Category Archives: Finzi

Great Music for Great Words

Program Notes for December 1, 2018 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

An image of the first edition of the King James Bible, 1611

Any list of English-language masterpieces would need to include the King James Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The music on this program was composed to accompany passages, spoken and sung, from these literary Everests.

Paradise Lost, first edition

A portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio edition of his play

Gerald FINZI (1901-1956): Suite from “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Opus 28b

Composition of the Suite
This began as incidental music for a 1946 BBC radio broadcast of Shakespeare’s play. Designated Finzi’s Opus 28, it was scored for a studio orchestra of sixteen instruments. Normally a slow and methodical composer, Finzi had only three weeks to execute the commission. He managed to finish it just in time — at 4:00 AM the day before the performance! Its transparent textures and articulation show that the composer was thinking of what would carry well through the studio microphones out onto the air. He composed additional music a few years later for an open-air staged version that needed musical coverage for the play’s many entrances and exits. Later yet he published four songs from the play for solo voices as Opus 28a and the present ten-movement suite for orchestra as Opus 28b. He explicitly expected theater directors to pick and choose from the movements those that best suited their productions.

The First Folio edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost

When Finzi arranged the Suite for concert performance, the need for balance and contrast among the movements overrode the chronology of the play. Still, it’s possible to find the correspondences between musical passages and specific events in the drama. These major characters are personified at different places in the music:

  • Ferdinand, the idealistic King of Navarre, and his lords
  • The sharp-witted Princess of France and her ladies
  • Armado, a “fantastical Spaniard,” a broadly comic figure
  • Moth, Armado’s saucy page
  • Holofernes, a long-winded schoolmaster

The plot of the play
Watch a tongue-in-cheek animated synopsis:

Ferdinand and the men of his court have sworn to abstain from the company of women for three years in order to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. He’s forgotten that the Princess of France is coming on a diplomatic visit as an emissary of her father, the aged French monarch. When she and her ladies arrive, Ferdinand and his lords fall deliriously in love with them and try to weasel out of their vows. Hypocritical Armado is the worst of all, and his impudent page Moth mocks him at every turn. The ladies are equally infatuated. There follows a typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities, misdirected love letters, overheard soliloquies, a masked ball, and a play-within-a-play, mixing low humor with high-minded, even noble, sentiments. But this comedy ends on an unusually serious note when the Princess is recalled to France by news of her father’s death. On parting, all agree to meet again in a year, if their loves endure. No wedding marches end this comedy, only two minstrel songs as the characters file offstage.

The musical program
No. 1 / “Introduction”: The opening brass fanfare is a flourish to welcome the Princess of France. The noble, gracious music that follows depicts Ferdinand’s court. A twisting, divided cello theme belongs to the “fantastical Spaniard” and troublemaker Armado.

No. 2 / “Moth”: A jaunty solo clarinet theme characterizes Armado’s page Moth, a “strutting, independent small creature.” A melancholy tune for solo viola accompanies a song that Moth sings at the behest of his lovelorn master.

No. 3 / “Nocturne”: This somber music accompanies the news of the death of the French king near the end of the play, so from this point on, the order of movements in the Suite diverges from the succession of events in the play.

No. 4 / “The Hunt” is light and airy music, as if coming mostly from a distance. In the play, the hunt takes place offstage while dialogue continues in the foreground.

No. 5 / “The Dance” is stilted and a bit artificial, in the stately measures of a court ball. The dancers are the masked royals. They mock each other flirtatiously — but they’re all flirting with the wrong people!

No. 6 / The scherzo, “Clowns,” is a quodlibet or medley of themes representing “the pedant, the braggart, the hedge-priest [a poor, itinerant, uneducated clergyman], the fool, and the boy,” characters who stage a play-within-a-play for the entertainment of the royals, somewhat like the play put on by the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The audience of royals mocks the inept performance. After all the foolery, the movement ends with an unexpectedly soft, serious-sounding chord, which is Holofernes “the pedant” chiding the audience for its discourtesy: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” This is the moment in the last act when the mood of the play begins to turn away from farce.

Nos. 7-9 / The three “Soliloquies” are sometimes performed together as a unit without the other movements. Finzi’s original scoring was light enough that actors could speak their lines over the music. The texts are three somewhat overwrought poems that the lovesick noblemen have composed to send secretly to the objects of their affections.

No. 10 / The “Finale” is a rondo, a musical form in which a theme returns several times with contrasting material in between. It depicts the lords disguised as Russians (“frozen Muscovites,” the princess calls them) leaping and whirling and kicking up their heels during the masked ball.

Watch a 1975 BBC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost:

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): The Creation

Inspiration Haydn made lengthy stays in London to present subscription concerts in 1791-92 and again in 1794-95. He was in his early 60s in those years and at the height of his powers and fame as a composer. During these visits he heard Handel’s oratorios and was greatly impressed and moved by them, especially Messiah. Reportedly he wept when he heard the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Libretto Haydn wished to write an oratorio of his own and was encouraged in this ambition by his London concert promoter, who gave him an English-language libretto entitled The Creation of the World. This word-book had been meant for Handel, but he had never used it. Its author is unknown, and no copy has survived. The text is based mainly on the first chapters of Genesis and a few Psalms from the King James Bible and on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, specifically Book VII.

Haydn took the libretto with him when he returned to his home city of Vienna in 1795. He had it translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy Imperial functionary and important musical patron. Van Swieten said that he “followed the general outlines of the original piece” but changed many details when he saw fit. Haydn spent all of 1797 and part of 1798 composing The Creation (Die Schöpfung in German). Van Swieten ensured funding for a series of private performances in 1798 and the first public performance in 1799. It was an immediate popular and critical success and has never left the repertoire in 200+ years.

Portrait of Haydn in 1799

Because Haydn wanted his oratorio to be performed in England as well as in Europe, van Swieten presided over the first known instance of a major musical work published with bilingual text. But Haydn’s music had been crafted to fit the rhythms and phrasing of the German, and van Swieten wasn’t up to the job of making the English text fit well with the music. “It is lamentable to see such divine music joined with such miserable broken English,” was the opinion of one early English critic.

To be fair, Milton’s high-flown language already contained enough inverted word order to make it a kind of Yoda-speak, and van Swieten only made it worse. So for more than 200 years English-language singers and audiences have had to put up with such tangled syntax as “The wonder of his work displays the firmament,” instead of the more natural word order “The firmament displays the wonder of his work,” and “Today that is coming speaks it the day, the night that is gone to following night,” lines that might be intelligible in German, where case endings help clarify the grammar, but which are mystifying in English. Several subsequent translations have tried to repair some of the damage, including the 1957 version by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.

Milton’s plot or “argument”  The archangels Raphael (bass soloist), Uriel (tenor), and Gabriel (soprano) relate how and wherefore this world was first created; that God, after the expelling of Satan and his Angels out of Heaven, declared his pleasure to create another world, and other creatures to dwell therein…; perform[ed] the work of Creation in six days: the Angels [the rank-and-file heavenly host, i.e., the chorus] celebrate with hymns the performance thereof….

The general narrative pattern is that for each day of Creation, the relevant prose passages of Genesis are given by one of the soloists in recitative, followed by a commentary in unrhymed verse either as a solo aria or as an ensemble of soloists, and then there is more recitative leading to a chorus of praise. The choruses that end Part I, which covers Days 1-4, and Part II, encompassing Days 5 and 6, are the longest and grandest.

Word-painting  [For those with scores and a taste for fine detail, movement and measure numbers are given in brackets.]  A striking musical feature of The Creation is its word-painting, AKA “text-painting,” “tone-painting,” or “naturalism.” This is a kind of musical onomatopoeia, where musical passages are made to sound like the thing they represent. It was widely used by composers in Haydn’s day and earlier to evoke the natural world — its scenery, weathers, plants, and animals — and to suggest human characteristics as well.

The orchestral introduction, the “Representation of Chaos,” contains chromatic ambiguity of a kind that wouldn’t be heard again for another 60-some years, in Wagner’s Tristan. In fact, the musicologist Nicholas Temperley points out that the famous “Tristan chord” appears [in the first half of measure 6] very early in the movement. [The pitches are A-flat, D, F#, B-natural, i.e., augmented 4th, augmented 6th, augmented 9th, and the chord is inverted.]

In this video, the “Tristan” chord is heard at 0:47, just before the ascending triplets in the bassoon:

Haydn himself said to a friend, “You have certainly noticed how I avoided the resolutions that you would most readily expect. The reason is, that there is no form in anything in the universe yet.” Temperley regards this rendering of the idea of Chaos as possibly the greatest compositional challenge of Haydn’s career. Seven sketches of the movement survive, showing how much trouble he took with it. The successive iterations show him going farther and farther in postponing “the resolutions that you would most readily expect.”

Haydn showed no one, not even his collaborator van Swieten, the page of score depicting the birth of light [in Chorus mvt1 mm81-89/Orchestra mvt2] until a rehearsal a few days before the first performance. The tonality changes unexpectedly from C-minor to C-major, the dynamic from pp to ff, the texture from unaccompanied choral phrases punctuated by string chords to full forces on the word “light.” Haydn must have known what a powerful moment this would be and have wanted to keep it a surprise as long as he could. Even after the piece had become well known, audiences continued to greet this passage with thunderous applause.

Watch a performance of this movement. Spoiler alert: the moment described above occurs at 2:05:

Here is a sound spectrograph [of m86 choral] at the word “light.” [The horizontal axis represents time, the vertical axis is frequency in Hertz, and the intensity of the color represents the intensity of the relative frequencies.] It shows in graphic form that Haydn created an exact sonic analogue to a sudden burst of great light!

In Paradise Lost, Milton spends many pages casting Satan and his minions out of the realms of light. Haydn dispatches them much more efficiently, needing only part of one aria (“Now vanished”) and one chorus [choral mvt2/orch mvt3]. Wildly churning chromatic scales and slashing staccato arpeggios depict the “rage and horror” of their “monstrous fall.”

In The Creation, Haydn often created a kind of musical guessing-game for his audiences by using passages of tone-painting before the relevant text was sung. For instance, in the accompanied recitative “In shining splendor” [chor12/orch13], the ascending string lines and a crescendo from pp to ff suggest the rising sun well before the tenor soloist has sung a word. Then there is a softer and slower passage to accompany the moon and a measure and a half of tremolando for the shimmering stars.

Illustration by John Martin of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars

The trio “In fairest raiment” [chor18/orch19] has fluid 16th-note passages to “paint” brooks and springs, rapid high-pitched turns and scales to show the flight of birds, and, in the lowest instruments, turns followed by upward-leaping octaves to depict breaching whales.

Movement 21 contains musical portraits of eight different animals:
1. [In measures 9-12] the lion roars in trills played by low instruments.
2. [In mm13-17] a series of rapidly ascending scales depict the “lightning leap of a tiger.”
3. [In mm19-26] a bouncing Presto passage in 6/8 introduces the stag.
4. [In mm28-34] a galloping rhythm portrays “the noble steed.”
5-6. [Mm 40-50] are a pastorale for flute and bassoon, setting a peaceful scene for grazing cattle and sheep. (At the fermata in m53, some soloists have felt entitled to make this line “bleat” a little.)
7. Tremolando strings [in mm54-57] sound like “a host of insects.”
8. Slithering, chromatic cello lines in [mm58-64] mimic the movement of a worm.

This kind of rather literal-minded musical imitation went out of vogue in the Romantic era, when it began to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and naive. In 1859, fifty years after the premiere, Hector Berlioz wrote scathingly of his “profound antipathy” to The Creation:
Its lowing oxen, its buzzing insects, its light in C which dazzles one like a Carcel lamp [a particularly brilliant type of oil lamp]... — they make me want to murder somebody….  I wouldn’t give an apple for the privilege of meeting Eve in the woods; I am sure she is stupid enough to bring shame to the good God, and is just what her husband deserves…

Note that this vitriol came from a composer who was, in his turn, a half-century later deemed “incapable throughout his life of writing a line of music without a text or a programme.” And that critic was Paul Dukas, famed for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a work so thoroughly programmatic that one hardly needs images of Mickey Mouse to follow the story in the music. What goes around….

A performance of The Creation in 1808, honoring Haydn the year before he died. He is seated in center foreground, wearing a black hat. Note the small performing forces.

Composer’s summing-up  Fortunately Haydn was long gone by the time musical fashion moved on. He was proud of the work he presciently considered a masterpiece that would endure and simultaneously humble about his gifts. In response to a fan letter admiring The Creation, he wrote: “A secret voice whispered to me: ‘There are in this world so few happy and contented people, sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source in which the man bowed down by care, or burdened with business matters, will for a while find peace and rest.’”

His labour’s not been lost.

On This Sweet Day

With such a prayer, on this sweet day,
As thou may’st hear and I may say,
I greet thee, dearest….  John Greenleaf Whittier, “Benedicite”

And we greet you, with music colored by all the lights and shadows of the heart, from simple joie de vivre to the elegant traceries of dance to profound meditation: Benedicite!

Josef Reicha (1752-1795)  Parthia in F
This piece for wind dectet (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns) was composed around 1780. “Parthia” is a cognate of the Italian musical term “partita,” which designates a suite of contrasting movements originally based on dance rhythms. Reicha was concertmaster of the court chapel orchestra in Bonn, which included a young violist named Beethoven!

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)  Serenata per piccolo complesso (Serenade for small ensemble)

Painting of a Serenade by Carl Spitzweg

Rossini is known today almost entirely for his operas, but he wrote in many other genres as well, including chamber music. A “serenata” was originally a piece sung and played out of doors in the evening on festive occasions like birthdays or weddings. By Rossini’s time the serenade had become a form of concert music. One reviewer called this one “a well-behaved trifle” because it lacked the pathos and grand gestures of Rossini’s operatic music. It consists of a theme with brilliant variations featuring the first violin, the oboe, the flute, the clarinet, and the cello in turn, with “a rather raucous conclusion for all instruments.”

 

 

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)  Eclogue for Piano and Strings, Op. 10

A painting illustrating an eclogue

Finzi, by contrast, never wrote anything the least raucous or trifling. He began the Eclogue in 1928-29, intending it to be the slow movement for a concerto that he never completed. Its first performance was at a memorial concert in 1957 following his death.  It is “large and serious in spirit, a rapt but not untroubled meditation,” as one commentator described it. The title came from Finzi’s editors (his widow, son, and best friend) as they prepared the manuscript for posthumous publication. An “eclogue” is an archaic form of pastoral poetry, often cast as a dialogue between shepherds. The “conversation” in Finzi’s Eclogue takes place most obviously between the piano and the string orchestra, but it can also be heard speaking back and forth between the higher and lower registers of the piano. The poetic title is especially fitting, for Finzi was a serious student of English literature and especially of poetry, with a personal library of three thousand volumes.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)  Jubilate Deo, arranged by Michael Kemp

Michael Praetorius

Jubilate Deo is a “canon,” a musical form that uses imitation as its organizing principle. One group of voices (or instruments) introduces a melody, and then other voices (or instruments) join and repeat the melody at stipulated regular intervals, creating overlapping layers of sound. The repetitions may go on as long as desired, making canons ideal for processionals and recessionals. Michael Kemp’s arrangement casts Jubilate Deo as a six-part canon, each group entering one measure after the preceding group has begun.

 

 

 

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)  Four Slovak Folk Songs

Bartók recording folk music

Early in his career Bartók collected thousands of folk melodies and folksong texts and made choral arrangements of many of them. This cycle of four short songs arranged in 1917 is the only choral work that Bartók ever composed with piano accompaniment. It was probably intended for amateur singers. The first song is a dialogue between a cold-hearted mother and her daughter, who is despondent at the prospect of being forced to marry a foreigner. The second is a hay-making song, and the third and fourth are dance tunes.

 

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)  Ave Maria

Marian devotions at a wayside shrine

At one point in his career Bruckner conducted a group of male singers, the Frohsinn Society, for whom he wrote his first choral works. The Ave Maria, which is considered his first masterwork, was written for them and first performed in 1861 by the Frohsinn Society with a women’s choral group added. The text is an intercessory prayer to the Virgin Mary that has been used in Catholic devotions since the 15th century.

 

 

 

Randall Thompson (1899-1984)  Alleluia

The “new” Music Shed at Tanglewood

Thompson may hold the all-time record for last-minute delivery of a commission. In 1940 he accepted the task of writing a choral fanfare for the grand opening of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. He was busy with another commission at the time and didn’t begin work on the Tanglewood piece until a week before the opening.  The day arrived, but the promised score did not. A large chorus and its director stood by waiting to rehearse. Finally, 45 minutes before the ceremony, the music was delivered. When the director got his first look at the score, in which the single word “Alleluia” is repeated more than sixty times, he reassured his singers, “Well, text at least is one thing we won’t have to worry about.” By all accounts the intrepid musicians made a very good job of it, and the piece has become Thompson’s best-known work. It is not, however, a fanfare. In that summer of 1940 France had fallen to the Nazis, and Thompson found himself unable to compose anything of a festive sort. He produced instead a slow, serious, introspective anthem. Later he explained, “The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous…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.’”

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)  The Gondoliers

Painting of a gondolier

In the last decade of his life, long after he had retired from composing operas, Rossini wrote what he called with characteristic self-deprecating humor his péchés de viellesse (“sins of old age”). Composing, he said, was for him an addiction; whenever he was in good health, he could not stop himself from doing it. These “sins” amounted to more than 200 pieces for voice, for piano, and for chamber ensembles. Rossini and his wife had settled in Paris, and they held a salon every Saturday evening where the cream of Parisian society gathered to hear music and socialize. The performers were all well-known professionals, and much of the music was Rossini’s own and newly composed. A typical program consisted of twelve or more numbers, of which ten might be by Rossini. To keep pace with this volume of weekly musical consumption, he sometimes recycled songs by giving them new texts and new titles. The Gondoliers is one such.  It was originally a setting for alto voice of a lover’s plaint, Mi lagnerò tacendo, by the poet Pietro Metastasio. Rossini was no poet; his new lyrics clearly show his priorities: “Primo la musica, dopo le parole!” (“Music first, then the words!”). But the song is melodically very appealing, with a declamatory central section and a piano part that is brilliant and technically demanding. Rossini, a stellar pianist, was often the accompanist on these occasions.

Winter Holiday Sounds

DECEMBER 3, 2016 Concert | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894): Suite Pastorale

Edouard Manet painting of Chabrier

Portrait of Chabrier in 1880 by his close friend Edouard Manet

Emmanuel Chabrier was death on other people’s pianos. Yet he was in great demand in the fashionable salons where the artistic and literary avant-garde of Paris congregated in the 1880s. One eyewitness reported, “He played the piano as no one has ever played it before, or ever will. The sight of Chabrier, in a drawing-room full of elegant women, advancing towards the fragile instrument and then playing his España in a blaze of broken strings, hammers reduced to pulp and splintered keys, was indescribably droll, and a spectacle of truly epic grandeur.” One wonders whether the pianos’ owners thought it was quite so droll.

Born in the Auvergne in central France, with its distinctive regional traditions of music and, especially, dance, Chabrier had moved to Paris as a teenager, where he prepared for and entered a career in the French civil service. He studied composition, largely on his own, in his spare time. He was already a formidable pianist. His fellow composer Vincent d’Indy ranked him with Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, which was high praise indeed.

España, the piano-wrecking composition mentioned above, was a flamboyantly percussive warhorse piece.  Orchestrated and transferred to the concert stage, it was a popular sensation, cementing Chabrier’s growing reputation as a composer and affirming his decision to leave his bureaucratic post to devote all his time to music.

Another piano composition, Dix Piѐces Pittoresques, was not only a popular success but also earned great respect from the French musical cognoscenti, who regarded it as groundbreaking. It anticipated, especially in its harmonic language, Debussy and Ravel. Each of its ten movements was dedicated to a different “Mademoiselle” or “Madame.” I have been unable to identify these ladies. Perhaps they were society hostesses. It would be nice to think that the dedications were Chabrier’s way of atoning for the murder of their pianos. Descriptive titles for each piece were supplied after the fact by someone other than the composer, perhaps Chabrier’s publishers, who knew that atmospheric names meant more sales. Chabrier himself had no particular interest in writing tone poems or program music. If his music conjured a particular kind of scene in the minds of listeners, well and good, but that hadn’t been his aim in writing it.

Chabrier orchestrated four of the Piѐces Pittoresques to form the Suite Pastorale in 1888. “Idylle” is a lyrical conversation carried on mainly among the winds. Chabrier said, “I shape my musical rhythms with my Auvergnat clogs,” and those clogs can be heard stamping out the rhythms in “Danse villageoise,” which has the rustic flavor of his native province. “Sous bois” (“In the woods”) is perhaps the most “pittoresque” movement. It evokes the murmur of a gentle breeze in a forest. Over a 16th-note ostinato figure in the cellos, leaping arpeggios form a fragmented melody ornamented with grace notes. The “Scherzo-valse” is a romp that sounds more like a hornpipe than anything we might think of as a waltz, with lots of rushing arpeggiated passages for solo winds. The Suite overall is happy-sounding music, lively and full of contrasts and orchestral color.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956): Magnificat

Finzi never wanted to write a Magnificat. He had spent too many of his student years in the organ loft at York Minster, assisting his teacher Edward Bairstow and sitting through “innumerable dreary automatic magnificats.” In a large cathedral, services that include the Magnificat are sung daily. There are thousands of settings of this text, and not all of them can possibly be distinguished, so Finzi had plenty of opportunity to get tired of them.

York Minster, where Finzi heard too many magnificats

York Minster, where Finzi heard too many magnificats

But this was Finzi’s first commission from overseas, for the combined choirs of Smith and Amherst Colleges. His career as a composer had been interrupted by the Second World War and further constrained by the overwhelming presence of Ralph Vaughan Williams in the older generation of British composers and of Benjamin Britten in the younger. So, hoping for new audiences, Finzi accepted the commission, even though he didn’t feel he could “throw any new light on the words” and even though the deadline was short. He barely finished it in time. He wrote the concluding “Amen” in the car on the way to the post office to make a zero-hour submission to the publisher. (Perhaps this helps account for the fact that the lovely “Amen” is only one page long.)

A painting of Mary chanting the Magnificat

A painting of Mary chanting the Magnificat

The text of the Magnificat is also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary. It appears in the Christian New Testament (Luke 1:46-55), where Mary utters these ecstatic words of praise and gratitude for having been favored by God. It is part of the narrative of Jesus’ nativity. The title is the “incipit” (first word) of the text in its Latin version. In form and content, the Magnificat is patterned on the hymns of praise in the Hebrew Psalter and elsewhere in Hebrew scripture. It is one of the most ancient Christian hymns and has been part of the liturgy of services and daily devotions since the earliest days of the church.  In Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, it is spoken, chanted, or sung as part of the daily liturgy. In Eastern Rite churches, it is sung weekly, and some Protestant churches also use it in worship, especially during Advent services in the four weeks before Christmas.

Consequently there has been a great demand over the centuries for musical settings of the Magnificat. Early on, it was chanted to the traditional Gregorian psalm tones. Beginning in the Renaissance, we find Magnificat settings attributed to specific composers. More than 230 such composers have been identified, from the 14th century to the 21st, and among them they have produced countless Magnificats. Orlando de Lasso alone wrote more than one hundred.

Finzi was specifically asked for a non-liturgical Magnificat, so he didn’t set the Gloria Patri (“Glory Be to the Father”) text that nearly always follows the Magnificat in services. Any solos needed to be sung by members of the chorus, and an organ accompaniment was specified (Finzi later scored it for full orchestra). It was first performed at a candlelit Christmas Vespers concert at Smith College on Dec. 12, 1952. The men of the chorus, who were from Amherst seven miles away, were put to considerable discomfort by their participation. They had to hitch-hike to rehearsals and then back again late at night in frigid December weather. So they well deserved to be featured in the passages Finzi wrote for male voices alone.

Finzi’s setting is characteristic of his choral style in certain ways: frequent metrical changes that faithfully reflect the rhythms and stresses of the text, one note per syllable (except for the melismas on the words “holy” and “Amen”), and broadly-spaced melodies. It is atypical in the extent to which words, phases, and even verses are repeated. The main theme moves up and down over a span of an octave and a fourth. It is stated by the orchestra at the outset and then becomes the choral phrase “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” which appears throughout the piece like a leitmotif but is never exactly the same twice. Finzi introduces new musical material for every verse of the text, not only for the chorus but in the orchestral parts as well, which add another layer of meaning to the words. Notice, for instance, the lilting dancelike figure that underlies “For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden” and the rippling parallel thirds and sixths that accompany “He remembering his mercy.” The musical word-painting is striking in jumpy, emphatic passages such as “He hath put down the mighty” and “He hath scattered the proud.” A long series of descending chords on the repeated word “blessed” is later echoed by an even longer sequence on “forever.” The music reaches such a point of repose here that one thinks it must be over. But after an extremely long pause, there comes a very soft, slow “Amen.”

The English text Finzi used is the version found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Finzi Trust recently commissioned composer David Bednall to extend Finzi’s Magnificat for liturgical use by setting the “Gloria Patri” and the “Nunc Dimittis.” The latter text is known as the Song of Simeon (“Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”), another ancient hymn that traditionally follows the Magnificat. These pairings are familiarly known as “Mags and Nuncs.” The new Finzi/Bednall work was performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester this past July and seems to have been well received, so Finzi’s Magnificat may now have a new life beyond the concert hall. Unlike the “innumerable dreary automatic magnificats” he endured as a student, Finzi’s setting is without question a distinguished one. He reportedly considered it to be no more than workmanlike, but perhaps its warm reception led him to reconsider that judgment, for he thought highly enough of it in the end to orchestrate its accompaniment before he died in 1956. View a short photobiography of the composer.

John Rutter (b.1945): Gloria

Glorias come in three sizes: small, medium, and large. The smallest is the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), also known as the Angelic Song heard by shepherds according to the Nativity narrative in Luke 2:14. The medium-sized one is the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father), also known as the Lesser or Minor Doxology. As long as we’re luxuriating in pedantry, we may as well mention that the name “Doxology” comes from two Greek words: “doxa” (“glory”) and “logia” (“saying”). The largest Gloria uses the Angels’ Song to get started and then continues with a number of non-scriptural but very ancient verses that comprise one of the oldest hymns of praise in the Christian liturgy. This jumbo Gloria, known of course as the Greater Doxology, is part of every musical version of the Mass and has also been set independently by many composers, including Vivaldi in 1715 and John Rutter in 1974.

John Rutter in an interview, Sept. 24, 2012

Rutter’s work was not taken very seriously in his native England in the 1960s and 1970s because his musical language is, as he puts it with some asperity, “rooted in tonality, with now and again an actual tune.” European musical circles at the time were ruled by the advocates of serial and twelve-tone compositional techniques, who had no time for such outmoded concepts as “keys” and “melodies.” So Rutter was happy to receive a commission from the U.S., where music had not proceeded quite so far down the Road to High Modernism and where he believed his work might receive a more sympathetic hearing. The commissioning group was the Voices of Mel Olson, a fine amateur concert choir in Omaha. Olson’s requirements were very specific: he requested a concert work for SATB chorus that would be accessible but challenging; be about twenty minutes long; use a familiar text, preferably a sacred one; have an instrumental accompaniment, but not require a full orchestra, since there was no budget for that many players; require no professional soloists; and have “a positive, ‘upfront’ quality so that a non-specialist audience could enjoy it at first hearing.”

Far from being intimidated or constrained by these specifications, Rutter with typical modesty claims that the piece was practically written for him. He chose the Latin text of the Greater Doxology because of its familiarity and because the language would make it accessible to choirs all over the world. He chose brass choir, supplemented by organ and timpani, for the accompaniment because he believed excellent brass players must be numerous in the American Midwest. He’d heard that there was a strong regional tradition of brass playing stemming from the large number of high school and college marching bands in that part of the country. (Indeed, many who grew up in that era remember that, if you wanted to hold your head up socially but couldn’t be a football player or a cheerleader, you had better be in the band.) Besides, Rutter says, alluding to the Nativity story that surrounds the Gloria in excelsis Deo, “The angels might play harps the rest of the year, but on Christmas night I’m sure they’d be playing trumpets.” And, just to clinch the deal: “Decibel for decibel, you get best value out of a brass group.”

Rutter conducted the first performance himself. He has directed many choirs and founded one, the Cambridge Singers, who are featured on many recordings of his work. He expresses fondness for the thousands of non-professional singers who have performed his compositions through the decades: “The particular thing you get with adult amateur choruses, of course, is that sense of ‘I’ve had a rotten day at the office [but] I’m going to just get rid of it all tonight and go home feeling raised up at the end of my rehearsal.’”

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The Gloria in Gregorian chant, but not the melody Rutter used; the notes go the wrong way

Rutter has said that the three movements of the Gloria roughly correspond to the structure of a traditional symphony, and he describes their moods as “exalted, devotional and jubilant by turns.” He acknowledges the influences of William Walton in the first movement, of Stravinsky in the second, Poulenc in the third, and of Gregorian chant threading through the whole. The very first choral entry, he says, is the most straightforward presentation of the chant melody. (If any curious souls are inspired to ferret out the exact melody he used, they will have their work cut out. The Liber Usualis, the standard compilation of Gregorian chants, in modern notation runs to about 1500 pages, and I have been unable to fathom its indexing system or even whether it has one.) Perhaps something ought to be said about the long series of fourths that ascends through the brass ensemble several times in the first movement. Philadelphia-area listeners may hear in it something resembling the fanfare from “Move Closer to Your World,” the Channel 6 Action News theme. No doubt it’s a common enough device to build momentum and excitement before a big entrance, but in any case Rutter would be unlikely to be troubled by the comparison. He is openly proud of his eclecticism: “It’s not my gift to be an explorer, opening the way to new sound worlds, new kinds of musical expression. I’m more of a magpie. I gather sounds in the air around me and in some sort of way make them my own. I think what I’ve probably been brought into the world to do is to cheer people up. And maybe to bring consolation. And healing [alluding to his Requiem]. [B]ut there’s also a need for joy – which is always there, always waiting to be released into our midst.”

Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947): A Carol Symphony

He was the Leonard Bernstein of his time and place, a frenetically active musical polymath: piano soloist, accompanist, orchestrator, conductor, composer, academic, reviewer, and administrator. He was Music Director of the BBC after the Second World War, the most important musical post in England at the time because of the enormous importance of broadcast music in the cultural life of the nation.

But today the name of Victor Hely-Hutchinson is not well remembered, and the Carol Symphony, composed in 1927, is one of only a few of his compositions that are still performed. One reviewer described the compositional strategy of the Carol Symphony as taking a few well-known carols and “symphonizing them by dissolving them in ostinato figures, of which the chief is a cross between Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’ and an English country dance tune.” This sounds as if it might be faint praise, but the review was in fact an admiring one.

During his lifetime, Hely-Hutchinson was known as a composer of light classics and music for radio, television, and film. He was a brilliant improviser who could extemporize on a theme in the style of just about any composer. During his school days at Eton, he had amused his fellows by improvising musical portraits of them. He captured their personalities so adroitly that no one ever had any trouble guessing who the subject was. This facility shows in the Carol Symphony, where the first movement theme is “Adeste Fideles” in the style of a Bach chorale prelude, the second movement is a scherzo on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in a manner similar to the Russian School of Rimsky-Korsakov or Balakirev, and the finale uses “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and a reprise of “Adeste Fideles” in a contrapuntal style reminiscent of Charles Villiers Stanford. The slow movement is a three-part form, with the outer sections based on the “Coventry Carol” and the central trio on “The First Nowell.” This particular section was used as theme music for a BBC radio adaptation of John Masefield’s children’s book The Box of Delights and again for a film version of the story. The first movement was used on the BBC every morning during the Christmas season throughout the 1940s and 1950s, so many Britons have a nostalgic connection to this music. YouTube shows that people are still using A Carol Symphony as background music for Christmas slideshows, and that is immortality of a sort!