Algirdas Martinaitis was born in 1950, and has been one of the leaders of Lithuanian neo-Romanticism since shortly after his compositional debut in the late 1970s. Today he is acclaimed within his country for his music in a wide variety of genres: from songs and music for the theater and films to children's operas and symphonic works.
Most of Martinaitis' choral works have been written for the Bernardines' Church in Vilnius, a Franciscan establishment of which he is a member. "It is often said that I am a literary composer, that my compositions can be characterized as literary works. In music to be performed in church, however, word is indeed primary. Afterwards comes breathing, and later - sounds, music. On the other hand, I have already said that I can write sacred music without any words, based on breathing alone. For me these are very concrete things, astonishing but beyond explanation, just like the relation of a Creator with word and sound."
Alleluia was composed in 1996, and is frequently performed abroad as well as within Lithuania . It is typical of Martinaitis' style. At first hearing, the simple harmonies and repetitiveness may recall the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but the constant overlapping canons may more appropriately suggest the joyous pealing of bells announcing the beginning and end of Orthodox church services.
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Carl Nielsen is Denmark 's foremost composer, recognized above all for a visionary approach to symphonic composition. While best known for his six symphonies, three concertos, two operas and numerous shorter orchestral works, he did create a significant catalogue of outstanding works involving choral forces, including the lovely Hymnus amoris, Søvnen [The Sleep] and Fynsk Forår [Springtime in Funen] for chorus and orchestra, and the Three Motets, op. 55, for a cappella chorus.
The Three Motets are late works, dating from 1929. Unlike his late instrumental music, there is nothing experimental about them, as if in confronting music for the church he reverted to an archaic style. But the "old style" - the quasi-Baroque fugato of the opening of Benedictus Dominus and the neo-Renaissance imitation in its middle section - is superficial; the ecstatic rising harmonies are entirely characteristic of the mature Nielsen.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is among our most outstanding living composers, a trailblazer in Estonian music's rapid climb to international prominence. The term "mystic minimalist," with which he has been grouped together with Henryk Górecki and John Tavener (two composers, by the way, in The Bach Choir's repertory), is at best a vague and misleading characterization. Pärt began as Estonia 's first avant-garde composer, producing the country's first twelve-tone work in 1960. His music in the 1960s continued to be complex and largely dissonant, until in 1968 he entered into an eight-year period of near-total creative silence. He emerged with a new musical voice, almost wholly consonant, tonal in sound but without the directionality of traditional functional harmony, and resonating with echoes of medieval and Renaissance polyphony in its frequent reliance on canonic procedures. He refers to his method as "tintinnabulation," a reference to the characteristic of bells to resonate audibly throughout their harmonic series even while the sound of their fundamental pitches remains present.
Pärt's Magnificat was written in 1989 for the Berlin State and Cathedral Choir. It has become one of Pärt's most widely performed choral works. Its underlying "method" is the ancient technique of call-and-response. The "call" is a two-part texture in which solo voices are accompanied by one other part, and the "response" is a three-part texture occasionally doubled at the octave a climactic moments, for a fuller sonority.
Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) is without doubt Latvia 's most famous contemporary composer. He trained as a double-bassist, and was a member of several Latvian orchestras throughout the 1960s and '70s before turning to composition full-time. He is often grouped together with Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and Giya Kancheli as a "mystic minimalist," but his style is as individual and inimitable as each of theirs. Vasks' earliest compositions owed much to the aleatoric works of Lutoslawski, Penderecki and George Crumb, but he soon began to introduce elements of Latvian folk music into his works. He prizes clarity and a surface simplicity, but more than Pärt and Górecki he is reliant on contrast - in texture, tempo and density - to organize the sectional structure of his longer works.
Dona nobis pacem was completed and first performed in 1996. Its original motivation came from a request by his father, a minister, that Vasks should create a setting of The Lord's Prayer simple enough so that the congregation could sing it. His father had died by the time Vasks felt sufficiently mature as a composer to attempt such a task, so Dona nobis pacem became not only a prayer for "inner and outer peace" (in Beethoven's words) but also a memorial to his father. For Vasks, who has always felt strongly about environmental issues, "dona nobis pacem" is the overarching prayer, his concept of "peace" embracing not only manking - individually and communally - but entire physical universe.
Edvard Griegis among the most beloved of composers, famous enough among the general public (at least at one time) to have had a Broadway musical based loosely on his life (Song of Norway, 1944). Best known for a rather uncharacteristic piano concerto and for his incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, he was far more prolific as a composer of songs and short piano pieces, and also of choral works in a wide variety of styles and genres.
Våren [Last Spring] is probably his most frequently performed song. Grieg composed it for solo voice and piano in 1880, and the next year arranged it for string orchestra as the second of his two Elegiac Melodies . He also created a version of it for solo piano. In the years since then several versions for chorus have emerged; the one we perform this evening is by the Norwegian composer Thomas Beck.
During the summer of 1880 Grieg had become interested in the poet Aasmund Olavson Vinje, who wrote in an alternative form of the Norwegian language called nynorsk (or landsmål) which combined several rural dialects. Grieg rapidly set twelve of Vinje's poems, publishing them as his op. 33. In Våren Vinje - and Grieg - expresses not simply the refreshing pleasure of the northern spring, but the bittersweet joy felt by a dying man fortunate enough to experience spring one final time. Spring, of course, has always served as a metaphor for rebirth; the poignancy of this renewal seen through the eyes of one who will not see its consummation is almost overwhelming. It's a simple yet intensely powerful idea, reflected in simple yet intensely powerful music.
Like Grieg, Jean Sibelius - an exact contemporary of Carl Nielsen - is not well known to the world at large as a choral composer, though he wrote choral music throughout his long lifetime. His first works for chorus, dating from the 1890s, seemed quite modern to contemporary audiences not so much because of their musical style but because earlier Finnish choral music was indebted to Swedish and German traditions. Sibelius, however, had been fired up by his discovery of two seminal works in the development of a Finnish national consciousness that was becoming increasingly political and militant: the Kalevala - an epic poem - and the Kanteletar, a collection of more than 600 Finnish lyrics and ballads published by the scholar-physician Elias Lönnrot in 1840-41. Both sets were compiled by Lönnrot from tales and poems that had been transmitted orally for centuries and were written down beginning in the seventeenth century. While the Kalevala is reminiscent of other great national epics, telling of the adventures of larger-than-life heroes, the Kanteletar is folk-poetry, full of peasant wisdom, domestic love and religious feeling.
Rakastava [The Lover] is probably Sibelius' most frequently performed original choral work. It was written, and won second prize, as a male-voice a cappella chorus for a composition competition organized by the Helsinki University Choir in 1893. Sibelius soon provided it with string accompaniment, and in 1898 arranged it for mixed choir with soprano and baritone soloists (the version which we perform this evening). The work obviously resonated within the composer, because Sibelius returned to it in late 1911, creating a version for string orchestra and timpani - the form in which Rakastava is perhaps best known today.
Its text consists of three linked love-poems from the Kanteletar (The Lover, The Path of the Beloved and Good Evening - Farewell!). The musical setting is also in three parts, each strongly reflecting the character of rural communal song with their insistent repetitions of short phrases, which take on a rhythmic life of their own.
Otto Olsson was one of the leading organists of his time, and perhaps the greatest Swedish church musician of the twentieth century. Though he composed in a variety of genres, he was above all an organist and composer for the organ: "When I have a spare moment I go up to the church and play for pleasure, otherwise I should not survive."
All of Olsson's major works were completed prior to 1920. The most extensive of them, a Requiem from 1903, was first performed in his own church only twelve years after his death. However, his Six Latin Hymns and his Te Deum quickly became well-known, entering the standard repertory of leading Swedish choirs.
Olsson's music is indebted to late nineteenth-century French models. In his Te Deum - his most famous work - we can recognize the influence of Fauré, but Olsson is never just an imitator; the grandiosity of his conception is all his own. The Te Deum was completed in 1906, but not heard until four years later when it was performed by the forerunner of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Almost fifty years later its composer remarked, "I have never wanted to change anything in it - not a single note - it remains just as when it was written."
This sprawling work is unified by a motto theme heard immediately after the imperious opening chords; this theme reappears in various guises throughout the piece. Strong contrasts are provided by interludes that closely mirror the text, for example, the lovely "Sanctus" introduced by women's voices as if sung by the angelic chorus it describes.
- Jerome Hoberman -