Almost a cappella
By Thomas May
Showcasing the Chorale
Welcome to our first concert of the New Year! Tonight’s musical selections bring the sheer sonic beauty of choral artistry into focus: they demonstrate the lush range of musical and emotional expression that this gathering of voices commands. Music Director Grant Gershon has organized a neatly structured program made entirely of music from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Introducing each half is new music by two bright lights from a new generation of composers, from either side of the pond. We hear the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass with Canons, the U.S. premiere of Muhly’s First Service, as well as Confirma hoc Deus by the remarkable London-born composer Tarik O’Regan. Their music connects with liturgical traditions of meditation and praise, revitalizing them for contemporary listeners.
Two larger-scale works anchor each half of the program. Messiaen’s colleague Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur paints with a choral canvas in his treatment of selections from the biblical Song of Songs, sensuously crafted for twelve-part choir and spiritually uplifting. The Mass for Double Choir represents one of the breakthrough achievements of choral writing in the past century, though its composer, Frank Martin, regarded his art as unworthy of performance for decades after he completed the score. As Gershon observes, both of these works share “a love of sonority and of the rich variety of textures that a group of a cappella voices can create. This is music that is orchestral in scope and yet capable of incredible intimacy.”
“Tiny, Obsessive Narratives”
Still in his 20s, New York-based Nico Muhly is becoming an increasingly ubiquitous presence in the new-music scene. The ever-fertile imagination of this composer ranges widely. His projects comfortably skip from such pieces as a cantata based on Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style to film scoring (The Reader in 2008) and collaborations with indie-rock bands; this spring brings the premiere of a New York Philharmonic commission. Master Chorale audiences heard the first West Coast performance of his Whitman-inspired cantata Expecting the Main Things from You last February.
Muhly’s childhood musical training included singing in an Episcopalian boys’ choir—an experience which opened up worlds hitherto unsuspected, in stark contrast to his run-of-the-mill piano lessons. Muhly has remarked that the “choral affinities” he discovered as an active singer influenced his point of view as a composer, even if a large part of his catalogue involves instrumental music. “I am most comfortable creating tiny, obsessive narratives inside a simple structure,” writes Muhly, “rather than working on top of a story.”
Aspects of this aesthetic pertain to the composition of Bright Mass with Canons, which Muhly was commissioned to write for John Scott and the Choir of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City (they gave the premiere in February 2005). This performance marks the work’s West Coast debut. The entire piece refers, with a characteristic obsessiveness, to the technique of “canons” or melodic elements that repeat each other in succession, their overlapping imitations creating a form of counterpoint. The canons in question involve a variety of imitative procedures, but they permeate the score.
Muhly applies this procedure across the four compact movements of this Mass (which omits the standard Credo). The Kyrie—introduced by a “brassy,” brief fanfare from the organ—and the Gloria reference the “imitative writing” in choral works of early English composers like William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes, whose music provided such revelation to the young Muhly in his boys’ choir. In contrast to the Kyrie’s overlay of slow, sustained harmonies, the Gloria unfolds with greater variety of rhythmic pulse, using Muhly’s fullest division of the choir into eight parts. The organ fanfare reappears toward the end, but the Gloria concludes on a serene note.
The final two movements, Muhly explains, veer toward a “more abstract and spatial” approach to canonic imitation. This is apparent especially at the start of the Sanctus, where each singer is instructed not to synchronize but “repeats a given figure in his own time, creating a flurry of sound to fill the space.” The Benedictus features flowing tutti figures. A pedal from the organ launches an introverted Agnus Dei, its individual lines slowly weaving in and out of phase and coming to rest on a sweet dissonance.
An exact contemporary of Olivier Messiaen, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur (1908-2002) joined forces with him as an emerging composer in the 1930s (along with several similarly minded musicians) to form a group known as La Jeune France (Young France). They were interested in alternatives to the attitude of café neoclassicism and charming artifice that prevailed in French music between the wars. La Jeune France’s members—more a coalition than a movement—represented a diverse stylistic spectrum, but they shared a desire to promote music, often tinged by spirituality and eroticism alike, that avoided chic irony and engaged the emotions directly.
Daniel-Lesur leaned toward traditions of the past, while Messiaen began developing the radical language that would make him an avant-garde guru after the war. Yet they remained lifelong friends, and Messiaen’s enraptured mysticism leaves a deep imprint on Daniel-Lesur’s best-known composition, Le cantique des cantiques. This a cappella gem, shaped with exquisite craft, celebrates the paradox of a spiritual sensuality by setting texts drawn from the biblical Song of Songs.
According to Nigel Simeone’s obituary of the composer in The Musical Times, it dates from 1953, although this may refer to the first performance (conflicting dates, even as early as 1949, have been cited elsewhere). Whatever its actual time of composition, Le cantique des cantiques draws on a preoccupation with the erotically transcendent that similarly appears in Messiaen’s trilogy on the Tristan myth from the early postwar years (Harawi, the Turangalîla Symphony, and Cinq Rechants).
The piece, originally commissioned for Marcel Couraud’s vocal ensemble, consists of seven brief movements and is written for twelve-part choir (dividing each voice of the standard SATB combination into three separate lines). This partitioning allows Daniel-Lesur to paint a choral canvas richly varied in texture and harmonic nuance. A refrain is threaded through Le cantique (“Maidens of Jerusalem”), but the score is characterized by colorful variety, alternating between chamber-like, intimate gestures and finely modulated outbursts of collective celebration and rapture. “Dialogue” introduces the worshipful, adoring relation between lover and beloved with a melody that demurely rises and falls, echoing like a bell as it passes between male and female voices.
Daniel-Lesur brightens the harmonic palette for the spring-like “The Voice of the Beloved,” which is radiant with nature imagery. “The Dream,” in contrast, is set at night and rustles with a restlessness touching on anxiety: a vigil seeking out the absent beloved. Here, Daniel-Lesur interpolates a Latin passage from Christian liturgy in counterpoint to the French text (from the Old Testament). This procedure, which also occurs in the fourth and final movements, draws from the Catholic theological tradition that allegorizes the erotic forthrightness of The Song of Songs as a longing for divinity. Resounding with communal rejoicing, “King Solomon” foreshadows the climactic wedding scene with which this a cappella cantata culminates. But a marked contrast follows in the piquantly siren-like, Debussyan ambiguities that betoken a mystical intimacy in “The Closed Garden,” briefly soaring to ecstatic elation.
Translucent and buoyant textures at the beginning of “The Shulamite” suggest the radiance of the beloved’s beauty. The chorus swells and then suddenly retreats, in an extraordinary moment of wordless rapture—as if the lover has been overpowered by this proximity to the object of desire. The stage is then set for the concluding “Epithalamium,” or “Wedding Song.” Against the chastely repeated liturgical plainchant of “Veni sponsa Christi,” Daniel-Lesur builds an overpowering climax—the nature imagery of the preceding movements giving way to the apocalyptic intensity of the divine flame. Le cantique comes to rest on a gloriously tolling, twelve-part exhalation of praise on the word with which it began, “Alleluia!”
The two canticles gathered as part of First Service, written for choir and organ, belong to the Evening Prayer liturgy of the Anglican tradition. Nico Muhly wrote this work in 2004 for Girton and Clare College, Cambridge. According to the composer, his setting of the familiar Magnificat, or canticle of praise announced by Mary, “features an anxious two-note octave in the organ, nervously twitching in anticipation.” The Nunc Dimittis that follows sets the Canticle of Simeon—which, like the Magnificat, is taken from the Gospel of Luke. Its shorter text, Muhly notes, is “one of my favorite things written in the English language.” His setting begins and ends in a gentle, subdued vein. The music gathers momentum for an elaborate treatment of the concluding Gloria Patri before tapering into a peaceful Amen.
Beginning of a Brilliant Career
Tarik O’Regan, who was born in London in 1978, has developed strong ties to the United States (he divides his residence between the UK and New York City). His new opera—based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and slated to premiere next year at Covent Garden—was evolved through years of workshops at the New York-based American Opera Projects, while Chanticleer recently commissioned and premiered his setting of a text by Samuel Beckett. Four years ago, the Master Chorale gave the U.S. premiere of O’Regan’s Dorchester Canticles (conceived as a companion piece to Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms).
O’Regan’s catalogue thus far reveals a particular gift for choral music (last year, Threshold of Night, a Harmonia Mundi release featuring his music for voices and strings, garnered two Grammy nominations). Indeed, Confirma hoc Deus, his first officially published work, was given its premiere in 1997, while he was a student at Oxford, by Edward Higginbottom and the Choir of New College. O’Regan started with a highly ambitious score, using sixteen-part chorus, organ, and timpani to set a series of versicles and responses in the Anglican liturgy. After looking it over, Higginbottom “kindly sat me down and explained that Responses were meant to be functional, humble and, above all, clear to the congregation,” recalls O’Regan. “He suggested I rearrange the work as a Pentecostal anthem for choir and organ (without the timpani!).”
O’Regan proceeded to condense his efforts into an eloquent sequence of brief choral Responses punctuated by organ interludes (in place of the versicles usually sung as solos by a cleric). His harmonic and rhythmic contours subtly evoke a sense of expectant hesitation. The choral and instrumental textures flow back and forth to sustain a meditative mood so that, in the composer’s words, the piece “gently rocks between choral polyphony and organ interjections.”
Martin’s Intimate Spiritual Journey
Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) proved to be well ahead of his time with the Mass for Double Choir. Although the piece dates from the 1920s—at the beginning of Martin’s career—it anticipates the unaffected simplicity and humility of such spiritually inclined composers as Arvo Pärt or Giya Kancheli: qualities that have struck a meaningful chord with audiences of the last couple decades.
Yet the attitude here also hearkens back to the awe-filled reverence of J.S. Bach, a major inspiration ever since Martin’s childhood, when an encounter with the St. Matthew Passion triggered the epiphany that decided him on his future as a composer. Martin grew up in a devoutly Calvinist family (his father was a minister), yet, like the Protestant Bach, he was moved to compose a Mass based on the Catholic liturgy. This creative effort—unprompted by external circumstance—proved to be a very private exploration of faith. In fact, Martin withheld the work from performance for four decades (the premiere didn’t take place until 1963), explaining that he considered the score “a matter between God and myself,” feeling that that “an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.”
Public opinion, however, has gone on to ratify the Mass for Double Choir as one of the outstanding examples of sacred music from the past century. Martin would subsequently evolve his signature style from an idiosyncratic blend of early music, French impressionism, and Schoenberg, but the Mass proceeds with a sense of calm confidence—perhaps a beneficial result of pre-empting the work from public scrutiny at such a young stage in Martin’s development. Certainly he exploits the textural resources of the double choir with effortless mastery and imagination. The design of the Mass is assured as well, with each of its five movements shaped into a pleasing symmetry of similarly condensed proportions, all adding up to a profoundly intimate spiritual journey.
Each movement begins as either a simple chant-like sequence or a sustained pedal from the second chorus. Martin’s writing tends toward a kind of timeless, floating melody that defies the barline’s divisions—as in the opening Kyrie—but at times breaks out in gently dancelike rhythms. The Kyrie and Christe each ascend to a climactic point, pulling the choirs together in unison. Martin plays the multiplicity of voices against their unity in the opening gestures of the Gloria as well, effecting a kind of contemplative resonance. A lightly syncopated pattern suffices to suggest exuberance: Martin uses restraint and understatement where another composer would turn to more obvious accentuation. So, too, in the beautifully interlaced canons—spirals of melody—depicting the resurrection in the Credo. The composer himself regarded his setting of the “Et incarnatus est” as especially successful.
A proto-Minimalist pattern lays the foundation of the Sanctus; bell-like harmonic swaying from the sopranos adds a note of persistent longing for the divine presence. The Hosanna develops the choral analogy with tolling bells to a high-lying climax—the Mass’s most exuberant outburst. All is supplication in the subdued colors intoned by the second choir at the beginning of the Agnus Dei, which Martin wrote in 1926 (four years after the rest of the Mass). He uses the doubleness of the choirs to marvelous effect, with the first choir repeating its sinuous melody in slight variations that build a sense of pathos akin to the later Adagio for Strings of Samuel Barber. The choirs come together in the final plea for peace, ending in a widely spaced chord of G major.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.