Christopher Gabbitas, Artistic Director
Lux Aeterna – Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and arr. by John Cameron (b. 1944)
choral setting of “Nimrod” from Enigma Variations
Kyrie – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)
from Missa Papae Marcelli
Carols of Death – William Schuman (c. 1910-1992) and texts by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
The Last Invocation
The Unknown Region
To All, To Each
Everyone Sang! – Roderick Williams (b.1965)
*Arranged for Phoenix Chorale, US premier performance
Two Penitential Motets – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
from Quatre Motets pour un temp de Pénitence, FP 97
Timor et tremor
Vinea mea electa
Agnus Dei – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
from Missa Papae Marcelli
Requiem, Op. 48 – Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
I. Introitus – Kyrie
IV. Pie Jesu
V. Agnus Dei
VI. Libera me
VII. In Paradisum
Remembering those who have gone before us is a deeply human need. Going all the way back to the dawn of humanity, every culture on the planet has commemorated the death of its members with a ritual of some kind. When we excavate an ancient burial site we are not surprised to find flowers, precious stones, amulets, musical instruments, or any number of valuable or beautiful artifacts there. It’s only natural. We empathize with the respect given the dead by their peers and contemporaries. We have honored them with carefully articulated emotional tributes. Usually, the departed has lived a long life, in which case we can afford to take some time to review the trail of accomplishment and love that they leave behind in their wake when they pass. The testimonials, the anecdotes, the avalanche of overflowing love—it is a spirit of celebration, not lamentation, that distinguishes this kind of remembrance. We can step back to take it all in with bittersweet compassion and hope, as encapsulated in a poem by William Davenant:
“O harmless Death!
Whom still the valiant brave,
The wise expect, the sorrowful invite,
And all the good embrace, who know the grave
A short dark passage to eternal light.”
While we can find logic and symmetry in an elder’s long life through a ritual act of closure, the fall of one who is cut down while still young affords us no such closure. Their death sideswipes us, makes no sense. Rituals fulfill our need for recognition of the sanctity of life, and our clerics and spiritual leaders do their best to stoically officiate this sacred duty they have been entrusted with. But what of our war dead? Who will sing a song worthy of their ultimate sacrifice? For this, we must look beyond liturgies to the poets. The poetry of war serves to remind us of the all-too-real immediacy of death behind the speculative spiritual affirmations of ritual and ceremony. Every death hurts, but we instinctively recognize that an adolescent soldier’s fall is, in the end, a grotesque and needless sacrifice.
But whether our loved ones die old or young, or in sickness or in health, even as our hearts are overcome with grief and anguish, even in our darkest hours of sorrow, we are resilient in our bereavement. Many of us are sustained in the midst of our despair by the belief that this life is not the end, that in some transcendental hereafter the dead will bathe in perpetual light, Lux Aeterna, which will shine upon us and preserve the essence and the integrity of who we truly are. Light—perpetual light— is the stuff that souls are made of.
Lux Aeterna text is also a musical concept, namely the Communion antiphon in a requiem mass. As such, it is an expression of faith and longing, a faith that stands fast no matter the cause of the death being mourned. The Lux Aeterna thus serves as an appropriate central theme for our program, in which we intersperse wartime poetic eulogies among more traditional Western funerary music. The marked contrast between the systematic tonal formalism of liturgical music, on the one hand, and the more modern ventures into atonalism which characterize the musical settings of poems that capture the outpouring of anxiety and trauma of war, on the other, reveals the dichotomy between the religious and poetic approaches to commemorating death. And it also hopefully serves to pay special homage to the forgotten millions of war dead whose only requiem was a solitary cornet mournful sounding Taps from a distance. These war elegies are expressions of unique moments in history and they are also a standard by which future generations can judge those moments. This is particularly relevant in this centenary year of the Treaty of Versailles, the true political end of World War I.
We begin our program with a choral adaptation of Nimrod, the ninth of the Enigma Variations (1898) by English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). This work was recently performed as an encore in November 2018 when the Providence Singers joined the Rhode Island Philharmonic for a concert celebrating the anniversary of the armistice. Elgar once admitted to a close friend in a letter that the serene, stately melody at the opening of the piece is a nod to the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, remarking, “Can’t you hear it at the beginning? Only a hint, not a quotation.” The text of the Lux Aeterna happens to align with Elgar’s delicate music perfectly and John Cameron’s choral arrangement of this repurposed prayer is solemn and richly textured, preserving the enigmatic sonorities of Elgar’s composition.
Next is the Kyrie movement from Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass for Pope Marcellus) by one of the recognized masters of sixteenth-century music, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 1594). There is a general academic consensus that this is one of his most important works. A long-running legend tells us that it was composed in response to a call by church authorities, following the Council of Trent (1545–1563), to reform all manner of liturgical practice, including the music. Until relatively recently, in fact, it was believed that Palestrina was tasked with specific reforms, by papal decree, even. But thorough recent scholarship has found no evidence of such overt clerical collusion, so the legend is almost certainly apocryphal, but it nevertheless highlights the importance that Palestrina had on the development of the techniques available to the composer of choral music since his day. Whether by ecclesiastical design or not, Palestrina did do away with some of the “sins” that musicians were were being allowed to get away with, the most pressing complaint being a disregard for clarity in the singing. In the work of Palestrina’s contemporaries, the different voices habitually sang different words, which often made for a muddy cacophony rather than for the desired mellifluousness, at least in the eyes of those clamoring for reform during that time. Palestrina’s solution would become part of the foundation of a methodology of choral music composition that would influence the art form for centuries afterward. The words, in this method, are delivered clear and precise, moving in undulating cadences that move and step through tension-and-release mechanisms in relation to a root note and a scale corresponding to it. This diatonic approach to harmony is the hallmark of what we know as tonal music, and some of the credit for the codification of this unifying principle in Western music belongs to Palestrina. A highly religious man, his work in general, and this piece, in particular, is infused with the optimistic faith in the hereafter, the Lux Aeterna.
Contrast this traditional harmonic streamlining with the angular urgency of our next piece, North American composer William Shuman’s (1910–1992) Carols of Death (1958). Loosed from the bonds of traditional diatonic tonality, the harmony in these three pieces takes surprising and meandering turns that suggest some of the chaos and confusion of the American Civil War. The poems of Walt Whitman, a man who as a volunteer nurse during this conflict was no stranger to impending death, are set into music that suits the somber reflective mood of his verses. The first setting, “The Last Invocation,” alternates crescendos and diminuendos from one line of text to the next, creating a breathing effect that builds and then culminates in a powerful climax. In “The Unknown Region,” Shuman underscores both the anxiety and the peaceful submission referred to in the text by contrasting sections in which the voices sound dispersed, on the one hand (as in the pulsating canon on the opening words, “Darest thou now”), with those in which the choir sings in unison, on the other. “To All, To Each” is the shortest of the three poems. Here, as it was with Palestrina centuries ago, the aim is clarity. Though Shuman ornaments the text with frequent melismas, he never obscures the clarity of the words in the process. His handling of the phrase “lovely and soothing death,” for example — the first three words light and ethereal, the fourth suddenly dissonant and somber — is particularly impactful.
Roderick Williams (b. 1965) is an English composer of Everyone Sang! (commissioned in 2017). This work sets to music three texts, two World War I poems by Laurence Binyon and Siegfried Sassoon, and the Agnus Dei from the Latin mass. The quote from Binyon’s poem For the Fallen has become one of the most often heard recitations on Remembrance Sunday (Veteran’s Day) in the UK and abroad, reflecting the everlasting memory of the blessed dead. Perhaps Sassoon’s most famous anti-war poem, Everyone Sang! re-lives the feeling the poet had when experiencing the lines of troops marching to and from the Western Front during the most dreadful days of the Great War: despite the horrors unfolding around them, they raised their voices in song, full of hope and courage. Many of them would never return. The Agnus Dei speaks to a different sacrifice, that of the Lamb of God, and neatly binds the work together. Roderick Williams’ setting is sensitive and caring, contrasting the solemn nature of death and remembrance with the hope and excitement of the naive young soldiers, prepared to lay down their lives for their country. As the work ends, we hear that “their singing will never be done.”
We then return to somewhat more modernist tonalism with two of Motets Pour un Temps de Pénitence (1939) by French composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963). The first of these short pieces, Timor et tremor (“Fear and Trembling”) interpolates verses from Psalm 54 and 30. The other, Vinea mea electa (“My Preferred Vine”) is based on a Holy Week service responsory. This devotional music commemorates the singularly notable death of Jesus of Nazareth. Holy Week is essentially a memorial service. But it is more than a remembrance of the great teacher on the anniversary of his death that is in view on Easter Sunday. Easter is, in the Christian tradition, what vouchsafes that this Lux Aeterna, this infinite light, will be our inheritance when we pass on. Faith can be quite a powerful muse, and Poulenc’s motets are sublime and masterful compositions. Harmonically sophisticated and dynamically nuanced, they convey this promised everlasting peace and light in a most lyrical and ethereal way. It is truly inspirational music.
We come full circle, after a microcosmic excursion from tonalism to atonalism and back, to the Agnus Dei movement from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, the same work which we heard earlier in the set. This is a superlative example of Renaissance polyphony, a model of smooth, soaring exaltation and intimacy. This kind of transcendence underscores the spiritual significance that funerary rituals hold for us. Music is a crucial component. Without music, we would have only words, and words by themselves would fail to befit the solemnity of the passing of a beloved individual. We must sing.
The first half of the program showcases our ensemble’s eclectic mastery of the many technical, dynamic, and stylistic approaches to choral music about memory and loss and faith. The second half consists of a single long formwork by French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). Fauré composed his Requiem, perhaps his most enduring work (and certainly one of the most popular settings of text taken from the Catholic Requiem Mass) in 1888. Though he composed it simply, he said, “for the pleasure of it,” in what turns out to be a poetic twist of fate, it was performed (with full orchestra) at Fauré’s own funeral in 1924.
The composer was striving for something different than the operatic bel canto style that was popular in Paris at the time. He was after something other than the outsized, large-scale Germanic Romantic influence that was dominating the rest of Europe. His music has a unique blend of vigor and restraint, of sensuality and purity. In some ways, Fauré’s style involves a sense of paradox. He relishes the appearance of effortless freedom in his melodic phrasing, but there is a curious relationship between this perceived freedom and the level of control in his music. Fauré was very explicit about how to go about achieving this illusion of freedom in performance. He knew what he wanted, and was scrupulously precise in his directions on rhythm, dynamics, and phrase length. Even more than with other composers, it is essential in singing Fauré to pay strict attention to every marking on the staff. Often, his intended effects depend on very subtle shifts in dynamics or harmony, shifts that require meticulous attention to pull off successfully.
Because of its melodic lyricism and its predominantly gentle tone, the Requiem has been described as “a lullaby of death.” Rather than offer disturbing visions of terror, Fauré aimed to create a mass to comfort the living. In his view death was “[…] a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards the happiness of the hereafter, rather than […] a painful passing away.” Fauré’s setting is therefore remarkably subdued. With this in mind, Fauré selectively edited the traditional texts. He omits the Sequenz segment, with its visions of wrath and hellfire, entirely, for instance. Instead, he adds the Pie Jesu and In Paradisum texts, which are not part of the Requiem proper, but which emphasize the granting of eternal rest that is the focus of this kind of optimist outlook.
The beginning of the Introitus section resembles a symphonic opening with its long unaccompanied chords establishing a harmonic and textural ground. The voices alternate soft phrases with loud ones, the contrast foreshadowing the text’s ‘rest’ and ‘light’ motifs. Then two chant-inspired tunes are introduced, one sung by the tenors, and then the Te decent, sung by the sopranos. The Kyrie setting, derived from the Requiem aeternam chant melody, then emerges predominantly.
Omitting the Sequenz, Fauré moves on to the Offertorium, but this is one of the places where he makes edits to the text. The more traditional “libera animas omnium ﬁdelium defunctorum” (“free the souls of all the faithful dead”) becomes the more inclusive “libera animas defunctorum.” He also omits the text, “sed signifer Sanctus Michael repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam” (“let Saint Michael the standard-bearer bring them into the holy light”), and invokes God’s promise to Abraham only once, during the baritone’s Hostias aria. The setting begins and ends with an eerie chant-like melody set in a kind of canon, with each voice mirroring and following another. Between these two segments is the Hostias baritone solo. The propulsive beauty of this movement owes to this canonic structure.
In the Sanctus Fauré offers something like his own personal vision of the Kingdom of Heaven itself. Over an almost minimalist ﬁgure, the sopranos and tenors play duetting choirs of angels, calling and responding, slowly building to the triumphant Hosanna.
Fauré foregoes the traditional Benedictus. And instead inserts the last lines of the omitted Sequenz into the Pie Jesu movement. We are delighted and honored to welcome singers from the Phoenix Boys’ Choir to join us as soloists for this performance.
The next movement, the Agnus Dei, combined with the Communion segment, opens with another great chant-like intonation for the tenors. It’s heard twice, ﬁrst leading into a full-choir rendition of the Agnus text, and then once leading into a choral consideration of the Lux Aeterna (in lieu of the Communion movement), which Fauré inserts at this point, and which explores the slightly darker ﬂat key signatures, building tension until a reprise of the Requiem aeternam is heard.
Instead of the Communion, Fauré opts for the Libera me, a responsory motet which usually follows the Requiem Mass. This setting is the sole depiction of Judgment Day in the entire work, though the solo baritone voice (which is echoed in the unison choral version at the end of the movement) and the text itself put these visions of hellﬁre on a much more personal, less tragic scale.
Finally, Fauré follows this, the second baritone solo section, with another vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, In Paradisum, sung by a host of sopranos. This text is also a departure from the traditional Requiem Mass, an antiphon which usually sung during the burial itself. It reinforced Fauré’s vision of death as a release, rather than a torment, and the work ends on the same word that it began with: Requiem (“rest”). The Fauré Requiem is one of the most iconic compositions in the history of choral music and the Phoenix Chorale is honored to be able to perform it in concert, 25 years since their last performance of this piece.
All the featured works are monumental acts of creativity. Their composers were driven by an aspiration to transcend their own ﬁnitude, to create something of lasting value, something enduring that would live beyond themselves and pay respect to those they mourn. This striving expresses itself in many ways—in daring experiments with song form marked by rhythmic and harmonic complexity, in a minimalistic sweep of texture and space, in aesthetic audacity … all of it a testament to the all-too-human longing to remember those who have gone before us. It drives the artist on through his dark night of the soul, this hope that as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, “death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
Program notes written by Léon Santiago.