To accompany the video of the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Choruse’s
December 2, 2019 “Not-Quite Winter” Concert found at https://youtu.be/oBNncGVyoFc.
Today’s concert by the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus presents a wide variety of music both old and modern, in varying styles and moods. We start with music of the late 17th century and proceed from there.
Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) has been credited with establishing a truly English style of Baroque music. The first major composer of English opera, he is equally celebrated for his church music. He had a direct influence on his more famous Baroque successor Handel, and has been considered an indirect inspiration to 20th century composers such as Holst and Britten. There is astonishing variety in his vocal music, ranging from rowdy drinking songs to the most solemn sacred music. The Te Deum and Jubilate is one of Purcell’s last compositions, and one of his finest. Despite the use of the proper Latin titles, the texts set by Purcell were in English, from the Book of Common Prayer and Psalm 100 (King James Version). The following description of this piece comes from the Boston Purcell Society web page.
“Composed in a style that was vastly different than the very conservative liturgical settings at the time, Purcell’s settings presented a very modern, even flamboyant verse anthem; scored not only for treble and adult choirs, soloists, strings and continuo, but also for trumpets. One of the most striking aspects of Purcell’s “Te Deum and Jubilate,” is its emotional spectrum, being both fully triumphant and intimate, ideally illustrating Purcell’s skills in compositional device and in word painting. Alternating between grandeur in and the utterly personal (in “Vouchsafe O Lord”), the spacious tutti sections in the full choir and orchestral sections contrast with the gems of chamber movements studded throughout. The vigorous dotted rhythms at the opening are answered by a trio of male voices. The piece unfolds and blossoms from this rhythmic core. The proud dotted rhythms and arpeggios return in the vocal lines again and again in chorus and solo sections throughout the piece. A more intimate atmosphere is created with the alto and bass duet ‘When thou took’st upon thee to deliver man. The “sharpness of death” is enhanced with a diminished chord, and the Kingdom of Heaven is opened with a rising phrase before the two treble voices interrupt in close imitation at ‘Thou sittest at the right hand of God’.” Purcell wrote copious amounts of music for countertenor voice- his favorite, and it is in the intimate “Vouchsafe O Lord,” that we find the heart of the Te Deum and Jubilate. Profoundly pleading for mercy, dissonances pile up in the ravishing sequences in the strings and voice. The piece is made all the more poignant knowing that Purcell himself would suddenly die less than a year later. The scale of this piece is deceptive, as there is truly monumental scope contained in far fewer pages than some sacred works. Perhaps because of his dramatic soul, Purcell leaves us wanting yet more of this majesty.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), born in Hamburg, Germany, studied piano from the age of seven and theory and composition from 13, gaining experience as an arranger for his father’s light (popular music) orchestra. The young Brahms supplemented the family’s income by teaching piano and playing in restaurants and theatres. He began composing music in his late teens, and by the time he was 29 he devoted his life to being a full-time composer. Brahms’ music is a marvelous blend of the warm harmonies and emotional content of the Romantic era in which he lived with the disciplined structure and careful balance of materials perfected by Classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn. His works for chorus have been often part of our concerts, but here we get a sample of his prodigious output for solo piano. The “Romanze in F major” is a late work of Brahms – part of his Six Pieces for Piano (Op. 118) completed in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann. It is a beautifully understated work in A-B-A form. It starts with a theme expressed in octaves, topped with a simple descending countermelody. After some subtle embellishments and a return, it uses the relative key of D-minor to transition to the D-major middle section. A second short transition brings the music back to the original theme and a peaceful close.
“O What Is That Sound” was composed in 1992 by Chamber Chorus Music Director Barry Singer (b.1957), part of a set of pieces commissioned by the Chorus. Wystan Hugh (W. H.) Auden was an English-American poet, playwright and librettist born in York, England in 1907. His writing is noted for its engagement with political and social themes, morals, love, and religion. Auden’s poem “O What Is That Sound” first appeared in a collection published in 1936. It is an eight-stanza ballad, a dialog in which a couple discuss the approach of an unstoppable and presumably evil force. We are not told who exactly the “scarlet soldiers” are. Each frightened query by one speaker is answered with an explanation of some new horror, delivered with a detached smoothness which offers no reassurance. Each stanza indicates an ever-closer approach of the unnamed enemy, until the second speaker abruptly departs the scene, abandoning his partner to meet the arriving evil alone. The music takes the elements of the poem somewhat literally – the inexorable march of the invader is underlined by a left-hand ostinato, which starts almost inaudibly and builds to a thunderous pounding. The questioner’s words are sung by the sopranos and altos, the matter-of-fact replies by the tenors and basses. The rhythmic texture grows more complex with each new stanza. When the last stanza is reached, the piano vanishes, leaving the chorus to finish the story a cappella. Tonally, the music is rigidly attached to an eight-note scale. However, for one brief moment near the very end, the harmony shifts dramatically – only to snap back at the finish.
Jean Berger (1909 – 2002) was a German-born American pianist, composer, and music educator. Born Arthur Schlossberg in the city of Hamm in Westphalia, his initial musical studies were taken at the Universities of Vienna and Heidelberg. The rising influence of the Nazi Party and its persecution of Jews drove the young Schlossberg to Paris in 1933, where he took the French name Jean Berger. An accomplished pianist and emerging conductor as well, he embarked on concert tours throughout the 1930’s, ending up in the United States in 1941. Berger’s initial plan was to return to Paris when World War II ended, but the musical atmosphere and opportunities in the U.S. proved attractive enough that he became an American citizen in 1943 and made this country his permanent home. In 1948, Berger began an illustrious career as an educator, teaching music at Middlebury College, the University of Illinois, and the University of Colorado. He retiring from full-time teaching in 1970, but continued to compose as well as lecture and guest-conduct throughout the world. His composing skills – particularly in writing for choral groups – were in evidence as far back as 1937, and came into full flower once he settled in the U.S. His catalog of choral works is extensive and his music has long been a favorite with amateur and school groups as well as professional ensembles. His style is accessible but always fresh, and his vocal writing displays a masterful sensitivity to the rhythms and emotions of the text. The Six Madrigals were composed in 1958. The madrigal form of choral song, where secular texts are sung by unaccompanied voices in two or more parts, had its heyday in the Renaissance period, but has been used by composers up to the present day. Berger has chosen poems written during the Renaissance and placed his unique musical stamp on them. Philip Sidney’s “My True-Love Hath My Heart” is set as a light-hearted romp with a melody which rises and plummets with the passion of young love. In “I Find No Peace”, the anguished turmoil and despair of Wyatt’s narrator is showcased by the composer’s stark music. “Art Thou That She” reflects the poem’s by alternating a chorale texture for the questions with scurrying canonic writing for the impatient answers. John Skelton’s litany of gardenly praise “To Mistress Isabel” is given a light-hearted, chattering flavor. Lost Is “My Quiet” is a sudden return to a very somber mood – slow steps in the bass give way to forlorn scales and dissonant leaps reflecting the narrator’s tale of lost love. The final poem, George Peele’s “Harvester’s Song” is a tribute to earthly love, and Berger makes the most of it with joyous harmonies and rhythmic excitement – no polyphonic complexities, just an ensemble romp which ends on a sunny note.
Program notes by Barry Singer