TICKETS ARE STILL AVAILABLE!
Box Office will open at 6:45 pm in the portico of the church. Enter the main doors along the Centre St side. Look for signs!
$25, $40, $50. Discounts for seniors, WGBH, GBCC, groups of 6+, and Opus Affair members.
Are you under the age of 30? You can get $10 tickets from the Price C section.
ARVO PÄRT L’Abbé Agathon, with Sherezade Panthaki, soprano , and Maggie Rodriguez, mezzo-soprano
HANDEL duets, featuring Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, and Reginald L. Mobley, countertenor
J.S. BACH Cantata “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” BWV 140, featuring Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Jonas Budris, tenor; David McFerrin, baritone
JUDITH BINGHAM The Darkness is No Darkness
S.S. WESLEY Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace
LEONARD BERNSTEIN Chichester Psalms, featuring Reginald L. Mobley, countertenor
At this, a time when “the nations rage,” Bernstein’s remarkable psalm settings remind us “how good, how pleasant it is, to dwell together in unity.” Bach’s cantata, one of his most popular, joyously calls us to fellowship with God—for whom the darkness has no power. Pärt’s fable (for women’s voices) shows how one might achieve divine peace by freely giving to others.
Photo from rehearsal last night, courtesy of Jesse Irons
Arvo Pärt: L’Abbé Agathon
Arvo Pärt was born in 1935 in Estonia, which a few years after his birth was annexed by the Soviet Union. His family had a piano, but its middle register was damaged, leading him to experiment with the top and bottom notes—developing a sensibility that can still be heard in his music. During his compulsory military service, he played oboe and percussion in the army band; later, at the Tallinn Conservatory, he wrote music for film and the stage, and worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio.
By the mid-1960s, Pärt was one of the leading figures in the Soviet avant-garde, but he changed course, embarking on an intensive study of early music, including Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. He emerged in 1976 with a new musical language that he called tintinnabuli (from the Latin word for “little bell”). For Pärt, the term denotes not only a rigorous compositional technique and a concentrated musical style, but also a very personal and deeply sensed attitude to life, based on Christian values, religious practice and a quest for truth, beauty and purity. Much of Pärt’s music is written for voice, and he often sets religious texts in Latin or Church Slavonic.
L’abbé Agathon was written in 2004 for soprano and a small ensemble of violas and cellos. It sets a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a book of teachings (1,202 “sayings”) taken from monks—both male and female—who lived in the desert of third-century Egypt. The hermit Agathon, on his way to market, meets a leper who asks to be taken along. Whenever Agathon sells anything at the market, the leper demands that Agathon buy him something with the money; each time the hermit does so. Only after the journey is over does the leper bless Agathon and reveal himself to be an angel sent by God to test him. Pärt’s composition sets the text syllabically, in a simple and direct style. The slowly pulsing chords of the accompaniment evoke the steps of the hermit and leper’s journey.
J.S. Bach: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
In 1723, at the age of 38, Johann Sebastian Bach became Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, an appointment he held until his death in 1750. As director of choirs and music for the four principal churches in town, his duties included performance of a cantata every Sunday and on holidays. During the first several years of his tenure, Bach composed a new cantata nearly every week for those performances.
“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” was written in 1731 for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, which is at the very end of the Church year and is only celebrated every eleven years—when the preceding Easter falls early in the year. The prescribed Gospel text is the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1), an exhortation to watchfulness that sets the scene for the beginning of Advent on the following Sunday.
The parable tells of ten bridesmaids (or virgins) who went one night with their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five wise bridesmaids brought enough oil for their lamps; five foolish ones did not. The bridegroom was delayed; when, at midnight, he finally arrived, the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps had gone out. By the time they bought new oil, the wedding party had entered the banquet hall and the door was shut.
Bach based his cantata on a well-known hymn by Philipp Nicolai, who was a pastor in the small town of Unna in Westphalia when, from July 1597 to January 1598, a terrible pestilence ravaged the town. Over 1,300 fell victim to an agonizing death, including Pastor Nicolai’s fifteen-year-old former pupil, Wilhelm Ernst, Graf zu Waldeck, who died at Tübingen in September 1598. Despite trials that included his own illness, Nicolai’s faith never wavered, and when the plague abated he published a journal that he titled Mirror of Joy. In it he included “Wachet auf” as well as another enduringly popular hymn, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” The initial letters of the first three verses of “Wachet auf” (movements 1, 4 and 7 of Bach’s cantata) are W, Z and G, a reverse acrostic for Nicolai’s former student, the Graf zu Waldeck.
Unlike the Biblical parable, which emphasizes the misfortune of the foolish bridesmaids, Nicolai focuses on the joy of the wise bridesmaids at the bridegroom’s arrival—symbolically, the coming of the Savior. Bach amplifies that emotion by adding recitatives and duets that are sensual celebrations, based on the love poetry of the Song of Songs, of the delight at the union of God with His people.
The first movement of the cantata is an extended chorale fantasy that opens with a stately orchestral introduction in dotted rhythms. The chorus enters with the sopranos singing long tones that linger beautifully at the end of each line while the lower voices ornament the texture.
Following the chorale is a short tenor recitative announcing the arrival of the bridegroom; soprano and bass then sing a tender love duet, representing the promised fulfillment of the soul’s longing for the Savior.
The fourth movement is for the choral tenors alone. They, as the watchmen. sing the hymn tune, floating over the strings’ beautiful counter-melody. Craig Smith describes the atmosphere of the movement:
While [in the preceding movement] the duet of intensity and importance is taking place, in another part of the city, the watchmen are going about their business, probably whistling that wonderful tune that is played in all the strings and has obsessed Bach scholars for literally hundreds of years. Every one knows that it is one of the most wonderful melodies he has ever heard, but nobody knows why.
In the fifth movement, the Savior calls his bride, the soul, to the fulfillment of their union. Their joining is celebrated in the ensuing second duet, where the soprano and bass solo voices are led by and then intertwined with the oboe as they sing of a love that knows no parting.
The cantata ends with a four-part chorale, where, in Bach’s time, the congregation could join in the singing. Here, the whole host of heaven gather in the Eternal City at the twelve gates of pearl (Revelation 21:21), raising voices, harps, and cymbals to proclaim the great Gloria.
Judith Bingham: The Darkness Is No Darkness
Born in 1952 in Nottingham, England, Judith Bingham showed an early love of music. With the support of her father, a piano salesman turned tax inspector, she began piano lessons starting at age four; at school she played the oboe, and as a teenager she joined the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, which regularly performed with the Hallé Orchestra. At the Royal Academy of Music, she studied composition and voice, but felt isolated both as a woman composer and because of her desire to sometimes use tonality in her composing. “It was like a consonant chord suddenly became an affront,” she said later. Not until her mid-thirties did she find her compositional voice. Today she has written over 300 works, including pieces for brass band, symphonic wind ensemble, and large orchestra, concertos for trumpet, bassoon, and tuba, and a large number of choral works.
From 1983–1995, she was a member of the BBC Singers, an elite professional chorus, singing in the alto section and as soloist; later (2004–2009) she was Composer in Association with the BBC Singers.
Bingham composed The Darkness Is No Darkness in 1993, when the chorus was performing S.S. Wesley’s popular work Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace. In a 2011 interview with Marjorie Monroe-Fischer, she recalled, “I took the copy home with me and I thought, why is it so nice to sing? … Because I was singing the alto line, I noticed things. I played it very, very slowly. There’s some really strange harmonies in it, and some strangely spaced harmonies which are when the men and women are a long way away from each other. When you’re singing it you just think, ‘oh this is the Wesley, I’ve done this hundreds of times.’ But when you take it apart, it’s actually much more unusual than you think it is. I wondered what would happen if you took out all of the unusual harmonies and then make them into another piece. So I read them all out, and I thought, what text can I use? Then I thought, why don’t I use something from the same Psalm but which similarly has words taken out of it so that the text reads more like a love poem? The Wesley is about divine love, and my piece is about secular love, or personal love. …What I wanted was that people wouldn’t realize it was anything like Wesley, it just sounded like something by me. But that when you went into the Wesley it would be like opening a window to these very familiar harmonies.”
Pleased with the result, Bingham constructed several similar “bonbons,” abstracting the harmonies of Thomas Tallis’s If Ye Love Me for her The Spirit of Truth, Hubert Parry’s My Soul There Is a Country for Distant Thunder, and C. V. Stanford’s The Blue Bird for The Drowned Lovers.
S. S. Wesley: Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace
Samuel Sebastian Wesley had a distinguished but rather difficult family background. His grandfather, Charles Wesley, was the author of more than 6,000 hymns, including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and his great uncle, John Wesley, was the founder of the Methodist Church. His father, Samuel Wesley, was an organist and composer who has been called the “English Mozart;” he was highly regarded as a musician but prone to depression and chronically short of money. He was also outspokenly unconventional; in 1784 he converted to Roman Catholicism (composing a Mass to celebrate), and, in 1810, he separated from his wife and their three children when his 15-year-old housemaid, Sarah Suter, was found to be pregnant with his son, Samuel Sebastian (“Sebastian,” of course, in honor of J.S. Bach). Samuel and Sarah, who never married, went on to have four children in all.
S.S. Wesley began his formal musical training at age seven in the choir of the Chapel Royal. He had early success as pianist, chorus conductor, and composer at the English Opera House in London’s West End; in 1832, he became organist at Hereford Cathedral, and thereafter pursued a career as a cathedral organist and composer that included appointments at Exeter Cathedral (1835), Leeds Parish Church (1842), Winchester Cathedral (1849) and Gloucester Cathedral (1865).
Wesley was considered one of his country’s leading organists and choirmasters, but he struggled with the musical conservatism of the cultural and religious establishment. His musical language was contemporary (reflecting his early theater experience) but idiosyncratic. He opposed equal temperament (notwithstanding his devotion to J.S. Bach) for decades after this tuning method had been widely accepted—though that didn’t stop him from the use of chromaticism in his music.
Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace, written at Winchester, was part of a collection of anthems published in 1853 which Wesley considered to be his best work. Text was extremely important to Wesley, and he often selected material from several sources, editing it for effect. Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace combines phrases from Isaiah, Psalms 119 and 139, and the Gospel of John. The tempo is peaceful yet stately and the setting is dramatic while still speaking clearly in a resonant space. Contributing to its expressive beauty is the surprising harmonic complexity that Judith Bingham calls out in her complementary piece.
Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Mass., on August 25, 1918; this year we celebrate his centennial. (Alfred Nash Patterson, founder of Chorus pro Musica, was born in Lawrence four years earlier.) Bernstein graduated from Boston Latin School and Harvard University; in 1940 he was in the first conducting class at Tanglewood, where he was a protegé of BSO conductor Serge Kouussevitzky. He was among the first U.S.-born conductors to receive worldwide acclaim, and was equally popular as an educator and an ambitious composer of music that spanned genres. A two-year global celebration of Bernstein’s life and career that includes over 2,500 events, called “Leonard Bernstein at 100,” continues until August 2019. More information is at the web site leonardbernstein.com/at100.
In 1964, Bernstein was at the peak of his fame and powers. He had written, among many other things, two operas (most recently Candide in 1956), three musicals (West Side Story in 1957), and three symphonies (most recently Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” dedicated to the recently-assassinated John F. Kennedy, in 1963). However, since becoming Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, he had had little time to compose.
From 1964 to 1965, Bernstein took a sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic, intending to work with choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green—the same team who in 1944 had successfully produced the Broadway musical On the Town—to make a musical from Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. They worked for six months, but, to Bernstein’s great disappointment, nothing resulted.
Fortunately, Bernstein had another outlet for his creative energies—one where, somewhat unexpectedly, he could build on his work in musical theater. That opportunity was a commission from the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Dr. William Hussey, the remarkable creative force in the arts who had 22 years earlier commissioned Rejoice in the Lamb from Benjamin Britten. In his letter to Bernstein, Hussey wrote, “I think that many of us would be delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” He had hit exactly the right note: Chichester Psalms has not just a hint, but actual music originally written for West Side Story, as well as plenty of music from the aborted Skin of Our Teeth musical. Bernstein spent April and May 1965 working on the project, and premiered the work in New York on July 15; the Chichester premiere was on July 31, 1965.
Chichester Psalms is divided into three movements, each of which, Bernstein wrote, “contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification.” All three movements have material originally meant for Broadway.
The work opens with Psalm 108, “Awake, psaltery and harp!” sung in one of Bernstein’s typically angular melodic lines. That music originated as a number called “Save the World Today” from The Skin of Our Teeth (the opening words were “Save the human race!”). The lively music that follows for Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” began as a song for that musical called “Here Comes the Sun.” (Paul Laird suggested, “although it seems blasphemous,” that it also sounds very much like the theme song from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon “The Flintstones,” which was popular at the time and might have been watched by Bernstein’s young children).
The beautiful melody that begins the second movement (Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”) was originally a song with the words “Spring will come again, summer will follow.” The first three verses of the psalm are sung by a boy or countertenor soloist with simple harp accompaniment, as though the psalmist David himself were singing—though here David is singing in the blues idiom. The idyll is interrupted by the angry words of Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage?” set to music from a song that was cut from West Side Story called “Mix” (to have been sung by the Jets). The original lyrics, “Make a mess of ’em / Make the sons of bitches pay,” became “Lamah rag’shu / Lamah rag’shu goyim.”
The third movement begins calmly with Psalm 131, “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child upon its mother,” and ends with the graceful Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity.” The tune, ironically, began as a song called “War Duet” in The Skin of Our Teeth (and was known among Bernstein’s friends as “The Hawaiian Palms”—the last word an anagram of “Psalm”). The work concludes in a truly sublime moment—the hushed chorale that often concludes a religious service. As the chorus holds its final note, the accompaniment intones the same musical phrase that began the work, this time resolving to a serene G major chord.
Repurposing earlier music is not unusual for composers, but executing such a dramatic shift of context and language took remarkable creativity. As Jack Gottlieb wrote in his memoir Working with Bernstein, “to have found the suitable Psalm text to fit the given tune had to be something like looking for a needle in a haystack. In Chichester Psalms Lenny the alchemist takes common metal (metal of the commoners?) from the transient show-business world, and transmutes it into gold, into what may well endure as one of the more lasting pieces of choral literature.”