IN: Reviews

Musica Sacra Warms to Minimalism


Danish modernist, guest conductor Heinrich Christensen, put together a very well-engineered and very well sung Pilgrim’s Progress last night at First Church in Cambridge. The hour-long journey departed in the realm of the austere, as the 25 normally belcanto Musica Sacra singers embraced the nasally, shape notey, homespun Americana of William Walker’s (1809-1875) Holy Manna before journeying through vistas of increasing complexity up through smooth Glass. Along the way they diverted through various pre-, post-, and temporal- minimalism of pentatonic, diatonic, and dodecaphonic modes until arriving at Christensen’s own awe-struck melodiousness.

William Duckworth (1943-2012) fractured Holy Manna into fa-so-la shards which the 25 accurate, virtuosic and, engaged singers reflected to us in brilliant light.

Duckworth’s The Mouldering Vine expanded the vocabulary to mi-fa-so-la. Of course this further advanced on the simplicity of Walker, but it still came across as percussive and somewhat appropriately strident.

Solfeggio, Arvo Pärt’s meditation on the diatonic scale, moved slowly and meditatively with many beautifully supported pianissimos, pungent minor-second intervals, drones, and other effects to achieve a passing-strange cosmic consciousness.

Equal parts stadium cheer and 1930s choral recitation, Ernst Toch’s (1887-1964) Geographical Fugue counterpointed “Trinidad! And the big Mississippi…” in multiple iterations with about a dozen other place names. The singers encored with an updated version substituting “Framingham and the foul Boston Hahbah…Raveaah…” to broad smiles. It’s not easy to get all the consonants to line up and to agree on inflections…but the re-labeled Musica Profana certainly did…twice. Christensen’s clear beat and artful pulling of sounds out of the air helped tremendously.

The singers swaggered and swayed sonically and visually in Scott Anthony Shell’s (b. 1966) I Am the Dance, in fiery call and response of boom-chukkas until they collectively achieved nirvana as the Dance.

The initial statement of Come Sweet Death, one of Bach’s most intense chorales, in Immortal Bach by Knut Nystedt (1915-2014), left no doubts as to the original, but as it progressed through fractured harmonies and extended lines, at times without ministrations of a conductor, it shattered all sense of time and place. In the last portion, Bach kept trying to emerge from Glassian scrapings, never quite getting the last word in this wondrously evocative sendup of the master.

Alice Parker’s (1925-2023) comparatively familiar take on Wondrous Love brought us back to the realm of Sacred Harmony with improvements. She expanded the original’s sonic palette broadened the sense of wonder and awe through longer lines and more developed harmonies. The closing stanza, “And through eternity I’ll sing on,” nearly slayed us.

Duckworth’s take on Wondrous Love began as alto Mackenzie Stratton, in emphatically straight tones, painted the texts with Duckworth’s weird intervals before the chorus answered her cantillations.

Then came Philip Glass’s Three Songs, the first two of which, despite their strophic character treated the excellent poetry with affection, remained lyrical, and avoided the expected motoric ostinatos (ma ma ma ma ma) which we suffered in the third number.

Sounding at times like a commercial church anthem Hilary Tann’s (1947-2023) Paradise, perhaps the busiest work in the concert, kept us very interested in its harmonic and melodic surprises in the English portions while also taking us to some truly scary holy places with its Latin text.

Coming to us as more Duckworthian programmatic glue, Turtle Dove sang wistfully and freshly of “redeeming love,” perfectly setting up the closing set, Christensen’s (Six) Very Short Songs to texts by Dorothy Parker. Beginning with Anecdote, (So silent I when Love was by) the six songs refreshed like a pleasant dream. Tuneful, with an ear to poetry and line as keen as Randall Thompson’s, this Very Short Set should have very long legs.

Duckworth’s Southern Harmony (1981) may be one of the most important choral works you’ve never heard of. Curious readers may want to delve into a recent dissertation on it [HERE].

We append with pleasure (and permission) Christensen’s essay on the show. One of the best I have ever read.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Last winter during Mary Beekman’s sabbatical, Terry Halco had asked me to fill in and accompany one fateful Wednesday night. As we were working through Lorraine Fitzmaurice’s wonderful program of Josquin and shape note inspired works, it made me think of other works I’ve performed over the years in that same vein. Specifically, William Duckworth’s monumental Southern Harmony, 20 pieces based on tunes from William Walker’s 1854 collection. Duckworth describes his work: “When I decided to write a choral work based on this material, I wanted, first, to maintain the integrity of the hymns—their strength, vitality and emotion. In using each hymn tune, I focused on only one aspect of it; sometimes it was the harmony or the rhythm—less frequently, the words. Although the actual hymn tunes themselves are present in some form in every piece, they break through to the surface only occasionally. Most of the time they are submerged in the texture, subtly affecting the form and content of the musical surface. But they are always present. Always.”

You will hear four selections from Southern Harmony tonight, scattered throughout the program. We open with Holy Manna, first, in the interest of context (and as a reminder for those of you who were here a year ago and heard Lorraine’s program), in Walker’s original version, directly followed by Duckworth.

Duckworth’s minimalist technique of deconstructing shape note tunes in turn led my thoughts to other acts of musical deconstruction, and thus was born the other leitmotif for tonight. As the evening progresses, we will take a look at, if you will, the elements of style, or the building blocks (Legos?) of music. As the evening progresses, we will sing a succession of works that might be considered Music Minus One, in the sense that each of them has one essential aspect of music making removed.

Holy Manna is based on a pentatonic scale, so initially the sensory deprivation we are exposing you to is the lack of the remaining steps in the diatonic scale. With The Mouldering Vine, we add one additional step, incidentally perhaps the perfect illustration of the fa-sol-la technique employed in shape note singing as you get two sequences of fa-sol-la on top of each other to create the hexachord. In this piece, Duckworth has the chorus start out in unison, then employs subtle suspensions and canons to add subtle layers as the piece continues.

Which brings us to Arvo Pärt’s Solfeggio, where you at long last get to hear the full major scale all the way from bottom to top. Pärt is a household name to Musica Sacra regulars, so needs no further introduction, but here is another example of a work that sets out to do one (and only one) very specific thing to create its own minimal musical universe.

Now that we have come full circle, we will immediately yank perhaps the most crucial element of choral music away from you, namely pitch. Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue probably sounds pretty quaint/cute to our 2024 ears, but it has an interesting historical context. The Fugue was premiered as the last movement of a suite entitled Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music) in 1930 at the Berlin Festival of Contemporary Music. Both the recording and performer scores were subsequently lost or destroyed. But thankfully the manuscript survived. In that context, the piece calls to mind the theatrical works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

Pitch makes a comeback in I Am The Dance, however sparingly. This piece calls to mind that particular kind of modern music making where short snippets are put on a repeating loop and you keep adding another “track” to the loop. With a side of beatboxing for good measure (these puns just write themselves).

Immortal Bach may be the most radical of the pieces you will hear tonight. Not only does it dare to take that most sacred of beasts, a chorale by J.S. Bach himself, and completely tear it apart, it also (intermittently) removes perhaps the most necessary element of music making: rhythmic coordination. The genesis of the piece comes from an idea conceived by composer Edwin London. He was teaching a college class for choral conductors and offered this concept as a way of transforming any of Bach’s 371 chorales. The idea was adapted by CA choral conductor Frank Pooler, and Norwegian Knut Nystedt subsequently published his own version with extremely detailed instructions. Even anarchy apparently requires surprisingly strict organization.

We come back together to mourn the Christmas Eve 2023 passing of Massachusetts native and national treasure Alice Parker. Her Wondrous Love is another example of the immense adaptability of shape note hymns into many different musical settings.

Duckworth in turn uses both a different text and tune for his own reinvention of Wondrous Love.

If you look up minimalism in your musical dictionary, you will likely see a picture of its poster child Philip Glass. In 1984, Glass was commissioned by the Québec 1534-1984 Festival to write these Three Songs, set to texts by Leonard Cohen, Raymond Lévesque, and Octavio Paz. Glass chose to write rather straightforward strophic melodies and use minimalist textures to accompany them in a way that is quite unusual for choral music, with almost disembodied motifs.

We have finally reached the end of the road to deconstruction and are ready to put the pieces back together again. Hilary Tann passed away suddenly just over one year ago. In her Paradise, she juxtaposes a verse from the Latin Psalter with George Herbert’s extraordinary poem about growth. The piece employs three tiny musical kernels, the first one heard in the opening Adorate with a characteristic so-called “scotch snap” rhythmical figure, a signature idea used in many of Hilary’s works. The second motif occurs with each successive statement of the stanzas of Herbert’s poem, and finally you get a lilting bell-like motif in a 5/8 measure. The three ideas interweave and grow like branches on a tree toward the heavens.

For our final bit of Duckworth, you may have noticed that shape note hymns tend to be somewhat obsessed with mortality and the end of times. Turtle Dove starts out innocently enough with thoughts of spring as the title would imply, but Duckworth dives further down in the text of the subsequent verses, and sure enough, the rapture is at hand. It’s good to know that we all will have the hosannas to look forward to when we come to the end of the road.

I wrote Very Short Songs for a program back in 2016, mostly to satisfy my long time obsession with the poetry of Dorothy Parker, mistress of brevity in wit, or within brevity, as you prefer. Truth be told, this set is only minimalist in that the songs are, as advertised, very short.

William Walker/William Duckworth: Holy Manna
William Duckworth: The Mouldering Vine
Arvo Pärt: Solfeggio\
Ernst Toch: Geographical Fugue
Scott Anthony Shell: I Am the Dance
Knut Nystedt: Immortal Bach
Alice Parker: Wondrous Love
William Duckworth: Wondrous Love
Philip Glass: Three Songs
Hilary Tann: Paradise
William Duckworth: Turtle Dove
Heinrich Christensen: Very Short Songs

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