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For the past half century the music of Randall Thompson has remained a staple in the choral repertoire. These delightful works are marked by skilful craftsmanship, a pervasive singability and uncommon beauty. This new recording features Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom, based upon texts from the book of Isaiah, as well as his Mass, The Last Invocation and Fare Well. Also included is one of Thompson’s most popular works, his Alleluia, written at the request of Serge Koussevitsky and premiered in July 1940, and today a beloved and time-honoured contribution to the choral repertoire.
The informative booklet notes are by one of Thompson’s most constant admirers, the fellow-American composer Morten Lauridsen.
Thompson designed these works to be gracious for the singer and accessible for his audiences, writing mainly conjunct vocal lines and employing part-writing and voice-leading principles derived from models of both sixteenth- and eighteenth-century polyphony. Avant-garde developments and experiments in vocal-writing held no interest for him—in a speech given in 1959 extolling composers to write for amateur choruses he expressed his opinion that contemporary compositional techniques involving irregular rhythms and a pervasive use of dissonance and chromaticism were less than suitable for choral music. Thompson was content instead in expressing his musical ideas through more traditional, time-tested and conventional means. Within these self-imposed constructs he was able to compose choral works that are marked by skilful craftsmanship, a pervasive singability and uncommon beauty. This new Hyperion recording by the excellent Schola Cantorum of Oxford, conducted by James Burton, features Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom, based upon religious texts drawn from the book of Isaiah, as well as his Mass, Alleluia, The Last Invocation and Fare Well.
Randall Thompson began his higher education at Harvard University in 1916. Although his student application to join the Harvard Glee Club was unsuccessful (certainly an irony given his later history as a composer for the choir), he was able to come under the tutelage of the Glee Club’s conductor, Archibald T Davison, who guided Thompson’s early efforts in composition with a concentration on composing for chorus. Like many American composers of his generation, Thompson then travelled to Europe for further study, settling in at the American Academy in Rome where he composed the five Odes of Horace in 1924.
Upon returning to the United States, Thompson received his first academic appointment as assistant professor of music at Wellesley College, where he conducted the choir and taught organ. He remained in academia for his entire career, teaching at a number of universities including Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Harvard. For two years he was director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where among his students and assistants were Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. During his long academic career Thompson assumed an important leadership role in developing the curriculum for the teaching of music at American universities.
A commission from the League of Composers in 1935 led to the composition of The Peaceable Kingdom, scored for a cappella chorus. Thompson was greatly influenced by the eighteenth-century American artist Edward Hicks’s painting entitled The Peaceable Kingdom. The painting, reproduced on the cover of this booklet, portrays a child amongst a large group of animals serenely lying together as described in the book of Isaiah (11: 6–9, ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid’, etc). Intrigued by this passage, Thompson studied the full book of Isaiah and from it selected eight texts referencing the themes of peace and good versus evil.
The choral cycle opens gently with a simple, hymn-like setting for men on the text, ‘Say ye to the righteous’ contrasted soon after by the declamatory ‘Woe unto the wicked!’. The text-settings throughout demonstrate Thompson’s penchant for mostly triadic harmonies, melodic sequences, imitative passages and quasi-Baroque ornamentations. The second movement, ‘Woe unto them’, is highlighted by alternating choral voices declaiming the text in recitative style, punctuated by tutti interjections on the word ‘Woe’.
The harmonic progressions in the third movement reference the Ecclesiastical modes (especially the Dorian) from the Renaissance, and again present the text in a declamatory manner, departing from the mostly triadic harmonies to add some dissonance in painting ‘they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth’. The dramatic, imitative ‘Howl ye’ is contrasted by the quiet ‘The paper reeds by the brooks’, where the soprano melody is mirrored by the basses in contrary motion. Always tying his text to the underlying musical setting, the gently flowing melodic lines deftly paint the word ‘brooks’. For the final three movements Thompson reverts to a very straightforward neo-Baroque chorale style, employing simple diatonic triads and traditional harmonic progressions and utilizing a double choir in the final movement, ‘Ye shall have a song’.
Composed while the composer was in his mid-thirties, this oft-performed choral cycle displays Thompson’s careful attention to text-setting and his skill in composing for choral ensembles in a conservative style accessible to amateur singers and lay audiences.
Thompson’s Alleluia was written at the request of Serge Koussevitsky and premiered at the opening of the Berkshire Music Center on 8 July 1940, arriving in the conductor’s hands only forty-five minutes prior to the performance. The conductor, G Wallace Woodworth, was heard to say upon receiving the score, ‘At least we do not have to worry about the text!’. The lento marking underscores the thoughtful and more resolute quality of the work; this is not an overtly joyful alleluia but rather one more understated given the darker reality of World War II at the time, especially the recent fall of France to the Nazis.
One clearly hears in this score Thompson’s expert writing for voices, his fondness for and deft use of sequences, suspensions and counterpoint combined with his ability to control the overall pacing and structural scheme of the composition. The Alleluia is tightly constructed and moves very carefully and strategically—through the use of dynamics, articulation, expanded range, harmonic rhythm and accelerating tempo—to the very high point of intensity near the end of the work, before receding from its gorgeous wave of choral sound to return once again to its introspective beginning. The Alleluia has become a beloved and time-honored contribution to the choral repertoire.
The Last Invocation was composed in 1922 during Thompson’s student days, prior to his sojourn to the American Academy in Rome. Based on a text by Walt Whitman, the six-part a cappella setting displays many of the stylistic features that would continue throughout Thompson’s work over his entire career—predominantly tertial harmonies, imitative counterpoint, a fondness for suspensions and suspension chains, conjunct vocal lines and careful text underlay. The quiet, contemplative setting builds to a majestic, fortissimo climax for Whitman’s line ‘Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh!’ before closing pianissimo at ‘Strong is your hold, O love’. Renaissance modal counterpoint and Baroque polyphony clearly serve as models even at this very early stage in Thompson’s development as a composer.
Some twenty years after The Peaceable Kingdom, Thompson’s Mass of the Holy Spirit was given its first complete performance by the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society under the direction of G Wallace Woodworth on 22 March 1957. The ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’, ‘Credo’ and ‘Sanctus’ were composed from 24 June to 26 July 1955, the remaining ‘Agnus Dei’ and ‘Benedictus’ over a period of a few days the following year. Compositionally, the Mass is a far more mature and sophisticated work than The Peaceable Kingdom. While its harmonies are, for the most part, still based on triads, there is a somewhat expanded use of added-note chords and dissonances, enriching the harmonic palette. And the melodic ideas, formal structures, text treatment and contrapuntal devices in the Mass display the work of a composer grown even more secure in his craft.
Whereas Thompson looked to the Baroque as a compositional springboard for The Peaceable Kingdom, the musical materials of the a cappella Mass owe more not only to the eighteenth-century but also to the style and characteristics of Renaissance counterpoint, especially as seen in the music of Orlandus Lassus. Thompson taught modal counterpoint for years at Harvard University and his essay ‘On Contrapuntal Technique’, delivered at a meeting of the College Music Association in 1950, extols the importance of that subject in the Liberal Arts Curriculum. He felt that the underlying practical and aesthetic techniques in composing modal counterpoint were especially applicable in composing choral music.
The bold chordal opening of the ‘Kyrie’ soon evolves to a lyrical and sequential melody based on a falling sixth motif, at first presented by the sopranos and then by the basses. The canonic ‘Christe eleison’ is influenced greatly by Renaissance motet models, and the quiet return of the initial ‘Kyrie’ material and its subsequent motif of the descending sixth (this time presented by the altos and tenors) shows a reconfiguration, rather than exact restatement, of the opening materials.
A more Baroque-influenced melody, accompanied by a rapid scale figure harmonized by parallel triads, opens and closes the exuberant ‘Gloria’, offset by a central double-choir setting of ‘Thou that takest away the sins of the world’. The text of the multi-sectional ‘Credo’ is set in a straightforward, traditional triadic manner and displays Thompson’s fondness for the suspension figure as a dissonance, especially in setting ‘And was crucified’. Like his Renaissance counterparts, Thompson paints musically the words ‘rose’ and ‘ascended’ with the expected rising lines.
The angelic opening of the ‘Sanctus’ recalls the Renaissance practice of fauxbourdon—parallel first-inversion chords. The seven-part continuation displays a full and rich choral sound with widely spaced triads accompanying lines punctuated by suspensions and retardations. The rollicking ‘Glory be to Thee’ trades off the theme among the various voices in close imitation with an effective use of hemiolas. The tranquil, canonic ‘Benedictus’ setting ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord’, affecting in its simplicity, closes over a prolonged and sustained pedal point in the basses. The brief, jubilant ‘Hosanna’, recalling the spirited middle section of the ‘Sanctus’, leads to the concluding, serene ‘Agnus Dei’, once again set in neo-Renaissance imitation, featuring head motifs based on an ascending perfect fifth and later a minor third. The Mass for the Holy Spirit ends with an aura of quiet devotion.
Thompson’s setting of Walter De La Mare’s poem Fare Well, written in the twilight of his life as he entered his seventh decade, concludes this lovely recording by Schola Cantorum of Oxford. The work clearly demonstrates that Thompson continued to hold steadfastly to those tenets of choral writing that marked his compositional style for over fifty years. Composed a half-century later than The Last Invocation, Fare Well shows little stylistic change but a surer hand in creating more elegant vocal lines and a wider and more colourful harmonic vocabulary. The dark, minor-chord opening sets the tone for Thompson’s musical rumination on the theme of death, and melodic and harmonic sequences, trademark Thompson devices so expertly displayed in earlier works, are abundant in this sensitive setting of De La Mare’s poem.
Randall Thompson wrote mainly for the amateur chorus, cared deeply that his music connected with his audience and left a legacy of expertly crafted choral works that, while breaking no new compositional ground, continue to resonate deeply with both performer and listener alike and remain models for aspiring choral composers. As such, he has remained one of the most performed and revered choral composers in the world to this day.
Morten Lauridsen © 2008