Whose Name Is Joy: The Master Chorale Celebrates the Season
By Thomas May
The verb “rejoice” instantly conjures a state of being: the condition of feeling great joy or happiness (derived from the Latin noun for joy, gaudium). But along with that intransitive meaning, an old-fashioned connotation of rejoice is transitive, active — as in, to cause someone else to feel joy, and thus truly underscoring the infectious aspect of joy. When we feel joy, we want to spread it, and that replication in turn intensifies the effect of joy.
This year’s a cappella Christmas program focuses on music as a vehicle for rejoicing in both senses, as the Master Chorale awakens a whole spectrum of joyful feelings in us. For that purpose, Artistic Director Grant Gershon has chosen works or arrangements for the most part by composers of the twentieth century and today — works that underscore the deep traditional roots of the choral art while also affirming that it remains a sphere of tremendously vibrant creativity today. In fact, most of the music we hear this evening dates from within just the past two decades. Pieces by Victoria and Gabrieli from the late Renaissance add historical perspective and remind us of the long tradition of joyful Christmas music — centuries before the noise pollution of holiday shopping medleys.
It seems there’s been a recent Renaissance of choral settings of the very old Latin text O Magnum Mysterium. Originally passed down via Gregorian chant, this is a prayer for Christmas Day intended for use during matins, the prayer cycle scheduled at the end of night leading right into dawn. There are only 23 words in this (anonymous) poem, including the joyful coda of Alleluia. Pithy, almost imagistic, they manage to convey the heart of the Christian idea of Incarnation — of the divine essence becoming manifest in our everyday, inglorious reality.
We hear three settings of this prayer, all with close associations to the Master Chorale and its history. Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was one of founder Roger Wagner’s signature composers. (Wagner used to juxtapose his setting of the Ave Maria as a two-part motet with the Gregorian chant version to launch his concerts.) Victoria synthesized his native Spanish religious devotion with the influences he had absorbed from the musical developments advanced by Palestrina in Rome as part of the Counter Reformation. (He even served later in his career as a personal chaplain to royalty back in Spain.) His setting of O Magnum Mysterium was published in his first book of motets in 1572, when the composer was gaining fame as a gifted young chapel master in Rome. Scored for four parts, his treatment encompasses polyphonic density and awed chordal passages (as in O beata Virgo) and even a metrical shift for the concluding Alleluia.
This month we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Morten Lauridsen’s (b. 1943) O Magnum Mysterium (December 18, 1994, to be exact). Master Chorale co-founder Marshall Rutter (who was Board Chairman at the time) commissioned the piece during Lauridsen’s residency as a Christmas gift for his wife, Terry Knowles, current President and CEO. The late Paul Salamunovich, then Music Director, explicitly compared the new setting the audience was about to hear on that occasion to that by Victoria, his favorite composer. Sally Horn, a Master Chorale alumna, writes in her memoir that Salamunovich introduced Lauridsen’s work as “the twentieth-century counterpart” of Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. (It went on to become the highest-selling item in the catalogue of Theodore Presser, distributor for Lauridsen’s publisher, Peermusic, since the company’s founding in 1783. Now there’s history!)
Lauridsen’s through-composed setting expresses the epitome of what he terms “inner joy.” His study of the secrets of the Old Masters is apparent in such word-painting details as the unexpected harmonic coloration when the altos reach the word “virgo” — a G-sharp, the only note to “stray” from the harmonic background, which hints at the future suffering Mary will undergo. The composer has also written of his inspiration by a still life of the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán that uses ordinary material objects to project an “aura of mystery.”
Matthew Brown (b. 1978), a native of Southern California, has been singing as a tenor with the Master Chorale since the 2009-10 season. He’s also an award-winning composer who has studied with Morten Lauridsen. The inspiration for Brown’s works has ranged from Cyndi Lauper and the poetry of e.e. cummings to such sources as “The Simpsons, ancient Roman soothsayers, and flying squirrels.” Brown’s contemporary a cappella interpretation of O Magnum Mysterium was written in 2008 in Hollywood and appears on the (highly recommended) choral anthology of his work though love be a day (performed by the Antioch Chamber Ensemble on the Acis label).
Set for four vocal parts, which at times subdivide, Brown’s motet setting reveals an arresting, individual sense of harmony alongside assured craftsmanship. The opening and the Alleluia, for example, follow the time-honored pattern of canonical entrances in the inner voices (tenor, then alto) followed by the outer (bass and soprano). The definitive opening interval, incidentally (“O mag-num”), is an ascending fifth: the reverse of Victoria’s descending fifth for the same syllables.
While the text of O Magnum Mysterium focuses on the mysterious joy of the Incarnation, it pays homage to the Virgin Mary, the “beata Virgo” who makes this mystery possible. Ave Maria is another text that has attracted countless composers, in many different contexts. Franz Biebl (1906-2001), a Bavarian composer who focused on choral music and conducting, is mostly known nowadays for his Ave Maria. Biebl wrote his setting in 1964 using interpolations from the Angelus, a prayer praising the Incarnation. Initially neglected, Biebl’s Ave Maria suddenly caught the attention of American choristers in the following decade. (The composer had spent time as a prisoner of war in the U.S. near the end of World War Two.) It was given new wings when the ensemble Chanticleer recorded it.
The latter have made the double male choir version of Biebl’s setting popular, though he later published other arrangements, such as the one we hear for four-part mixed chorus (in the scoring used for this performance). Originally conceived for an amateur choir of firemen, Ave Maria juxtaposes simple chant with meltingly beautiful lyricism and even a touch of quasi-barbershop close harmony.
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming is another Marian-centered text and first appeared in print in the sixteenth century as the German carol Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen; the tune to which it is set was famously harmonized by the German Lutheran composer Michael Praetorius in 1609. Jan Sandström (b. 1954), a versatile Swedish composer whose works range from Motorbike Odyssey (a trombone concerto) to opera, ballet, and large-scale choral pieces, subjects the Praetorius source to a fascinating sonic experiment in his version from 1988. The chorus is divided into two groups, the first a standard four-part mixed choir, the second divided into eight parts (SSAATTBB). As the smaller group sings the Praetorius chorale setting at a slowed-down pace, it becomes embedded in the wordless, sustained harmonies of the larger one, the denser textures evoking a kind of winter light.
Light is at the center of O nata lux, which sets a text associated with the Transfiguration and is the fulcrum movement from Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Dedicated to the Master Chorale and Paul Salamunovich, who led the premiere in April 1997 (their recording was later nominated for a Grammy® Award), Lux Aeterna is a contemporary classic on the model of Brahms’s eclectic text choices for A German Requiem. With its intimate, inward-directed mystical orientation, O nata lux is the one a cappella movement in the larger work, thus suggesting a link to the tradition of sacred unaccompanied motets.
A tenor with the Master Chorale since the 2001-02 season and current Swan Family Composer in Residence, Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) remarks that he loves the challenge of writing a “timeless” folk text, “where there is a sense of inevitability in the flow of ideas and images, where repetition and rhyme hold the whole thing together in such a way that it would be easy to remember and memorize and pass down.” Kirchner threaded the text of As I Looked Out together from three different inspirations: Celtic spirituality and its concept of hospitality for a stranger, a Jungian reading of Christ in the manger as “spiritual food for earthly nature,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of Gandalf in The Silmarillion.
The music, Kirchner explains, had already occurred to him independently while working on a Christmas commission in 2005: “I happened to be playing around with my Korg keyboard’s beautiful flute sound, and came up with a lilting and tuneful melody that I thought was very carol-like. I decided to turn it into an original carol … almost like I was dusting off an old, obscure carol I had rediscovered.”
Scored for mixed chorus in a lilting 6/8 rhythmic pattern, As I Looked Out uses echo effects (“whose name is joy”) and other choral enhancements to “arrange” Kirchner’s original carol as if it were a pre-existing source. Above all, though, he points out that his aim is to “let the song ‘live’ in its own genuineness of text and tune.”
Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554-1612) published numerous settings of the Magnificat, one of the oldest Marian-related hymns, a mainstay of daily Vespers and a favorite of composers writing music for such feasts as Christmas. Its text comes from the Gospel of Luke and expresses Mary’s perspective as she praises God’s power to intervene in the world, to “cast the mighty from their thrones.” Gabrieli inherited the Netherlandish choral tradition he learned as a student of Orlando di Lasso as well as the innovations advanced by his famous uncle, Andrea, at St. Mark’s in Venice. He stood at the revolutionary cusp of the transformation from the Renaissance into the early Baroque.
The Magnificat for Eight Voices appears in the first collection of Sacrae Symphoniae, an anthology of motets and canzone published in 1597. Gabrieli exploited the acoustic splendor of the cathedral through numerous polychoral compositions using this text — even ranging up to 33 different vocal parts. But even in this earlier setting for eight voices separated into two choirs (performed here a cappella), you can sense the impulse to explore blocks of sound as a weighty, moveable, physical phenomenon: the composer as sculptor.
Hyun Chul Lee (b. 1973) may hold the title of most frequently performed choral composer in his native Korea. He studied composition at Georgia State University and Westminster Choir College. He serves as composer-in-residence at World Vision Korea Children’s Choir and as choral conductor at MyungSung Presbyterian Church. His four-part Jajang, Jajang, Ahgi Yesu offers a Korean perspective on the classic Nativity scene of the newborn Jesus in the manger. Lee varies the overall textural blend of this tender lullaby, starting with male voices contrasted with the sopranos and altos, later separating one part out from the rest in unison or using close imitation.
Assistant conductor of the Master Chorale from 2006-2010, Ariel Quintana (b. 1965) has focused his work as a composer on choral music. The first of his Three Christmas Motets was originally performed by the Master Chorale in 2000 under then-director Paul Salamunovich — thus making a beautiful tribute, along with Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, to the legacy of this great conductor (who passed away in April). Hodie Christus Natus Est, recalls the composer, sprang from an inspiration while improvising on “a fun, joyous motif” he initially considered turning into a birthday gift for his wife Helène (a longtime alto with the Master Chorale). After the piece was introduced as a Christmas motet, Quintana was commissioned to write two more seasonal motets by Dr. Kerry Barnet for his choirs in Oklahoma City.
The first and last motets share a quality of joyful rhythmic energy. Together, they frame Quintana’s more-contemplative setting of the Ave Maris Stella, which is scored for mixed chorus with a trio of solo women representing the “angelic choir.” Hodie uses two divided choirs (up to six parts in each), antiphonally engaging them to propel its joyous momentum. For the third motet, Quem vidistis pastores (for eight-part integrated choir), Quintana similarly uses ostinato patterns against flowing melody, while reminiscences of chant form a thread binding the triptych. As a whole, the Three Christmas Motets marry these elements with rhythmic impulses evoking Quintana’s native Argentina.
When people refer to the thriving contemporary choral scene, the name Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is bound to come up sooner or later. This Reno-born, London-based composer’s astonishing worldwide success is all the more impressive when you recall that he didn’t discover classical music (via Mozart’s Requiem) until his college years. Whitacre has declared that he wants his music “to be relevant, and honest, and pure.” Lux Aurumque, in its mixed-choral version, was composed in Los Angeles and dates from 2000, but received global exposure via the composer’s pathbreaking “Virtual Choir” project in 2010, representing 12 countries (4.5 million hits on YouTube to date).
Like Kirchner’s new carol, Lux Aurumque is “retrofitted” from new material: the source is actually a contemporary translation into Latin by the American poet Charles Anthony Silvestri of an English poem by Edward Esch. “A simple approach was essential,” writes the composer, “and I waited patiently for the tight harmonies to shimmer and glow.” Whitacre’s a cappella, mixed-choir scoring is mostly in eight parts (at times even nine, with the soprano line divided into three). The music is rooted in a beautifully dark C-sharp minor but, in the final measures, resolves into the major.
In his music for the Christmas story, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) gave voice to the return to faith of his later years — a stark contrast to his insouciant persona as a young artist preoccupied with the latest fashions. His Four Christmas Motets date from 1951-52 and set Latin texts associated with the Liturgy of the Hours (Matins, Vespers, etc.) at different points throughout the Christmas season.
Thus we again encounter the night/dawn antiphon O Magnum Mysterium. Here the composer has his sopranos float serenely above a mystical foundation of barely audible harmonies from the other voices. Quem vidistis draws on Poulenc’s unique brand of neo-Classicism. Note, too, how the star and the Magi’s gifts in Videntes stellam call forth delightfully transparent musical word painting.
But even after his conversion, Poulenc didn’t entirely recant or renounce the arch urbanity of the early style that had made him famous. Hence the impish glee of Hodie, Christus natus est, with its start-stop gestures and unpredictable emphases. Still, there’s a deeper message: the joy of this season is no distant utopia, but an experience to be shared and celebrated in the here and now.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.