By Peter Rutenberg
Like Zephyrus, Eurus, Boreas and Notus, the four winds of classical antiquity, the quartet of organs at historic First Congregational Church are awesome to contemplate, even when calm in the stillness of their vaulted home. From the gossamer evanescence of their lightest stops to the redwood-strength and majesty of their full fury unleashed, they are positively mind-altering in power and heart-stopping in passion. Add to that the legendary burnished tone and musical prowess of the Los Angeles Master Chorale under Maestro Salamunovich, and you have the recipe for a banquet of glorious color and kaleidoscopic expression - in this program for Double Organ and Chorus.
Widely honored and decorated for most of his life, composer and ethnomusicologist Zoltan Kodály achieved tremendous success on a number of fronts, the most important of which must surely be his leadership and vision in bringing a national music curriculum - and thereby a high level of music literacy at every level of society - to the people of Hungary. No other country on earth can claim such an accomplishment. Even more astonishing is that Kodály believed it was the choral medium through which his goals could best be achieved, and he strove throughout his life to promote group singing as the sine qua non of this literacy. All the while, his research, documentation, and promulgation of Hungary's strong folk song tradition, coupled with a rigorous respect for Europe's rich music history, became its principal vehicles.
Kodály's Missa Brevis exists in two versions - the original organ mass, and the orchestrated version completed in 1944 while the composer was a refugee in a Budapest convent, during the ever-worsening last year of the war. His unique voice shines from beneath the myriad musical inspirations, from fanfares and fugues reminiscent of Bach to the haunting modal scales of Hungarian folk melody. Each movement proffers its own themes, many of which return at appropriate moments in the text where spiritual associations are to be made. This is the kind of work you'll swear you've heard before even if you haven't. Don't fret: it is merely the handiwork of the composer, leaving indelible traces of creativity in his wake - a veritable "deja vu" (or should we say "deja entendu") experience.
Following the Introit played by solo organ, a colorful counterpoint of light and dark rushes to the fore, as only the lower voices sing the first Kyrie. "Angels" appear to sing the middle phrase, Christe eleison, before the full chorus concludes the movement. The Gloria divides characteristically into three moods, as joy and celebration surround the introspective melancholy of the Qui tollis, subtly enlivened with jazzy harmonies.
The Credo begins in a relatively reserved manner (considering the text), as the composer opts instead to place emphasis on a subsequent phrase, "God from God, light from light" marked by a brilliant trumpet call in the upper voices. The bittersweet harmonies that set Et incarnatus give way to a piercing lament at the crucifixion, followed by a bass-led descent of almost two octaves to portray the burial. By contrast, the resurrection soars directly to heaven, with voices and organ in their highest registers. The elevated pitch of this elation is supported by the absence - almost until the end - of the sonorous organ pedal.
The slow build of the Sanctus' opening in the women's voices reaches its climax before the bass entrance. The Credo's theme, first heard at "ascended into heaven," now returns for the statement of "full are the heavens," with the long chords of "Hosanna" held firmly over a moving organ pedal theme. The Benedictus offers the first opportunity at a longer development of this theme, before the restatement of a similarly expanded "Hosanna."
Kodály brings back the Qui tollis theme from the Gloria in the opening phrase of the Agnus Dei, first for tenor and contralto, then for full chorus, reaching a climax on the first utterance of Dona nobis pacem ("grant us peace"). The second statement reprises the entire tripartite Kyrie now set with those three words. It soon becomes obvious that this is no longer just a liturgical rite, but a real-world call for the cessation of war, as well. The final movement gathers all the themes that have gone before it in a tour de force of composition, interpolating the text of a most convincing third and final plea for peace.
Toward the end of his life, Kodály was not able to fulfill his promise of a concerto for Yehudi Menuhin. His last completed work - in keeping with his lifelong dedication to choral music - was the Laudes Organi of 1966. Broad strokes and rich colors yield a regal "praise of the organ" whose 12th century text sets forth that acclaim. Additionally, Guido d' Arezzo, the 11th century theoretician, pedagogue, and inventor of both the first system of precise pitch notation and the syllables of the music scale (ut, re, mi, la, sol, la, ti), finds himself the object of veneration. Laudes Organi was premiered in Atlanta that year at the national convention of the American Guild of Organists by none other than Frederick Swann. The late Richard S. Trame, S.J., reminds us that "like so many others of Kodály's choral works, Laudes Organi is a melding together of Gregorian Chant, Bach-like polyphony, and Romantic harmonization with the parlando style of Hungarian folk melodies"- including the "exquisite" Missa Brevis.
It is not hard to imagine that Louis Vierne saw the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in much the same way as Claude Monet painted it - at every hour of the day, from every perspective, enshrouded in a somber mist of blue-gray tones. Vierne was nearly blind from birth, and eventually, completely so due to glaucoma. The advent of the twentieth century marked an important turn in the composer's life as well. Following studies with the bold musical personages of Cesar Franck and Charles Marie Widor, Vierne's first prize in organ at the Paris Conservatory in 1894 led six years later to the post of Organist at Notre-Dame in 1900, and, to the composition of the Messe Solonnelle in C-sharp minor that same year. Originally scored for chorus and two organs, this monumental work offers the quintessence of Gothic palette and sonority. Vierne was an avid and active composer until the end of his life: he toured America, and oversaw the restoration and improvements to his cathedral organ as well as the recording of some early 78 rpm albums. The power of this setting of the Solemn Mass is found in the dialogue between the chorus and organs and in the idiosyncratic blending of all forces into a dense, probing, lyrical construct.
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's forceful personality and social rank played an important role in that second Renaissance of English music known as the "Anglican Revival." For some 100 years after Handel, Britain had seen a steady decline in the whole of its music scene. Parry used his strengths as a composer, scholar and educator to reverse the trend, paving the way for the Elgars, Stanfords, Vaughan Williamses, and other scions and progenitors of the revival. With virtually simultaneous "hits" in 1880, at the famed Crystal Palace (Piano Concerto in F-sharp) and at the Gloucester Festival (Scenes from Prometheus Unbound), Parry catapulted himself to prominence - a position he enjoyed until his death. From that vantage, he exerted considerable influence in the musical community as a whole, and especially as a contributor to the first Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians in 1877. Parry later succeeded Grove at the helm of the Royal College of Music. In 1902, he was called upon to set the anthem I Was Glad for the coronation of Edward VII - creating a vital and enduring work that has rightfully taken its place in the both the coronation and cathedral repertoires.