Spring 2015 —
Sunday, May 3, 2015 at 4 p.m.
Josh Lawton, piano and organ
Concert Notes for "Illuminations"
Written by Carol Marton
Illumination – the interplay of light and shadow;
decoration supplementing a text; wisdom or revelation
as transmitted through a spiritual means.
Illuminationism – the doctrine according to which
human thought needs to be aided by divine grace.
What part of these definitions does not apply to music? Indeed, the texts found in vocal music make the connection even more vivid. In our concert opener, Come Pretty Love (for our purposes, as much invitation as illumination), Joan Szymko’s arrangement illuminates the rhythmic playfulness of this old Shaker tune.
The song, “divinely received” by Patsy Williamson, an ex-slave whose freedom
had been purchased by the Pleasant Hill Shaker community in the early 1800’s, is
one of many celebrating the Shakers’ spiritual Mother, Ann Lee.
"Illumina le tenebre" more obviously introduces today’s concert theme. A setting of one of St. Francis of Assisi’s (1182-1226) oldest prayers, Szymko uses a chant-like, modal melody over a drone to introduce the text, and from those simple elements, builds a lush texture of rich harmonies.
We might consider J.S. Bach a master illuminator. When he took up the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723, a tradition of congregational hymn singing was already well in place. Bach’s duties included accompanying those hymns – or chorales, and his listeners would have known and recognized the many he so brilliantly incorporated into his compositions. Just as an illuminated manuscript brings to light the meaning of the text and supplements it with pictures, so do Bach’s compositions illuminate the chorales and their texts with his exquisite and incomparable writing. Bach’s music is throughout our program today, hoping to illuminate the whole with these magnificent gems. Each presentation in the concert is paired with its respective chorale, aided by Cantilena’s fine accompanist, Josh Lawton, on this church’s beautiful organ.
None of Bach’s many vocal works exhibit the use of the chorale more formally and creatively than in his remarkable motet, "Jesu, meine Freude". Written for the funeral of the wife of the Leipzig postmaster, the motet begins and ends with simple four-part settings of the chorale. The nine interior movements are more complex compositions on other of the chorale verses or related text, most including the chorale melody. We offer a mini-suggestion of the whole today, opening and closing with the four-part chorale. The intervening movements include "Denn das Gesetz", a trio for women’s voices on a related text from Romans (8:2), followed by "Gute Nacht,", a chorale prelude for sopranos, alto, and tenor voices. Listen for the chorale tune presented in long tones – as a cantus firmus – by the altos.
Jumping from the early 18th century to 1979, we present a Missa Brevis by composer Bebe Snyder. Written in honor of her teacher, Dr. Lara Hoggard, Snyder was already a successful choral director in New York and North Carolina when she wrote this work. For this traditionally concise version of the Ordinary of the Mass, Snyder writes in a clean style using tools ancient and modern to summon the powerful, the playful, and the poignant.
Returning again to Bach, we hear the chorale "Christ lag in Todesbanden" from Cantata BWV 4. One of his earliest cantatas, its seven movements are set to each stanza of this chorale, focusing on the struggle between life and death. Today, we sing the duet "Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt" (No one could defeat death); -- the inescapable fact of this heard in the organ’s relentless, repetitive walking bass line, and the initial stark presentations of the words “Den Tod” (death).
Who better to rescue us from death than Gabriel Fauré? Like Bach, Fauré was trained as an church organist and choirmaster, though he seems to have struggled more in his life with finding sufficient time to compose. He has been described as linking Romanticism with modernism, his own musical lifespan reaching from Chopin to jazz and atonal music. We can hear this in the "Tantum Erg"o and "Ave Verum", both written in 1894 when Fauré was experiencing more professional success. As with so many of his works, his skill for vocal writing insures melodies that are as pleasurable to sing as they are to hear.
The "First Runo" is Einojuhani Rautavaara’s magical and mystical setting of the opening of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, and relates the world’s creation. Written in English for a 1984 commission from the Kodály Institute, Rautavaara was drawn to the mysticism of the Kalevala, but found himself further inspired by the sounds of the words in English: “Mother of the Water,” “Golden-Eye.” His complex writing techniques are rooted in tonality -- though occasionally more than one! -- and sometimes require the singers to divide into 5, 6 and 7 parts. All serve the fantastic images of the story: the Golden-eye, the great flying bird soaring over the wide-open, wind-tossed sea; the woeful Virgin, Maiden of the Air, rocking on the water, driven by the waves; the eggs that break into bits to form the earth, the sky, the sun, moon and the stars.
With the "Suscepit Israel", we offer a taste of the glorious Bach Magnificat. The chorale tune "Meine Seele erhebt den Herren" (My soul magnifies the Lord) is heard from the organ sounding above the three interweaving vocal lines. This chorale melody, also known as the “German Magnificat,” was used by many composers, most famously by Mozart in his Requiem.
Though many have enjoyed the wicked fun of his alter ego P.D.Q. Bach, not enough listeners are familiar with the serious side of Peter Schickele, a skilled and inventive composer. Three Meditations illuminates the gorgeous texts of three different English poets, from the 16th and 18th centuries, using the folk harmonies of their homeland.
As for our final number, we turn to that genre of contemporary music that perhaps best illuminates life’s greatest trials: the blues!