For its fourth and final concert this season, the estimable choral group Musica Sacra sang all about love with its usual combination of well-known (at least the composers) and lesser-known (if at all) music. The varied evocations of love and marriage were funny, touching, and often very moving
While none of Saturday’s repertoire was familiar to me, I ended up enjoying all of it. The theme of love in its many guises—”dewy-eyed, fulfilled, unrequited, unremitting, jaded, jealous, and murderous”—provided the intriguing texts that were as much fun to follow as the gorgeous singing. Cambridge’s First Church Congregational has exactly the right acoustics for choral music, and throughout the evening Musica Sacra’ s singers sounded just wonderful.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s brief “Die Harmonie in der Ehe” (text by Johann Nicholas Götz) opened “The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth” presentation with a short, sweet, ironic ode to marital love which thrives on the couples’ having similar vices. This is one of 13 part-songs Haydn wrote around 1799.
American Paul Sjolund (b. 1935) provided three humorous contributions on this program. The poem for “Careless Talk” (text by Mark Hollis): “Bill was ill. In his delirium / He talked about Miriam. / This was an error / As his wife was a terror / Known as Joan”, “Joan” sung on a very low note. Love courses bitterly through Fauré’s “Madrigal” whose text by Armand Silvestre offers the sardonic message: “The same destiny pursues us / And our folly is the same. / It’s to love those who flee us / And to flee those that love.”
Robert Schumann was represented by five of his twelve “Romanzen for Women’ s Voices,” from Op. 69 and 91, which sounded to these ears curiously like the Brahms Four Songs for Female Voices, Two Horns and Harp. Three pieces involve dire circumstance, as in the spirited “Waterman” (text by Justin Kerner), when a frightened young women is abducted and taken into the waves to be the waterman’s (unlucky) bride. “Reincarnations” by Samuel Barber, poems by James Stephens, tells first, in the lovely “Mary Hynes,” of the ecstasy of love, and second, “Anthony O Daly,” of the constancy of grief over a dead lover. Simply beautiful.
Another Sjolund song, “One Perfect Rose,” accompanies a text by the ever-clever Dorothy Parker, about whom Mary Beekman writes, “I doubt many know that her first job out of high school was accompanying dance classes on the piano!” The text voices the ironic complaint, “Why is it no one ever sent me yet / One perfect limousine, do you suppose? / Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get / One perfect rose.”
“Trois Chansons” by Maurice Ravel, who wrote the texts as well, comprise Ravel’s entire works for chorus. Apparently, he was fond of these songs, as he arranged them for solo voice and piano soon after he composed them, in 1914. I felt I was meeting and hearing a different Ravel from the one I thought I knew so well. What fun these songs were! “Nicolette,” clearly based on Little Red Riding Hood, tells of three suitors, a wolf, a young man, then an old man. Nicolette’s fate is not pretty. “Trois Beaux Oiseux du Paradise” featured soprano Melinda van Niel singing about her lover gone to war. We know that he has died on the battlefield. Her plangent lament was performed exquisitely. “Ronde” is first sung by breathless old women warning young girls not to go into the wood. Ravel must have had a ball listing all the dangers posed by satrys, centaurs, sprite, incubi, ogres, hobgoblins, outcast monks, djinns, etc. Then the old men warn young boys about the she-monsters found in the woods. Finally the young children sing that the old men and women have frightened the monsters away. Ravel was fascinated by children and this is one of those pieces he wrote that they would certainly enjoy.
After intermission, another Paul Sjolund song, “Your Little Hands” (poem by Samuel Hoffenstein), features scathing wit followed by withering wit: “Your little hands, / Your little feet, / Your little mouth— / Oh, God, how sweet! / Your little nose, / Your little ears, / Your eyes, that shed / Such little tears! / Your little [sung very slowly] voice, / So soft and kind; / Your little soul, / Your little mind!”
My big discovery in this second year of the Britten centenary celebration was his “Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard,” commissioned by a men’s chorus in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The men of Musica Sacra gave it a high-spirited performance, and kudos to pianist Terry Halco. Written in 1943, it has its roots in a folk ballad (the Ballad of Matty Groves) at the beginning of the 17th century. The 10-minute drama tells the story of Lord Barnard, who finds out from his page that his Lady has been caught in flagrante delicto with her lover, Little Musgrave. It’s a terrific minidrama, which as far as I know received no attention in the flurry of Britten concerts the past year.
The Britten would have been my favorite piece on the program, but it was followed by a real find: “Due Cori di Machelangelo Buonarroti il Giovanne” by Luigi Dallapiccola, written in 1937, before he became enamored of serialism. What enormous fun! The first part of this 10-minute piece showcases “The Chorus of Unhappily Married Women,” which warns young ladies to “learn from the misfortunes of other, so you do not have to be told: ‘ watch out.’ “The unhappy men go next, warning those who want to take a wife that they “will find in a couple of days / A demon from hell, a tasteless squash.” A charming piece, it was sung ravishingly.
The encore was by John Rutter, the most popular choral composer of our time, who set Shakespeare’s “It was a lover and his lass.” I like John Dowland’s version better, but it was nice to enjoy a light dessert after such a lavish repast.
I must once again (an annual habit) congratulate conductor, artistic director, and writer of really good program notes Mary Beekman. Year after year she digs up choral music that somehow I’ve missed or never heard of, making Musica Sacra concerts revelatory in several ways and among the memory gems of each year.