Program Notes | Yale Camerata: Praise, Peace, and Hope

The Missa brevis (Short mass) by contemporary English composer Jonathan Dove is as concise as its name implies: each of the four movements takes about as long to perform as a standard popular song. The second movement, a joyfully exuberant Gloria, with its Latin text celebrating the birth of Christ, makes a fitting opener for our Advent concert. (It’s worth noting, however, that in the Catholic Church the Gloria is omitted from celebrations of the mass during Advent, which is considered a time of penance.) Dove is best known for his many operas, and his setting of the Gloria bespeaks a seasoned dramatic flair, both in the driving, energetic rhythms of the choral writing and in the resplendent colors of the organ part. (The Missa brevis was composed for a convention of cathedral organists in 2009.) The alternation of duple and triple meters, carefully calibrated to the shifting phrase lengths of the Latin text, and the briskly oscillating organ accompaniment enhance the music’s dance-like vitality.


Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) is one of Ravel’s most popular and affecting works, the epitome of sweet sorrow and restrained grief. The composer insisted that he “had nothing more in mind than the pleasure of alliteration” when he chose the piece’s historically evocative name: “It is not a dirge for a recently deceased princess, but evokes a pavane that such a young princess might once have danced at the court of Spain.” Yet it was the Pavane’s funereal association that attracted Rupert Gough when he was searching for a companion piece to perform alongside his arrangement of Pierre Villette’s Messe “Da Pacem” (to be heard next on the program). Observing how closely Ravel’s melody aligned with the prosody of the Latin mass for the dead, Gough re-envisioned the Pavane as a choral ode. Like the orchestral version, it begins in an atmosphere of ceremonial solemnity, the measured eighth-note tread varied only by the introduction of triplets on the word “requiem” (rest). This is one of several resting points in Ravel’s stately procession, after each of which the music resumes with renewed energy and more complex harmonies. The tempo picks up in the minor-key middle section, which is more urgent and animated in character, and the final reprise of the wistful G-major theme is accompanied by undulating organ arpeggios.


Sensuousness and spirituality have long coexisted in the music of certain French composers, from Gounod, Franck, and Fauré in the nineteenth century to Poulenc, Messiaen, and Duruflé in the twentieth. The latter’s protégé Pierre Villette fits comfortably into this line of succession. Born in 1926, Villette occupies a comparatively inconspicuous niche in French music of the postwar era, in part because he rejected the dominant orthodoxy of dissonant serialism championed by his close contemporary Pierre Boulez. Instead, he remained loyal to the fundamentally tonal, post-Romantic idiom that Duruflé instilled in him as a teenager. As Boulez’s fellow pupil at the Paris Conservatoire, Villette appeared to be on the fast track to a major career until a chronic illness sidelined him to the provinces. There, in addition to heading conservatories in Besançon and Aix-en-Provence, he produced a steady stream of sacred and secular works, of which the chastely sensual “Hymne à la Vierge” (Hymn to the Virgin) is the most widely known. 

Villette’s style—a yeasty blend of post-Debussyan harmonies, winding, chant-like melodies, and vigorous, faintly jazzy rhythms—remained remarkably consistent over the fifteen or so years it took him to bring the Messe “Da Pacem” to fruition. Completed in 1970, the first of his two masses takes its title, as well as its overarching mood of prayerful beneficence, from the early medieval Latin hymn “Da pacem, Domine, in diebus nostris” (Give us peace in our time, O Lord). In this arrangement by the distinguished British choral director and organist Rupert Gough, Villette’s sumptuous scoring for full symphony orchestra and one or two organs is reduced to single organ. Yet the sheer sonic splendor of the music remains undimmed, enhanced by Villette’s polychromatic tonal palette and Gough’s imaginative organ registrations. Villette balances the richly textured sonorities of the four-part choir against leaner passages for solo soprano in the Gloria and Benedictus sections of the mass and a mini-chorus of “celestial” voices in the Sanctus, echoing the full ensemble’s ecstatic repetitions of “Hosanna in excelsis.” (Pierre Villette’s Messe “da Pacem,” published by United Music Publishing Ltd, England.


Adolphus Hailstork came of age in an era of social and cultural upheaval. As a youth in upstate New York, the aspiring African American composer was insulated from the racial attitudes and politics that sparked the civil rights movement. Not until he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in the mid-1960s did he become aware of the stark cultural divide between Black and white America. “I’ve tried to integrate African American elements with my Euro training,” he said in a recent interview, “and sometimes my works are strictly without any racial influence and sometimes very strongly and deliberately focused on using African American elements. And sometimes I blend them and juxtapose them.” Describing himself as a “cultural hybrid,” Hailstork has written a wide range of music in the European concert-hall tradition as well as works that reflect African American culture and experience, including a song cycle on poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an opera about Paul Robeson, and a choral-orchestral memorial for George Floyd titled A Knee on the Neck, which the National Philharmonic will premiere in March 2022.

I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes springs from Hailstork’s early musical training in the Episcopal Church. Scored for solo tenor, mixed choir, and orchestra, the three-movement cantata is a large-scale choral anthem based on texts from the biblical Book of Psalms. After a lengthy orchestral introduction, the tenor leads the choir in an energetic call-and-response-style rendition of the psalmist’s “I will lift up mine eyes.” The second movement begins with a plaintive prelude scored for horns and bassoon in G minor, laced with bluesy harmonic alterations. The choir’s long litany of anguish climaxes in an impassioned evocation of a prayer meeting, with solo voices interjecting improvised responses “in a mournful style.” The last movement modulates to radiant A major, as the sopranos’ lightly syncopated reiterations of “Alleluia” underpin the tenor’s soaring melody on the familiar prayer beginning “The Lord is my shepherd.” The cantata ends with a brief reprise of the first movement and a majestic “Alleluia.”


Keep Your Lamps!, arr. André Thomas: First recorded (and possibly composed) in 1928 by the African American blues singer and guitarist Blind Willie Johnson, this short, mesmerizing spiritual has become a beloved staple of the gospel repertoire. The text alludes to the biblical parable of the ten Wise and Foolish Virgins who await Jesus’s arrival in the guise of a bridegroom. The faithful are admonished to “keep your lamps trimmed and burning” in preparation for the Day of Judgment, for, as the refrain reminds us, “the time is drawing nigh.” In André Thomas’s skillful arrangement for chorus and conga drums, the vocal writing is mostly homophonic, with the four parts marching in lockstep. In contrast, the middle section (“Children, don’t get weary”) is characterized by overlapping phrases and a smoother, less syncopated style.

Additional note by the composer: In Matthew 25:1–13, Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish virgins, who had been told that the bridegroom would be coming soon. They trimmed and lit their lamps and went to the appointed place, but the bridegroom did not arrive at the appointed time. The foolish virgins had brought enough oil for only one night, and as they returned to get more oil, the bridegroom came while they were away. This song was sung by slaves working the fields, imparting its lesson from Jesus, and perhaps also as a coded message. If an opportunity for escape was approaching, slaves might have sung Keep Your Lamps with particular urgency, communicating with each other under the watchful eyes of the overseers. Be ready!


Although its origins lie in late-medieval England, the “Corpus Christi Carol” is more popular in Nordic countries than in English-speaking lands. The anonymous lyric is traditionally associated with Christmas, perhaps because it served as a source of the better-known carol “Down in Yon Forest.” Yet the “Corpus Christi Carol” has no discernible yuletide theme. A variety of interpretational contexts have been hypothesized for the lugubrious text, ranging from the Holy Grail of Arthurian romance to the sepulcher in which the “corpus Christi” (body of Christ) was entombed. In this a cappella version by Norwegian composer Trond Kverno, five stanzas of the poem are interspersed with a lilting refrain referring to a mysterious falcon (hence the alternate title Falcon Carol). Kverno’s intense, slightly archaic-sounding harmonies accentuate the haunting strangeness of the sixteenth-century poem, which was also set, to very different effect, by Benjamin Britten.


The text and melody of this jubilant carol [Personent hodie] first appeared in Piae Cantiones (Pious songs), an anthology of medieval Latin lyrics published in Germany in 1582. The volume eventually made its way by way of Sweden to nineteenth-century England, where it swelled the burgeoning repertoire of Victorian carols for Christmastide and Easter. Over the years “Personent hodie” (Resound today) has been variously arranged by sundry hands, from Gustav Holst to Wayne Shorter. In the 1980s, the American conductor and music educator Lara Hoggard set it as a “festival processional,” reinforcing the vocal parts with organ, brass instruments, and percussion. The simple, emphatically rhythmical text is based on a popular medieval song addressed to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Their jocund voices join those of clerics and angels in praising the newborn Christ child.


Notes © by Harry Haskell

A former editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York and the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History. His three-part podcast about Katharine Wright, the sister of the Wright Brothers, will be released this winter.