Sonnets, Songs, and Snakes

February 2003

Program Notes

Every piece on this program is having its Chicago premiere.

In addition, pieces marked with an asterisk (*) are world premieres.

 It was a lover and his lass

Matthew Harris (b. 1956)

 Caliban’s Song

David Hamilton (b. 1955)

 From Sunny Airs and Sober:

Judith Lang Zaimont

    i.   A question answered


    ii.  Sigh no more, ladies


    iii. Come away, Death

 Take, O take those lips away

Matthew Harris

 Four Shakespeare Songs      

Judith Lang Zaimont

    i.   Come away, Death


    ii.  Lullaby


    iii. Double, double, toil and trouble


    iv. Full fathom five


 Blow, blow, thou winter wind *

Martha Sullivan

 The quality of mercy*

Bob Applebaum

 Witches’ Blues*

Bob Applebaum


 Three Rose Madrigals

Paul Crabtree

     i.   O how much more


     ii.  The forward violet*


     iii. O, never say that I was false*

 Shall I compare thee?*

Thomas Turner

 Four Ballads of Shakespeare

Juhani Komulainen, Finland

    i.   To be, or not to be


    ii.  O weary night


    iii. Three words


    v.  Tomorrow and tomorrow

 A Summer Sonnet*

  Kevin Olson


For ten years, the people who make up Chicago a cappella have showcased the best of new music written for unaccompanied voices. We have poured passion and constant attention into the synergy between the music of living composers and the performing talents of our ensemble.  To that potent combination we add today a magic ingredient: the words of William Shakespeare. 

This program celebrates, in sound, the creative union of Shakespeare’s timeless words and the powerful voices of today’s composers. These composers have taken inspiration from Shakespeare’s words and have set them with great care, much as a jeweler works with precious metals to enhance the brilliance of a precious stone. Chicago a cappella is blessed to be the vehicle for this exquisite music. Each piece is now brought to life for the first time in Chicago—the entire program is made up of Chicago premieres.

I had wanted to do an all-Shakespeare program for some time, but in the spring of 2002 it dawned on me that we had a wonderful opportunity to highlight the works of the composers all around us.  The idea got even more exciting when our travel partner, ATA, agreed to fly in those composers who would win our nationwide composing competition. That partnership led in turn to a posting on Choralist (the e-mail list for choral conductors and composers) and a “Call For Scores” advertisement in the Voice of Chorus America.  We received a total of 45 works in response to our call for scores, sent by 22 composers.  I spent the months of June and July making mostly joyful, sometimes difficult decisions.

It is always exciting when local composers attend our performances of their music, but we’ve never done anything like this.  Thanks to ATA, we have gathered here ALL of our American composers, to speak with you at either one or two performances of Sonnets, Songs, and Snakes.  Two composers hail from New York, one from Minneapolis, one from San Francisco, and one from near Charlotte, North Carolina.  Two of the composers, Bob Applebaum and Kevin Olson, live here, and we’re lucky to have them so close by. We are also thrilled to have in our presence Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, who has come all the way from Finland for the second weekend of concerts. Please stay and talk with the composers in our informal post-concert discussions.  They’re here to meet you!

The end result is actually a joyful meeting of four types of creativity:  the words of Shakespeare; the output of these amazing composers; the musical workings of Chicago a cappella; and the creative spark that binds us all to you.  We couldn’t have done it without a tremendous amount of help and cooperation, and we offer our heartfelt gratitude to all who have participated in this event.

I’ll let the music speak for itself.  Welcome, and enjoy the show.

—Jonathan Miller



Matthew Harris: It was a lover and his lass 

Born in 1956, Matthew Harris studied at The Juilliard School, New England Conservatory and Harvard University, with Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions and Donald Martino. Among the many institutions that have awarded him composition prizes and grants are the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Tanglewood. Artists and ensembles performing Mr. Harris’s works include the New Amsterdam Singers, the Lark Quartet, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Dale Warland Singers, and the principal orchestras of Minnesota, Houston, Spokane and Modesto. The Lake George Opera Festival commissioned his upcoming opera TESS. His prizes include the Georges Enesco International Composition Award. Matthew has taught at Fordham University and Kingsborough College, CUNY. He currently lives in New York City, where he works as a musicologist.

Matthew Harris’s cycle of fourteen Shakespeare Songs is refreshingly original.  Rather than aiming to evoke the Renaissance, Harris seems to prefer to simply express the text in his own language, in ways both touching and wry. He 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 text comes from the comedy As You Like It.

David Hamilton (New Zealand): Caliban’s Song

David Hamilton was born 1955 in Napier (New Zealand), and had most of his schooling in Taupo. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Auckland University, where he studied with Douglas Mews and John Rimmer. He joined the staff of Epsom Girls Grammar School in 1981 and was appointed Head of Music in 1986; he is the conductor there of the highly regarded girls’ choir ‘Opus.’ He is also extensively involved across New Zealand with music education, where his work includes writing commissioned compositions and serving on panels. David also currently serves as Deputy Musical Director of the Auckland Choral Society.  After serving as Composer-in-Residence with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra for 1999, and currently works part-time as a composition tutor in several Auckland schools.

Caliban’s Song sets a passage from The Tempest, a play that contains more songs than any other in Shakespeare’s output. Caliban is, in the old spelling, a “salvage and deformed slave,” the son of the devil and Sycorax, a black-magic witch who was marooned on the remote and magical island where the play is set. With a name derived from the word “cannibal,” Caliban represents raw nature. His role as “the brute” creates a sharp contrast with that of Ariel, a spirit of air, who likewise is a servant to Prospero on the island.  While most of the songs in The Tempest are given to Ariel, it is through composer David Hamilton’s imagination that we can hear Caliban’s utterance as a song unto itself, set with touching, haunting music that lingers in the mind. 

Judith Lang Zaimont: Three Songs from Sunny Airs and Sober

Judith Lang Zaimont is an internationally-recognized composer of instrumental, vocal, and choral music. Her distinctive style successfully captures emotion by creating vivid, flexible rhythms and sculpted lines within clearly defined forms; her instrumental works are known for their brilliant orchestration. Zaimont’s talents as a composer are consistently in demand and regularly honored with composing prizes, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1983-84) and commission grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1982) and Minnesota Composers Forum (1993). Her music regularly enjoys performances on major stages in the USA and abroad. Her vocal and choral works have been featured by the Elmer Iseler Singers (Canada), Plymouth Music Singers, the Gregg Smith Singers, La Vie Ensemble and the Dale Warland Singers, among others. Her works appear on more than a dozen recordings, including a series on the Arabesque label devoted to her instrumental catalogue of the last 12 years, begun under a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.  Her music is the subject of nine doctoral dissertations. She is also editor-in-chief of the critically acclaimed book series, The Musical Woman: An International Perspective.

Judith Lang Zaimont holds degrees from Queens College of the City University of New York and Columbia University. She studied composition with Hugo Weisgall, Otto Luening and Jack Beeson. After receiving her Master's Degree, Zaimont studied orchestration in Paris on a Debussy Fellowship with Andre Jolivet. She held the post of Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Adelphi University from 1989-91. In January 1992 Zaimont moved to Minnesota to accept a Professorship in Composition at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Judith Lang Zaimont, her husband Gary and their son Michael, live in Edina, Minnesota.

Sunny Airs and Sober is “a book of dramatic madrigals” containing five movements, of which three are on texts by Shakespeare. They embody dramatic mood shifts both between movements and within single songs.

A Question Answered is anxious and angular in its questioning, with repose at the word “reply”; the text is Bassanio’s song in The Merchant of Venice when he agonizes over which casket to choose, which will determine whether or not he can marry Portia:

Sigh No More, Ladies is a twofold meditation on a song that the servant Balthasar sings in Much Ado About Nothing. The first musical idea expresses the text’s lament on men’s fickeleness, combining a wavelike backdrop of sighs in the altos and tenors with a declamation by soprano and bass. The second idea expresses the poem’s command to basically “get over it and have a good time” with a boisterous triple-time dance meter.

Zaimont calls Come Away, Death “the most intense and personalized madrigal” in the cycle.  In the second act of Twelfth Night, an unnamed clown sings this song to the love-struck Duke Orsino in the picking up on the Duke’s own mood. This music deftly expresses a lover’s crushed heart at being spurned. Its anguished dissonances at the words “Fly away, breath” give way to a sense of resigned repose at “my black coffin.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Matthew Harris: Take, O Take Those Lips Away 

The poem for this song comes from Measure for Measure, the last comedy that Shakespeare wrote. This is the second time that Chicago a cappella has sung this text, the first being Håkan Parkman’s Madrigal from our September 2001 concert titled The Intimate A Cappella. Matthew Harris chose to set this poem with “the fast, driving fury of a lover scorned” instead of the more typical slow lament (or Parkman’s rather glib, flirtatious setting). Harris smoothly embeds his skills at writing counterpoint into a well-balanced song of heartache, and the song’s recurring dissonances actually recall Palestrina’s and Monteverdi’s technique of chained suspensions.

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Four Shakespeare Songs

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi studied English and Linguistics at the University of Helsinki. He is employed as a translator and computer system manager at The English Centre Helsinki, a private translation company; he also does freelance translations, mainly for Finlandia Records. He has studied music theory and choral conducting at the Sibelius Academy. 

As a composer, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi describes himself as an eclectic traditionalist: eclectic in that he adopts influences from a number of styles and periods; traditionalist in that his musical language is based on a traditional approach and uses the resources of modern music only sparingly. Most of his works are choral, as he himself is a choral singer. His other major works include More Shakespeare Songs, Ave Maria, Kouta, and Stabat Mater, as well as the recent choral drama Salvat (1701). He was appointed composer-in-residence of the Tapiola Chamber Choir in November 2000 and recently completed a major commission for the King’s Singers. Chicago a cappella’s February 2001 program featured his spoof El Hambo, which is rivaling Rautavaara’s Lorca Suite as the best-selling Finnish choral work of all time.

The Four Shakespeare Songs were premiered in 1985 in Helsinki.  The composer’s notes are interspersed here with the poetry.

“Come Away, Death is a typical Renaissance lament on unhappy love . . . . The falling figure on the repeated work weep towards the end echoes madrigalesque word-painting.”

“Lullaby (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)is sung by fairies to their Queen;  it is a soft and tranquil mood piece in siciliano rhythm.”

“Double, Double, Toil and Trouble (Macbeth) is a sort of Medieval cookery program. The three witches, or weird sisters, chant the ingredients of a magic potion that they are brewing. . .  . the music uses a wide range of devices up to and including speech choir.”

“Full Fathom Five (The Tempest) is a comforting yet ghoulish description of how the body of a drowned man is transformed into treasures of the sea and how mermaids ring funeral bells for him.”

*   *   *   *   *

Martha Sullivan: Blow, blow, thou winter wind

New York composer Martha Sullivan's works have been commissioned and performed by artists such as the Gregg Smith Singers, the Adirondack Festival of American Music, the St. Bartholomew’s Choir (New York City), the Trinity Choir (Boston), the Clark University Concert Choir (Worcester, MA), and Stephen Tharp, the international organ recitalist. Her choral work has been broadcast over New York's WQXR (and thus worldwide on the Internet) as part of a concert by the vocal quartet Adventori. Ms. Sullivan's songs and arrangements have been heard at various festivals, from the New Texas Festival to the Emily Dickinson in Song festival (Amherst, Massachusetts) to the Studio Arsis Workshops (Tokyo, Japan). She was the recipient of a 2002 Meet The Composer grant for her choral work. She is also a finalist in the Dale Warland Singers’ 2003 Choral Ventures commissioning project.

Ms. Sullivan is also a noted singer of new music. She has performed with several groups committed to unusual works, notably the Gregg Smith Singers, New York Virtuoso Singers, Vox Vocal Ensemble, and Yale Composers. She regularly gives recitals of works written both by and for her; she is a member of Toby Twining Music and sang premieres of that composer’s Chrysalid Requiem in Amsterdam and New York. Ms. Sullivan is also a respected teacher and clinician and a sometime choral conductor; she keeps her projects diverse because music always has something new to say.

Blow, blow, thou winter wind is from As You Like It, Act II, scene vii.  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 [their] 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.” It is always refreshing when composers combine idioms that rarely meet on the same page or in the same song. Martha Sullivan’s work incorporates the double-leading-tone cadences of the fourteenth century with the driving rhythms and parallel fifths of folk-rock groups like Jethro Tull. 

Bob Applebaum: The Quality of Mercy

Recently retired from a career teaching chemistry and physics at New Trier High School, Bob Applebaum has turned his fulltime energies to composition and to jazz piano. Chicago a cappella recorded two of his Chanukah songs on their “Holidays a cappella Live” CD, including Funky Dreidl, a deft take on the traditional dreidl song. His output has been increasing to impressive levels in the last few years; he composed a multimovement Exodus Suite for mixed chorus and piano on the Hebrew texts to Exodus Chapter 15, which was premiered by Oak Park’s Heritage Chorale in May 2002. His works have been showcased at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, and his music is now being published by ECS in Boston. Bob is also composer-in-residence at JRC, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Evanston.

The Quality of Mercy is set to a text from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene i. The words are some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful, encapsulating in their simplicity the essence of the human virtue of generosity. Despite Shakespeare’s moralistic tone that helps to punish the Jew, Shylock, for his avarice, the text actually echoes the traditional Jewish notion of tzedakah, or righteousness—namely, that the highest form of giving is that in which neither the giver nor the recipient know one another’s identities.  Bob Applebaum’s tender setting captures the gentle rain’s falling with the musical qualities that have endeared him to this ensemble for several years:  thoughtful text-setting, skillful harmonies, lines that are rewarding to sing, and ever the slightly unexpected.

Witches’ Blues is a rollicking, Gershwin-inspired setting of the witch scene from Macbeth.  Like the Mäntyjärvi setting, Bob Applebaum’s music constantly changes meter, practically with each new ingredient. The prevailing 5/4 meter keeps things whimsical and unusual, while the blues harmonies ground the song in familiar chord progressions.



Paul Crabtree: Three Rose Madrigals

Paul Crabtree’s innovative music intertwines the ephemeral and the eternal, bringing together the worlds of popular culture and highbrow art. He graduated from the Music Faculty at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Musikhochschule in Cologne, Germany. Crabtree grew up with an equal interest in rock culture and classical music, but was disappointed that his academic training never acknowledged the world of rock and pop, and transplanted to California in his early 20s. Exposure to the musically permissive culture in the Bay Area led him to integrate the various strands of his personal history, to embrace and intermingle ideas as diverse as Latin poetry and 1960s girl groups.

He writes:  “I was born not many miles from Shakespeare’s birthplace, in the same county, but I became a US citizen last year. I spent much of my teens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and used to go standing room to the matinees on my own. . . .  I got to see many of the Shakespeare greats, Glenda Jackson, Michael Horden, Derek Jacobi, at an impressionable age, and some memorable productions. Shakespeare was an astute observer of nature, and the formal gardens and contained wilderness of country estates in his native Warwickshire were rich soil for his imagination. (He was also caught poaching at Charlecote Park!) These three sonnets are loosely joined by the mention of roses. The first contrasts perfumed roses with their unfortunate replicas, and suggests the budding of the blossoms in a sweeping madrigal style. The second chastises the garden’s inhabitants for their inadequacy in a whirlwind of a waltz. The third is a tender reconciliation scene; listen for the melting enharmonic change at ‘my rose’, which signals the final homecoming.” 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Thomas Turner: Shall I compare thee? (Sonnet # 18)

A pianist and composer, Thomas Turner has been on the music faculties of several major state universities in the USA for about thirty years. Although currently retired from teaching, he has, in recent years, given recitals in New York and in several cities in Germany. He has given first performances of music by living composers, and his own music has been heard in such places as Wigmore Hall in London (where he also gave the

first performance in Great Britain of Stockhausen's Klavierstück IX);  Alice Tully Hall in New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; as well as the St. Lawrence Center in Toronto. His music is published by Boston Music Company (Unicorn), and Seesaw Music Co. in New York City.

Turner wrote this piece in 1956, but never had it performed until now. The work is deliciously lush, suffused with post-Romantic harmonies. It evokes pieces like Parry’s Music, when soft voices die; with half-step inflections in each voice part, it goes through several key changes, building miniature cycles of tension and repose.  Even its return to the home key of A-flat major is again ephemeral, as a final turn to E major brightens the ending pedal point.

Juhani Komulainen: Four Ballads of Shakespeare

JUHANI KOMULAINEN (b. 1953) studied composition at the University of Miami in the USA and with Einojuhani Rautavaara in Finland. He gained a reputation in the 1990s through his successful participation in several Finnish and international competitions. His choral music combines a melodic propensity, a lyrical basic mood, a soft brand of free tonality and a style-independent freedom of expression. His works are performed at international music festivals, choral competitions and workshops. More than 15 of his choral works are published by SULASOL, the Finnish music publisher. He has worked extensively with Finnish choirs and vocal groups, and his choral compositions have been recently premiered in concerts and recordings by groups such as the Tapiola Choir, Akademiska Damkören Lyran, Eteläsuomalaisen Osakunnan Laulajat (EOL), Vocal Ensemble Fiori, Chamber Choir Jubilate, Chamber Choir Kampin Laulu, and Vocal Ensemble Lumen Valo.

The cycle Four Ballads of Shakespeare was composed for, and took first prize in, the 1994 SULASOL Choral Competition in Finland. The composer’s aims were for musical clarity and “simple folk-like ballad melodies.” The choice of texts is all the more brilliant because it is so unusual. Rather than setting the usual rhymed verses, set apart as “songs” in the plays by Shakespeare himself, Komulainen instead has chosen short passages of blank verse, which are well known and beloved lines from the Bard’s canon. Like the best lyric poetry, these verses capture a mood, stop time, and hold emotion for a moment, a poetic gift which can then be fleshed out musically. The first movement sets one of the most oft-quoted phrases in the English language, To be or not to be, asking Hamlet’s “That is the question” in gentle, almost tugging harmonies.  The second movement, O weary night, is a musical telling of a heart’s fatigue, of the hope for daybreak, and (in parallel fifths and thirds) of “sorrow” that Helena feels in the enchanted wood. The third movement, Three Words, captures Juliet’s innocence and earnest love in touchingly simple and sweet music, with a slight text variant from the usual one. Finally, Tomorrow and tomorrow brings the cycle to a dramatic close, with a tenacity and fierceness in the music that balance the earlier movements’ sweetness.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Kevin Olson: A Summer Sonnet

Kevin Olson teaches music theory, electronic music, and classical and jazz piano at Elmhurst College near Chicago, Illinois. In addition to being an active composer, pianist, and teacher, Kevin maintains a large piano studio with students of all ages and abilities.

A native of Utah, Kevin began composing at age five. When he was twelve, his composition, An American Trainride, received the Overall First Prize at the 1983 National PTA Convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, he has written, among other works, a piano concerto, music for three short films, several prize-winning choral works, and a big band jazz piece which was featured at the Rich Matteson Jazz Camp in Telluride, Colorado.

Kevin has over thirty books and solos published by The FJH Music Company. He has taught at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and was a graduate instructor at Brigham Young University, where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music composition and theory. Kevin Olson is currently a doctoral candidate at National-Louis University in Chicago.

Kevin composed this piece in response to Chicago a cappella’s call for scores, for which we are all fortunate. He has captured a wonderful, whimsical Brazilian-style salsa feel; as with Matthew Harris’s settings, the musical genre here is not what one typically associates with Shakespeare, but it works perfectly!