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Copland: In the beginning; Barber: Agnus Dei

Dunedin Consort, Ben Parry (conductor)
Download only
Recording details: October 1999
Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Ben Turner & Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: February 2000
Total duration: 53 minutes 20 seconds

Cover artwork: Horsehead Nebula by Tony & Daphne Hallas
Science Photo Library

Scotland's premier young vocal ensemble makes its Linn debut with this stunning recording of a cappella vocal music by America's two most famous 20th-century composers: Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. This moving disc features a beautiful vocal arrangement of Samuel Barber's celebrated Adagio for strings.


'Labelled 'In the Beginning' and sporting a photograph of the Horse's Head Nebula, this CD outwardly resembles one of those 'spiritual' compilations through which record companies exploit classical music and religion in one fell swoop. In fact it is a fascinating programme of the twentieth century American choral music, all unaccompanied, glowingly sung and recorded … the Scottish-based Dunedin Consort compromises twelve voices, and its smoothness and expertise verge on glossiness. Yet this suits the repertoire, as both composers applied conspicuous professional craftsmanship to genuine inspiration' (The Daily Telegraph)» More

'A no-nonsense, entirely British choral sound emanates from the Dunedin Consort in the clearer New World air of music by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Copland asked that his In the beginning—a 15-minute setting of the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis—be sung 'in a gentle manner, like the reading of a familiar, oft-told story'. And, with mezzo Sally Bruce-Payne in the role of honorary cantor, that is just what we get' (The Times)» More

'Rarely has a vocal group made such an impact on the Scottish classical scene as quickly and impressively as the Dunedin Consort - and listening to this CD it is easy to see why. Crisp singing and clear diction is matched by outstanding technical ability by the singers, as these works by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber are not for vocal slouches. The consort, conducted by Ben Parry, gives a tightly controlled and disciplined performance of the CD's longest piece, In The Beginning, the solo part exquisitely performed by mezzo-soprano Sally Bruce-Payne. Thereafter, the consort sings with intensity and aplomb Copland's four motets for a capella chorus and several Barber works including a transcribed version of his Adagio For Strings. Hopefully the next few years will see them produce many more CDs of this quality' (Sunday Herald, Scotland)
Ten years were all that separated the American composers Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Both made their mark on their country’s twentieth-century musical development. But different backgrounds moulded very different musical styles: Copland, feisty and adventurous, at the cutting edge, and generally better known through such gutsy works as the ballet Rodeo, or the delicate Shaker variations in Appalachian Spring; Barber, safe and dependable, the lyrical traditionalist, but relatively unsung except through the universally popular Adagio from his String Quartet, made famous at the funerals of President Kohn F Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Copland, the older of the two, was born in New York on 14 November 1900. Growing up in downtown Brooklyn, the son of hard-working Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, he experienced—like George Gershwin—the harsh and fast side of life. He was one of the many ‘Americans in Paris’ during the 1920s eager to soak up the fashionable avant-garde teachings of Nadia Boulanger. Others included Virgil Thomson, George Antheil and Melville Smith. The Boulanger circle also brought Copland into contact with writers Iike James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.

His musical style evolved constantly; fused with jazz elements in his early Piano Concerto, painting the characteristically vivid New England landscapes in ballet scores like Appalachian Spring (written for the choreographer Martha Graham), or laced with the kind of flirtatious, exotic influences which abound in El Salón México. Even when he ventured briefly into the austere world of serialism in the 1950s and 1960s, Copland’s musical language remained clean, fresh and sincere. Copland spoke for America and promoted its music voraciously up to his death in 1990. Leonard Bernstein and the Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, were among his greatest admirers and followers.

Barber’s background was very different and less intense. Born on the 9 March 1910 in a wealthy provincial Pennsylvanian town on the outskirts of conservative Philadelphia, he was the son of a local doctor and pastor’s daughter. Photographs of the young sailor-suited Sam and his family, posed around the piano in their comfortable West Chester house, paint a picture of cosy affluence.

His training was traditional; his composition tutor at the Curtis Institute of Music was the ardent Brahmsian, Rosario Scalero. Extended travel in Europe—no doubt fired further by his close long-term relationship with the fellow composer and Curtis student, Gian Carlo Menotti—intensified his allegiance to mainstream Romantic, predominantly European, culture. As a trained singer, he held a natural affinity to a lyrical and traditional style that, other than in one or two exceptions, pervades all of his music.

Barber could never be described as an innovator. Yet his work is distinguished, finely crafted and distinctive. Among others, Toscanini championed Barber’s music, conducting his NBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of Barber’s famous 1938 string orchestra arrangement of the Adagio. Above all, his music has a brilliant but easeful lyrical sheen in vocal works like Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Dover Beach, and equally in other better-known instrumental works like the 1940 Violin Concerto, the overture to The School for Scandal, or the cello and piano sonatas. Defending the outward traditionalism of Barber’s music, Menotti once posed the question: ‘Must there be in art one “modern idiom”?’

Unlike Copland, Marc Blitzstein, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris and others who were striving to discover an ‘American sound’ accessible to the broadest-based audiences, Barber wished to preserve a style comfortable with established audiences. ‘I wrote as I wanted to myself,’ he declared, confirming the Romantic spirit that remained within him until his death in 1981. Compare that to Copland’s ardent wish ‘to find a musical vernacular which, as language, would cause no difficulties to my listeners...my old interest in making a connection between music and the life about me.’

There can be no doubt that the sparkling angularity of Copland’s ‘cowboy ballets’, Billy the Kid and Rodeo, the folk-inspired purity of Appalachian Spring, or even the cool detached austerity of early works like the Dance Symphony, are a world away from the elusive warmth of Barber’s Summer Music for wind quintet, the café-style suavity of his ballet, Souvenirs, or the many sympathetic solo vocal settings of Irish and English poetry.

Yet there is one area of composition where a touching commonality exists between the two. As the Dunedin Consort’s programme demonstrates, both Copland and Barber, in their settings for unaccompanied chorus, had an instinctive feel for the human voice, a natural gift for word-setting, and a pure style of writing that rarely, if ever, obscured its literary dimension.

Copland’s ventures into the genre were fewer than Barber’s. But they were fruitful, particularly in the biblical-inspired In the beginning, a substantial setting for mixed voices composed in 1947 for performance at the Harvard Symposium on Music Criticism. The university’s department of music had suggested a Hebrew text, but Copland opted ultimately for the version of the story as told in the King James Bible. It was first performed on 2 May 1947 by the by Collegiate Choir of Massachusetts, conducted by the composer.

Beautifully simple in outline and texture, its inoffensive modal flavour and lilting Britten-like polytonality sit easily with infectious jazz rhythms and soft hints of blues. Recitative and antiphonal writing dominates in a work the composer suggested be sung ‘in a gentle manner, like reading a familiar, oft-told story’. Before a performance in 1980 at Brown University, however, Copland told the student singers: ‘Creation was quite a stunt, so make it grand. Don’t be pathetic about it. What happened after creation is an entirely different story!’

Copland’s only other biblical settings, the Four Motets for a cappella chorus, date from much earlier. Completed in 1921 during his student days in Paris, they were first heard publicly in performances in 1924 in Fountainebleau, conducted by Melville Smith and Nadia Boulanger. Copland reluctantly agreed to their publication some fifty years later, deeming them to be of curiosity value. ‘Perhaps people want to know what I was doing as a student. The style is not really yet mine,’ wrote the self-critical composer. Yet the beautifully French-flavoured ‘Help us, O Lord’, the rousing primitivism of ‘Thou, O Jehova, abideth forever’, the sumptuous harmonies of ‘Have mercy on us, O my Lord’ and the free-flowing jubilation of ‘Sing ye praises to our king’, are undoubted foretastes of the fast developing musical genius.

Barber was also in his twenties when he wrote Reincarnations. Like Copland, he was still then marginally self-critical about his own music, to the extent that he was seriously questioning his future as a professional composer. None of that doubt seems to taint any of the three ‘contemporary madrigals’ that make up Reincarnations—settings of English adaptations by James Stephens of Gaelic verses by early Irish poets—which he completed by 1940 for performance by the Madrigal Chorus at the Curtis Institute. He had been invited to take over the 24-strong choir’s directorship in 1938, a move that presented an interesting artistic challenge to which he ably rose. The syncopated energy of ‘Mary Hynes’, the dirge-like tolling of ‘Anthony O’Daly’—the fated captain of an eighteenth-century Irish rebel peasant organisation—and the tender lilt of ‘The Coolin’’ are the work of a musical craftsman with a keen ear for poetry.

In fact, Barber’s choral works from the 1930s rank among his most inspired and expressive. The virgin martyrs—a transcendent 1935 setting for women’s chorus of Helen Waddell’s translation of Sigebert of Gembloux from her collection of Medieval Latin Lyrics—and the sublime 1936 SATB setting of Emily Dickinson’s Let down the bars, O death, are delightful early examples. Of the latter he said to his parents: ‘I wrote a little chorus the other morning, quite good, it will be alright for someone’s funeral.’ It was, rather poignantly, sung at the memorial services held for Barber following his death in 1981.

Barber often turned to the magic of nature for direct inspiration. He found it in the Victorian poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly in the solo voice setting he made of the Welsh poet’s Heaven-Haven, which Barber set as one of the Four Songs, Op 13, written between 1937 and 1940. Their success encouraged the composer to adapt two of them for unaccompanied chorus, including the simple and short A nun takes the veil 'Heaven-Haven' (Barber, for whatever reason, reversed the title).

Sensitivity to the text never deserted Barber, as is evident from the two Op 42 choral works of 1968. The second of these—a setting of Louise Bogan’s To be sung on water—is an exquisite example of the composer’s ability to enhance the text in musical terms; the softly lapping water ever-present in the throbbing three-note motif shifts smoothly and antiphonally between the male and female voices. But if Barber is to be remembered for anything, it will be his Adagio for strings. Surprised, even himself, by its popularity, he had mixed feelings about the various arrangements made from its original string quartet version. His own adaptation for chorus in 1967 set it—quite appropriately—to the words of the Agnus Dei. Other than in its most famous version for string orchestra, arrangements exist for clarinet choir (by Lucien Caillet) and for organ (by William Strickland, head of the Army Music School at Fort Myer).

In a BBC broadcast in 1982, an admiring American voice described Barber’s Adagio as coming ‘straight from the heart, to use the old-fashioned term. The sense of continuity, the steadiness of the flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end. They’re all very gratifying, satisfying and it makes you believe in the sincerity which he [Barber] obviously put into it.’

Flattering words … from none other than Aaron Copland.

Ken Walton © 2000

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