Onward and Upward
By Thomas May
Images related to rising up have inspired wonder and awe ever since humans acquired consciousness. Such images are ubiquitous in the natural world around us — whether in the mountains that loom majestically over a landscape or the reliable motions of the firmament. Is it any surprise that themes of ascension are so integral to religions all around the world? “When the Buddha sat under the bo tree,” observes Joseph Campbell, “he faced east — the direction of the rising sun.”
From the secular perceptive, the ancient dream of flight has become an everyday reality enabled by the technology of our modern world. Yet the metaphor of ascending above our ordinary perspective retains its poetry and power. “The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods,” writes Plato in the Phaedrus, one of the very greatest of his dialogues.
Tonight’s program brings us musical evocations of the aspiration to soar, to make the metaphorical pilgrimage to places of enhanced understanding and harmonious vision. Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale are especially thrilled to unveil two brand-new works by Los Angeles-based composers — Nackkum Paik and Shawn Kirchner — that have been written especially for the city’s preeminent choral ensemble.
To establish the motif of ascent, we begin with Her Sacred Spirit Soars by the American composer Eric Whitacre, who will himself be a focus of the Master Chorale’s May program. This neo-Renaissance motet from 2002 was occasioned by a commission from the Heartland Festival in Platteville, Wisconsin, to celebrate its focus on producing the plays of Shakespeare. Whitacre teamed up with the lyricist and fellow Nevada native Charles Anthony Silvestri, who is known for writing “bespoke poetry for choral composers, especially texts in Latin,” and together they crafted an homage to the Elizabethan creative spirit. Silvestri’s contribution was to furnish a sonnet that, as the poet puts it, “reflects an Elizabethan’s confusion about artistic inspiration.” This involves “confusion between traditional forms of inspiration … and more tangible forms.”
Whitacre uses madrigalisms such as the deceptively simple metaphor of a stepwise ascending scale to sound the theme of soaring inspiration at the very start. Yet immediately he adds a delicious complication: the second choir — Whitacre scores for a double choir, each with five parts — enters exactly one measure later singing the same material, creating an effect the composer likens to a “smear on a canvas.” He also evokes the tolling of bells as the spirit of inspiration ascends above material “gilded spheres,” while archaizing gestures summon memories of Elizabethan composers. Such musical techniques interweave with Silvestri’s literary-formal ones, including his setting of the revered traditional form of the sonnet as an acrostic. The first letter of each line, read vertically, spells out the phrase “Hail Fair Oriana,” an epithet associated with Queen Elizabeth I as a patroness, a latter-day muse. The 14-line sonnet form is then expanded with an extra line praising “Oriana,” which Whitacre sets as the culmination toward which the previous musical ideas have been aspiring.
The tight interweaving of textual and musical imagery on display here was one of the glorious legacies of the Renaissance — a legacy Johannes Brahms appreciated and sought to emulate in his own a cappella works. When Brahms came of age, choral music — both in its familiar church context and in burgeoning secular choral societies — provided a significant outlet for a rapidly expanding middle class of music lovers. It’s worth recalling that the young Brahms began to establish a wider reputation in particular through his work as a choral conductor and composer.
In his formative years, Brahms devoted himself to a close study of sacred music from the past (Catholic and Protestant), focusing on the styles and contrapuntal techniques not only of Bach but of his predecessors — Brahms was also “progressive” in the sense of being ahead of his time by looking further back into the past. And his deepening familiarity with these lost or fading arts certainly left its mark on his symphonies and other instrumental works as well.
Another mature example of the fruit of these labors is the set of Opus 109 motets, Fest- und Gedenksprüche (which sounds rather clumsy in English: “Festival and Commemorative Sayings”). Dating from very late in his career (1888-89), this set was written alongside another trio of a cappella motets (Op. 110) — together, these two sets represent Brahms’s final efforts in sacred choral music, the realm in which he first came to more widespread notice (with Ein deutsches Requiem). And as he had done in his Requiem, Brahms here culls lines from the Bible to shape an overall narrative of his own. His sources for the three motets of Op. 109 — scored for eight-voice double choir — are the Psalms, the Gospels, and Deuteronomy, respectively.
In musical terms, Brahms’s deployment of antiphony and imitative devices (think canon) is linked by many scholars to his interest in the complete edition of the work of Heinrich Schütz that was appearing around this time. However, another Brahms expert, Daniel Beller-McKenna, emphasizes the political context of the recently unified German nation and its changeover of leadership in 1888 (with the accession of Wilhelm II as Emperor). Opus 109 was first performed in the composer’s native Hamburg in connection with an industrial trade fair but was “more broadly conceived for the major national holidays” of the newly unified state, according to Beller-McKenna. He adds that Brahms’s arrangement of the Biblical texts is meant “to place an emphasis on God’s law and rule as laid down in the Pentateuch of the Old Testament — a strong rebuke of populist, German-Christian rhetoric from the political Right…”
All three motets are in easy-to-recognize ABA song form; all three are filled with ingenious particulars of word painting as well. As we heard in Whitacre’s piece, Brahms plays the two choirs off one another at the very start of Unsere Väter, though here he alludes to Venetian tradition by varying the simple unison motif (Choir 1) with an ornamented version of its straightforward pattern (Choir 2). Wenn ein starker Gewappneter dramatizes the consequences of a “house divided against itself” as the choral parts pile up and tumble together confusedly in the middle section, contrasting starkly with the unified purpose evoked in the outer parts. The antiphonal aspects of Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk bring resolution. Here, argues Beller-McKenna, Brahms counterbalances the “more contemplative and less festive” middle section with “an ultimate realization of unity amid diversity.” The latter is symbolized by the unfolding of voices above the bass’s sustained F in the Amen at the end of this third and longest motet of the entire set.
Issues of national and cultural identity are a topic of Nackkum Paik’s new choral work Succession as well, but within a context that considers religious allegory and the rich possibilities for exchange enabled by L.A.’s cultural diversity. Paik, a native of Seoul, Korea, spent her formative years studying in Europe before eventually settling in Los Angeles. While the award-winning Paik has also written orchestral compositions, her creative focus has been on choral music, and her work has been in demand by such institutions as the American Choral Directors Association, the Hollywood Master Chorale and Choral Alchemy of Los Angeles. Succession is Paik’s first work for the Master Chorale and continues its LA is the World series — this is the fifth commissioned project in the series to date.
In Succession, Paik turns to the famous scene from the Second Book of Kings 2:1-14, which recounts how the prophet Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire, while his follower Elisha inherits the former’s power. She notes that the two prophets may be seen as allegorical figures for “the rich history of Korean immigration in the Los Angeles area.” From this perspective, Elijah and Elisha represent first- and second-generation Korean Americans, respectively. “Having been inspired by their story, I tried to create drama in musical language, using the story of these two prophets as a metaphor for the first generation’s struggle in a new world and the rise of the second generation … who are now thriving in mainstream society. Their success generates conflict with the earlier generation and its hard-earned prosperity and cultural legacy.”
To articulate this drama, Paik divides the singers into three choirs. Two of the choirs are from the ranks of the Master Chorale, which “represents mainstream society” and establishes the framework for conflict by using “modern musical techniques and vivid tones.” The third choir is sung by the Los Angeles Chamber Choir: this “represents Korean American society and creates an opposing style of sound through traditional Korean elements of simple melodies and grace notes,” says Paik. The ongoing Korean immigrant legacy is also conveyed through the presence of traditional percussion instruments [Korean bass drum], percussion effects made by the piano [to imitate the gayageum, a zither-like Korean instrument], and especially Korea’s traditional song technique (Chang) in the solo part as well as the melody of Arirang at the end.
Succession unfolds in six interlinked sections, with Choirs 1 and 2 initially addressing the prophets by their Hebrew names, Eliyahoo and Elishua, and differentiating the two by adding intervals of a half-step and a whole step, respectively, to the note E shared by both. Choir 3’s perfect-fifth harmonies frame a melody signaling “the Korean people’s sentiments and emotions.”
Paik varies her mostly contrapuntal texture with homophonic passages and the convergence of rhythmic patterns to symbolize assimilation. As the central climactic episode approaches, the male singers (along with the Korean bass drum) depict the chariot of fire and a solo soprano signals the moment of Elijah’s ascension, which culminates in a powerful solo for the bass drum — the moment of generational change in Korean immigrant history.
The final section of the piece shifts to the perspective of Elisha/the next generation. Paik writes: “The scene, in which Elisha inherits the power from Elijah, is expressed with the simultaneous use of two different consonances that result in a huge dissonance. But even amid the dissonance, Arirang’s simple but prevailing melody, sung by Choir 3, leads the grand finale, overwhelming the dissonance, and implying the rise of second-generation from the legacy that the first-generation Korean Americans have left behind.”
In his hot-off-the-press, fresh-from-the-Muse Songs of Ascent, Shawn Kirchner also explores the contemporary metaphorical implications of a narrative from the Bible. The narrative in this case isn’t a “set piece” per se, rather an arc Kirchner has constructed by means of his own reordering and juxtaposition of scriptural texts à la Brahms. These do, however, all derive from the same overall section: the series of Psalms 120 to 134, which are collectively known in Hebrew as Shir Hama’aloth (translated as “Song of Ascents” but also known as the “Songs of Degrees” or “Steps” or even “Pilgrim Songs”).
Marked by a frequently affirmative, hopeful tone, these Psalms are associated by many scholars with pilgrimages to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — and particularly with the ascent of the steps leading up to the Temple itself. “I wanted to construct a narrative dramatic arc from what are thought to be songs of pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” explains Kirchner. “And toward the end I include the Psalm [No. 133] Leonard Bernstein uses to conclude his Chichester Psalms, with a vision of peace and unity.”
The essential and existential questions are: how do we get there, above all in our era of strife that is fueled so much by religious divisions? What role does tradition play here? “I’ve had to grapple with the whole idea of religion and why it becomes political,” Kirchner remarks. “Joseph Campbell talks about the need for a center, and you can see that every culture has a sacred place. My own spiritual tradition [the Church of the Brethren, one of the historical peace churches like the Quakers] nurtured that sense of a place of reverence and awe in me. But that aspect seems to be missing in a lot of urban culture, where all you see around you is what humans have made. I feel that we need the balancing of a perspective that includes the eternal, not just the temporal. So the guiding idea is to reframe our perspective. Getting to Jerusalem means reconnecting, finding your way back to that center that represents reverence for this creation. And it’s tradition and religion that have perpetuated the connection to the eternal.”
Along with savoring Kirchner’s contributions as a longtime tenor in the ensemble, Master Chorale audiences have had the opportunity to witness his evolution as a composer, particularly through the works he has produced as the Master Chorale’s Swan Family Composer in Residence. And that can involve some unpredictable directions. “I’m a different composer now from the one I was when I started this project,” remarks Kirchner, who initially conceived Songs of Ascent before his residency was announced. Other projects took precedence before he could return to the Psalm cycle, which is his most ambitious work for the Master Chorale to date in terms of its forces: chorus with baritone and soprano soloists, string orchestra and two harps (in movements 1, 4 and 7). The completed version of 2013’s Plath Songs is comparable in length (about 40 minutes) but drew Kirchner toward a different harmonic language.
“Writing Songs of Ascent forced me to confront the tension in myself between tradition and experimentalism, tradition versus ‘edginess’ and being relevant in contemporary culture,” says the composer. He adds that this is a tension he confronts every week as a church musician. “We have to communicate specific ideas: intelligibility is always in the mind of anyone who is involved in religious choral music.” Tradition therefore has aesthetic as well as religious connotations in Songs of Ascent: “You could call it a neo-Baroque oratorio. Bach’s presence is clear (especially in the second and third songs), as well as the influence of Mendelssohn. I love how his compositional process is still based in song, and how a unifying melody can hold a composition together (as in parts of Elijah). You can also sense my love of Celtic folk music, and as with Baroque composers, dance rhythms are an essential part of folk music’s vitality.”
A harmonic scheme of ascending thirds serves to orient the progress of the pilgrimage in Songs of Ascent: F-sharp minor (1), A major (2), C major (3), E major (4), G major (5), B major (6), and D major (7). Kirchner’s motivic ideas also embody images of ascent, such as the recurrent idea B—C#—A—E (a smaller ascent encased within a larger one) and the prominence of rising wide intervals in several key passages (as in “I will lift up mine eyes”).
The seven movements comprising the cycle include an implicit portrait of David as the creative force behind the Psalms (hence
the presence of the harp sonorities) but also as a compendium of human nature, of “themes of innocence and experience.”
A cantor-like baritone soloist represents his presence explicitly, “staking a place for the eternal in our lives.” The longing for peace is sounded early on, an acknowledgment of the need to overcome humanity’s divisions.In the third song the elders offer a sermon on the good life, while the fourth is a contrasting soprano solo song expressing the need for “spiritual humility.”
Kirchner singles out No. 5 (Psalm 130) as the pivot point of the cycle with its epiphany that “peace comes only when we point the finger at ourselves and not at someone else.” Songs 6 and 7 continue with the process of reconciliation and treasuring the “precious ointment” of unity so that, by the final song, “people have done the inner and outer peace work needed to make it to Jerusalem symbolically.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
Psalms of Peace: A new work by Shawn Kirchner
By Alice Parker
If the Book of Psalms is also known as the Songs of David, why don’t we just call them Songs? Then we may be able to see beyond their admittedly rich historical context, and begin to enjoy them as poems. One song about mountains, another about building, and many more about sorrowing, longing and despair. As Shawn Kirchner describes his own journey towards this extended choral work, he relives the human experiences described in the Psalms, trying to come to terms with the way that they relate to our contemporary lives.
The Biblical Songs of Ascent were chanted as one mounted the steps of the Temple to bring offerings and ask for blessing. Of course this is a metaphor for the journey through life itself: an upward climb with the hope for reward at the end. And laced through these songs are expressions of every human emotion: anger, fear, hunger and suspicion as well as hope, confidence and joy. The human condition has not changed since Biblical times. Our styles of music, of poetry and of communication have changed exponentially – but these same emotions still surge beneath the surface.
It is this quality which has led so many composers throughout the ages to turn to the Psalms for song texts. What is it that music can add to these words? It is just what music, at its best, brings to us with or without words: a glimpse of another way of thinking, a quieting of the inquisitive, fact-finding rational mind that may open the heart to fundamental realities that cannot be defined. A culture’s music supplies the context for the words, and they read differently for each age and each composer – who thus reveals us to ourselves.
What does Shawn bring to the Psalms? He sees the young David with his harp. He hears melodies that take their shape from the cadences of the King James version of the English text. He finds dialogues between cantor and chorus, between harp and strings, between child-like humility and extravagant gestures of blessing. He remembers how David vowed to build a house for the Lord, and he erects a structure of ten Psalms within seven movements and an interlude, building a fugue as carefully as if the Lord were watching. He descends to the depths of self-pity and rises to the vision of joy.
Peace is the central concern. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” takes on added meaning in these days. “Peace be within thy walls.” “How good for brethren to dwell together in unity.” “Peace be within thee.” “Thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace among the nations.” Our prayers are just as heartfelt as those of people in every age. We are part of the ongoing procession ascending the steps, bearing our burdens, hoping for blessing.
This world that we live in is usually presented as one of deep conflict. We are torn between freedom and responsibility, violence and restraint, body and soul, head and heart. We imagine ourselves as unique and omnipotent, able to control our destiny and that of others. But through these words and this music we are invited to see ourselves and our world in a different, more generous light. “There is forgiveness with thee.” “Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.” Even “Let thy saints shout aloud for joy.”
Shawn has the courage and self-confidence to use traditional musical forms and languages. He hears the individual voice within the larger relationship, and gives us a sympathetic reading of songs from our most ancient history. Listen, and you may be persuaded that we, like King Saul, may be cured of our madness by the singing of hymns.
Alice Parker is a choral music legend. With over fifty years of composing, arranging and teaching experience, Alice’s love and dedication to the art form has inspired countless musicians around the world. She is the founder and artistic director of Melodious Accord, but is perhaps best known for her extraordinary arrangements and musical partnership with one of our country’s forefathers of choral music, Robert Shaw.