Friday, February 18, 2011

Britten, MacMillan & inviting connections...

This picks up where I left off last night musing about Britten and the influence of gamelan music on his style. It is worth noting that of the two primary styles of Indonesian gamelan music, the Javanese and Balinese, Debussy was drawn to the former and Britten to the latter. That the Javanese style of gamelan is atmospheric with hazy textures, intimate dynamic levels and fluid rhythmic patterns might explain its absorption into the "impressionist" musical style of Debussy. Britten's delight in short, pert rhythmic motives, his fondness for the "joyful noise" percussive effects of bells, cymbals and gongs underscores his interest in the colorfully varied, rhythmically vital forms of the Balinese gamelan.

The Chorale and our guest artist, organist Brad Norris, will join me for a "meet the music" talk and demonstration 15' before the start of each of this weekend's concerts. We will share an excerpt from Britten's Jubilate Deo (discussed in the post below) and his Festival Te Deum. That piece features some of the "jolly good" and rambunctious music of the gamelan that inspired Britten. In the jaunty middle section of that work, the choir and organ exchange "riffs" on a gamelan inspired theme. The work concludes with one of Britten's most accomplished crescendoes. Formally, it is a linear and multi-layered unfolding of some of the materials that have been stratified and stacked up on top of one another.

Britten will often take a simple melody and stack its pitches vertically to form his chords of harmony. The mirror image of this technique is also common, and his tunes are sometimes linear unspoolings of vertical chords. The Festival Te Deum does this very thing, and though the formal/technical means used towards this end may be inaudible to the ear hearing the piece for the first time, the sense of direction, balance, and "rightness" is impossible to miss.

One of the most poignant examples of Britten's gamelan music occurs at the dramatic fulcrum of his penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave. The use of the gamelan throughout this made-for-TV opera reinforces a couple of associations with the gamelan. As noted below, Britten uses this "exotic" music to evoke the beyond, the "other" and the supernatural. Owen Wingrave was Britten's second opera on a Henry James ghost story (The Turn of the Screw was the first), and the gongs, bells and celeste have a haunting, other-worldly quality. In Owen Wingrave, the ghosts are dead soldiers and the gamelan is used to evoke a martial, drum-line like music that fits the military setting of the story. Owen has rejected his family's choice for him of a military career, and sings a "peace aria" which unwinds and decompresses the martial gamelan music into a "glittering symbol of tranquility and innocence" (Anthony Burton). It is among the most visionary music he wrote, and Myfanwy Piper's poetic libretto inspired in Britten music of assured depth. Its philosophical underpinnings connect Owen to a long tradition of non-violence, from Jesus Christ to the Buddha, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. The connections across Britten's career of gamelan-inspired music inform our understanding of each instance of the technique. Thus our appreciation of Britten's gamelan-related choral music is enhanced by arias such as Owen's:

In peace I have found my image,
I have found myself. In peace I rejoice
amongst men and yet walk alone,
in peace I will guard this balance
so that it is not broken.
For peace is not lazy but vigilant,
peace is not acquiescent but searching,
peace is not weak but strong like a bird's wing
bearing its weight in the dazzling air.
Peace is not silent, it is the voice of love.

The gamelan music Britten wrote in his choral works and operas is music of connection. It connects the human to the divine, the corporeal to the spiritual, the earthbound to the beyond. And as in the Festival Te Deum, it can be an energetic blast of vitality, a joyful noise and source of delight. It could be considered both a stylistic and cultural bridge.

The gamelan per se is not as apparent in the music of this concert's centerpiece, James MacMillan's Padre Pio's Prayer. But it is there, and the influence of the "exotic" and other-worldly in MacMillan is indebted to Messiaen and an individualist (Catholic) mysticism that connects the natural world to the heavens. Where Britten's gamelan is most audible in the organ writing of his sacred choral works, MacMillan's visionary organ writing recalls Messiaen's "illuminations of the beyond" and the ear-catching sounds of bird-calls (symbols of grace, natural wonder and the transcendence inherent in airborne flight).

MacMillan has written of his interest in "vernacular forms of music" like folk music and other indigenous forms of music with functions as social as aesthetic. We connect MacMillan to Britten (and other composers writing for the sake of humanity, rather than posterity) when we hear his works as a bridge between "the timeless and the contemporary, the secular and the sacred."

MacMillan has written candidly about our contemporary "hunger for something to fill the spiritual void" left in the wake of postmodernism and the upheavals of the war-torn 20th century. Unlike the "new age" spiritual "minimalists" who avoid conflict and aim exclusively for transcendence, MacMillan draws on the well of musical tradition built on the dynamic of tension and resolution, from Bach & Beethoven onward.

"I need to tell a story; I need to create dramas and the best stories are the ones that have resolutions of conflict, not just resolution...I don't think we can see the light until we can know why there is light, and that involves a knowledge of the dark." (from "God, Theology and Music" in Composing Music for Worship).

That quote reminds me a wonderful song by the composer Richard Hundley, called "Astronomers." The song comes from an epigraph on a tombstone: "We have loved the stars too deeply to be afraid of the night."

And Padre Pio's Prayer connects the darkness and the light, the journey and the destination, the here-and-now and the what-lies-ahead. The organ plays several interludes that alternate between the creative tension of humanity (a chromatic mini-fugue reminiscent of Bach) and those celestial visions, either through the voices of birdcalls or the glittering of the stars (we'll offer examples of both before our concerts).

I closed my post last night by quoting Joseph Flummerfelt's apt observation on the great composers' gifts for connection. That connection being between the creative product and the impulse or inspiration that motivated, enabled or realized it.

MacMillan offers another revealing comment on this topic, in reference to the disconnect inherent in the "spiritual void" mentioned above. "The engagement between... religion and the arts is now such a faded memory for most people that a whole generation has grown up without an understanding of the true meaning and implication in the word 'inspiration.'"

He goes on to connect listening to other forms of receptivity. "Being openly receptive to the transforming power of music is analogous to the patient receptivity to the divine that is necessary for religious contemplation." And all manner of relationships. And any area in life where growth is desired.

"Music invites us to touch what is deepest in our souls...Music opens doors to a deepening and broadening of understanding. It invites connections between organized sound and lived experience or suspected possibilities. In the connection is found the revelation, a realization of something not grasped before."

Membership in any of the above-referenced sects, traditions or schools is not required. Openness is the only pre-req. I hope you will join us this weekend and hear a connection, grasp a revelation, and experience the wealth this music pours out as pure gift.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Much too jolly:" Britten Project III

This weekend the Chorale sings a program of English cathedral anthems. Three of Benjamin Britten's canticles are featured in this concert. Two settings of the Te Deum (composed a decade apart), and a Jubilate Deo. The latter setting was deemed "much too jolly" for the choir master who premiered it, but we think otherwise. Britten's music is serious fun.

The Jubilate Deo was the first Britten piece I learned, as a high school student in Chesapeake. I love and appreciate it now more than ever. And that is one of the (subjective) tests I use when quantifying a work's relative greatness, value or worth. How has my relationship to this piece evolved over time? What is it saying to me now? What details emerge in a new light? What was there all along I simply missed? What shift inside me has opened a new window, or offered a different perspective to enable deeper appreciation? Sometimes I feel like the music hears me.

I find Britten's music penetrates deeper to the core of my being as I revisit it, and paradoxically, I find it simpler and more direct. There is a playfulness in so much of it, a delight in the sheer joy of music-making. He often said he composed especially for human beings (not for the sake of posterity, academia or even art), and that human touch is especially apparent in his choral music.

This concert is the Chorale's third offering in its ongoing Britten Project, a five-season initiative to explore the works for chamber chorus--both familiar and lesser-known--of one of our favorite composers for voices.

As I revisit Britten this go-round, I am learning his Te Deum in C (from 1934) for the first time, and returning to the Festival Te Deum (1945) and the aforementioned Jubilate (1961). I am struck by the improvisatory quality of the latter two pieces. And I hear more and more the connections between them to the gamelan music of Indonesia Britten loved so much.

Britten's indebtedness to--and assimilation of--Indonesian (specifically Balinese) gamelan music is still under-appreciated (even in academic circles, which thrive on such lacunae). The gamelan is a percussion orchestra of gongs, bells, drums, and tuned percussion instruments (like xylophones) indigenous to Indonesia. Without turning this into an academic piece of ethnomusicology (for which I am utterly unqualified), Britten's style from his earliest years reveals similarities to gamelan (and other eastern) music(s).

Short melodic motives (conducive to improvisation and/or variation), a strong rhythmic pulse, and an interest in the expressive potential of texture are fixtures of Britten's style and gamelan music. When Britten first visited Bali, he wrote to his assistant, Imogen Holst (daughter of the composer of The Planets, Gustav):

"The music is fantastically rich--melodically, rhythmically, texture (such orchestration!) & above all formally. It is a remarkable culture."

The glittering affirmation and evocative other-worldiness of this music mirrors "themes" associated with Britten: childhood, innocence and peace. Britten was a lifelong pacifist, and spoke passionately about a worldview based on being a creative artist. He and (his life partner-to-be) Peter Pears left the UK as conscientious objectors in 1939 and lived in the US for several years before returning home to face a tribunal and possible imprisonment. Britten had this to say in his defense (in 1942):

Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to avoid helping to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction. Moreover, I feel that the fascist attitude to life can only be overcome by passive resistance...I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best by continuing the work I am most qualified to do by the nature of my gifts and training, ie the creation or propagation of music.

His years in the US were fascinating and formative. He and Pears lived in a house in Brooklyn with W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers and among others, Gypsy Rose Lee. He was commissioned and championed by such eminent figures as Serge Koussevitzky (through whom he met the up and coming Leonard Bernstein). He heard a radio broadcast that would give him the subject of his first opera, Peter Grimes (which motivated him and Pears to return home). He also worked with Colin McPhee, a Canadian musicologist--and specialist in Balinese gamelan music.

One of the features of gamelan music is heterophony, the "simultaneous presentation of different variants of the same melody" (from one of the only books on this particular subject, Mervyn Cooke's Britten and the Far East).

If we took "Row your boat" and had the bass section sing the melody in long, sustained notes while the tenors sang the regular tune, with the altos and sopranos singing the tune in whatever tempo or variant they desired, we would have instant heterophony. The melody would be audible, but the overall effect would be a wash of sound, an impressionist blurring of "normal" contours.

Among other composers, Mahler, Debussy and Ravel all used heterophonic techniques (and "exotic," eastern-sounding percussion instruments for effect). And all were big influences on Britten's style before he met McPhee and discovered the gamelan.

The Jubilate Deo opens with a jaunty, bell-like tune that immediately evokes the gamelan. The voices are paired in heterophonic textures. The tenors sings a tune while the sopranos "improvise" a slight variation on it (at the same time). This "unity in diversity" is both a prominent trait of Britten's music and is symbolic of an ideal. This symbol resonates in one of the improvisatory-sounding sections of the Festival Te Deum, where the voices vary a single melody individually, before stacking on top of one another to create a stratified texture on the very words, "the holy church throughout all the world..."

Besides the obvious associations between the gamelan effects and the "exotic" world of the east, Britten connects the gamelan with ideas of innocence and purity, themes as close to his heart as creativity and peace. When I hear the gamelan in his orchestral scores and opera, other-worldly images come to mind and pique my imagination. I hear a connection between this music and the beyond, the ideal, the sacred, the "other."

I have been sharing quotes from my mentor, courtesy of a new book edited by another friend and colleague, Donald Nally. Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt is full of wonderful observations. When asked about "the source" of creativity, he refers to the "gift" of a great composer like Bach or Beethoven:

"My answer is 'the gift of connection.' Now clearly, there was a mastery of craft, that is essential. But what allows the music of a great composer to enrich our human understanding and to help quench our spiritual thirst is that, at the moment of creation, the composer was connected to a divine source, a powerful creative impulse. I call that source 'God.' Not God as prescribed by any religious beliefs, but the designation used as a symbol..."

Joe's eloquent statement echoes Britten's above, and thus is fitting for another composer to be included in the pantheon of "greats." And though Britten's pacifism might strike critics as naive or "soft" (or worse), his idealism was tempered by a keen awareness of the reality of the human condition. This creative tension is present in his music, and in works like the canticles discussed here, it is transcended. As another colleague, Graham Elliott writes, "from the '40's until the end of his life, he was clearly aware that man's potential for good needs spiritual support" (Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension).

The "powerful creative impulse" inspired music from Britten that is vivid, imaginative, playful as a child, and unexpected as a pleasant surprise. So individually jolly we might not recognize it for the angel's voice it is.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some great moments in VC Program III (Feb 18-20)

I typically send the singers of the Chorale detailed notes before and between our weekend rehearsals. We rehearse each program about 5 times over the course of the two weekends prior to each concert weekend. This week I'm posting my favorite moments for each piece, with an eye & ear to the "sublime" moments of particular beauty, and/or visionary inspiration. The lengthy "musing" below this one elaborates some of my thoughts on the subject of the sublime in music. Consider the following a listening guide for this upcoming program whose music we cherish. (For those able to come to our Feb 18-20 concerts, I hope this might pique your interest in hearing it...)

1. Finzi: God is Gone Up
The intimate beauty of the part-writing (the harmony of the chords) at the line "more to enravish..." This is a wonderful example of music sounding like the poem means...

2. Bairstow: I Sat Down Under His Shadow
This is a 90 second miniature gem of sublime choral writing!
I especially love the harmonization of the repetition of
"His banner over me was love."
It's a gently dissonant, "sighing," expressive suspension on the word "banner..."

3. Britten: Festival Te Deum
It's difficult to choose just one moment in this imaginative setting of the famous Canticle. The wonderfully controlled build in the final section of the work over the words "In Thee Have I Trusted," with a solo soprano ethereally repeating the benediction,
"Let me never be confounded."

The solo uses a mode (a scale) Britten loved, and its juxtaposition with the choral harmony is an inspired (and symbolic) choice.

4. Howells: Like As the Hart
Another great-from-start-to-finish anthem. I especially love the unfolding arc at the closing repetition of "When shall I come to appear / Before the presence of God."

5. Howells: Magnificat for St Paul's Cathedral
There is a great musical onomatopoeia in the Gloria Patri ("Glory be to the Father"): the phrases "ever shall be" and "world without end" are both set over elongated melodies that reveal a finely-wrought musical architecture of long melodic lines supported by warm harmony.

6. Howells: Nunc Dimittis
This Canticle shares with its companion Magnificat a penchant for the luminous, immediately appealing lines: "For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation Which thou hast prepared... / To be a light to lighten..."

Similar lines of visionary music from the Magnificat are:
"And his mercy is on them... / He hath filled the hungry...
and a central example of Howells' salve-like melodies appears at "He remembering his mercy..."

7. Leighton: Drop, Drop Slow Tears
This is another ravishing miniature jewel of unexpected, breath-catching harmonies. All 40 measures of it.

8. Leighton: Let All the World in Every Corner Sing
This jazzy and energetic anthem doesn't aim for the "sublime" but the organically welling crescendo of "But above all the heart / Must bear the longest part" harkens towards it...

9. Britten: Jubilate Deo
This is another jaunty, effervescent miniature, full of serious fun, including a climactic chord that purposely doesn't properly resolve: the basses sing the "wrong" note on the close of "from generation to generation!"

10. Britten: Te Deum in C
Another setting with many memorable moments. The rich--more so for being unexpected--harmony at "And we worship Thy name..."

11. MacMillan: Padre Pio's Prayer
This 10' anthem is full of visionary, ecstatic moments. So I'm listing a few of them:

A. The bold, alarmingly direct appeal in "Let me see you..."

B. The literally generous musical gesture of "seek to love you more and more..."

C. The effect of resolving a complex dissonance into a "pure" unison is always surprising to the ears. There's a great example of this technique in Padre Pio's Prayer at "Joy of my heart!"

D. The "holy longing" of spiritual desire is embodied in the music of "I look for you alone..."

E. MacMillan has moments that recall the great choral music of the Renaissance and Baroque, gestures and techniques that both connect to the tradition while re-imagining & reinvigorating it. "Come to my soul" is one such "affective moment..."

12. Stanford: Beati Quorum Via
A classic example of long lines and warm harmony that echoes the idea of the romantic sublime in sacred music. I particularly love the perfectly balanced coda that closes the work with transparent intimacy...

13. Bainton: And I Saw A New Heaven
Another classic anthem, well-crafted and shaped by lyricism and dramatic flair. The rising sequence to the work's resolution, "for the former things are passed away" is emotionally direct, and another example of the expressively inspired sublime.

13 seems like a good place to stop. I've left off the rousing pair of anthems that close this concert. Walton's Jubilate Deo is like an old-time church "Can I get an amen?!?" (but in English cathedral vestments). Vaughan Williams' popular "warhorse" (it's more like a lightning-fast thoroughbred) Antiphon is a resounding, organ toccata-like "Amen!" Please join us.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Seraphic-wise, bird-calls and the sublime...

I enjoy homework as an adult in ways I never did as a student. I truly opened to the wonderful worlds entered through the portals of "intellectual curiosity" as a grad student at Westminster Choir College. But it is as an Artistic Director of both a professional chamber chorus and a small opera company that I fully appreciate the joys of homework.

The Chorale is preparing for a program of English Cathedral Anthems (Feb 18-20; the program notes are in the post below). I am soon to begin rehearsing for Opera Roanoke's March production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The week in between those wonderful artistic adventures, I have a performance (as tenor soloist) of Beethoven's 9th Symphony with Symphonicity in Virginia Beach. I love it all.

Both Puccini's tragic masterpiece and the program of beautiful cathedral anthems find me returning to questions of the sublime, the transcendent and the visionary. And Beethoven's 9th is synonymous with the topic.

The Chorale concert opens with Gerald Finzi's (20th c.) "classic" setting of an excerpt from the (17th-c.) metaphysical poet Edward Taylor's "Sacramental Meditations." It contains such memorable images as the "seraphic-wise" praise of "heart-cramping notes" in music made "more to enravish" (than merely entertain or even inspire).

God is Gone up lives in the fantastic world of the celestial vision, from those described by the ancient Fathers (like the ladder in Jacob's dream, the proverbial "stairway to heaven") to the prophets, to Christ's transfiguration and ascension. And many other (parallel) examples from ancient histories, mythologies & religions.

One of the self-imposed homework assignments I most enjoy is associative leaping. Like a frog jumping from one lilly pad to another, either to cross a stream or catch a fly, I leap from one reference to the next when learning a piece or preparing a program. I let my memory and imagination travel (from wherever I start) in an attempt to enter the world of the poet, composer and work. It's a little like background research for a project, with the obsessive-compulsiveness of a romantic diving headlong into a new relationship. I have found it an indispensable activity for my spiritual and artistic health, and it is a stimulant to intellectual curiosity. I recommend the "associative leap" to everyone who has not already discovered its endlessly fascinating possibilities for enrichment and newness.

The Chorale's single favorite work on this Feb 18-20 program is the centerpiece, James MacMillan's stunning 10' anthem for choir and organ, Padre Pio's Prayer. It is a sincere, impassioned and penetratingly direct love song to God. Some of the singers have confessed they find it so affecting they can barely contain their emotions enough to get through the work. The prayer is from the recently beatified Saint, Padre Pio, whose shrine is the second most visited site in all of Christendom. It is said that over a thousand miracles have been claimed on behalf of this unlikely Saint, censured for a time by the Vatican over "the accompanying notoriety" of his receiving the stigmata in 1918 (at age 30).

MacMillan is a devout Roman Catholic whose musical style draws on a broad array of mystical traditions, from Tibetan chant, Balinese gamelan music, and the exotic orchestral bird-calls beloved of (fellow Catholic and mystic) Olivier Messiaen.

I start by listening to a variety of MacMillan's works (which I've been doing for 15 years, so some of the "background" work is continually/regularly in progress...) In addition to a number of small scale choral works (the Chorale has offered several of his motets to critical and audience acclaim), he has written a cello concerto for Rostropovich, a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie, several symphonies, operas and other large-scale works, like his 90-minute St John Passion. The recording of that work, written for the London Symphony and dedicated to Sir Colin Davis, features a preface from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

In addition to being an observant commentator on contemporary sacred choral music, the Right Reverend Dr Williams challenges one of the dividing walls that exists between a secular audience and a sacred subject.

Whether the listener shares that faith or not, the gospel narrative of the Passion puts before us the question of how we conceive power, victory, truth, reality itself...For us to imagine this, even if only for the duration of this massive and challenging work, is for us to recognise that the world can-and must be-changed.

These self-determining homework assignments always involve the "challenging work" of connecting the various associative leaps. MacMillan's music is noted for the intensity of its emotional power and an "imaginative range" that assimilates a variety of styles, which the composer unifies. One of the effects of this telescoping (or compressing) of means is a concentration of impact. Like all art that has a powerful effect on us, from the sublimely beautiful to the sublimely terrifying, MacMillan's packs a punch. And as Dr Williams intimates above, sharing his & MacMillan's faith is not a prerequisite for entering this world and experiencing its transformative power.

I consulted two recent monographs by Umberto Eco (both now out in paperback) called History of Beauty and The Infinity of Lists. I knew the former would offer examples of the sublime, with excerpts from philosophy and poetry and painting (for the cultural leap frogs).

"...Sublime does not persuade the audience but transports them." So Eco quotes 1st century AD philosopher Pseudo-Longinus. Were that all Pseudo-types as trenchantly perceptive.

The 17th century writer E. Burnet could be writing about MacMillan's music, full of "great thoughts and passions." This "sublime" art "enriches" by its "nobility of phrase" which creates a "general effect of dignity and elevation."

And dignity can yield to the sheer force of passion. The sublime inspires powerful emotions, thus provoking a deep stirring of the soul from within. The visionary can be unsettling as it is euphoric and ecstatic, depending on the emotional state doing the stirring...

Looking at Eco's monographs and listening to MacMillan, I had a vision that one way of experiencing the sublime is to imagine being the subject of a romantic landscape painting. I owe this to Joseph Leo Koerner's insightful 'art history' book, Caspar David Friedrich: And the Subject of Landscape (Reaktion, 1990, 2009). Like Friedrich's outward-looking gazers, this subjective perspective enables the participant to experience the sublime through nature's power (in its various & intense manifestations, dependent upon both the setting and the receptivity of the subject). And if you can't picture (or Google) a Friedrich landscape, imagine yourself sitting atop a mountain peak or standing before the immensity of the sea. The maxim "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," is manifest through Friedrich's art. The idea that the subject, viewer, participant or audience member was an equal partner in the artistic exchange was as radical in the early 19th century as it is today. Friedrich's radical gaze.

It is not just a conscious engagement--a communion--with nature that heralds the experience of the sublime; it as another "both/and" of how experience is internalized, processed, and brought forth. This metaphysical (and psychological) gardening is a tilling of the soul that regenerates the landscapes of our life.

And as if from a living, dynamic musical landscape, MacMillan literally rivets our attention at the climax of his work. Following dimly-lit harmonies at "I fear the darkness and the danger," MacMillan churns out an organ passage fraught with pungent harmony that sounds like a soul in anxious torment. One of the most fervent and impassioned pleas I've ever encountered in choral music appears at "Let me see you..." It's like someone grabbing you and shaking you out of a fear-induced stupor into wide-eyed awareness. I have sometimes found MacMillan's devout Catholicism strangely unfamiliar to my protestant background (and universalist worldview). Never has the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist been more powerfully evoked for me than in MacMillan's visionary Padre Pio's Prayer. This is music that commands attention, is immediately appealing, and worthy of deeper consideration (and it's available on itunes).

The final third (the Golden Mean!) of this work is full of MacMillan's characteristic un-spinning of rich musical tapestry. Padre Pio's emotionally direct, sincere and sensually vivid desire ("Come to my soul, my nest of love") inspires in MacMillan music of expressive immediacy. The setting of "I love You and seek to / love You more and more" features a gorgeous chain of suspensions (a device that sounds like a sequentially-related series of expressive sighs or sobs). This device looks back to the early years of polyphonic choral music and the affective gestures of the Renaissance madrigal and Baroque motet.

This connection to the Renaissance recalls another strain of 19th century art, one associated with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. These painters, according to Eco, created "atmospheres of mysticism" that were "laden with sensuality." Their renewed interest in the Renaissance is a trait that has recurred throughout history in various guises and places. The Renaissance itself is an attempt to connect the past to the present, to contain (and come to terms with) a dynamic tension of opposites in the same canvas or poem or song or discourse. As history circles and spirals and unfolds, each successive "period" must engage with the past, and inspire a new (re-presented) Renaissance of culture. We must continually re-connect and consciously foster continuity...

(Is there a difference between "homework" & "vocation" when one is "working in one's field?")

The "transcendent beauty" of the sublime inspires (or is experienced within) the "epiphanic vision." A slightly different shaped vessel for the same light, if you will.

As one enters this aesthetic (and metaphysical world) of the sublime and feels the emotional power of engaging with it, one is participating in a rich and varied tradition of millennia of meaningful human experience.

In posts below I have written of the mythological "Cosmic Dancer," who leaps between the worlds of the imagination and the "real;" between the spiritual and material worlds. The 12th century Sufi mystic Rumi (writing from present-day Afghanistan) conjured a vision (similar to Jacob's ladder) of beings coursing freely between earth and the heavens.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

Rumi could be referring to awakening, enlightenment and/or salvation; to the mythic/heroic adventure and/or the journey of the soul. Again, different names, but the same archetypal encounter. Jacob's Ladder, Christ's descent into hell and Rumi's "doorsill" are all examples of the "cosmic dancer" whose stories contain the clues we require to connect these worlds.

The experience of the sublime is rooted in the body. We experience meaning primarily through our senses. The mystical traditions also attempt to enlarge (and transform) our sense of the senses; dreams and visions are but two means towards that expansive view.

"Holy longing," among other associations, recalls Goethe's "selige Sehnsucht" and his Renaissance-like mission to connect the ancient Greco-Roman "classical" past to his "modern" present. Goethe was one of the great visionary poets of nature, and his verse mirrors the great landscape painters evocation of the natural sublime. Along with Friedrich Schiller (whose "Ode to Joy" inspired Beethoven's 9th, and the millions who have been transfixed by its power over the past couple hundred years...)

A modern-day mystic who connected his devout (and unorthodox) Catholic faith to nature (and used "exotic" eastern influences in the processes) was Olivier Messiaen. Where the "Old Masters" painted doves and birds as symbols of God's grace (or as literal companions to St Francis of Assisi), Messiaen orchestrated bird calls into his compositions. MacMillan continues that tradition, and his organ writing is full of visionary writing evocative of "exotic" bird calls [Sidebar: don't miss the fabulous organist, Brad Norris play this music with us Feb 18-20. As he coaxes magical sounds out of the "king of instruments," this visionary music might just take up residence in you as it has us: through the ears and into the head, heart and soul.]

Whether as Cosmic Dancer, Renaissance-man or bird-watcher, this communicating with the beyond, or the symbolic Other (or whatever-you-call-"it"), is an engagement with Beauty and the Sublime that is real as we allow it to be.

Padre Pio's Prayer is a communion motet, an impassioned plea for the literal presence of God. The unflinching emotional directness of Padre Pio's faith is a window into a Catholic mysticism rooted in the body and reaching for the beyond. Just as the elements of the Eucharist are believed to be "transubstantiated" into the literal body & blood of Christ, MacMillan's music infuses this prayer with an ardor worthy of the deepest love and the sincerest faith. That is another window into this world pulsing with life, but membership is not required to participate in our musico-poetic feast.

This is art that opens an emotional door, with wide-embracing generosity and genuine hospitality, into the sublime. As I wrote below, the crux of the poem that gives our season its title, Let all the World in Every Corner Sing, locates where that nexus is:

But above all the Heart
Must bear the longest part.

If you've borne with me this far, you deserve a joyous emoticon. Regardless, this program of sacred music is generous with beauty and ripe with opportunity to experience the "meaningful encounter," the "epiphanic vision," and the soul astir with the fire of life. It may make you cry, it ought to make you smile, and it will reward you, as only a gift can.

Monday, February 7, 2011

O Be Joyful...Notes on the Chorale's Feb program

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