Peter Child, composer and professor at MIT, a native of England but trained in America and long resident in Massachusetts, has given us a fine new choral work, Song of Liberty: A Blake Cantata, for soloists, chorus, strings and percussion. It was premiered on Sunday afternoon in Kresge Auditorium by the MIT Concert Choir conducted by William Cutter. The title suggests a musical emblem of Independence Day, but the five movements on various William Blake texts give no hint of any such narrow patriotism, until the fifth chorus, which is taken from Blake’s own “Song of Liberty.”
A spectrum of moods ranges through the five pieces, first with a vibrant chorus (“Rintrah roars & shakes his fires”) in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: The Argument,” beginning with low strings and percussion and a steady 7/8 beat. “And on the barren heath / Sing the honey bees” brought forth a chromatic buzz of sul ponticello strings, and of course we were reminded of “And there came all manner of flies” in Handel’s Israel in Egypt. “Then the perilous path was planted” returned to the strong rhythms of the beginning, first in 8/8, then back to 7/8 again, heading for the ending when strings, drums, and glockenspiel are all in rhythmic unison.
In the second movement, “Fragment,” the vocal quartet, one line at a time solo by solo, introduces “the lineaments of gratified desire” in dialogue with a solo string quartet. A drone on open-string G and D establishes a refrain that recurs in later movements of the cantata, as well as a nominal tonic key for the whole work. This appears more strongly in the elegant G major chorus, “The Birds,” that follows, with men and women in alternating quatrains, until the fifth verse, “Come, on wings of joy we’ll fly,” with men and women together. The vielle-like drone on G and D then battles with scary tam-tam rolls in “Auguries of Innocence,” with tenor solo, nicely sung by Sudeep Agarwala; after the last line, “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour,” the drone supports the warm sound of glockenspiel and vibraphone together. One senses the approach of more bell-like sounds, and in the final chorus, a robust fugue that even the composer refers to as “Handelian,” tubular bells support the sound of rejoicing: “For everything that lives is Holy.” This peroration isn’t the last word, however; a solo string quartet, G major with carefully-placed interior dissonances, confirms the drone and the key of the whole work.
The strange compulsions of the mystic Blake texts kept reminding me of another powerful Blake composer, William Bolcom, whose Eighth Symphony, with chorus, was premiered in Boston last year. Child’s new work is transparent and proportioned where Bolcom’s is massive and difficult to penetrate psychologically. Even so, I felt that Song of Liberty was a bit too short; I wanted to hear more, and thought that it might profit by the addition of three or four minutes of music that would make further use of the solo voices. But whether the composer decides to add more or not, I will still recommend this handsome work as a challenge to choruses anywhere, as a bracing and inspired setting of inspiring texts, and one that is not excessively difficult or impractical to perform.
After the intermission came a longer work, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem, a significant and well-known antiwar elegy composed in 1935 mostly on texts from Walt Whitman, Psalms, Old Testament prophets, and the Ordinary of the Mass. I came to this big piece with major prejudices. I have always liked Vaughan Williams’s songs and hymns and organ music but not much else by him; I find his symphonies ponderous and stuffy, and above all he suffers from a poor structural sense of harmonic progression, with a tendency to stick close to tonic triads and sevenths too much of the time. As long as I’m airing my prejudices, I may as well admit that I find the Greensleeves Fantasia amiable, the Tallis Fantasia a terrible bore, and The Lark Ascending almost as silly as Vivaldi’s Seasons. Hearing Dona nobis pacem for the second or third time on Sunday, I found a few of these prejudices fortified. And yet I was genuinely moved by moments that had not struck me before: Part 4, the “Dirge for Two Veterans” (text from Whitman’s Drum Taps) which seems to echo Mahler’s “Revelge,” had a subtle and penetrating ostinato that really works well, with drumbeats I felt more strongly than in Part 2 that really talks about drums. The harmony of the Dirge is subtle, too: A minor and C major in afree dialogue occasionally with D major harmony overlapping both, and again one thought of Mahler who would hardly have been an influence on Vaughan Williams. I think, too, that the really first-rate quality of the performance persuaded me that I should learn to appreciate this work more, although afterward a friend suggested that it would be even more compelling in Royal Albert Hall with a chorus of two hundred. I was also glad to see four pages of helpful program notes by Ahmed E. Ismail. Dona nobis pacem is a period piece and was already somewhat faded seventeen years after the Great War, while Britten’s War Requiem (1962) is a piece more of our own time. But as long as the message is needed — and it certainly is needed still — we should hear such music.