Monthly Archives: October 2010

Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn

The Virginia Chorale sang this on their concerts last weekend, and we were able to drive down to hear the first one. So glad we could, as it was a wonderful evening, beautifully programmed by Scott Williamson. We enjoyed it all, and the chance to meet the singers and everyone involved with the group, now beginning its 27th season. This is from Scott’s program notes:

Philadelphia-based composer Kile Smith has written a concert-length Vespers, influenced by Monteverdi and equally indebted to the Lutheran tradition. The hymn, Herr Christ, begins with a four-part chorale that opens like a splendid blossom into 8, 12, and ultimately 16 parts, before folding in on itself, ending in the hymn-like simplicity with which it began.

It actually goes from 4 to 8 to 16 then back to 4, but even I lose track! Here is their fine performance of it on the last concert, in Williamsburg:

“Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” is one of the sections from Vespers now being performed separately. I’ve made a keyboard reduction of the entire work, and am making octavos of individual sections as needed: so far, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (with English translation) and “Psalm 113.” Here’s the text of “Herr Christ” followed by my translation:

Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn
Vaters in Ewigkeit,
aus seim Herzen entsprossen,
gleichwie geschrieben steht,
er ist der Morgensterne,
sein Glänzen streckt er ferne
vor andern Sternen klar;

für uns ein Mensch geboren
im letzten Teil der Zeit,
daß wir nicht wärn verloren
vor Gott in Ewigkeit;
den Tod für uns zerbrochen,
den Himmel aufgeschlossen,
das Leben wiederbracht.

Laß uns in deiner Liebe
und Kenntnis nehmen zu,
daß wir am Glauben bleiben,
dir dienen im Geist so,
daß wir hie mögen schmecken
dein Süßigkeit im Herzen
und dürsten stets nach dir.

Ertöt uns durch dein Güte,
erweck uns durch dein Gnad;
den alten Menschen kränke,
daß der neu’ leben mag
und hie auf dieser Erden
den Sinn und alls Begehren
und G’danken hab zu dir.
Elisabeth Kreuziger (1505–1535)

God’s only Son, from all time
heart of the Father, came.
Yes, Christ our Lord forever
stands on the Word, the same.
He is the Star of Morning,
blazing with bright adorning
far past all other stars.

For unto us, in end time
a little child is born
that, in the sight of sublime
God, we are not forlorn.
Now Death for us is broken,
Heaven is thrown wide open,
life is brought back again.

Your love and truth, increasing,
grow in us every hour.
We, in the faith unceasing,
serve in the Spirit’s power.
That we may taste your sweetness,
fill up our hearts’ completeness
so that we thirst for you.

Come, ravish us and quicken,
rouse us with gifts of grace.
May our old Adam sicken,
new life to take his place.
Then here, our dear contrivings—
all earthly thoughts and strivings—
shall ever rise to you.

Alex Ross, Listen to This

The Author Events director at the Free Library of Philadelphia asked me if I would introduce Alex Ross, who was coming here on Tuesday night, October 26th, to talk about his newest book, Listen to This. I was happy to accept, since I enjoyed introducing Ross and John Adams in the same venue two years ago. Plus it made me read the book right away.

I’m glad I did. Hearing Alex Ross talk is as congenial an experience as reading his words. He is as smart and unassuming in person as he is on the page. “Unassuming” may not be the right word… can I go wrong in just calling him humble? Humility is an overlooked virtue in our age of celebrity, but, well, of course it’s overlooked. Anyway, here’s what I said to introduce him:

It seems that I’ve come to Alex Ross’s love of the whole world of music—that is, pop and classical—from the opposite direction. He knew only classical music up until his college years, he writes in his new book Listen to This, when he discovered pop music of various sorts. For me, other than the hymns and liturgy of my church, the mostly middlebrow choir literature of school, and the occasional Hallelujah Chorus or Randall Thompson Alleluia, my upbringing was an immersion in the commercial top-40 of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Alex Ross wanted to become a composer, and then he discovered the writing of words. I wanted to be Harold Hill in The Music Man, or sing backup for the Delfonics, and then I discovered Brahms. Well, Ross is writing now, and I’m composing, and he probably wouldn’t be tempted by my music to try his hand at composition, as Brahms pulled me in, but do I love how Alex Ross puts words on the page.

For instance, is there a better short overview of the entire life and works of Mozart than what we find in Listen to This? It includes this luscious description that will not leave my mind: “Counterpoint and dissonance are the cables on which Mozart’s bridges to paradise hang.” Or is there a better short history of the entirety of Western music than what Ross illuminates, using the lament motive as his searchlight?

There’s a moment, when he describes what is “most precious” in the music of Björk, that, for me, sums up the entire book, and that tension between classical and pop that I still feel: “Music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music.” It’s what I’ve always thought, but I wish I’d thought of that clearly.

For Alex Ross’s writing is not the kind of writing that pummels you with erudition. He is that smart, but he doesn’t make you feel like you are that dumb. It’s not the kind of writing that calls attention to itself, either. Here’s what he says about Frank Sinatra:

“The voice was veering in the opposite direction from the legend: Sinatra was a lean young man who grew wealthy and stout, but it’s his younger voice that sounds plump and it’s his older voice that sounds thin and hungry.”

That’s an amazing sentence with a lot going on, made all the more remarkable because there are no remarkable words in it. Oh, stout and plump are paralleled and a bit out of the way, but if I had a year to think of one word to describe Sinatra’s young voice, I’d never come up with plump. But isn’t it so right?

This kind of writing comes from a steady focus on the subject, but even so, there’s something else going on here. This kind of writing comes from reaching deep into one’s own self, to find that nugget of truth, no matter how difficult it is to find, that, upon revealing, is obvious to all.

This is magnificent writing. Listen to this. Ladies and gentlemen, Alex Ross.

Here is the podcast of the evening (skip to 4:40 to avoid listening to my intro), which is indeed his look at the chaconne and lament throughout music history. There’s a question and answer period at the end.

Psalm 113

The Temple University Concert Choir sang my Psalm 113 last night, the second time this section of Vespers has been performed separately. The first time was when I transcribed it for mezzo-soprano soloist, two-part girlchoir, and piano. Lyric Fest commissioned that transcription as part of Two Laudate Psalms, for Suzanne DuPlantis and the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.

Psalm 113 is originally for S.A.T.B. with two sackbuts and harp. Here’s an excerpt:

I made a piano reduction of all of Vespers, and it’s with this piano accompaniment that Paul Jones conducted the Temple forces. It was wonderfully done. I was touched by how much the singers said they enjoyed it, and by how much Paul had them floating on top of the chant rhythms.

Also on the concert were works of Palestrina, Monteverdi, Carissimi, Duruflé, and the Schicksalslied of Brahms. Three of the supple Partsongs of Gerald Finzi stood out to me. Their brilliance reminded me of “All this night,” which I sang way back in high school, and I am always surprised at how astonishing his music is. I suppose it’s silly, always to be surprised by the same thing.

But doesn’t Spring always do that, too?

“Wake, O earth, wake everything!”

John Strassburger

Jeff, the bassoonist, sent me an email, saying that John Strassburger had died. It was three months earlier, almost to the day, that Jeffrey Centafont, accompanied by John French on the piano, helped to celebrate Strassburger’s retirement as President of Ursinus College, with my piece commissioned for the occasion, This Broad Land.

It was a surprising and touching honor to be commissioned to compose this for his retirement banquet in June. Surprising because I have no connection to Ursinus, and touching because Jackie and I were overwhelmed by the feeling of love from all segments of the college community for this man. Here is someone, we learned, who made a big difference—in the college, and in people’s lives. But we learned only then what Ursinus has known for some time. How often things happen—big, important things happen—because of one person. How wonderful when that person is recognized. It was a thrill to see that.

I was struck by his civility, gentleness, and curiosity. He and I exchanged a note or two afterward, and he surprised me again by sending me an edition of the Charles Ives Essays Before a Sonata, the foreword of which had been written by his uncle, Howard Boatwright.

This Broad Land was played at the memorial service. Here is his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and here, in the Pottstown Mercury. Rest in peace, John Strassburger.

Mieczysław Karłowicz

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now eight years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m. (Our ninth year!)

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909). Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 8 (1902). Nigel Kennedy, violin, Polish Chamber Orchestra, Jacek Kaspszyk. EMI 79934. Tr 4-6. 30:23

Karłowicz. Lithuanian Rhapsody, Op. 11 (1906). Warsaw Philharmonic, Antoni Wit. Naxos 570452. Tr 2. 19:36

Often overrun by foreign powers in its thousand-year history, Poland engenders pride in people of Polish descent around the world. October is Polish American Heritage Month, and we take a look at Mieczysław Karłowicz as a representative of the hope and turmoil in the history of this country.

Karłowicz was born in Lithuania, which would seem to make him an odd choice for a Polish standard-bearer. But Poland and Lithuania were one commonwealth during the 16th to 18th centuries and remain closely linked. Karłowicz’s father, also Lithuanian-born and also a composer, was an academic who worked throughout Poland and Germany. Mieczysław thus was able to study in Heidelberg, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, and Warsaw, where he settled.

Just at this time, Poland was trying to create an identity through the arts—after failed military uprisings against Russia—and the Young Poland movement proved very attractive to musicians, including Karłowicz. They eschewed the nationalist tide of other countries, however, thinking that the use of traditional folk tunes would only atomize the multi-ethnic Poland even further. No, they would use the sounds of modernism, and for Karłowicz the influence of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss is plainly evident. His Violin Concerto is solidly late-Romantic, a signal that Young Poland could be European in its outlook (meaning: not Russian).

But Karłowicz wasn’t just a lock-step movement composer. He chose not to join a Polish composers’ publishing group, and his critical writing estranged him from other Polish musicians. His Lithuanian Rhapsody, filled with tunes of his homeland, would seem to backslide from the non-folk ideals of Young Poland. But its message is subversive in its own way. It hearkens to a time of just a century earlier, before Russian domination, when Poles and Lithuanians governed their own land. In its traditional dress it is a cry of independence just as valid—and just as emotional—as any work of modernism.

He loved his country, and as an avid photographer and mountain climber, loved the outdoors. On a February trip into the Tatra Mountains in the resort country near Zakopane, he walked to Mały Koscielec, a petite and spire-like mountain whose name means “small church.” Karłowicz knew it well, since he was the first to climb it in winter, only the year before. Probably, fragments from the tone poem he was composing circled in his mind as he hiked. But a sudden avalanche swept over and killed him. Mountain climbers still talk about it, and a hundred years later still visit this place to pay their respects. The unfinished work, Episode at a Masquerade, would become his opus 14, completed by his friend Fitelberg. Mieczysław Karłowicz was 32.

We wonder what he might have written had he lived longer, since the works given to us are so full of promise, so full of the hope of an independent Poland.