Morten Lauridsen (b.1943) & John Harbison (b.1938)
The word "motet" conjures up many images. Angelic choruses singing gentle yet complex polyphony while the congregation meditates, the voices resonating within the vast stone spaces of a Gothic cathedral. Or small specialist choirs of professionals singing Renaissance music in a concert hall for an audience of true devotees. Or the majesty and grandiosity of Versailles, Louis XIV vying with the Creator for the greater splendor as the vast Baroque panoply of Lully or Charpentier resounds to astonish the assembled company. A motet can be all of these things, and more.
It's "a piece of music in several parts with words." That's a late-twentieth century definition, by the distinguished Oxford scholar Margaret Bent (a teacher I remember fondly from my university days). The motet is the most ancient form of composed music still viable in the Western tradition, dating from the earliest days of polyphony. The thirteenth-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio wrote that a motet "is not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art." Which means, simply, that it's Art, as opposed to religious indoctrination. While the precise definition of "motet" has varied through the centuries - in some periods a single movement, in others multiple movements, at times strictly sacred, at others secular as well - as a rule it is composed to a Latin text, with multiple voices singing in counterpoint. Guillaume Dufay wrote motets, as did Palestrina, but so did Bach, Brahms and Bruckner, and today composers are adding to the history of the motet, in doing so paying homage to its heritage whether or not they consciously employ reminiscences of older styles.
We begin our program with two motets, settings of the same Christmas text, written by two of North America's leading composers within two years of each other. The two settings of the medieval O magnum mysterium text (set previously by Palestrina, Victoria and Poulenc, among others), as well as the various movements of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, were written to be performed for an audience, whether in church or in a concert hall, by trained musicians - Bach's by his own students and Lauridsen's and Harbison's by professional singers. The second part of our program, however, looks to a different tradition, that of popular, communal celebrations through the performance of pageants that recreate the events the feasts commemorate. Such pageants, such as the Passion Play at Easter time, are designed so that the performer and the listener are, in effect, one: your neighbor may be in the audience next to you or on stage, amateur in the best sense.
Morten Lauridsen was born in 1943. He's a product of the Pacific Northwest but migrated to southern California, first for school and then to teach, at the University of Southern California. So he's a West-Coast composer with elements in common with others of that breed, such as Lou Harrison and Alan Hovhaness, who wrote music that avoids systems and appeals directly to the listener's emotions. He has always focused his attention on choral music, and today he's by far the most frequently performed living choral composer with the possible exception of John Rutter (another composer who avoids systems and appeals directly to the listener's emotions).
Lauridsen's setting of O magnum mysterium, perhaps his single most popular work, was written in 1994 for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, for which Lauridsen at the time was composer-in-residence. It's a typical example of his style, in which the harmonic structure is enriched by adding extra, non-harmonic notes to otherwise simple triadic harmonies. The form, too, is simple, the basic material being presented three times with a contrasting section after the second (at "Beata Virgo, cujus viscera..."). The effect is gently hypnotic.
John Harbison, in contrast to Lauridsen, is an East-Coast composer. Born in 1938 in New Jersey, he's long been identified with Boston, though he spends part of his time on a farm in Wisconsin. He's a product of the classic Harvard/Princeton circle, where his teachers were among the aristocracy of the American compositional Establishment: Walter Piston and Roger Sessions; he's spent much of his career as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has all the proper Establishment credentials - a Pulitzer Prize (in 1987, for his cantata The Flight into Egypt), major orchestra commissions, three symphonies, four string quartets, a Metropolitan Opera commission for The Great Gatsby (1999), but unlike the popular image of the Establishment composer he has always striven to write music that audiences will enjoy hearing, and has also worked to create music for practical use.
Harbison has a long association with Emmanuel Church in Boston, well-known for its weekly performances of Bach cantatas at their proper time in the church year, as part of the regular service. His longer of two settings of O magnum mysterium was written for Emmanuel Church in 1992 (and for its conductor, the very recently deceased Craig Smith), and in its clear structure, repeating sections, evocation of tolling bells and moving coda well expresses Harbison's credo: "to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh large designs, to re-invent traditions."
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach compiled his Christmas Oratorio in 1734, mostly from secular cantatas he had composed during the previous year (principally BWV 213 and 214), to which new texts were put. Having written three complete cycles of cantatas for the ecclesiastical year during his first years in Leipzig (1923-25), he no longer felt an urgent need to create new material for regular Sunday services. By the 1730s, he was able to turn his attention to larger projects requiring longer gestation periods, such as the B-minor Mass and the Passions, in addition to the Christmas Oratorio.
The cantatas on which the music of the Christmas Oratorio was based were written for specific, one-off occasions such as Electoral birthdays and were unlikely to be repeated; Bach's rehabilitation of them in this work, which was performed several times during his lifetime, was the action of an eminently practical and economical musician and craftsman. Although Bach evidently considered the six parts of the Christmas Oratorio to be one large work, this does not mean that it was planned for performance on a single occasion. Christmas in Leipzig at that time was a season rather than a single day; the six parts, each equivalent to a cantata, were performed in church on the first three days of the holiday, on New Year's Day (the Feast of the Circumcision), on the first Sunday in the New Year (2nd January in 1735) and on Epiphany (6th January), respectively. Each part is given a character appropriate to the day: for example, the Second Day of Christmas, associated with the announcement of Jesus' birth to the "shepherds abiding in the fields," is celebrated in Part II with a pastoral movement in 12/8 time, traditional for Christmas music since the early Baroque period (as in Arcangelo Corelli's Christmas Concerto).
The focus of Christmas Day itself is the joy and exhilaration inherent in Jesus' birth. Part I of the Christmas Oratorio, as a result, is framed by a magnificent opening chorus and final chorale, featuring trumpets and drums playing in the brilliant key of D major, and includes a solo aria with virtuoso trumpet accompaniment. The other prevailing color of this part of the Oratorio is the oboe d'amore (the "oboe of love"), appropriate to texts that apply the metaphor of bride and bridegroom to the faithful multitudes' welcome of the baby Jesus.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Given the quantity of sacred music with which he was involved throughout his life - as composer, performer and arranger - one might expect Ralph Vaughan Williams to have been a religious man, but his second wife and widow, the poet Ursula (Wood) Vaughan Williams, remarked that her husband was "an atheist... [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism." But religious art has always had motivations beyond those of faith; for one thing, it's a good way to reach an appreciative audience. For Vaughan Williams there was an additional stimulus to create musical art works that would resonate within the deepest collective religious sensitivities of his primary listeners: he had made it his life's mission to be a leader in the regeneration of British art music, and, having spent years collecting rural folk song in an effort to preserve it from encroaching industrialization, urbanization and literacy, he believed that a true British art music could only arise out of local folk sources.
Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire in 1872, the son of a vicar. On his mother's side he was descended from the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, and Charles Darwin was his great-uncle. He attended the elite Charterhouse School and Trinity College, Cambridge, and also studied at the Royal College of Music in London. The product of upper-class intellectual circles, he might have been expected to isolate himself within that world while pursuing the dilettante life of an occasional composer as did others of his class (in the most firmly class-stratified society in Europe). Instead, after private study in Paris with his contemporary Maurice Ravel - a revolutionary act at a time when British musicians still looked mainly to Germany for direction - he began to collect folk songs during the first decade of the twentieth century, transcribing what was sung to him by rural villagers he met in his travels through the countryside much as Béla Bartók was doing at about the same time in eastern Europe.
This ethnomusicological field work not only fecundated Vaughan Williams' growing catalogue of original music, but also led him to edit large quantities of folk music for public consumption; for example, he was co-editor of the 1928 first edition of the Oxford Book of Carols, which retains its influence in British musical life until today.
Man of faith or not, Vaughan Williams throughout his life delighted in celebrating Christmas in time-honored fashion, through song. Early recollections of group readings of Dickens' A Christmas Carol and of family carol singing (at that time, from Victorian anthologies by Stainer and Bell) were resurrected during the First World War, when he sustained his own and others' morale by forming choirs to sing carols, including on one memorable occasion in 1916 near Mount Olympus in Greece. And they led to four major works on Christmas themes: the Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912), the ballet On Christmas Night, based on Dickens (1926), the oratorio Hodie (1954 - one of the composers' finest works) and his final, unfinished composition, The First Nowell (1958).
The First Nowell, described as "a nativity play for soloists, chorus and small orchestra," is modeled after traditional medieval pageants in which members of the community took part both as performers and as audience. This idea of a shared musical-religious experience is at the heart of the work. The vicar of London's Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields had requested that Vaughan Williams collaborate with the writer Simona Pakenham in preparing a nativity play to be performed a few days before Christmas 1958 as a fund-raiser for a charity that was building a village for refugee children. The libretto was delivered at the end of July; by the time Vaughan Williams died, in his sleep on the night of 26th August, he had already orchestrated about two-thirds of the music and chosen the carols to be included in the remainder of the play. His long-time assistant Roy Douglas, using the composer's sketches, was able to complete the rest in time for the scheduled premiere.
The full nativity play includes eight speaking roles; the authorized concert version restructures it for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra. The Prelude begins in the orchestra with a hint of the carol The First Nowell, which introduces the chorus singing God Rest You Merry. (Vaughan Williams had once remarked, "I think that every Christmas play ought to begin with God Rest You Merry and end with The First Nowell.") The baritone, followed by the chorus, then sings The Truth From Above. After an orchestral interlude the solo soprano sings the Angelus ad virginem, a carol mentioned by Chaucer in The Miller's Tale. This is followed by The Salutation Carol ("Nowell, Nowell...") and a second verse of Angelus ad virginem. Chorus and soprano soloist sing the two parts of The Cherry Tree Carol ("Joseph was an old man...") - music that Vaughan Williams had loved since childhood. The baritone soloist leads the chorus in part of the carol Joseph and Mary ("O Joseph being an old man..."). The women's chorus then sings music adapted from A Virgin Most Pure, with its refrain "Then let us be merry;" the men's chorus responds with a verse from The Salutation Carol demanding beer. The pastoral mood returns as the baritone leads the choir in The Sussex Carol, followed by another verse from The Salutation Carol ("Tidings true there be come new..."). At this point Vaughan Williams turns to a traditional German Epiphany carol, How Brightly Shone the Morning Star, a march for the Three Kings (foreigners in Bethlehem - how apt that it is here that he chooses "foreign" music, and how moving that in his final work he effects a musical reconciliation between England and Germany at a time when the destruction of the Second World War was still fresh in people's minds.) A final orchestral interlude leads, at last, to The First Nowell, growing from a simple soprano solo to grand canonic polyphony for the full ensemble, before fading back into peaceful silence.
At a time when the holiday season has been debased into a marketing ploy, it seems particularly appropriate to return it to its populist roots in communal celebration, in music by a composer who, harboring his own mature doubts and ambivalence, yet remained responsive even in his eighties to the childlike immediacy of Christmas.
- Jerome Hoberman -