Devotion Program Notes

Enjoy these program notes for "Devotion", written by Scott Metcalfe and Kathryn Bacasmot. 

Song of Songs: Gombert and Daniel-Lesur

by Scott Metcalfe

Pose moi comme un sceau sur ton coeur, comme un sceau sur ton bras, car l’amour est fort comme la mort, la jalousie est dure comme l’enfer, une flamme de Yahvé! Les grandes eaux n’ont pu éteindre l’amour, les fleuves ne le submergeront pas!

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a sign upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is bitter as the grave, a flame from Yahweh! Great seas have not been able to extinguish love, rivers will not drown it!

The first half of our program presents several conversations: between interpretations of a text, between composers and compositions, between two ensembles. We open with two motets by Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495-1560) which set texts from the Song of Songs recast as antiphons to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although Gombert’s motets are devotional works for liturgical or paraliturgical use, his intensely sensuous music, perfused with expressive dissonance, seems to emphasize the earthy origins of the Song as a Hebrew love lyric rather than its later, scriptural life as religious allegory. In Ortus conclusus, for five voices, the mood is dark, mysterious, and urgent; Descendi in ortum meum, for six, is open and radiant: in both, the endlessly unfolding, overlapping counterpoint is saturated with suspensions and pungent clashes between flats and naturals, naturals and sharps, which both structure the music into waves of tension and release and create an atmosphere of amorous intoxication.

 If Gombert’s motets reveal the sensuous within a sacralized text, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s twelve-voice setting of the words of the Song translated into French, Le Cantique des Cantiques, places a religious frame around the love poetry. The piece offers a beautifully condensed version of the entire Song, touching on all of its major themes, images, and characters: the main protagonists, a girl and a boy who speak to and of each other in direct, highly physical terms; the Daughters of Jerusalem; the watchmen; King Solomon and his retinue; the dancing Shulamite; gardens, orchards, vineyards, pastures, and hills; the city of Jerusalem, the desert, Gilead, Amana, Mount Carmel. But the first word is “Alleluia,” from Hebrew via Greek, and words in the sacred languages of Latin and Hebrew pervade the texture. Only in The enclosed garden and The Shulamite are the words exclusively the French text of the Song. The former offers a striking counterpart to Gombert’s “enclosed garden,” every bit as mysterious and dreamy, while the second is a head-spinning dance in 5/8 time which dissolves at the last moment. The movement toward a sacred interpretation culminates in an ecstatic Epithalamium or wedding song built on the words and melody of the plainchantVeni sponsa Christi, leading up to a final Alleluia.

We present the seven movements of Le Cantique des Cantiques (1952), performed by Blue Heron, interspersed with the four movements of Jean Francaix’s Symphonie d’archets (1948), performed by A Far Cry. At some moments the dialogue between these two contemporary works is uncanny: be sure to listen closely as one movement ends and the next begins!

Jean Françaix:: Symphonie d’archets (Symphony for Strings)

by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

We sometimes speak of modern composers who go through a “neo-classical” phase. Stravinsky, for example, or Prokofiev. For Jean Françaix it was never a phase, it was his idiom. His music displays a consistently crystalline quality, a sonic equivalent to gazing at a beautifully cut gemstone. The structure and designs are evident, and brilliantly dazzling in their complexity and craftsmanship, despite however simply they may appear to be set. He wanted his music to “give pleasure,” and he succeeded. A pervasive sunny quality is often present, but the music manages to sidestep sounding glib or naïve, rather it sounds genuinely delighted to exist. Its moments of solemnity are thoughtful but not obsessive. It reflects without melancholy. It seems to have no regrets. In some ways his work inherits the witty, bright, effervescent writing (in part their reaction to the romantic and post-romantic era’s heavy-handed excesses and drama) typified by the loosely associated collective of French composers colloquially referred to as “Les Six”: Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric, Durey, and Poulenc.

The sonorities of the Symphonie d’archets are unmistakably of recent times, with its winking employment of dissonance, and lilting jazz-like rhythms. To quote one of his biographers, who put it very succinctly “His style…expresses his harmonic language very freely” while remaining “resolutely tonal.” All around him, Françaix’s colleagues were heading into deeper experimental territory, preoccupied with deconstructing tonality, itself, and delving into philosophical questions about the very nature of sound. But here, and in his oeuvre, Françaix is content to link himself to the great traditions of the past, never abandoning the terminology and structural traditions of the craft of music, though he infused them with a modern flavor. The Symphonie was premiered in 1948, with the venerable Nadia Boulanger, his former teacher, conducting.

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

Fauré Requiem

by Scott Metcalfe

Mon Requiem…on a dit qu’il n’exprimait pas l’effroi de la mort, quelqu’un l’a appelé une berceuse de la mort. Mais c’est ainsi que je sens la mort: comme une délivrance heureuse, une aspiration au bonheur d’au-delà, plutôt que comme un passage douloureux.… Peut-être ai-je aussi, d’instinct, cherché à sortir du convenu, voilà si longtemps que j’accompagne à l’orgue des services d’enterrement! J’en ai par-dessus la tête. J’ai voulu faire autre chose.

My Requiem…people said it did not express the terror of death; someone called it a lullaby of death. But that is how I feel death: as a happy deliverance, a yearning for the happiness of the beyond, rather than as a painful crossing.… Perhaps also my instincts have led me to side-step convention, as I have been accompanying burial services on the organ for so long! I am fed up with that. I wanted to do something else

—Gabriel Fauré to Louis Aguettant, 1902

Although beloved virtually since its creation and an enduring staple of the repertoire, for most of the twentieth century Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem was known only in a conventional orchestration which was prepared years after Fauré considered the work finished, probably by one of the composer’s students, in response to the demands of the publisher Julien Hamelle. In its original scoring, the Requiem deployed divided violas and cellos, contrabass, organ, harp, and timpani; a solo violin appears only in the Sanctus, soaring above voices and orchestra alike. Fauré later added horns, trumpets, and eventually trombones, but never sections of violins or woodwinds. The rich sonority of the lower strings, underpinned by organ and brass and decorated by filigree in the harp, is a fundamental part of the music’s conception which was obscured until the late twentieth century. Today we are using an edition by Jean-Michel Nectoux and Roger Delage, published in 1994 by none other than J. Hamelle et Compagnie, that restores Fauré’s original orchestration of 1893. We employ forces appropriate not to a concert hall, but to a church, honoring the Requiem’s many performances in churches under the composer’s direction, including its first performance for a funeral at La Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré was choirmaster and organist. (“As far as the number of voices in the chorus is concerned, it naturally depends on the proportions of the hall in which you give your concerts,” Fauré wrote to Eugène Ysaÿe.) On the other hand, free from the church’s stricture against mixed choirs, we happily use women’s voices for the upper parts, including a female soloist for the Pie Jesu—exactly as Fauré did in every concert performance he ever conducted.

Another aspect of how Fauré heard his Requiem is even less commonly understood, and that is the pronunciation of Latin. Until well into the twentieth century Latin was pronounced across Europe more or less according to the rules of the vernacular, so that each country’s Latin spoke with a distinctive accent. The tradition was particularly strong in France, which clung proudly to its sense of Gallic independence from Rome. Differences between national pronunciations were so marked at the time of the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 that the Vatican had to train reporters specially so that they would be able to record what the delegates from various countries were saying—all in Latin, the common working language of the Catholic Church! In 1903 Pope Pius X called for a single pronunciation of Latin for the whole Church; naturally he inclined to his own Italianate variety. But the reform took decades and met with considerable resistance. “Aimez le latin même sous le vêtement qui lui ont donné les siècles parmis nous, l’accomodant aux évolutions de notre langue, car il n’a jamais cessé d’être nôtre. Ne l’obligeons pas à prendre un déguisement étranger ou d’arlequin…” pleaded a French curate and phoneticist in 1928. (“Love Latin in the guise which its centuries among us have given it, fitting it to the growth of our language; for it has never ceased to be ours. Don’t force it to take up a foreign or harlequin disguise…”) Only with the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 did universal Italianate pronunciation finally prevail.

Today we employ the traditional French Latin that Fauré knew; indeed, he could have imagined no other. Not only does French Latin make better sense of certain aspects of his declamation (consider, for example, “LibeRA me,” with its rising end stress), its reedy vowels and softened consonants lend a characteristically French elegance and refinement to this perfectly poised, most serene Requiem.

Scott Metcalfe is the artistic and music director of Blue Heron.