Carmina Burana   May 21, 2017

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University

© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica

Eighty years ago in Frankfurt – June 8, 1937 – a cantata that would become one of the most beloved and enduring of the choral masterworks was seen and heard for the first time: Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibusinstrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images).  That proper title is a mouthful, but it reveals several things about Carmina’s origins and intent.  Beuren refers to the Benedictine monastery in Bavaria where, in 1803, a collection of 13th century songs and poems was uncovered.  Orff himself discovered a version of that collection in a second-hand bookstore in a publication with the rather tawdry title, Wine, Women, and Song.  He was rapt:

I obtained the book on Maundy Thursday 1934, a memorable day for me.  Right when I opened it, on the very first page, I found the long-famous illustration of ‘Fortune with the Wheel,’ and under it the lines: ‘O Fortuna velut Luna statu variabilis.’  The picture and the words took hold of me.  Although I was, in the beginning, only acquainted with the broad outlines of the contents of the poetry collection, a new work, a stage work with choruses for singing and dancing, simply following the pictures and text, sprang to life immediately in my mind.  That very day I had sketched the first chorus.  After a sleepless night during which I nearly lost myself in the voluminous poetry collection, a second chorus, ‘Fortune plango vulnera,’ was finished, and on Easter morning, a third, ‘Ecce gratum,’ was put on paper.

With the help of a Latin scholar named Michael Hoffman, Orff chose twenty-four poems from the collection and grouped them into three scenes: Spring, In the Tavern, and The Court of Love.  These poems were likely written by authors in various bands of itinerant scholars and defrocked priests – learned, literary men who, for whatever reason, fell out with the academic and religious institutions of 13th century Europe and made a living entertaining hosts, and each other, with their too-clever words and catchy rhymes.  They herald the beauty and warmth of spring, surely welcome to men without a home to call their own.  They toast the delights of the tavern, mocking clergymen, imagining the lament of a roasting swan, while subtly criticizing the simony and greed of the ever-powerful church of which they were no longer a part.  They revel in the intrigue of courtly love – the longing for a chaste and typically unattainable lady – that animated the noble courts that provided them a few nights’ stay.  Taken as a whole, they trace the way life’s delights and challenges are subject to Fortune’s whims.

Orff set out to vivify the texts through both song and “magic images.”  At the school that Orff created with Dorthee Guenther, dancers were expected to improvise music for their movement, and instrumentalists created movements for their melodies.  In Orff’s art, as in some African cultures where there aren’t separate words for “music” and “dance,” the two were essentially interchangeable.  Princeton Pro Musica has a history of performing Carmina Burana in the multi-disciplinary way its composer conceived it.  Past collaborations have featured the work of Teamwork Dance, the American Repertory Ballet, and Reverance among others.  I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Mark Roxey and the Roxey Ballet whose musical choreography has transformed the way I thin about the relationship between music and movement and has revealed new possibilities for storytelling with Carmina.  

Orff’s choice of medieval texts complements his inclination toward older music.  Turning away from the urbane iconoclasm of Weimar Germany and the intellectualism of composers like Schoenberg, Orff sought a more elemental primal music inspired by nature and earlier musical models.  At Orff’s school, students played simplified, large percussion instruments which allowed them to use their bodies to develop complex rhythmic ideas from simple melodic materials.  For his own performances as conductor of the Munich Bach Society and other organizations, Orff arranged the music of Monteverdi and created staged versions of works by Schütz and Bach.  He was a student of medieval music, too.  The contours of medieval plainchant inform the chorus’ music in the third movement (“varies leta facies”) and the baritone’s first utterance, “Omnia sol temperat,” in the fourth.  The jaunty mixed meter of the sixth movement, “Tanz,” (“Dance”) was inspired by medieval Bavarian dance.

Fittingly, Orff’s music begs for movement.  Powered by ranks of soldiering beats marching along in insistent ostinatos, rhythm vanquishes melody to noisily proclaim itself the primary musical parameter.  A near-constant barrage of sharp accents and snappy staccatos adds crispness and angularity to the musical surface.  Unlike so much of the music Princeton Pro Musica sings, Carmina looks like few others in repertoire.  It’s as though Orff deliberately compensated for the conspicuous lack of flats and sharps by adorning nearly every note with a diacritic crown of articulation.  The choir, of course, isn’t the only component of Carmina responsible for the rhythm and the accents.  Carmina requires no fewer than three glockenspiels, five timpani, various drums, chimes, and some of the most sparkling instruments of the percussion section, like sleigh bells, castanets, and triangle.

This straightforward musical approach creates a very powerful experience in the concert hall.  Sometimes, in attendance at a classical music event, we bear witness to a solo performer’s solipsistic reverie with her instrument, gleaning pleasure from being given access to that intimate, interior world.  Other times, we sit in awe of the way a composer’s creation raises universal, profound questions or conveys majesty.  But Carmina can elicit an emotional response or a more primordial type.  It externalizes and makes explicit interior impulses without chagrin.  Its clamor and pulse can sweep us into communal ecstasy.  Much time has been spent in rehearsal getting one hundred people to rattle off lyrics and fire off accents exactly together.  It’s hard work, but when we git it right, it’s thrilling.

It’s no wonder, then, that few pieces from the choral repertoire have been used so much outside the concert hall context.  Carmina’s topics – springtime sunshine, tipsy conviviality, stirring loins – are innocent enough.  But its effects – unification through rhythm, a sense of triumphalism – harness powerful potential.  The piece was written in a time when several odious regimes were gaining power in Europe.  Though Orff claimed the Nazis proscribed Carmina due to its Latin text, communal “European” sensibility, and “jazzy atmosphere,” other Nazis embraced the work and at least one appreciated the rhythms’ evocation of “the stamping columns of the Third Reich.”  Carmina’s first performance at Italy’s La Scala served as a showpiece for fascist values.  Less worrisome and more widespread has been Carmina’s cooptation in the commercial realm.  Countless bands and solo artists, from Michael Jackson to Busta Rhymes, have sampled Orff’s music.  Film and television creators pump up their soundtracks with it.  Madison Avenue ad smiths use it to sell everything from sports cars to beer.  Sports franchises blast “O Fortuna” when their players take the field or court.  They all lean on these familiar sounds to signal to us that their protagonists face a battle with fate of epic proportions.

Indeed, in spite of its familiarity, the famous “O Fortuna” is always arresting.  This is never more the case than in concert performance when it returns at the end of the work.  Orff saves his richest, most exulted music for the second to last movement.  Having followed the courtship and seduction gradually unfolding between baritone and soprano and at long last riding the rush of consummation after the soprano’s orgasmic ascent to high D, the full-throated chorus, three clanging glockenspiels, timpani, and pianos erupt in a paean to “the most beautiful one.” Their hymn-like “Aves” extol beautiful women of legend and Venus herself.  But just as soon as we’ve reached this apex, a crash of the tam-tam and thundering blows from the timpani turn Fortune’s wheel upside down once again.  Soon thereafter, the last line of the famous chorus bids, “since Fate strikes down the strong man, everyone weep with me!”

By the time this grand invitation returns for the second time, we have risen and fallen through the lifecycle of the twenty-five movements of Orff’s cantata.  We have been powerfully reminded, through word, sound, and movement that, on Fortune’s wheel, it’s all too easy to slip from one side to the other.  Certain aspects of life were felt just as acutely in the Middle Ages as they are today.  Who among us hasn’t sometimes felt: like what was up is down, what was down is up; like others are suddenly exalted in triumph while we are suddenly knocked down; like others get lucky and we’re dealt a losing hand? Yet, each day we wake up and roll the dice of life.  Now, as then, there are communities forced to wander and seek refuge from Fortune’s cruel fickleness.  Triumph lives side-by-side with tragedy.  Though its potency has been used over the years in a variety of ways, in this particular moment, Orff’s brilliant Carmina, provides a way for one hundred and fifty musicians, twenty dancers, and hundreds of audience members to celebrate life and love’s triumphs and bemoan their tribulations.  By helping us to experience these highest highs and lowest lows together, Carmina captures the bittersweet, tempest-tossed way that life jostles joy and struggle and perhaps suggests that we do what we can to right Fortune’s wheel for others when it starts to fall.

 

 

A Joyful Noise   March 18, 2017

Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ

© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica

When I was programming our current season more than a year ago, as campaigns heated up and weather cooled down, the noise around me – noisy city streets, noisy airwaves – seemed to crowd out my thoughts more readily.  Past concerts in the Chapel have included requiems, Lenten works, and works of a more ethereal nature.  But for this year’s concert in the chapel, I found myself craving music that unabashedly celebrates its clamor.  What better piece than Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms which opens with a cymbal crash and blast from the organ?  It was a quick move for me from the Bernstein to Benjamin Britten’s Festival Te Deum.  That setting, written like the Chichester Psalms for a British choral festival, also amplifies the highs and lows of its text using the organ to brilliant effect.  I’ve long appreciated the way the Chichester Psalms balances a palpable love of a good tune with infectious rhythm.  Tghe uneven 7/4 meter in the first movement’s setting of a psalm about praise and joy, having shaved off half a beat, feels like a child on a dance floor so physically enthralled with his surroundings that his little stomping feet just can’t wait to get to the next downbeat.  For another extended work for the program, I searched for something that shared Chichester’s willingness to admit influences outside of the sphere of classical music.  Bernstein said of Chichester, which was based largely on musical theater works, “It is quite popular in feeling … and it has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.”

Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych fit the bill.  O’Regan remains open to all kinds of sound as music.  “I think it’s a very fine line between music and noise; I’m not sure if there is a difference particularly.  Some people think of it, I suppose, as organized noise, but I love the randomness of sounds that I hear.”  His Triptych combines elements of Renaissance polyphony, rock, jazz, and North African music into a moving three-movement work with a refreshingly new sound.  I’ve performed the work before in its version for chorus and strings, but I’ve been eager to perform the version for chorus and percussion ensemble.  The kinetic quality of its rhythms, pulsing through percussion instruments, and the beautiful hailstorm of all those mallets striking so many wooden and metal bars will surround us in sheets of swirling sixteenth notes.  I’m honored to feature the College of New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, led by William Trigg, in the O’Regan and also in a selection by Shostakovich.  This “intermezzo” for un-pitched percussion foregoes words and melodies to revel in rhythm and sheer sound.  These instruments, along with the organ, harp, and the voices of Princeton Pro Musica, will fill the chapel with a joyful noise.

In the last fifteen years, Tarik O’Regan has become an important figure on the contemporary music scene, and I’m delighted to introduce his music ton this program.  His multi-faceted musical style reflects the various influences on his life.  O’Regan was born to an Irish-English father and Algerian mother.  He has lived mostly in England, but has also lived in New York City.  He cites several musical influences: the Renaissance choral music at the heart of the collegiate chapels at Oxford and Cambridge where he was educated; the music of North Africa where he spent summers as a youth; the 60s and 70s British rock of his mother’s LP collection; the jazz in his father’s LP collection; and minimalist music.  Traces of each of these influences can be heard across the three movements.  The churning ostinato pattern of the first movement, pulsing with punchy cross rhythm, has origins in the music of North Africa.  Of the music there, he notes: “North African music is so highly intertwined, what I like about that is there’s not so much a divide between what I would call concert music, pop music, and folk music.  It’s much more closely put together, much in the same way that I think jazz is today.”  It might also reflect the frenetic pace of city life: O’Regan sand the first movement, “was the first composition that evolved entirely from my New York perspective.”  The overlapping phasing rhythms of the upper parts in the first movement resemble the phasing of pedal effects in rock muskc (or the reverb-born harmonic blending of ancient cathedrals).  The gently arcing polyphony that emerges from the second movement evokes the music of Thomas Tallis.  And the catchy tune of the third movement could just as easily be an electric guitar riff.  Asked what recorded music he might take to a desert isle, O’Regan names Led Zeppelin.  “That’s the music that my mother listened to, but I’ve always enjoyed thseir music because I think their level of musicianship is so high.  They really compose their songs very carefully.  But I just love the playing, and I love the rhythmic drive.  I love the fact that there is such a dynamic range, very soft songs, very heavy songs.”

O’Regan’s cultural curiosity and ecumenical spirit allow him to absorb aesthetic influences from other art forms and everyday experiences.  He speaks reverentially about architecture, for instance: “Whether it’s new architecture or historic architecture, there’s something about these buildings that speaks to people both within the walls and those outside, and we can all take great inspiration looking at a cathedral or a mosque.  Beautiful.  I don’t feel alienated by that because I’m not of that faith, or a Buddhist temple, or a Hindu temple, or the secular temples that we have like Grand Central Station.  I see beauty in those buildings, and I think that’s very important: beauty, regardless of the function.”  I feel a sense of kinship with O’Regan in his love of New York City whose “addictive” frenetic buzz he deems “a music of its own with its own rhythms and textures.”  We also share a love of the uncannily human experience of riding the subway.  He notes, “It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your ethnicity, nationality, social background, sexuality, whatever it is.  You have to sit next to someone on the subway whether you think you’re going to like them or not.  There’s a greater understanding of people simply by sitting next to them.  It’s so powerful.”  Experiencing the crosscurrents of New York’s many immigrant communities inspired O’Regan to explore his own mixed heritage through composition.

Fittingly, the collage of texts that comprise the lyrics for Triptych is as fascinatingly diverse as the musical style.  Poem fragments by British giants like Blake, Milton, Wordsworth and Hardy are intertwined with words of Quaker William Penn, Muslim poet Mohammad Rajab Al-Bayoumi, Jewish poet Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, Hindu poet Bundahis-Bahman Yast, and Sufi poet Jalalu-‘d’Din Rumi.  Like Brahms’ collage of textx assembled for his German Requiem or Bach’s librettists’ collections for his cantatas and passions, these texts are impactful because of the way the components interact with each other.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  By representing many traditions without prioritizing, O’Regan is able gently to highlight similarities over difference.  Emerging from the inter-textual, transcultural traffic is a sense of our inherent sameness.  Reading from one fragment to the next and back again, an ethos emerges.  It’s perhaps besty encapsulated by the line from Psalm 133 that ends the first movement which, in this context, powerfully, paradoxically, is radically simple and commonplace: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for [people] to dwell together in unity.”

Though Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms ends with the very same lyric, it reflects a different composer and a different cultural-historical moment.  Bernstein, famously, was not just a composer but also a conductor, a television personality, and an educator.  He regretted not making more time for composition.  Chichester Psalms appeared during a period between 1957 and 1971 when he produced only Chichester Psalms and one other work, Kaddish (his third symphony), amounting to just an hour or so of music.  By contrast, the period between 1951 and 1957 saw the creation of three Broadway musicals, a one-act opera, a film score, and a violin concerto.  Bernstein took a sabbatical year (1964-1965) from his directorship of the New York Philharmonic in order to focus on composing.  A planned musical based on Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth didn’t pan out.  Attempts at composing classical music fell short too.  There is some sense that part of the struggle with composing was determining which style, of the many distinctive classical musical styles of the 1950s and 1960s was his true voice.  Kaddish had embraced dissonance and the twelve tone technique.  Chichester Psalms, by contrast, are straightforwardly, almost politically, tonal.  Bernstein wrote a poem about the sabbitical year which includes these lines on the composition of the Chichester Psalms:

For hours on end I brooded and mused

On materiae musicae, used and abused

On aspects of unconventionality,

Over the death in our time of tonality,

Over the fads of Dada and Chance,

The serial strictures, the dearth of romance,

“Perspectives in Music,” the new terminology,

Physiomathematomusicology;

Pieces called “Cycles” and “Sines” and “Parameters” –

Titles too beat for these homely tetrameters;

Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos

With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos

Played with the forearms, the fists, and the palms

-And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.

These psalms are a simple and modest affair,

Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,

Certain to sicken a stout John Cager

With its tonics and triads in E-flat major.

But there it stands – the result of my pondering,

Two long months of avant-garde wandering –

My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.

And he stands on his own two tonal feet.

Bernstein was no stranger to the musical-political statement.  In recent years, on the noisy pixel plots of social media, I’ve seen (and posted) his call to arms made after learning of the death of JFK: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more devotedly, more beautifully than ever before.” Notably, for a memorial concert with the New York Philharmonic shortly thereafter, Bernstein eschewed the traditional requiem for Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.  Bernstein cited Mahler’s “visionary concept of hope” and summoned “strength to go on striving for those goals Kennedy cherished.”  Five years later, he would conduct more Mahler (this time the “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5) at Robert Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  As early as 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, he led seventeen Jewish survivors of the St. Ottilien internment camp in a program that included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  On the eve of the inauguration of Nixon’s second term, January 19, 1973, Bernstein led a “Concert ror Peace” at the National Cathedral, in protest, performing Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of War.”  And the list goes on.  He performed at the Vatican for John Paul II in 1981.  With James Levine in 1987, he conducted a benefit concert for AIDS research at Carnegie Hall.  Just a year before his death, in 1989, Bernstein refused a National Medal of the Arts in protest of the revocation of an NEA grant for AIDS-related art.

Dr. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, commissioned Bernstein to write a work for the combined choruses of Winchester, Salisbury, and Chichester Cathedrals.  Hussey wrote to Bernstein: “I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited by circumstances.  I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.”  In fact, much of the musical material came from the discarded musical The Skin of our Teeth.  The most intense part of the Psalms – the tenors’ and basses’ gruff outbursts in the second movement – actually began as a chorus cut from the “Prologue” to West Side Story.  Sondheim’s words, “Mix – make a mess of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay” became “Lamah rag’shu goyim, ul’umim yeh’gu rik?”  (Why do nations so furiously rage together?)  In 1965, while in the middle of working on the Chichester Psalms, Bernstein flew to Alabama at the behest of Harry Belafonte to perform at the “Stars for Freedom Rally” alongside Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, and Mahalia Jackson.  One has to imagine that intercultural conflict wasn’t far from his mind, be it the turf wars of the Jets and Sharks, or the fight for racial justice in Alabama and across the U.S.

In 1973, he would conduct the Chichester Psalms at a concert for the Pope televised all over Europe.  In September 1989, Bernstein conducted the work at a concert in Warsaw marking the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.  The orchestra and choruses were Polish, the soloists Polish and American.  The program included Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw narrated by the granddaughter of a Holocaust victim and Penderecki’s Polish Requiem.  This was just a few months before he famously conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its “Ode to Joy,” at the Berlin Wall substituting the titular “Freude” (joy) with “Freiheit” (freedom).  Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy transforms it into a radical statement about brotherhood and togetherness.  “Your magics join again what custom strictly divided,”  The famous tune is the essence of simplicity.  Everyone in this chapel could hum its stepwise simplicity in near-perfect unanimity.  Beethoven dreamt of a joy so deep and universal that it could bring us all back together and fashioned it in idealistic music that he would never hear outside his mind.  That Bernstein fervently believed in such an idea is evident not only in his politically-motivated conducting exploits, but also in his own compositions.  I can’t help but think of the optimism of the rising seventh in “there’s … a … place for us.”

And, of course, there’s the end of the Chichester Psalms.  In the last measures of the piece, Bernstein revives the chords that open the entire work to set the words, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity.”  The accompaniment disappears, leaving just the choir – who are instructed to sing as quietly and slowly as possible – sustained chords charged by twinges of dissonance.  When the chords resolve on the word “yachad”, the music reaches for the origins of that lyric in the word “yachid” which connotes oneness in unity.

Where can one dwell?  Why do the nations rage so furiously together?  Do we feel a sense of oneness and unity?  Such concerns are generating quite a bit of noise in our current, chaotic moment.  One wonders what Bernstein would have to say about our own time and how he would enter the gray.  Would he have an active Twitter feed?  Would he be organizing concerts?  Twenty-six years after Bernstein’s death, even if some of the arguments have remained the same, the way we communicate around them has not.  Much ink has been spilled about the ineffectuality (at best) or insidious impact of echo-chamber intra-enclave dialogue.  It can be very difficult to hear music amidst the noise.  Blitzes of 140-character cherry-bombs leave the mind and nerves too tattered to wage the longer battles of complex conversation.  Fleeting chyron captions flash on and off before stories can be fleshed out with facts.  Caustic talking-head crossfire eats away at the ideal of reasoned discourse like so much acid rain on a classical edifice.  It’s all too easy, too, to shun long-form music amidst such exhaustion.  Pop song playlists and Twitter feeds aren’t so far apart.  The just-right length of a pop hit requires that we pay attention only for a few minutes.  The formulaic structure requires us to establish expectations only to have them unfailingly confirmed in the final chorus, perhaps with an all-caps key change.  But the decision to attend a concert signals a willingness to risk hearing different musical ideas and to become a participant in a longer, nuanced exchange.  The decision on the part of the musicians of Princeton Pro Musica to prepare these works required discipline, teamwork, and imagination.  Perhaps not every piece we perform today will be to your liking, and I don’t expect that one concert could summon the magical joy of Beethoven’s dreams.  But, hopefully, our joining together for these moments of joyful noise brings us all one step closer.

Holiday Classics     December 11, 2016

Patriot’s Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, NJ

© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica

I’ve loved the music of the holidays for as long as I can remember, and I’m delighted to share some of my favorite tunes with you, in arrangements for chorus and orchestra. It has been a joy to craft these carols, combine them with some of Pro Musica’s favorites by Bach and Handel, and create Joy to the World: a Christmas Suite. At several points throughout the suite, melody and harmony are met by poetry, and I am grateful to Longfellow and Robert Kelly for their words, and to our guests for their reading. I’m also honored to welcome the young artists from the Trenton Children’s Chorus.

The movements of this suite don’t tell the Christmas story so much as trace its outline and try to capture the essence of some of its themes: the transition from darkness toward light, the tender love of a mother, the joy of sharing great news, the wondrous mystery of every newborn’s potential, the boisterous mirth of group celebration, the ever-burning need for peace, and the remembrance of times past. These are touchstones for any ear and every era. Amidst the instantaneous clip and clamorous whirr of contemporary life, it’s no wonder that this season of waiting and expectation—for the arrival of a favorite holiday or a special gift, for waxing warmth of longer days, or the promise of a new year—still holds sway. Pausing, to listen, to sing, and to enmesh ourselves in a community of musicians and listeners lets us cut through the din of our noisy recent discourse and tune in to the shared feeling flowing between us. I hope that some combination of music, word, and space conjures for you a doorway into a realm of repose, reflection, or even reverie.

Over the past several Decembers Princeton Pro Musica has turned to the music of Handel and Bach. It has been our privilege to learn and perform their colossal Christmas masterpieces, Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio. These two composers have been providing the soundtrack for this story for centuries, and the gilded Baroque splendor of their monuments never ceases to dazzle. In the first part of Messiah, the soprano announces the shepherds visit by the angels, who descend in a flutter of wings, heralded by heavenly trumpets, to proclaim “Glory to God.” The second and third parts of Messiah offer an omniscient meditation on the impact of Christ’s arrival. The “Hallelujah” chorus conveys assured joy and captures the emotional rush of hope fulfilled in triumph. The expansive, scenic chorus that opens the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (and the second half of today’s suite) teems with excited humanity, as the shepherds scurry and shout, heralding the good news with pipe, horn, and drum. The jaunty triple-time number that opens the third part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio gleefully depicts the shepherds’ rustic dance of celebration.

The rest of the suite brings together music from several centuries and diverse sources. The work opens with its most ancient melody, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, whose plaintive rise and fall laments the darkness in our world and pines for renewed light and new possibility. The German chorale Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming draws us into the humility of Mary’s role. The familiar words and gentle melodies of Infant Holy and O Holy Night might evoke nostalgia, but when heard as if for the first time, we might notice they celebrate the way a new person in our lives can alter our perspective and infuse new hope. I Heard the Bells and John Leavitt’s Ose Shalom, both ardent pleas for peace, remind us that our holidays take place in the context of a broader world, where peace on earth and good will are sometimes cherished, difficult-to-reach dreams. And Deck the Hall, well, that’s just jolly.

Music might help us reimagine or reconnect to the past. It might underscore our present, amplifying our joys, deepening our longings. If I could bring joy to the world, I would. In the meantime, I hope this suite plays its small part. But, above all, I hope our final selections might remind us all that music, like holidays, can be an occasion for togetherness and future reunions. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas gives voice not only to those who can be together at the holidays but also to those who cannot. Auld Lang Syne bids us to lean on each other, put aside our differences, “take a cup o’ kindness,” and raise a glass “for auld lang syne”—for the sake of old times—while we turn toward the next chapter. Thank you for your decision to join us this afternoon, as we look back and look forward to our next time together.

© Ryan James Brandau, December 2016

 

Haydn-Brahms-Mendelssohn   October 30, 2016

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University

© Ryan James Brandau, October 2016

As performers and lovers of music, we can never predict how real-world events will shape the music we perform and the music we hear. As much as music helps us transcend our here and now, there are certain times when it’s impossible to perform in a vacuum and ignore the way the music we make can resonate with life, echoing and amplifying the joys and struggles our world presents. That’s the agony and the ecstasy of live music. At our first concert together, four seasons ago, we stepped searchingly through the ominous gray opening of Mozart’s Requiem as the swollen clouds and swells of Sandy rolled toward our shores. In December 2014, the resplendent fanfares that close Bach’s Christmas Oratorio resounded in joyous tribute to the life of Bach scholar and music supporter William Scheide. Just last week, Princeton Pro Musica lost one of its greatest friends and champions, alto Lockie Proctor. We lift up the music we sing today in Lockie’s boisterous spirit.

I’ve long been eager to explore with Princeton Pro Musica the choral masterworks of Haydn, and his six great late masses in particular. Last winter, when I was building this season’s programs, I realized that this first program would fall just a few days before our national election. This fall has been a time of distress for some, and, hopefully, a time of discernment for all. I chose the Missa in Angustiis (Mass “in a time of distress”) first and foremost because of its astoundingly good music. But there was something about that music and the way it spoke both to my anxious premonition about the national moment we might find ourselves in come election time and to the hope I feel about the future. Now that the moment is upon us, my anxiousness and hopefulness intensified beyond anything I could have anticipated, Haydn’s score feels more alive than ever.

Between 1796 and 1802, Josef Franz Haydn composed six masses on a grand scale for the annual name day celebrations of Princess Marie, the wife of his patron Prince Nicholas II. Haydn wrote these works, along with his large-scale oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, after his famed visits to London, for which he expanded and perfected his symphonic style, and where the grand, ceremonious music of Handel made a lasting impact on him. The first of these, 1796’s Missa in Tempore Belli (“Mass in a Time of War”), acknowledged the reality of the Napoleonic Wars throughout Europe and North Africa. Two years later, the Wars more intense than ever, Haydn penned his only mass in a minor key, the Missa in Angustiis (“Mass in a Time of Distress”).

The Missa in Angustiis stands apart from the other late masses in the way it uses instrumentation, texture, and musical procedures to pit a powerful, prevailing urgency and anxiety against jubilant, effervescent assurance and joy, and to highlight the part versus the whole, the individual versus the community. In his original scoring, which you will hear today, Haydn eschews the woodwinds of the orchestra altogether, leaving the string orchestra with just an organ, three trumpets, and timpani. The stark contrast in timbres sharpens the martial blare and beat of the brass and drums. The pointed trumpet fanfares and pleading sighs of the chorus in the opening Kyrie and the almost menacing advance of the trumpets and timpani in the Benedictus are as severe as any music written to that point. From the strings, Haydn coaxes sweet, limpid lyricism and fiery, surging passagework.

The famously acrobatic, impassioned soprano solo in the opening movement gives individual voice to the predominant sense of anxiety, crying high above the storm of the strings and trumpets. The four sections of the chorus enter one on top of another, piling up dissonances through insistent repetitions of the plea “have mercy on us.” Elsewhere, such as the end of the Gloria movement and the final Dona Nobis Pacem, Haydn uses fugues and fugal techniques, where one musical idea is presented in each of the four voice parts, altered ever so slightly so that they overlap harmoniously, cooperatively. In the first of the movements setting the Credo text (the mass’s group statement of belief) all voices sing the same music: the sopranos and tenors sing exactly the same line throughout, an octave apart; the altos and basses follow a measure behind and a fifth below. A single line of music, refracted through the laws of counterpoint and harmony, creates a sparkling, colorful whole. Out of one strong idea Haydn makes many. Later, in the midst of a fiery Et Resurrexit, he does the opposite, uniting the many vocal parts into one unison declaration.

Princeton Pro Musica is no stranger to the music of Arvo Pärt, who turns eighty next year. I built today’s program around Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of Distress,” which opens with a tempest of strings and trumpets. Something about Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, in its version for violin solo, string orchestra, and percussion, captures the same stormy, stringy anxiety, using Pärt’s one-of-a-kind musical language, which he calls “tintinnabuli.” Pärt’s first works in the tintinnabuli style appeared in 1976, and Fratres first appeared in 1977. Pärt has created many different versions of Fratres, and I chose the version presented today, with solo violin playing a set of variations atop the two layers of the string orchestra, because it teems with subjectivity, like the soprano solo in the Haydn. The piece opens with the solo violin outlining the repetitive harmonic structure of the piece through a flurry of impossibly quick arpeggios (she skitters across twenty-four notes in a single beat). The upper strings repeat the harmonic pattern, in calm, dulcet bow strokes. The solo violinist abandons the arpeggios to rejoin the upper strings with feathery, fluty harmonics. Thereafter she throws nearly every violin technique she has—arpeggios, double stops, harmonics—into her effort to explore and reconcile with the underlying harmonic pattern of the piece.

The constant drone in the cellos and basses, unwavering like the steady passage of time, creates the sonic backdrop, which the harmonies of the upper strings push against and meld back into. Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique pits the stable notes of a triad against a freer melodic line. In some compositions, those two elements combine in a consonant way. In Fratres, the melodic line introduces B-flat and C-sharp—two notes a mere half step away from the A and C of the stable A minor triad. We hear over and over again uneasy motion, among the voices, between C-sharp and C-natural. The B-flat to C-sharp move that gives the D-harmonic minor of the Haydn’s first movement its edginess, in Pärt’s hands, spreads out the sense of struggle over the entire ten minutes of the piece. His music enacts our human struggle, over the passage of time, between our more earthly and our more spiritual selves. Pärt himself understood the technique this way. Conductor and Pärt biographer, Paul Hillier, shares: “Pärt described to me his view that the melodic line always signifies the subjective world, the daily egoistic life of sin and suffering; the tintinnabuli voice, meanwhile, is the objective realm of forgiveness. The melodic line may appear to wander, but it is always held firmly by the tintinnabuli line. This can be likened to the eternal dualism of the body and spirit, earth and heaven; but the two lines are in reality one line, a twofold single entity.”

The two Brahms quartets offered by the Polydora Ensemble epitomize the brooding, melancholy atmosphere of Brahms’ late style. The unsettled, yearning quality of the second-person texts is conveyed in the tightly wrought two-against-three rhythmic conflict and aching lyricism of both the vocal and piano parts. The two choral motets, however, flow easily and steadily, conveying the steadfast assurance and sense of peacefulness hearkened to in their texts. Like Haydn’s Credo, Brahms’ Geistliches Lied enacts in music the beauty and serenity latent in complete and perfect order. The soprano and tenor parts, and the alto and bass parts, are exactly the same, but a ninth apart from each other in pitch. Were the voices sounded simultaneously, they would create almost unbearably dissonant cacophony the entire way through the piece. But by setting the voices in sequence, each four patient beats after the other, Brahms unfolds a canon of understated but utterly gorgeous grandeur. Mendelssohn’s prayer for peace, Verleih uns Frieden, begins with an irresistibly sinuous tangle of lines for the cellos and violas to create a context for a chorale, the form par excellence for community singing in the Lutheran tradition.

In the summer of 1798, as now, political divisions and warfare brought distress around the globe. Then, news traveled slowly; now, news saturates our screens  instantaneously. Over the last year, we’ve had to confront our base inclinations but, hopefully, have been inspired to appeal to our better angels. Both halves of the concert today move from distress toward peace. If you came to the concert today to escape the noise, I hope you were lifted by the unfettered joy of Haydn’s setting of the Dona Nobis Pacem and calmed by the tranquility of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied. If you came to the concert today with minds as stormy and dissonant as the Kyrie, I hope this music shows us paths forward.

Theoretically, at least, it presents avenues for reconciliation and reminds us that it’s the counterpoint between different elements, when organized through harmony, that makes the most satisfying whole. But it’s not the theory of the music that matters most, or even the way it sounds: it’s the community it builds. Your presence here today signals your willingness to pause and to listen—to enfold yourself into a single moment of musical communication. It’s a beautiful way of reminding each other that, no matter what happens next week, we will still all live under one national motto: e pluribus unum—out of many, one. Let’s keep listening.

© Ryan James Brandau, October 2016