Many years ago when I was still a student, I heard the Greystone Singers, under the direction of Robert Solem, perform a piece called Inscriptions from the Catacombs. It has stuck with me all these years and now, more than fifty years later, I have finally programmed it on one of our concerts. To that end, most of the music on this concert has triggered that same response in me. These are pieces that I have sung, have heard sung, and continue to want to conduct and sing. In other words they have become etched in my psyche in much the same way that someone wishes to inscribe some lasting words, impression or dedication.
- James Hawn, Music Director
Normand Lockwood was a prolific American composer, but yet one who remains in relative obscurity. Of his more than five hundred works, half of them are choral. He studied composition in Rome with Ottorino Respighi and then piano with Nadia Boulanger before returning to the States and spending time at various universities throughout the country. He composed Inscriptions from the Catacombs in 1965 and dedicated it to Olaf C. Christiansen, an American composer in the Lutheran tradition and conductor of the St. Olaf Choir for twenty-seven years. The piece begins and ends exuberantly on the words “Vivas in Deo” (You live in God), but the five sections in between are quite tranquil and tender. Movements two and three are written for double choir but the dynamic level rarely goes above piano. Movement two is tranquil and prayer-like as the words “cum sanctis” are sung by four of the eight voices at a time. It is not until the last four measures that all eight parts sing together. In movement three, choir one keeps repeating the words while choir two, with the same words, serves more as a sustained ostinato underneath them. The fourth movement begins with a solo soprano and solo tenor voice in unison before being joined by the sopranos and altos. The harmonized tune then moves to the tenors and basses before being joined by the sopranos and altos. A solo alto voice reiterates the theme and then it moves back and forth between the male and female voices. Movement five features the bass section in a cello-like melody throughout with the other sections repeating the same words over the basses as they sustain the note that ends each phrase. Movement six has a solo line for each section before returning to the words and mood of the opening.
Gregor Aichinger was organist to the Fugger family in Augsburg. He studied in Rome and also took his holy orders there. He composed during the transition period from the late Renaissance to the Baroque. His Factus est Repente (Suddenly There Came a Sound from Heaven) is a motet that begins with a musical motif that passes from one voice to the next in canonic fashion and then continues to be tossed from voice to voice throughout the rest of the piece.
Cyrillus Kreek was the most dominant figure in Estonian music in the early twentieth century. In addition to being a composer he was also a choral conductor and collector of both Estonian and Swedish folk music. One of Kreek’s colleagues, Mart Saar, wrote in 1929, “Kreek has solemnly, religiously submerged into his art with ecstatic renunciation from tumult…He is a musical desert inhabitant, ascetic, who devotes himself to supreme happiness in his aesthetic solitude.” Taaveti Laulud is Kreek’s setting of verses from the Biblical Psalms of David (Davids Psalmen). His treatment of Psalm 121 (Taaveti laul Nr. 121), composed in 1923, is one of simple contrasts. It has been described as “juxtaposing low, lugubrious references to lifting one’s eyes to the hills (as though afflicted with tiredness, only achieved with effort) with a lighter middle section reflecting on the nature of God, introducing richer harmonies, filled with hanging sevenths. Having created a warmer soundworld, Kreek takes the music back down into the depths from whence they came.”
Neil Weisensel is currently on faculty at the Canadian Mennonite University. He is the composer of seven operas as well as vocal and orchestral music. For eight years he was conductor of the Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra. His big band collaboration with superstar Michael Bublé earned him a Genie nomination. His Benedictus (excerpts from Psalm 106, Micah 6:8 and his own additional words) is homophonic with chords that create and release tension. The section” Blessed be the one who acts in justice and with love/Blessed be the one who comes in God’s name” serves as a chorus that connects the other sections of the piece. There are lovely melodic lines throughout the piece with duets for the sopranos and altos and the tenors and basses.
Many of us first heard John Tavener’s Song for Athene as it was sung while the casket bearing the body of Princess Diana was taken from Westminster Abbey at the end of her funeral. The work was commissioned by the BBC and first performed at St. Giles by the BBC Singers in 1994. The text is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Orthodox Funeral Service. The work was written in memory of Athene Hariades, who died tragically in March 1993. Her inner and outer beauty was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and the Orthodox Church. The work is solemn and filled with stillness and serenity, the basses maintaining a pedal low F throughout the entire piece, and then ends with “resplendent joy in the resurrection.”
Lobet den Herrn (Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations) with text based on Psalm 117 is listed as Johann Sebastian Bach’s sixth motet, although many scholars believe that it was probably the first one he wrote, although it was not published until 1821. Unlike the other motets it is in one movement but with three sections, two of which are fugal in character. It is the only motet not to include a chorale and it is the only one for four voices throughout. Although it can be performed without accompaniment, it was probably meant to be accompanied. The themes of the first two divisions are “capacious and sweeping.” The opening theme is a rising arpeggio which is countered by the downward cascade of “preisit.” The second subject is introduced after a chordal passage and the theme here is dominated by its octave leap and the final “in Ewigkeit” which soon becomes stretched, pictorially, into a pedal-point. The piece ends with an exuberant and resounding Alleluia. There is a joyful and contagious spirit throughout this motet.
Psalm Trilogy by Srul Irving Glick was commissioned for the Toronto Children’s Choir by Ian Epstein and his wife in honour of the Bat Mitzvah of their daughter who was a member of the chorus. Glick wrote, “I proceeded to compile a libretto based on the psalms of David using both Hebrew and English in the text. Being a religious and spiritually-oriented person, setting the Psalms has always been a special joy for me.” The three sections of this work for SSA voices are:
Psalm 92: Mizmor Shir L’yon Hashabbat
Psalm 47: Lam’natzeiach Livnei Korach Mizmor
Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd.
These pieces were written to be accompanied by piano or string orchestra. The first of these psalms is prayerful and rather plaintive but very melodic. The second psalm of the set is joyous in nature and needs to be performed with great rhythmic vitality as it changes meter throughout the piece. The final psalm in the set is the most often performed. It is a beautiful and stately setting of one of the most familiar psalms and has many sections that are in unison. In 2000, Glick received the Yuval Award, presented by the Cantor’s Assembly of America for his “lifelong commitment to the composition of music that captures the heart and touches the soul.”
Salve Regina is from the only volume of Alessandro Scarlatti’s sacred music to be published during his lifetime. There were ten works in this volume and the Salve Regina was the last. Unlike the other nine pieces it has a liturgical text (the antiphon of the Blessed Virgin Mary sung after the office of Compline from Trinity Sunday to Advent); it is in one movement and one style throughout; and it is based on a cantus firmus, in this case the intonation of the plainsong melody for the Salve Regina as ascribed to the Swiss monk Hermannus Contractus (1013-1054). A most interesting feature of this composition is the repetition of the opening word of the text, with its distinctive melody at the end of each phrase of the text. The piece is relatively homogenous and thus makes it difficult to decide whether it was intended for solo voices or chorus. Salve Regina is accompanied by two violins, cello and harpsichord.
Amazing Grace is another one of those songs that seems to haunt one. The arrangement by Ērik Ešenvalds is for eight part choir and soprano solo with the familiar tune appearing in the solo voice and in various other voices throughout the piece. The lyrics to Amazing Grace were written by a former British slave trader called John Newton and first performed in 1773. After his conversion, Newton wrote a hymn each week based on the main Biblical text of his sermon. Amazing Grace supported the sermon based on 1 Chronicles 17: 16-17, where King David responds to God’s promise that his descendent would have an eternal kingdom by asking, “Who am I Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” Over the years the text has gone through numerous revisions. Reverend G. David Lloyd writes that “one intentional result of removing Newton’s last three stanzas is that the source of grace becomes vague, which has made the song an anthem for self-help. From this point of view, grace is no longer a gift from God which allows the deserving person to have a relationship with Him, but a term for how life rewards those who refuse to give up in hard times. In his version, Ēsenvalds restores Newton’s original fourth stanza in an effort to clarify the meaning and the source of grace.”
Paul A. Aitkin is a Canadian composer living in Boise, Idaho where he is Director of Music and Worship at the Cathedral of the Rockies. Although the text he uses is a traditional French poem, the piece itself is only a few years old. Under a beautiful piano accompaniment, Aitken creates the calm and stillness of a beautiful moonlit night with his Au Claire de la Lune. Beginning with the sopranos and tenors, the main theme of the piece is passed contrapuntally from voice to voice. The dynamics are for the most part quiet, but the fifteen bars of the middle section set to the words “Ouvrez la porte pour le Dieu d’amour!” are suddenly very loud and dramatic. There is a feeling of mysticism and fantasy throughout the piece as though one were in a dream world.
For opera lovers, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (Va, pensiero sull’ali dorate) from Act III of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco is always a highlight. The opera tells of the enslavement of the Israelites by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC and their exile from Babylon. The chorus, sung by the Israelites on the banks of the Euphrates as a lament for their lost homeland, became an unofficial anthem of Italian liberation and made Verdi into a national hero. The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 137. After a lengthy introduction the chorus enters prayerfully and in unison. The first time the chorus breaks into harmony is really an outburst of agony for the things that have been lost as well as a call to the prophets to lift their hearts and stir their spirits. The piece ends quietly as it began.