Vespers in Choral Journal

A very thoughtful essay by Thomas Lloyd appears in the February 2010 Choral Journal. It casts an eye on David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning the little match girl passion, Phil Kline’s John the Revelator, and my Vespers. Here’s a bit of it:

These three premiere recordings of recent sacred choral works by American composers shine a light on a distinctive area of new vocal music well worth our attention. While each work has its own identity, they share several significant traits. All three are longer works for small vocal ensemble or chamber choir with unorthodox instrumental accompaniment. Each uses a traditional liturgical form as its starting point, around which other texts of varied origins are inserted. Together, these elements create the context for performances that fall somewhere in between a concert experience and a worship service.… This sacralized musical experience was not unknown to nineteenth-century audiences, but it has been renewed in the more recent European spiritualism of Pärt, Tavener, MacMillan…

The liturgical form providing the basis for Kile Smith’s Vespers is the Lutheran service of evening prayer. The sound palette is again quite unique: chamber choir (The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally) with another unconventional accompaniment: a Renaissance wind band (Piffaro), complete with full consorts of recorders, shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, and continuo (lute, theorbo, guitar, and harp)—27 different instruments played expertly by seven musicians… As with the other works discussed here, the composer has reshaped a traditional liturgical form to serve the musical design… Smith points to the earliest Lutheran composers such as Praetorius and Schütz as inspirations, writing at a time when wind consorts were in their prime. Plainchant, chorale variations, and complex imitative counterpoint abound.

On the other side of Bach, the music also recalls the probing and angular music of Hugo Distler, but with a lighter heart and a natural exuberance. Stravinsky’s neo-baroque fanfares come to mind in several of the instrumental flourishes… The closing of the final movement (“Deo Gratias”) is almost giddy in its exuberance.

Smith also writes music that draws fully on the remarkable talents of his performers… Not only are the demands of sonority, range, ensemble, and intonation more extensive, but performers are asked to contribute a more varied palette of inflection, shaping, shading, and rubato. Smith writes idiomatically and inventively for Piffaro… The composer is said to be considering an arrangement for modern instruments as well…

Along with Smith, Kline, and Lang, those composers are writing new music that is quite accessible on the first hearing but also rewards repeated listening (and, especially in the case of the Smith Vespers, repeated singing). This is richly gratifying music to know.… we need to create the musical space—a sacred space—for this evocative repertoire…

Read all of it here.


3 thoughts on “Vespers in Choral Journal

  1. Bob LaBar

    Boy, I wish I could sing. I learned music as a child in a men/boys church choir where I sang till my voice changed, Then I had a range of about an octave. This was in the mid 1940’s. I am 79 now. Our choir, St, Asaph’s Church in Bala-Cynwyd, had a working relationship with St.Peter’s choir school at 3rd & Pine in Olde City. They had the best choir ever. We often switched singers for certain performances. We were paid! Two rehearsals a week @ 5 cents each and one church service @ ten cents. The two choirs once performed Handel’s Messiah at Town Hall in NYC. Great memories!


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