Fire sent from heaven to consume an altar, a ship carrying two of every creature on earth, ordinary people called to extraordinary tasks… the Old Testament is filled with colorful characters and vivid imagery. Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah tells the story of the rugged prophet who taunted the priests of Baal. Spirituals bring to life the tumbling walls of Jericho and other Old Testament stories. Join us for an evening of music illuminating these ancient times and people.
Tonight, in “heroic” fashion, Griffin Choral Arts begins its second decade with a concert entitled “Old Testament Heroes.” In the Judeo-Christian outlook, “heroes” are often unlikely—perhaps even as part of their heroism. Even when later raised to exalted positions, Old (and New) Testament heroes are typically of low social regard in their worlds: shepherd-boy giant slayers, sometimes social-misfit prophets, women, or reluctant leaders with speech defects. The large number of selections on tonight’s program from the African-American slave-song tradition testifies especially well to the importance of Bible heroes as models for hope, a hope expressed by downtrodden people through their songs with “disguised” longings not only to reach the heavenly “Promised Land” but more immediately to see earthly justice realized.
Also auspicious about a concert given in October 2017 is that this month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and accelerated the European transition from the medieval to the modern. The composer of the major work on tonight’s concert, Felix Mendelssohn, was not only Lutheran but something of a hero in music history for reviving the works of his Lutheran predecessor J. S. Bach that had fallen out of favor in the 18th century. Tonight, heroism abounds.
Elijah Rock Arr. Jester Hairston (1901-2000)
North Carolina-born and Juilliard-educated, Jester Hairston was a versatile and multi-talented musician. In 1961, the U.S. State Department appointed him as a Goodwill Ambassador, enabling him to travel all over the world teaching and performing the folk music of the American slave-song tradition. In the 1960s, he sponsored choral festivals with public high school choirs, introducing them to slave spirituals. Despite his musical gifts, he was (perhaps unfortunately) best known for recurring roles in the television sitcoms Amos n’ Andy and Amen.
The meaning of the lyrics of this familiar spiritual is perhaps more cryptic than in most cases. The “Rock” no doubt functions as a conventional Judeo-Christian symbol for safety and salvation. “The rock where Moses stood” may refer to Moses’s theophany in receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai or to his mountain vantage point in beholding the Promised Land he could never enter. In 2 Kings 2:11 the prophet Elijah is said to have been carried to heaven in a fiery chariot, perhaps explaining the “comin’ up, Lord” phrase.
Elijah (excerpts) Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Elijah (German title Elias) is generally acknowledged to be the greater of the two oratorios by German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. The oratorio form—highly compatible with heroic subjects—is widely familiar, thanks largely to the popularity of Handel’s Messiah (parts two and three of which will be performed by GCA in March). Mendelssohn’s Elijah consists of two parts, and can run nearly five hours if performed in its entirety, so tonight’s presentation is a selection (including some re-ordering) of some of the more appealing excerpts.
Cited in BBC Magazine, among other sources, as a musical prodigy even more exceptional than Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, to a prominent Jewish family of “Renaissance” temperament, including not only bankers but artists and other intellectuals (including his famous philosopher grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn). As in the Mozart family, Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, was also a talented composer and instrumentalist. (Artists also being fallible mortals, a limitation on Mendelssohn’s own heroism—especially to modern historians–was tarnished by his reluctance to allow his talented sister to publish her own compositions.) In 1816 the family converted to Christianity (the Lutheranism dominant in German Protestantism), adding the surname Bartholdy, at least in part as a defense against the strong, centuries-old anti-Semitism in Europe.
Also like Mozart a master of many musical forms, Mendelssohn is equally well known for his choral works, especially the oratorio Elijah. Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the music of J. S. Bach perhaps singlehandedly ensured that Bach’s reputation not only survived but flourished into the future. In the sad pendulum swings of history, it is ironic that, having rescued Bach from obscurity in the 19th century, Mendelssohn was himself nearly forgotten in the 20th century due to Nazi prohibitions against his music, based on his Jewish ancestry.
Mendelssohn’s debt to Bach is clear in Elijah: in the largeness of the oratorio form such as that of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the special object of Mendelssohn’s “rescue effort”; pervasively in a wide variety of musical details; and even more broadly in terms of the traditions of the Lutheranism to which Mendelssohn had converted and which deeply influenced the oratorio on many levels. Starting in 1838 Mendelssohn turned to a close adviser and friend, Lutheran pastor Julius Schubring, for help in outlining the overall concept of the oratorio on Elijah, especially because Schubring had served as librettist for the earlier St. Paul oratorio. Schubring and Mendelssohn differed (respectively) on whether to emphasize devotion or drama in the project, a disagreement that temporarily stalled progress on the work. But in June 1845, the music festival committee in Birmingham, England, invited Mendelssohn to conduct the 1846 festival and to bring a new oratorio with him. Mendelssohn appealed again to Schubring for help with the libretto, and the two then worked closely together to complete the project, based on Luther’s German translation of the bible, including the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. Soon thereafter Mendelssohn had an English translation made by William Bartholomew (the translation still widely used, including tonight). The premiere of Elijah was in English, at the August 1846 Birmingham festival, performed before an audience of 2,000, by an orchestra of 125 players and a chorus of 270 voices. The German-language version premiered in Leipzig, Germany (where the composer lived with his family from 1835 onward), on the composer’s birthday, February 3, 1848, only a few months after his untimely death. All initial performances were to resounding acclaim.
The drama presented in Elijah is based on the Old Testament scriptures 1 Kings chapters 17-19 and 2 Kings chapter 2, focusing chiefly on the encounters between the Israelite prophet Elijah and his king, Ahab, who reigned in the 9th century BCE and who had instituted the worship of the Canaanite deity Baal in place of the God of Abraham. The first excerpt sung tonight features the faithful believer Obadiah, urging the people to repent of their idol-worship. Then follows the dramatic highlight of Part One in the “contest” in which Elijah taunts the priests of Baal to demonstrate the power of their god to light a sacrificial fire. (Lutherans Schubring and Mendelssohn especially may have seen parallels between false gods and priests and the corruption of the 16th-century Papacy.) In Part Two, Elijah flees to the desert to avoid the death sentence clamored for by Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, as vengeance for the deaths of the priests of Baal. Initially in despair at his exile, Elijah is revived by sleep and by angels’ commands to seek divine revelation on Mount Horeb. Thereafter, the restored Elijah returns to carry on his holy work.
Of special note about the music are several features: the soaring lyricism of solo arias such as the opening “If with All Your Hearts”; the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of the interplay between soloists and chorus in such movements as the opening “As God the Lord of Sabaoth”; and the Bach-honoring chorales such as “Cast Thy Burden” and “He That Shall Endure.” The centerpiece movements narrating Elijah’s challenge to the priests of Baal are further remarkable for their sense of humor (albeit perhaps problematic for modern listeners in the call for the priests’ execution), reflected in sudden volume changes and dramatic pauses.
King David Herbert Howells (1892-1993)
Here begins a sequence in tonight’s program of musical selections focusing on David, in his chief Old Testament heroic roles as Psalmist and eventually as King. (The “lineage of David” also extends tonight at least indirectly to the David Childs song about Ruth, David’s great-grandmother.)
Herbert Howells is now esteemed as one of the giants of Anglican church music. He studied at the Royal College of Music under other greats of Anglican tradition: Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry, and Charles Wood. He was also an early admirer of Ralph Vaughan Williams, regarding him throughout life as his mentor.
Howells first published the song King David in 1923, using a text by his friend, fellow British poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). In 1935 Howells also included the song in his larger tribute to his friend, a collection entitled A Garland for de la Mare; Twelve Songs for Voice and Piano.
Of King David musicologist Jeremy Dibble observed in 2001, “With some justification Howells considered King David one of his finest works. De la Mare’s narrative dimension is wonderfully realised in the tonal ‘journey’ from E flat minor, through its relative G flat major, to the second phase of the song framed by a glowing E major. Furthermore, Howells builds into his ‘scena’ (for it is surely larger than the traditional concept of a ‘song’) an impressive matrix of motivic associations, the most conspicuous of which are the progressions of ‘lament’ . . . in the opening bars, transformed and inverted in the E major phase . . ., and the melancholy utterance of the nightingale whose impassioned singing rings out exclusively in the upper register of the piano.”
Ironically, though David is generally regarded by Old Testament tradition as the Chief Psalmist, in this lyric it is the “sorrowful man” King David who calls for the sounds of harps for comfort, suggesting a scene more like the younger David’s role in comforting the troubled King Saul (Samuel 16:23). David turns to the song of a nightingale for the comfort he can’t find in the sound of the harps, the lyric further suggesting that no human psalmist can compare with the “sorrowful” song of the nightingale. The gulf between the two musical “worlds” is described by the music itself, the nightingale’s song bringing in older, modal-based harmonies, suggesting more “primitive” musical powers such as may be found in the realm of nature. Despite the difficulties of bridging this musical gap, the very recognition of the gap is, mystically, of some comfort, ultimately curing King David of his sorrow.
Little David, Play on Your Harp Arr. Jennifer Durham, b. 1965
GCA Artistic Director Steve Mulder heard this piece performed recently by the Gordon State College chorus and liked its “fit” with tonight’s concert focus, as well as the cheerful energy of its surprising harmonic shifts, especially in the four-hand piano part (originally for the composer and her good friend Janette Camantigue but tonight joined by GCA accompanist Cathy Willis).
Local composer Jennifer Durham is a GCA member who grew up in Georgia, mostly in Griffin and Pike County. A piano student of Sidney Melton, she received her Bachelor of Music in piano performance from Georgia State University. She also has a Master’s in Early Childhood Education. She has worked in public school settings teaching music, early childhood, and math up to the high school level. She now works with her husband in his business, teaches a few private students, accompanies several choirs, serves on the music staff at Saint John Lutheran Church in Griffin, and publishes with Swirly Music and other publication outlets.
Although there exist many different versions (and countless variations) of the melody of the African-American song “Little David, Play on Your Harp,” this arrangement utilizes what may be the most common tune.
The Lord Is My Shepherd John Rutter, b. 1945
As Howells’s King David is often thought to be his most popular song, Psalm 23 is usually regarded as Psalmist David’s “greatest hit.” Contemporary British composer John Rutter originally composed this setting for choir and organ in 1978 as a commission for the Chancel Choir of the First United Methodist Church of Omaha, Nebraska. He then added it to his 1985 Requiem (for chorus and orchestra) in memory of his non-trained-musician father, who had died the previous year. (GCA first performed Rutter’s Requiem in October 2011.) Music scholar Steven Ledbetter cites Rutter’s explanation of his dedication of the piece to his father: “I wanted to remember him in music in some way, and preferably in a way that he might have enjoyed and appreciated . . . . It was particularly important in this case to write something that could be appreciated by people everywhere.” (www.heritagechorale.org/pdf/Fall2010ProgNotes.pdf). This quality of touching accessibility is fully reflected in the Psalm 23 movement, and is among the many reasons that the Requiem is widely considered Rutter’s masterpiece.
The Battle of Jericho Arr. George Moses Hogan (1957-2002)
Even after his untimely death to brain cancer Moses Hogan is still considered the Gold Standard among arrangers of African-American spirituals. GCA has sung several of his energetic and imaginative settings over the years.
This traditional hero-admiring song is an apt illustration of the paradox that art and empirical fact represent different kinds of truth, with the decision whether to value one kind of truth over the other left to the eye, or ear, of the beholder. What is probably the most familiar song on tonight’s program tells a story whose details may have no basis in historical fact. Biblical scholars generally agree that the Israelites, under Moses’s successor Joshua, conquered Canaan by attrition over a number of years, rather than through a series of climactic single battles. Trumpet players especially may fantasize about their powers to make fortifications “come tumbalin’ down,” but exciting musical arrangements such as this make moot the question whether the battle of Jericho actually happened this way.
The Song of Ruth David N. Childs, b. 1969
The under-representation of female heroes on tonight’s program is not surprising, given the broader cultural scarcity of such figures, either real or imaginary. Even contemporary critics of “political correctness”—a term originally coined to refer to verbal euphemism (e.g., renaming “garbage collectors” as “sanitation workers”) rather than more broadly to “cultural revisionist” viewpoints in general—may now accept that the word “heroine” has virtually disappeared from modern usage, even though esteem for those heroic qualities, regardless of gender, has not.
According to the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s Israelite mother Naomi emigrated with her husband and two sons to Moab. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi urged her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth to stay in Moab to re-marry rather than accompany her mother-in-law back to Israel. Ruth’s response to her mother-in-law’s plea is the famous lyrical “Entreat me not to leave you” set by many choral composers (and often sung at weddings), including tonight’s setting for female voices and piano composed in 2004 by New Zealand-born but now U.S.-resident composer David Childs. (GCA audiences may recall that Childs was commissioned to compose the Fifth-Year-Anniversary-Celebration anthem You Were the Wind, premiered in May 2012 and reprised by the Chamber Choir in the summer of 2014.)
While on one hand Ruth’s heroism in Jewish tradition is her willingness to convert to the God of Israel, her loving sincerity toward her family as well as to their faith has made her heroic stature timeless and beyond creed.
Bound for the Promised Land Arr. Mack Wilberg, b. 1955
Since 2008 Mack Wilberg has been director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whose enthusiasm and expansiveness of sound inform Wilberg’s arrangements, many of which GCA has sung over the years.
Wilberg arrangements often favor American folk tunes. Although tonight’s text came from British Baptist minister Samuel Stennett (1727-1795), it was by 1835 fitted to the American shape-note tune PROMISED LAND. (The hymn is also known by its first verse, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks [or Bank] I Stand.”) Although many current hymnals offer major-key settings of this hymn (for example, 724 in your pew-rack hymnal), Wilberg captures the ecstatic energy of the shape-note singing style of the tune’s origins by returning to a minor key, reminding us anew that promised lands are no less “happy” or “bright” even in minor keys.
Program notes by Bill Pasch © 2017