Mystery, Light and Joy

December 1995

Program Notes

Roun’ de Glory Manger

Spiritual, arr. Willis Lawrence James

O magnum mysterium (1995) – Chicago premiere Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
From Missa “O magnum mysterium”:

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)


Hymn (In Nativitate Domini): A solis ortus cardine                                  


O, Poor Little Jesus Spiritual, arr. Bruce Saylor
From Missa “O magnum mysterium”:        Palestrina
The Huron Carol French/Huron carol, arr. Steve Schuch (b. 1960)



Hymn (In Epiphania Domini): Hostis Herodis impie

Mary Had A Baby Spiritual, arr. W.L. Dawson

From Missa “O magnum mysterium":                                                    

Angels and the Shepherds Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)

From Missa “O magnum mysterium":

     Angus Dei I  
     Angus Dei II, preceded by chant  
Ave Maria Franz Biebl (b. 1903)
encore: Go Tell It on the Mountain arr. Brewer

 NOTES ON THE MUISC by Jonathan Miller

Spiritual, arr. Willis Laurence James: Roun’ de Glory Manger
Ever been really, really happy? I can’t think of a better way to describe this piece.  Trevor Mitchell has generously coached us in the intricacies of Deep South singing, which includes singing consonants in a vital and forward-moving way.  The tempo marking of “Allegro guibilante con ritmo” sounds ridiculously stuffy, but it works.

Morten Lauridsen: O magnum mysterium
Morten Lauridsen is a native of the Pacific Northwest and studied at the University of Southern California School of Music, where he currently is Professor and Chair of the Department of Composition.  Among his grants, prizes, and commissions are awards from ASCAP, Meet the Composer, and Chorus America.  His vocal works include Les Chansons des Roses, which we sang this past spring and came to love.  Those familiar with the second movement of that cycle, “Contre qui, rose,” will notice much shared material with this “O magnum mysterium” setting.  It seems to me that Lauridsen hit upon a good thing in this new compositional vein, and found a wondrous sacred text that suits the musical style just as well as the tender love poems of Rilke.  It’s a blissful exegesis of the divine mystery, but one which keeps you on your toes; witness the luscious G# inflection in the altos at the word “Virgo,” possibly reminding us that birth is never easy, even if you’re the mother of God.

G. P. da Palestrina: from Missa “O magnum mysterium” : Kyrie and Gloria
Palestrina is far and away the best-known composer of the Italian Renaissance.  He has been rather idolized at times.  His fans include Johann Joseph Fux, author of Gradus ad Parnassum (for those of you too young to remember, it was the best-selling counterpoint textbook in the 18th century). Fux hails Palestrina’s careful control of dissonance, the subject of much musicological study in this century as well.  Palestrina has been credited with saving polyphonic church music singlehandedly from the musical gallows during the Council of Trent’s sweeping reforms.  This is a bit of an exaggeration, but his Pope Marcellus Mass is often upheld as the masterpiece of polyphony where you can still hear all the words.  Palestrina is also the only Renaissance composer about whom an opera has been written (Hans Pfizner’s work from earlier this century).

Palestrina wrote a great deal of music. Some 250 motets and 104 masses can be firmly ascribed to him, plus dozens of compositions in every conceivable genre of church music from the late sixteenth century.  The music of Palestrina in current use, while it is wonderful, is only a minute sampling of his work.  In particular, his five- and six-part music, which usually requires a high proportion of men to women, is rarely performed; yet more than 60% of his masses are for five or more voices!  Therefore, we’re singing music that is perhaps more representative of his output than the more familiar motets you might have sung or heard in church.

It was the fashion of Palestrina’s era to compose Mass settings based on the musical materials contained in a favorite motet, madrigal, or chanson.  Palestrina himself wrote 54 Masses on polyphonic models by various composers, and half of these models are from his own earlier work!  The present Mass, “O magnum mysterium,” is based on a six-voice motet, which Palestrina published in his Liber primus motettorum for five to seven voices (1569).  The Mass was published in 1582, but it’s virtually impossible to tell how closely in time the two were actually composed.

I invite you to listen for several things which recur in most of the movements, and which are material from the motet model: a slow, grand opening; a minor-sounding, running eighth-note figure shortly thereafter; a switch to triple time; and a sprightly, major-sounding running figure toward the end.  Most of all, enjoy the unusual sound of the Phrygian mode, which pulls on the ear in a most affecting way.  This is ravishing, profound music.

Palestring: Missa "O magnum mysterium," texts and translations for Kyrie and Gloria

Palestrina: Hymn: A solis ortus cardine
Among Palestrina’s rarely-heard music are his hymns, which take the Gregorian chant hyms as their melodic inspiration.  The rest of the music is inspired, too; through ingenious spacing, he weaves closely imitative lines into a web of sound that sounds much fuller than the number of voice parts suggests.

The singing alternates between verses of polyphony and verses of chant.  The polyphony, mostly for four voices, culminates in a glorious five-voice “Gaudet chorus” section, leading to the final chant verse.

Spiritual, arr. Bruce Saylor: O, Poor Little Jesus
Bruce Saylor has emerged as one of the most sought-after composers of his generation.  A native of Philadelphia, he studied with many prominent teachers, including Roger Sessions at Julliard and George Perle at CUNY Graduate School, where he received his Ph.D.  His fellowships, numbering more than thirty, include Fulbright, Guggenheim, NEA, and Mellon Foundation grants.  Composer in Residence at Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1992-1994, he has been commissioned by many distinguished soloists and chamber ensembles, as well as the Houston, Yale, and San Francisco symphony orchestras.  Four of his works were commissioned for the religious services at which Pope John Paul II presided this year in Manhattan; Mr. Saylor also composed music for the Monet exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was performed more than fifty times this fall.  Two of Saylor’s song cycles have been recorded by Constance Beavon.  Notably, the recordings of his music composed for the Christmas recital “Jessye Norman at Notre-Dame” have been heard around the world.  Saylor is presently professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and at the CUNY Graduate School in Manhattan, where he lives.

“O, Poor Little Jesus” is one of the works composed for Jessye Norman’s Notre-Dame recital.  I originally learned this tune in a straightforward chordal setting from my days in the Chicago Children’s Choir.  Saylor has worked with the tune in wonderful new ways; he passes it back and forth between soprano soloist and choir.  The choir also gets a meditative, almost mantra-like repetition of “Jesus, Jesus” near the beginning, which ushers in the first solo section.  I’m including this text for you just because I think you should have it; what more poignant words are there for the bittersweet side of Christmas?

Palestrina: Missa "O magnum mysterium," texts and translations for Credo

arr. Steve Schuch: The Huron Carol
This is an arrangement of the very first known Christmas carol written in the New World, with contributions from both the colonists and the colonized.  The tune is an old French folk song that dates from the sixteenth century.  The text was composed in French by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary to the Huron tribe in North America.  Around the year 1642, he put his new text together with the folk tune and taught it to the Hurons; they liked it so much that they continued to sing it, even after the Iroquois burned Pere Brebeuf’s mission down six years later.  The Hurons kept the tune alive from more than 100 years through oral tradition, until another French priest transcribed it for the first time.  A prominent Canadian poet made an English translation in 1926.  Finally, Steve Schuch, a fiddle player and versatile all-around musician and composer who has known this tune for years, created this choral setting.  As Schuch notes, “In this nativity carol, God is addressed as Manitou (Great Spirit or Mystery), the Magi become Chiefs, and the manger becomes a lodge of broken bar, images that spoke to the Huron Indians.


Palestrina: Hymn: Hostis Herodis impie
Another alternatim hymn, this one has three polyphonic sections, in four, three, and six voices respectively.  The text is a wonder to behold, its imagery rich and multilayered, and perceptive.

Spiritual, arr. W.L. Dawson: Mary Had A Baby
We don’t usually perform “chestnuts,” but this is one of the great spiritual arrangements.  It points up how fully and emotionally a song in our own vernacular can physically grab you (or at least me).  This is music that creates its own sense of wonder and bliss, even though it’s a very different sort from Palestrina’s.

G. P. da Palestrina: from Missa “O magnum mysterium” : Sanctus and Beneditus
I am always amazed at the things a first-rate composer does in a Mass setting, especially one whose music is based on an earlier model.  Somehow, with the same musical building-blocks as the earlier movements, s/he is able to create a Sanctus that begins to evoke the wonder of the communion experience, and an Angus Dei that captures the awe and reverence of the moment in ways that words cannot describe.  Palestrina’s setting is no exception.

Kodály: Angels and the Shepherd (Angyalok és pásztorok)
Zóltan Kodály was, along with Bela Bartók, one of the most prominent and tireless folksong collectors of the 20th century.  Kodály himself was probably the single most prolific European composer of choral music in the past hundred years.  This electrifying setting repeatedly uses a traditional Hungarian melody in the “Shepherds” sections.  (The piece is scored for high voices; since we only have four women singing this concert, the tenors and I are filling in the lowest alto parts toward the end of the piece.) The infectious dialogue is touchingly sweet throughout; the final section, with ever-brighter harmonies reminiscent of Bulgarian female choral singing, is enough to stand your hair on end.

G. P. da Palestrina: from Missa “O magnum mysterium” : Angus Dei I/II
We conclude our singing of this Mass with the haunting Angus Dei.  To Palestrina’s two movements of polyphony (for five and six voices respectively) we add the simple Agnus Dei chant, thus completing the threefold liturgical repetition.  In its plaintive, lilting modal character, this movement strongly evokes the mood of Josquin’s work, since he wrote another Mass on a Josquin model.  Also, the “Et in spiritum” section of Palestrina’s Mass sounds uncannily like Josquin’s Missa La sol fa re mi. Apart from these tidbits, however, I can’t speculate very well on how much of Josquin’s music Palestrina may have known.  Sometimes, we just have to rely on our ears most of all.

Franz Biebl: Ave Maria
Writing in relative obscurity in his native Austria, Biebl was discovered some years ago by some of the members of Chanticleer, who sang, recorded, and published this setting.  Since then, the piece has become one of the more popular choral pieces around the country.  (Imagine how much longer Mozart would have lived with such connections!) But it’s not just a matter of communications technology, for this is superb music.  With a sparseness similar to Arvo Part’s, though different in style and execution, Biebl manages to squeeze all he can out of the words.  The setting is at once simple and deep.  I learned this song from Clayton Lein, director of the Lafayette Chamber Singers, first Charter Member of the Recording Circle and a dear friend.