Joint Choral Concert
Marguerite L. Brooks and Jeffrey Douma, conductors
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
50-year anniversary performance
Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem
Soloists: Brendan Fitzgerald & Sarah Yanovitch
Wadsworth: War Dreams
presented with Yale Glee Club
Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Zachary Wadsworth’s War-Dreams, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem constitute an extraordinary trilogy of hope for a world without war. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms uses familiar Biblical texts and a range of compositional styles, ranging from Broadway to modernist, to illustrate both violent conflict and its transcendent resolution. The theatrical presentation and personal conviction of this work have long made it a favorite with performers and audiences alike. In his recent War-Dreams, Wadsworth juxtaposes a Walt Whitman poem that reflects on the horrors of the Civil War with a motet by the 16th century English composer William Byrd. The composer discovers a redemption for the sorrow of both works and concludes that, while peace may be unachievable, we “have no choice but to dream for it.” The poetry of Whitman is also featured in Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem, which combines three of Whitman’s Civil War poems with text from a famous speech and passages from the Old Testament. The refrain “grant us peace” haunts the entire work, finally triumphing over the horror of Whitman’s verse.
Looking back on his 1964-65 sabbatical as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) recalled a creative struggle: “I spent almost the whole year writing 12-tone music and even more experimental stuff. I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out: but after about six months of work I threw it all away. It just wasn’t my music; it wasn’t honest. The end result was the Chichester Psalms which is the most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein’s 12-tone experiments were in turn brought on by the frustration of two failed musical theater projects that left him, as he wrote to a friend, “a composer without a project.”
The project that finally inspired him was a commission from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, to compose a piece for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival, which brought together the cathedral choruses of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury. In his letter requesting a Psalm setting for choir, either unaccompanied or with orchestra and organ, Dr. Hussey suggested that “many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” What he got was a substantial and difficult setting of three complete Psalms augmented with complimentary fragments from other Psalms, all to be sung in Hebrew to exuberant and theatrical music.
The introduction, which sets lines from Psalm 108, literally evokes the clanging of bells and the tuning of instruments. Its music returns throughout the piece as a transforming refrain. The introduction transitions directly into a complete setting of Psalm 100 to uneven dance rhythms, in which Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms is betrayed by three bongo parts. “It is quite popular in feeling,” Bernstein wrote to Dr. Hussey before the work was premiered, “and it has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.” Both sweetness and violence come to the fore in the second movement, which juxtaposes Psalms 23 and 2 in a profoundly theatrical manner. Psalm 23, which opens “The Lord is my shepherd,” is introduced by a boy soprano and set to a bluesy melody that was originally composed for the aborted sabbatical project The Skin of Our Teeth. The boy soprano is understood to be the voice of a young King David, and Bernstein was very particular that this solo never be sung by a woman. Psalm 2, which describes man’s tendency towards covetousness and violence, enters as a menacing rumble in the tenors and basses. Their melody is also borrowed from the theater—it is a rejected theme from West Side Story. The women and “David” continue to sing Psalm 23 without perturbation, “blissfully unaware of threat” (Bernstein’s own performance direction).
The third movement begins with a startlingly dissonant orchestral fantasia on the opening theme, rife with struggle and discontent. The tension resolves when the chorus enters with Psalm 131, sung as a lilting lullaby. Finally, the opening theme returns one last time, now transformed into an ethereal a cappella glow. The music transcends the strife of war—and the angst of dissonance—to achieve a final unison “Amen.”
In October of 1965—just three months after Chichester Psalms was premiered by the New York Philharmonic—Bernstein submitted a poem to the New York Times that described his compositional process. Through it we get a glimpse of the composer as a whimsical yet deeply thoughtful creator, a man who understood the compositional process as a spiritual journey in itself:
For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality,
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
For Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Dona nobis pacem was an intensely personal work. He composed and premiered the cantata in 1936, when Europe was on the cusp of a second major conflict. The occasion for the work—to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society—was benign enough, but Vaughan Williams chose to create a forceful expression of the dread that gripped his nation, as well as a personal plea for peace. But Vaughan Williams was not opposed to war simply on ideological grounds: he had served in the Great War two decades before as an ambulance worker in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and he had seen the horror and suffering of mass slaughter.
Vaughan Williams selected carefully from the words of others in order to express his personal feelings about war. The text of Dona nobis pacem is drawn from the Civil War poems of Walt Whitman, John Bright’s 1855 speech to the House of Commons lamenting the tragic losses of the Crimean War, and the Bible. The phrase “dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”) echoes throughout the work as a refrain, usually sung by the soprano soloist. This is how Vaughan Williams’s cantata opens, and this is how it ends, although a transformative journey occupies the space between.
Vaughan Williams’s compositional process began with a discarded manuscript from 1911: a setting of “A Dirge for Two Veterans” from Whitman’s 1865 collection of Civil War poems, Drum Taps. Vaughan Williams must have felt a great kinship with Whitman, who also cared for the wounded during his own war. “Dirge” portrays a mother watching the funeral procession of her son and husband, both of whom have been killed in the same battle. The orchestra provides a somber march while the choir tells her story.
For Dona nobis pacem, Vaughan Williams prefaced his older setting with two additional Whitman poems: “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and “Reconciliation.” The first of these was actually written at the outbreak of the Civil War as a patriotic rally to battle. It predates Whitman’s experiences with real war. In Vaughan Williams’s setting, which features blaring bugle calls and dissonant juxtapositions, the effect is terrifying. “Reconciliation” glories in the knowledge that war must end, but reminds us that there is no joy to be found in the destruction of another human being. The movement concludes with soprano strains of “dona nobis pacem.”
Vaughan Williams follows the three Whitman settings with Bright’s famous speech against the Crimean War. The baritone soloist intones his stirring phrase, “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings.” Bright then alludes the episode in Exodus when God struck down all the first born of the Egyptians. He fears that now, however, there is no salvation. This passage transitions into the final, cathartic movement of the cantata, in which Vaughan Williams calls upon various Old Testament passages to plead for peace.
The work ends one a note of sublime transformation. We feel that peace has indeed been achieved, and might even last beyond the walls of the concert hall. Vaughan Williams’s audience felt this as well: Dona nobis pacem was performed frequently in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Many people wished to believe in the work’s message. They hoped it could come true.
No technical details are necessary for one to appreciate and be moved by Dona nobis pacem. All the same, I wish to include a few notes on the composer’s style and influences, which are particularly interesting.
Vaughan Williams’s modal harmonic language—often neither major nor minor, but somewhere in between—developed from his interest in music of the Elizabethan era. It had become a point of great concern that England had produced no internationally renowned composers since the 16th century, when Thomas Tallis and William Byrd served in the Chapel Royal and published music for broad consumption. After centuries of apparent creative drought, the generation before Vaughan Williams saw several English composers, mostly notably Edward Elgar, rise to international fame. Vaughan Williams sought not only to follow in their footsteps but to cultivate a distinctively English sound (an interest shared by his friend Gustav Holst).
There are four primary components to Vaughan Williams’s “English” variety of concert music. The first is the presence of melodies and modes from the music of Tallis and Byrd, the original English master composers. The second is the incorporation of British folk music, which Vaughan Williams collected personally during expeditions into the countryside. The third is an echo of Anglican church music. Vaughan Williams were personally an agnostic, but he appreciated the cultural value of church traditions and adored the music. In fact, he fulfilled a 1903 commission to create a new Church of England hymnal, and project which reflects his interest in folk music as well. The finally “English” element in Vaughan Williams might be better defined as “not German”—and attribute that was very important to most composers outside of Germany in the early 20th century. Specifically, Vaughan Williams studied orchestration in Paris with Maurice Ravel, who taught him how to create light symphonic colors and avoid the heavy bombast of German music.
~Notes by Esther Morgan Ellis
Zachary Wadsworth’s “vivid, vital, and prismatic” music has established him as a leading composer of his generation. His compositions have been heard in venues around the world, from Washington’s Kennedy Center to Tokyo’s Takinogawa Hall, and have been performed by such ensembles as the choir of Westminster Abbey, the Yale Schola Cantorum, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra. As the 2012-2013 recipient of the Douglas Moore Fellowship for American Opera, Wadsworth was in residence at the Metropolitan Opera and the Santa Fe Opera. In 2014, he had his Carnegie Hall debut.
Winner of an international competition chaired by James MacMillan, Wadsworth’s anthem Out of the South Cometh the Whirlwind was performed at Westminster Abbey in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. Other recent honors include a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, three Morton Gould Young Composer Awards from ASCAP, and first-prize recognition in competitions sponsored by the American Composers Forum, the King James Bible Trust, Long Leaf Opera, the Pacific Chorale, the Boston Choral Ensemble, and the Esoterics.
Wadsworth’s music is widely broadcast and distributed, with recent publications by Novello, G. Schirmer, and E.C. Schirmer, and airings on NPR, BBC, and CBC. Wadsworth earned graduate degrees from Cornell University (DMA) and Yale University (MM), and is an honors graduate of the Eastman School of Music (BM). Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Wadsworth (b. 1983) now resides at the foot of the Canadian Rockies in Calgary, Alberta. He has taught at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and the University of Calgary, and he maintains an active performing life as a tenor and pianist.
War-Dreams (2011) is a meditation on the pervasiveness of violence, taking inspiration from two works: Walt Whitman’s “Old War-Dreams” and William Byrd’s Civitas Sancti Tui (“Bow Thine Ear”).
During the Civil War, Whitman volunteered as a nurse at the front lines, a post that exposed him to scenes of unimaginable carnage as countless young men lost their lives in unprecedented numbers. These haunting scenes inspired Whitman’s meditation on death and memory, “War-Dreams,” in which he ponders the lingering, inescapable memories of violence. Byrd’s “Bow Thine Ear” describes a similarly hopeless scene: a desolate and ruined Jerusalem, unaided by a higher power.
By superimposing and expanding upon these two works, I hoped initially to lament the seeming impossibility of peace. But as I wrote I began to seek a kind of redemption for Whitman and Byrd’s sorrow. While the Whitman sections take on a twisted and broken character, composed as a quietly dissonant war march, direct quotations from Byrd’s music provide a kind of soothing balm, a prayer begging for consolation. And while lasting peace may never be possible, we, like Whitman, have no choice but to dream for it.
~from the composer’s website