Romanticism and Rock ā€˜nā€™ Roll

February 2008

Program Notes


 ACT ONE: The Battle of the Sexes

 Crazy Little Thing Called Love        

Freddie Mercury, arr. Deke Sharon 

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 The Women    

 Come Unto These Yellow Sands

from “Three Shakespeare Songs”, op. 3

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1864-1944)

 Laudi alla Vergine Maria

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

* * * * * * *

 The Men

 Heartbreak Hotel

Axton/Durden/Presley, arr. Deke Sharon


Slay/Crewe, arr. Ed Lojeski


Isley, arr. Deke Sharon

* * * * * * *

The Women    

 From Zwölf Lieder und Romanzen, Op. 44

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

    Die Berge sind spitz


    Am Wildbach die Weiden


    Nun stehn die Rosen


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 O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi

Giacomo Puccini, arr. Sean Altman, ed. Sinozich

* * * * * * *

 In the Still of the Night        

Fred Parris, arr Ed Lojeski

 Address to the Toothache

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

 Under the Boardwalk           

Resnick/Young, arr. Mark Brymer


Three English Romantic Partsongs   

 Who shall have my lady fair              

Robert Pearsall (1795-1856)

 Come live with me

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)

 The blue bird

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

 The Back(up) Story


 Elijah Rock   

spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan

 Roll, Jordan, Roll

spiritual, arr. Rollo Dilworth

 The Finale


 The Death of Aase
from Peer Gynt Suite 1, Op 46

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907, arr. Erik Hellerstedt

 Bohemian Rhapsody 

 Freddie Mercury,
arr. Hoss Brock & Brian Streem
 Encore: Sh-Boom Keyes, Feaster, Feaster, McRae & Edwards;
arr. Anne Raugh



“Romanticism and Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Okay, now you're wondering: what the heck is that?

I was asked that very question a few years ago, when I had created a program called “Baroque and Beatles.” We’ve come to refer to that program “in-house” as “B&B.” I like contrast in my concerts. Though we are technically a “classical” vocal ensemble, and our singers all have superb classical training and vocal technique, it wouldn’t be Chicago a cappella if it were, say, a whole evening of Bach.

As you may know, when I program our concerts, I start about 18 months in advance. I start with ideas, run them past our executive director Matt Greenberg and the board (and increasingly by Patrick Sinozich, our music director), and have a basic scaffolding for the season in place by the time we roll out our April program.

My idea for B&B was to take two kinds of music from different time periods—separated by several centuries—and build a concert with superb expressiveness and contrast. B&B was only a concept when I went to a board meeting a few months before the concert. Tom Huyck from the board asked me, “Jonathan, what in the world is that ‘Baroque and Beatles’ concert going to be like?” I described it as best I could, which was still mostly conceptual, since the program hadn't yet been created, and Tom responded with something like “Huh.”

Of course, B&B has gone on to become one of our most popular programs, a favorite on our tours and one that the singers love. In fact, it’s because of B&B that today’s program, “Romanticism and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” exists. Here's what happened:

It was at Bradley University in Peoria that we were singing “Baroque and Beatles” on tour, in a fabulous concert hall that reminded me closely of the Music Institute in Evanston. (In fact, both spaces began their lives as Christian Science churches, and if anyone can confirm whether or not they had the same architect, I'd appreciate knowing about it.) One of the reasons we got to Bradley on tour is that John Jost is a fan. John is the Director of Choral Activities at Bradley, which means he knows a lot of repertoire and has been influential in the music scene in Peoria. He helped me fine-tune our standing arrangements during the pre-concert warmup and hung around in the wings being generally helpful. He's a great guy.

After the concert, we went out into the foyer, where our CD sales were doing a brisk business and we got to talk with the people who had enjoyed the show. John was beaming, grinning from ear to ear. “Wow, that was great!” he said. “What are you going to do next -- Romanticism and rock 'n' roll?”

I jumped on the idea: “Are you serious?”

“Sure,” he said. “Sing some of those English Romantic partsongs and some doo-wop, and you've got a great program.”

Some of the songs you’ll hear tonight, such as The blue bird, have been favorites of mine since well before Chicago a cappella existed; however, I confess that repertoire from the Romantic era is not music at which I consider myself at all an expert. That’s one reason I’ve tended to program 19th-century music in only very limited quantities over the past fifteen years. Still, when John threw down the gauntlet, his concept was appealing enough to persuade me to go for it.

My gifted colleague, Patrick Sinozich, has treated this “R&R&R” concept brilliantly, as he did “Days of Awe” this past fall. As part of the program planning, Patrick suggested turning the first half into a “battle of the sexes” -- with the women singing demure, 19th-century music, and the guys playing the street-corner doo-wop singers with great arrangements of tunes from the 1950s. The second half presents mixed-voice repertoire after the two parts of the ensemble “get married.”

* * * * * * *

Romanticism was, of course, not restricted to expression in music. Literary giants from the same period, imbued with many of the same values, include Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Victor Hugo, and on the more mystical side, William Blake. Blake was also a painter of note, as were Delacroix, Turner, Goya, and those of the Hudson River School in the United States.

The nineteenth century was not, however, a time when unaccompanied choral music was the dominant genre (as was the case in the Renaissance). The Romantic artistic impulse yearned mostly for greater and greater complexity—in the length of symphonies, in the richness of orchestral forces such as we find in Bruckner and Mahler and Richard Strauss, and in stretching the limits of tonality, ultimately to the point where tonality “broke down.” It’s much harder to sustain an a cappella choral work for an hour or two, not only from a compositional viewpoint but also from a performing one (voices aren’t made for that kind of wear and tear – you can play a violin for 6 hours a day, but I wouldn’t recommend singing that long, even if you’re really good).

While the rise of opera brought solo singing to a level of prominence in the 19th century, and while the cult of individuality in Romantic thought meant that the search for identity was paramount in the 1800s, the Romantic era did provide a limited number of a cappella compositions, as composers wrote choral music for amateur musical societies to meet the demands of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the more uniform, almost “pure” music, called by some “absolute” music, that one finds from Haydn or Mozart, composers of the following century also wove folk or folk-like (volkstümliche, as Schumann described it) elements or ideas, even just themes, into their composition. Beethoven had hinted at this with his Eroica and been more overt about it with his Pastoral Symphony, and others picked up the ball and ran with it.

On the Romantic side, we have chosen music from a variety of countries and decades, ranging from Schumann’s choral songs from the 1840s to Amy Beach’s “Come unto these yellow sands,” first published in 1897, and Verdi’s “Laudi,” published a year later, toward the end of his life. Today we’re bringing you German and Italian music as you might expect—Brahms, Verdi, Puccini—and the English romantics, as well as a tune from the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, whose Peer Gynt suite is indebted to Nordic folk tales. There is a sense of purity and refinement in all these songs, lending themselves well to the “demure” attitude that we have given the women to sing in part of the first half.

Only about forty or fifty years separate the end of the Romantic era in music (if one can really talk of eras “ending” on a given date) and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. The premiere of Gianni Schicchi in 1918 pushes the eras even closer together. Still, it is difficult in some ways to imagine musical styles more disparate than these two. It’s hard to pinpoint when rock ‘n’ roll really began, and it’s a hard genre to define. The Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed is now said to be the first one to use the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” on the air in 1951, when he broadcast R&B for a multiracial audience. According to several historians, rock ‘n’ roll came into its own with the release of Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1954. In the same year, Elvis Presley released his first single for Sun Records in Memphis, That’s All Right (Mama).

One might generally say that rock ‘n’ roll is popular music, created in the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, with one or two electric guitars, a bass, drum kit, and sometimes other instruments, with a boogie-woogie blues rhythm and a heavy back beat. Like so many American musics, rock ‘n’ roll is a hybrid of many styles. These precursors include rhythm-and-blues (itself a melding of electric blues, such as that made famous here in Chicago, boogie-woogie, and jump blues), gospel music, jazz, and even country music. White northerners had been enjoying jazz and blues, obviously influenced by African-American traditions, since the 1920s, though the more sexually explicit or clearly “black” music was relegated to “race records,” played in juke joints. The Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots were among the black musicians who had found favor with white listeners. In any case, rock ‘n’ roll came into its own and spawned dozens of sub-genres. Because of television, rock ‘n’ roll had unprecedented social impact, with Elvis’s “rock-star” popularity something nobody had ever seen before.

While rock ‘n’ roll is often associated with white musicians, the African-American influences on rock ‘n’ roll are undeniable. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was recording shouts and had her first mainstream hit in 1938. Joe Turner’s Roll ‘Em Pete (1939) is a similar trend-setter. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley brought a driving rhythm to the 12-bar blues and powerful vocals that eventually relegated crooners like Perry Como to the back burner.

Of course, the instrumentation of typical rock ‘n’ roll music would not work in a concert by Chicago a cappella! Therefore, we have selected terrific charts from those arrangers who have taken these legendary tunes and put them in all-vocal settings. Our very own Hoss Brock is among them; his setting of Bohemian Rhapsody is a classic in our group’s repertoire, a true tour-de-force. Our a cappella doo-wop charts are mostly from a time when simplicity was paramount – the antithesis, really, of Romantic-era complexity. Since rock ‘n’ roll was still a young art form at the time of most of these songs, the simple texture and potent lyrics carried the genre forward, as did the fiery and sexual energy of the performers.

With tunes by Freddie Mercury beginning and ending the program, you’ll hear in one program how very far rock ‘n’ roll developed as a genre. What began in the 40s and 50s as simple, strophic, 12-bar blues moved over time to the “acyclic,” incredibly complex, layered, textured Bohemian Rhapsody. In fact, relatively speaking, “Bo Rhap” is the great symphony of rock—at six minutes long, it’s twice as long as most pop songs, and it reminds us what a transformation rock itself has undergone in the fifty or so years since it came into being.

What unifies all this music is its unabashed emotion. Whether refined or in-your-face, each of these songs lets you know clearly how it feels, mostly about love or the loss of love. I am sure, in that vein, that you’ll love the show. Thank you for being here.

             —Jonathan Miller


Freddie Mercury, arr. Deke Sharon: Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) was best known as lead singer of Queen, a brilliant and eclectic British group. According to BBC News, Queen has spent more weeks on the UK album charts than any other group, even the Beatles; the group’s fame has continued to grow, even after the death of Mercury, who has become something of an icon. Born in Zanzibar and educated in India, Freddie Mercury was a musically restless spirit who never rested on his laurels. He idolized Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, John Lennon and the Beatles, and his expressive, over-the-top performances were inspired by Liza Minnelli.

This song builds on the rockabilly tradition championed by Elvis Presley and is an Elvis parody of sorts. Queen recorded it in less than half an hour, and the song hit #1 in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and even Mexico. The all-vocal setting sung here is by the incomparable Deke Sharon, literally the most important person in the national a cappella movement in America, whose innovations and enthusiasm are matched only by the quality of his artistic work.

Amy Beach: Come unto these yellow sands

More formally known as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was the first female American composer of serious and large-scale art music to achieve success. A child prodigy, she could sing forty pieces accurately by the age of one; she gave her first public piano recital at the age of seven; and she received only one year of formal training, coming when she was fourteen. Otherwise she was self-taught, learning by studying Bach’s keyboard works among others.

Giuseppe Verdi: Laudi alla Vergine Maria

Primarily known for his operas, from the early Atilla through blockbusters such as Aida, Rigoletto, Otello, and La traviata, Verdi achieved his early fame with the premiere of Nabucco in 1842. Apart from the Requiem, his choral music is mostly associated with his operas, such as the “Anvil Chorus” and “Va pensiero.” However, he did compose some freestanding choral music, such as this work, drawn from his Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces). The lovely, deeply expressive choral writing is mostly chordal. However, the block chords receive contrast in several places by the same skill at counterpoint—melodic lines moving against one another in pleasing ways—that makes Verdi’s orchestration so effective in his operas.

Like a Gregorian hymn to the Virgin, this song sets seven verses, drawn from Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Paradiso.

* * * * * * *

Axton/Durden/Presley, arr. Deke Sharon: Heartbreak Hotel

Slay/Crewe, Arr. Ed Lojeski: Silhouettes

Isley, arr. Deke Sharon: Shout

The gentlemen of the ensemble now present a trio of early rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers, with songs made famous in turn by Elvis, the Rays, and the Isley Brothers. Heartbreak Hotel was Elvis’s first #1 single and was the best-selling song of 1956. For you Jersey Boys fans, Silhouettes was written in part by Bob Crewe, who went on to write and produce for the Four Seasons. Finally, the Isley Brothers’ Shout was created on the spot during a 1959 performance in Washington, D.C., and “lit up” the audience so much that RCA Victor decided to release it as a single as soon as possible.

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Johannes Brahms: Three Pieces from Zwölf Lieder und Romanzen, Op. 44

Brahms wrote a great deal of choral music, from accompanied works to his stunning Requiem to these a cappella partsongs. Like Verdi, he was unusually accomplished in writing counterpoint, and he was one of the pioneers in studying the works of the great Renaissance masters such as Heinrich Isaac, study which later led to the formal creation of the discipline of musicology. Brahms was proud of his studies, at one point declaring to Clara Schumann that he had actually mastered all types of canonic techniques.

These partsongs were written between 1859 and 1866, a period during which there was intense debate about musical philosophy, with Brahms and others declaring their opposition to the powerful group centered around Franz Liszt. Between 1859 and 1862 Brahms was living in Hamburg, where he had founded a women’s chorus. While he did not attach much importance to his work with this chorus, which had as many as 40 voices, he created many arrangements for them, eventually publishing many as his Opus 44; most of the remaining settings are lost. His formal catalog includes forty-six a cappella partsongs.

These are three of the Vier Lieder aus dem Jungbrunnen (Four songs from the Fountain of Youth).

* * * * * * *

Giacomo Puccini, arr. Sean Altman: O mio babbino caro

In the opera Gianni Schicchi, the soprano Lauretta sings this song to her father. Lauretta’s aria expresses her deep love of her boyfriend Rinuccio (referred to, but not named, in the second and subsequent lines of the aria). The arranger Sean Altman has turned this into a hilarious, and truly effective, a cappella setting – embodying the theme of this concert as well as anything.

* * * * * * *

Fred Parris, arr. Ed Lojeski: In the Still of the Night

Robert Schumann: Address to the Toothache

Schumann became a devotee of Robert Burns’s poetry and set much of it for chorus. In fact, this tune was originally published as “Zahnweh” (literally, “toothache”), with a text that had been translated from Burns’s Scottish brogue into German. However, we have decided to use Jan Meyerowitz’s edition, which uses Burns’s original Scottish, which we hope (!) will be more comprehensible to most of you.

Resnick/Young, arr. Mark Brymer: Under the Boardwalk





Robert Pearsall: Who shall have my lady fair

Pearsall is on the early fringes of the Romantic era, a British composer who originally studied law but turned to music after his health failed. He was a founder of the Bristol Madrigal Society in 1837 and later moved to the Continent. His music has deeply expressive moments, and he referred to this piece as an “ante-madrigal” – meaning not that he was anti-madrigal, but the opposite – that he was composing in a style that had been popular before his own time.

William Sterndale Bennett: Come live with me

Bennett is one of those figures having a bit of a resurgence, due in part to Paul Hillier’s championing of his music. Hillier notes that Bennett was a lifelong friend of Mendelssohn; both the latter and Schumann had great respect for Bennett, making Bennett one of the few Englishmen whose music was admired abroad. Bennett’s activities include the first English-language edition of the St. Matthew Passion. This song captures the Romantic sensibility in both text and music—an attempt in music to return to a more innocent time.

Charles Villiers Stanford: The blue bird

Reared in upper-crust Dublin and given an impressive immersion in matters musical and intellectual, Stanford was composing by the age of four. In 1870 he entered Queen’s College, Cambridge as a choral scholar and by 1873 had already achieved the post of organist at Trinity College and conductor of two choral societies. Stanford possessed boundless energy and promoted the highest ideals in music, which drew to him offers for top musical posts in England. He was elected professor of music at Cambridge in 1887, when he was only 35. As Frederick Hudson wrote in The New Grove, Stanford “exercised more influence in the teaching of composition than any other musician in Britain throughout his tenure” Stanford’s students included Holst, Charles Wood, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Bridge, Howells, and others. Hudson also notes that Stanford’s partsongs “reached near perfection both in melodic invention and in capturing the mood of the poem.” The blue bird is such a partsong, on a poem by Mary Coleridge. The high soprano solos are not exactly “blue notes” in the American sense. Rather, they convey a sense of mind detached somehow from the everyday—a dreamlike state where, as is said in King Lear, “ripeness is all,” much like the effusive headiness of a newly-bloomed peony.

* * * * * *

African-American spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan: Elijah Rock

African-American spiritual, arr. Rollo Dilworth: Roll, Jordan, Roll! (world premiere, commissioned by Chicago a cappella)

With these two songs we capture the “rock” and the “roll” that bring so much of the influence of black American music to rock ‘n’ roll. The sheer energy of these two songs, and their virtuosic arrangements, help us grasp as in no other way the interrelationships of the various genres that gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll. Even after the ‘50s, these genres continue to interact and affect one another; both of these spirituals have the benefit of decades of rock, gospel, and gospel-blues traditions behind them.

Elijah Rock, in this setting by the legendary, late Moses Hogan, has been a Chicago a cappella favorite for ten years. The song appears on our Go Down, Moses recording of spirituals. On that same recording is a white-gospel version of Roll, Jordan, Roll. We are honored to be able to complement that piece with the world premiere of Rollo Dilworth’s new Roll, Jordan, Roll, based on African-American vocal traditions, which we commissioned for these performances. Professor Dilworth is director of choral activities at North Park University and an award-winning composer, his choral compositions being part of the Henry Leck Choral Series published with Hal Leonard Corporation and Colla Voce Music Company. His performing endeavors have taken him to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and we are proud to call him friend and neighbor.

* * * * * * *

Edvard Grieg: “The Death of Aase” (from Peer Gynt)

In 1874, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg received a letter from the eminent playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen had decided to adapt the stories about Peer Gynt to a stage presentation, and after originally conceiving of it as being without a “soundtrack,” he rethought it, asking Grieg to write incidental music for the production. Grieg responded favorably and spent more than a year writing the music.

The composer was ambivalent through much of the writing process. He wrote to a friend:

    With Peer Gynt things are progressing very slowly and finishing in the autumn is out of the question. It is a terribly intractable subject, except in some places, such as where Solveig sings, which I have already completed. And then I have produced something for the "Hall of the mountain king", which I literally cannot stand to listen to, it rings so of cow dung, of Norwegian-Norwegian-ness, and to thyself be enough-ness!

In spite of his great reservations and cringing at its “Norwegian-ness,” Grieg’s music became a symbol for Norwegian nationalism. The score has taken on more of a life of its own as independent music than it ever did as the adjunct to Ibsen’s play.

In this haunting section, which comes in Act III, Ibsen had specified a “soft accompaniment” for the deathbed scene of Aase, Peer Gynt’s mother. Grieg responded with this musical mood-setting to surround Aase, who is unconscious of her approaching death; Peer Gynt is beside her, having returned home after a wanton life on the road. The original orchestral setting has been adapted here for voices alone, in an arrangement by Erik Hellerstedt, preserving the sense of the song as primarily capturing the mood of the moment in Ibsen’s story.

Freddie Mercury, arr. Hoss Brock: Bohemian Rhapsody

This intense and idiosyncratic song was written by Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the British rock group, Queen. The tune took the world by storm when it first hit the airwaves in 1975, topping the British charts at #1.

The BBC’s Ralph McLean wrote the following on this tune, which has long held cult status:

    “‘Bo Rhap,’ as the fans like to call it, was a revelation in 1975, grandiose and camp. Over the top and mock-operatic, it was unlike anything released on single to that date, and, incredibly, it was nearly six minutes long, unheard-of for a humble pop single. In the space of that six minutes it veered from a ballad [to] a mini-opera and an out-and-out rocker. EMI, Queen’s record label, weren’t so sure about the song and didn’t want it released at all. At the time it was called the most expensive album of all time.... The sessions for ‘Bo Rhap’ itself took over 3 weeks, with the opera section alone taking over a week to complete. Rumor has it [that] the band sang their ‘Galileos’ continually, for up to 10 hours a day.

    On 31st October 1975, it became Queen’s fifth single. Fears that DJs wouldn’t play it proved unfounded, and the public loved it. It entered the charts at #47, and three weeks later it was number one. In 1977 the British Phonographic Industry called it ‘the best British pop single of the last 25 years.’ It achieved a cult status again in 1991 when Mike Myers used it in his hugely successful comedy Wayne’s World, and today it remains one of the weirdest and most original pop singles ever.”

Hoss Brock’s voices-only chart of this tune, one of the great arranging achievements in our ensemble’s history, premiered in the spring of 2003. We now sing it in a slightly updated arrangement by Hoss and Brian Streem. Just as we use our voices to take over every guitar lick in the song, you are equally welcome to bob your heads as we groove into the final section.

Freddie Mercury, arr. Deke Sharon