Shaw: Seven Joys

Saturday, NOVEMBER 10, 2018

8pm | Emmanuel Church, 15 Newbury Street, Boston

Shaw – Seven Joys

Caroline Shaw (1982- ): Seven Joys
(co-commission by the BBC, Boston premier)
Jonathan Dove (1959- ): in beauty may I walk
Henry Gorecki (1933-2010): Totus Tuus
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Flower Songs
Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Agnus Dei (choral setting of Adagio for Strings)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934): They are at rest
Giovanni Gabrieli (1551-1612): Plaudite (for triple chorus)

About the Concert

“In beauty may I walk, With beauty above me, With beauty all around me, It is finished in beauty.”
– Anon, from the Navajo

The Back Bay Chorale opens the 18|19 season with a concert that celebrates those immeasurable and ineffable yearnings for joy, beauty, rest, and lasting peace. Featuring works from a diverse and eclectic group of composers, the Chorale sings a concert of music evocative of meditation and devotion. At the heart of the concert, we premiere Pulitzer Prize® winner Caroline Shaw’s Seven Joys, a multi-movement rumination on ‘joy’ commissioned by the Chorale for this performance.

“A tranquil glow that brightens, sharpens and flickers on a spiritual quest….An American sound that is both broad and serene; a pulsing, meditative expansion of sound.”
– Philadelphia Inquirer

Plus: The Majestic Brass


Program Notes

Giovanni Gabrieli: Plaudite psallite, jubilate Deo omnis terra

For the bulk of his career, Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554/7–1612) served as the organist and maestro di capella at San Marco in Venice, at that time the private chapel of the Republic’s Doge. He has since become most famous, with his uncle Andrea Gabrieli, for developing the Venetian polychoral style of grand motets with up to twelve or more voices and grand assemblages of instruments. A popular legend claims that this style had its roots in the many balconies that surround the nave of San Marco; this is all but certainly untrue, as virtually all music-making occurred in the apse of the chapel. Besides, polychoral composition had a long lineage before Gabrieli arrived at San Marco, particularly at the Munich chapel under Orlando di Lasso, where Gabrieli lived and worked earlier in his career, and in other Mediterranean centers such as Rome and in Spain. Nevertheless, Gabrieli’s polychoral writing was consequential for the
rest of the seventeenth century; many composers, the most famous being the Saxon Henrich Schütz, studied this style of composition with Gabrieli himself.

The twelve-voice motet Plaudite sets phrases from Psalms 66, 67, and 68, interspersed with exclamations of Alleluia. It first appeared in Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae of 1597, printed in Venice, amidst several other motets, Mass parts, Magnificat settings, and instrumental pieces. The motet is representative of Gabrieli’s compositional style: harmonies are generally static, and choral statements are largely homophonic; the effect is generated by texture as music moves between the three choirs and different combinations of voices. Harmonic tension is increased by motion to flat keys and ever-increasing rhythmic rates of declamation.

The polychoral style, particularly that of Gabrieli, represents a shift from the rich contrapuntal style that had predominated up until the mid-sixteenth century, toward a simpler texture concerned with the listener’s experience as much as with careful compositional craftsmanship.

Caroline Shaw: Seven Joys (note by the composer)

Seven Joys explores the notion of joy in today’s world. Through looking at joy from different angles I began to consider the roots, surfaces, and textures from which it arises. I have often felt that we cannot experience pure joy without experiencing its counterpart — deep sadness. And often, one brings about the other — deep sadness gives birth to a true joy (or maybe, as Kaveh Akbar says, “what seems like joy”). At the same time, joy is not always certain (especially today), and I wanted to try to understand where joy lives and what it seems like. Each of Seven Joys’ four movements with text looks at the concept of joy through a particular frame — joy and sorrow, joy and reason, joy and the mundane, joy and song — and is followed or preceded by a purely instrumental meditation. In these moments of reflection, the bright sound of the brass, which we often associate with fanfare and celebration, becomes instead the color of contemplation.

Henryk Górecki: Totus tuus

The post-war musical avant-garde in the West was dominated primarily by its own composers. Pierre Boulez, John Cage, George Crumb, and others were well known in Western Europe and the United States. But at the same time, an entire generation of superbly talented and inventive Polish composers, including Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933–2010), were producing some of the era’s best music, only to be fully discovered and appreciated outside their homeland upon the fall of the Soviet Union.

Górecki composed Totus tuus, op. 60, for the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland; the motet takes its name, and some of its text, from the apostolic motto of Pope John Paul II. Formerly Karol Józef Wojtyła, Archbishop of Warsaw, John Paul II was the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years. Elected in 1978, he became a symbol of Poland’s deep-seated Catholicism suffering under Soviet oppression, and the pressure he exerted on the atheistic Communist regime has been credited with hastening the Soviet Union’s collapse. He died in 2006 as the longest-reigning pope in the Church’s history, and was canonized a saint in 2014.

Totus tuus represents the more consonant and tonal language to which Górecki turned later in his career. He had initially become popular writing orchestral works of the avant-garde, integrating serialism and other twentieth-century systems (albeit with suspicion). The brevity, repetition and simplicity of Totus tuus therefore form a counterpoint to his Beatus vir, a 30-minute work for chorus and orchestra of great intensity that he composed for the would-be pope, Cardinal Wojtyła, a decade earlier.

Górecki drew the main motives of Totus tuus from the Medieval Polish hymn Bogurodzica, itself setting a Marian text. The words “totus tuus” literally translate to “totally yours”; John Paul II chose these words to highlight his personal consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. Catholic devotion to Mary is well-known, but she has particular devotion in Poland; indeed, Mary was formally crowned as Queen of Poland in 1967. Górecki’s Totus tuus, in its combination of intense opening statements and rocking lullaby at its end, represents the many ways in which the Catholic, particularly the Polish Catholic, turns to Mary for all things: victory over sin, intercession after death, and the love and comfort of a mother.

Benjamin Britten: Five Flower Songs

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) composed Five Flower Songs, op. 47, in 1950 as a wedding anniversary present for the Elmhirsts of Dartington Hall. Britten, in his many choral compositions sacred and secular, reveled in the rich choral tradition of his native Britain. Britten compiled five poems from different sources: To Daffodils and The succession of the four sweet months, by Robert Herrick (1591–1674); Marsh flowers, drawn from a larger work by George Crabbe (1754–1832) but with the addition of four new lines; The evening primrose, by John Clare (1793–1864); and The Ballad of green broom by an anonymous poet. The five poems make a beautifully balanced set, even before Britten set them to music: we watch the daffodils pass into summer and the months inevitably progress; we encounter the dank marsh flowers and the evening primrose; and, finally, we meet a bride in “bloom, full bloom.”

Britten’s music beautifully reflects the poetry, both in its arc over all five songs and at the level of each individual word. To Daffodils evinces a warm and jolly character, turning inward in its second half where the author likens the human spirit to the short life of the daffodil. To reinforce the analogy, Britten has the lower voices repeat the text of the opening lines underneath the new text. The second song of the set reveals Britten’s skill in a contemporary motet style, each month introduced by a new voice part at a point of imitation that hints at a fugue. In Marsh flowers, Britten relishes the richly descriptive vocabulary of Crabbe’s poem, seemingly luxuriating on every word — sparsely scored in a near-unison texture throughout, with some elaboration and harmonization. The evening primrose is set in a chorale-like setting that evokes the warm harmonies of earlier British masters such as Vaughan Williams and Stanford. Britten accords the final poem his most complex and sensitive setting, a true story told in music: a refrain of “green broom” accompanies a sensitively set rhythmic declamation of the main text. In Five Flower Songs, Britten contributed an utterly original work to a long tradition of English part-song.

Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei

Samuel Barber (1910–1981) set the Agnus Dei text of the Roman Catholic Mass in the choral version of his famous Adagio for Strings — itself an orchestral arrangement of the second movement of his String Quartet, op. 11. His Adagio has remained one of the most famous compositions in the classical repertoire since its debut by the NBC Symphony in 1938, and has figured prominently in national occasions of mourning in the United States: it was played on the radio upon the deaths of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and at the Proms in London in 2001 to commemorate the September 11th attacks. Barber crafted the Agnus Dei arrangement in 1967.

The Agnus Dei is of remarkably simple construction. The piece is built around cycling ascending motives introduced by the sopranos at the opening, which are restated in other voices in a similar harmonic context. The motives build in intensity, particularly over ever-increasing harmonic tension. The piece builds to its climax by repeatedly layering the ascending figure on top of itself, reaching a dramatic set of chords that do not resolve as expected — even to familiar ears. A sudden drop-off of intensity contributes to the mournful character, and the conclusion on a half-cadence leaves the piece feeling unfinished but for the long low-voiced chord in a comforting major mode.

Edward Elgar: They are at rest

As a composer of choral music, Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) is best remembered for his choral-orchestral epic oratorio Dream of Gerontius, op. 38 (1900), based on a densely theological narrative by a fellow English Catholic, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890). Elgar turned to Newman once again for the small devotional anthem They are at rest, which draws two stanzas from Newman’s poem Waiting for the Morning.

The anthem was commissioned by Sir Walter Parratt and premiered at the Royal Mausoleum on January 22, 1910, on the occasion of the ninth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death.The anthem is a representative example of Elgar’s mastery of the late romantic English choral idiom, which emphasizes clarity of text and traditional harmony but does not shy from atypical voice leading and dissonance.

Jonathan Dove: In beauty may I walk

In beauty may I walk was written by English composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), who set an anonymous Navajo text translated by Jerome K. Rothenberg. Dove’s setting integrates a harmonic language detectable in the earlier English choral compositions on this program by Elgar and Britten, but with heightened use of dissonances, particularly “2-against-1” suspensions, that often remain unresolved. The piece is structured around a short ostinato that is repeated exactly throughout, albeit in different voice parts; the remaining text is sung around the central melody and text. Dove used the stately tempo and repetition of the ostinato to recall the activity of walking itself, taking in the surroundings — in this case, the poem itself — on one’s journey. Clever text painting of the “joyful birds” breaks up the smooth textures of the opening section. The music climaxes at the presence of beauty “before,” “behind,” and “above,” leading to a calm and homophonic, yet gently dissonant closing statement.


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