If Ye Love Me – Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf – J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
Canticum Calamitatis Maritimæ – Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963)
Abendlied – Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901)
Curse Upon Iron – Veljo Tormis (1930-2017)
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine – Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
O magnum mysterium – Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), arr. Deke Sharon
That Lonesome Road – James Taylor (b. 1948); arr. Simon Carrington
Blackbird – Lennon-McCartney; arr. Bob Chilcott
Jerusalem – Michael McGlynn (b. 1964)
Dúlamán – Michael McGlynn
Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) was a versatile composer who worked under four different English sovereigns: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. His sacred oeuvre is a monument to pragmatism, including works for the newly established Church of England that reflected its “on-again, off-again” relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Tallis’ timeless anthem, “If Ye Love Me,” dates from 1547 or 1548, the first years of Edward VI’s short rule. In that time, Edward decreed that all Church of England services be conducted in English, and composers rushed to fill the musical void once occupied by Latin anthems. In elegant accordance with royal and Church dictums, Tallis set this text from the Gospel of John in a clear, syllabic style, with structured points of imitation and sweet, consonant harmonies.
Der Geist hilft, BWV 226, dates from J.S. Bach’s years as Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. During his tenure there, which lasted from 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach composed service music for four churches and provided additional musical settings for special occasions—in this case, the 1729 funeral of the Thomasschule rector, Heinrich Ernesti. Bach’s motet begins with an upbeat setting of Romans 8:26-27 for double choir, in which lively melismas and a dancelike meter emphasize the revitalizing power of the Holy Spirit. When Paul’s text invokes the Spirit’s sighs, Bach uses two-note descending figures to paint a musical image of the words. In the middle section of the motet, the two choirs become one, each voice part illustrating the steadfastness of God through decisive fugal entrances. The final chorale, based on a 1524 hymn tune and text by Martin Luther, is an outpouring of feeling. Rich in harmonic complexity, Bach’s setting celebrates the Spirit’s power to turn us towards lives of service, in spite of life’s adversities.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) dedicated his Canticum Calamitatis Maritimæ to the memory of the nearly 900 people who lost their lives in the disastrous shipwreck of the MS Estonia on September 28, 1994. A ferry travelling from Tallinn to Stockholm, the ship encountered unusually rough waters on the Baltic Sea and quickly capsized; only 139 passengers survived. Mäntyjärvi’s Canticum is at once a memorial to the dead, a chronicle of the tragedy itself, a declaration of faith, and an offering of comfort. The piece features Latin texts culled from the Catholic Requiem Mass, the Biblical psalms, and the Nuntii latini, a Latin-language news broadcast that has been a weekly feature on Finnish state radio since 1989.
The piece opens with an evocation of the sea winds, followed by a chorus of whispered petitions meant to evoke personal prayers. Over this texture, Mäntyjärvi layers a textless, folk-like soprano solo that conveys both comfort and inexpressible grief. In the next section, the tenor soloist recounts the calamity in an austere, parlando style reminiscent of a Church cantor—or, as the composer suggests, a news reader. Offering a reflection on the events, Mäntyjärvi pivots to the consoling message of Psalm 107. Over a wavelike pattern in the men’s voices, the composer layers sea sounds and a constant barrage of descending lines, culminating in the lowest abysses. A frantic texture accompanies the psalm’s description of great uncertainty; later, passages monumental and sublime proclaim the succor of an unwavering God. As the soprano solo returns, a deep calm descends over the sonic seascape, and hundreds of souls seem to find peace as the whispers fade.
The Phoenix Chorale recorded Canticum calamitatis maritimae with the Kansas City Chorale for their 2006 Chandos release, Eternal Rest.
Munich-based Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) is known for his lush, Romantic harmonies and structures drawn from Baroque and Classical music. Primarily an organist, Rheinberger’s choral output features an elegant mixture of imitative and chordal writing, resulting in exquisitely voiced walls of sound. The “Abendlied,” published as part of 1873’s Three Spiritual Songs, op. 69, originated much earlier in Rheinberger’s career. It is a meditative yet passionate setting of an episode from Luke’s Gospel, in which the disciples ask Jesus to tarry with them before he travels on.
“Abendlied” appears on the Phoenix Chorale’s 2008 GRAMMY-nominated album with the Kansas City Chorale, Rheinberger: Sacred Choral Works.
The Soviet occupation of Estonia provided composers like Veljo Tormis (1930-2017) with access to high-quality musical education and professional opportunities, but also precipitated a reactionary wave of nationalist works celebrating Baltic regional cultures. Tormis, who was nine at the time of the Soviet annexation of Estonia, studied at the Tallinn Music School and later with Vissarion Shebalin at the Moscow Conservatory. His output fuses European art music with Balto-Finnic texts, melodies, scales, and harmonies, reflecting a devotion to his regional heritage.
Tormis’ most frequently performed piece, Curse Upon Iron, is based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. (The text is supplemented with passages by twentieth-century Estonian poets.) Originating in the oral tradition of Finnic peoples from the modern-day border of Finland and Russia, the Kalevala inspired Finnish independence with its language nationalism and shared mythology. For this piece, Tormis selected text from the Kalevala’s ninth book, chronicling the origin story of iron and its destructive growth in technologies of killing. In Tormis’ martial setting, a shaman drum beats a relentless pulse of eighth notes, symbolizing the grim progress of human warfare. A masterful colorist, Tormis instructs the voices to sing “through the teeth,” “vulgarly,” “screechingly,” “sinisterly,” and “in fear of death,” among other articulations. The harmonies of this powerful piece, all derived from an eight-tone scale common to folk music of the Baltic region, give Curse upon Iron a chromatic edge that climaxes in the wailing of raid sirens, only to be stamped out by the drum’s final beats.
American composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) and his longtime lyricist, Charles Anthony Silvestri (b. 1965), created Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine on the following premise:
What would it sound like if Leonardo da Vinci were dreaming? [. . .] The drama would tell the story of Leonardo being tormented by the calling of the air, tortured to such degree that his only recourse was to solve the riddle and figure out how to fly.
Working much as a composer-librettist pair in opera, Whitacre and Silvestri constructed an elaborate scena in which the famed Leonardo (1452-1519) conceives of the ornithopter, a human-powered flying machine sketched out in his 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds. Rich in the musical language of the Florentine Renaissance, Leonardo features imitative textures, chains of grinding suspensions, text painting—in which the music pictorially represents the words—and fragmentary episodes evocative of dream syntax. In keeping with apocryphal stories that Leonardo tested his flying machines in the Tuscan hills, Whitacre and Silvestri grant Leonardo a windy, whirring voyage, if only in the realm of sleep.
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) is an American composer whose powerful yet accessible musical language has made him one of the most revered choral figures of his generation. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, Lauridsen has long been affiliated with the University of Southern California—where he was instrumental in the founding of the advanced film scoring program—as well as the L.A. Master Chorale, for which he served as composer in residence. The text of his beloved “O Magnum mysterium” is a chant from the Catholic Matins for Christmas Day, celebrating the mystery of the virgin birth among lowly animals. Lauridsen’s musical writing evokes the original plainchant in the melody lines that emerge from voice to voice, and in the use of added tones from the chant scale, which create exquisite tone clusters in their modern setting. The piece builds to an ecstatic exaltation of Jesus Christ, returning to restful quietude in awe of the newborn Savior.
Canadian poet and master songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) wrote frequently about the indignities of life and the transcendent power of love. His affecting ballad, “Hallelujah,” has inspired over 200 covers by artists such as John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright. In its bittersweet combination of disappointment and hope, Cohen’s song has assumed a place in the American songbook, and in the hearts of listeners everywhere.
James Taylor and Don Grolnick’s reflective ballad, “That Lonesome Road,” first appeared on Taylor’s 1981 album, Dad Loves His Work. Considered a chronicle of Taylor’s difficult divorce from Carly Simon, the original, intimate tune is scored simply for four voices and piano. The present adaptation is by Simon Carrington, a founder of the King’s Singers who broadened the possibilities for a cappella singing through his innovative and accessible arrangements.
Though “Blackbird” is credited to the famed Beatles songwriting team John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it is the melodic gift of McCartney (b. 1942) that shines in this 1968 White Album classic. Purportedly a response to the American civil rights struggle of the late 1950s and 1960s—especially the Little Rock Nine, black schoolchildren who in 1957 attended newly integrated Central High School under Army and National Guard protection—McCartney has said that he hoped his song, “if it ever got back to the people going through those troubles, it might just help them a little bit.” In Daryl Runswick’s arrangement, the men’s voices imitate the gentle finger-plucking of the guitar, which, McCartney says, was inspired by the first bars of J.S. Bach’s Bourée in E Minor.
Michael McGlynn (b. 1964) is a favorite composer of the Chorale, most recently having come to work with the singers for 2014’s Celtic Chorale series. The founder and composer of the acclaimed Irish ensemble Anúna, McGlynn synthesizes traditional folk material of the British Isles, medieval techniques, and contemporary rhythm and harmony in his works. As he conceives it, McGlynn’s “Dúlamán” defines “an Irishness that has been hitherto absent from the world of choral music.” The rustic song resembles a jig and employs a Dorian folk scale to depict a lively rivalry between seaweed collectors on the Irish coast. Contrastingly, “Jerusalem” features a haunting and lyrical Irish melody, presented in the soothing timbre of the women’s voices. Over a drone, the voices express longing in a Gaelic style called heterophony, a smudge-like texture in which a single melodic line is varied by multiple voices at staggered entrances.