Featuring the Boston premiere of Pulitzer-Prize finalist Michael Gilbertson’s Migration, this program includes works by Margaret Bonds, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Dominick Argento that explore the inevitability of change over time—physical, emotional, spiritual.
- Margaret Bonds, St. Francis’ Prayer
- Christopher Tin, The Saddest Noise
- Ralph Vaughan Williams, Three Shakespeare Songs
- Michael Gilbertson, Migration (Boston premiere)
- Eslon Hindundu, arr., Jesu Weja
- Dominick Argento, Dover Beach Revisited
ST. FRANCIS’ PRAYER
Margaret Bonds was a pianist and prolific composer and arranger, studying with William Dawson and Florence Price from the age of 13. In 1933, as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, she became the first African American to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing a piano concerto collaborated with Langston Hughes on song cycles and cantatas. Maya Angelou wrote, “[Bonds’s] arrangements of Negro spirituals were sung by legendary sopranos such as Leontyne Price . . .however, there is little of her piano music in print, [since] most of her piano music was committed to memory and was not written down.”
St. Francis’ Prayer sets an anonymous text published in a French magazine in 1912. Although Bonds completed it in 1968, it was not published until 2015. The chorus sings rich, jazz-inspired harmonies throughout, and is supported by a similarly colorful, dreamy piano part. The final section features an increasingly intense and relentless crescendo and accelerando, as we race with excitement and anticipation “to eternal life.”
THE SADDEST NOISE
The Saddest Noise is a setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise.” It begins the story of The Lost Birds in spring: the season of birth and renewal, and a time of year when bird songs flood the skies. But what is ordinarily a joyous sound is now riddled with sorrow, as the songs of the remaining birds remind us of the ones we’ve already lost.
Dickinson’s reflections on the birds’ songs—at once tuneful, but tainted with melancholy—inspired my musical language for The Lost Birds. Heavily influenced by the vernacular of the 19th century, the work is both pastoral and romantic, with lyrical melodies and soaring strings. But for all its romanticism and loveliness, there remains a sense of loss that permeates the music: for though the melodies we can still hear are sweet, it is the ones that are lost which we truly wish to hear.
Jesu Weja is a well-known otjiHerero folk song in Namibia that has a special meaning and that can only be expressed by singing it.
I grew up singing this song in church choirs, school choirs, community choirs, and youth choirs, and with friends whenever we get together. But over the past years this amazing song and many more started to disappear in the memories of the community. So I decided to arrange it, to remind the community of the special meaning, the message, the love, the joy, and happiness this song carries to the whole world.
THREE SHAKESPEARE SONGS
FULL FATHOM FIVE: This movement is a setting of the spirit Ariel’s Song from The Tempest, in which he tells Ferdinand that his father has drowned in a shipwreck and has undergone a “sea-change into something rich and strange.” Vaughan Williams marks this as andante mysterioso and introduces the poem with six-and-a-half quiet measures of tone painting of the death knell, with each ding-dong fading away. The basses then intone the poem with its extraordinary opening alliteration, “Full fathom five thy father lies,” under the ongoing bell tones. During the homophonic “sea-change,” Shakespeare’s neologism, the chorus creates waves of sound, moving from duple rhythm into triplets stippled with accidentals, before arriving at long, fading notes on “strange” at quadruple piano dynamic.
THE CLOUD CAPP’D TOWERS: This text is also from The Tempest, as Prospero closes the masque that has been performed at his daughter’s wedding. In only seven lines, Shakespeare reminds us that it is not just this “insubstantial pageant” that will fade in time. He breaks the iambic pentameter by including among the transient items the “great globe,” referring to both the Globe Theater and the world. Shakespeare comforts us at the end, promising that our “little life is rounded with a sleep.”
OVER HILL, OVER DALE: The final movement, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, provides a contrast in tone and content from the first two. It is light and sprightly, a scherzo, sung in a rollicking 6/8 meter. Yet it is, like the first two, set in a magical and mysterious world. Sung by a fairy who speaks of the work in service to the fairy queen, Titania, it creates a miraculous world of life beyond the ken of humans.
This piece for chorus and solo cello, by composer Michael Gilbertson and poet Kai Hoffman Krull, was commissioned by Musica Sacra in New York and was premiered at St. John the Divine in 2018. The first movement, Migration, leads off with the leitmotif of the entire piece: “sounds become shapes which we cannot see” as well as its related statement: “sound shaped by space.” The solo cello joins in as a fifth voice complementing the tone painting of the chorus, sometimes doubling them and at other times providing a counterpoint. The setting of the first poem includes a reference to the migration of geese whose sound is shaped by the “night air between us,” which presages the return of the metaphor of geese in the very end of the piece.
The second movement, softer and gentler, is a meditation on the cello as instrument. It begins with the process of making the cello, evoking the felling of the tree, the milling, carving, and steaming of the wood, as it becomes “another body,” through its playing “shaped by tones,” to its return to “the shapes of silence.” The cello part is lyrical and less edgy than in the first and third movement, without the big leaps of pitch or arpeggios.
The final movement, Silhouettes, is startling after the gentle rocking tone of the second. The cello enters with six measures of a solo pizzicato series of rising arpeggios, marked as resonant, before the chorus enters, singing, briefly, in unison. Halfway through the movement, the voices in the chorus separate in contrapuntal singing with unpredictable and sometimes unnerving timing. Toward the end of this last movement, the close contrapuntal singing resolves into simple homophonic motion and soothing harmonies as “like geese on shore/in a storm we turn in/to the body of the other/for warmth.”
DOVER BEACH REVISITED
Dominick Argento chose the title “Dover Beach Revisited” to distinguish his new choral setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem from the earlier setting for solo voice by Samuel Barber. Finding thatArnold’s text struck a “strong, responsive chord” within him, Argento has produced a setting that is both highly expressive and painstakingly dedicated to the character and cadence of Arnold’s words.
Alternating between subtle chromaticism and choral unison passages, and accompanied by spare yet evocative writing for the piano, the music suggests the grandeur of the waves as effectively as the cerebral inner voice of the poet, contemplating the mysteries of human misery and love.
Phil Ochs was a singer and prolific songwriter in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s who came to be known for his anti-war songs. But he was also beloved by many for his non-political songs including “There but for Fortune,” “When I Am Gone,” and hundreds of others. In 1968, he was a key organizer and performer at the demonstration in Grant Park during the Democratic Convention and when he sang “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” flashes could be seen throughout the crowd as young men were inspired to burn their draft cards. “This is the highlight of my career,” he reportedly said to a journalist as he left the stage.
“Changes” is an eloquent and deeply moving expression of his belief in the power of change as well as its many attendant threats and uncertainties. “We’re puppets to the silver strings of souls of changes.” By 1969, only a year after his triumph at the Grant Park concert, he was struggling with bipolar illness, and in 1976 he hung himself. “Changes” and many of his other songs continue to be covered and recorded by prominent artists like Lady Gaga and Neil Young.