Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


2 Comments

Haiku Wednesday: Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus

Stag on a mountaintop; the painting The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer, 1851

As the hart longs for
Fountains of water, so my
Soul longs for you, Lord.

The haiku above is a translation of the Latin words of Palestrina’s motet Sicut cervus, drawn from Psalm 42 of the Old Testament of the Bible.

I recently had the sublime pleasure of singing this motet.  One can hear the piece and know that it is beautiful.  But by singing this piece in the middle of a small mixed ensemble I learned something that I would never have known otherwise.

This piece breathes.  Though it was written so many hundreds of years ago, it is alive.  The lines rise and fall gently, as the chest rises and falls when one is at peace, at rest, or in meditation.  The lines rise and fall in pitch, describing a smooth arc.  The dynamics change, one voice rising in volume as it enters, then falling away as a new voice begins.  As the voices intertwine, there is a heartbeat, there is breath, and the piece becomes a living thing.  The motet ends with a hushed tone of hope, or assurance, or belief, all the voices uniting as one, as one living being.

And when you sing it, you realize that you, and your one voice, are now part of a stream of singers that have sung this very piece for hundreds of years.  Your voice rises now, as have so many voices before you, and when it falls away, a new singer will begin.  And the music will live on forever.

Here is Sicut cervus.

_____

Image attribution: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Monarch_of_the_Glen%2C_Edwin_Landseer%2C_1851.png

Advertisements


7 Comments

Choral Music by Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

I saw a reference to the choral music of Johannes Brahms, and realized that, other than the German Requiem, I didn’t know much about it.  So I decided to go check it out.

Whoa.  I’ve been missing a lot.

Listen to this Adoramus te, a short piece, reminiscent of Palestrina to my ear.

Brahms was a master of counterpoint, and this is clearly displayed in his motets.  I particularly liked Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen for its emotional impact and the precision required of the choir.  Brahms wrote many of his choral works for an a cappella choir, which for me, as an amateur chorister, is particularly terrifying.

Brahms also wrote secular choral works, including the Fest- und Gedenksprüche, written for the city of Hamburg when he was made an honorary citizen (here’s a sample), and folk song settings.

And to close, a song to make you say ahhhh.  While this folk song setting tells a sad story (lyrics here), Brahms’s setting adds a touch of sweetness.  Here is In Stiller Nacht.

References

  1. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/h/hmu01591a.php

_____

Image attribution: Johannes Brahms, photograph By C. Brasch, Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JohannesBrahms.jpg


1 Comment

Haiku Wednesday: Old Music, New World

Sheet music in old notation showing parts of the Quechua hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin
Thousands of miles from
Home, they sought the solace of
A familiar faith.

The same sun shone down,
And the church looked just the same,
But a world away.

And new believers,
At home here, sought connection,
Familiar comfort.

And on that Sunday,
The music sounded the same,
But the words were new.

And both would smile in
This new and ancient landscape,
Worlds joined in music.

I love the things I find during my random walks through music history.  I was doing research on Tomás Luis de Victoria (around 1548-1611; you’ll see a post on him soon) when I found out that he published a collection of his music for distribution throughout Europe and the New World.  The New World.  I hadn’t thought about it before.  Typically, newly built colonial cities in the Americas had a central town square, and on one side of this square there was always a church, if not a cathedral.  And these churches needed music.

Victoria’s music traveled to Bogota, Colombia; Lima and Cusco, Peru; Mexico City, Mexico; and other cities in the New World.  The Spanish composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla didn’t send his music; he came to Mexico, composed music in the city of Puebla, and was the music director of the city’s cathedral.  Composer Juan García de Zéspedes, born in Puebla, studied under Gutiérrez de Padilla and later succeeded him as the music director.

At the cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala, now Antigua Guatemala, the Portuguese composer Gaspar Fernandes compiled a collection of choral music written by him and by the Spanish composers Francisco Guerrero, Cristóbal de Morales, and Pedro Bermúdez.  Fernandes and Bermúdez were also active at the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico.

I discovered that there is a wealth of information on sacred and secular music in the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s.  Some are listed in the references, but there are many more.

I had only begun to scratch the surface when this music stopped me in my tracks, music that I needed to share.  The first vocal polyphonic work published in the New World (in 1631) is from Peru, and it is in the Quechua language.  It is Hanacpachap cussicuinin, a hymn to the Virgin Mary.  And it is beautiful.  Here are the words of the first verse (presented today in Haiku form):

O, Joy of Heaven,
We praise you a thousand times,
Tree of thrice-blessed fruit.
Hope of humankind,
You help all those who are weak.
Attend to our prayer.

And now, here is a performance of Hanacpachap cussicuinin.

References

  1. Tomás Luis de Victoria, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%C3%A1s_Luis_de_Victoria.
  2. Sacred Music: God’s Composer.  Music by Tomás Luis de Victoria.  BBC DVD, 2012.  https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Music-Gods-Composer-Victoria/dp/B006ZBJJI2
  3. Cramer, Eugene, Tomás Luis de Victoria: A Guide to Research. Psychology Press, 1998, 53-72.
  4. http://www.lacompania.com.au/reviews/cds/
  5. Bowers, Teresa, “The Golden Age of Choral Music in the Cathedrals of Colonial Mexico,” The Choral Journal, Vol 40 No 9 (April 2000) pp 9-13 via jstor.org.
  6. Escalada, Oscar, “Hanaqpachaq: The First Polyphonic Work Published (and Composed?) in the New World” [trans., ed. David Castleberry], The Choral Journal, Vol 43 No 2 (September 2002) pp 9-16 via jstor.org.
  7. Also see works by musicologist Robert Stevenson.

_____
Image attribution: Juan Pérez Bocanegra. Ritual, formulario, e institución de curas para administrar a los naturales de este reyno, los santos sacramentos del baptismo, confirmacion, eucaristia, y viatico, penitencia, extremauncion, y matrimonio: con aduertencias muy necessarias. Lima: Geronymo de Contreras, 1631, p 708, via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/ritualformulario00pr.


2 Comments

Two Choral Groups Walk into a Bar…

I’m currently learning Ave Maria by Franz Biebl with my choir.  I was looking for videos, found the one below, and had to share it with you.

No joke here:  two vocal ensembles, Cantus and Chanticleer, walked into a bar one night and decided to sing Biebl’s Ave MariaListen.  This is magical.

 


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: Faure’s In Paradisum

The Assumption of the Virgin, painting by Francesco Botticini

May angels lead you
Into paradise, and may
Martyrs receive you,
And lead you into
Holy Jerusalem with
Choirs of angels.
And with Lazurus,
Once a poor man, may you have
Your eternal rest.

At this time of year, many cultures hold observances that remember and honor the dead.  In his Requiem, Gabriel Fauré uses the Latin text of the In paradisum section of the requiem liturgy (reproduced in English as a haiku above).  Here you can hear the original plainchant (and practice reading the ancient notation).

And here is Fauré’s transformation, complete with his notion of an angel choir.  Beauty and rest.

_____

Image attribution: The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_Virgin.jpg


5 Comments

Haiku Wednesday: Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Faure

Luminous music,
Tender, calm, and so peaceful:
Gabriel Fauré

A requiem that dwells on
Eternal rest and light, peace,
Mercy and welcome.

Grace and elegance,
Music that soothes and comforts:
Gabriel Fauré.

The more I have read about Gabriel Fauré, the more I have wanted to read.  And the more I have listened to his music, the more I have wanted to hear.  What a fascinating fellow!

He was drawn to music at an early age, and was sent to study at a music school in Paris, which in time was headed by Camille Saint-Saëns.  At first, Saint-Saëns was Fauré’s teacher, but the two became close friends.

After graduation, Fauré worked as a church organist…until he showed up one Sunday morning in his evening clothes after partying all night.  Thereafter, he became the organist at a different church.1

He fought in the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. 1

After the war, he was choirmaster at Saint-Sulpice, where Charles-Marie Widor was organist.  The church had two organs, and the two would improvise together, trying to trick each other with unexpected key changes.  Saint-Saëns described Fauré as “a first-class organist when he wanted to be.” 1

As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Fauré taught Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, among others.  He later became the school’s director, and modernized procedures and updated the curriculum to include works by Debussy and Wagner.  Old-timers were not amused by the inclusion of this newfangled music.  However, the group of contemporary composers known as Les Six adored him. 1

Fauré’s music spanned the period between Romanticism and 20th century music.  His later music hints at the changes that were occurring at the time, away from a fixed tonality and traditional chord progressions, and toward more amorphous harmonies.  His last work was his first string quartet, finished less than two months before he died. 1

An example of Fauré embracing the modern is now a great treasure.  He recorded a number of piano rolls, and through them, we can hear him playing his own music.  At the links you can hear Fauré play his Pavane (Op. 50), a Valse Caprise from Op. 38, a Valse Caprice from Op. 59, and Nocturne No. 7 (Op. 74).

I would be remiss to omit Fauré’s Requiem.  I could write an entire post on it—and I will, because I am currently learning to sing it.  But I need to immerse myself in it more first to be able to adequately describe it to you.  It is a towering work, a giant, but one that whispers.  A deeply emotional work, yet one that Fauré said that he wrote “for nothing—for fun, if I may say so!”2   The Requiem departs from the traditional requiem text, and focuses on eternal rest and perpetual light.  In a way, it is reminiscent of the Brahms German Requiem in its comforting tone.   It is beautiful, and I look forward to singing it and telling you more about it soon.

It is hard to know what to highlight, there are so many works I could present for you.  I’ll pick two.  First, his lovely song Aprés Un Rêve, sung here by Pumeza Matshikiza with pianist Simon Lepper.

And, for now, I leave you with Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11) for orchestra and choir.  Fauré wrote this when he was 19 years old, and it took first prize in a composition competition (imagine his competitors!).

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Faur%C3%A9
  2. Letter from Fauré to composer Maurice Emmanuel, quoted in Nectoux, Jean-Michel, Gabriel Fauré – A Musical Life, trans. Roger Nichols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p 116.
  3. http://www.classicfm.com/composers/faure/guides/howard-goodall-gabriel-faure/

_____

Image attribution:  Photograph of Gabriel Fauré by De Jongh, Lausanne, 1907 [Public domain in US], original held by the Bibliothèque nationale de Francehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Faure1907.jpg


5 Comments

Catapulting Without a Net: The View is Amazing

Stick figure flying through the air, notated music trailing behind

Recently I had the great pleasure of singing Bach’s Magnificat in a fantastic choir with marvelous soloists and musicians.  It was a thrilling performance, the music ringing in the hall, simply glorious.

Each time I sing one of the great choral masterpieces with them, it’s like adding another sparkling jewel to a treasure chest—the Brahms German Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Vespers.  Each one has its own unique beauty, and I learn something new from each one of them.  Readers are already aware of some of the things I learned in preparing Magnificat (see here and here).  But there’s something else that made this performance special, a first.

I sang it from memory.

But the memorizing itself is unimportant compared to what I learned from the performance.

It is amazing the things you notice when you can manage to pry the score loose from the death-grip with which your hands cling to it, fearful of missing a note or an entrance (or, worse, committing an unintentional solo), and raise your head for a prolonged period.

First, you notice the attentive, expectant faces of the audience.  This would be terrifying if it weren’t for the fact that most of them are smiling.  This only strengthens your commitment to sing your best for them.

Next, the choir director, whom you should be looking at most of the time anyway (but probably don’t—see death-grip above).  But instead of the glance up from the score to check in for tempo, dynamics, a cue or special instruction (usually notated in my score by “WATCH!”), you get to see when they’re not looking at you (instead of vice versa).  And you realize, as they cue every entry for every voice, that you’re not the only one who has things memorized, and in fact, they’ve memorized much more than you have.  Which is just one of the reasons why they’re standing on a podium, and you’re not.

Another thing you notice, something you may take for granted, is the voices surrounding you.  I don’t mean the person standing next to you, against whom you might cautiously check your pitch and volume.  I heard the lines of entire sections, the earth-rumbling basses stating the fugue theme, the sopranos and altos singing the wonderful descending lines of the Gloria, fluttering downward like a twirling, falling leaf.  The tenors adding their color notes and flourishes, voices arching dramatically skyward.  And the sound is bigger, because you’re not hearing individual raindrops anymore—you’re hearing a torrent of notes.

And the instrumental music, by turns sweet, jingling, thundering, soul-stirring, each interweaving line issuing forth from the hands of a masterful musician, without whom the voices would seem incomplete.  Fingers, flying, execute a precise figure, partnered in this instance with fleet-footed organ pedaling.  A dance indeed.

You recognize the staggering number of hours that have been devoted by everyone to make this music come to life.

And finally, Bach.  You realize he’s taken the word “dispersit” (scatters) and depicted it in the music, as it is repeated first to your left, then your right, directly in front of you, in back—surround sound hundreds of years before it existed. That beautiful phrase you recognize from the St. Matthew Passion?  He used it here first, but you didn’t notice it before.  And again and again he weaves magic into the music, and you are left awestruck by his genius.

I hope you will take time today to look up, and listen, and perhaps catch something you’ve been missing.

Me?  I have a new score to memorize.

_____

Image attribution: Musical catapulting stick figure. Copyright Chris Gallant 2015.