Yale Camerata | Advent Concert: Dona nobis pacem

Event time: 
Saturday, December 5, 2015 - 2:30pm to 4:30pm
Battell Chapel See map
College and Elm Sts.
New Haven, CT 06511
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 

Marguerite L. Brooks, conductor

Free; no tickets required

Nola Richardson, soprano
Tyler Ray, tenor
Brendan Fitzgerald, bass-baritone

On the program:

Arvo Pärt: Christmas Lullaby, Which Was the Son of…, Adam’s Lament
W.A. Mozart: Bassoon Concerto K. 191
   Wayne Hileman, bassoon
J.S. Bach: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben BWV 248/4 (from Weihnachts-Oratorium), Dona nobis pacem BWV 232 (from Mass in B-minor)
John Goss, arr. David Willcocks: See amid the winter’s snow


Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is an Estonian composer who developed his unique voice under the suffocating oppression of Soviet rule. As a student at the Tallinn Conservatory, he composed music in the Neoclassical style and supported himself by supplying scores for film and theater. He later learned twelve-tone technique from illicit manuscripts, but was officially censured when he offered a serial work for public performance. In 1964 he turned to the music of Bach for inspiration; his work from that era juxtaposes Baroque and contemporary styles, and features traditional contrapuntal techniques. In 1968, however, Pärt found himself at an impasse. The music he had composed so far expressed neither his personal identity as a devout Orthodox Christian nor the oppressive circumstances under which he lived and worked.

For several years, Pärt dedicated himself to the study of ancient church music, especially Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Inspired by the simplicity and clarity of this repertoire, he found his voice again in 1976 with the development of the compositional technique that still defines him for audiences across the globe. This technique, named “tintinnabuli” by the composer himself, evokes the ringing of Orthodox church bells. Music composed in this style features a characteristic “tintinnabular voice,” which arpeggiates the tonic triad, and a melodic voice, which moves diatonically in stepwise motion. Pärt’s works in this style are highly serialized, and much of the music is determined by large-scale formal decisions. The tintinnabuli technique produces an unusual collage of consonant and dissonant harmonies, and the resulting soundscape is unique to Pärt’s music. Pärt has been described more recently at a “mystic minimalist”: mystic because he evokes the sounds and values of his Orthodox faith, and minimalist because he greatly restricts the musical materials at his disposal.

Pärt’s Christmas Lullaby was commissioned in 2002 by Jordi Savall for his Ensemble Hesperion XXI, a group renowned since the 1970s for its virtuosic and historically informed performances of early music. Pärt initially scored the Lullaby for soprano solo with accompaniment by Hesperion XXI, but he later created an edition for female choir and string orchestra. The setting of the text, from Luke 2:7, emphasizes the incongruity of a manger as a resting place for the savior of the world.

Which Was the Son of … (2000) presents the genealogy of Jesus as outlined in Luke 3:23–28. The text is a seemingly endless list of men’s names; the circumstances of composition, however, made this text an inspired choice for Pärt, who was already inclined to favor a repetitive and ritualistic approach to composition. Pärt was commissioned to create a work for the youth choir Voices of Europe, which was to gather in Reykjavík in 2000 to celebrate that city’s status as the European Capital of Culture. The choir featured ninety singers between the ages of 18 and 23—ten from each of the nine previous Cultural Capitals. Pärt was impressed by the cultural achievements of Iceland and struck by the Icelandic tradition of reciting and celebrating genealogies. His setting contradicts the monotony of the verses, for he takes the listener on a captivating journey, marked by harmonic and rhythmic transformations, to the source of heredity itself: God.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) wrote his Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major, K. 191, in 1774 when he was just eighteen years old, possibly at the behest of Thaddäus Freiherr von Dürnitz, an aristocratic amateur bassoon player. At the time, Mozart and his father were both employed at the Salzburg court. He composed a wide variety of music for both courtly evening entertainments and public Sunday services, but eventually sought to leave the confines of Salzburg. In 1781, following a stormy interview with the Prince Archbishop, Mozart was released from service “with a kick on my arse” and permanently relocated to Vienna. His early years in the city were marked by success as he won the adoration of the upper class, but from 1788 his popularity waned and he was forced to give up his lavish apartment in the heart of town. Mozart died at age 35 of an uncertain illness.

Adam’s Lament, by Arvo Pärt, was co-commissioned in 2009 by the European Capitals of Culture for 2010 and 2011, Istanbul and Tallin, in honor of Pärt himself. The composer had just received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Istanbul Music Festival, and Adam’s Lament was to be the centerpiece of a concert celebrating his achievements. The text is drawn from the writings of St. Silouan of Athos (1866–1938), a Russian Orthodox monk who wandered Greece as an ascetic and recorded his thoughts about a variety of subjects; he is now counted among the greatest of Russian poets. Pärt first responded to Silouan’s words in 1991 with a piece for string orchestra. In this more recent setting, Pärt bases his musical decisions on the nuances of the text, which is sung in Russian.

Adam’s Lament invokes Pärt’s fascination with Silouan’s theology and provides a medium for the expression of the composer’s personal beliefs. Pärt wrote, “For me, the name Adam is a collective term not merely for the whole of humanity, but for each individual, regardless of time, era, social class, or religious affiliation. And this collective Adam has suffered and lamented on this earth for millennia. Our ancestor Adam foresaw the human tragedy that was to come and experienced it as his own guilty responsibility, the result of his sinful act. He suffered all the cataclysms of humanity into the depths of desperation, inconsolable in his agony.”

The Christmas Oratorio by J. S. Bach is a collection of six cantatas for the six major feast days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Composed in Leipzig for the 1734–1735 Christmas season, the oratorio was originally intended to be performed as separate cantatas. Bach, however, could not resist the temptation to create a coherent large-scale work even when no such thing was required. The oratorio was first heard in 1734–1735 at the Leipzig Thomaskirche, where Bach, as Kantor, was responsible for all of the music. It was not performed again in his lifetime.

When Bach composed a cantata for an ordinary Sunday Mass, he began by considering the readings and texts that were to be incorporated into worship. Each cantata was exclusively tailored to a particular Sunday and could not be reused until that feast day returned in the liturgical cycle. During his early years in Leipzig, Bach was kept very busy composing a new cantata for the Thomaskirche each week—nearly three hundred in all. By the early 1730s he had composed enough cantatas to satisfy the needs of the church, and he turned his attention to secular cantatas for aristocratic celebrations.

When he set out to compose the Christmas Oratorio in 1734, Bach naturally turned to the liturgical texts for direction. He was dissatisfied, however, with what he found. The order of readings for that particular year had the Holy Family fleeing Jerusalem before the arrival of the Magi—easy to ignore for a churchgoer who knows the narrative, but devastating for a dramatic work that seeks to tell the Christmas story. In an unusual move, therefore, Bach ignored the assigned readings and instead organized his six cantatas so as to present the events in chronological order. The cantatas are also carefully organized in terms of key, which makes the oratorio suitable for performance as a complete work. Finally, the first and last cantatas share a chorale tune, which gives the oratorio a sense of organic unification. All of these characteristics indicate that Bach conceived of the Christmas Oratorio as a whole.

Like most of Bach’s music, the Christmas Oratorio relies on preexisting musical material. Bach saved time and extended the life of his favorite compositions by reusing old music in new works. The Christmas Oratorio resurrects three secular cantatas, all composed in the previous year. Two of these cantatas celebrated royal birthdays and the third marked a coronation. It is unlikely that they would have been heard again with their original texts. Some scholars, however, believe that Bach already had the Christmas Oratorio in mind when he composed these secular cantatas. The music suits the later texts so perfectly that it is hard to imagine the two were combined after the fact.

The fourth cantata, performed this evening, celebrates the Feast of the Circumcision, which occurs on New Year’s Day and commemorates the occasion on which Jesus was taken to the temple to be circumcised and named. The text centers on the naming of Jesus, before whom the faithful are called to bow in thanks and praise. The bass solo expounds on the name for the child, saying that Jesus is named “treasure,” “life,” and “joy,” and that his name is written within the singer’s heart, thus destroying any fear of death. The soprano aria expresses a similar sentiment. Indeed, every line of the final chorale begins with the word “Jesus,” a prayer of the believers for guidance.

The cantata combines an orchestra of two horns, two oboes, two violins, viola, and basso continuo with dance meters to create a festive atmosphere, although rejoicing is tempered by reflection. Following a brief narrative passage in which the Evangelist quotes directly from Luke 2:21 to explain the cause for celebration, the soloists and chorus offer praise in a series of joyful episodes. The closing chorale tempers this celebratory mood with a series of petitions in which the faithful ask for steadfastness, self-control, and fidelity.

The texts are drawn from the work of two great poets in the Lutheran tradition. Movements III, V, and VII were penned by the seventeenth-century hymnodist Johann Rist, while the remaining texts were provided by Picander, Bach’s most famous collaborator (responsible for the texts of Bach’s two surviving Passions). One of the borrowed movements is the soprano aria “Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen,” which requires a distant soprano echo. Bach originally wrote the music for the cantata “Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen” (Let us take care, let us keep watch), BWV 213, in 1733 for the birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian. In the original context, Hercules converses with the character Echo, asking for advice about how to make his way in the world. The effect in the original work is comedic, for Echo merely endorses in turn each course of action that Hercules suggests. Bach retains the replies of “No!” and “Yes!” although the subject matter, now far from comedic, concerns salvation.

Bach assembled and revised his Mass in B Minor in the final years of his life, along with his monumental works for keyboard (the Goldberg Variations and the Musical Offering) and chamber ensemble (the Art of the Fugue). In all of these late compositions, Bach explores the furthest reaches of musical possibility and produces extraordinary testaments to his life’s work.

The Mass, like many masterpieces of the Baroque era, was not composed all at once. The Kyrie and Gloria were written in 1733 for the court at Dresden, while the Sanctus dates back to 1724. The Credo contains music composed over a period of nearly forty years. The choral “Crucifixus” is in fact a retexted movement from one of Bach’s early cantatas. The “Et incarnatus” that precedes it, on the other hand, was probably Bach’s final composition for voices.

The Dona nobis pacem, like these other movements, was borrowed from another work: the cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29, composed in Leipzig in 1731. The music for the “Dona nobis pacem” is nearly identical to that found in the first choral movement of BWV 29, although Bach embellishes the vocal lines with additional melismas. This, however, is not the end of the story. The first movement of BWV 29 was originally imported into the Mass to serve as the music for “Gratias agimus tibi,” a central portion of the Gloria. It was reused for the “Dona nobis pacem” many years later, when Bach extended his Dresden setting to incorporate the entire Ordinary of the Mass. Of course, the borrowing from BWV 29 makes more sense with the “Gratias agimus tibi” text, which is closely related to the text of the original cantata. It is not clear why Bach reused the music for his “Dona nobis pacem,” the final movement of the Mass, although it was common practice in Dresden to set the “Dona nobis pacem” to music from the Kyrie or Gloria in order to unify the Mass. Whatever Bach’s motive, none have disputed the power of his “Dona nobis pacem.”

See amid the winter’s snow is an exuberant Christmas carol that was first published in 1871 as “Hymn For Christmas Day” in the collection Christmas Carols New And Old. The Yale Camerata presents this carol every year.

John Goss (1800–1880) was an English musician in the finest tradition. He was trained as a boy chorister at the Chapel Royale, and later worked as an organist at a series of important churches and cathedrals. As a composer, Goss produced a large body of sacred and secular choral works, including several hymn tunes. The twentieth-century career of Sir David Willcocks (1919–2015) reflects that of his predecessor. Willcocks sang as a boy chorister at Westminster Abbey, and his career centered around service as a choral conductor and organist at Cambridge University and the cathedrals of Salisbury and Worcester. Willcocks contributed a number of wonderful anthems to the choral repertoire, including this participatory arrangement of “See amid the winter’s snow.”

~Esther Morgan-Ellis