by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
In 1955, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) composed French and Latin choruses as incidental music for the play The Lark adapted by Lillian Hellman from Jean Anoulh's French original on the trial of Joan of Arc. Because Bernstein's music harkened back in style to the medieval era, Robert Shaw, after attending an early performance of The Lark, suggested to Bernstein that with some changes and additions, he could create an effective Missa brevis. In 1988 (33 years later), Bernstein fulfilled his colleague's suggestion in honor of Shaw's retirement as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. The Missa brevis is scored for a cappella mixed chorus, countertenor solo and incidental percussion. With the exception of the chimes, the use of percussion is optional.
While at sea in 1943, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) composed Rejoice in the Lamb as he returned to Britain from the United States during World War II. It was composed to celebrate the golden jubilee of the consecration of St. Matthew's Church in Northampton. With consummate skill, Britten captured the deeply religious character of Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb), a poem by the half-demented Christopher Smart, written as he was detained in a 17th century asylum. Comprising ten segments, the poem is a curiously chaotic mixture of the biblical, Smart's own contemplative musings on the glory of creation, his own treatment in the asylum as similar to the sufferings of Christ (whom Smart refers to as "My Saviour"), and on the harmony of the universe. English musicologist Percy Young noted of Rejoice in the Lamb, the Festival Te Deum, and St. Nicholas, that "religious faith should not be afraid of spiritual exaltation."
George Frederic Handel's (1685-1759) chorus "Music Spread Thy Voice Around" appears in the third act of his oratorio Solomon as part of the king's entertainment for the Queen of Sheba. After 1749, Handel, as was his practice, modified the chorus's constituent elements providing a solo part for King Solomon to introduce it. However, for performance outside the oratorio, the first version with its sixteen measure introduction and five-part chorus provides a better option.
Modern research places the composition of Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685-1750) ten movement Wedding Cantata 197 in 1742. Its lavishly festive character indicates it was composed to grace the nuptials of an exalted but unknown couple. The cantata's opening movement "Gott ist unsre Zuversicht" presents remarkably brilliant trumpet flourishes leading into a festive choral fugue. Somewhat unusual for such an introductory chorus is its A-B-A or da capo (first theme, second theme, repeat of first theme) structure, further enhancing its solemnity. The chorus' words express the joyful certainty that God will lead everything to its best possible conclusion if trust is placed with him.
Pavel Tschesnokov (1877-1944), according to Vladimir Morosan (prominent historian of Russian choral music), was long associated with the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing. A prolific composer, his qualifications and experience as a conductor enabled him to create sensitive motets out of simple Russian chants, here exemplified by his Let Thy Holy Spirit.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed his "See the Chariot at Hand," a wedding poem of Ben Jonson, for his opera Sir John in Love. He subsequently excerpted the chorus from the opera and incorporated it into his cantata Windsor Forest. The poem's fulsome imagery, so adroitly and exquisitely set by Vaughan Williams, describes the beauty of the bride riding by in her wedding carriage for all to admire.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) composed Alleluia at the request of Serge Kousevitsky, famed music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It premiered at the opening exercises of the now-famed Berkshire Music Center on July 8, 1940 by the Center's inchoate student-body choir under the direction of G. Wallace Woodworth.
A graduate of Tufts University and the Julliard School of Music, Jester Joseph Hairston (b. 1901) received invaluable training as assistant conductor, for thirteen years, of the famed Hall Johnson Negro Choir. As conductor of his own singers, he subsequently arranged music for such early movies as Lost Horizon. He has been a radio, movie and television actor, a highly sought-after lecturer and a world-touring choral conductor. His prolific and authentic arrangements of spirituals exhibit deep sensitivity, here illustrated in I Want Jesus.
The late Norman Luboff found numerous treasures in the folk music of his native Sweden. He also graced the work of other arrangers of such music with his adroit translations. Domaredansen, arranged by the Swedish composer Bengt Hallberg, exhibits a lively folk-dance that is sprightly and exuberant with a fast "boogie-woogie" rhythm full of simple joy.
Shenandoah, the most famous of American sea shanties, boasts for its beloved melody several texts, the origins of which are obscure. Shanties served to coordinate the work of sailors as they got the great windjammers under way, weighing anchor, or hoisting and trimming the sails. "Shenandoah" may have been a name derived by the sailors from that of an Indian princess. Its beautiful melody has attracted innumerable arrangements, of which that of composer James Erb (b. 1927) has enjoyed artistic and lasting success.
Dona nobis pacem is the final movement in Bach's Mass in B Minor. Together with the Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, it probably was composed between 1748 and 1749, when the near-blind Bach decided to fill-out and complete the original Missa brevis (Kyrie and Gloria) of 1733. This Missa brevis, the subsequently composed Symbolum Nicenum (Credo) and the Sanctus, together with the above mentioned Osanna, Benedictus and Agnus Dei comprise what is now known as the Mass in B Minor. This Mass was to leave to posterity a definitive summary of Bach's sovereign choral art, as he had done instrumentally in the open-scored Art of the Fugue.