The Mindful Melophile

    Still Singing! A Bit of Talking! A Little More Dancing!

    Issue 161

    This month’s article, Part Two of “All Singing! Some Talking! A Little Dancing!” (Part One appeared in Issue 156), includes additional choral music selections in a variety of forms – and they’re all videos of live performances.

    Watching videos, especially those that are well done, can help listeners better understand what they’re listening to by pointing out phrases, musical lines, harmonies, and rhythmic elements – nuances that might otherwise be missed – and help demonstrate how all the musical parts interact. Videos also display performers’ expressions, for example, whether they are struggling with the music or genuinely enjoying themselves singing pieces they’re comfortable with.

    Igor Stravinsky/Oedipus Rex/Bibiana Beglau, speaker/Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin/Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko, cond. Here’s a first-rate recent performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927), beautifully sung and spoken. The video grabbed me immediately and I couldn’t stop listening. Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio is austere, rhythmic and dramatic, and conducted by Petrenko in tempos that sound just right. It’s one of those rarities where the performance and photography really bring the composition to life. The speaker narrates the story in German (subtitles are thoughtfully provided) but if you like variety, there are two other videos on YouTube, one spoken in French, the other in Japanese.

    If you prefer listening without watching, there are several recordings to choose from including one standout: A 1951 LP in very acceptable sound with Stravinsky conducting, Jean Cocteau (who wrote the libretto) narrating in French, and Peter Pears singing the role of Oedipus:

     

     

    Igor Stravinsky/Les Noces/The Oklahoma University Chorale and Oklahoma Festival Ballet Le Noces (The Wedding), composed and produced in 1923 for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, is one of the few significant early 20th century ballets that includes a chorus. The ballet is based on Russian folklore and depicts a peasant wedding in three scenes with a final nuptial celebration. Stravinsky’s score calls for a large chorus, vocal soloists, a large percussion battery, and four on-stage concert grand pianos. The musical language is lean and percussive, with rhythmic shifts and unusual vocal and instrumental timbres – very different from the rich-sounding symphony orchestras Stravinsky used for his first three Diaghilev collaborations.

    Edwin Denby, a well-known American dance critic, attended a 1936 revival of Les Noces choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister). He wrote, “Noces is noble, it is fierce, it is simple, it is fresh, it is thrilling…[it] is, I’m sure, one of the finest things one can see anywhere.” [1] Denby’s opinion is widely shared in the dance world and elsewhere: the score has been the basis for numerous versions by choreographers including Merce Cunningham, Maurice Bejart, and Lar Lubovitch. Nijinska herself remarked that “The music – ‘Les Noces’ – the inner rhythm – its nature – its moods – deep and heavy with rare moments of joy – created the choreographic form.” [2]

     

    Arvo Pärt/Te Deum/The Salt Lake Choral Artists and University of Utah Singers/Dr. Brady Allred. cond. In 2014 The Daily Telegraph, a national British paper, described Pärt as possibly “the world’s greatest living composer” and “by a long way, Estonia’s most celebrated export.” Pärt was the most-performed living composer from 2011 to 2018, but lost first place to John Williams in 2019 and had to settle for being the world’s second-most performed composer.

    Pärt is often identified with minimalism or mystic/Holy minimalism [3] – music that uses simple melodic and harmonic materials. Although he initially became famous for his instrumental works, his choral works are now very popular as well.

    Pärt’s early pieces were composed in a variety of Neoclassical styles. After concluding that Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique was a creative dead end, Pärt entered the first of several periods during which he studied choral music from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Pärt’s biographer Paul Hillier [4] observed that “he had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note.” [5]

    Pärt’s compositions changed after this time and were radically different. Pärt described his new style as “tintinnabula – relating to the ringing of bells.” The music is characterized by plain harmonies, single unadorned notes and triads, and rhythms that do not change tempo. [6] Te Deum (1984), one of Pärt’s most famous pieces, was composed in this style. On an ECM records leaflet Pärt wrote that the Te Deum text has “immutable truths” reminding him of the “immeasurable serenity imparted by a mountain panorama.” His composition sought to communicate a mood “that could be infinite in time – out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”

     

    Vladimir Godár/Magnificat/Alina Ilchuk, soprano/Slavic Chorale and Orchestra/Pavel Kravchuk, cond. Vladimir Godár might not be very familiar to American audiences but he is one of Slovakia’s leading composers. His varied compositions include an oratorio, a ballet, orchestral works, chamber works, educational pieces, and over 50 film scores.

    Godár’s music was little-known outside of Eastern Europe until ECM Records released his choral cycle Mater in 2006, causing music producer Rob Cowan to say, “It’s as if Janáček, Górecki, and Monteverdi have settled on a universal language. A wonderful listen.” [7] The release was critically acclaimed and prominently displayed on the front of music store counters for a short time, then faded back into the CD bins.

    Godár has been described as a musical archaeologist who often draws his inspiration from folk traditions, the Baroque period, and early music. His style is moody and minimalist with chant-like melodies and drones, yet retains a contemporary sound. “When one chooses the path of art, one is never alone, no matter how much one may wish to be…We always create art ‘with a little help from our friends.’ They lend a helping hand not just when creating works of art, but assist in their continued existence as well…[Magnificat’s] three sections are a celebration of the three greatest inventions of music – melody, harmony and polyphony…”

     

    John Tavener/“The Lamb”/The Erebus Ensemble/Tom Williams, dir. During the Baroque period, a composer named Heinrich Ignaz Biber wrote a few orchestral pieces that periodically went “off course.” Every now and then it sounded like the players had forgotten how to play or lost their way in the score, then continued to perform the piece as usual.

    John Tavener is best known for his sacred choral music. His The Lamb (no relationship to Mary’s secular one but just as comforting) reminds me of Biber’s compositions because two completely lyrical movements are contrasted with two moderately dissonant ones. The score doesn’t have a time signature: Some bars have a 4/4 feeling but others are much freer, and the rhythm is guided by the words instead of a regular pulse. The text setting is mostly syllabic although two notes are occasionally slurred together to reinforce important words.

    The Lamb was composed in 1982 and is one of Tavener’s best-known works. Tavener says on his website: “I wrote [it]…while being driven by my mother from South Devon to London. It came to me fully grown so to speak, so all I had to do was to write it down.” All you have to do is sit back and enjoy it. This an impressive performance and great companion to the Dove piece, below.

     

    Jonathan Dove/“Gloria”/Stanford Chamber Chorale/Stephen M. Sano, dir.

    Dove is a successful opera composer whose “fresh, diatonic idiom is coupled with a matchless sense of word-setting… he writes most gratefully for the voice.” [8] Dove has composed many choral works, both for concert and liturgical use, which are in the repertoires of professional and amateur choirs around the world. According to his biography his early professional experience gave him a deep understanding of singers, and vocal music has been a central priority throughout his career. Best of all, new listeners find his works approachable while experienced audiences enjoy the music as well.

    The “Gloria” from his Missa Brevis is a good introduction to Dove’s music…tonal, melodic, and easily accessible with only mildly dissonant disruptions.

     

    Leoš Janáček/Glagolitic Mass/Czech Philharmonic/Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. Janáček had extensive experience working with choirs and writing choral music. During an interview for Gramophone [9] conductor Tomáš Netopil noted that Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is a work infused with the essence of the composer’s native Moravia. “There is a level of complexity and color in Moravian folklore…which deeply influenced this composer…Janáček came from northern Moravia, where the dialect is very staccato and short – and so often you sense those qualities in this music…”

    The Mass has a youthful passion despite dating from the last few years of the composer’s life. In the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera, it’s “more an orgy than a mass” which matches Janáček’s spiritual outlook. Despite growing up in a monastery and acting as a choirmaster and organist for 20 years, he was not a practicing Catholic and his attitude towards the Church was ambiguous. “He believed in God, but in his own special way…Janáček is not romantic; his music is strong and dry. And within this dryness you will find lyrical passages that make more of an impact if they contrast with what surrounds them.” [10]

    In a letter from April 1928 regarding the Mass’ Prague premiere, Janáček said, “We did not take the path trodden by slippers. We surely did not sow rotten seeds. We stood out in the programme like a sore thumb, but it was necessary. We were a fresh spring breeze.” And when the work premiered at the British Norwich Festival in 1930, The Daily Mail reported, “Norfolk people, known for their placidity, were not to be expected to capture the spirit of boisterous Bohemian rustics…If the music suggested any religious occasion it was the dedication of a new railway station.”

    Janáček’s Mass is considered an important 20th-century work. The non-boisterous “Agnus Dei” section is a choral favorite and has been recorded several times; this performance is conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, who was an authority on Janáček’s works. Start listening at 33:40 for the beautiful “Agnus Dei,” then go back to the beginning and hear the entire piece straight through to get a more rounded feeling for the composer’s music.

     

    [1] Alan M. Kriegsman, “The Wonder of Nijinska’s ‘Noces’,” The Washington Post, May 23, 1982.

    [2] Ibid.

    [3] During the late 20th-century several composers, many of whom had previously worked in serial or experimental styles, started working with similar goals: a religious orientation, simple compositional materials, a strong foundation in tonality or modality, and the use of uncomplicated, repetitive melodies. Many of these composers were inspired by Renaissance or medieval music, or the liturgical music of the Orthodox Churches. Examples include Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, Alan Hovhaness, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Pēteris Vasks, and Vladimír Godár.

    [4] Hillier founded the popular vocal groups Theatre of Voices and Hilliard Ensemble.

    [5] Hillier, Arvo Pärt, 1997.

    [6] Tintinnabuli music can also be described as a style in which the musical material is extremely concentrated, reduced only to the most important elements where the simple rhythm and often gradually progressing melodies and triadic tintinnabuli voices are integrated into the complicated art of polyphony. [Arvo Part Centre]

    [7] From a commentary on BBC Radio 3 [Faber Music, 2009].

    [8] Quote from Gramophone in Faber Music, 2022.

    [9] “Inside Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass” by Hannah Nepil, Gramophone, March 15, 2016.

    [10] Netopil, ibid.

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