A Medium for Rejoicing
By Thomas May
What is it that gives music its power to move us so deeply — even at times to transform us? One key to the remarkable effect of this art has to do with how musical performance intimately combines the dimensions of feeling and thought, which are otherwise so often sundered in our everyday lives. Take the emotion of joy. Considered as an abstraction, the feelings it produces can seem vague, requiring contrast with their opposite for better definition.
Yet music is capable not just of delineating a whole spectrum of joyful emotions — from giddiness and delight to intense ecstasy — but also of creating a form, a context, in which these subtly shaded differences “make sense.” And when this power is channeled through voices raised in song, it becomes an ideal medium to express the many kinds of joy inspired by the Christmas story. Tonight’s program transports us into
the true spirit of the holidays — the call to rejoice that tends to get obscured — as four composers from the 20th and 21st centuries contemplate the familiar narrative of the Nativity from distinct angles.
Despite a tragically foreshortened career, Hugo Distler (1908-1942) ranks among the leading figures of German sacred music in the first half of the last century. An illegitimate child raised by grandparents, the intensely devout Distler came of age in the free-wheeling interwar years of the Weimar Republic. Many commentators have depicted Distler as a victim hounded by disapproving officials of the Third Reich, though he was entrusted with and accepted prominent positions even as his private revulsion grew. Eventually Distler responded to the pressures of his situation by taking his life at the age of 34. “It appears,” writes Nick Strimple in his survey of 20th-century choral music, “that he saw the futility of attempting to serve both God and Nazis, and came to terms with his own conscience unequivocally.”
Distler rejected the luxuriant subjectivity and lavish rhetoric of late Romanticism, championing in its place a revival of choral music inspired aesthetically by Renaissance and early Baroque masters and theologically by Reformation ideals. In a way, Distler’s choral and organ works take the populist notion of Gebrauchsmusik that emerged in the 1920s — music meant to be part of life rather than art for art’s sake — and adapt it to the spiritual realm. Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story), composed in 1933 during his tenure as organist at the Church of St. Jacobi in Lübeck, marries his revival of earlier forms with music intended for worship, though the clarity of its sound world belies the technical challenges the score poses for the singers.
Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Bach’s great predecessor, became a predominant musical model for Distler’s reforms of Protestant sacred music — particularly in The Christmas Story and in a parallel work he composed earlier in the same year, the Choralpassion, which drew on his deep admiration for Schütz’s Passion settings. Both works might be described as compact oratorios or, as biographer Larry Palmer labels them, “chorale partitas,” in which a recurring chorale melody functions as the central structural device (not unlike a Baroque chorale fantasia for organ). The Christmas Story — which we hear performed in a version set to English texts — uses the gentle melody from the 16th-century German carol Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (“Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming”) to form the spine for the Gospel-based narrative surrounding the birth of Jesus. From these materials Distler constructs an innovative form of chamber music drama for a cappella choir and soloists. Linked together by passages of recitative, the carol (harmonized as a chorale) appears seven times: the final recurrence recapitulates the first, while the other five present variations on it. All of this in turn is framed by two choral motet settings of texts from the Old and New Testaments, respectively, to begin and conclude the work.
The opening motet sets the stage through the nuanced approach to word setting and underlying meaning so characteristic of Distler’s choral music. Contrasting with the gloomy waiting “in darkness” is the promise of light bursting through, interspersed with pregnant pauses. Notice especially the rhythmic intricacy of the phrasing — a signature of Distler. In this score he even dispenses with conventional bar lines that are shared by all the voices to ensure the independent rhythmic shape of each part. (The resulting subtlety offsets the predictability of four-square phrases and is immediately apparent even in the first statement of the simple chorale tune.) The ensuing chorale variations use these techniques to render the story more vivid. The fourth, for example, suggests a rocking “cradlesong,” while the next variation finds the joyful news being shared by the shepherds in antiphonally contrasting choirs extended to eight parts.
In addition to the tenor Evangelist as narrator, the recitatives incorporate brief roles for the soloists who re-enact the main events: the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, the reaction by Herod and the Wise Men, and the song of praise by Simeon as Jesus is presented in the Temple. Here Distler resorts to an archaizing mode flavored by pentatonic motifs and tracing speech rhythms, though sometimes adorned with melismas. Two pairs of brief choruses add a theatrical touch to the swift-paced narrative. Distler brings a dramatic dimension to the meditative function of the chorales as well, weaving them cleverly into the unfolding tale, as in the setting of Mary’s Magnificat that gracefully descants above the chorale’s third appearance. By the final motet (to a text from the Gospel of John), the darkness is firmly dispelled in a joyous proclamation (marked molto gioioso) of the universal good news.
Like Distler, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) found fresh ways to convey the Christmas story, filtering his own appreciation of choral textures from early music through a contemporary prism. Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (Four Christmas Motets) moreover serve as a vehicle to reclaim faith within a secular world. While Distler’s Lutheran convictions provided a guiding thread through his music, Poulenc had gained fame as an insouciant bon vivant and musical “hooligan” in the 1920s. It took the sudden death of a close friend in a horrific car accident in 1936 to trigger a conversion and lead the composer back to the Catholicism in which he had been raised. The immediate musical result was a wonderful series of sacred music pieces, including the Mass in G and the Lenten motets Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence.
Following his Stabat Mater from more than a decade later, toward the end of 1951, Poulenc began composing a group of motets for four-part a cappella choir. They represent a sunny counterpart to the earlier penitential quartet. Four Christmas Motets set Latin texts associated with the Liturgy of the Hours (Matins, Vespers, etc.) from various points throughout the Christmas season (with a special emphasis here placed on seeing, on witnessing the miracle).
Poulenc’s animated musical treatments resemble four brightly colored and individuated altar panels, in contrast to the softer glow of Distler’s fresco. O Magnum Mysterium shows how deftly Poulenc manipulates his vocal lines to vary texture and atmosphere: the sopranos float serenely above a mystical foundation of barely audible harmonies from the other voices. Sharply contrasted dynamics offer dramatic variety as well. Quem vidistis etches a crystalline neo-classicism, while the props of the visionary star and the Magi’s gifts in Videntes stellam evoke deliciously clear musical images. Poulenc meanwhile never entirely renounced the arch urbanity of his earlier style. But the Puckish sparkle of Hodie, Christus natus est here serves a purpose: start-stop feints and off-kilter accents underline joy not as a distant utopia, but an experience to be celebrated in the present moment.
It was through his work as composer in residence for the Master Chorale (between 1994 and 2001) that Morten Lauridsen established himself as one of the best-loved American composers in today’s choral scene — a status the composer, who was born in Washington State in 1943, continues to hold. O Magnum Mysterium is a key work from the beginning of his residency and is intimately connected to the Christmas season, both in its substance and in its origins. Then President of the Master Chorale, Marshall Rutter, commissioned this radiant a cappella motet as a Christmas gift for his wife, Terry Knowles, who currently serves as President. The Latin text comprises a mere 23 words. Yet Lauridsen imbues them with a sense of sacred awe at the central paradox of the Christmas miracle which they evoke: the paradox that the most joyful manifestation of the divine occurs amid the humblest circumstances.
The luminous melody given at the outset recurs in varied form as Lauridsen seamlessly weaves together the subsections into which he has divided the text. Its radiance repeatedly pierces through the harmonic context, like glints of precious metal. The composer writes that, along with “the constant purity” of polyphony from Renaissance sacred music, he was inspired by a still life by Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán: in particular by the “aura of mystery” it projects through the simple, everyday objects of its composition. Lauridsen observes that he wanted to achieve a similarly “transforming spiritual experience within what I call ‘a quiet song of profound inner joy’” — to write a piece “to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.”
Another longstanding close tie with an acclaimed choral ensemble is responsible for the piece which rounds out our holiday program. Associated for most of his career with Chicago, Ohio native Frank Ferko spent the period between 2001 and 2003 as composer in residence with the Dale Warland Singers. The celebrated choir commissioned him to write A Festival of Carols to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2002 and premiered the work during its annual Echoes of Christmas concerts that year. In addition to the demands Ferko knew he could confidently make of his a cappella singers, his scoring calls for a virtuoso harpist.
Instead of the usual medley of familiar Christmas carols you often find braided and arranged into a suite, Ferko has written entirely new settings of the words for divided mixed chorus. In fact, even the words mix easily recognized hymns with obscurities, drawing on five different 19th-century American poets: Robert Lowry (1826-1899), John W. Work, Jr. (1872-1925), Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), Abner P. Cobb (1854-1923), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Framing and unifying the cycle is the resounding Latin cry of the angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
While most Christmas carols in the early years of the United States originated from Europe, writes Ferko, the 19th century “produced an abundance of new texts by American writers, and these were also set to music by American composers.” A Festival of Carols continues this tradition by providing “entirely new melodies and harmonizations, with the harp used both as an accompanying instrument and as an intrinsic thread within the larger musical fabric.” A hush of open-mouthed syllables begins The Angel’s Song and reminds us of the wonder that precedes joy, while sudden shifts in the dancing meter of Go, Tell It on the Mountain enhance the surprise of delight. The center of the cycle, The Sky Can Still Remember, ripples with gentle lyricism; Do You Know the Song that the Angels Sang spotlights the women’s voices. For Christmas Bells, Ferko flecks the homophonic choral writing with tinkling harp figures and concludes his Festival with an exuberant chord of C major, sustained by the chorus against ecstatic harp glissandos.
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale