The Joys of Music
By Thomas May
In literature, we’ve come to accept Tolstoy’s proposition that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And every day we see more evidence of the truism that bad news sells. Yet music loses none of its power to move us when composers express the joyful side of life; in fact, they know that their art has no limits across the emotional spectrum but can differentiate innumerable kinds of jubilation.
Our program—drawing on four works written in the 20th century, each of them informed by a love for the musical past—illustrates dramatically contrasting varieties of joyous experience inspired by the Christmas story. In his compact Christmas Cantata, Daniel Pinkham taps into the exhilarating sounds of the Renaissance. Ottorino Respighi’s pastoral serenity and Morten Lauridsen’s mystical awe focus on the paradox of the humble manifestation of the divine. We end with John Rutter’s Gloria, a piece that reverberates with the very intensity contained by the word “re-joice.”
Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata
The Boston-based Daniel Pinkham—who died just two years ago—became a leading figure in the past half-century not only in choral music but as an influential teacher, organist, conductor, and early pioneer in the appreciation of pre-baroque music. His music has a widespread appeal, and such works as his Christmas Cantata and Wedding Cantata remain in especially high demand. From mentors including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith, and Nadia Boulanger, Pinkham absorbed a gift for musical clarity, practicality, and elegant transparency.
This clarity is immediately apparent in the compact, three-part Christmas Cantata, which Pinkham wrote in 1957 in part as a tribute to his admiration for medieval and Renaissance music. His scoring relies on the antiphonal effects made possible by full chorus accompanied by two instrumental choirs (double brass choir or, in the edition we hear in this performance, a single brass choir with organ substituting for the second). The infectiously echoing musical elation depicted in the outer movements draws on the glorious polychoral style with which Giovanni Gabrieli made Venice’s San Marco Basilica resound at the end of the Renaissance (Pinkham even subtitled the work a Sinfonia Sacra or “sacred symphony,” a name used for Gabrieli’s compositions mixing voices and instruments—to underline the kinship).
The first movement (“Quem vidistis, pastores?”) uses a Latin text from early in the Christmas liturgy that depicts the shepherds’ joyful account of seeing “the newborn child and choirs of angels.” In a solemn opening, the chorus questions the shepherds, who respond with rhythms of playful exuberance, almost tripping over their words in excitement, though leading to a surprise quiet closing.
The ensuing Adagio is a setting of the “O Magnum Mysterium” (“O Great Mystery”)—traditionally part of the morning prayer service from the daily liturgy of the hours as celebrated on Christmas Day. Pinkham’s music changes the tone dramatically. Here, the composer’s penchant for plainchant—beginning with the women’s voices alone—enhances the mood of rapt contemplation, while a haunting phrase is passed back and forth from trumpet to organ. The final movement interpolates the opening words of the “Gloria” as a refrain within passages from the Psalms. Pinkham’s festive mix of fanfares and tricky Renaissance dance rhythms builds into an unstoppable wave of jubilation.
Ottorino Respighi: Laud to the Nativity
In view of the overroasted chestnuts that are an inevitable accompaniment to the yuletide season, an encounter with neglected gems like the Laud to the Nativity is all the more pleasurable. Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is best known for his highly coloristic orchestral pieces, but he was a fountain of productivity across all the genres—as well as a key figure to focus attention on the musical riches of the pre-classical past through his stylized imitations of medieval and Renaissance sources. This inspiration imbues the Christmas cantata Laud to the Nativity, completed in 1930 and written for chorus, three solo vocalists, piano four hands and a small wind band.
The text draws from the poetry of a Franciscan friar of the 13th century, Jacopone da Todi. A rebel against Church corruption, he wrote a series of popular laudi (poems of religious praise) that express the Franciscan compassion for the downtrodden. Thus the text of the Laud to the Nativity emphasizes the poverty of the shepherds and Mary herself as it recounts the story of Jesus’ birth from their point of view.
Respighi in turn uses a modest, economically scored and archaically flavored musical vocabulary to portray this backdrop of pastoral innocence. The gentle, lilting rhythm we hear from the winds at the very beginning, even as the angel announces the good news, clearly foregrounds the shepherds’ perspective. Respighi introduces other touching devices to signal their humanity: the humming chorus against the high tenor shepherd, the choral sotto voce of praise, the earthy rhythms with which the shepherds convey their fear that they are too “unclean” to touch the infant. When, toward the end, the full chorus rejoices in an outburst of counterpoint, the impact is extraordinary after so much restraint.
Nature is meanwhile ever present in the blossoming figurations of the accompanying woodwinds. Respighi’s straightforward lyricism gives poignancy to the mezzo’s portrayal of Mary—even the monotone setting of her final prayer, which brings the mood back to the simplicity of the opening, is highly expressive. The score allows for the work to be staged as a kind of pageant play, but in concert performance Respighi’s Laud can also seem like a Renaissance painting by Filippo Lippi come to sound, beguiling in its unaffected humanity.
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium
Regular followers of the Master Chorale hardly need any introduction to the transporting beauty of Morten Lauridsen’s choral music. In fact, it was through the works he produced while serving as composer in residence for the LAMC (between 1994 and 2001)—above all, this a cappella motet—that Lauridsen rapidly emerged as one of the pre-eminent living American composers in the contemporary choral scene. Just last year, his achievements were recognized with a National Medal of the Arts.
In the 14 years since the LAMC premiered it in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, O Magnum Mysterium has been performed thousands of times around the world. Board member Marshall Rutter originally commissioned the piece as a Christmas gift for his wife, Terry Knowles, LAMC’s current Executive Director. Lauridsen sets the familiar Latin text—a poem whose brief compass (a mere 23 words) conveys the sense of awe at the central paradox of the Christmas miracle: that the manifestation of the divine takes place not among the elite but is the privilege of the most humble to witness and cherish.
Lauridsen subdivides the text into several smaller sections but weaves these together seamlessly through repetitions and variants of the graceful melody of wonder we hear at the outset (to “magnum mysterium”). Radiant, this phrase pierces through the sustained, resonant harmonies that bank like clouds around it, gradually swelling in volume and intensity within the section praising the “Blessed Virgin.” The music then gently tapers to the level at which it began, its texture now suggesting a new-found serenity while the chorus begins a peaceful coda on the word “Alleluia.” The basis for Lauridsen’s reputation as a musical mystic can be heard clearly here as he conveys, within a mere five minutes of mortal time and using the unadorned human voice alone, the actual experience of epiphany.
John Rutter: Gloria
London-born John Rutter is a powerful phenomenon in the contemporary choral movement, thanks to his combined influences as composer, arranger, producer, and conductor (since 1981 he has led his own group, the Cambridge Singers). Choral settings of the Gloria appear most frequently in the context of the Mass—as the hymn following the Kyrie in the Roman Rite—but Rutter wrote what has become his best-known composition as a freestanding concert work, scored for chorus, brass, percussion, and organ. Its premiere in 1974 marked the occasion of his first appearance in the U.S.
Rutter divides the Gloria into three movements, adapting one of the many Gregorian chants to which the text was originally sung to his own unmistakably forthright sound. He begins with a rousing instrumental prelude from the brass and percussion.
Stacked-up harmonies and muscular rhythms lay out the material that reappears as commentary between the chorus’s chantlike lines of praise (with a particularly lovely touch on “pax,” the call for peace).
The slower middle movement—the longest—takes an introspective turn, with extended instrumental passages (first for organ alone, playing filigreed figures, and later accompanied by an elegiac brass choir). After a triumphal passage recognizing the “king of heaven,” the music subsides and darkens to describe “the sins of the world.” Vigorous rhythms reintroduce the brightness of the opening for the final movement, but now characterized by springier syncopations—this is joy that evokes a physical response. Rutter livens the music further by alternately writing call-and-response and contrapuntal textures for the chorus. The first movement’s chant theme returns for a final triumphant statement, punctuated by pealing fanfares bound to leave performers and audience breathless.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.