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North Country Chorus

Program Notes

Requiem by Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré began his study of organ, piano and choral music at an early age in Paris, where Camille Saint-Saëns became his teacher and lifelong friend. Fauré based his text on the traditional Latin Requiem liturgy, but freely edited it to reflect his own vision of death “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.” Likewise, his music departs from the prevailing operatic, large-scale styles that were characteristic of other Requiem composers. His subtle treatment of melody, dynamics and harmony provide a mood of gentleness and serenity.

Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein

[Notes by David Buster]

In 1965, Leonard Bernstein was commissioned by The Southern Cathedral Festival to compose a piece for the cathedral choirs of Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury England. The Chichester Psalms was the result. One wonders if the Anglican clerics who retained Bernstein in any way anticipated that they would receive such a profound statement of the composer’s own Jewish faith. The piece is written in Hebrew and no English translation is provided in the score. It is clearly the composer’s intent that the work be performed in it’s original language or not at all. It is as if he is reminding those clerics that the Psalms were Jewish religious literature long before they became part of the Christian tradition.
Written in three-movements, Chichester Psalms opens with the choir emphatically proclaiming “Awake, psaltery and harp!” (Psalm 108, verse 2 ). The introduction quickly leads into Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord), in an irresistibly joyous jazzy dancing 7/4 rhythm that continues to the end of the movement.

The mood changes abruptly with the beginning of the second movement. Peace and pastoral harmony are expressed by the strains of the beloved Psalm 23, (The Lord is my shepherd) sung by a solitary boy soprano accompanied only by a harp, evoking the image of the shepherd/poet/king, David. The mood is reinforced by the entry of the women of the chorus repeating the solo melody. However, this scene of pastoral bliss is suddenly and forcefully torn apart by two whiplashes of sound as the men and the orchestra loudly inquire, “Why do the nations rage so furiously together?” (Psalm 2) The nations continue to rage, with the men at times almost shouting. Then again is heard the gentle voice of the shepherd calling out above the tumult. The rage continues for a time, then gradually fades as the shepherd theme becomes dominant and the movement ends with the completion of Psalm 23 and the return of peace.

The beginning of the third movement is a tense and anxious instrumental interlude expressing the angst and hopelessness of life in a Godless world. Melodies appear only to disappear, pulled down by the tearing dissonance of the interlude. Then the voices of chaos begin to fade leaving an uneasy sense of peace. The male voices enter bringing the humble yet lyrical message of Psalm 131 “Lord, Lord, my heart is not proud, my eyes are not haughty.” The rest of the chorus joins in and the strains swell as mankind again seeks peace and harmony in God.

This sense of peace is reconfirmed as the chorus continues with a sublimely gentle intonation of Psalm 133 verse 1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Concord reigns as the music fades on a sustained “Amen” with the sound of a solo trumpet soaring above.

The work received its world premiere in New York on July 15th 1965, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic. The first performance of the original version, for all-male choir, was on July 31st 1965, at Chichester. It will be performed here in the composer’s own reduced version which calls for an accompaniment of organ, harp and percussion.

German Requiem by Johannes Brahms

[Notes written by Gary E. Wait for the August 1984 performance by the North Country Chorus and the Randolph Singers, with the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra.]

On Good Friday, April 10, 1868, a new religious work was presented at the Cathedral Church in Bremen, Germany. Permission to perform the work entitled A German Requiem had come reluctantly from cathedral officials; for although the work was a setting of Biblical tests chosen and arranged by the composer himself, the work contained no explicit reference to Christ and scrupulously avoided an exposition of doctrinal theology. But the most novel feature of the new work was its focus. Whereas the traditional requiem set to music the prayers of the mass for the dead, with its entreaties for the departed soul’s forgiveness and for its escape from the terrors of hell, this new requiem offered a message of assurance to the living. It affirmed that “the souls of the righteous are safe in the hands of God, free forever from the ravages of grief and pain and mortal decay.” Under the direction of its composer, the thirty-five-year-old Johannes Brahms, accompanist, budding composer, and protégé of Joachim and Schumann, the work proved to be an immediate success. Many who were present at the first performance confessed themselves uplifted both spiritually and aesthetically by Brahms’ fusion of music and text. Thereafter, the performance of A German Requiem became an annual event at the Cathedral, albeit eked out with some other devotional work, usually the aria, “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth”, from Handel’s Messiah, to give the performance a more explicitly “Christian” flavor.

The Requiem of that first performance differed somewhat from the version with which modern audiences are familiar, particularly in so far as it lacked the Part V for soprano solo and chorus which sets the text, “Yea, as one whom his own mother comforts will I comfort you”. Indeed, the Requiem evolved through nearly a decade of painstaking composition and revision; for unlike Handel, who composed Messiah in a twenty-three-day flash of inspiration, Brahms composed with steady and unremitting toil, slowly revising, perfecting, and exploring the relationship between text and music, and carefully elaborating his musical themes.

Precisely when and how the idea of composing a requiem for the living began to take shape in Brahms’ imagination is a matter about which musicologists do not fully agree. It is sometimes stated that Brahms discovered the idea for such a work among the notebooks of his mentor, Robert Schumann, sometime prior to 1857 and projected a requiem based on Schumann’s ideas as a memorial to the master who had first recognized and encouraged his genius. In any event, between 1857 and 1859, Brahms sketched out the themes of Part II as part of a projected symphony in D, later to be reworked as his First Piano Concerto (opus 15). By 1861 Brahms had chosen and arranged a series of Biblical texts for a cantata in four movements which would provide the foundation for the requiem.

It was not until 1865-66, however, prompted perhaps by the death of his mother, that Brahms had completed what are now movements 1 - 3 and 5 - 7 of A German Requiem. As it then stood, Brahms considered the work complete; and a tentative performance of the first three parts by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde of Vienna, under Harbeck's direction, was arranged for December of 1867. Its reception however, was far from enthusiastic, due perhaps in part to a long-sustained D by the timpani in the third movement which tended to dominate the piece, perhaps in part to the influence of the Wagnerians, who claimed to find Brahms’ music uninspired and dull. But after further revision, the entire work as it then stood, won an enthusiastic reception in Bremen and within the first year it had been repeated a score of times throughout Germany. Still its meticulous composer went on perfecting, and soon another part, Part V, was inserted. By this addition, Brahms achieved a balancing of the textual themes at the extremities, and changed the pivot of the work to his setting of Psalm 84, “How lovely is Thy dwelling-place, O Lord of Hosts… Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house.” And it is in this form that the Requiem is now performed.

In contrast with the traditional mass for the dead, Brahms’ Requiem opens not with a plea, but with an affirmation. Its text directs our attention not first to the dead, but to ourselves, affirming the natural human emotion of sorrow at the loss of those whose lives were precious to us. Brahms highlights his musical identification with our sorrow on a brief solo passage for oboe, as we move toward the assurance that those who love enough to experience sorrow are assured of comfort. “Blessed are they that mourn…” It is the theme of blessing that dominates the entire work, as Brahms takes the bereaved from the affirmation of their own sorrow (Part I) through the Psalmist’s description of the spiritual dwelling God has reserved for the souls of the faithful (Part IV), to the confident and peaceful affirmation that the dead themselves are blest, being at rest from their labours in the courts of the Lord (Part VII).

Between the affirmations of Parts I and IV, Brahms has set texts reminding us of the inevitable fact of decay and death for all mortal life, for even wealth and beauty must perish (a theme he would explore again in his choral setting of Schiller’s “Nanie”); but he moves inevitably toward the pivotal fourth movement in his fugal affirmation that the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, beyond the reach of sorrow and pain.

Between Part IV, with its ode to the eternal dwelling-place of the blessed, and the concluding affirmation that even in death we are blest, Brahms reminds us once again of the transitory nature of all human accomplishments. He quotes St. Paul to the effect that on earth mankind has no abiding-place. And he punctuates this admonition with the measured tread of the funeral march, not unlike the introduction to the somber sections of Part II and the opening theme of Part III, where timpani (in Part III augmented by plucked strings) remind us of the inexorability of fate. How different from the traditional requiem mass, with its assumption that the fate of a soul can be stayed from the destiny it has earned by mere entreaty!

But the mood shifts quickly in the final moments of Brahms’ Requiem; for almost at once we are reminded of the mystery of faith, whereby death is overcome by the immortality of the righteous spirit. In a fugal doxology, to the God who transforms the temporal into the eternal by his creative power, Brahms returns us at last to the simple affirmation of blessing: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord; for they are at rest from their labours, and from all their deeds, which have become their memorial!”


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