Shall I Compare Thee?

April 2006

Program Notes



Robert Applebaum

 It was a lover and his lass

Matthew Harris

* * * * * * *

 Blow, blow thou winter wind

Martha Sullivan

 My love is as a fever

Håkan Parkman


Håkan Parkman

* * * * * * *

 And will a’ not come again?

Matthew Harris

 Orpheus with his lute

György Orbán

* * * * * * *

 Four Shakespeare Songs

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

    Come away, Death




    Double, double, toil and trouble


    Full fathom five


* * * * * * *

 Take, O take those lips away

Matthew Harris

 Witches’ Blues

Robert Applebaum


 A Summer Sonet

Kevin Olson

 Shall I compare thee?  from "O Mistress Mine"

 Nils Lindberg

 Shall I compare thee?

Robert Applebaum
 It was a lover and his lass

John Rutter

* * * * * * *

 Four Ballads of Shakespeare

Juhani Komulainen

  To be, or not to be


  O weary night


  Three words


  Tomorrow and tomorrow     


* * * * * * *

 O mistress mine!

György Orbán



Shakespeare in song—we’re glad you’re here for our celebration of timeless words and splendid new music!

One of Chicago a cappella’s core strengths is to serve as a champion of emerging composers who are creating first-quality choral music. Working closely with them, we regularly introduce their new music to Chicago audiences—and sometimes to the world—for the first time. This concert celebrates the relationships we have built with these talented composers, as well with the Cedille Records label, which released this repertoire as a CD recording in the fall of 2005 to international critical acclaim.

Shall I compare thee? started in June 2002, when Chicago a cappella held a competition. With help from the global e-mail network known as CHORALIST, we put forth an international call for scores for our all-Shakespeare concerts, which we performed in early 2003. The intention of that concert was to feature excellent new choral works based on texts by Shakespeare. We added the additional requirement that every piece be new to Chicago audiences—i.e., would be having its Chicago premiere. This condition meant that we would be looking in some unusual nooks and crannies of new music, intentionally taking a pass on many well-known works, such as Frank Martin’s Songs of Ariel or the Vaughan Williams a cappella cycle.

From fifty-four works submitted, we performed a total of twenty-three works on that 2003 program, seven of which were world premieres. The songs by Kevin Olson and Martha Sullivan, as well as Robert Applebaum’s "Witches’ Blues," were composed specifically in response to our competition. We were honored to receive works of such high quality, so newly created. We have made a few substitutions from our 2003 concerts for our recent CD release of this repertoire. Today’s concert is based on that recording.

The intent of this performance is to showcase the music of composers of our time, who have so deftly and lovingly set to music the immortal words of Shakespeare. Many of the texts that we’re singing have been set to music which itself is as iconic in the world of choral music as their texts are in the literary canon. By contrast, some of these Shakespeare passages have rarely, or never, been set to music before. Other lines did not necessarily carry deep dramatic weight in the plays themselves where they first appeared. Yet all have taken new wing in musical form, thanks to these gifted composers.

As the title of this concert suggests, we have three musical settings of Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?") to compare with one another, each drawing out different qualities of the poem. We likewise have multiple settings of "It was a lover and his lass," Take, o take those lips away," and the menacing yet playful "Double, double, toil and trouble." And on it goes; so long as we can breathe and ears can hear, composers will surely continue their creative work on these beloved texts for centuries to come.

   —Jonathan Miller

Historical note: These concerts also celebrate Shakespeare’s 442nd birthday, generally accepted as being on April 23, 1564. He was baptized on April 26, 1564 at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. These concerts also coincide with the 390th anniversary of the Bard’s death—April 23, 1616, again in Stratford. He is likewise buried at Holy Trinity Church.



Robert Applebaum: Spring (Love’s Labour’s Lost, V, ii)

A prolific composer of choral music in both English and Hebrew, Robert Applebaum (b. 1941) has had works premiered by the Coriolis Ensemble, Kol Zimrah, the Lakeshore Choral Festival, and at the North American Jewish Choral Festival. He recently retired from a career teaching chemistry and physics at New Trier High School on Chicago’s North Shore. He appears regularly as a jazz pianist in concert with his son Mark, recently completing a concert tour of Tunisia. In addition to a full schedule of composing choral music and performing, Bob Applebaum also leads liturgical music and serves as Composer-In-Residence at JRC, the Jewish Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston, Illinois.

At the very end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the final entertainment of the play contrasts the songs of the cuckoo and the owl. The playful call of the cuckoo (set here in the women’s voices) warns the jealous husband that cuckoldry is near: "O word of fear / Unpleasing to a married ear." Armado refers to the cuckoo’s song as "the songs of Apollo," and the play ends there.

Matthew Harris: It Was a Lover and his Lass (As You like It, V, iii)

With his Shakespeare Songs, now spanning five published collections, Matthew Harris (b. 1956) has carved out a distinctive niche in vocal ensemble music. Trained as a musicologist, he weaves older and modern musical styles together with impressive ease. Harris has been honored with composition prizes by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Tanglewood, among many others. These four Shakespeare songs are drawn from different published volumes. In each song, well aware of the styles in both Elizabethan and more recent settings of these famous words, Harris thoughtfully avoids musical cliché, claiming the texts refreshingly as his own.

"It Was a Lover and his Lass" is an easy, almost languid processional, evoking the image of a maiden and her consort moving gently through the heather on a spring day. For listeners familiar with the famous lute-song by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Thomas Morley, the contrast with Harris’s setting will be clear. The composer writes: "Instead of the lively romp found in other settings of this lyric, my ‘It was a Lover and His Lass’ is a slow, gentle idyll of young love in the spring." The relevant scene in As You Like It finds Touchstone, the jester, betrothed to the goatherd woman, Audrey. Both ask two pages to sing in honor of their engagement. Whereas Touchstone finds the pages’ song "untunable," Harris’s setting happily redeems their lyrics.

* * * * *

Martha Sullivan: Blow, blow, thou winter wind (As You Like It, II, vii)

Martha Sullivan (b. 1964) is an acclaimed composer of choral and vocal music whose prizes include grants from Meet the Composer and winning the Dale Warland Singers’ 2003 Choral Ventures commission competition. She is also a virtuoso New York-based soprano, flexible and comfortable with musical styles ranging from medieval to contemporary. She is a member of Toby Twining Music and regularly performs with leading new-music ensembles in the northeastern United States.

The text comes from the second act of As You Like It. The composer writes:

The singer in the play is Amiens, one of the courtiers of the exiled Duke Senior. He is called upon to sing over the dinner that the Duke shares with the likewise exiled Orlando when they first meet in the forest of Arden. It may be read as a commentary on Orlando’s and the Duke’s similar situations (both have been exiled to the forest by their ambitious and jealous brothers), or perhaps it is a bit of catharsis. Either way, I take the line "This life is most jolly" as irony.

Håkan Parkman: Sonnet 147 (My love is as a fever)

His career cut tragically short by an accident, Håkan Parkman (1955–1988) left a few gems for posterity and a great deal of unfulfilled promise. He directed several choirs in his native city of Uppsala, Sweden, plus the town’s theatre orchestra. He taught choral conducting and composed several works for soloist, choir, and instruments together. Among his larger compositions is his Lyrisk svit (Lyric Suite) for baritone solo, mixed choir, and orchestra. Among his few published works is the lovely cycle of Three Shakespeare Songs, from which these are the two a cappella movements.

Parkman’s Sonnet 147 is dark, brooding, and somber. Its soprano solo line moves in careful steps, up and down the scale, relentlessly charting the course of love’s feverish movement. After moving into a bright major key for lines 9 through 12, Parkman repeats the first eight lines yet again, underscoring the intensity of Shakespeare’s love-fever, only to turn jarringly at the end to the words "hell" and "night."

Madrigal—Take, O Take Those Lips Away (Measure for Measure, IV, i)

In contrast to the intense, brooding Sonnet 147, the Madrigal is a flirtatious, playful, almost glib setting of the Boy’s well-known song.

* * * * *

Matthew Harris: And Will A’ Not Come Again? (Hamlet, IV, v)

From Hamlet, "And Will A’ Not Come Again?" is Ophelia’s haunting lament for the death of Polonius, her father. She directs her final outburst at her brother Laertes, a wail fueled by her outrage at Polonius’s lack of a proper burial. In his setting, Harris makes skillful use of chained suspensions, a classic 16th-century device championed by Monteverdi. Harris also gently alternates between major and minor versions of the same chord at the very end for the words "God ha’ mercy on his soul" — a subtle nod to Ophelia’s overwrought state.

György Orbán: Orpheus with his lute (Henry VIII, III, i)

Born in 1947 in the Romanian province of Transylvania, Orbán emigrated to Hungary in 1979. He was recently appointed Associate Professor of composition at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest. His music defies easy classification. He has a superb command of harmony, which he combines with a keen rhythmic sense and a gift for setting language for singers. He includes the occasional Eastern-European influence as well, creating a style with a strong personal stamp. His best-known work, Daemon Irrepit Callidus, has been a top-selling title.

This text has been set by dozens of composers. Orbán’s version comes from the set Three Antique Pieces. Remarkably, the work was originally composed in Hungarian in the early 1990s, then translated into English. In the Shakespeare play, also known as All Is True, Queen Katherine of Aragon finds herself increasingly out of favor with Henry VIII, asking for consolation from a gentlewoman’s lute-song. Unlike some of the British settings, which set the text in a more innocent vein, Orbán seems fully aware of Katherine’s complicated predicament, weaving a shifting set of harmonies in and out among the six-voice texture.

* * * * *

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Four Shakespeare Songs

Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) is one of the leading writers of choral music of his generation. He calls himself an "eclectic traditionalist," a label that certainly fits this cycle. He is harmonically adventurous but within a tonal language that choral singers can readily grasp. Mäntyjärvi works as a translator between Finnish and English, and his command of English is astounding.

Four Shakespeare Songs (1984) was dedicated to the Savolaisen Osakunnan Laulajat student choir. The composer was studying English at a university when he composed the cycle, which he describes as "varied and demanding." The level of nuance and emotional expression in these pieces is remarkable, from word-painting (such as "weep" in "Come Away, Death") to overall delineation of feeling (as in the almost excruciatingly tender "Lullaby").

Few choral pieces anywhere can match the ferocious enthusiasm of Mäntyjärvi’s "Double, double, toil and trouble." The famous text from Macbeth meets music of like intensity. Indeed, the tempo is marked Allegro non troppo ma feroce. The song is cast in a relentlessly shifting and irregular meter, in which the witches’ manic brewing takes gleeful, macabre flight. Most often, Mäntyjärvi gives the narrative voices of all three witches to the entire chorus, magnifying the witches’ warped excitement.

The cycle concludes with the slow, atmospheric "Full fathom five." From The Tempest, this is the song that the shipwrecked Prospero asks the "airy spirit," Ariel, to sing. Prospero wants Ariel’s song to lure Ferdinand, son of Alonso, Duke of Naples, to the place where Prospero is waiting. Ferdinand believes his father has drowned, a fear that Ariel’s song vividly illustrates. Musical devices such as augmented triads lend a creepy, otherworldly flavor to the text, strengthening the word images of Alonso’s body being turned into treasures of coral and pearls.

Come Away, Death (Twelfth Night, II, iv)

Lullaby (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II, ii)

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble (Macbeth, IV, i)

* * * * *

Matthew Harris: Take, O Take Those Lips Away (Measure for Measure, IV, i)

Harris chose to set "Take, O Take Those Lips Away" with "the fast, driving fury of a lover scorned" instead of the more typical slow lament (or Parkman’s more lighthearted setting earlier on this program). The boy who sings to Mariana to start Act IV of Measure for Measure does not seem particularly distressed; nevertheless, the musical result here is a well-balanced song of heartache. (In some modern productions, Mariana sings the words herself, expressing her own misery.)

Robert Applebaum: Witches’ Blues (Macbeth, IV, i)

Applebaum has a full command of jazz harmony, which gives his music an infectiously American stamp. These qualities are perhaps most evident in Witches’ Blues, which draws on the spirit of Gershwin to delightful effect.


Kevin Olson: Summer Sonnet (Sonnet 18)

Kevin Olson (b. 1970) is active as a pianist, composer, and teacher. A faculty member at Elmhurst College, near Chicago, he teaches classical and jazz piano and music theory, and serves as director of music admissions. His compositions have been commissioned and premiered by many groups, including the American Piano Quartet, the Rich Matteson Jazz Festival, and the Elmhurst College Chamber Singers.

This smooth, bossa-nova setting of Sonnet 18 has been described by WFMT’s Kerry Frumkin as "Shakespeare by way of Brazil." Olson combines the ardor of love with refinement and restraint. The song mixes a bravura tenor solo with a classy, confident, Sergio Mendes-style vocal background.

Nils Lindberg: Shall I Compare Thee? (same text)

Swedish jazz pianist and composer Nils Lindberg (b. 1933) has developed a unique crossover idiom by combining elements of folk music and jazz with the formal structures of classical music. Lindberg’s setting of this text, in block chords throughout like a hymn, is emotionally straightforward — yet in characteristically Nordic manner, the emotion is always contained. The piece begins in the spare, open key of A minor and moves through several key areas, with dense minor-seventh chords predominating. The feeling is never fully expressed until the penultimate line, where Lindberg moves in full force to the bright, shimmering key of F-sharp major.

Robert Applebaum: Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee? (same text)

Applebaum’s wrenchingly sad, yet exquisitely beautiful music reflects the darker side of Sonnet 18. It was composed under tragic circumstances: the composer notes, "Sonnet 18 was written in memory of our daughter Carolyn. She was a drama teacher at Wilmette Junior High when she died suddenly of heart failure. She loved Shakespeare, and the sonnet was read at her funeral service. I decided to set it about a month after that."

The music is gently tonal, adding skillful flats where most poignantly appropriate, rounding out a song of profound dignity. While many composers boldly breeze through the lines "Nor shall Death brag thou wanderst in his shade," Applebaum instead reflects on loss, reminding us that "And every fair from fair sometime declines." The score is dedicated to Carolyn: "This gives life to thee."

John Rutter: It Was a Lover and his Lass (As You like It, V, iii)

Probably the most oft-performed living choral-music composer, John Rutter knows the choral art inside and out. From 1975 to 1979 John Rutter was Director of Music at Clare College, whose choir he directed in a number of broadcasts and recordings. After giving up the Clare post to allow more time for composition, he formed the Cambridge Singers as a professional chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording, and he now divides his time between composition and conducting. In 2002 his setting of Psalm 150, commissioned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, was performed at the Service of Thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Penned in 1975, this light, breezy, jazzy song in five voice parts gives the feeling of a summer wedding — after the vows are done and the happy couple skips down the aisle. In fact, Chicago a cappella sang this piece on just such an occasion in 1993.

* * * * *

Juhami Komulainen: Four Ballads of Shakespeare

Juhani Komulainen (b. 1953) studied in Finland with Einojuhani Rautavaara and at the University of Miami in the USA. He rose to prominence quickly in the early 1990s, winning several composing competitions for choirs. His choral output varies widely in difficulty, as he tailors his writing to the level of the ensemble in question.

Komulainen wrote Four Ballads of Shakespeare for a Finnish amateur choir. He set himself the daunting task of taking on some of the most profound and memorable passages of prose in Shakespeare’s canon. Beginning with Hamlet’s immortal words, he brings us to Helena in the enchanted forest, then to Juliet in her bower, and finally to Macbeth’s despair upon learning of his wife’s suicide. Komulainen ends his setting of this last text before Macbeth’s final words: "It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."

To be, or not to be (Hamlet, III, i)

O weary night (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III, ii)

Three words (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii)

* * * * *

György Orbán: O mistress mine! (Twelfth Night, II, iii)

This song from Twelfth Night is little more than a filler-ditty, sung by the brilliant, hilarious fool Feste to Sir Toby and Sir Andrew as comic relief in the action. A more typical setting of this text (such as Morley’s famous lute-song) stresses earnestness as the primary value. Orbán instead treats the text as a pop-song lyric, giving it a musical language almost as playful as a commercial jingle. He adds a roulade on the words "Diridon, diridon" to emphasize the sense that love is ephemeral, so the time to indulge in it is now.