DECEMBER 3, 2016 Concert | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894): Suite Pastorale
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.
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.)
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.
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.’”
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!