Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied – J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Mass for Double Choir – Frank Martin (1890-1974)
V. Agnus Dei
Sure on this Shining Night – Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
Long Road – Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977)
The Road Home – Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)
Sârba pe scaun (from Suita scurtâ) – Alexandru Paşcanu (1920-1989)
Light of a Clear Blue Morning – arr. Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962)
Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel – arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied – J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750)*
Considered the pinnacle of his six motets, J.S. Bach’s masterful Singet dem Herrn is a lively affirmation of the power of music and faith. Bach composed the piece in 1726 or 1727, but scholars are unsure of the occasion; some suggest it commemorated a visit of Elector August II of Saxony to Leipzig, others claim it was used to celebrate Reformation Day or the New Year, and still others maintain that it was a choral étude Bach devised to train his advanced singers at the Thomasschule. Whatever its origin, Singet dem Herrn is a choral tour de force which connects the Phoenix Chorale to its origins as the Phoenix Bach and Madrigal Society.
Bach constructed Singet dem Herrn in three sections, with a fast-slow-fast movement structure evocative of Baroque instrumental concertos. The opening section, based on Psalm 149, is pervaded with exhortations to “Sing!” Bach treats the chorus as two separate choirs, intertwining them in seemingly endless combinations. At times, one choir acts as a stable harmonic and rhythmic base over which the other weaves dense, pictorial polyphonic lines. Elsewhere, the choirs trade blocks of material in an antiphonal effect. The section culminates in a dancelike fugue which, over time, gathers all eight individual voice parts into a resounding chorus of praise.
In the second, slower section of the motet, Bach overlays a traditional Lutheran chorale with what he calls an “aria,” or freely composed interjections of an intimate seventeenth-century text. With the steadfast hymn as a backdrop, the aria chorus expresses the needs and hopes of humanity with highly individualized solo lines—a sort of personal gloss on the lessons of the chorale text.
The final section of the motet brings the two choirs together as equals, first in a sort of call-and-response texture, then in a virtuosic four-voice fugue. Brilliant sixteenth-note runs illuminate words such as “all” and “praise” in the breathless final passages, punctuated by angular eighth-note exclamations of “Hallelujah!” The piece culminates in an ecstatic cacophony, a musical embodiment of the multitudes glorifying God.
Mass for Double Choir – Frank Martin (1890-1974)*
Swiss composer Frank Martin conceived of his Mass for Double Choir—composed between 1922 and 1926—as a deeply private statement of faith, “a matter entirely between God and myself.” Perhaps for this reason, Martin, the son of a Calvinist minister, did not secure a public performance of the Mass for nearly forty years after its completion. Cathartic in spite of its long dormancy, the Mass showcases Martin’s synthesis of disparate musical elements in the service of personal expression: ancient chant, Renaissance polyphony, Germanic structure, and French harmonies all give Martin’s masterwork what scholar Paul Griffiths describes as “a distinctive combination of the ascetic and the sensuous.”
Martin opens the Kyrie Eleison with flowing melodic lines evocative of medieval plainchant, filled with pathos and yet austere in their simplicity. He weaves them into a harmonic landscape that grows from sparse to lush; what follows is a study in contrasts depicting the interrelatedness of human suffering and hope. Martin’s treatment of the double choir forces, sometimes as a collection of individual voices, sometimes as a wall of sound moving together, endows the Kyrie with a powerful sense of breadth. Open sonorities, dissonance, and extended triadic harmonies highlight both the triumph and longing in the voices’ plea to God.
The dramatic Gloria is a veritable compendium of historical styles, all of which Martin deploys to bring the liturgical text to life. From the tension and exultant release of the opening soundscapes to the bustle of earthly life at “Et in terra pax,” Martin changes idioms swiftly. At “Gratias agimus tibi,” he evokes the lively double choir writing of Baroque Venice. The “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” alludes to medieval organum, in which some voices sustain drone notes while others incant decorative petitions. The pressing melismas of the “Quoniam tu solus” and “Cum sancto spiritu” are yet another reference, a nod to the high Baroque style of Bach cloaked in harmonies both ancient and modern in conception.
Following centuries of musical tradition, Martin sets the considerable Credo text with straightforward, speechlike declamation. Subtle meter shifts, a modern technique, hearken back to a musical age before time signatures and barlines. The “Et incarnatus” and “Crucifixus” are dramatic depictions of the love and suffering of God, the latter proclaimed in rending dissonance. Martin’s pentatonic “Et resurrexit” is a musical embodiment of shimmering light, leading the Credo to a jubilant, affirming close.
The Sanctus begins as a meditative invocation, pierced by two luminescent melodic ideas that conjure choirs of cherubim and seraphim in cosmic interplay. Martin slowly builds the texture into an outpouring of joyful noise. The “Pleni sunt coeli” and “Benedictus” are earthy and rhythmical, with rapturous melismas decorating cries of “Hosanna!” Throughout, Martin’s harmonic language evokes both the wonder and the mystery of the celestial realm.
Recalling introspective passages in both the Kyrie and Gloria movements, Martin’s Agnus Dei invites contemplation of the temporal and the eternal. While one choir maintains a steady, seemingly inexorable drone, the other winds a suppliant plea, creating rich rhythmic and harmonic conflict. Following one last vulnerable cry, the movement ends with a quiet petition for peace.
Sure on this Shining Night – Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)+
Morten Lauridsen is a native of the Northwest, where he spent his formative years in Portland, Oregon before migrating to California for his collegiate training at the University of Southern California. He joined the faculty of USC in 1967, later serving as Chair of the Department of Composition from 1990- 2002, and also served as Composer-in-Residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994-2001. He is one of the best-selling choral composers on record, and his music has been championed by some of the field’s greatest names, including Robert Shaw and Dale Warland. In 1998, the Los Angeles Master Chorale received a Grammy nomination for their disc Lux aeterna, which is devoted to Lauridsen’s music. His set of three Nocturnes, of which Sure on this Shining Night belongs, came about when he received the ACDA’s Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission in 2005. The text Sure on This Shining Night is no doubt best known in its setting as a solo song by Samuel Barber. The poem is actually stanzas 6-8 of a longer work, Description of Elysium, by James Agee. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which grew from his father’s death in a car accident when Agee was six years old. His work has been more respected since his death than during his lifetime, but he had a very impressive and varied career as a poet, author, journalist, film critic, and screenwriter.
Home on the Range – arr. Mark Hayes (b. 1953)+
Known as an anthem of the American West, Home on the Range was published in 1912 in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by Texas folklorist John Lomax; some scholars trace its origins to “My Western Home” from the 1870s, with verse by Brewster M. Higley and music by Daniel E. Kelley. Mark Hayes, a Kansas City pianist, composer and conductor who earned a degree from Baylor University, arranged Home on the Range in 1990. Hayes’s works for chorus and orchestra have been recorded by the Kansas City Chorale.
Long Road – Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977)*
Celebrated Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds wrote the hymn-like Long Road in 2010 for the Latvian youth choir, Kamēr. A master colorist, Ešenvalds sets Paulīne Bārda’s bittersweet text in lush diatonic harmony, adding tones to create a shimmering effect. He evokes the temporal and spatial distance between parted friends with a small group of soloists, as well as mystical, atmospheric vocal effects for the choir. As Ešenvalds has said, “There are moments in my choral works… when the musical description of an unseen landscape, or horizon-less space, or dramatic pain, steps out of the linguistic frontiers, and only pure music then brings the torch to the final climax.”
Sârba pe scaun (from Suita scurtâ) – Alexandru Paşcanu (1920-1989)*
Active in Bucharest for most of his career, Alexandru Paşcanu was a noted scholar of harmony as well as the folk idioms of Romania, and both are manifest in this lively celebration of rhythm, sonority, and color. The fast duple meter and dance steps of the sârba—a traditional Serbian round dance popular throughout Eastern Europe—lend Sârba pe scaun an unvarnished charm, even as Paşcanu employs chromaticism and unexpected tonal relationships. In this playful piece, the composer treats the human voice like an instrument, exploring vowels, consonants, and body movement for their percussive and coloristic possibilities.
Light of a Clear Blue Morning – arr. Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962)+
Dolly Parton wrote both words and music for 1977’s optimistic “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” from her first self-produced and pop-inflected album New Harvest…First Gathering. The song is arranged by Craig Hella Johnson, a Grammy-winning conductor, artistic director of the ensemble Conspirare, music director of the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble, and former artistic director of Chanticleer.
Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel – arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)+
Moses Hogan, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Juilliard, was an award-winning concert pianist and director of the admired Moses Hogan Chorale. He left us too young, dying of complications from a stroke at age 45. The Negro Spirituals were born out of the slaves’ deep need for comfort and community, and also served as sorely needed reminders that Jesus promised them a better life. Spirituals spoke to many levels of need, be it a retelling of Biblical stories, such as Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, songs of mourning, a call for help from the formidable patriarchs, tales to bolster and inspire perseverance, and perhaps most intriguingly, the coded songs designed to provide information for escape attempts. Many spirituals could fall into more than one category as well, of course. It is easy at this remove to forget to listen for the undercurrent of woe that runs through even the liveliest spirituals.
*Notes by Kerry Ginger.
+Notes by Kathryn Parke.
Program Notes edited by Lies’l Hill.