethereal, introspective sections as the Benedictus and the Dona nobis pacem.  Surely, worshipers participating in a mass accompanied by this music would experience their Christianity in a highly vivid way.