CANTOS SAGRADOS- NOVEMBER 17, 2001
Program Notes by Peter Rutenberg Â
In ancient Greece, "Music was credited with divine origins and mysterious powers, and was the pivot of relations between mortals and gods. It was central to public religious observance," says Andrew D. Barker, (in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Third Edition). Similar observations may be made about ancient tribal rites and later religious practices the world over. Thus a program devoted to Sacred Songs or Cantos Sagrados bespeaks 'sung music' as a distinguishing feature of civilization from its origins.
The relationship between music and the divine was never more robust than during the European Renaissance, and never more sublimely so than in the hands of the great Burgundian composer Josquin. As with many composers, he spent his musical youth in Italy- first in Milan, then in the Papal Choir from around 1486. After the turn of the 16th century, he returned to France and formalized a long-time relationship with the Ferrara court as its highest- paid singer. A number of masses and motets are thought to have been completed during this time. Josquin's mature style shows an exquisite mastery of modal counterpoint, word-driven phrase structures, and his trademark penchant for vocal pairings ("duets") that stand out from thicker vocal textures. In his later years, as with so many composers, there was a certain consolidation or paring away of accumulated stylistic traits in favor of simpler, earlier approaches. In the case of the Missa de Beata Virgine, Josquin discarded the elaborate thematic treatments of his middle period for the most basic of models." Paraphrased plainsong is the main constructional principle, but it is handled now with a serene mastery that fully explains why this mass became the most popular of all Josquin's masses during the 16th century." That's how the eminent musicologist Gustave Reese explains what turns out to be, in all probability, a setting culled from a variety of sources and inspirations, written at different times, and most importantly, not conceived with the stylistic unity normally associated with works of this period. The first two movements are for four voices, the remaining three for five. Keys and vocal registers change radically: the Credo is unusually low, the Sanctus, by stark contrast, unusually high. The Gloria is "troped" - that is, infused with extra words that enhance the standard text, in this instance with reference to Mary. All these differences yield a work of surprising introspection, freedom, sparkle and elan.
Gyorgy Ligeti's Lux Aeterna, from 1966, creates its own frame of reference. In 1968, for the first time, audiences en masse heard -in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey - a work of avant-garde choral music and loved it! The transporting qualities of the Lux Aeterna, the untethered nature of its soundscape, are due in large part to the fragmentizing of several elements - the standard chorus, the regular rhythmic pulse, and the standard melodic scale - the musical equivalent of splitting the atom. Each of the four voices is divided into four subgroups for a total of 16 parts. The tempo is slow, but each pulse is subdivided simultaneously by different voices into three, four or five fractions, causing a sense of rhythmic randomness. The soundscape is further shaped by tone clusters whose overtones create what might be called an 'audible' version of the Harmony of the Spheres, an ancient musical metaphor first formalized in sacred Jewish thought as the heavenly bodies hymning praise to the Creator in their orbits. These elements all combine to create the deep-space-other- world-ness that is the crux of this work.
From his post in Vienna, Johannes Brahms had a grand view of all that was exciting and new in the musical world. Some of what was "new" was, in actuality, old. The first efforts toward the rediscovery and revival of older music, what we now call historical musicology, were being made in Brahms' virtual backyard. He delved aggressively into the works of J. S. Bach and Palestrina, mastered their lessons in counterpoint (already a prominent feature of his style), and incorporated their techniques and inspirations into his own works. The Two Motets, Op. 29, completed in 1864, took advantage of this new-found connection to music history. Es ist das Heil begins with a Bach-inspired Brahmsian harmonization of the chorale tune, segueing into a rigorous counterpoint, with the melody in the bass voice. The result is a commanding and affirmative statement. Regarding the second motet, biographer Michael Musgrave points out that "there exist examples where Brahms seems to hide his brilliant contrapuntal gifts ... The first and third sections of Schaffe in mir Gott conceal respectively a canon by inversion between the outer parts and a canon at the seventh below, both adopting a lyrical and reflective manner in response to the text ... and giving no hint of their art. By contrast, the second and fourth movements rival the other motets in contrapuntal ingenuity ... " (The Music of Brahms).
Argentine composer and national icon Alberto Ginastera is not as well known in this country as his music warrants. The highly regarded Lamentations of Jeremiah from 1946 are for mixed chorus of 4-8 parts, in three contrasting movements. The piercing anguish of the opening O vos omnes is portrayed through a series of abrasive grace notes, followed by a rigorous fugue and an array of 'hammer' chords, until the opening material returns, now marked tutta Ia forza! The grieving imagery of its closing text finds a unique expression in the last 16 measures, where the sopranos are silent and the harmonies droop ever lower. The interval of the fourth figures prominently in the melodic language of the final movement: two themes intertwine - one in slowmoving, even notes, the other, more active and angular. Following a broad statement of spiritual "return" at convertere, a brief, dosing fugue in more positive tones does indeed 'return' to the original slow theme. It is ferociously fast now, leading to an explosively climactic cadence.
James MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Choir and first performed in February 1990 in Edinburgh with Colin Tipple conducting. The composer describes the 'Cantos' in these words: "In writing this work I wanted to compose something which was both timeless and contemporary, both sacred and secular. The tide is therefore slightly misleading as the three poems are concerned with political repression in Latin America and are deliberately coupled with traditional religious texts to emphasize a deeper solidarity with the poor of the subcontinent. It was my interest in liberation theology which made me combine the poems of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina with the texts of the Latin mass in Búsqueda (an earlier music-theater work) and has now led me to attempt a similar synthesis of ideas in Cantos Sagrados. The voices in Ariel Dorfman's poems belong to those who suffer a particular type of political repression: the 'disappearance' of political prisoners. Ana Maria Mendoza's poem about the Virgin of Guadalupe tackles the same problems by asking a more fundamental cultural and historical question."
This program's alternating themes of introspection and liberation come full circle with the tranquil mood and subtly astringent harmonic undulations of O sacrum convivium! by Olivier Messiaen. The moments of repose and contemplation it offers have been a treasured part of the choral repertoire since 1937, and brief as it is, it seems to sum up all that has come before.