Music, Poetry and Meaning: notes on
O Be Joyful…English Cathedral Anthems
Poetry and music are the principal media for worship. They are primary conduits through which meaning is experienced. A worship service consisting of only a sermon would be a lecture. But one comprised entirely of liturgy (poetic—not prosaic—words and music) approaches an ideal.
It is neither accident nor coincidence that language used to describe spiritual experience is frequently invoked where music is concerned—especially choral and vocal music. Sublime, ethereal, mystical, heavenly, ravishing and transcendent are but a handful of rapturous praises sung in the reverberations of poetry’s marriage to harmony.
Unlike initiation into a faith tradition or membership in a house of worship, no prerequisites, ceremonies or creeds are necessary for participation in the musical ritual known as the concert. Only open ears and the accompanying openness of mind—the essential components of authentic listening—are needed here. As the eminent musician and cultural ambassador Daniel Barenboim has observed, music may not bring about world peace, but active listening might help create the conditions where real dialogue becomes possible.
The line that gives our 27th season its title comes from George Herbert’s Antiphon. It opens with a couplet echoing the Psalms:
Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing
My God and King!
That refrain appears thrice: at the beginning, middle and end of the 14-line (sonnet-length) poem. The two stanzas between map out the span from heaven to earth where “praises there may grow.” The second verse articulates a fundamental core of humanity: But above all, the heart/Must bear the longest part.
Both halves of this concert close with energetic settings of this poem. Our entire season is devoted to highlighting two corners of our programming mission: the great tradition of western choral music (stretching back beyond the Renaissance) juxtaposed with the music of today. Ralph Vaughan Williams belongs to the former group of established composers. In an example of synchronicity (or meaningful coincidence), his father was vicar in the same church where George Herbert had served 300 years earlier. 2011 marks the centennial of Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, making Antiphon an even more fitting close to this concert.
Kenneth Leighton straddles the divide between the established tradition and the new. While his choral music is a staple of cathedral choirs in the UK, he is lesser known in the USA. The two short anthems offered here highlight contrasting virtues of one of the 20th century’s most compelling voices. Leighton’s music is charged with a rhythmic vitality indebted to modern influences from Stravinsky to jazz. His colorful harmonic language is evocative of a neo-romantic style that is back in favor. Leighton’s setting of Herbert’s Antiphon is a jazzy, syncopated jaunt. It mirror’s Joseph Campbell’s evocation of the mythological “Cosmic Dancer” who, like the Hindu god Shiva or the transfigured Christ, “does not rest heavily in a single spot, but…turns and leaps from one position to another.” His homophonic anthem Drop, Drop, Slow Tears is an elegiac closing to a cantata, Crucifixus Pro Nobis. The slow-moving progression of harmony in this hymn mirrors the deep coursing power of water. Note the imagery amplified following the opening line of the poem: bathe those beauteous feet…Cease not, wet eyes…In your deep floods / Drown all my faults and fears.... The exquisitely controlled musical adaptation of a densely packed poem culminates in a portrait of true penance:
Nor let his eye / See sin, but through my tears.
Our season finale concert (below) is devoted to songs inspired by water. As one of the elements, water is central to the world’s faith traditions. From the great flood (a common motif in creation stories) to the parting of the sea (in the Exodus), from the waters of baptism to the threshold of the immense “night-sea” of death and transfiguration, water is symbolically resonant as it is essential to survival.
“Many people mistake surface for substance, which is a cultural affliction of our time” notes Joseph Flummerfelt, one of the world’s foremost choral musicians. Thus we mistake the messenger for the message. Our obsession with celebrities—from teen idols to “superstar” actors and athletes—is but one manifestation of this imbalance. We need a healthful dose of authenticity, lest we lose access to centuries of discourse with the “meaning of life.”
The poet W.H. Auden wrote “there must always be two kinds of art, escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love….” Auden was writing about the work of his friend and frequent collaborator Benjamin Britten, to whose church music we shall soon turn. But let us return to water and its parable-art power.
One of the most beloved services in the Christian tradition is the liturgy for Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil. The liturgy reverberates with symbolism. The elements of water and fire (light) are central; their union symbolizes the sacred marriage. Psalm 42 is sung: As the deer longs for the water-brooks / so longs my soul for you, O God. This Psalm has inspired choral masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance (Palestrina) and ever since.
Herbert Howells is one of the most beloved composers of the Anglican tradition and Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks is one of the tradition’s favorite anthems. If the opening phrase is the hook on which we’re caught, he had us at “hello.” Howells unfurls line after line of memorable melody that follows the contours of the poem’s subject: the soul’s longing for meaning, for presence. It is one of three anthems written in the early 1940’s Howells’ assigned the telling label “in time of war.”
The heart of the Evensong service is the dual setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (commonly called the “Mag and Nunc,” the songs of Mary and Simeon respectively, from the gospel of Luke). Howells composed around 20 versions of these canticles, each setting tailored to the individual cathedral—and resident choir and organ—commissioning it to life. The St Paul’s Cathedral canticles are the best known of his “London Services” and rival those for King’s College (Cambridge) and Gloucester as the finest examples in the tradition.
Benjamin Britten intended to write a complete set of canticles for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, dedicated to “H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh.” The royal family’s favorite composer finished only the Jubilate Deo. He did leave two settings of the Te Deum, and this next installment of the Chorale’s ongoing Britten Project features all three of these canticles. In each of them you will hear reasons why Britten is one of our favorite composers for voices. The Festival Te Deum is characteristic of his style in using an economy of means to achieve a whole that is dramatically engaging and formally unified. Britten began to absorb the influences of eastern music—Balinese gamelan music in particular—in the early 1940’s. One hallmark of gamelan music is the use of heterophony—a single melody varied simultaneously in multiple voices. It is a technique Britten would use throughout his prolific career. It embodies the mystical, mythological “zone where the One breaks into the manifold and the many are reconciled in the One” (Joseph Campbell). Britten’s poetic gift and his penchant for musical symbolism using the heterophonic style appears in this Te Deum with “the glorious company of the Apostles” and culminates in “the Holy Church thro’ out all the world. ”
The Festival Te Deum appeared ten years after his first setting of the ancient canticle. The Te Deum in C is in three balancing sections: fast-slow-fast (a mirror opposite of the slow-fast-slow architecture of the Festival Te Deum). Where the Festival Te Deum opens with a long sequence of unison chant, the early Te Deum begins with 45 bars of block chords in C major, stacked up in ascending arpeggios. A precocious prodigy, Britten inspired suspicion and/or contempt from many of his older colleagues. Constance Lambert described the Te Deum in C as “drab and penitential.” Another such colleague was William Harris (whose Faire is the Heaven is a double-choir jewel of the cathedral tradition). Harris was choirmaster at St George’s Windsor for thirty years and a carrier of the torch of the Anglican renaissance tradition from Elgar, Stanford, and Parry. Harris premiered Britten’s Jubilate Deo in 1961, a piece “much too jolly” for the conservative musician’s standards, “who was hooked on solemnity in church.” Indeed, Britten’s Jubilate is innervated with childlike wonder. Its “jolly” dance-like playfulness is another hallmark of its composer’s singular style.
A composer carving out a niche with his own singular style—and indebted to Britten and fellow Scot, Leighton—is James MacMillan. MacMillan has quickly become a singer favorite in the Chorale (and around the globe). Padre Pio’s Prayer is an exquisitely crafted introduction to one of the most acclaimed composers writing today. MacMillan’s devout Catholicism eschews the “cheap grace” widespread in the contemporary church (of all denominations). Padre Pio’s tomb is the second most visited Christian shrine in the world, and it is said more people pray to this recently beatified saint than any other. Stay with me, Lord / For you are my light / And without You I am in darkness is the central refrain of a prayer whose piety is unpretentious. It inspires in MacMillan an equally heartfelt statement of sincerity, the melodic lines opening out in petition, the harmonies underpinning an emotional honesty that can be as unsettling as it is uncommon.
Though tonight’s program is focused on English cathedral anthems, we find an astonishing variety of effect and affect in this music. Anthems like those of Bainton, Howells and Stanford are familiar friends. Finzi and Walton are cousins we wish we’d spend more time with; Britten is like that perennially childlike uncle we love having around, eccentric and unpredictable, imminently lovable and wonderfully human. And there are new friends, of the “where have you been all my life?!” variety. Leighton is one we can’t believe we missed, and MacMillan one we’re so glad we’ve found. In this resonant world where poetry and music meet, mingle and marry, we say “I do” to all of the above. We hope you do, too.
Feb 18, 8 pm: First Pres VB
Feb 19, 8 pm: Chist & St Luke's NOR
Feb 20, 4 pm: Williamsburg Pres