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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.