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Marguerite L. Brooks, conductor
Take Him, Earth
The World Beloved (A Bluegrass Mass)
“Bless the living, bless the dead,” the soprano soloist sings in the penultimate movement of Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved. In the spirit of Allhallowtide, the commemoration of the departed common to most Western Christian denominations, the theme of tonight’s concert is remembrance. More specifically, we commemorate the centenary of the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918, an event still marked by the proliferation of blood-red Remembrance Day poppies throughout the British Commonwealth, and in the United States by the official observance of Veterans Day. Two other November anniversaries are of particular relevance to our program: the assassination in 1963 of President John F. Kennedy and the death of British composer John Tavener five years ago tomorrow. Requiem aeternam dona eis.
Herbert Howells, Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing
The arts were a key ingredient in the potent mystique of the Kennedy White House. Although the president seems to have had no particular interest in music—according to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, his favorite piece was “Hail to the Chief”—he recognized that a vibrant musical culture was a hallmark of a civilized society, as well as a means of burnishing America’s global brand during the Cold War. (An iconic photograph shows the youthful chief executive applauding the 84-year-old cellist Pablo Casals—an international symbol of resistance to totalitarianism–at a concert in the East Room on November 13, 1961.) It should be no surprise, then, that Kennedy’s tragic death prompted an outpouring of musical tributes from composers as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Darius Milhaud, Donald MacInness, Roy Harris, and Roger Sessions. None of these musical memorials has won a more lasting place in the repertoire than Herbert Howells’s tenderly reverent motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing. Commissioned for a memorial service held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on November 24, 1964, it was one of three a cappella choral works (the others were by Leo Sowerby and Canadian composer Graham George) premiered by the Choir of the Cathedral of St. George from Kingston, Ontario.
Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing is set to a burial hymn by the fourth-century Latin poet Prudentius, in what the composer called “Helen Waddell’s faultless translation.” The piece recalled the more personal loss that Howells had suffered some three decades earlier, when his nine-year-old son Michael died of polio. Hymnus Paradisi, the work he wrote in Michael’s memory, took as its epigraph Prudentius’s opening lines: “Nunc suscipe, terra, favendum, gremioque hunc concipe molli.” (Howells had considered setting them to music, but decided against it.) In the motet, Waddell’s sonorous English version of the Latin couplet is first sung in unison plainchant style and subsequently returns as a consolatory refrain. Switching to two-part harmony at the words “Once was this a spirit’s dwelling,” Howells gradually enriches the texture as the underlying B-minor tonality becomes increasingly wayward and chromatic. The paradise-destroying serpent briefly rears its head in sinister A minor, but an impassioned appeal to God, the “mighty Leader,” wards off evil and restores tonal equilibrium. The motet’s solemn final section, swelling to eight voices, reprises the opening of Prudentius’s hymn in what Howells characterized as “a near-funeral march, tethered again to B, but in the more consoling major mode.” Nineteen years after the service for President Kennedy, the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, would sing Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing in memory of the composer himself, who died on February 23, 1983.
John Tavener, Requiem Fragments
In contrast to Howells, a deeply conservative musician steeped in the Anglican cathedral choir tradition, John Tavener was a religious seeker of a decidedly iconoclastic bent. The intense, and intensely personal, spirituality that suffuses his extensive corpus of sacred choral music invites comparison with Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt. Like them, Tavener embraced a wide range of compositional techniques and source material, from twelve-tone music to medieval songs and Slavonic chant. After his conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 1977, the vein of mystical lyricism that had long been present in his music emerged more strongly in such works as Akhmatova: Requiem, inspired by the Russian poet’s elegiac meditations on the horrors of the Soviet gulag; Song for Athene, juxtaposing texts from the Orthodox funeral service and Shakespeare’s Hamlet; and the marathon interfaith all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple. Toward the end of his life, Tavener expressed a desire to “become more universalist” in his musical and religious explorations. This search bore fruit in two works that were premiered posthumously in 2014 at a BBC Proms concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall: Gnōsis, which one critic described as a “mystical love-letter” drawing on Christian, Hindu, and Islamic traditions; and Requiem Fragments, blending Hindu acclamations with portions of the Christian service for the dead.
Death, and rites of death, are recurring themes in Tavener’s music. (A section on the late composer’s still-functioning website is devoted to “health, or rather the lack of it” and lists a litany of ailments he endured, from Marfan syndrome to chronic pain.) While recuperating from a severe heart attack in 2007, Tavener became enamored of the richly textured polypony of Josquin des Prez, and it was a motet sometimes attributed to the Renaissance master—the massive, 24-voice Qui habitat in adiutorio Altissimi–that served as the inspiration for Requiem Fragments. Scored for choir, two trombones, and string quartet, the work opens with muted strings playing a “still, transcendent” melody in canonic imitation while basses intone the mantric syllable “Om” on a low B-flat. The choral Introit begins and ends as another simple canon, with the middle section (“Te decet hymnus”) underlaid by a steady patter of quarter notes invoking Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. A vigorous instrumental interlude leads to the Kyrie, whose lacy contrapuntal lines are to be sung, Tavener tells us, “with grave beauty.” Bright, percussive fanfares signal a sudden “explosion of joy and bliss” as the divided choir simultaneously hymns the Latin “Sanctus” and the Sanskrit “Ātmā” (often translated as “world soul”). The work’s last two sections, each preceded by a rapturous cantilena for solo soprano, are hypnotic choral ruminations on the words Manekarnikā (a Hindu shrine revered as a portal to another life) and Mahāprālaya (the ultimate dissolution of the universe). Tavener’s respective performance directions–“like a great lake ululating” and “as rivers flowing back to their source—perfectly capture the music’s beatific serenity.
Carol Barnett, The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass
To music-lovers of a certain age, the term “bluegrass mass” may evoke memories of the “folk masses” that proliferated in Catholic churches in the wake of Vatican II. Although the vernacularizing spirit of that era arguably lives on in the genre known as Contemporary Christian Music, the leading composers associated with the folk mass movement—such as Ray Repp, Carey Landrey, and Father Clarence Rivers–are no longer religious-household names. So the field was wide open in 2006 when Carol Barnett and Marsha Chamberlain, a composer and writer from Minneapolis, teamed up, in Barnett’s words, to “bring the solemnity of the classical-based Mass together with the down-home sparkle of bluegrass.” The World Beloved—scored for choir, soloists, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and bass–was commmissioned for Philip Brunelle’s VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and the bluegrass band Monroe Crossing, both based in the Twin Cities. The project had special appeal for Barnett, a former composer in residence for the Dale Warland Singers. “Composing the music for The World Beloved has given me the chance to write cheery sacred music—all too rare in a medium rife with staid and even lugubrious settings,” she says. “It’s brought me back to memories of music heard while visiting my grandparents: country music with a church flavor that told stories and came out of a scratchy old record player. Grandma would not have allowed dancing, but under the table I tapped my toes.”
There is toe-tapping music aplenty in Barnett’s score, in which movements of the liturgical mass (sung in a mixture of Latin, Greek, and English) alternate with verses of a bluegrass-style ballad. The work opens and closes with a gospel-style refrain for solo soprano (“They say God loved the world so dear”), the divine pronoun subtly shifting from male to female. The contemporary urgency of the second-movement Kyrie is underscored by driving, syncopated rhythms and the banjo’s brittle twang. “A child walked forth on Eden’s way,” sings the alto in the ballad’s first verse, illustrating Chamberlain’s observation that “the lyrics of so many Bluegrass songs display an unpretentious, earthy philosophy that is easy to sing and easy to understand: Adam lives just up the street and Eve’s the girl next door.” After a jubilant Gloria, the biblical love story resumes, this time as a duet for solo alto and soprano choristers. The Credo’s lilting iterations of “roll on” mimic the waves of the River Jordan, and jazzy rhythmic ostinatos impart a joyous energy to the Sanctus. The third and fourth verses of the ballad venture into darker territory before affirming Christ’s love in an up-tempo chorus. The austere solemnity of the a cappella Agnus Dei contrasts with the relaxed, hymnlike strains of the band’s “Art Thou Weary?” The World Beloved concludes with a buoyantly lyrical Benediction and a final refrain referencing God the Mother.
Notes © by Harry Haskell
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.