A Voice From Heaven

February 12, 2016

The fourth concert in our season, “A Voice From Heaven,” is on Friday, February 12, 2016 at 8:00 PM at Marsh Chapel on the campus of Boston University (735 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston). This concert is part of the annual conference of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music, and includes two of the best choral works composed in the last one hundred years: the sublime Requiem (1936/1980) by Herbert Howells and the Pulitzer prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion (2008) by David Lang. Howells’ Requiem is not a traditional requiem mass, but rather a personal collection of Christian texts on death and salvation. Lang’s Passion uses the story by Hans Christian Anderson and updates it to a contemporary secular passion narrative. The concert will end with a round table discussion by a distinguished group of scholars and performers.

Program Notes

Herbert Howells: Requiem

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire and grew up serving as a chorister then deputy organist in the Church of England. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Charles Villes Stanford, Hubert Parry, and Charles Wood. Many of his early compositions are for orchestra and organ, though he is most well known for his contributions to the Anglican choral tradition such as his Te Deum/Jubilate (1944) and Requiem (1932).

In 1935 Howells’ son Michael died [of polio] at the age of nine, a tragedy which inevitably cast an immense shadow over the composer’s life. Until quite recently it was thought that the Requiem was composed in response to Michael’s death, but we now know that Howells composed it in 1932 or 1933, originally intending it for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. For some reason the music was never sent to King’s, and its existence remained unknown until its eventual publication in 1980, only three years before the composer’s own death. After the tragic events of 1935, Howells increasingly associated the Requiem with his lost son, so much so that a few years later, when he was composing Hymnus Paradisi, a work specifically intended as Michael’s memorial and without doubt Howells’ masterpiece, he used substantial parts of the earlier Requiem, re-scoring it for soloists, large chorus and orchestra.

Fauré and Duruflé did not adhere strictly to the standard liturgy in their Requiem settings, and before them Brahms had gone even further in Ein Deutsches Requiem by using his own selection of texts taken from the Lutheran Bible and the Apocrypha. Though musically Howells’ Requiem could scarcely be more different from the Brahms, there is perhaps a similar spirit at work in the composer’s very personal choice of devotional psalms and scriptural passages from both the Catholic and Anglican liturgies for the dead.

Howells’ music is much more complex than other choral music of the period, most of which still followed in the Austro-German tradition that had dominated English music for two centuries. Long, unfolding melodies are seamlessly woven into the overall textures; the harmonic language is modal, chromatic, often dissonant and deliberately ambiguous. The overall style is free-flowing, impassioned and impressionistic, all of which gives Howells’ music a distinctive visionary quality.

The Requiem is written for unaccompanied chorus, which in places divides into double choir. There are six short movements which are organised in a carefully balanced structure. The two outer movements frame two settings of the Latin ‘Requiem aeternam’ and two psalm-settings. Howells reserves his most complex music for the Latin movements, in which he uses poly-tonality, chord-clusters and the simultaneous use of major and minor keys. In contrast, the psalm-settings are simple and direct, the speech-rhythms of the plain chordal writing arising out of the textual inflections.

One of the earliest and most fundamental influences on Howells was Gloucester Cathedral, with its immense, vaulted spaces and glorious east window. Howells wrote of it as "a pillar of fire in my imagination." He consciously set out to mirror these essentially architectural elements of spaciousness and luminosity in his music, and these characteristics can clearly be heard in the Requiem. Significantly, the main climax of the work occurs at the words "et lux perpetua luceat eis" (let light perpetual shine upon them) – a symbol of hope and comfort, confirmed in the closing pages by the final release of tension and the gradual transition to a simple, peaceful D major.

- John Bawden

David Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion

I wanted to tell a story. A particular story — in fact, the story of The Little Match Girl by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The original is ostensibly for children, and it has that shocking combination of danger and morality that many famous children's stories do. A poor young girl, whose father beats her, tries unsuccessfully to sell matches on the street, is ignored, and freezes to death. Through it all she somehow retains her Christian purity of spirit, but it is not a pretty story.

What drew me to The Little Match Girl is that the strength of the story lies not in its plot but in the fact that all its parts—the horror and the beauty—are constantly suffused with their opposites. The girl's bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories; her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There is a kind of naive equilibrium between suffering and hope.

There are many ways to tell this story. One could convincingly tell it as a story about faith or as an allegory about poverty. What has always interested me, however, is that Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus. The girl suffers, is scorned by the crowd, dies, and is transfigured. I started wondering what secrets could be unlocked from this story if one took its Christian nature to its conclusion and unfolded it, as Christian composers have traditionally done in musical settings of the Passion of Jesus.

The most interesting thing about how the Passion story is told is that it can include texts other than the story itself. These texts are the reactions of the crowd, penitential thoughts, statements of general sorrow, shock, or remorse. These are devotional guideposts, the markers for our own responses to the story, and they have the effect of making the audience more than spectators to the sorrowful events onstage. These responses can have a huge range—in Bach's ''Saint Matthew Passion,'' these extra texts range from famous chorales that his congregation was expected to sing along with to completely invented characters, such as the ''Daughter of Zion'' and the ''Chorus of Believers.'' The Passion format—the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it—has the effect of placing us in the middle of the action, and it gives the narrative a powerful inevitability.

My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen's story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen's narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach's Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word ''passion'' comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus's, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.

—David Lang [http://davidlangmusic.com/music/little-match-girl-passion-for-chorus]


Texts

Requiem (Herbert Howells)
1. Salvator mundi

Antiphon for Matins, Exaltation of the Cross (original Latin poem at right)

Salvator mundi, salva nos,
qui per crucem et sanguinem
redemisti nos;
auxiliare nobis
te deprecamur, Deus noster.

O Saviour of the world,
who by thy cross and thy precious blood
hast redeemed us,
save us and help us,
we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.

 

2. Psalm 23

Translation: Book of Common Prayer, 1662.

1. The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing.
2. He shall feed me in a green pasture:
and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
3. He shall convert my soul:
and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4. Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: thy rod and thy staff comfort me.
5. Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me:
thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be full.
6. But thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

3. Requiem aeternam

Source: Latin Office of the Dead, after 2 Esdras 2:33-35.
Requiem aeternam dona eis.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.

Eternal rest grant unto them.
And let light perpetual shine upon them.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.

 

4. Psalm 121

Translation: Book of Common Prayer, 1662.

1. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills:
from whence cometh my help.
2. My help cometh even from the Lord:
who hath made heaven and earth.
3. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:
and he that keepeth thee will not sleep.
4. Behold, he that keepeth Israel:
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5. The Lord himself is thy keeper:
he is thy defence upon thy right hand;
6. so that the sun shall not burn thee by day,
neither the moon by night.
7. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil:
yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul.
8. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in:
from this time forth and for evermore.

 

5. Requiem aeternam (II)

Source: Latin Office of the Dead, after 2 Esdras 2:33-35.
Requiem aeternam dona eis.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.

Eternal rest grant unto them.
And let light perpetual shine upon them.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.

 

6. I heard a voice from Heaven

Source: Revelation 14:13 Translation: Book of Common Prayer, Order for the Burial of the Dead, 1662.

I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, "Write,
From henceforth blessed are the dead
which die in the Lord:
even so saith the Spirit,
for they rest from their labours."
The Little Match Girl Passion (David Lang, after Hans Christian Andersen)

1. Come, daughter

Come, daughter
Help me, daughter
Help me cry
Look, daughter
Where, daughter
What, daughter
Who, daughter
Why, daughter
Guiltless daughter
Patient daughter

Gone

 

2. It was terribly cold

It was terribly cold and nearly dark on the last evening of the old year, and the snow was falling fast. In the cold and darkness, a poor little girl, with bare head and naked feet, roamed through the streets. It is true she had on a pair of slippers when she left home, but they were not of much use. They were very large, so large, indeed, that they had belonged to her mother, and the poor little creature had lost them in running across the street to avoid two carriages that were rolling along at a terrible rate. One of the slippers she could not find, and a boy seized upon the other and ran away with it, saying that he could use it as a cradle, when he had children of his own. So the little girl went on with her little naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold.

 

3. Dearest heart

Dearest heart
Dearest heart
What did you do that was so wrong?
What was so wrong?
Dearest heart
Dearest heart
Why is your sentence so hard?

 

4. In an old apron

In an old apron she carried a number of matches, and had a bundle of them in her hands. No one had bought anything of her the whole day, nor had any one given her even a penny. Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along; poor little child, she looked the picture of misery. The snowflakes fell on her long, fair hair, which hung in curls on her shoulders, but she regarded them not.

 

5. Penance and remorse

Penance and remorse
Tear my sinful heart in two
My teardrops
May they fall like rain down upon your poor face
May they fall down like rain
My teardrops

Here, daughter, here I am
I should be bound as you were bound
All that I deserve is
What you have endured

Penance and remorse
Tear my sinful heart in two
My penance
My remorse
My penance

 

6. Lights were shining

Lights were shining from every window, and there was a savory smell of roast goose, for it was New-year’s Eve – yes, she remembered that. In a corner, between two houses, one of which projected beyond the other, she sank down and huddled herself together. She had drawn her little feet under her, but she could not keep off the cold; and she dared not go home, for she had sold no matches, and could not take home even a penny of money. Her father would certainly beat her; besides, it was almost as cold at home as here, for they had only the roof to cover them, through which the wind howled, although the largest holes had been stopped up with straw and rags. Her little hands were almost frozen with the cold.

Her little hands were almost frozen with the cold.

 

7. Patience, patience!

Patience.

Patience!

 

8. Ah! perhaps

Ah! perhaps a burning match might be some good, if she could draw it from the bundle and strike it against the wall, just to warm her fingers. She drew one out — “scratch!” how it sputtered as it burnt! It gave a warm, bright light, like a little candle, as she held her hand over it. It was really a wonderful light. It seemed to the little girl that she was sitting by a large iron stove, with polished brass feet and a brass ornament. How the fire burned! and seemed so beautifully warm that the child stretched out her feet as if to warm them, when, lo! the flame of the match went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the half-burnt match in her hand.

She rubbed another match on the wall. It burst into flame, and where its light fell upon the wall it became as transparent as a veil, and she could see into the room. The table was covered with a snowy white table-cloth, on which stood a splendid dinner service, and a steaming roast goose, stuffed with apples and dried plums. And what was still more wonderful, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled across the floor, with a knife and fork in its breast, to the little girl. Then the match went out, and there remained nothing but the thick, damp, cold wall before her.

 

9. Have mercy, my God

Have mercy, my God.
Look here, my God.
See my tears fall. See my tears fall.
Have mercy, my God. Have mercy.

My eyes are crying.
My heart is crying, my God.
See my tears fall.
See my tears fall, my God.

 

10. She lighted another match

She lighted another match, and then she found herself sitting under a beautiful Christmas-tree. It was larger and more beautifully decorated than the one which she had seen through the glass door at the rich merchant’s. Thousands of tapers were burning upon the green branches, and colored pictures, like those she had seen in the show-windows, looked down upon it all. The little one stretched out her hand towards them, and the match went out.

The Christmas lights rose higher and higher, till they looked to her like the stars in the sky. Then she saw a star fall, leaving behind it a bright streak of fire. “Someone is dying,” thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only one who had ever loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star falls, a soul was going up to God.

 

11. From the sixth hour

In the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour she cried out: Eli, eli.

 

12. She again rubbed a match

She again rubbed a match on the wall, and the light shone round her; in the brightness stood her old grandmother, clear and shining, yet mild and loving in her appearance. “Grandmother,” cried the little one, “O take me with you; I know you will go away when the match burns out; you will vanish like the warm stove, the roast goose, and the large, glorious Christmas-tree.” And she made haste to light the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother there. And the matches glowed with a light that was brighter than the noon-day, and her grandmother had never appeared so large or so beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and they both flew upwards in brightness and joy far above the earth, where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God.

 

13. When it is time for me to go

When it is time for me to go
Don’t go from me
When it is time for me to leave
Don’t leave me
When it is time for me to die
Stay with me
When I am most scared
Stay with me

 

14. In the dawn of morning

In the dawn of morning there lay the poor little one, with pale cheeks and smiling mouth, leaning against the wall; she had been frozen to death on the last evening of the year; and the New- year’s sun rose and shone upon a little corpse! The child still sat, in the stiffness of death, holding the matches in her hand, one bundle of which was burnt. “She tried to warm herself,” said some. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, nor into what glory she had entered with her grandmother, on New-year’s day.

 

15. We sit and cry

We sit and cry
And call to you
Rest soft, daughter, rest soft
Where is your grave, daughter?
Where is your tomb?
Where is your resting place?
Rest soft, daughter,
rest soft

Rest soft
Rest soft
Rest soft
Rest soft

You closed your eyes.
I closed my eyes
Rest soft.