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An all-too-rare new recording from Polyphony and Stephen Layton presents highlights from the choral repertoire by four twentieth-century American giants: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson. Framed by Thompson’s understated favourites Alleluia and Fare Well, the programme includes Bernstein’s Missa brevis, Copland’s early set of four motets, and—of course—Barber’s inimitable Agnus Dei.
It is scarcely a surprise, then, that Barber’s output is so richly populated with music for the human voice. The Adagio for strings may be the piece with which he achieved mass recognition; but his several dozen songs, choral works and three operas make up about half of his overall output and are the ground source of his lyrical gift.
Barber’s maternal heritage, going back several generations, was Anglo-Scottish-Irish, and the composer connected early on with the Irish lyric tradition. Later, he would set a number of poems by Joyce and Yeats, together with the ancient, anonymous Irish texts of the Hermit Songs, Op 29, but an early influence was James Stephens (1880–1950). In turn, it was Stephens’ interest in the re-telling of Irish myths and fairy tales that brought Barber to the Gaelic poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (or Reachtabhra, or, more commonly in English, Raftery, 1784–1835), known as the last of the wandering bards. Raftery’s verse was given new life, through translation and elaboration, in James Stephens’ 1918 volume Reincarnations, and there is no better illustration of Barber’s masterful responsiveness to text than in his three Reincarnations settings from 1939–40.
In Mary Hynes, Barber perfectly captures the urgency and breathless excitement of passionate love (‘She is the sky of the sun, She is the dart Of love, She is the love of my heart’). With the sprung start, on the second beat of the bar, and the darting entries of different vocal lines within shifting metres, the poet’s admiration of Mary Hynes, said to be the most beautiful woman of the century, is eloquently proclaimed. With the words ‘Lovely and airy the view from the hill’, Barber’s imitative, più tranquillo transition smoothly reflects the shift of mood; still ecstatic, the breathlessness gone, and yet with a closing reference, at ‘The blossom of branches’, to the melodic contour of the opening.
Lovestruck warmth gives way to the stark anger and desperation of grief in the second Reincarnations setting, Anthony O’Daly. Intoning like a funeral bell throughout—or at least until the final page’s fortissimo climax—is the obsessive repetition of the name ‘Anthony’, first of all in the basses, later in all voice parts, always on the note E. Closely imitative writing attaches to this ‘Anthony’ pedal note, and becomes progressively more distressed until the tutti ‘Anthony’ climax. Anthony O’Daly, an activist in County Galway fighting the cause of oppressed tenant farmers, was caught and hanged in 1820 for unproven charges of attempted murder. Raftery may have witnessed the hanging himself.
James Stephens wrote of The coolin’ (which translates as ‘The fair-haired one’): ‘I sought to represent that state which is almost entirely a condition of dream, wherein the passion of love has almost overreached itself and is sinking into a motionless languor.’ Barber’s tender, lilting setting captures this (almost) ‘motionless languor’ with a delightful sense of timeless pastoral—simple lives and simple pleasures.
The time bomb of Barber’s melancholy—set to darken his later years in depressive alcoholism—would not have obviously resided alongside his privileged upbringing, good looks, precocious talent and early establishment of his lifelong relationship with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti. But it was already sufficiently present to produce, at the age of twenty-six, a string quartet movement of the deepest sadness, an Adagio that in its string orchestral version has become the unofficial national anthem of mourning in the United States, far-outstripping any other piece in a 2004 BBC Radio 4 poll for the ‘saddest music in the world’. Not only has it been the most successful, even improving, of transfers from string quartet to string orchestra; Barber’s own choral arrangement of 1967, tracking the sinuous, stepwise string lines to the words of the Agnus Dei, works superbly too. The melodic contours fit like a glove for voices, unlike similar, more recent attempts to choral-ize the more intrinsically instrumental lines of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ with the Lux aeterna and Requiem aeternam texts.
Just prior to the creation of the string quartet, in 1935–6, Barber wrote two quite different a cappella settings that formed his Op 8. The virgin martyrs, a setting from Helen Waddell’s translation of Sigebert of Gembloux, is a charming motet for four-part female voices, motivically and harmonically subtle. Let down the bars, O death is an intense, expressive miniature, the poem by Emily Dickinson. In a letter in 1936, Barber declared: ‘I wrote a little chorus the other morning, quite good, it will be alright for someone’s funeral.’ Forty-five years later, in early 1981, it was presumably more than alright for Barber’s own funeral and subsequent memorial service—a piece carefully prescribed in advance by the composer himself, alongside Dover Beach, Summer Music for wind quintet and some organ music by Barber’s idol, J S Bach.
Some years after their composition in the late 1930s, Barber was encouraged to arrange two of his four songs, Op 13, for choir, and these were published in 1961. One of them was Sure on this shining night, a setting of James Agee (not recorded here), and the other was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ A nun takes the veil ‘Heaven-haven’ (Barber reversed Hopkins’ title). The sustained solo line and spread piano chords are transformed into a largely homophonic setting, one of great poise and reflection.
Barber’s prodigious flow of youthful composition slowed in later years, and the overwhelmingly poor reception of his third opera, Anthony and Cleopatra, written for the opening of New York’s new Metropolitan Opera in 1966, affected him greatly. But two years later he was on top form for what turned out to be his last two a cappella works, the Op 42 pairing of Laurie Lee’s Twelfth Night and Louise Bogan’s To be sung on the water. The Laurie Lee setting is hugely atmospheric, with expertly shaded dynamics and exquisitely placed chord progressions, while the Bogan is characterized by a constant, lilting motif passing between upper and lower voices, suggestive of water-borne motion and the oar’s blade, ‘Dipping the stream once more’.
Partly because of his partner, the Italian-American Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s considerable European enthusiasms veered more in his youth towards Italy than to the fashionable artistic mecca of Paris. Not so for Aaron Copland, ten years Barber’s senior, who headed like many others to the French capital for lessons with Nadia Boulanger. Remaining fruitfully in this ‘boulangerie’ for three years, Copland wrote his Four Motets as a student exercise for his teacher in 1921, but heard them for the first time in Fontainebleau only in 1924. When they were finally published several decades later, Copland commented that he had ‘agreed to their publication with mixed emotions. While they have a certain curiosity value—perhaps people want to know what I was doing as a student—the style is not yet really mine’. He identified Musorgsky as an influence, but composers of French choral music such as Fauré—about whom Copland wrote a critical study at that time—are surely in the background too.
Each of the motets, settings of adapted Old Testament texts, maintains a discrete personality—from the gently rocking serenity of Help us, O Lord to the rousing jubilation of Sing ye praises to our king. An overall technical assurance is enhanced by moments of arresting ingenuity—such as the imitative entries at the mid-point of Thou, O Jehovah, abideth forever—and the delicate, two-part ostinato that establishes itself in Have mercy on us, O my Lord.
The twenty-year-old Harvard music student Leonard Bernstein met Aaron Copland—eighteen years his senior—at a post-concert party in November 1938. Bernstein would later say that, in the absence of a formal compositional training, Copland was the ‘only real composition teacher’ he had. Choral music, for neither composer, would become a mainstay of their output; the orchestra and the stage were much stronger pulls. There are only three choral works in the Bernstein catalogue: a short liturgical work for the Jewish Sabbath evening worship, Hashkiveinu (1945), the Missa brevis (1988) and, the best known, Chichester Psalms (1965).
We have the American conductor Robert Shaw to thank for the Missa brevis, although his planting of the idea with Bernstein took a full thirty-three years to be realized. In 1955, Bernstein composed French and Latin choruses for a play about the trial of Joan of Arc, The Lark. This incidental music had a deliberate medieval/Renaissance feel, and was performed (on tape) in those performances by a specialist early music group, New York Pro Musica Antiqua (SAATBB + solo). Robert Shaw’s suggestion that the material could be reworked as a Mass setting obviously lodged with Bernstein, because he did just that to mark Shaw’s retirement in 1988 as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The Lark’s incidental music featured three French choruses—the first of which, Spring Song, became the dancing section of the Dona nobis pacem—and five Latin choruses. Robert Shaw’s suggestion of a Missa brevis was not surprising, because what he heard in that Broadway theatre in 1955 were Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus movements already in place. Bernstein reworked the Prelude and Gloria from The Lark, which share the same assertive choral opening and countertenor solo, not only into the Gloria of the Missa brevis, but into the openings of the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem too. And The Lark’s other movement, Requiem, Bernstein adroitly turned into the Kyrie. It is all a fascinating exercise in recycling and resourceful extension of material.
The prominence of percussion and a countertenor (or boy treble) solo in Bernstein’s mid-60s hit Chichester Psalms was not the original thing it might have seemed at the time; it was anticipated in his 1955 incidental music, and then replicated in the later Missa brevis. Pealing tubular bells are the main thing here, in the latter parts of the Gloria and Benedictus, together with the banquet dance-style percussion of tambourine, tabor and hand drum in the final movement. The countertenor solos, much more austere here than in Chichester Psalms, add to the ancient, ceremonial air of the music generally—not mock-medieval as such, but infused with a stone-vaulted, bare-fifths severity.
Aside from Aaron Copland’s mentoring, the closest Bernstein got to formal composition teaching was orchestration classes with Randall Thompson at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in 1939–40. Although the composer of three symphonies himself (two in 1931 and one in the late 1940s), Thompson’s own special enthusiasm was not the orchestra but the choir: between the 1920s and the year before his death in 1984 he wrote a large number of choral works, and the best known of them opens this album.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, Serge Koussevitsky, asked Thompson to write a choral fanfare for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood, the summer home of the BSO). Written in the first few days of July 1940, and premiered at Tanglewood on the 8th, Thompson was unable to deliver the joyous fanfare Koussevitsky had envisaged. With the sombre news of Paris’s surrender to the Germans a fortnight before, he produced a ‘slow, sad piece’ instead—while staying with the Hebrew word of praise, ‘Alleluia’, as his single-word text for the piece (though the final notes add an ‘Amen’). With its expertly graded climax from muted beginnings, Thompson’s Alleluia has understandably become a staple of (at least) North American choral repertoire, speaking to many through the sincerity of its emotional charge. Harmonically conservative for the time, paradoxically it was ahead of its time too, because we can hear its diatonic imprecations in much more recent music choral music—by the likes of Tavener, Górecki and Morten Lauridsen.
Thompson was born in New York City in 1899, and it was for three combined school choirs on Long Island, New York, that he wrote Fare Well towards the end of his life. He was commissioned by the choirs of Calhoun, Kennedy and Mepham high schools in Belmore-Merrick, and this beautifully measured, tender setting of Walter De La Mare was premiered in the Memorial Concert of their generous benefactor, Jacob Gunther, on 4 March 1973.
Meurig Bowen © 2015