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René Clausen and Stephen Paulus are two of the biggest names in American choral music of the last few decades. In the singers of Royal Holloway Choir they find worthy new champions.
Many of these choirs are directed by conductor-composers who were born into the local choral culture themselves. René Clausen was born in 1953 in Faribault, Minnesota (where his father was organist for the Minnesota Synod Lutheran Church), although he moved frequently as a child, also living in Iowa and California. It was in southern California during his late teenage years that he first heard the St Olaf Choir on tour in the area. Clearly moved by this experience, Clausen began studying music at St Olaf College shortly thereafter in 1970, completing a degree there before earning his Masters and Doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana. Clausen has been the director of the Choir of Concordia College in Morehead, Minnesota, for more than twenty-five years. He is best known to the American public as the Artistic Director of the annually broadcast Concordia Christmas Concerts, and in choral circles as an outstanding teacher, conductor and popular choral composer.
Stephen Paulus (1949–2014) was once aptly described by The New Yorker as ‘a bright, fluent inventor with a ready lyric gift’. Although born in New Jersey, he grew up in Minnesota, the Midwestern state he called home for most of his life, and studied at the University of Minnesota with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler. Like Argento, Paulus was a Guggenheim Fellow as well as the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Stephen Paulus composed more than 600 works from operas and large-scale oratorios to accessible arrangements of carols and folk songs. Paulus was the first American composer to write for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, and his choral music has become well known throughout the world.
In his poem La lumière, changée Yves Bonnefoy uses images of nature and light to describe changes in the speaker’s spiritual perception. The evocative subject captivated Clausen along with the French text:
My language changed in this piece … the French language is languid and flows so easily. This resulted in a lot of speech-rhythms that follow the suppleness and easy grace of the spoken French, while still following the text imagery.
In many ways, this sets La lumière apart from other works because of its neo-Impressionistic use of coloured harmony.
A clear midnight is the first of three settings of poetry on this recording by Walt Whitman. Clausen finds an affinity with the poet:
I sense in him a very deep and expansive soul, never hesitating to ask serious questions, full of colourful imagery, and often bold and strikingly original in his choice of themes and use of language.
A clear midnight is one of a number of pieces drawing on nocturnal themes and images. At the beginning of the piece we sense the slumber of midnight with a yawning figure passed between altos and sopranos until all four parts mix together and the text is revealed by lower voices in rich harmony. After repetitions of ‘pondering’ and the espressivo duet between the sopranos and tenors, darkness finally sets in: ‘Night, sleep, death and the stars’, hauntingly coloured with a pianissimo high B for sopranos.
Whitman’s penchant for wishing to be transported provides the impetus for Clausen’s setting of The last invocation:
Everything about this poem is so incredibly powerful and beautiful—and full of tension. Until he says ‘Let me be wafted’—and the words which follow—he essentially says ‘take me away from here’—transport me to somewhere else. The music changes right at this point. The magic moment … for me in the poem, and in the music, is the final three lines—it is a contrast between two opposing strengths—mortal flesh and love. It is the alto part which sets up this contrast, urging the need to be patient against the rising tide of harmonic tension in the other parts. The final resolution to the major chord is the victory of love.
A jubilant song is a celebration of the joy of singing—a suitable response to a commission for the Worlds of Fun Festival of Music in Kansas City. Clausen draws excerpted lines from Whitman’s poem A song of joys. The lively music employs mixed metres and elements of counterpoint to provide equal interest for all voices. The music shifts to a lavish, cantabile style in its middle section which expresses the many joys present in the spirit of singing.
Pater noster was commissioned by Rupert Gough and The Choir of Royal Holloway for this recording and was first performed at the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music in 2014. Clausen wished to show reverence for the ancient text in its Latin form, trying ‘not to “overdress” the text, but to respect it’. Within this contemplative atmosphere there are elements of word-painting, from the obvious high scoring of ‘in caelo’ offset against a low-voice ‘in terra’, to the harmonic subtleties of ‘tentationem’ or delicate nuance of ‘libera nos’.
In pace was composed in memory of the victims of the Holocaust following a moving visit to the death camp in Auschwitz in 1996:
Most of the music written about the Holocaust has been: 1) for instrumental media, and 2) very dramatic in nature; music which emphasizes the horror and drama of that terrible time in history. My goal was to write a kind of choral benediction which serves as a prayer for the peace and rest of all the souls who were murdered there.
The result is a large musical canvas using contrapuntal writing spread over eight parts. The almost breathless lyricism is developed in the doxology with dramatic tension increasing through a number of uplifting modulations until a final release in the peace and warmth of E flat major harmony at the conclusion.
The writer Edmund H Sears is best known for penning It came upon the midnight clear. Another Christmas poem, Calm on the listening ear of night again provides Clausen with plenty of nocturnal imagery, and the pastoral scene is further enhanced by the warmth and beauty lent to the choral texture by the addition of harp and violin. The piece was commissioned by the Jubilate Choral of Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 2007.
Stephen Paulus was The Dale Warland Singers’ first composer-in-residence and he composed Gabriel’s message as a Christmas present to Dale Warland’s wife Ruth in 2001. It is a simple arrangement of the well-known Basque carol for choir and harp, and like any good arrangement the secret to its success lies in the original material in the accompaniment.
‘As a composer, Paulus seems to be on the same wavelength as Benjamin Britten.’ So commented a reviewer in the Chicago Tribune following a performance of the Jesu carols by the William Ferris Chorale in 2001. It is perhaps unsurprising that the combination of voices, harp and medieval Christmas texts would draw comparison with Britten’s famous A Ceremony of Carols; however, Paulus’s handling of these elements is quite different, not least making much use of a full choir rather than simply of treble voices. Paulus is no stranger to Christmas music, and has arranged many of the familiar carols. But the Jesu carols are anything but familiar. At the first performance in 1985 the William Ferris Chorale also sang William Mathias’s Ave Rex, a work that also features four medieval texts. In an interview before this shared performance of Paulus’s Jesu carols and his own Ave Rex, Mathias described how he liked ‘using medieval words partly because you’re slightly distanced from them, or at least the words are not sentimental’.
This noticeable lack of sentimentality is apparent in Paulus’s choice of text in the first carol, Jesu’s lyfelyne, by a medieval prioress, which is rather more like a list describing the lineage of Jesus than a charming carol text. An anonymous text from the sixteenth century brings us the rousing sailor song, The ship carol. The rippling harp accompaniment effortlessly carries the singers along their journey during which ‘Our Lord harped, our Lady sang’. There is much bleakness and poverty in Robert Southwell’s New prince, new pomp (written shortly before his execution in 1595) and in his setting of part of this poem, Waye not his cribb, Paulus reinforces the contrast between the babe’s divinity and humble humanity by opposing stark dissonance with untainted major tonality. This is carried right through to the final chord where, against the concluding pure fifth of the upper voices, can be heard a tonally opposing chime from the harp. Word-painting abounds as the composer moves through the narrative of the final movement, The neighbors of Bethlehem, a translation of a thirteenth-century French carol. The piece is wound up with two lines of text: ‘God hath appeared on earth below’, set for lower voices, and with ethereal bitonal harmony the upper voices sing ‘O come ye shepherds, wake, arise!’. A distinctive motif (heard in the soprano solo) unifies the movement, and provides a final call in the harp part over the last chord.
Arise, my love sets verses from the second chapter of the Song of Solomon and was composed in honour of the retirement of Joseph Flummerfelt from Westminster Choir College in 2004. Paulus notes in his dedication, ‘with gratitude and admiration’, two sentiments which deeply worked their way into his remarkably calm setting of this popular text.
Evensong was given its first performance during The Dale Warland Singers’ ‘Echoes of Christmas’ concert in December 1990. Here Paulus sets a German poem by Matthias Claudius translated for the composer by Albert Ernest Flemming, a writer described as ‘more of a poetic paraphraser than a translator’. There is little to do with Christmas bar a fleeting reference to ‘manger’; the poem is rather more a dormitive prayer, and Paulus finds many musical opportunities to reflect the evocative description of night, the moon and stars, prayer, and rest.
The Lotus Lovers was the result of a commission for the male-voice a cappella group Chanticleer and features the poetry of Tzu Yeh, a ‘wine-shop woman’ who wrote rather erotic poetry in fourth-century China (contrary to the Japanese attribution printed on the published score). The seven movements were intended to be extractable for the purposes of Chanticleer’s touring repertoire, the fear being that two particular poems were too sensual for performance in sacred spaces. Illusions points the ear toward a sense of restlessness and yearning from the very start, the men’s voices seeming to pant in repetitive surges and mysterious echoes. The speaker is disheartened to realize they must endure the loneliness of night with only false illusions of their lost lover. Loneliness is also key to the mood of A rich brocade (originally titled Busy in the spring) as the sopranos sigh over open fifths in the lower voices and a steady, melodic chant from the altos. Each movement of The Lotus Lovers has its own, distinct personality in both poetry and musical setting, but here we find the two which are most alike in their sense of bright hope paired with realization of loss and occasional bitterness.
Stephen Paulus was always moved by the spirit of collaboration he experienced with his peers and neighbours in Minnesota. A particularly fruitful collaboration was with Michael Dennis Browne, who provided texts for at least sixteen Paulus compositions. The road home sets Browne’s text to the tune ‘Prospect’, an American shape-note hymn tune compiled in Southern Harmony in 1835. Paulus made this arrangement for The Dale Warland Singers in 2002. It is hard not to be moved by this well-loved piece, which somehow carries just as much emotion as a spiritual such as Deep river. Fittingly, this hymn has been sung many times in services and celebrations of the life of a composer who sadly died during the preparation of this recording in 2014.
Stephen W Salts © 2015