Recollection: Program Notes

PROGRAM NOTES

by Anne Heider

 

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621):  Rendez à Dieu  (1604)    

This motet is based on the rhymed, metrical verses and melody for Psalm 118 in the Genevan Psalter (1562), a best seller not only in Geneva but also in France and the Netherlands. Sweelinck was a Dutch organist of international renown, and the bass line of this psalm setting certainly sounds at times like an organ pedal line.

 

Juan de Lienas (fl. c. 1640):  Salve Regina        

16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century choral music from the New World was a repertoire His Majestie’s Clerkes did much to introduce to Chicago audiences. This setting of a Marian antiphon comes from a late 16th-century Mexican manuscript source, the Convento del Carmen Codex. It alternates chant, which even the greenest choirboys could sing, and polyphony, the province of experienced adult singers. Later in the program you’ll hear other kinds of alternatim techniques as translated into 20th-century musical language.

 

John Tavener (1944-2013):  Funeral Ikos (1984)         

Many of Tavener’s greatest works draw on liturgical traditions from Orthodox rites. This one has always appealed to me for the frankness and simplicity with which the poet asks staggering questions: what’s death? what’s it like to be dead? do the dead remember us? We were introduced to Tavener’s powerful compositional style by Paul Hillier, who twice appeared as guest conductor of His Majestie’s Clerkes.

 

Frank Martin (1890-1974):  Gloria from Messe pour double chœur a cappella    

Martin’s mass for double choir was written between 1922 and 1926, a period when he was experimenting not only with modal counterpoint and triadic harmonies but also with Indian and Bulgarian rhythms. The mass was neither performed nor published until the 1960s because of Martin’s deep ambivalence about the suitability of religious music for concert presentation. Hmm. His Majestie’s Clerkes first performed the complete Mass setting with guest ensemble Chicago a cappella, a highly successful vocal group whose founder, Jonathan Miller, is one of my oldest friends in Chicago.

 

C. Hubert H. Parry (1848-1918): “My soul, there is a country,” from Songs of Farewell (1916)

Parry was an eminent music educator and oft-commissioned composer. His most inspired, most personal music is contained in the six Songs of Farewell, which he worked and reworked intensively. They were premiered in somewhat piecemeal fashion in 1916 and 1917, but Parry did not live to hear them sung as a complete set. His choice of texts reveals a crisis of faith (he was deeply disillusioned by World War I); his musical settings, introspective and even tragic, open for us the universality of those emotional depths. His Majestie’s Clerkes performed the entire set in 1997 and recorded it for Cedille Records the same year.

 

Anne Heider (b. 1942):  Pleasure Tunes my Tongue (2011)

When David Hunt, past president of North Shore Choral Society, suggested I write a piece for the NSCS’s 75th anniversary, the text that sprang immediately to my mind was this stanza by Isaac Watts, because it captures both the spiritual and the earthly delights of singing. William Billings of Boston (1746-1800) wrote a tune for these verses and published it in The New England Psalm Singer (1770). Each phrase of his tune provided me with the seed for a short choral fantasia. Like the four movements of an 18th-century sonata or suite, these sections have contrasting tempos and distinct characters.

 

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016):  excerpts from Vigilia (1971)

    from Vespers:

    First Katisma, Invocation

    Avuksihuutopsalmi, Psalm of Invocation

   from Matins:

    Katabasis, Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Mother of God

Rautavaara’s setting of the Orthodox All-Night Vigil is a glorious and monumental work requiring at least five soloists including a basso profundo and a choir that sings in eight parts much of the time and twelve parts in one movement. There are avant garde techniques—cluster chords, whispers, glissandi—which heighten the music’s expressivity, within an overall texture that is predominantly consonant and richly harmonious. Bella Voce’s 2002 performances of the complete Vigil earned us national acclaim through the Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award for “adventurous programming that is a stretch for singers and audiences alike.” The Katabasis is a modern example of a kind of alternatim technique: the chant-like verses, sung by soloists in a virtuosic style, alternate with a refrain sung by the entire choir.

 

C. Hubert H. Parry:  “Never, weather-beaten sail,” from Songs of Farewell

[Please see notes on “My soul, there is a country,” above.]

 

Frank Ferko (b. 1950):  “O ignis Spiritus Paracliti,” No. 5 from Hildegard Motets

Though it is the middle movement in a set of nine motets, “O ignis” was actually the first to be written. His Majestie’s Clerkes performed it on a concert program of newly-composed choral works presented by Chicago Composers’ Consortium in 1991. Frank told me at the time that he hoped to write more settings of Hildegard’s poetry, and asked, “If I write them, will you perform them?” Indeed, we would! and did! The set of nine was subsequently published as “commissioned in celebration of the tenth anniversary season of His Majestie’s Clerkes and dedicated to His Majestie’s Clerkes and Anne Heider, Artistic Director.” Here’s a different kind of alternatim writing: verses for two voices in free-flowing declamation alternate with slow-moving, monumental verses for the full choir.

 

William Byrd (1543-1623):  Ave Regina (1605)

Sir David Willcocks twice appeared with His Majestie’s Clerkes as guest conductor. It was on his second visit, in 1990, that he introduced us to this lovely, lively setting of a Marian antiphon by the 16th-century English master William Byrd. Byrd composed in every genre of his time except opera; he was a virtuoso at the keyboard and a master at writing choral music for both English and Latin texts.

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):  Silence and Music (1953)    

I included this gem in today’s program not only to acknowledge one of the 20th century’s great choral composers, but also to indicate that HMC/BV’s programming has always encompassed secular as well as sacred music. Silence and Music was one of ten songs by ten different British composers written “to mark the occasion of the coronation of H. M. Queen Elizabeth II.” We sang it first in 1989.

 

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672):  Cantate Domino  SWV 81 (1625)

Schütz is honored as the composer who brought the novel Italian Baroque style to the German-speaking parts of Europe. He twice sojourned in Italy to study with Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, and this Latin motet is one of the happy results. HMC/BV has performed it on numerous occasions; it celebrates the joy of singing and provides a virtuosic finale to the concert.