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Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem; Bernstein: Chichester Psalms

King's College Choir Cambridge, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Cleobury (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: Various dates
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2017
Total duration: 54 minutes 51 seconds
 

Soloists Ailish Tynan and Roderick Williams set the bar suitably high in committed new recordings of two choral classics. Jonathan Rathbone's 'chamber' scoring of the Vaughan Williams brings this masterpiece within the performing reach of smaller choirs while losing none of its emotional intensity.

Studio master customers: Please note that the bonus track on this album was recorded at 96kHz and it is at this resolution that it is included in the 192kHz download.

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On 27 October 1952, Ralph Vaughan Williams penned a short letter to the pianist and lifelong conscientious objector Frank Merrick. The elderly composer (just turned 80) was prompted to do so by a contact at the Oxford University Press, which had received from the Musicians' Organisation for Peace an application to reproduce a fragment of his music on its forthcoming Christmas card. ‘I thoroughly mistrust these so-called “Peace” movements’, RVW remarked to Merrick, shooting—it would appear—from the hip. ‘I know that your “Peace” organisation is run by honest and single-minded people: (indeed in early days I think I joined it myself) but I think there is a great danger that you are too simple minded and will become dupes of the nefarious designs of the kremlinists.’ No-one, of course, likes to be dubbed a dupe; but neither, under these circumstances, would you want to appear a Scrooge. So, having aired his doubts and sounded a note of caution, RVW silenced his inner Ebenezer just long enough to give Merrick’s greeting card the go-ahead, and to outline succinctly what his statement ‘in favour of peace’ would be. Though more complicated, to his mind, than procuring a bit of plainsong or a snippet from Bach’s B Minor Mass, printing the statement in question could not but pacify the most conflicted of listeners.

The exchange between RVW and Merrick may seem little more than a footnote to the history of Dona nobis pacem, the cantata from which this phrase is taken, yet the appropriation of the lilting fragment by the Musicians' Organisation for Peace tells us something important about RVW’s principles, intentions, and popular allure. Composed in 1936 to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society, Dona nobis pacem has often been thought to have exceeded the terms of its commission, garnering admiration for the ways in which it sets its sights further afield, and thereby prompts listeners to regard it as ‘a commentary on the state of Europe’. Attractive though it may be to think of the cantata in these terms—as a piece of musical ‘propaganda’, or, in one recent account, as ‘a manifesto for world peace’—RVW’s response in 1952 to ‘simple minded’ pacifists should encourage us to return to his work in the mid-1930s, and to think again about its motivation as a form of political testimony.

For rather than opting to enlist material from the English literary tradition, as Benjamin Britten would in the case of The War Requiem some twenty-five years later, RVW strove in 1936 to piece together a choral work that would speak in curiously distant ways to the matter of peacemaking. After all, he too might have taken up the poetry of Wilfred Owen, or indeed followed the example of Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera (1924), which had incorporated texts by Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, and Wilfrid Gibson, each of them alert to the ethical problems of writing pastoral verse in the light of regime change and military upheaval. Instead, RVW elected to borrow the words of a New Yorker—Walt Whitman (1819-92)—whose poetry had long tantalised and tested him, trying the limits of his taste, both as a reader and as a song-writer. Whitman, he once remarked, ‘“was too fond of the smell of his own armpits”’—a sniffy bit of criticism, to be sure, but one that also demonstrates an intimacy with the very curves and crevices of the poet’s work. A letter to Gustav Holst in 1898 reveals an early, playful fascination with the American’s style, and in the years leading up to the First World War, RVW had applied himself seriously to the task of setting portions of Whitman’s lifework, Leaves of Grass (1855-92), culminating in 1909 with the completion of A Sea Symphony. In a lecture of 1912, RVW had been swift to acknowledge the poet’s ‘cosmopolitan’ appeal, but it is clear from such accounts that he had come to see Whitman as a model folklorist, first and foremost, precisely because he’d reaped his ‘inspiration’ from the soil beneath his feet, and not from the ‘incompatible conditions’ of a ‘foreign culture’.

It is all the more surprising, then, that Whitman remained such an important figure for RVW, who could see no hypocrisy at all in his wanting to transplant the poet’s lyrics. He carried with him a volume of Leaves of Grass as he went about his duties as a stretcher-bearer in the war, no doubt alive to the fact that he was following vicariously in Whitman’s footsteps. As a volunteer nurse in the American Civil War (1861-65), Whitman too had witnessed the stark, scattered effects of modern artillery, and had written about them at length in a series of poems called Drum-Taps (later to be included in an expanded version of Leaves of Grass). One of these poems, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, had set RVW sketching before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it is easy to guess what piqued his curiosity. Extending to nine four-line stanzas, the poem tells a familiar story—the passing of a funeral party, the sounding of bugles and drums—yet there is a strangeness about these proceedings, and it has something to do with the ‘new-made double grave’ that opens like a wound at the end of the first verse. In time, we learn that the grave has been dug to accommodate blood relations—‘two veterans, son and father, dropped together’—and in the wake of that twofold bereavement, the witness to this burial allows himself to be carried away by the ‘immense’ procession. This is a poem, oddly, that purports to rejoice in the rhythms and phantom rhymes of the dirge, and to wax lyrical about the ways a procession of this sort ‘enwraps’ and seems to ‘please’ those who live to fight another day.

By returning to this ghoulish piece in 1936, RVW began to compose a cantata that would appear, crucially, to be in two minds about the struggle for peace. We sense this mood of indecision too in the settings of Whitman that precede the ‘Dirge’, first in the manic call to arms of ‘Beat! beat! drums!’, and then, more sweetly, but no less irresistibly, in ‘Reconciliation’. In this short, confessional poem—written shortly after the Civil War—Whitman finds himself at once preoccupied and elated by the spectacle of an enemy corpse. He gazes lovingly upon the ‘white face’, and feels inclined to ‘touch lightly’, not with his hands, but with his ‘lips’, rather, in a necrophiliac gesture that bespeaks a chilling kind of intimacy. RVW’s setting gives nothing away, and simply allows the baritone soloist to hover uncertainly in the moment of his stolen kiss, sensitive perhaps to the reality that this ‘reconciliation’ is nothing more or less than wish-fulfilment. Dona nobis pacem is a work that subtly dramatizes the acts of joining and dividing forces—chorus and orchestra, percussion and strings—yet it is one that also allows for the possibility of hushed soliloquy: occasionally, as in ‘Reconciliation’, voices seem to strike out alone, as though encouraged to explore on their own terms the limits of expression and the thrill of melodic singularity. It would be easy to overlook, even to pardon, these flights of fancy; and indeed, the sixth and final part of the cantata may well be the movement RVW expected listeners to take to heart, with its festive turn, fanfares, and renewed attempt to interweave biblical lesson and aphorism. This, of course, was the finale that appealed to the sensibilities of the Musicians' Organisation for Peace in 1952. And yet, when all is said and done—and sung—it will be clear that there are no greeting-card conclusions, or ‘simple minded’ mottos, to be drawn from this fitful work. A fair hearing of the cantata, on the contrary, might account for its lingering interest in the grim and sensual aspects of combat. Only then, perhaps, could we reasonably say that Dona nobis pacem is greater than the sum of its parts.

The other piece featured here, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (1965), would seem to require little by way of introduction. It has been noted many times before that the three dense movements of this work amount to a belated sign of peace, and an intimation of the ways Bernstein had come to doubt the dissonant effects of his third symphony, Kaddish (1963). Writing in 2004, in the spirit of synopsis and conciliation, Jamie Bernstein confessed that he had long since resolved to think of his father’s symphony and the Chichester Psalms as ‘one work, for the latter piece is really a resolution of the conflicts so passionately articulated in the former’. It is certainly tempting to imagine Bernstein Sr. might have had a grand scheme in mind—that in composing the Chichester Psalms he was also putting something more considerable to rest—yet there’s ample evidence to suggest that his new choral work had nothing to do with peace at all:

Since June of nineteen-sixty-four
I’ve been officially free of chore
And duty to the N. Y. Phil. –
Fifteen beautiful months to kill!

This couple of couplets comes from a short, mock-epic poem, ‘…And What I Did’, penned by Bernstein for The New York Times in October 1965. The poem tells of Bernstein’s ‘late Sabbatical’ from orchestral duties in a rough mixture of tones and measures, revealing in the process a restlessly creative mind, which has been set spinning by the idea of writing another West Side Story (1957). As it turns out, his plan in the autumn of 1964 to turn Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) into a musical had to be shelved, yet it did not quite come to nothing. In late 1963, Bernstein had received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, entreating him to compose a new work for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival. Bernstein had agreed, and he received a further note in August 1964 from Hussey, who wished to impress on him, ahead of the commission’s delivery, how pleased he would be ‘if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music’.

Little did Hussey know how literally his correspondent would respond to this mischievous request. A few months later, and at just about the time Bernstein could see that The Skin of Our Teeth project had ground to a halt, Hussey wrote again to New York, fearful that he’d become ‘an arch nuisance’:

May I say again that I hope you will feel entirely free to write your setting exactly as you wish to. I hope you would not, at any rate on our behalf, feel any restrictions from the point of view of tradition or convention. The work would not be performed during any sort of religious service and I firmly believe that any work which is sincere can suitably be given in a cathedral and to the glory of God.

We might wonder what Hussey was hoping for exactly. A revamp of ‘Maria’? The Nicene Creed set to ‘Something’s Coming’? Hussey had evidently decided that what the festival needed was an injection of energy, and that it would do it no harm at all ‘to have a sharp and vigorous push into the middle of the 20th century’. Bernstein duly obliged. On 10 June 1965, his piece arrived finally on the cleric’s desk, fully scored and replete with a typewritten copy of the Hebrew text. The work ‘has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments’, Bernstein remarked to Hussey, before going on to explain that ‘each movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more versions from another complementary psalm, by way of contrast or amplification’. Only one thing needed to be cleared up, and that was the untimely demise of the piece’s working title, Psalms of Youth. ‘The title has now been changed to Chichester Psalms’, Bernstein reported: ‘(“Youth” was a wrong steer; the piece is far too difficult).’

In practice, the piece was to prove plenty difficult for the combined male forces of Salisbury, Winchester, and Chichester Cathedrals, who delivered its UK première on 31 July 1965. Following an unruly invocation to psaltery and harp—‘Urah, hanevel, v’chinor! ’—the first movement plunges into a quick, angular dance in ‘the Davidic spirit’, revelling at every turn in its own commotion: ‘Hariu l’Adonai kol haarets’ (‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands’). The problems and pleasures of this psalm-setting have to do with the way Bernstein plays fast and loose with the syntax of his Hebraic source—delaying and repeating phrases—whilst seeming to push on at the end of every bar, as though skipping half a beat, in a temper of irrepressible thanksgiving. Bernstein had warned Hussey of the new work’s demands, and had been sure to include in the score ‘exact notes’ on the text’s pronunciation. Nowhere would this act of charity be felt more keenly than at the heart of the second movement, which appears to burst forth after a schmaltzy setting of psalm 23. ‘[T]he Hebrew words of Ps. 2 are a tongue-breaker!’, Bernstein confessed, perhaps a little tickled to think of the festival’s back row getting to grips with ‘Lamah rag’shu goyim / Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?’ (‘Why do the nations rage, / And the people imagine a vain thing?’). The clever thing about such writing, as Hussey and others could see, is that the meaning of the derisive psalm has inveigled its way right into Bernstein’s sense of rhythm, lending the sequence a fierce, interrogative edge.

Tongue-breaking, the psalm may be, but toe-tapping too, surely? For it is this second movement of the Chichester Psalms that reveals most conspicuously the residue of West Side Story. We might recall the layering effect of the ‘Tonight Quintet’ when we hear psalm 23 drift back in and over the pointed disquiet of the tenors and basses: it is a moment of startling counterpoint, in which the upper parts are instructed by the composer to sing on, ‘blissfully unaware’ of the threat that stirs beneath them. Those who longed in 1965 to glimpse a hint of musical theatre in the new work can hardly have been disappointed, yet few could have imagined the scope or liberality of Bernstein’s self-borrowing. The theme that surfaces in the second movement derives from a number that never made it into West Side Story, ‘Mix!’, a gangland song Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim had written to announce the Jets’ violent intentions in Act I:

Mix! Make a mess of ’em.
Pay the Puerto Ricans back,
Make a mess of ’em.
If you let us take a crack,
There’ll be less of ’em,
There’ll be less of ’em.

Try singing these words to the tune of psalm 2 (‘Lamah! Lamah rag’shu? Lamah rag’shu goyim, Lamah rag’shu? …’), and you’ll begin to apprehend the mood in which Bernstein undertook the festival commission. Some critics have considered it nothing more than a form of recycling, a lazy attempt to salvage a song that had simply not made the cut. It will be clear, even so, that passages of this kind, taken together with a few scraps from The Skin of Our Teeth, bear witness to a serious attempt on Bernstein’s part to meet Hussey’s expectations, and so to compose a work that not only appears to push and shove, but also to dance and flirt, with the conventions of cathedral repertoire. Sometimes, as in the third movement, this locomotive dynamic slows and fades to permit a different sort of tempo and emotional temperature, yet even the limping pace of psalms 131 and 133 betrays a touch of the romantic. This is ‘almost a popular song’, Bernstein advised Hussey, shortly before its première; ‘it is something like a love-duet between the men and the boys’. This, assuredly, would get tongues wagging in Chichester; but lest this love-duet prove even too much for the likes of the Very Reverend Hussey, Bernstein ended his summary on a conciliatory note. ‘In this atmosphere of humility, there is a final chorale coda […]—a prayer for peace’. And so indeed it remains, a prayer for peace, and the sign of a sabbatical well spent.

This album includes a downloadable track by American composer Stephen Paulus, who passed away in 2014. Paulus co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now known as the American Composers Forum, and won posthumous Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Classical Compendium. The road home has been performed by King's College Choir on its two most recent tours to the USA, and has become a favourite for the performers and audience members alike.

Andrew Allen © 2017

When I was first approached by King’s about re-orchestrating Dona nobis pacem, a version for strings and harp was envisaged. Vaughan Williams’ original setting for full orchestra is better suited to a large choral society than to a small chapel choir. There exists already a version for strings and piano, but, on closer inspection, this version keeps the string parts exactly the same as the original, and simply reduces all the woodwind, brass, percussion, harp and organ to just piano. We felt that this would lose too much of the excitement of the original and, although there are many beautiful moments which would sound every bit as beautiful, there are many dramatic sections that could be disappointing, and we wanted to keep them as exciting as was originally intended.

We therefore settled on the idea of keeping the intention of the original, but cutting the number of players down to match the Choir’s forces. I came up with various combinations—one of which used the splendid organ in the Chapel. This was the combination that was finally agreed upon. The reduction is quite considerable—twelve woodwind down to two, twelve brass down to three, and string numbers reduced to match. Reducing the percussion numbers wasn’t so simple—a timpani roll and a cymbal crash is a roll and a crash, and needs two players. Nothing, using only one player, can quite make up for it! So, although there has been a slight reduction in percussion activity, it has not been to the detriment of the work. It so easily could have been if we had cut those instruments as well.

String numbers too can make quite a big difference to the way a section is scored. I remember once being given this impossible brief: 'We’d like this to sound like the soundtrack to the film Titanic' and we’ve enough money for a string quartet.' On that occasion, I did write string parts that would have sounded good with the numbers of strings employed in the film, but I also wrote a second version, written especially for string quartet, which had a lot more flow and movement. I implored them to consider both versions. They rang me to say (with a certain degree of surprise in their voices) that they had gone with the ‘non-Titanic’ version. I wasn’t surprised. Held notes in a large section sound wonderful, but with a smaller section they often need supporting below (or above). We had two celli on this RVW recording, which meant that the word divisi in the score effectively meant soli; likewise with the violas (we had three). This meant quite a few of the divisi sections required careful re-voicing in order to keep them well balanced.

Although Vaughan Williams’ scoring of this work has both organ and harp, he uses them very sparingly. The reduction in the other forces allowed me (and, in many ways, compelled me) to use these a little more often. The harp only appears half-way through in the original, but here I have employed it throughout. Use of the harp also serves to give the work a slightly lighter feel in places. Likewise, the organ part as written by Vaughan Williams only appears in the biggest moments—but I have been able to incorporate some far more delicate registrations. And, of course, the sound of King’s College Choir singing with the organ is well-known and well-loved for good reason! Another unexpected, but very welcome, consequence of this re-orchestration is the amount of clarity the work has been given. With such a richly orchestrated work, one can lose detail, simply because of the numbers of instruments playing. However, paring it all back allows the original lines and thoughts to re-appear.

One of the hardest things with the reduction of an orchestration is to keep everything in proportion. For example, if Vaughan Williams had written a particular section for exactly all the orchestra we were using, and I transcribed it exactly, I would effectively be writing for full orchestra, whilst he would still have had a battalion of players waiting in the wings! These are all the instruments I have at my disposal though. So, a sense of scale—throughout the work—is enormously important. I find that, because of this, it is best to take myself away. For this project I stayed at a friend’s cottage in Walberswick for a couple of weeks and worked with no distractions, from dawn to dusk (and beyond) for many days to see this through. It’s not the sort of project one would want to do in bits! It sounds like a lot of work—and in many ways it is, but these projects are always so enjoyable. It is fascinating as an orchestrator to get so deep into the original score: one always learns so much from the masters. And, for me, as a Vaughan Williams fan, this project has been a particular pleasure.

Jonathan Rathbone © 2017

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