In 2018, the Oldest Bach Choir in the United States, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem celebrates its 120th birthday season. The choir gave the first complete U.S. performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in [...]
Bach, Britten, Bernstein, Paulus: Songs of Hope
They spoke about it
All of the music on this album was commissioned, one way or another, for special occasions, in thankfulness for the past and in hopefulness for the future.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225
This stunning motet for double choir is one of those works that leaves the listener somewhat incredulous and breathless at first hearing, as Mozart discovered when he visited Leipzig in 1789 and exclaimed on hearing the motet “Now, there is something one can learn from!” While Bach’s other motets have funerary associations, this motet was clearly commissioned for a special
occasion of thanksgiving and hope, such as New Year’s Day or Reformation Day (October 31).
The two outer movements are contrapuntal masterpieces, each written in two sections, a prelude followed by a fugue. All the verbal superlatives that have been heaped on this work – and there have been many – cannot do justice to the impact that this marvelous sound makes on performers and hearers alike!
Benjamin Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb, Opus 30
Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb was commissioned in 1943 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton, by Walter Hussey, the vicar of the parish and a well known patron of the arts. Hussey was convinced that all arts could and should convey eternal truths and do so in new and inspiring ways.
For a text, Britten turned to the poetry of Christopher (Kit) Smart (1722–1771), actor, editor, playwright and poet, a highly religious man, but wildly eccentric and strange, which meant that he spent long periods in a mental asylum. Fragments of his idiosyncratic and ecstatic poem, Jubilate Agno, had only been discovered in 1939 and published that year. Britten chose several excerpts from Smart’s poem that call for God’s creatures to worship the Creator, each in their own way.
The work begins slow and stately, conveying awe in the presence of God, then continues with an energetic dance through a succession of Old Testament characters, and concludes with a slow, quiet and mysterious “Hallelujah.” The next sections are as signed to solo voices that represent animate and inanimate creatures, including: Kit Smart’s beloved cat, Jeoffrey, who is heard in the slow and sinuous motives of the organ accompaniment; the mouse, with skittish and fast motives; and finally flowers, which seem to wave in the wind of the undulating accompaniment and constant changes of meter. Then comes the most poignant part of the poem, where Smart alludes to his own madness but takes comfort in Christ: “For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour—For they said, he is besides himself.” This feeling of isolation is depicted in the opening measures where the choir sings unaccompanied.
The final three sections begin with a playful call and response between the bass soloist and choir in alphabetical praise, then continue with rhyming musical instruments, and end with everything getting slower and quieter until silence is reached. The work concludes with a reprise of the quiet and mysterious “Hallelujah.”
Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
In 1965, when Leonard Bernstein was at the height of his career, the same Walter Hussey who had commissioned Rejoice in the Lamb and was now the dean of Chichester Cathedral in the south of England, commissioned the Chichester Psalms for the annual choral festival of the combined choirs of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals. The first movement begins with the call to the instruments, psaltery and harp (Psalm 108: 2), to wake up and be ready to perform, a somewhat rude awakening that grows in intensity, with dissonant parallel sevenths of the tenors and basses underneath the unison sopranos and altos.
Now awake, the chorus launches into an almost care-free, jaunty setting of Psalm 100 in 7/4 meter. The serene melody of Psalm 23 is begun by a solo –clearly representing the shepherd-boy David– but is interrupted by the staccato threats of the tenors and basses singing the beginning of Psalm 2–a reworking of an abandoned sketch of music originally written for West Side Story–but the threat is ignored. The final movement begins with an instrumental prelude, a kind of recapitulation of the beginning of the first movement that leads into a setting of Psalm 131 and 133. An expression of unity is given audible form in the ultimate unison of the voices at the end.
Stephen Paulus, A Dream of Time
Stephen Paulus, one of America’s most talented composers, is particularly noted for his choral and vocal works. A Dream of Time was commissioned in 2008 to mark Greg Funfgeld’s completion of twenty-five years as the Artistic Director and Conductor of The Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
Thus it is a work that has a special place in this re cording. It is a setting of the famous poem by American poet-laureate Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) that expresses the uncertainties of the 1930s, but which has many contemporary resonances, such as its references to “Bethlehem,” “steel works,” and “Bach.” Visually, Paulus’ score is reminiscent of a Bach cantata. At the bottom of the page, there is the continuo-like piano, undergirded by the cello. Above them are the voice parts of the chorus and soloists, and the top staves are filled with the “obbligato” parts for flute and oboe. But the tonal language is quite different from that of Bach, with emphatic unisons and marked dissonances —choral writing that is most effective.
There are marvelous moments when different concepts are juxtaposed, such as the incorporation of the theme used by Bach in his Mass in B Minor for the Dona nobis pacem, which is heard at the point where the poem speaks of the dichotomy between war and peace.
© Robin A. Leaver 2011