Yale Camerata | The World Beloved

Event time: 
Sunday, January 27, 2019 - 12:00pm
The Congregational Church of Naugatuck See map
9 Division Street
Naugatuck, CT 06770
Free; no tickets or registration
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 

Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, and other works

Marguerite Brooks, conductor


Herbert Howells, Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing  

Carol Barnett, The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass

Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, Abendlied (Chamber Chorus)

 A selection of rounds that the audience is encouraged to sing along with the choir

Program Notes

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.

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 chorus, soloists, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and bass—was commissioned 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.

Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, Abendlied

An authentically conservative voice in an age mesmerized by the Wagnerian “artwork of the future,” Josef Rheinberger is at best a peripheral figure in most accounts of late-nineteenth-century German music. Yet his influence as a teacher, if not as a composer, was far from negligible. The Romantic era’s paradoxical embrace of the musical past, manifest in Mendelssohn’s 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Passion and the plainchant-cum-Palestrina aesthetic of the Cecilian reform movement in the Catholic Church, placed a premium on Rheinberger’s comprehensive knowledge of counterpoint and vocal polyphony. Bach and Mozart were his idols, and he made it his mission to instill a reverence for time-honored styles and compositional techniques in the hundreds of students who passed through his classroom, including such budding musical luminaries as Engelbert Humperdinck, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, as well as the physicist Max Planck.

Rheinberger embodied tradition and continuity. A child prodigy, he enrolled at the Munich Conservatory at age twelve, stayed on after graduation to teach piano, organ, and composition, and never left. In due course, he signed on to coach singers at the Munich Court Opera, where he helped prepare the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1865. The experience deepened his respect for Wagner’s long-suffering patron, King Ludwig II, who would elevate him to the post of court capellmeister a few years later, and kindled a lifelong friendship with the conductor Hans van Bülow. But it left a lingering ambivalence toward Tristan’s brilliant, egotistical, self-promoting creator and his music. Wagner repaid him in kind, complaining to King Ludwig that “it is to be regretted that the Munich School had to end up in the hands of a man like Rheinberger, who considers it his duty to oblige his listeners at every hour of the day and night with some insulting joke or other at my expense.”

A committed Catholic, Rheinberger exerted a strong influence on German church music in the late 1800s.  Although he never fully subscribed to the Cecilian movement’s program for restoring true religious feeling to liturgical song, he incorporated many of its principles in his sacred choral works. Abendlied (Evening song), composed when he was just fifteen and revised a decade or so later, exemplifies the Cecilian ideals of a cappella polyphony, purity of expression, and clear, mostly syllabic word setting. “Stay with us,” the hospitable disciples urge the stranger they meet on the road to Emmaus (in Martin Luther’s artful German translation of the Gospel of Luke). The harmonies flicker between major and minor as “evening shadows darken,” the six unaccompanied voices overlapping in short imitative phrases that convey a sense of serene entreaty. The opening rhythmic pattern repeats itself on the words “und der Tag hat sich geneiget” (and the day will soon be over), but in shorter note values, as the travelers quicken their steps toward the supper that awaits them at their destination. 

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.