PROGRAM NOTES BY RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J., Ph.D.
Leonard Bernstein (b. 1918)
Choral music has received constant impetus in England through the various distinguished festivals sponsored frequently by prominent choral societies and Cathedral churches. We are aware of the impact such commissions have had in stimulating the compositions of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, and others.
By May 7, 1965, Leonard Bernstein (b. 1918) had completed the Chichester Psalms, commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, for that Cathedral's festival celebrated in cooperation with the choirs of Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals.
The Psalms chosen are set in Hebrew and it is immediately apparent throughout the work that the melodic contours exhibit an ingratiating Jewish character. After the majestic introductory anthem based on Verse 2 of Psalm 100, the whole of that Psalm is sung to a joyful dancelike setting. The 23rd Psalm then receives a lyric, almost naive, treatment for boy soloists, which is then repeated with canonic treatment by the Chorus. This pastoral mood is interrupted by the dramatic outburst of men singing "Why do the nations rage ...” of Psalm 2. A dreamlike instrumental prelude introduces the warm and peaceful exposition of Psalm 133, while an a cappella coda expresses further yearning for peace, concluding with "Amen" as a solo trumpet gently recalls the initial statement of the Chorale.
Old American Songs
Aaron Copland (b. 1900)
Along with jazz, folk music of many regional varieties has exercised a remarkable influence in the shaping of Aaron Copland's (1900- ) music. Although his compositions of the 1920's, often styled his "austere" period, were based on characteristically American rhythms, he turned in the 1930's to a style he hoped would render his works more accessible to the listening public through the utilization of more direct folk music material. South American and Mexican folk idiom, for example, appear in Las Agachadas and El Salon Mexico. American folk sources likewise exercised much influence in the composition of Billy The Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Beyond any other American composer, Copland has more extensively explored and illumined the popular musical heritage of our country, as Arthur Berger has noted in his book Copland.
The two sets of Old American Songs, published in 1950 and in 1952 respectively may thus be regarded as the fruit of much previous exploration and exploitation. They were culled from various sources such as the Harris Collection of American poetry and plays, from Shaker religious sources, from library of Congress publications, and from resources gleaned by Copland himself. As "adapted" and published by Copland, they are solo songs, having received early recorded performances by Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten at the piano, and by William Warfield (who first sang the original set) with Copland at the piano.
It should be noted, however, that the choral versions in various arrangements have been produced under Copland's oversight by Irving Fine, Wilding-White, and Straker. They embrace minstrel songs, campaign tunes, children's nonsense songs, Shaker melodies, lullabies and ballads, revival and originally composed hymns. Thus the two sets of Old American Songs provide a microcosmic view of native American music.
William Schuman (b. 1910)
The prominent American composer, William Schuman produced Chester in 1956 for concert band. It was first performed at the University of Louisville in January, 1957. Chester appeared in The Singing Master's Assistant, a collection of songs by the colonial composer, William Billings (1746-1800), whose music has exercised considerable influence on Schuman. Chester rapidly became the most popular martial song of the American Revolution, and its character lends itself well to band treatment.
The Testament of Freedom
Randall Thompson (b. 1899)
The Testament of Freedom was composed in 1943 while Randall Thompson was a professor of music at the University of Virginia. It was commissioned to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, the founder of that University at Charlottesville, site of Monticello, Jefferson's famed mansion. After being approached by the committee charged with the celebration, Thompson decided to set words of the Third President which would be sung by the students of the University he had established. After its first performance in 1943, it became widely known when it was performed in Carnegie Hall in New York in 1945 in memory of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Testament has subsequently established itself as a classic for male chorus and standard orchestra, or with band in a transcription by John Corley in collaboration with the composer.
The texts of the four movements are derived from the following writings of Jefferson:
I A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)
II & III Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms (July 6, 1775)
IV Letter to John Adams, Monticello (September 12, 1821)
Few American composers have written music more effectively or with more versatility than Randall Thompson. He has composed choral music to texts, for example, excerpted from The American Mercury magazine, in which he exhibits a sense of humor by his imitations of choral chanting, parodies of fugal writing, and mock profundity. His ability finds further demonstration in the texts set from Isaiah in The Peaceable Kingdom. Numerous choruses throughout the land have thrilled to his powerful setting of The Last Words of David. The Testament of Freedom has firmly established itself as a significant American classic, music approachable, serviceable, and patriotic. Thompson has captured in its virile and strong melodic declamation the reasoned exposition of Jefferson's ideas justifying the attitude of the American colonies and nation concerning the oppression of men's rights which characterized Britain and Europe during that period between 1774 and 1821.The work is a paean to our nation's God-given liberty.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) summarized all the various influences which had been brought to bear on his musical development in the composition of Porgy and Bess. Writers and critics have never quite decided whether this "true linchpin in American folk opera" is a music drama, a Broadway musical, or a true opera. Gershwin called it a "folk opera" spun from his natural musical language made up of ragtime, the Blues, jazz, and influenced by the melodic contours of the spiritual. As Richard Goldman has described it, "Porgy and Bess has not only never been equaled in its genre, it has not even been approached”
While most reflective critics and commentators regard Porgy and Bess as defective respecting the criteria of formal operatic convention, there are few who would deny its compelling dramatic qualities. Indeed its uniqueness and unsophistication had proved a stumbling block to the New York critics when it was first produced in 1935 and it took some of them forty-one years to recognize in the 1976 revival the work's masterly dramatic nature and the endearing qualities of its well-known songs.
Porgy and Bess derives from a novel Porgy by the black folklorist DuBose Hayward, who subsequently with the help of his wife, Dorothy, converted the novel into a play and then into a libretto for Gershwin. His music clearly demonstrated his natural dramatic instincts and this folk-opera's enduring success both in America and Europe attest to its authentic American character and Gershwin's assimilation in it of the feeling for the simple but inherent inspiration of the black folk song and spiritual. The work's famous songs have become the hit staples of radio and TV artists and dance bands or as arranged for chorus by Roger Wagner in this evening's presentation.
Gershwin's rebuttal of the initial criticisms against his "opera" demonstrates the true artist's consciousness of the greatness of his masterpiece. He defended and demonstrated the "theatrical and entertainment qualities" of the songs in this his last work as being entirely compatible with authentic operatic tradition. Unfortunately his early death prevented him from garnering the plaudits of the world which in whatever form Porgy and Bess's songs were subsequently presented has never doubted their worth and impact.