Double Take 2

We are pleased to finally be presenting this concert today.  Originally scheduled for March 15, 2020, it was canceled just days before.  This afternoon’s program explores how different composers were inspired by the same text.  Some texts, like “Ave Maria” for example, may have hundreds of settings, while others, such as “Sure on This Shining Night” have only a few.  Some of the pieces presented today are pillars in the choral repertoire, while others are more obscure.  In most of the pairings, we present an iconic setting of the text alongside a newer or lesser-known arrangement.  It is our hope that you will find the contrasts engaging and interesting.


     Our first pairing is based on a single word.  Alleluia quite simply means “Praise the Lord” and descends from Hebrew.  The listener is invited to contemplate the range of emotions composers Sven Lekberg and Randall Thompson explore through their particular compositions.  Though both composers lived in America at exactly the same time (1899-1984), their settings of this text are quite different.  Both versions play with tempo and dynamic to give interest and expression to the repetition of the word.  Both explore the rhythmic variations fitting the four syllables and key shifts that create an interesting tonal palate.  But the similarities end there.

     Sven Lekberg (1899-1984) was born in Chicago.  He studied at Northwestern University and with Paul Dukas in Paris.  Most of his career was spent at the University level, serving as Dean of the School of Music at Augustana College, Illinois, and later, as the chairman of Division of Fine Arts at Simpson College, Iowa.  His compositional output is quite small and is limited to art songs and sacred vocal works.  His Alleluia is a hidden gem.  Beginning with a fanfare that shifts between A Major and C Major, the opening section is energetic and joyful.  The middle section relaxes a bit and settles in the key of F Major before a shortened version of the first section returns to conclude this jubilant anthem.  The piece was published in 1975.

     The Alleluia of Randall Thompson (1899-1984) likely needs no introduction.  It is without question his best-known piece and, for many, a favorite from the whole of a cappella repertoire.  Though it was commissioned for a celebratory occasion – the opening of the Berkshire Music Center in 1940 – Thompson’s setting is melancholy and contemplative.  The commission came just days after France had fallen to the Nazis and that weighed heavily on the composer as he was writing.  Thompson himself described the piece as

…a very sad piece. The word “Alleluia” has so many possible interpretations. The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous. It is a slow, sad piece, and…here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

     Randall Thompson was born in New York.  He studied at Harvard and served on the faculties of the Curtis Institute, Princeton and Harvard (where he taught Leonard Bernstein).  He is best known for his choral compositions, including The Testament of Freedom, Frostiana, and The Nativity According to St. Luke.

Sure on This Shining Night

     The poem, Sure on This Shining Night, was written by Pulitzer-prize winning author, James Agee (1909-1955) from Tennessee.  It appears in his only poetry collection, Permit Me Voyage from 1934.  The text, though not well-known, has been set to music by prominent choral composers such as Z. Randall Stroope and René Clausen, in addition to the settings by Morten Lauridsen and Samuel Barber featured on this program.

     The living American composer, Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943), used Agee’s poem in his choral song cycle, Nocturnes, published in 2005.  A Washington native, Lauridsen teaches composition at the University of Southern California.  In 2006, Lauridsen was named an “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts.  His choral pieces have been recorded by acclaimed groups such as Conspirare, Polyphony and Los Angeles Master Chorale.  His setting of Sure on This Shining Night is characteristic of Lauridsen’s harmonic language, being firmly anchored in a key with frequent dissonances.  The first two stanzas of Sure on This Shining Night begin with beautiful melodic lines sung by the men in unison.  The women repeat the melodies while the men provide supporting harmonies that build to the climactic third stanza.  Each voice part is given expressive vocal lines that are rewarding to the singers and audience alike.

     Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is one of America’s great 20th century composers.  A product of the Curtis Institute, Barber composed for nearly every genre.  His best-known compositions include Adagio for Strings, his Violin Concerto, the opera Vanessa and his song cycle Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  The first version of Sure on This Shining Night was written for vocal solo and piano, and was included in his Op. 13 in 1938.  Later, in 1961, Barber arranged it for choir and piano.  Like the Lauridsen setting, Barber’s version is lyric with each voice part enjoying expressive melodic material, often in imitation.  The melody and accompaniment from the solo version are reused almost exactly. Essentially in ABA form, the melody is presented by the sopranos, until the tenors take it at the return of the A section, passing it to the altos for the final phrase. 

Simple Gifts

     Simple Gifts has become one of America’s most recognized songs.  The song originated in 1848 as a Shaker Quick Dance attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr.  Some of the lyrics include instructions for the dance – “to bow and to bend” and “till by turning, turning we come round right”—as well as encouragement for living according to Shaker principles.  Aaron Copland used the popular song in his ballet, Appalachian Spring.  The song has been used as the basis for countless arrangements, often with added lyrics.  Both settings presented today retain the original one-verse text, although the Chilcott setting uses an alternate title.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down, where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

     The settings of this text we sing today could not be more different.  The Clausen version is quite complex in its texture, with extended counterpoint and canonical treatment while the Chilcott version is in a much simpler, almost pop style.

     Dr. René Clausen (b. 1953) has recently retired as the conductor of the world-renowned Concordia College Choir in Moorhead, Minnesota.  He has written over 100 commissions for groups such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Kings Singers and the American Choral Directors Association.  Simple Gifts is among his earliest publications.  Written for the Concordia Choir, the piece shares some compositional devices with his All That Hath Life and Breath which Voces Novae has sung many times -- the melody is predominantly in the soprano voices which divide into as many as three parts; the lower voices often provide a thick contemporary harmony; and the use of aleatory (where individual singers freely choose their own timing and pitch motives) near the end.  This arrangement has much detail for the listener to take in.

Bob Chilcott (b.1955) is among Britain’s most prolific choral composers and conductors.  He has strong ties to King’s College, Cambridge, singing in the choir as a boy and young man.  He was a member of the renowned King’s Singers for twelve years.  His compositions are appealing to singers and audiences alike.  His setting of The Gift to Be Simple was written for the King’s Singers and was published in 1989.  It is the most straight-forward arrangement on our program today, reflecting the theme of simplicity of which the text speaks.

Ubi Caritas

     Shifting to a much older source, Ubi Caritas is a Latin, liturgical text sung during the washing of feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday).  The original plainchant was likely written in France in the 10th century.  Other usages of this text include communion and weddings.  Only the first verse is used in the settings presented today.  

Where there is charity and love, God is there.
The love of Christ has gathered us together.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Let us fear and love the living God.
And let us love one another with a sincere heart.

     Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) was a French organist and composer.  Duruflé’s musical roots were in church music, first as a choir boy and then as assistant to the great organists, Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne.  Duruflé studied at the Paris Conservatoire and worked under Vierne at Notre Dame Cathedral before accepting his own position at St. Etienne-du-Mont where he stayed throughout his career.  While not a prolific composer, Duruflé composed a handful of well-known choral and organ pieces, most notably his Requiem.  His setting of Ubi Caritas comes from Four Motets on Gregorian Themes written in 1960.  The 10th century plainchant is used as the basis for this motet and is presented antiphonally by the women over a supportive chord progression by the men.  This short, a cappella piece is gentle and reverent, placing the text as the most important element.

     Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) is one of today’s most popular choral composers.  Gjeilo studied at the Royal College of Music in London, the University of Southern California and the Julliard School of Music.  Today, Gjeilo lives and works in New York City as a composer and pianist.  His setting of Ubi Caritas is not based on the plainchant, but definitely utilizes the chant-like qualities of text-based metrical shifts and melodic rise and fall. The stepwise melody is introduced simply, first by the sopranos, then the altos, followed by all voices in unison.  Cadence points are enhanced by contemporary harmonies.  Like the Duruflé version, Gjeilo’s setting is intimate and beautiful, reflecting the theme of the text.

Cantate Domino

     The text for Cantate Domino comes from Psalms 96.  A joyful text about singing, it has been a popular choice of choral composers for hundreds of years.  Our pairing will span four centuries and will include three languages.

Sing to the Lord a new song.
Sing to the Lord all the earth.
Sing to the Lord and bless His name.
Announce His salvation from day to day
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all people.

     Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) is considered a master of the late Renaissance.  German-born, Hassler became a virtuosic organist under his father’s teaching.  He left Germany for a time to study with Andrea Gabrieli in Venice.  Hassler brought the Italian style back to Germany when he returned in 1586 and undoubtedly influenced the next generations of German composers – including Heinrich Schütz, Michael Praetorius and J.S. Bach.  Hassler was prolific in both sacred and secular arenas, composing motets, masses, madrigals and many instrumental works.  He composed at least two settings using this text – one for four voices and another for five voices.  We will perform the four-voice setting, one of his most popular motets, which dates back to 1601.  Alternating between homorhythmic and contrapuntal writing, the short motet epitomizes the late Renaissance.

     Josu Elberdin (b. 1976) is not a familiar name among American audiences, although he is enjoying some international acclaim.  Elberdin is a teacher, organist and composer in his birthplace of Pasaia in Spain.  His setting of Cantate Domino, written in 2011, incorporates the traditional text from Psalm 96 and adds in a few verses from Psalm 98 that refer to singing psalms and praising with the harp.  A unique feature of this piece is that it uses three different languages to deliver the text – English, Latin and Basque (a language spoken in northern Spain and southwestern France).  The composer describes the piece this way, “After a stately opening reflecting the deep sense of joy that comes from singing to God, the composition breaks into a joyful and exuberant Basque text interspersed with Latin.   After the last reprise, the coda is repeated, finishing strongly and energetically.”

Ave Maria

     The next pairing features two choral favorites using the well-known liturgical text, Ave Maria. The oldest text in our program, parts of it date back to the 5th century as an antiphon for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  With the addition of the last portion in the 15th century, it has become a traditional Catholic prayer. The text features three characters.  First the Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary. Next, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, greets her and calls her “blessed among women” recognizing that she is carrying the Christ child.  The final segment pleads with Mary to intercede on our behalf.  Choral composers throughout history have chosen to set this beloved text, yielding hundreds of compositions.

     Franz Biebl (1906 – 2001) was born in the Bavarian region of Germany.  He was a church musician and taught at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.  Most of Biebl’s compositions were written for German community choruses.  His Ave Maria, written in 1959, is his best-known work, but was largely unnoticed in Germany.  It wasn’t until the Cornell University Glee Club met Biebl on tour in 1970, that the piece was brought to the U.S.  When the male professional ensemble, Chanticleer performed the piece in 1989, the piece gained tremendous popularity with choirs across the country and in Europe.  The original version was for a double choir of male voices, but in 1985, Biebl created two different mixed choir versions (SAT/SATB and SAA/TTBB).  Biebl’s setting merges texts from the Angelus (sung by soloists) with the traditional Ave Maria (sung by the chorus).  The composition is based on plainchant style, though no specific chants are used.

     Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) included the Russian Orthodox text of Ave Maria in his All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, composed in 1915.  The fifteen liturgical movements are considered the greatest examples of Russian Orthodox Church music and are also among Rachmaninoff’s finest compositions.  Bogoróditse Dévo begins with a hymn-like quality in four parts.  The texture expands as a divided alto section takes the melody while the sopranos and tenors hover on an ethereal counter-melody.  As the basses join the altos on the melody we encounter perhaps one of the most dramatic crescendos in all of choral music before the piece settles down to a hushed close.

A Jubilant Song

     Walt Whitman’s “A Song of Joys” from Leaves of Grass is the source text for A Jubilant Song, our final pairing.  Both Scott Farthing and Norman Dello Joio freely adapted parts of the lengthy Whitman poem for their compositions.  Both composers included key phrases from the original and constructed their lyrics to reflect the overall intent of the poem. 

     Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) was a prominent American composer of the mid to late 20th century.  He studied composition at Julliard and with Paul Hindemith at Yale.  His body of work spans vocal and instrumental genres, including opera and ballet.  Many awards were presented to Dello Joio including a Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy.  Dello Joio published A Jubilant Song in 1946, the year after World War II ended.  The setting is celebratory with a reflective middle section.  Energetic rhythms, tonal shifts, open 5ths and minimal use of triads are noticeable characteristics in this extended piece.  The piano functions as an equal partner with the choir, sometimes becoming soloistic in its role.  A Jubilant Song is an explosion of energy and joy in a distinctly American musical style.

     Scott Farthing (b. 1969) is a conductor, composer, pianist, church musician and teacher in Southern California.  Dr. Farthing studied under Eph Ely and Charles Robinson at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory.  His A Jubilant Song was composed for a Chancellor Inauguration at UMKC in 2000 and is a fitting closing to our concert as it beckons the audience to share in the joy of song.

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