Our new season marks the fifteenth anniversary for the Ensemble. Our first concert is a special night to celebrate this anniversary at which we will sing pieces from the Ensemble’s repertoire from the last 15 years. We will be joined by the two previous artistic directors, founder Thomas Cunningham and successor Miguel Felipe, for this concert at First Church in Cambridge.
A special reception will immediately follow this concert and is open to all concert attendees.
This concert will start at 8:00 PM.
J. S. Bach: Lobet den Herrn, BWV 230
John Tavener: Funeral Ikos
Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
Ivan Moody: Angel vopiyashe
Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei (Adagio)
Vahram Sargsyan: Tribulationes (BCE Commission, 2010)
Edward Elgar: There is sweet music
Benjamin Britten: The evening primrose
Richard Scarth: My God, how wonderful thou art
What Sweeter Music celebrates the Boston Choral Ensemble’s fifteen years of performance with a potpourris of choral favorites. The program features a wide variety of music and texts, ranging from the devotional art of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Lobet den Herrn to the pastoral English songs of Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten. Contemporary takes on ancient texts are found in Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, a vocal adaptation of his famous Adagio for Strings. Richard Scarth’s “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art” is a recent composition from the strong modern tradition of English church music. Vahram Sargsyan’s Tribulationes represents the Boston Choral Ensemble’s commitment to new music with its annual composition commission, winning the prize in 2010 as a quasi-soundmass take on a dramatic yet devotional compilation of Latin sacred texts.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and Benjamin Britten (1913-76) stand as two of England’s greatest 20th-century composers. Elgar’s music often represents the transition into modernism from Romanticism at the turn of the century, a transition that occurred less rapidly in England than in mainland Europe. Throughout the early 1900s, the music of Elgar and his contemporaries Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) favored a more conservative and unashamedly tonal aesthetic, with the occasional flair for modernism or progressive techniques. Britten, by his coming later in the century and his formative years coinciding World War II, developed a new sound in his music incorporating more modern techniques while maintaining an inherited English tonal language.
English tradition in these songs is obvious before we even turn to the music. Both set texts by prominent English poets: “There Is Sweet Music” by Tennyson and “The Evening Primrose” by Clare; both use nature as a metaphorical device; and both use a predominantly syllabic and homophonic texture. Musically, each song contains surprisingly contemporary elements preserved within a larger tonal, even Romantic framework – a descriptor especially common in English music. The Elgar begins with a four-part men’s texture firmly established in G major, disrupted by a surprising 4-part women’s entrance in the key of A-flat major. The women then proceed comfortably in this new key, apparently unaware of the tonality so firmly established at first by the men. (In the score, the men and women actually have different key signatures throughout.) The surprise of the women’s entrance is no doubt intentional, but Elgar’s compositional skill is revealed by his ability to relate the two simultaneous keys with elegance as the piece unfolds. Later transitions between the two keys are more smoothly presented through the use of common tones. The poem, an excerpt from Song of the Lotos-Eaters, introduces the Elysian landscape upon which Tennyson desires the subject of his poem to find rest from human toil; the conflict between the two keys, and the fact that it is ultimately unresolved (or, at least, settles on the key of the men), may suggest Elgar’s interpretation that such a rest from toil is, at least for now, unattainable.
Britten’s “The Evening Primrose” comes from a set of Flower Songs (op. 47), and relies not on simultaneously different keys but instead his own skill at 4-voice counterpoint. Britten’s melodies are somehow catchy, beautiful, and yet slightly unsettling all at the same time. Clare’s text wistfully describes the primrose as if it had a personality. As in the Tennyson, nature allegorically describes human emotions through the relationship between the flower and the sun. The primrose wastes it beauty at night, but upon the arrival of morning it simply cannot shun “day’s open eye,” resulting in its demise. Musically, Britten captures the playfulness of the text’s subject in a declamatory style and short, playful lines, the voices rapidly either bouncing off each other or combining as one in unpredictable succession. The song collapses in a series of slowing lines and rapidly hushing dynamics as the primrose meets its fate.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) greatly admired Britten, going so far as to write a piece for string orchestra (Cantus in Memoriam) as an elegy on his death. Pärt was equally devoted to the composition of religious choral music, but stylistically bears no resemblance to the Englishman. The Magnificat is a mature example of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique, a name derived from the concept of ringing bells and their overtones. In this technique, tintinnabuli voices (T-voices) sound only the three distinct pitch classes of the tonic triad; enmeshed are melody voices (M-voices), which sound melodies independent of the tonic triad, creating various levels of dissonance and consonance with the comparatively static T-voices. Beyond providing a system of composition, Pärt has stated that tintinnabuli technique reflects his own spirituality and his concept of the relationship between human (M-voices) and divine (T-voices). The technique is ostensibly simple, but to execute it convincingly requires great artistry and skill; the result is remarkably satisfying. Rhythmically, Pärt uses syllabic accentuation to dictate note lengths, with barlines and time signatures present only as they are necessary to synchronize the performers. The conflict of the T- and M-voices is the primary source of musical interest. Dissonances can occur quickly in passing or on long notes at peaks or ends of phrases, they can be high or low in the voice, they can come at loud or soft dynamics, and they can vary in the level of dissonance and number of voices contributing to it. The poignancy of Pärt’s music often relies on the placement of the dissonances. Pärt’s tintinnabuli-style choral compositions are aesthetically similar due to their utilization of a specialized and specific technique, but his execution of that technique varies greatly between each piece and even within such longer works as the Magnificat. By paying close attention to Pärt’s placement of dissonance and consonance, you may be able to witness his ultimate goal of spirituality in music.
John Tavener (1944-2013) was a prolific English composer. He converted to the Russian Orthodoxy in the late 1970’s and as part of his spiritual journey he began setting the traditional liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Funeral Ikos, composed in 1981, is a setting of text used for the burial of priests in the Orthodox tradition, and while each verse in the text is punctuated by what would normally be a joyful proclamation, each “Alleluia” as well as the surrounding verses are full of solace. Funeral Ikos is harmonically uncomplicated, but masterful in its construction for its ability to act as a transparent accompaniment to the text and draw attention to the meaning of the words. Unison singing scattered throughout the piece calls upon chant melodies of the early church, and repetition of musical ideas with only slight changes in each verse allows time and space for the listener to become reflective. The focus of the text shifts as we move through the piece, beginning with first-person questions about what happens to our loved ones when we leave them behind, followed by more collective statements about a community of believers and their journey on the path toward eternal life, fraught with confusion over the fleeting values of wealth and beauty. In the last verse, we finally hear about the promise of light eternal and a paradise in Christ, which we celebrate with one final “Alleluia.” This verse begins a minor third higher than the other verses, calling us to reorganize our priorities and focus our thoughts on the celebration of life after death.
Ivan Moody's compositions show the influences of Eastern liturgical chant and the Orthodox Church, of which he is a member and archpriest (of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), His Canticum Canticorum I, written for the Hilliard Ensemble and premiered in 1987, achieved enormous success and remains his most frequently-performed work, and in 1990 he won the Arts for the Earth Festival Prize for Prayer for the Forests, subsequently premièred by the renowned Tapiola Choir of Finland. Angel vopiyashe (The angel cried) is an Easter zadostoynik (Festival Hymn). The text is addressed to Mary the Mother of God by an angel who announces that Christ has risen after his three-day soujourn in the grave.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was also one to graphically depict his own spirituality in his compositions, from the simple act of marking “SDG” (soli Deo gloria, “for the glory of God alone”) on his manuscripts to vividly depicting theological concepts through numerology or musical shapes. Lobet den Herrn BWV230 may be the piece on the program you are most likely to be humming a week later: from its rousing C major triads at the beginning to its luxuriant homophonic section, it might represent what Bach’s contemporary Johann Adolf Scheibe critically referred to as Bach’s “instrumental” writing for voices. The motet was considered a lower-grade liturgical genre in eighteenth-century Germany, second to the cantata. This accounts for Bach’s preference of the latter for composition, but by no means lessens the compositional virtuosity displayed by him in his examples of the former, or the vocal virtuosity required for their performance. The German genre grew out of the motet of 17th-century Italy, with many examples (including some of Bach’s) employing multiple choirs. Bach’s motets can almost be seen as vocal cantatas: without an independent instrumental ensemble (although a doubling ensemble or at least continuo would have been standard practice), Bach is left to create his usual contrapuntal fireworks with just a group of voices.
Little is known about the specific circumstances surrounding the composition of Bach’s motets; unlike the cantatas, they were not written for given Sundays of the year, and would probably have been used interchangeably with Renaissance and other contemporary motets by the choirs in the smaller churches under Bach’s purview. In some ways, Lobet den Herrn is unusual among his motets: it is written for only four voices, its complete text is drawn from the Bible (containing no poetic text), it does not set a funeral text (many of his motets do), and it does not include a chorale as an independent section or basis for composition. The work was written with the lineage of Renaissance polyphony in mind, and Bach would have been exposed to the Italian masters of polyphony both in conservative Lutheran Leipzig and Roman Catholic Dresden. The piece is almost completely polyphonic, with a few respites from Bach’s relentless counterpoint at more reflective textual moments. The end, however, is atypical of high Baroque Lutheran church music: instead of a chorale, the piece launches into a celebratory, polyphonic Alleluia in triple meter, an ending found in the great majority of paschal motets from the Renaissance. A separate chorale may have been performed after the motet, but the piece is completely free of chorale influence, making it one of Bach’s great homages to the heritage of Christian vocal music that preceded him.
A commitment to new music is perhaps demonstrated by Bach’s first two years in Leipzig at an extreme, with the fresh composition and performance of a new multi-movement cantata every single week. Such dedication to contemporary music was not uncommon in the eighteenth century, but it is in the twenty-first; the Boston Choral Ensemble is an outlier in this regard. The annual Composition Competition solicits manuscripts from around the world, and every spring awards a generous financial prize and performance of the work in concert. The 2015-16 work is yet to be discovered, but it is appropriate that such a commission be featured on a concert dedicated to celebrating BCE’s history.
The third winner, in 2010, was Vahram Sargsyam’s (b. 1981) Tribulationes. The work draws individual verses from four different psalms in the Vulgate Latin translation. It begins as a series of melismas, extending individual syllables from the initial excerpted psalms. The style appears to be inspired by early polyphony of Léonin and Pérotin (in the 12th and 13th centuries), in which one or two voices would float above extended versions of a plainchant tone with rapid and florid counterpoint in unpredictable rhythmic patterns. The harmonies of Sargsyam’s motet are very modern, however; it is largely constructed of triads with added sevenths and/or ninths, and moves rapidly to unexpected harmonic areas via common pitches, creating a combination of the pleasing and yet surprising so favored by modern choral composers. The piece reaches a syllabic climax on the third psalm verse, “Quamdiu ponam consilia,” before extending itself into a quote of Samuel Barber’s beloved Adagio for Strings, arranged for voices on the text Agnus Dei and presented on this concert program.
The Adagio by Samuel Barber (1910-81) is his most recognizable piece, widely performed and disseminated in the United States since its radio premiere in 1938. Originally the slow movement of a string quartet, Barber expanded it to the familiar string orchestra version which has been heard on countless orchestra concert programs and after the funerals of many American presidents, including John F. Kennedy. Barber also set a version for voices, which is every bit as emotive as the string version. He chose the Agnus Dei of the Catholic Mass, a logical text familiar to many in the Christian tradition and appropriate for the prayerful and poignant music of the Adagio.
The Adagio lends itself well to choral performance, with its long lines and rich sonorities equally suited to human voices as to a string orchestra. The Agnus Dei contains a melody that occurs in each voice at least once, with surrounding material and dynamics that change throughout the piece that build to its ultimate cathartic climax. The ending is also one of intense beauty and almost surprising content: it eases into the dominant, causing an expectation of resolution, but the resolution occurs not through change but by stasis: the chord is sustained for a great duration and rearticulated, eliminating the listener’s desire for a new chord and establishing itself as our corporate place of rest.
Brett Kostrzewski is a second-year DMA candidate in choral conducting at Boston University, and serves as Instructional Coordinator for Boston University’s Music Library. Active as an editor of early music, he is currently editing the complete Magnificats of Nicolas Gombert for publication by Antico Editions. He obtained a Master of Music in choral conducting at the University of Denver, and a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University.
Text and Translations
Lobet den Herrn
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden,
und preiset ihn, alle Völker!
Denn seine Gnade und Wahrheit
waltet über uns in Ewigkeit.
Alleluja! (Psalm 117)
Praise the Lord, all nations,
and praise Him, all peoples!
For His grace and truth
rule over us for eternity.
Why these bitter words of the dying, O brethren, which they utter as they go hence? I am parted from my brethren. All my friends do I abandon, and go hence. But whither I go, that I understand not, neither what shall become of me yonder; only God who hath summoned me knoweth. But make commemoration of me with the song: Alleluia.
But whither now go the souls? How dwell they now together there? This mystery have I desired to learn, but none can impart aright. Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them? Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song: Alleluia.
We go forth on the path eternal, and as condemned, with downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal. Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where then is the glory of this world? There shall none of these things aid us, but only say oft the psalm: Alleluia.
If thou hast shown mercy unto man, O man, that same mercy shall be shown to thee there; and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion, the same shall there deliver thee from want. If in this life the naked thou hast clothed, the same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm: Alleluia.
Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death, and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed. The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered, the shapeliness of the neck destroyed; and the other parts have become numb, nor often say: Alleluia.
With ecstasy are we inflamed if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder; that there is Paradise, wherein every soul of the Righteous Ones rejoiceth. Let us all, also, enter into Christ, that all we may cry aloud thus unto God: Alleluia.
From the Order for the Burial of Dead Priests; translated from the Greek by Isabel Hapgood.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae: Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generations
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est : et sanctum nomens eius
Et misericordia eius a progenie in progenie timentibus eum
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo: dispersit superbos mente cordis sui
Deposuit potentes de sede; et exeltavit humiles
Esurientes implevit bonis: et divites dimisit inanes
Suscepit Israel, puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae
Sicit locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is His name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and the meek.
He hath filled the hungry with goood things and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel;
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.
Angel vopiyashe Blagodatney:
chistaya Devo raduysya, i paki reku, raduysya:
tvoy Syn voskrese, tridneven ot groba,
i mertvyya vozdvignuvyy, lyudie veselitesya.
Svyatisya, svyatisya, Novyy Ierusalime,
slava bo Gospodnya na tebe vozsyya!
Likuy nyne i veselisya Sione, ti zhe, chistaya,
krasuysya Bogoroditse o vostanyy rozhdestva Tvoego.
The angel cried unto her who is full of grace:
hail, O pure Virgin, and again I say, hail:
your Son is risen from his three-day sojourn in the grave,
and has raised up the dead: rejoice, O ye people.
Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem,
for the glory of the Lord is risen upon you!
Dance now and be glad, O Zion, and do exult,
O pure Mother of God, in the arising of him whom you did bear.
Traditional Easter zadostoynik (Festival Hymn).
The Agnus Dei is a setting of the "Lamb of God" litany, based on John the Baptist's reference in John 1:29 to Jesus ("Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world"):
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
dona nobis pacem.
grant us peace.
65:11 …posuisti tribulationes in dorso nostro:
30:11 Quoniam defecit in dolore vita mea… 1
2:2Q uamdiu ponam consilia in anima mea, dolorem in corde meo per diem?
24:2 Deus meus in te confido…
65:11 …and laid burdens on our backs:
30:11 My life is consumed by anguish…
12:2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
24:2 In you I trust, O my God…
From Psalms 12, 24, 30, and 65 Translation from the New International Version of the Bible
There is sweet music
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.
From Song of the Lotos-Eaters by Alfred Lord Tennyson
The evening primrose
When once the sun sinks in the west,
And dewdrops pearl the evening's breast;
Almost as pale as moonbeams are,
Or its companionable star,
The evening primrose opes anew
Its delicate blossoms to the dew;
And, hermit-like, shunning the light,
Wastes its fair bloom upon the night,
Who, blindfold to its fond caresses,
Knows not the beauty it possesses;
Thus it blooms on while night is by;
When day looks out with open eye,
Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,
It faints and withers and is gone.
Text by John Clare
My God, how wonderful thou art
My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty, how bright;
How beautiful Thy mercy seat
In depths of burning light!
How wonderful, how beautiful,
The sight of Thee must be;
Thine endless wisdom, boundless power,
And aweful purity!
Father of Jesus, love’s Reward!
What rapture it will be
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
And gaze, and gaze on Thee!
Frederick Faber, 1849