Program and Composer’s Notes
Magnificat | Nunc dimittis
Music by James MacMillan, 1959—
Text from 1962 Book of Common Prayer
Magnificat was composed in 1999. The orchestral version was commissioned by the BBC for the first choral evensong of the new millennium on January 5, 2000, and first performed in Wells Cathedral by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra with the choirs of Wells Cathedral and St. John’s College, Cambridge, conducted by the composer.
Nunc dimittis was composed in 2000 and commissioned, along with the organ version of Magnificat, by Winchester Cathedral and first performed on St. Swithun’s Day, July 15, 2000.
From the composer
The choral writing in Magnificat is simple and homophonic, each phrase punctuated by an introspective instrumental echo. The music gradually builds to a joyous climax in the doxology.
The Nunc dimittis is based on similar material. Some of the organ interjections are audibly recognizable from the Magnificat, but the vocal lines have been modally altered. The principal feature of this movement is an unusual unison melody involving treble, alto and tenor voices, with the sesquialtera stop. Some of the climactic music from the Magnificat is recalled for the final Amen. The work opens and closes with quiet ethereal low notes on the organ and in the basses.
From the composer
Sang is the word for stone in Persian. When I read the story of the questing men coming upon the dark mountain whose voice told them that both taking and leaving the burdensome stones would cause them regret (because none of them thought to take MANY stones, and the stones are in fact jewels), I knew I had found my text. I loved that this parable from the legendary 10th century Persian epic Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, was so trickily different from the parables of Jesus or even of Aesop.
And then I came upon God’s promise to the Persian King Cyrus in Isaiah 45, and I found other Biblical references to the transformation of stones to jewels, of dust to gold, and I decided to thread these texts (in Hebrew and Septuagint Greek) into my telling of the Shahnameh story.
I hope the piece illustrates how Persian, Hebrew, and Greek (and by extension Islamic, Jewish, and Christian) are intertwined cultures whose shared roots go back to the Zoroastrian revelations, and perhaps even earlier than that.
While I have spent the last year studying and listening to traditional Persian music, and with the guidance of Manoochehr and Pejman spent a good deal of time with the radif, a compendium of ur-melodies that is a unique source of material for traditional performers, I did not attempt to write a “Persian” piece, which, after all, would be a ridiculous undertaking for an American, even one whose father grew up in Teheran, as mine did.
Instead, my goal was to embody the story in sound as vividly as I can, so that even if you don't understand a word of the text, the narrative has an impact. And I tried to create a structure that allows Pejman and Manoochehr to fully engage their unique artistry in communicating that story, asking not simply for traditional virtuosity, but giving them shared conceptual responsibility for bringing the piece to life.
I thank Iraj Anvar, Hossein Ziai, Mamak Khadem, Shirin Neshat, Rabbi Ruben Milikan, Gallit Hasak, Maya Beiser, Rashelle Fox, and Despina Sarafidou for help with their various languages and expertise, and Julia Carnahan, who helped build many bridges. My initial research for Sang was done while in residence at Civitella Ranieri in the summer of 2006, and I thank the Foundation for their generous hospitality.
I am hugely thankful to Grant Gershon, Terry Knowles, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale for giving me the powerful experience of writing Sang, and of collaborating with them and with Manoochehr Sadeghi and Pejman Hadadi, and it is dedicated to each of them with heartfelt gratitude.
Music by Arvo Pärt
Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) has come to enjoy worldwide recognition, having been stifled and discouraged in his youth by the Soviet Union’s rigid control. There are at least two watershed years in the composer’s life that must be acknowledged: 1968 and 1980. While the rest of the world was protesting the Viet Nam war, Pärt was accomplishing his greatest musical feat to date — the composition of his Credo — which applied serial or twelve-tone techniques to Bach’s famous Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. If Serialism wasn’t high on the USSR’s list of approved musical styles, the work’s brash profession of Christianity was even more unwelcome. A dark and strained period followed, but by 1976, consistent creativity returned. In 1980, the composer and his family emigrated to Vienna and the blue-sky opportunities that awaited beyond.
What evolved in this second phase of life was a fundamental compositional technique Pärt called tintinnabuli after the sound of ringing bells. Here, nothing is left to chance; every gesture has a purpose. At its core are two voices — one singing notes in a stepwise pattern around a fixed pitch, the other outlining the notes of a triad or chord.
Pärt’s Te Deum (1984-5; rev. 1992) is scored for three choirs, piano, strings, and pre-recorded tape: the first and second choirs divide women’s voices from men’s, respectively, while a full chorus of mixed voices forms the third. The principles of his tintinnabuli method are present at all times on this broad canvas of sound. Invariably, sopranos and tenors outline the triads, while altos and basses sing the stepwise patterns. Set generally in the key of D, minor, major, and hybrid colors flicker like a languorous, multi-chrome neon display, adding a macro-rhythm to an otherwise seamless structure — the return to minor being the only indication that one of the 17 sections has begun. Although no historical chants are used, Pärt establishes chant-like melodies as the basis for variation and part exchange among the smaller choirs who sing them forward, backward, inverted, in unison, duet and mirror image. These forces alternate with the full choir, usually in four, but as many as eight, parts. At dramatic points in the text, for example, Judex crederis and Fiat misericordia tua, the choirs join together, but otherwise operate antiphonally. The brief Sanctus theme from Verse 3 — marked by wide, fluctuating intervals — is recalled in a series of fading echos for the angelic, post-Amen coda.
Te Deum Program Notes by Peter Rutenberg.
Grammy®-winning conductor Peter Rutenberg is founding Music Director of Los Angeles Chamber Singers & Cappella, owner of RCM Records and producer of the Los Angeles Master Chorale's Grammy®-nominated Lauridsen • Lux Aeterna CD, and teaches music at UCLA