- By Richard Knox
Music is an emotive art. It can arouse a gamut of feelings, touching parts of our soul beyond logic and analysis.
Choral music occupies a special place in this emotive realm, partly because it (usually) employs words, but always because it speaks with and through the human voice. Our ears are tuned to the nuances and expressive power of the voice, individually and in ensembles that embody a collective humanity.
Music director Dan Perkins purposely designed this concert’s theme – Light, Love and Longing – to explore and demonstrate this expressive power.
The performance begins with the first of five Mid-Winter Songs by the often-performed contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen. His settings of the mythology-saturated poetry of Robert Graves express a yearning to pause the passage of time and delay the fading of the light. Graves once declared that his poems “are not for analysis. They are addressed to the heart and mind, not the logical brain.” So feel free to experience Lament for Pasiphaë at face value for its beautiful language and Lauridsen’s evocative sonic style.
But you might appreciate knowing that Lament reflects Graves’ intense preoccupation with ancient moon-goddess worship, a belief system that became eclipsed (tragically, in his view) by patriarchal Judeo-Christian culture. In Greek mythology, Pasiphaë (meaning “she who shone for all”) was the immortal daughter of the sun-god Helios and the mortal woman Europa. She was happily married to Minos, the King of Crete. But Minos offended the sea-god Poseidon by failing to sacrifice a magnificent white bull the god gave him for that purpose. His revenge was to curse Pasiphaë with lust for the bull, which she seduced, disguised as a cow. She subsequently gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with a human body and bovine head who was assigned to guard King Minos’ dreaded labyrinth.
Graves’ Lament has had many interpretations. But the central idea, in my reading, is that the cursed Pasiphaë has lost her “sovereign” power as supreme goddess of love, destructiveness and inspiration. The adoring poet pleads with the dying sun “not to move” – that is, to stop time for “a little longer” – because “she who shone for all [has] resigned her being.” Without her, when the sun’s light fades into darkness, there will be “a night without a moon.”
Next comes a stylistic contrast, though still on the theme of light: Brahms’ exquisitely melancholic minor-key motet that poses an age-old question from the Book of Job: Why does God permit human suffering? Warum ist das Licht Gegeben dem Mühseligen? (Why is the Light Given to Those Who Suffer?) asks – in fact, demands to know – why those in misery are given consciousness (the light that illumines our existence) to experience their plight. It’s an unanswerable question, of course, painfully relevant to current events. By the way, scholars consider Warum among the most perfect of musical compositions, skillfully blending the contrapuntal mastery of Bach’s time with the rich chromaticism of the Romantic era.
We then return to Lauridsen/Graves for Intercession in Late October. This song alludes to the well-known myth of greedy King Midas (not to be confused with Minos), who asks Poseidon to grant a wish that everything he touches be turned to gold. The tale admonishes over-reaching humans to be careful what they wish for (especially in dealing with gods). Midas soon discovers that food and wine is frozen into gold at his touch – and so is his beloved daughter. (The hapless king is twice-cursed, as vengeful Apollo has given him donkey’s ears as punishment for not awarding him first place in a music contest.) Poseidon tells Midas he can reverse the curse by washing in the Pactolus River, whose sandy shores turn to gold as the king washes.
Graves’ poem has Midas reclining on the golden sands, rid of his torments (including those humiliating ears). Curiously, though it’s late October, there’s no frost yet, the brambles are in fruit, the ivy still blooms, the butterflies flit. It’s a brief reprieve in the march toward winter of the sort we Granite Staters just experienced. The poet urges the goddess, in her guise as an old crone, to delay the dark season “a little longer” as reward for Midas’ “clean hands and love-submissive heart” – his renunciation of greed and redeeming love for his restored, flesh-and-blood daughter.
Lauridsen’s take on Four Madrigals on Renaissance Texts is a pivot from philosophical to earthy in the form of love poems that are alternately lusty, mournful, passionate and demanding. Three texts are by the 17th-century English love poet Thomas Carew, one by the playwright Benjamin Jonson, a Shakespeare contemporary. In the first madrigal, a lover warns an envious suitor against coveting his mistress. The second, “Slow, Slow Fresh Fount” is Jonson’s depiction of Echo weeping her grief over the drowning of her beloved Narcissus, the “wither’d Daffodil” of the lyric. The third madrigal is all about burning passion. And the fourth decries mere mediocrity in love, insisting on either “more love, or more disdaine.”
After intermission the mood shifts into a longing mode.
There’s nostalgia for childhood innocence. Brahms again, in O That I Knew the Way Back Home, yearns for the joy, freedom and mother love of lost childhood, in an arrangement and English translation by James McCullough.
Eric Whitacre’s setting of Goodnight Moon takes us right into that famous “great green room” in Margaret Wise Brown’s bedtime classic, with its red balloon, picture of the cow jumping over the moon, and an old lady whispering “hush.”
We next give you Jake Runestad’s setting of Wendell Berry’s deeply comforting poem, The Peace of Wild Things. What parent doesn’t lie awake these days, worrying about “what my life and my children’s lives may be”? And who can fail to be soothed by “the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”? Runestad’s shimmering version perfectly captures the peace, and the reassurance, of Berry’s poem.
More Wendell Berry reassurance follows for those who can’t help but worry about the fate of our planet. Paul Halley composed What Stood Will Stand for a service at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine when Berry gave the sermon. The piece is a “primal Sabbath’s hymn” that celebrates the good and wholesome things that Berry prophesies “will stand, though all be fallen.” Halley punctuates that hopeful promise with many ecstatic Alleluias, concluding with the Nicene Creed’s chanted promise of “the life of the world to come.”
The concert finishes with a set of pieces that convey longing of a very different sort. Shirley Erena Murray, who died in 2020, was a New Zealand hymnist known for injecting “a jolt of reality” into her lyrics. Her rewrite of Away in a Manger turns the familiar 1895 carol into Away and in Danger , a deliberately jarring commentary on the plight of numberless displaced children in the here-and-now. The piece concludes with a wish that refugee children will be welcomed into new homes with “aroha,” a Maori word that means “warm, embracing love.”
Similarly, New England composer Gwyneth Walker performs musical plastic surgery on Amazing Grace. The global trauma of the pandemic moved Walker to turn the beloved hymn inside out. The result is Through Many Dangers. It begins with the middle verse, “Through many dangers, toils and snares…” and proceeds through several less-familiar stanzas, including one that prefigures our threatened environment (“The Earth shall soon dissolve like snow…”). But Walker assures us that with faith our souls shall endure “ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.” And then she brings us home, in a sunny major key, to the “sweet sound” of that Grace. Only in the final phrase, Walker notes, “is the original hymn title revealed, in reverse order, to bring special attention to each word – Grace…AMAZING!”
That sets the stage for a warm, stately, gradually unfolding version of Amazing Grace by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. The piece begins with a limpid soprano solo over choral murmurings of “Amazing!” Ešenvalds weaves the familiar lyrics into eight-part harmonies (under the solo soprano) that modulate repeatedly before bringing us back home in G-major to an uplifting conclusion on “I was blind but now I see!”
Richard Knox is a Master Chorale baritone who has provided the chorus’s program notes since 2016.