The Last Words of David – Randall Thompson (1899-1984)
American composer, Randall Thompson, is best known for his choral music which is lush and lyrical. Often using Biblical texts, Thompson found the text of our opening piece tonight while leafing through a Gideon Bible in a hotel room during his travels. It sets the tone for the theme of our concert: what is required to find harmony in our troubled world.
The text is from 2 Samuel 23: 3, 4, and said to be the last words ever spoken by King David in the Old Testament (1000 BCE). “He that ruleth over men must be just, Ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; As the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain. Alleluia. Amen.” In a few strong strokes, a portrait is drawn of an ideal king, ruling with justice, guided by reverence of God. Verse 4 depicts the blessings of his reign: green grasses clothe the dry earth after sunshine and rain—an image of the perfect rule of an ideal king upon a hard and desert world.
Magnificat – Francesco Durante (1684-1755)
Often attributed to Durante’s famous student, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, his Magnificat presents a skillful blending of the new “galant” style with the older Baroque style.
The Magnificat text, from the book of Luke and modeled after the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, can be seen as an ancient social manifesto describing a new world order.
In six sections, Section I, Magnificat, opens with the sopranos presenting the ancient Gregorian chant melody, leaping from voice to voice with elaborate running passages.
Section II begins with a dialogue between sopranos and altos on the text Et misericordia (and his mercy is on them), only to be interrupted by the chorus commenting forcefully, Fecit potentiam (he has showed strength and scattered the proud).
In Section III, Deposuit potentes, the chorus again makes fervent comments (he has put down the mighty and exhalted the lowly), to be followed by a more gentle second statement, Esurientes (he has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty).
In Section IV, Suscepit Israel, basses and tenors describe God’s assistance to Israel.
Section V, Sicut locutus est, begins as call and response, one voice stating the text which is echoed by the other voices. All voices come together solemnly in the Gloria.
The composition comes full circle in Section VI, Sicut erat in principio (as it was in the beginning). The sopranos present the same melody they sang in the first movement. The work concludes with the vibrant intertwining of the texts Et in secula seculorum (world without end) and “Amen”.
Symphony No. 3: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Op. 36, Movement II, Lento e Largo – Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)
In 1973, Górecki learned of an inscription scrawled on the wall of a cell in a Gestapo prison in southern Poland. Written by a young 18-year-old woman in 1944, it read O Mamo, nie płacz, nie… (Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always). The composer recalled, “The whole wall was covered with inscriptions screaming out loud: ‘I’m innocent’, ‘Murderers’, while here is an eighteen-year-old girl, and she is so different. She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself. Instead, she only thinks about her mother: because it is her mother who will experience true despair. This inscription was something extraordinary.” At the end of the movement, Górecki repeats the opening phrase of the Ave Maria in Polish on a single note.
Sacred Heart (Ubi Caritas III) by Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo (Yay-lo) (b. 1978), is a setting of the second stanza of the Ubi Caritas text, an ancient Christian hymn from around 200. Accompanied by strings, Gjeilo’s desires them to be a full partner to the choir in the overall sound. KSS performed his evocative Sunrise Mass last season.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. (This phrase is repeated over and over by the choir.)
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur: Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus. (Sung by the basses and sopranos.)
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites. Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body, Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease. And may Christ our God be in the our midst.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was 64 years old when he wrote Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936; however, the images of war remained vivid in his memory from his service as an ambulance driver in France during World War I (1914-18), in which over 8.5 million people perished. He compiled the text as a scrapbook of quotations (scriptures, mass, poems by American poet Walt Whitman) relevant to all that he had seen about the senseless violence of war.
Intended as a warning at a time when Europe was moving toward another war, it is a work of enormous passion, overtly honest, but filled with humanitarian warmth and the splendour of his vision of peace. Three poems by American poet Walt Whitman are framed by words from the Latin Mass, the Old Testament prophets, and the famous House of Commons speech made during the devasting Crimean War by John Bright. Walt Whitman served as a nurse in the American Civil War and was famous for his groundbreaking poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. His poetry held a deep fascination for British composers in the late 19th century. Vaughan Williams was introduced to Whitman as an undergraduate at Trinity College in 1892. “I’ve never got over him, I’m glad to say,” wrote the composer at age 85.
Dona Nobis Pacem
I. The cantata opens with a soprano solo offering an apprehensive “Agnus Dei.” The chorus joins in a fervent cry for peace. In answer, distant drums sound, the harbinger of war.
II. War erupts: nothing and nobody is inviolate. “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, a Whitman poem, articulates the fear and violence that destroys peaceful daily lives. Merchants and scholars disappear while others pray, weep, and entreat, but mind them not! Instead, sweep everyone into war’s unremitting violence. In the end, the speaker commands the music to be so loud that it even wakes the dead. The humanity within the poem dwindles from first stanza to last, expressing that war affects everything, even taking our very humanity from us.
III. “Reconciliation” (Leaves of Grass), sung by the baritone soloist, is the “Word over all”, the word that covers all wounds and suffering and death, and to Whitman, is “beautiful as the sky.” He powerfully indicates the self-serving mythology believed by peoples at war, that the enemy is savage and the embodiment of evil, masks the far more unsettling truth that the enemy is made up of people much like oneself. We feel the end of the war in the man lying there, making this among the most loved of Whitman’s poems.
IV. More drums, but this time the drums are not of war but of its aftermath—death and burial. “Dirge for Two Veterans” was written by Vaughan Williams as a young man and he included it without change in the cantata. The Whitman poem describes the funeral procession of a father and son who died in battle. In the end, Whitman does not reflect upon the suffering, but chooses, instead, to pay tribute to the fallen by giving them what he can – his ‘love’.
V. The text of “The Angel of Death”, sung by the baritone, is from renowned English orator John Bright’s 1855 lament to the House of Commons about the militarily incompetent Crimean War (600,000 dead). It refers to the Angel of Death In the book of Exodus, which swept through Egypt, killing the first born of any household that does not have its doors painted with the blood of a sacrificial lamb (the story of Passover). The chorus bursts into another cry for peace from the prophet Jeremiah (“We looked for peace, but no good came”), but only more trouble rolls across the land with apocalyptic visions of the horses that could be heard all the way to Dan. Vaughan Williams sets these cries in a strict, unbending canon between the women and the men to show no mercy. This, however, is dispelled by one of the work’s most magical moments, the solo baritone’s reassuring:
VI. ‘O man, greatly beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee’. In the last movement, Vaughan Williams compiles several biblical phrases urging communal action for peace. “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. And none shall make them afraid, neither shall the sword go through their land. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” This final paean to the strength of character needed to lay down arms gives us hope and inspires us. Repetitions of “and on earth peace, goodwill toward all” ring with joy. Only the soprano soloist’s “dona nobis pacem” which floats hauntingly overhead sounds a warning that brings us back to the work at hand, reminding us that peace and harmony are elusive and in constant need of tending. We have the capacity for reconciliation, the spine to stand up to tyranny, and the ability to achieve the “new heavens and the new earth” that lie beyond.
—notes compiled from several internet sources