From Here to Eternity
By Thomas May
Consider it a measure of the vibrant health of today’s choral scene that the Master Chorale has chosen to open its 48th concert season with a program devoted entirely to the work of living composers. One of these — Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, the source for the program’s overall title — has in fact already achieved the status of a contemporary classic since the ensemble gave its world premiere only 14 years ago. Each of these composers has found distinctive ways to engage the richly colorful resources of choral writing. These span a wide spectrum, from deep-rooted traditions that reach back to Gregorian chant to Renaissance technique and the vitality of folk music, as well as modernist explorations of texture and timbre
Even more, all of the pieces we will hear point to the underlying and universal spiritual yearning that choral music is so naturally suited to express. An earlier working title for the program, remarks Music Director Grant Gershon, was “From Here to Eternity.” The a cappella works on the first half might be thought of as a kind of prologue and counterpart “to launch us into this larger idea of eternity and the hereafter” while keeping us grounded in varied references to our earthly experience.
A very specific sense of place in the here and now inspired Music for a Big Church; for tranquility (1990). Thomas Jennefelt, born in Huddinge, Sweden in 1954, thought deeply about the role played by St. Johannes Church in contemporary urban life when he was commissioned to write this piece for its centennial. The composer points out that St. Johannes “is located in the very center of Stockholm, not far from the business district (with stressed clerks) and also a part of Stockholm [known for] drug-dealing and prostitution. The central location of the church has given it a new role: a place where you could find tranquility and gather strength whatever confession you have. I believe that is the modern role of many churches around the world.” Jennefelt represents a European take on minimalist style and sustains an enthralling meditation that is literally beyond speech, setting wordless syllables. Yet nothing is predictable in the sequence of patterns he weaves from the choral textures: patterns that oscillate and shimmer like light are underpinned by the bell-like tolling of the basses, while shadows gradually spread and fade.
Her Sacred Spirit Soars (2002) adapts the age-old musical metaphor of the rising scale to give enchanting shape to the theme of artistic inspiration, which enables us to soar above the “gilded spires” of our proud cities and everyday lives. Originally from Reno, Nevada, Eric Whitacre has become one of today’s most frequently performed choral composers despite being a late-comer to classical music. This modern madrigal for double chorus (five parts each) was commissioned by the Heartland Festival in Platteville, Wisconsin, as an homage to its Shakespearean productions. Whitacre sets a sonnet by poet Charles Anthony Silvestri written to imitate Elizabethan style, in which the first letter of each line acrostically spells out the phrase “Hail Fair Oriana” — an epithet for Queen Elizabeth I, to whom poets in Shakespeare’s era often paid tribute as a muse-like figure.
Just before the premiere of his new opera Heart of Darkness in November in his native London, Tarik O’Regan has developed a reputation for luminous choral writing as well. He locates the spiritual resonance of Tal vez tenemos tiempo, a secular poem by Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda (1904-73) which O’Regan set to music in 2007 on a commission from the Texas-based choral ensemble Conspirare. Rendered “Maybe we have time” in Alastair Reid’s English translation, the Spanish poem prompted O’Regan to treat the chorus in a predominantly homophonic style so as “to allow Neruda’s language a lot of breathing space.” Haunting dissonances and the longing tug of the tritone flavor his sensitive setting. “There is something so universally spiritual in the linguistic rhythm of the poem,” writes the composer, “that I wanted to amplify this facet in the clearest way. There are almost no overlapping, or densely ‘orchestrated’ sections in this work. The choir moves as one for much of the piece, echoing Neruda’s call for unity in carving out the time, as an individual or wider society, to ‘simply be’.”
A clear highlight of the Chorale’s “Americana” program in 2010 was the premiere of Heavenly Home. As a member of the ensemble’s tenor section for the past decade, Shawn Kirchner brings a faultless grasp of choral singing to his triptych of arrangements of authentic American folk sources. The idea sprang up after he attended his first Sacred Harp Convention in 1999 and found himself amazed “that one could receive such spiritual refreshment from singing archaic hymns about heaven and hell.” The three numbers he has chosen for the set (which also include similar repertory from 19th-century song) create a wonderful internal rhythm balancing reflection and exuberance.
“Unclouded Day,” a gospel favorite by the traveling preacher J.K. Alwood, mixes “Dolly Parton” inflected harmonies for the women with a “bluegrass fugue” in the third verse, while “Angel Band” stirred Kirchner to devise an accompanying melody of his own to weave in with the original song, a rare example of music that “articulate[s] the actual moments of ‘crossing over’.” His arrangement of “Hallelujah,” one of the most celebrated of Sacred Harp songs, contrasts the energetic, raw harmonies of the original setting as they are heard in the chorus with a more elaborate, polyphonic treatment for the verses. Singing this repertory, says Kirchner, resembles “spending time in a cemetery on a beautiful day — reminding yourself of where you’ve come from (dust) and where you’re ultimately going (to dust), but with the hope of heaven all around you, like the sun shining down.”
In his survey of choral music in the 20th century, Nick Strimple provocatively describes Morten Lauridsen as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic — with the possible exception of Alan Hovhaness” (who, curiously enough, also had strong ties to the Pacific Northwest, settling in Seattle during his final decades). Lauridsen’s evolution as a composer is intimately connected with his long association with the Master Chorale, a partnership that began in 1985. One result is the work considered by many to be his masterpiece, Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”), which he created during his first several years as composer-in-residence. Lauridsen dedicated it to the Chorale and then-Music Director Paul Salamunovich, who led the world premiere in April 1997 and later recorded it with the ensemble on a Grammy®-nominated release.
Two years after the premiere, the Chorale paired Lux Aeterna with Brahms’s A German Requiem in a program that made explicit some intriguing parallels between the two works. Lauridsen emulates the eclectic approach of Brahms in assembling his own sequence of texts into a coherent cycle (see sidebar). The model of the Christian Requiem frames the work, into which (like Brahms) Lauridsen incorporated feelings triggered by the recent loss of his mother. As in Brahms, there is no place for the angst-ridden visions of the Dies Irae. Yet even the earth-centered cycle of bereavement and consolation to which Brahms gives voice yields to the reassuring imagery of light. This imagery occurs in varied form in each of Lux Aeterna’s five interlinked movements and provides the spiritual focus for what the composer describes as “an intimate work of quiet serenity centered around a universal symbol of hope, reassurance, goodness, and illumination at all levels.”
What is perceived as the “mystical” quality of Lauridsen’s music is rooted in tangible technical choices that show his command of a complex tapestry of music history. A fundamental impulse behind the score is the timeless, melodic flow of Gregorian chant (though he never literally quotes chant as such). Gershon aptly notes that Lauridsen’s unique sound world presents “a surface warmth and sheer beauty” that often conceals “an extremely sophisticated and meticulously crafted structural integrity.”
It’s not necessary, for example, to be aware of the intricacies of particular compositional procedures employed here to encounter a breathtaking sense of architectural reassurance: listening to Lux Aeterna is similar to exploring a grand cathedral interior. With the reprise of the opening material from the Introitus after the Agnus Dei in the last movement, Lauridsen completes a deeply satisfying arch. A final
Alleluia brings the light into sustained focus, synthesizing other ideas heard earlier and coming to rest much as the music began — with resounding serenity.
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
What to listen for in Lux Aeterna
Lauridsen’s cantata, which exists in versions accompanied either by orchestra or (as we hear tonight) by organ, clearly alludes to the traditional Catholic Requiem Mass in its title and in the texts of the first and last of its five movements. The Introitus is what would normally be expected to begin the musical setting of such a liturgy and, fittingly, lays out the main thematic ideas with which Lauridsen builds the entire cycle, echoing archaic modes and, as he writes, “reflecting the purity and directness of Renaissance sacred music vocabulary.” A specific Renaissance device is the four-part canon on “et lux perpetua” as a form of “word painting.”
The most overtly complex writing occurs in In Te, Domine, Speravi, which interpolates a reference to light from the Beatus Vir into excerpts from the Te Deum, an early Christian hymn. Josquin’s masses are a model for the use of paired voices, while the words “fiat misericordia” are set as a two-part mirror canon to suggest “the idea of self-reflection as well as a dialogue between Man and Creator.” The organ meanwhile traces a cantus firmus based on an old Nuremberg songbook.
Lauridsen describes movements three and four as a complementary pair. O Nata Lux, at the work’s center, contains especially mystical light imagery derived from the Gospel of John (in turn alluding to the Genesis account of light’s central role in creation). Musically, Lauridsen emphasizes this significance by making this the single a cappella movement, alluding to the tradition of sacred unaccompanied motets. Its intimate, inward focus is in sharp contrast to the worldly sound of the medieval Pentecost sequence Veni, Sancte Spiritus. The images of refreshment and joy burst forth in a dance-like rondo tune repeated several times.
The Agnus Dei (the single longest section) appears in its altered wording as in the Requiem Mass and reworks a motif that was originally introduced in the Introitus (to the words “Te decet hymnus”). After the return of the principal melody from the opening movement in “lux aeterna luceat eis” (from the Communion of the Requiem), the Agnus Dei music serves as the basis for the concluding Alleluia, leading to a quiet close on “Amen.”