Let Him Kiss Me:
The Intimate a cappella

September 2001

Program Notes

 Till Österland vill jag fara

trad. Swedish, arr. Gunnar Eriksson

 Una matica de ruda

Sephardic, arr. J. Miller

 El grillo

Josquin des Prez (1440-1521)

 Kisses of Myrrh world premiere

Jonathan Miller (b. 1962)

     1. Let him kiss me

 

     2. Thy lips

 

     3. While the king sat

 

     4. Thy two breasts

 

     5. Awake, O north wind

 

 Mother, I will have a husband

Thomas Vautor (fl. 1600-1620)

 Lamento d’Arianna

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

     1. Lasciatemi morire

 

     2. O Teseo, Teseo mio

 

     3. Dov’è la fede?

 

     4. Ahi, che non pur risponde

 

 Chili con carne

Anders Edenroth (b. 1965)

INTERMISSION

 Organ Fugue BWV 578

J.S Bach, arr. Ward Swingle

 Calling my children home

Lawson/Waller/Yates, arr. Emmylou Harris/J. Miller
 from Three Shakespeare Songs:

Håkan Parkman (1955-1988)

     Madrigal (Take, o take those lips away)

 

     My love is as a fever

 

 A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square

Sherwin/Maschwitz, arr. Gene Puerling

 Alla that’s alright, but . . .

Bernice Johnson Reagon

 

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to The Intimate A Cappella, which we’ve subtitled “Let him kiss me.” You are about to go on a musical journey through the past 600 years, to Renaissance Spain, England, and Italy, with texts from the Bible to Shakespeare and lounge-style lyrics from the last ten years. These are songs of love longed for, love fully requited, love lost and abandoned, and everything in between. The subtitle comes from the book called Song of Songs, the Bible’s timeless love poetry:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth;
for thy love is better than wine.

This is the first Chicago a cappella concert with only five singers. Usually we are nine in all. For the first concert of our ninth season I decided to do something different, giving you access to one of the great joys of the a cappella world: singing one voice to a part. CAC has usually been two voices to a part—sometimes three, since we have three basses.

This is an especially intimate concert, then, not only because of the subject matter but because of the five-voiced musical texture. A few of the songs are more “showcase” pieces for the glory of five voices than they are love songs per se; in this category are the Bach Organ Fugue, in the famous Swingle Singers arrangement, and The Real Group’s now-classic tune, Chili Con Carne.

If you’ve heard us before, what you hear tonight will seem both new and familiar. If this is your first taste of CAC, I hope you’ll be not only entertained, but anxious to hear the magnificent sound of all nine of us during the remainder of this glorious season.

* * * *

I started this group nine years ago with a range of repertoire in mind much like this very concert. This program is a really mixed bag: you’ll hear bluegrass harmony, a rousing tune in the style of the deep-South African-American spiritual, Latin-tinged vocal jazz, a Manhattan Transfer-style chart, and lots of plain old, really good “classical” music by composers who have (or had) a pulse. I put the term “classical” in quotes because it’s all too easy to assume that music in the classical tradition is of a certain ilk or nature. Not all Renaissance music is the same, just as not every Beethoven piano sonata is the same. A piece of music won’t make it into a Chicago a cappella concert unless it’s fun to listen to and fun to sing.

Some of this music we’ve programmed in other concerts, but several pieces are new to us. These new songs include the opening setting by my Swedish colleague Gunnar Eriksson; my own cycle, Kisses of Myrrh; the Monteverdi cycle Lamento d’Arianna; and the Shakespeare songs by Håkan Parkman. As you may know, the term a cappella means “singing without instruments.” The term comes from 16th-century Italy, a time when the Pope’s own special place of worship, the Sistine Chapel, did not use an organ or any other instruments in its worship. Singing this way became known as singing “in the style of the chapel”—or, in Italian, “a cappella.”

Because there aren’t any non-vocal instruments to play, we’re using a good deal of vocal percussion tonight—mostly sounds like “chik,” bop” and “ka.” Nobody knows which came first, the caveman hitting a hollow tree with a stick or the ability to make percussion sounds with the face; but let us be grateful for the sounds, from goofily percussive to gloriously lyrical, that can be made with the human voice alone. We thank you deeply for taking the time to be with us tonight. Enjoy the show.

— Jonathan Miller

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

arr. Gunnar Eriksson: Till Österland vill jag fara

This processional uses a traditional Swedish folk melody. Gunnar Eriksson, the brilliant choral conductor of the Rilke Ensemble and at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Gothenburg, is one of the world’s masters at the art of choral improvisation. Any good tune has its own implied harmonies inside of it; here Gunnar seems to take every possible good combination of ways to overlap the tune with itself until the texture blossoms into a fully-flowered five-part setting.

 

Sephardic (15th c. Spanish Jewish), arr. Jonathan Miller:  Una matica de ruda

The general term “Sephardic” refers to the Jewish culture that sprang up around the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, from Morocco to Palestine. Before the Inquisition, Spain had nurtured a robust Jewish subculture. Jews had been full and enthusiastic participants in commercial, court, and artistic life; there is even a new cookbook on the richly flavored cuisine of Renaissance Spanish Jewry. The language spoken (and sung) by Spanish Jews is known as Ladino—like Yiddish for Ashkenazic Jews (which is a mixture of Hebrew and German), Ladino is a relative of Spanish, with several Hebrew words and cognates thrown in for color. This song celebrates the tradition of the headstrong young woman who wants to pursue romance against her mother’s wishes.

Josquin: El grillo

Josquin is one of my idols. A Flemish composer who spent much of his life as a professional singer in Italy and France, he brought four-voice music into its full maturity, picking up where DuFay had left off. Josquin’s gift was a command of imitative polyphony, which he combined with an uncanny feel for harmonic spacing of the voices. Josquin’s mass settings, especially Missa pange lingua, and his best motets like Ave Maria . . . virgo serena rank, at least in my book, as some of the finest a cappella choral writing ever. El grillo is one of those little pieces which Josquin seems to have written early in his Italian travels. (It is attributed to Josquin d’Ascanio in one manuscript, leading some scholars to think that it’s by another Josquin altogether.) The piece shows a rollicking, playful side to Renaissance music, and has been one of our favorites for years.

 

* * * * * *

Jonathan Miller: Kisses of Myrrh (world premiere)

Composing music for Chicago a cappella is one of the great privileges of my life. These singers, as you’ve already heard, can take a variety of musical material to exquisite levels in performance. This is my second cycle for the ensemble, the first being Rumi Triptych, which we premiered in April 2000. That, too, was love poetry.

I have been intensely drawn to the Song of Songs ever since I first encountered Palestrina’s famous Latin-texted cycle on the same poetry, likewise scored for five voices. One cold night in the winter of 2001, I sat down with my copy of the Old Testament, turned to the Song of Songs, and copied longhand those verses which leaped off the page into my mind, saying “Compose me!” That’s the essential ingredient in my composing; if the words fire my imagination, the music will follow.

Once the right kind of text has lived in my mind, the seeds of rhythm and melody start to form and grow. It was one of those blessed evenings when everything works. By the end of two hours, the middle three movements were largely done, and the outer two movements had their basic melodies and initial harmonic shape. I will never forget the excitement I felt when the 7/8 opening of “Thy two breasts” took wing, for the text itself has such life that a breathless reading of the verses yielded the rhythm you’ll hear here. The outer two movements took their final shape in July of this year. It was fun especially to rethink the final movement.

A few words about the individual sections:

Movement I is based on two simple melodies, unfolding as does a flower.

Movement II is a heavy gospel-blues-meets-Frankie Valli-tenor solo.

Movement III is based on an old English church hymn, Kingsfold. The tune takes many stylistic twists and turns, from a modal Renaissance-style treatment to a heavy swing with an Ella-style alto solo, before turning back to a more innocent demeanor as the young women discuss the plight of their sister.

Movement IV is wonder at the body’s beauty, a breathless anticipation of ecstasy.

Movement V is lush and lyrical, full of wonder; after a slow opening with bass solo, it serves as a “recap” of the material from the first four sections, much in the way an opera overture will play with the themes from the big arias.

There is intense theological debate as to the true meaning of the Song of Songs. Some Old Testament scholars believe it to be partly an allegory of the relationship between the people Israel and God. Christian scholars have often tried to interpret the text symbolically, relating the love of the participants to the love for God or the church. Upon publishing his own cycle, Palestrina was embarrassed about writing motets to such erotic texts, but I feel no sense of apology whatever. I respect scholars’ attempts to bring this poetry to a more exalted plane, but I also find them unnecessary. I celebrate, as do the Chinese, a view of humanity as the bridge between heaven and earth; in my view, this text is, pure and simple, a mature expression of the deliciousness of human love, known to lovers throughout human ages. That alone is worth celebrating, in poetry and song; and my deep respect for that aspect of human experience is what has inspired this song cycle.

* * * * * *

Thomas Vautor: Mother, I will have a husband

The English madrigal is usually a little more exalted than this one, but I find it refreshing in the same way as El grillo. It also resembles Una matica in its petulance, from a maiden who will “get me a husband, good or bad.”

Monteverdi: Lamento d’Arianna (Ariadne’s Lament)

Monteverdi was the most influential composer of the early 17th century. It’s too much to say that he singlehandedly brought us out of the Renaissance and created what we think of today as Baroque harmony, but such a statement is going in the right direction. He did indeed bridge the gap between “prima prattica” and “seconda prattica” more fully than anyone else, starting his career with a cappella five-voice madrigals and ending as the celebrated composer of Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea, two truly great early operas.

One of his earliest operatic efforts was called simply Arianna. It is a tragedy of music history that this opera simply does not survive in any written form. However, the lament of Arianna for Theseus, her lost lover, does survive in an extraordinary five-voice a cappella choral version which Monteverdi published, and we’ll sing it for you now. The story is from Greek mythology, and goes like this (thanks to Richard Cox):

King Minos of Crete has decreed that every nine years Athens must send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur. Theseus, son of the Athenian king, volunteers to go. He seduces Minos’s daughter Ariadne, and she helps him to dispose of the monster and to escape from the labyrinth. Araidne expects to accompany Theseus back to Athens, but he abandons her midway on the island of Naxos, which is where we find her lamenting her fate.

Anders Edenroth: Chili con Carne

And now for something completely different. The Swedes have been leading much of the charge for decades when it comes to a cappella singing, and The Real Group is doing so when it comes to vocal jazz. They were the first ensemble to ever receive a group diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm, with a series of three recitals that began their rise to stardom. One of their most gifted arrangers is their countertenor, Anders Edenroth, who wrote this light-hearted tune in praise of Mexican food and rhythms. To this piece I say, Mucho gusto!

I N T E R M I S S I O N

J.S. Bach, arr. Ward Swingle: Organ Fugue, BWV 578

There are only a few composers out there whose instrumental music lends itself brilliantly well to arrangements for a cappella voices. Johann Sebastian Bach is one. For those of you who want to understand everything you read, the “BWV” in the title stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or “the index of Bach’s works,” undertaken by German musicologists to identify each piece of Bach’s music by number as well as title and/or key. The famous Swingle Singers were a group of eight classically-trained French vocalists, whom Ward Swingle taught to, well, swing. Their trademark sound was the one we’re evoking here: a cool, “studio” sound, made by taking Bach’s great counterpoint and having each voice deliver its musical material with “ba-da-ba-da-da-va-dam” syllables. Though Swingle’s original arrangement was for eight voices, the scoring is essentially a fugue in four parts, so doing it with five singers is a nice, light treat.

Doyle Lawson/Charles Waller/Robert Yates,
arr. Emmylou Harris/ed. J. Miller: Calling My Children Home

This is a complete change in style from the previous piece. When I lived in Chapel Hill, I was surrounded by great country and especially bluegrass and white-gospel music, which was a fascinating counterpart to all the black gospel music and spirituals I’d learned as a kid. While she started out as more of a folk singer, Emmylou Harris has embraced more of a country/bluegrass/alternative ethos of late, and this song came to me on her Live at the Ryman album. The harmonies are too good to keep all to ourselves.

* * * * * *

Håkan Parkman: from Three Shakespeare Songs

Håkan Parkman, a terribly talented young Swede, died in a car accident in his 30s and left a number of truly beautiful songs, including this cycle on Shakespeare’s love poems. We’re singing the second and third in the cycle, as the first is scored for piano. “Madrigal” is rather playful, almost flirtatious. The meaning seems twofold: on one hand, the poet implores the lover not to really take the lips away at all: take the lips away, “but my kisses bring again.” On the other, however, the lips may have “sealed in vain” promises that aren’t being kept. You decide, after hearing the music. The last song, “My love is as a fever,” is one of the most perfect marriages of poetry and music I know, reflecting the achingly burning poem with music of great tension and ambiguity. I learned these songs from Singer Pur, a superb six-voice Swedish/German vocal group.

* * * * * *

arr. Gene Puerling: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

This standard, by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin, has been a favorite of jazz singers for decades. Harry Connick’s best album (in my opinion) features a terrific rendition of this tune, with Branford Marsalis on saxophone. Choral musicians have been in Gene Puerling’s debt for a long time, thanks to his charts for the Singers Unlimited. This Puerling chart, given its most famous rendition by the Manhattan Transfer, captures both the tenderness and intensity of feeling which make the tune such a satisfying experience overall.

Bernice Johnson Reagon: Alla that’s alright, but . . .

Bernice Johnson Reagon is a renowned scholar and historian of music. She is a composer and songleader in the 19th-century, Southwest-Georgia choral tradition. She founded the African-American women’s vocal ensemble, Sweet Honey In The Rock, in 1973. Dr. Reagon is Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. Dr. Reagon conceptualized the National Public Radio and Smithsonian Peabody Award winning radio series “Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music

Traditions.” A 1989 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Reagon was awarded the Presidential Medal, the 1995 Charles Frankel Prize for outstanding contribution to public understanding of the humanities, by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1996, Reagon received an Isadora Duncan award for the score to Rock, a ballet directed by Alonzo King for LINES Contemporary Ballet Company. Even heroes for social justice have to get some lovin’. Reagon writes in her songbook: “We are collectively struggling for liberation, organizing against racism, exploitation, and injustice. And alla that’s all right, but . . .”