Among the most primal of ancient myths in virtually every world culture is the emergence of light from darkness, or–in more martial terms–the victory of light over darkness. In this sense, light is often the longed-for ideal. Yet, paradoxically, we sometimes want to return to darkness, to enter peaceful sleep or even a peaceful death, or to enjoy pleasures “under the cover of darkness.” Today the Griffin Choral Arts Chamber Choir will explore the wide range of emotions invoked by the theme “Illumination: from Darkness into Light,” in the hope that this music will help us all find some of the illumination we seek, even in our darkness.
Phos Hilaron (O Gracious Light) Plainchant
This chant comes from New Testament Greek, and is the earliest known Christian hymn recorded outside of the Bible still in use today. In English, the title is also often translated as “O Gladsome Light” or “Joyous Light” (although a literal translation might even be “Laughing Light”). The hymn is part of the Vespers (Evening Prayer) liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as in some modern Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran liturgies. The setting sung today is from The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The composer of the setting is Victor Judson Schramm (1944-1984).
The ancient power of the Phos Hilaron is that the hymn sings of the Light of God in a liturgy that also features the lighting of candles (“the vesper light”) as a physical symbol of the dispelling of darkness.
Magnificat (Gloucester) Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Among the most memorable experiences possible for a music lover is sitting in the “choir” area behind the high altar in a cathedral of the Church of England and participating in the late afternoon service called Evensong. Choral Evensong always features the canticles called the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, sung by the highly trained choir of men and boys (and, with increasing frequency, of women and girls) and accompanied by the cathedral’s mighty pipe organ. We have the privilege today of imagining ourselves in such a setting, for we have all the ingredients: an excellent pipe organ and organist, fine acoustics, a well-prepared choir, and a ready and open spirit in the assembled congregation.
The term “Magnificat” is Latin for the first of the famous words (from Luke 1:46-55) spoken by Mary in response to the Archangel Gabriel’s “annunciation” to her that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. In Evensong, the Magnificat is always concluded by the ancient doxology called the Gloria Patri.
Born in Gloucestershire (near the southeastern border of Wales with England) 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.
In 2012 musicologist Paul S. Andrews wrote that Howells’ Gloucester Service “is an early fruit of the wonderful and rather extraordinary outpouring of music for the Anglican cathedral tradition with which Howells revived his flagging career as a composer after the Second World War. Over three decades Howells composed some twenty settings of the evensong canticles. The set for Gloucester Cathedral was one of the first, written as his mother lay dying in his home town of Lydney in 1946. His diary entry for 6 January reads: ‘A lovely day with Mother. F# Magn. and N. Dim. finished while talking to her.’ She died three weeks later. Although the dedication is to Gloucester Cathedral, it was not composed to fulfil a commission, but in the wake of the success of the Collegium Regale set, written for King’s College, Cambridge in 1945 [performed by GCA in December 2010]. In 1950, Eric Milner-White, the visionary former dean of King’s [College, Cambridge] who had encouraged Howells to compose for the church, wrote of having heard the Gloucester canticles twice in ten days at York Minster: ‘The Nunc Dimittis left me in inward tears for the rest of the day; it is true to say that no piece of music has ever moved me in the same way or so much.. . . .We, not I only, found it overwhelming. . . . I personally feel that you have opened a new chapter in church music. [It is] of spiritual moment rather than liturgical. It is so much more than music making; it is experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it.’”
Between his own near-death in 1915 of Graves’ disease and his mother’s death in 1946, Howells endured in 1935 the death of his nine-year-old son from what was believed to be either polio or meningitis. It was only at about the time of his composing [his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings] that he returned to active publishing. Yet, as British journalist Simon Heffer observed of one of the compositions from that time in Howells’ life, “Herbert Howells drew glory from a well of grief.”
In his book The Music of Herbert Howells Phillip A. Cooke, writes, “Ecstasy is a word that succinctly sums up the Gloucester Service—from the opening rising fifths in the trebles, through the astonishing polyphonic dexterity of the Magnificat to the final dispassionate declaration of the ‘Gloria’ from the Nunc Dimittis, ecstatic utterances abound. It becomes an even more pertinent term when one understands that Howells wrote himself of ‘the ecstasy he felt at seeing light flood through the great east window of Gloucester Cathedral.’” Cooke adds Christopher Palmer’s apt observation that the Gloucester Service “sounds like what Gloucester’s east window looks like.” Gloucester Cathedral also boasts one of the most inspiring pipe organs in Britain, further enhancing the combined power of sound and light. The historic Pilcher organ here at First Presbyterian was built by a company that relocated in the 1860’s from England to the U.S. Though small, the First Presbyterian instrument offers a number of the features of basic tonal design of the kinds of instruments for which English church musicians like Howells composed.
Howells’ Mag/Nunc settings are of special interest to GCA Artistic Director Stephen Mulder, who wrote his master’s degree thesis on the subject.
In the Night We Shall Go In Imant Karlis Raminsh, b. 1943
Latvian-born composer Imant Raminsh now lives in British Columbia, having become a Canadian citizen in 1954. “In the Night We Shall Go In” originally appeared as a vocal solo in 1986, but Raminsh re-arranged it in 1997 for mixed choir, cello, and piano. The text is a poem entitled “The Stolen Branch,” by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the 1971 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Kas Tie Tadi arr. Steven Sametz (b. 1954)
From the arranger of this Latvian folk song comes this introduction: “For much of its history, Latvia has been a country occupied by a foreign power. ‘Kas tie tadi’ is a poignant song of the people which reflects their feeling of being orphaned in their own land.”
This somber yet beautiful setting (first sung in concert by GCA in December 2009) reminds listeners of the plight of all the suffering people of the world, especially the victims of poverty and political oppression. The tune (alternately spelled as KAS DZIEDAJA) increasingly appears in Christian hymnals (the Celebrating Grace Hymnal being an exception).
The arranger, Dr. Steven Sametz, is Ronald J. Ulrich Professor of Music at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as well as Artistic Director of the professional choral ensemble The Princeton Singers.
Close Now Thine Eyes Daniel E. Gawthrop (b. 1949)
Composer also of the motet “Sing Me to Heaven” performed by GCA in October 2008, Daniel Gawthrop is a prolific composer whose works have been performed by such diverse choral ensembles as the Gregg Smith Singers, the Turtle Creek Chorale, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The text is by the English poet Francis Quarles (1592-1644), and bears the original title “A Good Night.” Especially around Christmastime (as at the first GCA performance of this work, in 2009) it is tempting to imagine that the “she” in the final line refers to new mother Mary, singing lullabies to her newborn son. But the actual reference is to the personified “smiling conscience” mentioned in line five. Also relevant from the history of English political intrigues of the turn of the seventeenth century is that the “she” is either (or both) the recent memory of Queen Elizabeth I (a benefactress of Quarles’ father) or the Princess Elizabeth (eldest daughter of James I), whom Quarles served as a royal cupbearer in his youth.
An interesting feature of the musical style in this piece is the play of the narrowing and widening intervals between adjacent notes, suggesting the fluttering eyelids of an infant’s unsuccessful struggles against falling asleep.
Nocturnes Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
Morten Lauridsen has been Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for over thirty years. He was named “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2005 and was awarded the 2007 National Medal of Arts, the highest artistic award in the United States. In the latter ceremony at the White House he was lauded “for his radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth.” This latter reference to the “radiance” of his style makes it all the more appropriate that Lauridsen’s music be featured in this concert on themes of the interplay of light and darkness.
In 2005 under the overarching title Nocturnes, Lauridsen published a set of three night-related songs: (1) Sa Nuit d’Été (Its Summer Night); (2) Soneto de la Noche (Sonnet of the Night); and (3) Sure on this Shining Night. In 2008 he added a fourth to the collection: Epilogue: Voici le soir (Night Has Come). The middle two works will be performed this afternoon.
Soneto de la Noche (Sonnet of the Night)
Befitting the most poignant text in today’s concert—again from the master poet Pablo Neruda—we also have perhaps the most dramatic musical setting, ranging with great expressiveness from quiet sadness through ecstatic joy even within that sadness, all exploring the speaker’s opening phrase “Cuando yo meuro” (“When I die”), which becomes that speaker’s “legacy” to the beloved to whom the words are directed. A revealing footnote in the score indicates that Lauridsen changes Neruda’s “muera” to “muero,” no doubt to intensify the urgency of the speaker’s wish, from simply “If I die” to “When I die.”
Sure on This Shining Night
The lyric is from Nashville-born poet and Pulitzer prize-winning fiction writer James Agee’s 1934 poem “Description of Elysium,” from the collection Permit Me Voyage. This evocative text is often used in choral settings, including one by Samuel Barber sung by GCA in October 2010, along with Imant Ramish’s In the Night We Shall Go In, reprised earlier in today’s concert.
In Stiller Nacht Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
This song comes from the second book of a collection of folksong arrangements published by Brahms in 1864. Among his most popular art songs, it is also one of his most enigmatic, with speculation on whose origins and meanings ranging even into such “musicological urban legends” as representing the thoughts of a prisoner during the Protestant Reformation about to be executed the following morning. In fact, the source text comes from Counter-Reformation times, from a devotional poem on Christ’s Passion in the Garden of Gethsemane by German Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee (1591-1665). In characteristic 19th-century fashion, Brahms secularizes the text, featuring the Romantic poetic fondness for the “pathetic fallacy”—the granting of human emotions to animals and even to the inanimate objects in nature.
An interesting feature of Brahms’s musical suggestion of “light in darkness” is his frequent positioning of notes for baritones higher than notes in the same chords for lower tenors, invoking the “lighter” side of bass timbre complementing the “darker” aspects of the lighter tenor voice.
Calme des Nuits Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
This is the first of two unaccompanied chorales opus 68, published in 1883. (The second is Les Fleurs et les Arbres, sung by GCA in its French Romantics concert in March 2013.)
Saint-Saëns was sometimes referred to as the most “German” of 19th-century French composers. Comparatively musically conservative, he was a friend of Liszt and teacher and friend to Fauré. Widely reputed to be the greatest French organist of his time as well as one of the greatest pianists, he was known for the technical virtuosity of his instrumental and orchestral works. But he was equally fond of simple, straightforward composition, as evidenced by this madrigal, which is particularly distinguished by the artful “fit” between the speaking/singing rhythms of the words and the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures of the music. Indeed, the composer was also likely the author of the lyrics, for, like his German counterpart Goethe, Saint-Saëns was one of the great intellectual “Renaissance Men” of the era, interested and highly skilled in a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy and the sciences.
Pilgrims’ Hymn Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)
From the composer’s web site comes the following commentary on the sources and history of both text and musical setting: “In April, 1997 I had a one-act opera called The Three Hermits (based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy) premiered at The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN, . . . [with] four sold-out performances. My friend and colleague, Kathy Romey, conductor of the Minnesota Chorale and also the Head of Choral Activities at the University of Minnesota, saw one of the premiere performances and encouraged me to have the final chorus in the opera published as a separate work. I thanked her for her interest and put off the task. I really like to move on to the next commission and not dwell over any past work. She persisted and eventually I sort of grudgingly adapted and extracted a short choral work from the opera consisting of just the final chorus. I printed up 1000 copies at a local print shop and decided that this would be the first work to be published by my own company – Paulus Publications, Inc. I did it as a favor to Kathy and never expected it to garner any great results. The first 1000 copies sold out quickly and we eventually started printing up 3000 copies and then 10,000 copies at a time. To date the work has sold over 160,000 copies and is the lead seller in our choral catalogue. It has also been sung at the funeral services of both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It pays to listen to your conductor friends!”
And then from text poet Michael Dennis Browne: “Stephen called me over one afternoon in January 1997 to hear his setting of the words from Russian Orthodox liturgy, an evening hymn, that conclude the second scene of The Three Hermits, the church opera, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. The words begin with: “Now that the day has come to a close / we ask Thee, O God.” (Words from the Orthodox liturgy are woven throughout the work.) The music was haunting, memorable. We had been needing a hymn to conclude the work, at the end of scene three, and I intended to write it making use of the words from scripture (Matthew 6, verses 7 and 8) that Tolstoy had selected as an epigraph to his re-telling of the old folk-tale: ‘And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.’ I asked Stephen if he would consider using the same melody at the end of scene three, for which I would write new words. He was uncertain, since it is not customary to repeat a theme in this way, but he ended up playing the melody for me while I recorded it, and so for a week or two after that I went on my walks humming the music to myself and gradually coming up with the words for “Pilgrims’ Hymn” (Stephen’s title, by the way). It was an extraordinary privilege, and challenge, to come up with words that matched, in some measure, Stephen’s very beautiful music. The resulting piece has changed both our lives. . . .. It is a deep joy to both of us that this piece has entered the choral repertory, and that it brings peace and comfort to so many.”
Many Atlanta-area music lovers remember Stephen Paulus as Robert Shaw’s appointee as Composer-in-Residence with the Atlanta Symphony in 1988.
The Third Song of Isaiah (Surge, Illuminare) Cambridge chant
Anglican chants serve as preludes to the Canticles that serve as “bookends” framing the selection and progression of choral works on today’s concert. In this case, the famous “Arise, shine” (Surge, Illuminare) song also memorably used in Handel’s Messiah is sung in a four-part chant that very easily could also be part of a Choral Evensong service featuring Howells’ Gloucester canticles.
Nunc Dimittis (Gloucester) Herbert Howells
In traditional Anglican Evensong the Magnificat is slightly separated from the Nunc Dimittis that follows, each canticle following one of the Scripture readings.
The term “Nunc Dimittis” is also the Latin opening of the biblical narrative (found in Luke 2:22-35) in which a devout man named Simeon witnesses the ritual presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, takes the infant in his arms, and sings of the fulfillment both of prophecy and of his own life. As with the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis (also known as the Song of Simeon) is also always followed by the Gloria Patri.
We Walk in the Light (of God) arr. Dalene Hoogenhout; ed. Kenney Potter
The closing processional is an arrangement of a South African folk chant. Arranger Dalene Hoogenhout is on the music faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she directs the Wits Choir. Further editing the piece is Dr. Kenney Potter, Director of Choral Activities and Music Education at Wingate University, near Charlotte, North Carolina. He is also the son-in-law of Gloria and C.E. (Chubby) Williams of Griffin. His work “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” was sung by GCA in its 2014 October concert.
Program notes by Bill Pasch, © 2015 (except as otherwise attributed), with thanks to Steve Mulder.
Scott Douglas, percussion
Sarah Capps, cello