New Songs & Old Stories Retold
By Thomas May
“Sing to the Lord a new song,” as the psalmist exhorts us. Yet somehow the new always entails reevaluating the familiar, reshaping what we know into freshly inspiring patterns. This evening’s program brings us works that interact with tradition and reconsider it from unpredictable angles. In the process, the three composers we hear give urgent voice to the most enduring aspects of our humanity — from a desire to praise the wonder of creation to compassion for the suffering that can coexist within it. Grand themes: but the means of expression employed in these works are strikingly intimate and rely on the infinite resilience of song.
The motet itself represents one of the most deeply rooted traditions of Western choral music — one reaching back to the Middle Ages, when it could refer to sacred and secular pieces alike. In J.S. Bach’s era, the motet had become eclipsed by the cantata and was firmly sacred in connotation; motets could be used either during regular Lutheran liturgies or for particular occasions such as funerals (the Latin text traditionally associated with the motet being replaced by German). A group of only six surviving motets is conventionally listed among Bach’s works (BWV 225-230), in addition to a cantata-motet (BWV 118), though there is scholarly debate as to other pieces that should also carry this classification. Moreover, Bach incorporates the motet form elsewhere — most famously in the crowd (i.e., “turba”) choruses of the St. Matthew Passion.
Like several of its companions, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied may have been composed as a memorial, but there are theories that it was written for New Year’s, a royal birthday, or even as a rigorous training exercise for his young students early in the Leipzig years (most likely in 1726/27). In any case, it reveals Bach’s characteristic overhauling of the shorter, simpler genre which he inherited into something far more ambitious. (This motet, incidentally, is known to have made a powerful impression on Mozart.) Because of its three-part structure of contrasting movements, Singet has even been compared to an instrumental concerto. (The issue of whether these motets for double choir were actually intended to be reinforced by instrumental accompaniment is also disputed by scholars.)
Certainly the virtuosity of the vocal writing, featuring large fugues in the outer movements, suggests an instrumental character. The first section, which sets the beginning of Psalm 149, immediately demonstrates Bach’s imaginative exploitation of the double chorus. He sustains a magnificent echo effect as the injunction “sing” is heard to ping pong across the two choirs amid the music’s flowing momentum. At the words die Kinder Zions he introduces a fugue that ripples vertically down from choir one’s sopranos through altos, tenors, and basses and then reverses to work back upward (both choirs now united). The second section is meditative in contrast, turning to a chorale and another non-Biblical religious poem. Even more, Bach intercuts the chorale (sung by choir two) with an aria-like setting of the poem (choir one). The final section (from Psalm 150) has two subdivisions: an antiphonal treatment of the two choirs followed by another fugue that unites the choirs as it unfolds in four voices. Its dancelike triple meter rebounds with unflaggingly joyous energy.
James W. Newton, Jr., likewise reimagines centuries of tradition in his remarkable setting of the Mass, which was premiered in Prato, Italy, in 2007. Like Bach, he weaves an encyclopedic array of influences and designs referencing both tradition and his contemporaries into a composite that is both deeply felt and original. The special sound of the Master Chorale served Newton as a touchstone when he embarked on rearranging his Mass — originally written for four solo voices and chamber ensemble — for a blend of chamber choir with a quartet of solo singers. The instrumental contingent remains the same: flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, acoustic bass, vibraphone, piano, and percussion.
As the son of a career military man, Newton found his earliest memories of spirituals from summers in Arkansas — “the music that lies deepest in my heart,” he says — soon complemented by musical encounters from distant parts of the world; this foreshadowed his later experiences traveling far and wide as a jazz flutist. On one level, the Mass represents a desire to unify the vast variety of artistic expressions that Newton perceives to reflect the awesome diversity of creation itself: the variety of “all things that draw breath.” As particular inspirations he singles out Stravinsky’s 1948 Mass (also premiered, as it happens, in Italy) and Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium, with its “stained-glass beauty and great profundity,” as well as the craft of the medieval Guillaume de Machaut.
Newton speaks of a special affinity for Vienna and Los Angeles, a place that was simultaneously home to his mentor, flutist Buddy Collette, and Schoenberg. Indeed, myriad jazz and modernist impulses harmonize comfortably in the Mass. The world of visual art — from the work of New Orleans native (and LA-based) painter William Pajaud to Fra Angelico’s frescos — also prompted some of Newton’s musical thinking. And the natural beauty of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley landscape, with its “degrees of density and space,” left its mark on the composer’s melodic contours. Yet Newton transcends any feeling of pastiche: his intricately etched vocal lines, subtle rhythms, and evasive harmonies create a hauntingly original sound world.
There’s an overarching symmetry to this Mass. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei are essentially intimate in mood, while the Gloria and Sanctus use more extroverted gestures; each pair is roughly equivalent in duration. Providing the fulcrum is the multi-faceted Credo — nearly as long as the two outer movements combined — which Newton composed first and which he identifies as the work’s “centerpiece.” The ornamental turns of the vocal lines in the Kyrie are a sonic signature of the entire Mass; widespread intervals intensify the devotional fervor. Before the return to the final Kyrie, Newton adds the first of several extended interludes for chamber ensemble that he scores throughout the Mass. With its prominent timpani part and artful syncopation, the Gloria features a homophonic treatment of the choir, while Newton calls for Charles Mingus stylings from the double bass.
In contrast to the conventional choice of full chorus to signify the community’s proclamation of faith, Newton retains his original setting of the Credo as an extended monologue for solo bass-baritone to emphasize the “personal” confession this music signifies. Here the melismas exude a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor, while, in Bach-like fashion, Newton’s vocal and instrumental lines mirror each other, as if joined in a common goal of worship. Extremities of the singer’s range and a lengthy vibraphone solo to suggest “the angel before the tomb of Jesus” are just a few examples of how the composer gives dramatic shape to the Credo’s theological propositions. The Sanctus blends aspects of swing with Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, while the Agnus Dei invokes Bobby Hutcherson in a hushed vibraphone prelude. Set against the florid solo lines traced by the instruments, the choir’s blocks of harmony bring the Mass to a rapt close.
Fürchte dich nicht has proved even more difficult to date than Singet dem Herrn. Scholars argue over whether it, too, originated in the Leipzig period or was a product of Bach’s Weimar years (possibly as early as 1715). Using two separate texts from Isaiah, it may well have served as part of a funeral service. Like Singet dem Herrn, Bach expands on earlier models of the motet by making it a framework for maximal variety. The first (and shortest) section sets the two choirs against each other, with overlapping effects, in a musical gesture of reassurance. In the second (Ich stärke dich), Bach continues to use textual repetitions and plays solo against choir. The third part unfolds as an elaborate fugue for both choirs in unison, based on a theme first given by the tenors. At the same time, Bach isolates the soprano lines, having them sing two verses of a separate chorale tune on top of the fugue. The non-Biblical text and chorale melody convey a consoling intimacy that counteracts the wavering fear suggested by the fugue’s chromatic wandering. In the final measures all the voices join to restate the opening phrase, which is followed by a resolute cadence on “You are mine!”
This juxtaposition of fear — of the darkness of death — with transcendent hope recurs in varying degrees throughout Bach’s sacred music. In the Passions, this takes the form of a focus on suffering and our attempts to glean meaning from it. David Lang has given this dichotomy a form with contemporary resonance in the little match girl passion. His unique synthesis draws on aspects of Bach’s Passions, a heart-breaking 19th-century fairy tale, and techniques of Minimalism to sharpen the emotional intensity of his musical drama. Lang thus disrupts assumed distinctions between sacred and secular and highlights what he terms “the naïve equilibrium between suffering and hope” that attracted him to Hans Christian Andersen’s story.
A native of Los Angeles now based in New York, Lang has a well-established reputation as an innovator — and as a curator of the new via the Bang on a Can Festival, which he co-founded nearly a quarter century ago. Lang’s range of work reveals him to be a bona fide pioneer who questions our most basic assumptions about music making and generic distinctions. Thought-provoking collaborations are typical of his oeuvre, ranging from projects with photographer William Wegman and a chamber opera with playwright Mac Wellman to the score for (Untitled), Jonathan Parker’s comic film featuring a fictional composer amid the experimental art scene. For the little match girl passion, however, Lang collaborates with well-known but hitherto unrelated works from the past to create a uniquely affecting hybrid. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by a new, and largely unheralded, composition,” wrote critic Tim Page, a juror on the committee that awarded match girl the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.
Lang originally scored the piece for a vocal quartet, preparing the version for chorus which we hear in 2008, a year after the premiere in New York in 2007. As in the original, the choral version calls on the singers to provide spare accompaniment as well from a variety of percussion instruments: brake drum and sleighbell (soprano), crotales or “antique cymbals” (alto), glockenspiel (tenor), and bass drum and tubular bells (bass). These instruments can be amplified, notes the composer, adding that “distortion, reverb, sound processing, lighting, and staging may be useful” in realizing the little match girl passion.
Lang’s approach, in its musical and dramatic dimensions alike, reflects the “miniaturism” of H.C. Andersen’s story yet paradoxically evokes a hint of the large-scale effects of Bach’s sweeping canvas in his St. Matthew Passion. At the same time, even the expanded forces of the choral version retain the intimacy that characterizes the earlier version. The result of this restraint becomes almost unbearably intense through the progression of the piece: the impact delivered by the simplest musical emotion is massive. Indeed, much of Lang’s musical language here resounds with a deceptive simplicity. The opening chorus layers familiar and archaic elements with an ambiguous and unpredictable use of accent, meter, and harmonic placement. Lang hearkens back not only to Bach but to the polymetric technique of Renaissance choral writing.
As a whole, match girl is structured as an alternating sequence of “commentary” choruses — the moments in which the present audience is drawn in through direct empathy — and narrative recounting the details of Andersen’s fairy tale. The latter suggest a kind of “recitative” through their momentum, yet Lang combines this with a ritualistic tone with his austere percussion punctuations. There are moments of traditional word painting — the “shivering” syllables of the chorus “when it is time,” for example — but Lang sustains a larger metaphor across the piece as well, through his use of bare fifths and other spare harmonies: a musical embodiment of coldness and alienation. Meanwhile, he continually varies the Minimalist principle of additive repetition, much as Bach reshuffles his unaccompanied vocal forces in the motets. The contrast between narrative detachment and the emotion that swells in the intervening choruses generates an effect of overwhelming power — one that lasts long after the music has stopped.
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
More on Hans Christian Andersen
The only child of an impoverished young couple, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was born in Odense on the Danish island of Funen (and later birthplace of composer Carl Nielsen as well). Andersen’s earliest biographers drew attention to the writer’s fairy tale-like emergence into an international celebrity feted by the aristocracy. His lasting reputation as an artist is, of course, based on his cultivation of the fairy tale. He infuses the genre’s narrative simplicity and miniature dimensions with a uniquely humanist blend of romanticism and realism.
Andersen published his first collection of fairy tales in 1835, but he first enjoyed commercial success with his novels; his writings also include travelogues, poetry, and plays. For example, he adapted Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor for a stage version to be accompanied by music — a few years before Donizetti would create his famous opera. The doomed heroine Lucia in fact became a specialty of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, one of Andersen’s numerous unrequited love interests. She inspired his fairy tale “The Nightingale,” which Stravinsky later adapted for his opera-ballet Le Rossignol. This is one of countless instances of the creative feedback between Andersen’s tales and the world of music.
“The Little Match Girl” has had an especially fruitful musical legacy. Andersen wrote the story on the first leg of a lengthy tour of Europe in 1845 (according to legend, while he was sojourning at the Danish royal family’s summer palace in Gråsten). There have been television musicals, several operas, a music video by the synthpop duo Erasure, and a concept album by The Tiger Lillies. And the story continues to inspire retellings: just a few years ago, Gregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked (the source of the popular musical), reworked Andersen’s fairy tale into a piece titled “Matchless” for an NPR holiday special.