BY PETER RUTENBERG
Among music history's multitude of choral masterworks, one occasionally finds a piece where all of the principal elements of music - melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, color and form - are in such balance with the text that the two become one. Together they form a radiant expression far greater than the sum of their components, inseparable, profound, and of universal impact. Such is the case with the first three works on this program.
William Byrd is considered the greatest English composer of his age for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his ability to set the English language to music. With its panoply of rhyming grammatical endings, rhythmic regularity, and a mere five vowels, Latin was ideally suited to, and indeed influential in, the development of western music from the time of the early church. When, as part of his Reformation, Henry VIII mandated a more simplified approach to service music along with the use of the vernacular, it could easily have been the artistic equivalent of exiling Shakespeare to the land of Mother Goose. Worse yet, English presented myriad difficulties between its dozens of vowels and irregular rhythms - not just for the composer but for singers as well - all of which had to be accommodated in church use. While Byrd's older publishing partner Thomas Tallis had accomplished much in this vein during the preceding generation, it was the younger composer's seminal achievement of The Great Service (written in the early 1580s) that set the standard for English sacred music to follow. The tunes are memorable, the colors kaleidoscopic, the counterpoint exquisite, and the texts are understandable! Henry wouldn't have had it any other way. Sing joyfully shows Byrd's consummate skill in setting English a few decades later, where all the attributes of The Great Service are not only evident but refined to their expressive quintessence.
Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla was Mexico's leading composer during the middle of the 17th century. Born around 1590 in Malaga, Spain, he received his first training at the cathedral there, became Maestro de Capilla in Jerez de la Frontera by 1613, and took the same post at Cadiz where he stayed until 1620. Two years later, he surfaced on the payroll at Puebla Cathedral in Mexico and was appointed chapel master by 1629. That splendid cathedral, finished in 1649, enjoyed the largess of its long-time patron Bishop Palafox y Mendoza and possessed choir stalls accommodating more musicians than usual. Padilla's sense of music on a grand scale coupled with the Bishop's financial backing was a marriage made in musical heaven. His style shows a preference for vivid rhythmic declamation alternating with long flowing lines, for rich sonorities spiced with unorthodox harmonies. Mirabilia testimonia tua comes from that portion of Psalm 118 ascribed to the afternoon service of None. The text is quite long, but as Padilla provides for constant variation in the flow, as well as a brilliant palette of colors to paint the text's images, there is literally never a dull moment. The tone alternates between an elegant, elevated style and an exciting folk style, marked by rhythmic playfulness, syncopations, and asymmetric phrasing. The meter is duple until the Gloria Patri, when it changes to triple symbolizing the Trinity.
Johann Sebastian Bach's motets are unique among the master's output. They are not as grand in scope as the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat, or the Passions; neither are they reliant on vocal and instrumental soloists like the Cantatas. Rather they feature the chorus - often a double chorus with a virtuosic role. While the motets were suitable for service use following the organ prelude or during communion, it is more probable that they were composed for other kinds of celebrations (official birthdays and affairs of state) or for funerals. The boundless joy evident in the antiphonal fanfares that open Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied distinguish its purpose as one of great celebration. Beginning with the words "The children of Zion ...," Bach seizes his first opportunity to write a fugue. The sopranos of Choir I lead off, followed by the altos, then the tenors. The basses of both choirs intone the fourth statement of the theme in unison, succeeded by the Choir II tenors, altos, and finally sopranos, making for an extended arc. The second section gives different thematic material to each group: Choir II sings the tender chorale and Choir I comments and embellishes each phrase in response. The mood of joy returns in the third section, continuing into the fugal fourth section. To embody the first word of its text, the choirs unify to sing "Everything that hath breath praise the Lord" - the very motto engraved on the composer's organ cabinet in Leipzig.
Three of William Billings' most treasured anthems illuminate the program's second half: Beneficence, with its first-verse rendering in solfeggio syllables, characteristic of the period; Jordan, delighting in the promises of the after-life; and Chester, with its heroic depiction of the Revolutionary War. The composer was known for his deep bass voice and his works often feature that voice either solo or sometimes doubled at the octave below.
Ukrainian composer David Nowakowsky is little known today outside of synagogues with active choirs, yet he represents a link to a strong tradition of choral singing in Jewish houses of worship throughout Europe. From his post as choirmaster and composer at Odessa's famed Brody Synagogue, Nowakowsky created an immense oeuvre during the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. His music fell into obscurity following the Russian Revolution, coming to light again after the middle of the century. These two excerpts from the Friday Evening Service are appropriately paired as in the liturgy: Hashkiveinu is a prayer for peace at night and always; V'Shamru is one of the many Sabbath prayers that echo the commandment to rest and be refreshed. Both pieces display the Russian choral style.
Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt enjoys worldwide recognition today, having been stifled and discouraged in his youth by the Soviet Union's rigid controls. Beginning in 1980 Part developed a fundamental technique he called tintinnabuli after the sound of ringing bells. Nothing is left to chance and 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. In Solfeggio the two tasks merge deftly. In this case, it literally "takes a village" - singing a very careful sequence of notes by different voice parts - to achieve the single melody that constitutes the entire piece. As with Billings, the syllables do, re, mi, etc. form the text. Moreover, no voice sings more than one pitch without a rest, while harmony results from the overlap of sustained notes.
Pairs of mid-20th-century chestnuts and energetic hymns conclude the program: the chant-flavored undulations of Maurice Duruflé's Ubi caritas and the muted joy of Randall Thompson's wartime Alleluia comprise the former; founding music director Roger Wagner's exultant arrangement of William Billings' familiar Alleluia and the soaring rhapsody of the late Moses Hogan's Elijah Rock comprise the latter. Together they make a fitting tribute to the memory of these giants of choral music!