The choral selections on this recording cover a wide spectrum in their approach to life and its inevitable ending. The composers of these pieces have created strong emotional works that can move the listener to tears, but at the same time raise that listener’s spirit. Listening to this music is a chance to remember – but that can be experienced in different ways.
Five of the compositions are directly related to war. Three of them are based on texts from World War I. Of those, two are set to Laurence Binyon’s timeless poem For the Fallen. Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s setting makes evocative use of the trumpet so often associated with military ceremonies. Mike Sammes’ composition for male voices is incredibly moving and ends with the piano playing the final notes of The Last Post. It has been sung at every Saskatoon Chamber Singers’ Remembrance Day concert as the Act of Remembrance. Many choral compositions have been written to the words of John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Canadian composer Kirkland Adsett has chosen to use violin and cello to create a melodic and lyrical setting of this famous text.
We Remember Them by American composer Donald McCullough (The Holocaust Cantata) has a distinctively sad and melancholy character. The text by Rabbi Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer is, in many ways, reminiscent of Binyon’s poem mentioned above. The text reminds us that we must all remember the terrible things that can happen in the world when hate, prejudice and oppression go unchecked, so we can try to prevent them from happening again.
A Soldier’s Prayer by Canadian composer Beverly Lewis is set to an anonymous text found by a hospital nurse in the Philippines during World War II. The text begins “Let them in, Peter, for they are very tired” and then goes on to enumerate those things that the dead will never see or do or know. The fallen in war deserve to be given “things they like” and be told that “they are missed.” The plaintive sound of the oboe adds to the poignant mood of this piece.
Following along the lines of these pieces is Michael Horvit’s Even When God Is Silent. The text for this piece was found by Allied troops in Cologne, Germany, written on a basement wall by someone who had been hiding from the Gestapo. It was commissioned by Congregation Emanu-El on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. In Ose Shalom, John Leavitt uses clarinet, violin, cello, bass, and piano to accompany the choir in this moving plea for God to create not only peace in the heavens, but also peace for the Jewish people.
Four of the selections are more traditionally sung as hymns. There are two settings of O God, Our Help in Ages Past. Paul Christiansen uses chorale-like arrangements of the familiar tune “St. Anne” for verses one, three, and five. The first and fifth are for male voices and the third for mixed voices. Each of these verses is joined by a contrasting verse that creates a sense of tension and despair. Alan Hovhaness wrote his own tune and accompaniment and set only three verses of the text. The first and third are homophonic in nature, the second has the voices entering one after the other, and all are accompanied by organ. Stephen Hatfield’s Amazing Grace is a wonderful and innovative setting of this very familiar tune. The actual hymn tune is heard only in the solo oboe, accompanied throughout by a very beautiful counter melody for the choir. My Shepherd Will Supply My Need was arranged by our accompanist, Rod Epp. He has taken the traditional tune associated with this text and created a wonderfully tender and melodic piece.
Both British composer William Walton and Canadian composer Jeff Enns have set Phineas Fletcher’s poem “Litany” to music. Although Walton seldom wrote church music, A Litany, composed when he was only fourteen, already foreshadows his distinctive style. Jeff Enns’ Litany, inspired by Walton’s version, is a composition that is both heartfelt and uplifting and full of beautiful melodies and rich harmonies. The text begins “Drop, drop, slow tears.” The shedding of tears is a natural part of the grieving and remembering process.
Three of the compositions on this recording are better known for their text than the music to which they have been set. Australian composer Graeme Morton chose Tennyson’s timeless poem Crossing the Bar, in which the final stages of life are paralleled with the sailor’s evening return to port at journey’s end. Christina Rossetti’s poem Remember is the text used by Canadian composer Stephen Chatman. The sentiments of this poem reflect much of what we are asked to do when we remember: never should we let the pain of memory take away the joy of living. Chatman’s piece is reminiscent of chant in that the character and movement of the piece are reliant on the ebb and flow of the words of the text. Canada’s senior composer, Healey Willan, has written a sublime piece to a text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, How They So Softly Rest. One of Willan’s early works, it hints of Russian church music with its rich chords for both male and female choirs and is typical of his soaring melodic lines.
Canadian composer Allan Bevan has written a truly beautiful arrangement of Ave Maria for two soprano soloists and women’s voices. This piece won first prize in the equal voices category in the 1999-2000 Association of Canadian Choral Communities’ choral composition competition. The beautiful melody and harmonies unite to create a piece that soars majestically to its conclusion. Another Canadian composer, Stephanie Martin, set to music comforting words from the Eastern Byzantine rite (circa 842). Kontakion, although homophonic in nature and sung with a feeling of chant, creates a sense of peace now that death has come and a sense of jubilation about what is yet to come. The words of the faithfully departed ask that they be given rest with the saints in a place where there is no longer pain, sorrow, or sighing, but only life everlasting. Cellist Pablo Casals composed O Vos Omnes to a short text from Lamentations. At first Casals sets the male voices against the female voices, but soon they come together as one to reflect a united sorrow.
Im Stillen Friedhof by Hugo Wolf is one of his early compositions and was probably written for the Ritterbund, a close group of friends who came together on a weekly basis for music and good company. The sombre mood first set by the opening chords of the piano gives way to a rhapsodic melody that is sung in turn by the four voices before once again returning to the same sombre mood of the opening. The piece asks us to consider the speed with which the body within a grave can be forgotten, since life seems to continue unaffected.
Canadian composer Pierre Mercure wrote Cantate pour une joie in 1955. It is a remarkable work of seven movements, six of which depict the horror and savagery and sadness of war and the state of the world. The cantata concludes, however, with a joyous A Cry of Joy in which the opening piano introduction imitates the pealing of bells on some auspicious occasion; and this sense of festivity and celebration continues throughout the piece. Mercure was concerned with the yearning for joy rather than the concept of joy itself.
Jeff Enns’ God Be in My Head serves as a suitable conclusion or benediction for this CD. Sung in unison, its simplicity of melody and text calls us back together to do what the title of the CD first asked us to do – Remember.