Musica Sacra

Double-takes: One Text, Two Perspectives

How do different composers interpret the same text?

Saturday March 12, 2011 at 8:00 PM

Discover how one text can inspire two composers to create vastly different music. We've picked five texts, each interpreted by two composers; which take will resonate with you?

Among the comparisons are Ave Maria by Josquin and Biebl; When David Heard by Whitacre and Tomkins; and Psalm 51 by Brahms (Schaffe in mir, Gott) and Allegri (Miserere).

Describing the repertoire for this concert, Artistic Director Mary Beekman says, "This program juxtaposes choral favorites such as Josquin's 'Ave Maria' and Bach's 'Lobet den Herrn' with less known but equally gorgeous works from the choral repertoire. You may be surprised to find that Brahms' uplifting 'Schaffe in mir, Gott' uses the same text as the achingly somber Allegri 'Miserere.' Lovers of the English Tudor period will be delighted to find Tomkins' 'When David heard' on the program, while afficionados of Eric Whitacre's new directions in choral sonorities will be thrilled to hear a live performance of his 21st-century interpretation of that same text. Audience members will hear old favorites and maybe find some new ones!"

Venue

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Concert Program Notes

The idea of a concert in which we present two settings each of various texts has always intrigued me, and tonight we bring this concept to life. I find it fascinating to see how a text inspires a composer, and what better way to really get a sense for that inspiration than to contrast it with another composer's take on the same text? So, tonight you will hear five Biblical texts in the first half of the concert that recur in the second half with different authors for each. Besides being an excuse to present some of the most beautiful music in the choral repertoire, it will allow us to examine the various ways in which music elucidates emotion.

The two settings of O vos omnes provide the most startling expressive contrast of the evening. The Correa setting is more consistent with the other numerous settings of this work that have been created over the centuries. Its slow pace and minor key, along with the copious use of suspensions, where one vocal part delays resolving its note to the new harmony, create an atmosphere of deepest sorrow that seems the obvious choice for a text in which we are asked to see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow. Taken from the Book of Jeremiah, this text was used in the Service of Tenebrae during Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday, in which Christians commemorate the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, and Easter, in which they celebrate Christ's resurrection from the dead.

The mood of Ginastera's setting, on the other hand, is one of frenzied grief. I love this setting for that reason; it is the only setting I know of in which the composer is inspired in this manner, and it is extremely powerful. The interval of the perfect fourth in the women, arrived at by moving in by half step from a stressed attack on the fifth, paints a musical representation of a shrieking wail. The intensity of this wail increases by their then taking this motif into a higher register. Alberto Ginastera, an Argentinean composer, wrote his Lamentaciones de Jeremias Propheta, of which O vos omnes comprises the first part, in 1946 while studying with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood.

The fact that Ginastera could provide such viscerally wrenching music for O vos omnes and expect to have it used in the church service owes a lot to his predecessor, Claudio Monteverdi, who, with his seconda prattica, ushered in the Baroque era. In the prima prattica, also known as stile antico, the mood of the music was disassociated from the meaning of its text, except in the use of major or minor sonorities and fast or slow note values, as illustrated in Correa's setting. You hear this style of composition in Renaissance sacred music, which originated with and was dominated by the Flemish composers over its 150 year tenure in sacred choral composition. Josquin developed it from its origins, in which a rhythmically slowed plain chant or secular melody became a cantus firmus, literally 'a firm melody,' around which the other parts swirled. Josquin's innovations were twofold: he dropped the cantus firmus as a unifying force and used instead imitation of line among the parts to achieve continuity. In addition, he created greater textural contrast by alternating sections of homophony, in which all the voices declaim their text simultaneously, with polyphony, in which the voices sing imitative lines that enter consecutively such that no voice has exclusive use of the melody. He provided even more textural variety by juxtaposing contrasting textures of duets and trios with those of the full voices.

The first 54 measures of his Ave Maria provide a wonderful microcosm of these innovations. Each of the first four opening lines, introduced by the sopranos, is then taken up as an exact quote by each of the other three voices in order of descending vocal range. Josquin then changes this texture by juxtaposing a treble duet with a low trio and then follows it up with a homophonic declaration Maria plena gratiaMary full of grace. It provides a culmination to the prior sections that also serves as a springboard into a musical equivalent of fireworks; Josquin breaks up the next phrase of the prayer into individual words that enter at increasingly shorter intervals to express full of joy. The final declaration of laetitia by altos reminds me of that last firework that happens just when you have decided the display is over.

This compositional virtuosity continues through the entire work; Josquin even varies the rhythm from duple to triple for further variety. His crowning moment of brilliance, however, comes at the end of the motet. After setting this hymn of praise to the Virgin, he ends it with a personal plea: O mother of God, remember me. The standard Ave Maria text, set by Biebl, ends with a collective entreaty: pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Josquin expresses his abject humility in this personal request through the use of extended note values and open sonorities, in which the harmonically enriching third is often missing. As a result, we hear the humble supplication of a man dead for half a millennium as though he were standing in the room with us tonight.

Franz Biebl's setting of the standard text of the Ave Maria is more formulaic, as befits a prayer repeated by Catholics for each bead of the rosary, but no less beautiful for that. The setting of all but that last collective request for clemency becomes a refrain interspersed among plainchant quotations of the Biblical story from Luke's Gospel in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to let her know that she is pregnant with the Son of God. The placid rising scales heard in the trio suggest to me plumes of incense gently wafting to the ceiling as a visual metaphor for human prayers offered up to God.

If Josquin's Ave Maria provides a textbook example of the prima prattica, who better than Claudio Monteverdi to provide us with a great example of the seconda prattica? Tonight's setting of Laudate Dominum is the last of three settings he made of Psalm 117. It, along with his second setting, appear in his Selva morale e spirituale published in 1640, three years before his death; his first setting graced his Vespers of 1610. Aspects of that first setting we may treasure in today's concert hall—specifically the intonation of the plainchant for the psalm and its use in elongated note values to provide the cantus firmus for the choral setting—were characteristics of Renaissance polyphony, dubbed by Monteverdi and his contemporaries the prima prattica, or first practice. Monteverdi, now at the end of his life and feeling secure in his position as maestro da cappella at San Marco in Venice, was eager to divest his sacred music of these archaic qualities in favor of the dramatic exposition of the emotional content of the text in the musical line that we recognize today as the beginnings of modern classical tradition. This supremacy of words, to which music needed to be subservient, defined the seconda prattica, or, as expressed by Monteverdi's brother, words should be the master of harmony, not its servant. Monteverdi had honed these skills in his secular compositions, allowing more and more ornament in the solo voice to give expression to the literal meaning of the words declaimed. In his tenure at San Marco he allowed these flourishes to rupture the staid tradition of Renaissance polyphony more and more as the years went by. That he ends the setting you hear tonight with the soprano duet may seem odd and anti-climactic to our ears today, but for Monteverdi, ending this way literally gave this new style the last word.

Monteverdi ushered in the Baroque style of composition, in which music served to emphasize the affect of the words; Bach's oeuvre is considered to be its apogee. In their versions of Psalm 117 both men seized on the joy inherent in the word praise and used the motif they chose to express joy as a recurring and therefore organizing theme of their respective works. For Monteverdi, the joy is represented in the dance of the triple meter which recurs throughout the piece and the melismatic flourishes of the soloists as they repeat the word praise. For Bach joy is expressed in a fugal subject comprised of an arpeggio that rises through a major tenth on the first syllable of lobet, although he also makes use of the triple meter to set the added word Alleluia at the end of the work. Both composers indulge in a musical representation of stasis as well. For Monteverdi it is on the word manet or remain; for Bach, each voice successively draws out the first syllable of Ewigkeit or forever. The moods of Bach's motet mirror that within the movements of classical sonatas: the two exuberant sections flank a more inward and contemplative section musing upon God's grace.

The composers in tonight's program who set the other Psalm used in the Service of Tebebrae both used an antiquated form to do so. In the case of Allegri, his use of the conservative style of the prima prattica reflected the fact that he composed it for use in the Sistine Chapel, venerable institutions often being the last to adopt new idioms. The Vatican appreciated its stunning beauty; they safeguarded its exclusivity by threatening to excommunicate any one who released copies of it. One-hundred and fifty years later, Mozart risked it, when, during a visit to the Chapel as a fourteen-year old, he heard the music and went home and transcribed it. Listeners have been taken by it ever since.

Johannes Brahms was a composer of music in the Romantic style who nonetheless loved the form and structure of counterpoint as developed by the composers of the Renaissance and refined by Baroque composers such as Bach. In his opus 29, number 2 he takes a few verses from Psalm 51 and writes a thoroughly comforting piece of music to what is one of the most penitential and rueful Psalms in the Bible. The wish that the Psalmist be washed of his sins seems already granted from Brahms's use of the major tonality and calm expression of the opening. The irony is that this piece, which seems so free-flowing and expressive, adheres to strict laws of counterpoint. In the first section Schaffe in mir, Gott, the bass line provides a foundation for the other voices that consists of an exact quote of the first half of the soprano line in doubled note values known as canon in augmentation. The second section is a strict fugue, while the third section alternates trios in which the lowest voice is again in strict canon with the highest, this time at the interval of a seventh one measure later. The final section is once again a fugue, ending with the sopranos on a sustained high G to illustrate uphold me. While the second and last sections are immediately recognizable to the ear as fugues, the odd sections seem to be more harmonic than contrapuntal, and one almost has to have it pointed out that voices within them strictly adhere to the rules of counterpoint.

The text When David heard paraphrases verse 33 from Samuel II; I am so used to that opening qualifying dependent clause that I was quite shocked to find it was not in the Bible. Be that as it may, the story involves King David's response to the news that his son, who had tried to overthrow him, had died. Composers through the years have seized upon this text to explore music's ability to express profound grief, for what greater grief is there than that of a parent over the death of a child? Both Tomkins and Whitacre recognize that grief has many components besides quiet sorrow, and both use their considerable skills to expound upon those aspects.

For Tomkins, the music for the text preceding Would God I had died for thee alludes to David's mounting grief by means of the increased frequency of entrances of voices singing and wept. Tomkins divides the work into two sections; the second section consists of David's own words: O my son would God I had died for thee. Oh, Absalom, my son! This section Tomkins again divides so that each phrase receives its own subject and development. O my son has a subject line of a slow descent by scale of a fifth; it suggests a father trying to come to grips with a new reality in which his son will forever be absent. The vehemence of the next line would God I had died for thee is emphasized by the rising minor third setting God; it sounds as though the word God is as much an imprecation as part of a plea to the deity. The final theme, expressed in a major modality with an opening drop of a third and then a stepwise rise back up, suggests an acquiescence to this new reality; we sing this section with a piano dynamic to suggest that David's emotions are totally spent and he is completely depleted.

Whitacre's setting of this same text, with its several motifs brought back again and again, suggests to this listener the nature of intense grief: one bears the successive emotions of sorrow, anger, despair, shock and disbelief over and over, with no seeming end in sight. Like Tomkins, Whitacre separates the voice of the narrator from that of David; he uses a parlando effect, in which the singers intone a chord while reciting the text, a device heard also in the Miserere, to represent the narrator. When it is David's turn to speak, this homophonic texture gives way to imitative phrases. The repeated phrase for my son—a quarter note and then a dotted half note on the same pitch—suggests an effort to come to grips with this horrible new world, while it also comments upon the obsessive nature of grief. The fits and starts of the truncated words in the middle section sound like the gulping efforts at speech of a person bereft. The motif expressed in triple meter on the sound "oh" musically represents the keening of a person lost to sorrow. And, in the culmination of the work, where the chorus sings at the edges of their ranges in eight parts, one hears the floodgates open to a total immersion in the anguish of loss.

Two weeks before this concert, our Executive Director, Anne Riesenfeld, asked the singers to choose their favorite piece on the program. Not surprisingly, there was a wide variety in their respective selections. While not every one agrees on the piece that resonates most powerfully with them, every one has a work that does so. That speaks to music's power to reach us as individuals, to get to that place at the core of our being where our feelings are their most elemental. It is a place where we understand even as we are understood, a medium that allows us to reflect on what it means to be human.

© 2011 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.