“You did a great job of describing the program as a whole and the individual pieces.” — Singer, community chorus
Below you’ll find samples of program notes of varying lengths that we’ve prepared for some of our choral clients. Please note: These samples are protected by copyright. They may not be used, copied, re-used or republished in print or electronically, in whole or in part, without the express permission of GraceNotes. To obtain permission to use our products, please contact us.
Hymn-Anthem – Brief Note Saw You Never In the Twilight Harold W. Friedell (1905-1958); text by Cecil Frances Alexander SATB unaccompanied [67 words]
Many of the more than 400 sacred poems and hymn texts that flowed from the pen of Irish writer Cecil Frances Alexander are characterized by simple images and lyric metaphors that explain the sacred mysteries in the context of the world around us. The setting of this Epiphany meditation by American organist and composer Harold Friedell expresses a quiet yearning in its arching lines and gentle dissonances.
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) Beati quorum via (Three Motets, Op. 38, no.3) SSATTB, unaccompanied [179 words]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), born in Dublin, was a noted composer, teacher, and conductor. During 40 years as professor of composition at Cambridge, he taught Holst, Vaughan Williams, and other important composers. As a conductor, he introduced major works of Brahms and Schumann, as well as neglected works of Purcell and Handel, to English audiences. Through his compositions, he helped to revivify English music, which had languished since the death of Purcell two centuries earlier. Stanford’s widely-admired sacred compositions are the most familiar of his works, and remain at the core of today’s sacred choral repertoire. His Three Motets (Op. 38), were published in 1905, but were probably composed about 1892. In the third of this set, Beati quorum via, set for six-voice unaccompanied choir, Stanford demonstrates his gift for melody and for capturing the mood of the text (Psalm 119:1). Every melodic iteration of the word beati (“blessed”) rises, then rises again as each voice lifts and sustains the others. With lush harmonies and lingering suspensions, Stanford creates a seamless, flowing meditation on the peace found in faith.
Major Work – Medium-Length Note Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) MOTET: Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied (BWV 255) SATB/SATB [368 words]
In 1727, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was in his fourth year as Director of Choir and Music in Leipzig, a post he held until his death. His best-known motet, Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied (BWV 255), for two four part choruses, was possibly written in that year to mark the birthday of Friederich August, Elector of Saxony, although the exact date and purpose of its composition are widely disputed. Today’s performance of this virtuosic motet uses instruments to double the voices, as was likely done under Bach’s direction. The three movements (fast-slow-fast) are typical of the Baroque instrumental concerto.
The brilliant first movement sets the first three verses of Psalm 149 in an exuberant song of praise, rich with counterpoint and melodic inventiveness. In a robust three-four rhythm, one choir exhorts us to sing (Singet!), while the contrasting choir weaves in and around with joyous melismatic passages that cascade from one part to the next, until the other choir takes up the theme and begins it anew. Midway through the movement, a four-voice fugue emerges, beginning in the soprano of the first choir (Die Kinder Zion sei’n frölich), while the second choir provides a lyric counterpoint based on the Singet motive. The second choir gradually joins the first in a restatement of the fugue subject, and the eight voices briefly merge into four. The voices again separate into eight parts, dancing through and around each other with the several themes and counterthemes which have developed. The movement ends as these flowing lines culminate in a shout of voices calling for drums and harps (Pauken und Harfen) to join the song of praise.
In the second movement, Bach alternates phrases of a familiar chorale with verses of a free-composed, gracefully ornate aria. The chorale (the third verse of Nun lob mein Seel den Herren by Johann Kugelmann, based on Psalm 103) describes the ephemeral nature of human life (“we are dust, like the grass and a flower that withers”). Although it is not known for certain, Bach very likely may have composed the text of the contrasting aria; it expresses his deep personal faith and trust in God as comforter and protector (“You are our shield and light”).
The third movement opens with a burst of praise that contrasts sharply with the reflective mood of the second movement. Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten (“Glory to God for all his wonders”) is sung antiphonally by the two choirs, with increasing energy and harmonic complexity. From the eight voices, a single bass line springs forth with a rising, dancing, extended melisma which perfectly expresses Bach’s chosen text, Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn (“All who have life and breathe, praise the Lord,” Psalm 150:6). Tenor, alto, and then soprano join the dance, and the eight voices become four in a fugue which expresses the highest praise and jubilation. Although there are points of harmonic resolution throughout the section, the forward momentum never slows, building anticipation and joy until the final notes of praise ring out.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Mass No. 16 in C Major "Coronation” (Krönungsmesse), (K.317) [1158 words]
In January 1779, grieving and restless, the 23-year old Wolfgang Mozart returned to his home town of Salzburg after eighteen months’ travel to Paris and Mannheim. In a letter written to his father Leopold just a week before his arrival in Salzburg, Wolfgang expressed a “sadness which in the end I can no longer conceal.” Much weighed on his mind and spirit, including a fruitless search for meaningful work that would allow full expression of his extraordinary talents; continuous money troubles; intense emotional badgering from his father; and, worst of all, the sudden death in Paris of his mother, who had been his traveling companion. His personal griefs and professional frustrations were exacerbated when he discovered that Leopold, acting without Wolfgang’s knowledge, had secured for his son the thankless position of chapel organist at the court of Prince-Archbishop Heironymus Colloredo.
Although Mozart desperately needed employment, the Salzburg appointment was exactly the sort of position he had avoided — indeed, which he had declined — on his recent travels. As organist to the Archbishop, Mozart would be required to "unbegrudgingly and with great diligence discharge his duties both in the cathedral and at court and in the chapel house, and as occasion presents, to provide the court and church with new compositions of his own creation." Under these conditions, Mozart would not have opportunity to fulfill his own creative yearnings. Even worse, any sacred works he created would have to conform to the Archbishop’s restrictions, which stipulated the length, technical complexity, and even the instrumentation of music used in church settings. Masses were limited to forty-five minutes in length, and the use of counterpoint (such as fugues) was discouraged.
Despite these personal and professional challenges, Mozart’s productivity and creativity flourished. In the next few years, he would produce works of extraordinary beauty and originality, including the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola (K.364/320d), his first mature opera, Idomeneo (K.366, for the Munich opera); three symphonies, numerous sonatas, and other lesser works. In addition, he fulfilled the requirements of his new post by producing a succession of sacred choral and vocal works, including the tenderly lyrical and frequently-performed Vesperae solenne de Confessore (K.339). In many of these sacred works, Mozart, although essentially conforming to the Archbishop’s requirements for “brevity and brilliance,” nonetheless contrived to offer striking settings of singular freshness and beauty.
This is especially true in the C major Mass (K.317), which Mozart completed in Salzburg on March 23 1779, shortly after his appointment as court organist. The première took place at Easter Mass on April 4, 1779, at Salzburg Cathedral, with the composer conducting from the organ. Writing with easy elegance, Mozart penned a Mass for mixed chorus, soloists, and orchestra that suited the solemn joy of the occasion, the magnificence of the cathedral, and the onerous restrictions of the Archbishop. For example, rather than providing extended solo arias as was often done, Mozart called for the four vocal soloists to sing as a quartet, which shortened the overall work considerably. However, Mozart cunningly worked in passages of counterpoint in the solo passages, again in contrast to the choir, which generally sings homophonically.
The opening movement (Kyrie) uses a simple three-part structure which reflects both the structure and the meaning of the three-line text. The movement opens and closes with majestic choral fanfares (“Kyrie eleison”); these frame a lyric center section for soprano and tenor soloists (“Christe eleison”). The second movement, an energetic Gloria, also features contrasting choral and solo sections and a quick, dancing triple meter in a modified sonata form, concluding with a glorious “Amen” led off by a soaring soprano solo. In both the Gloria and the Credo which follows, Mozart employs a one-syllable-per-note style which enabled him to set these two long texts concisely. Mozart’s instinctive flair for the dramatic — evidenced here in the rich dynamic and textural writing — makes up in part for the absence of the fugues which would have traditionally been used to set the closing phrases of each of these movements.
In the third movement Credo, Mozart uses a rondo form, in which an easily-recognizable motive (in this case, another brilliant choral fanfare) opens the movement, then returns after each of several contrasting sections. The dramatic and musical center of the movement occurs after a climactic passage describing the descent of Christ to earth (“descendit de coelis”). The solo quartet softly sings “et incarnatus est de Spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est” (and became flesh of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made man), while a delicate, descending passage in the accompaniment depicts the ethereal moment. This stunning passage has been aptly described as a “musical genuflection,” and indeed it would have been at this moment that the assembled worshippers would have knelt. The descending motive becomes louder, darker, and more menacing in the intensely chromatic passage which follows, “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est” (“He was crucified for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried”). The glory of the Resurrection bursts forth in bright C major; the solo soprano soars with a promise of eternal life; and the movement concludes with a strong “Amen.”
The majestic Sanctus, with its broad melodies and energetically rhythmic accompaniment, is balanced by the joyous, exuberant Osanna. In contrast to these movements, where the full chorus sings, the tender Benedictus is reserved for the solo quartet, in its most extended appearance in the Mass. The full chorus repeats the Osanna, is briefly interrupted by the solo quartet with a short restatement of the Benedictus, then re-enters to finish the movement. This sequence illustrates Mozart’s typically lavish use of dynamic and textural contrasts to lend dramatic depth.
In a departure from the format used in the rest of the Mass, Mozart sets only the first two phrases of the three-line prayer Agnus Dei for the solo soprano. In this gently yearning aria, forgiveness, rest, and peace are amply offered in the gently rising and falling melody and the graceful countermelodies in the accompanying figures. (Several years later, Mozart would use this music — the melody, the harmony, even the instrumentation — in "Dove sono," the Countess's poignant aria in Act II of The Marriage of Figaro.) The aria ends on a half-cadence, leading directly to the third phrase of the “Agnus Dei” prayer. Here, in a stroke of brilliance and considerable psychological insight, Mozart uses the soprano solo melody from the first-movement Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”) to set the last line of the Agnus Dei (“grant us peace”). The Mass ends with an extended exploration of this melody, first by the soloists, and then by the entire chorus, ending with strong affirmation that peace shall indeed be granted.
The Mass acquired its “Coronation” designation years later, when it was performed during coronation festivities in Prague, perhaps in August 1791 for Leopold II, or certainly for Leopold's successor Francis I in August 1792. It remains one of Mozart’s most-often performed sacred works.
Finally, here is an example of a full-length integrated essay that described a choral concert of madrigals from the English “golden school” and a selection from Orazio Vecchi’s Selva di varia ricreatione (“Forest of Varied Entertainments”), performed by an early music ensemble. The ensemble’s director had selected and arranged the madrigals so that they offered a narrative on the misadventures of the pastoral stock character Phyllis. This essay garnered the highest praise from a regular attendee at these concerts, who exclaimed: “These are the best program notes I’ve ever read, for any concert, anywhere!”
Into the Woods for a Madrigal Feast [1370 words]
The Adventures of Fair Phyllis: The Pastoral Element and English Madrigalism.Devotées of Renaissance madrigals smile whenever Phyllis appears, as she does with near-promiscuous frequency, for they know they’ll be treated to some juicy tale of love gained (or lost), love consummated (or not), or love eternal (or not).Phyllis—and her friends Flora and Amaryllis—just can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble. Boy trouble. Or rather, shepherd trouble, for these wanton lasses and their lovers Amyntas, Damon et al. people the pastoral (“shepherd”) literature that enjoyed its heyday following the 1579 publication of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender. Spenser’s work, which imitated and expanded on the classical pastorals of Theocritus (c300-250 B.C.) and Virgil (70-19 B.C.), inspired a vogue for the pastoral among Renaissance poets and playwrights, as well as the composers whose madrigals brought these writers’ tales to life.
The pastoral style, which depicted young, beauteous lads and lasses cavorting in the highly-idealized rustic setting of mythological Arcadia, deeply influenced the literature, theatre, art, and music of the period. The dramatic ups and downs of pastoral living—whether in pursuit of a reluctant lover or a lost sheep—were a perfect means by which the English madrigalists could display their skills. These masters of “word painting” effectively used melodic and rhythmic conventions to depict dancing, weeping, dying, even gathering and weaving a garland of flowers to crown a sweet lover’s brow. By clever voicing, composers depicted the presence and interplay of various characters, as well as the sounds and characteristics of various animals, instruments, and other non-vocal elements.
In our offering from the best of England’s “Golden School” of madrigalists, we are treated to a rich madrigal feast, in which Phyllis is served up as the main dish. Poor Phyllis wanders into the hills, looking for her lost flock, before her lover Amyntas rescues her with kisses “up and down” (Fair Phyllis I Saw Sitting All Alone). The charms of the fair Phyllis eclipse the dainty Amaryllis, causing that damsel’s shame and grief (See Amaryllis Shamed). Phyllis causes jealousy in another quarter when she is the recipient of the flowers Flora had gathered for the lover they seem to have in common (Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers). (Is it Amyntas again, or some other swain?)
Meanwhile, Phyllis (who is “fair, but too unkind”) has spurned the young man, who angrily advises her that she may seek her pleasures elsewhere (Phyllis, Go Take Thy Pleasure). Later, he sadly recalls her charms (Those Sweet Delightful Lilies) and declares that he will die of grief (Phyllis, Farewell), yet acknowledges that he loves her still (Miraculous Love’s Wounding). Our lovelorn shepherd must be possessed of ample charms, though, for now we learn that Phyllis loves him still (Come Clap Thy Hands), and we learn why (“Phyllis hath sworn she loves the man that knows what’s love, and love her can”). The two lovers wander off to a sunny meadow (Amyntas With His Phyllis Fair) where Phyllis is celebrated “with piping and with singing” by the assembled shepherds and their lasses (See, See the Shepherd’s Queen).
Into the Woods: Orazio Vecchi’s Selva di Varia Ricreatione.Of course, the English madrigalists had adopted (and adapted) these dramatic techniques from Italian composers, who had developed and perfected the style with unmatched sophistication. Perhaps the best among these was Orazio Vecchi (c1550-1605), from whose Selva di varia ricreatione (“Forest of Varied Entertainments”) we choose selections for the second part of our program. Vecchi’s career took him to various courts and cathedrals across northern Italy, culminating in his appointment as maestro di cappella (choir master) at the Cathedral of Modena and maestro di corte (court music master) at the court of the Duke of Modena, Cesare d’Este. Vecchi’s secular works (canzonets, madrigals, dialogues and madrigal comedies) fill thirteen volumes, while his sacred compositions (motets, masses and lamentations) add another four. These works span a wide range of forms and styles, as would be expected from the pen of a composer with both sacred and secular appointments.
Today, Vecchi is best known for his canzonets and madrigal comedies, which had been wildly popular among his delighted public. His deft combinations of graceful melodies, dance forms, and lyrics both vulgar and refined, remain appealing to today’s listener. In his four madrigal comedies (collections of dances and canzonets loosely connected by a general plot line), the juxtaposition of serious and comic themes allowed him to display his quirky humor and sharp wit to great effect.
One of these madrigal comedies, Selva di varia ricreatione, is a cycle of “thirty seven varied pieces with light and pastoral themes for courtly entertainments.” Published in Venice in 1590, this “Forest of Varied Entertainments” contains a remarkable variety of musical genres for ensembles of three to ten voices or instruments. Musicologist Paul Schleuse explains the title thus: “In the dedication and the opening madrigal (Se desio di fuggir), Vecchi wittily acknowledges the forest’s pastoral associations with both danger and refuge, but his primary image is of a wild, disorderly wood as a metaphor for the book’s variety [of musical compositions].” Here, as in the English pastoral madrigals, the texts explore the loves and laments of Phyllis and her friends, but perhaps with greater sophistication. For example, the use of dance forms introduces a courtly element lacking in the English settings, and the lyrics are generally longer, more refined, and more subtle.
In his dedication and preface to Selva di varia ricreatione, Vecchi addressed any potential criticism of the frankly secular nature of the work: “I am well aware that on first hearing some may perhaps think these my caprices base and trivial. Let them learn that it takes just as much skill, art, and knowledge...to make a silly comic character as it does to create a prudent and sagely old man…and if some smart ass says that it is easy to come up with such things, let him try; he’ll see that it is easy to want ideas, hard to have them, harder still to arrange them, and even more difficult to put them all together well.”
Our story of Phyllis’ adventures resumes with a selection of eleven madrigals from Selva di varia ricreatione, in which Phyllis and her followers take to the woods in pursuit of amorous adventures. Although a cautionary canzonetta (So ben mi c’ha bon tempo) advises that “salutations and hand-kissing are in vain,” our pastoral lovers retreat to the forest to escape the hot sun and to “amuse themselves in these woods” (Se desio di fuggir). On the bank of a limpid brook, a lovelorn swain recalls how his mistress’ sweet breath fans the flames of his ardor (Se tra verdi arbuscelli). He observes that his passion burns so strongly as to disorient him, so that he “can grasp nothing, yet [seems to] embrace all the world” (Io spero). Damon and Phyllis are engaged in a different sort of emotional struggle, a lovers’ war where glances wound, but kisses heal (Damon e Filli). In a stately pavane, the nymphs and shepherds gather flowers in sweet meadows, weave garlands for the lovely Clori, and join in songs and dances (Gitene ninfe). A lively saltarello follows, in which the assembled lovers celebrate the spring, the season which “invites all to dance” (Gioite tutti).
One shepherdess lingers behind the rest, offering her garland to the God of Love in exchange for an answer to her prayer; to wit, that her beloved will yield to her desires (Deh prega amor). She might have better luck pursuing the subject of the Tedesca (German dance) that follows; the lad described therein mourns the lost love whose kisses linger in his memory (Mostrav’in ciel) and whose golden hair rivals the moon in its brilliance (Al bel de tuoi capelli). As the moon waxes full and silver, a “lovely band” arrives to offer a serenade to their patroness (is it the fair Phyllis?). Alas, the hour is late and night draws on; the clock tolls the hour. The pastoral troupe bids one other good night, and makes its way back to the meadows, but not before a pair of lovers steals one last kiss…but “don’t tell Mamma!” (Tridola non dormire)
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