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This anthology brings together representative works from the mainstream of contemporary American choral music. Charles Ives’s Psalm 90 evokes a mood reminiscent of congregational Sunday singing in New England. Copland’s In the Beginning recalls his Fanfare for the Common Man, while Lukas Foss’s Behold, I Build An House shows the stylistic influence of Copland. Vincent Persichetti’s Flower Songs reveal his deep commitment to his favourite poet E.E. Cummings, and favours the women’s voices. In Fern Hill, set for alto, chorus and orchestra, composer John Corigliano sings of the joys of youth.
American Choral Music
Familiar names and lesser-known works, past masters and living luminaries, biblical texts and modern poetry, the American choral tradition encompasses it all. The composers brought together here can reasonably be considered part of a tradition extending from Ives as the progenitor of modern American music. Selections on this recording span the entire twentieth century but eschew vocal experimentation and avant-garde styles. Instead, these works embrace musical idioms more gracious to singers and audiences alike. The choir is here employed by each composer as a vehicle for communal experiences and collective emotions. Ives, Copland, and Foss turn to biblical texts to capture the awe and wonder of creation, Persichetti and Corigliano to contemporary poetry to speak of innocence and experience, love and loss. Together they represent the mainstream of American composition and some of the best in the catalogue of contemporary choral music.
Vincent Persichetti: Flower Songs (Cantata No. 6), Op. 157 (1983)
Philadelphia-native Vincent Persichetti was a prolific composer of some 120 works, including notable pieces for piano and wind band, as well as much music suited for instructional use. Like Foss, his style was eclectic, but Persichetti did not tend to work within any one style at any given time; instead of falling easily into stylistic periods, his music was always marked by compositional variety.
Persichetti preferred texts by American writers, with E.E. Cummings clearly a favorite. Flower Songs reveals the depth of the composer's commitment to the poet: Persichetti chose seven poems that span Cummings's entire oeuvre, from the very first collection (1923) to penultimate publication (1958). The composer carefully arranged the texts into a loosely-constructed cycle on the theme of love and loss.
Although none of the poems is explicitly gendered, Persichetti seems to privilege the feminine by giving the women's voices special prominence throughout the cycle. The first song embraces both life and death, evoking the flowering of youth as well as the silence of the grave in chant-like tones, while the second is a reverie of metaphors. The next pair celebrates an indiscriminate sexual passion (the many girls and many kisses in "Early Flowers") before pledging true love and fidelity. "Is There a Flower" is a tender duet between lovers who murmur to each other accompanied by a steady heartbeat and jazzy harmonies. The heart-wrenching dissonances in "A Yellow Flower" and "The Rose is Dying" speak of betrayal and grief. (Yellow roses are a traditional symbol of infidelity, and in fact Cummings had separated from his wife at the time.) In the aftermath of the affair, "Lily Has a Rose" is a dialogue between two women, one jealous of attention paid to the other. Song and cycle end with a profound yet fatalistic sentiment first voiced by the sopranos alone, answered by dissonant suspensions, then asserted quite stridently by the entire choir.
Charles Ives: Psalm 90 (1923–24)
During the 1890s Charles Ives turned to the Psalms as texts for a set of experimental pieces. Most he left unrevised as they were first written (one, a setting of Psalm 67 with the women in C major and the men in G minor, was recorded as early as 1939 and is a staple of choral concerts even today). Psalm 90, however, he continued to work on during his life as a composer, bringing it to its final form as late as 1923.
Written at the end of his compositional career and in a genre closely associated with his earliest experiences as a church organist, Psalm 90 is perhaps a summation of Ives's musical life. Moreover, the psalm text, with its themes of divine creation and human toil, is especially suitable for a man who was both an inspired, adventurous composer and successful insurance executive. At the opening of his score Ives provides a précis of the psalm. The first two chords in the organ part have written above them "The Eternities" and "Creation"; the jarringly dissonant third chord is marked "God's wrath against sin". The descending fourth in the next measure is labeled "Prayer and Humility," the next to last chord of the instrumental introduction (before the bells begin to toll) "Rejoicing in Beauty and Work". Grounding the entire piece is a single, unwavering pedal point that might be heard as a musical representation of resolute faith. The psalm ends with a plea for God's mercy and grace set in a simple chorale texture, a musical memory, perhaps, of congregational singing on a Sunday morning in New England.
John Corigliano: Fern Hill (1960)
About his early choral work Fern Hill, John Corigliano has written:
I'd only just graduated college in 1959 when a singer friend asked me to set Thomas's famous poem on his father's death, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night". I'd not been familiar with the body of his work before, and so my friend gave me the Collected Poems to give me a sense of his style.
Fern Hill is a blithe poem, yet touched by darkness; time rules over all, finally holding the poet "green and dying", but the poem itself, formally just a simple ABA song extended into a wide arch, sings of the joy of youth and its keen perceptions. I set it for mezzo-soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, aiming in the music to match the forthright lyricism of the text. (The direction "with simplicity" is often to be found in the printed score.) This was the first time that I set a poem of Dylan Thomas's when I was, emotionally at least, the same age as its creator, but … not the last.
Offered as a gift to his high-school music teacher, Mrs. Bella Tillis, Fern Hill was later grouped with Poem in October (1959) and Poem on His Birthday (1976) into A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1976), later revised as an oratorio (1999). In every version, Fern Hill is shot through with the composer's intellectually engaging yet sonically accessible style, and his emotional commitment to the poems is always apparent.
Lukas Foss: Behold, I Build an House (1950)
Born in Germany, Lukas Foss was a musical prodigy who came to the United States in 1937 from Paris (where his family had fled from Nazi Germany) to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Behold, I Build an House falls within the period of Foss's first maturity, at which point his style owed much to Copland's.
Commissioned for the opening of the ecumenical Marsh Chapel at Boston University, Behold, I Build an House is a biblical cantata based on passages from II Chronicles (the odd-sounding "an" comes from the King James version). This scripture speaks to the occasion, as it describes the construction of Solomon's temple. The music falls into three sections delineated by organ interludes. First is the opening charge to construct the temple; second, the dedication of the temple and musical offerings of praise; and finally, a line from Solomon's prayer set as a slow-moving, meditative chant.
Aaron Copland: In the Beginning (1947)
Copland was not a choral composer. Most of his works for chorus are relatively short and serve some specific purpose: fulfilling a commission; voicing of a political perspective; or giving material from larger works a chance to circulate as smaller compositions.
In the Beginning belongs to the first of these types but is unusual in its length, difficulty, beauty, and power. Commissioned for the Symposium on Music Criticism held at Harvard University in May 1947, it was first given by Robert Shaw and the Harvard University Collegiate Chorale, with the composer in attendance. "Bob Shaw did a bee-utiful job with my new chorus," Copland wrote to Leonard Bernstein soon after the première. "Most people seemed to like it, but the press was only mildly interested. I can't imagine how you'll react to it. Anyhow you won't have to conduct it—since there's nothing but voices."
The text is from the opening chapters of Genesis. Solo sections delineate the days and their separate acts of creation, with the phrase "And God said" prefacing each new dawn. As the world comes into being, the music likewise takes shape, beginning with simple textures at the opening that suggest a formless darkness, through the triplet motives that illustrate the undulating waters of the ocean, to the divisi chorus describing the division of time and seasons on the fourth day. A canon musically depicts the creation of man in God's image, and a homophonic hymn marks the seventh day of rest. The piece ends with glorious triadic chords and unexpected tonal shifts, much like those at the conclusion of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, that here describe the ensouling of man.
Elizabeth B. Crist
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