Category Archives: Lutheran

Reformation and Mendelssohn and Bach

Detail of the door of the Castle Church, Wittenburg

Anniversaries bump into each other on this Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5 pm on WRTI. It’s year 500 since the beginning of the Reformation, almost to the day, when Martin Luther posted 95 theological and ecclesiastical points he wished to debate with all comers. Nobody dared to take him up on it, but from the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517 a revolution in religion, humanism, freedom, and language swept across the world. And it was accompanied by music.

The dust was far from settling in 1530 when the “Lutherans,” as they were being called, put together a meticulously reasoned defense of what they believed, and presented it to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. They wrote it in Augsburg, so this Augsburg Confession became a founding document of Lutheranism, and by extension, a pivotal moment for what would become Germany. In 1830, the 300th anniversary of that Confession, celebrations took place throughout Germany, particularly in Augsburg itself.

Felix Mendelssohn had already begun composing a celebratory symphony for this in 1829. But because of illness and touring, he missed the deadline. He had offered a version of it to Augsburg, but the city turned it down. A Paris orchestra also demurred. Mendelssohn finally completed it and conducted the premiere in 1832, in Berlin.

He placed into the symphony’s beginning what is known as the “Dresden Amen,” a bit of liturgical music known well in both Catholic and Lutheran churches. Wagner would later quote it in Parsifal and elsewhere. But Mendelssohn put the big statement of the Reformation—its national anthem, you might say—in the last movement. Martin Luther’s music for his own versification of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) receives a grand treatment from Mendelssohn. He later didn’t care for the youthful work, but after his death this second symphony of his was discovered and listed as No. 5.

The 80th in the catalog of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach uses the same Luther tune, but it took a while to reach the form we now know. This “Ein’ feste Burg” Cantata was used in Leipzig, where Bach lived from 1723 until his death in 1750. But he actually wrote much of the music when he was in Weimar, mostly from 1708 until 1717. It was for Lent, but Leipzig would not permit extravagant cantatas during this penitential season, so Bach rewrote it for the Feast of the Reformation on October 31st, and revised it again, sometime in the late 1720s and early ’30s.

What a work this is. Many of the Bach cantatas are intimate and jewel-like, but this is a huge outpouring of jubilant praise and musical explosion. The expansive opening choral fantasia is one of the most elaborate motets ever written. This is the Bach that astounds us just he did Felix Mendelssohn, when the 20 year old revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for its 100th anniversary—in 1829, the same year he began composing the Reformation Symphony.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Symphony No. 5, ”Reformation”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Cantata No. 80, ”Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott”

Vespers with The Choristers

VespersChoristersWhat a stupendous concert with Vespers and The Choristers! They are the first non-professional, non-university choir to perform the entire Vespers, and it came off brilliantly at Saturday night’s concert in the beautiful Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pa.

When their artistic director David Spitko approached me about taking on Vespers, the first thing I told him was, “It’s hard, you know.” This is a bit of an irony for me, since I had spent a good bit of my career writing fairly easy choral music for small church choirs. But Piffaro, The Renaissance Band commissioned me for a work for which they would hire The Crossing, the contemporary-music choir who can sing anything with one arm tied behind their back. So I made much of it, well, hard, including polyrhythmic (and unmeasured) chanting, long swaths of unaccompanied singing, and much divisi, including a good chunk of one hymn written in 16 voices.

Piffaro and The Crossing followed up the premiere and recording with more performances a couple years later. University choirs and others took on separate parts of it, some of which used modern-instrument arrangements I made ad hoc. Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing, took it with him for performances with Northwestern University. Seraphic Fire gave multiple performances this past spring with Piffaro, and there are future concerts in the works.

David said that, yes, he knew it was hard, but that he absolutely had fallen in love with Vespers, had already pored over the score (PDFs come with the CD), was convinced that his group could do it, and was determined to hire Piffaro for the concert. Clearly, Dave had done his homework, and very quickly made all the stars align for this to happen.

His preparation paid off. When I arrived at a rehearsal over a week ago, they had already been looking at it and rehearsing since the summer. I knew at the rehearsal that it was going to work. At the dress rehearsal Friday night, it was glorious.

They opened the concert with three Palestrina works, led by associate conductor Kelly Wyszomierski. Piffaro then performed an instrumental-only set. I talked a bit, there was a short intermission, and the second half was Spitko conducting The Choristers and Piffaro in Vespers.

They lifted the roof.

I can’t thank David enough for his love of the music and for his doggedness in willing this performance into reality. The soloists were marvelous: Malinda Hasslett, Maren Montalbano, Lawrence Jones, Frank Mitchell, and joining on the Magnificat, Rebecca Siler and Jacqueline Dunleavy. The choir of about 65 rocked! I was thrilled beyond words by their work, dedication, and beautiful sound. Many of them came up to me during rehearsals and after the concert to tell me how much this experience meant to them, and how touched they were by Vespers. This means everything.

Thank you, David, thank you, Choristers, thank you, supporters and funders, thank you, Piffaro, thank you, soloists, and thank you friends old and new who came out. It was a special experience I will never forget.

A 2nd Vespers review from Florida

vespersGreg Stepanich writes in the Palm Beach ArtsPaper, May 10th 2015, on Saturday’s Vespers performance by Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, the third out of four concerts ending Seraphic’s 2015–15 season. In one of the most detailed and perceptive reviews of this work yet (he knows his Giovanni Gastoldi!), he says, “The merging of a Renaissance wind band with 21st-century American choral music is an idea that may sound odd on the surface, but composer Kile Smith showed it could work, and work beautifully.”

Calling Vespersan absorbing and fascinating piece, with lush choral writing and imaginative use of the seven-piece Piffaro ensemble,” he considers that “the combinations of voice and ancient instruments were remarkably atmospheric,” and that

Smith’s choral language is rich, sweet but not overripe, and crafted with emotional intensity. He likes word-painting, as one could see by following along with the text, and in both the instrumental and the choral writing the harmonic language grew steadily in complexity and color until it presented an almost palpable representation of faith.

He justly praises Patrick Quigley, Piffaro’s playing throughout and in their instrumental set-pieces, and for Seraphic Fire, “the singing was ravishing.” For the Magnificat, Stepanich especially mentions the canonic singing of the three exquisite soprano soloists Kathy Mueller, Jolle Greenleaf, and Jessica Petrus, “singing something of a written-out echo; the central melody had a sinuous, perpetual-motion elegance as it floated above harp and theorbo, giving an effect of a constant magnifying, an endless song of heavenly praise.”

He concludes his review this way:

This was an unusual and very rewarding concert, one that introduced South Florida audiences to a prominent early-music group and a fine American composer, and also demonstrated that music of deep faith written according to a hallowed tradition is as alive as it ever was.

Read the entire article here.

Vespers Review in South Florida

SeraphicVespersDavid Fleshler writes in the South Florida Classical Review of last night’s performance of Vespers by Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band.

Describing “the unique tone of the Vespers by American composer Kile Smith,” he writes that “the work sounds like no other music,” and goes on to say that it’s “a serious, ethereal and searching setting of German and Latin texts…the words…inform every note.”

He mentions details from the score, and has this to say about Vespers overall: “The work spans centuries. In style and cadence, it has much in common with 16th-century choral music. Harmonically, with its soaring polyphony and gentle dissonances, it could be from any time in the past 80 years or so. The predominant tone is reverent and serene. There’s never a sense of the composer trying to awe the listener into spiritual submission through sheer choral grandiosity.”

Piffaro, Seraphic Fire, and artistic director Patrick Quigley receive genuine and deserved praise for their riveting and finely-honed concert. I was thrilled and moved by their performance, and happy to have found new friends in South Florida. St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral is beautiful, with a bright and exciting sound. Three more concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in other venues, details of which are here.

Seraphic Fire, Piffaro, and Vespers: A Preview

SeraphicVespersWhat a nice preview of the four Vespers concerts in and around Miami this week with Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, the Renaissance Band. I’m so excited to work again with Piffaro, and honored that Patrick Quigley and two-time Grammy nominee Seraphic Fire, an outstanding group that has fast made huge waves in South Florida and beyond, have chosen Vespers as their 2014–15 season finale.

Piffaro commissioned this one-hour work; the 2008 premieres, and the recording and subsequent performances have been with The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally, who also brought it to Northwestern University’s Bienen Contemporary Ensemble with Piffaro earlier this year. Individual sections of Vespers have been performed by a number of groups, either a cappella or with piano or with various arrangements I’ve made for other instruments.

Eric Simpson’s preview in the South Florida Classical Review of the concerts in Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Ft. Lauderdale is a well-written, in-depth look at our collaboration of old instruments and new music. About my music he writes:

There is an unmistakably modernist harmonic language in Smith’s writing, but Vespers shows none of the academic opacity or pop influence that is heard in much contemporary music. This is a piece rooted firmly in the tradition of the Lutheran Renaissance—-not just in its form, but in its sound, which Smith tailored specifically to the abilities and historical instruments of Piffaro, all of whom play multiple instruments.

I think I’d better keep last month’s In This Blue Room a secret, since he might have to delete “pop influence” from that sentence! But it’s not in Vespers (except for one or two dulcian licks), so I’m obliged to his generosity. He goes on to quote Patrick Quigley:

“What I think is most fascinating about this work is just how reverent it is to older traditions,” said Quigley. “How attentive it is to the really wonderful things and the limitations of Renaissance wind and percussion and plucked instruments, and at the same time managing to sound like something that was composed yesterday, in an accessible, gripping sort of way.”

“From the first moments, it felt like there was this simultaneous inspiration from Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach, and John Adams all at the same time,” said Quigley. “In many ways it is able to channel four hundred years of music instantaneously.”

I’m touched by that. All instruments have limitations, but I know what he means. I’m delighted by his appreciation, and by being mentioned with those names.

You can read the whole article here, with more about Seraphic Fire, Piffaro, and my inspirations behind Vespers.

Thanks Northwestern and Piffaro!

VespersMillarBack from Chicago & Evanston, and gorgeously revealing performances of Vespers by Northwestern University’s Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE) and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band. Donald Nally led brilliantly, Piffaro played like gangbusters, and the singers simply knocked me out.

Above, from a rehearsal—must be the Magnificat—tenors & altos, Priscilla Herreid working the tenor dulcian, Bob Wiemken hidden behind the earth-moving octavebass dulcian, oh yeah.

So many thanks to Northwestern University’s Institute for New Music, the Evelyn Dunbar Early Music Festival, Millar Chapel, St. James Cathedral in Chicago, and the astounding musicians of BCE. I can hardly believe the work they did for this. None of this would have been possible without Donald Nally, whose leadership, vision, and creativity inspire all of us, and Piffaro, without whom Vespers would not exist.


Vespers at Northwestern

January 24, 2015, Millar Chapel, Northwestern University, Evanston (Institute for New Music)
January 25, 2015, St. James Cathedral, Chicago (Presented in collaboration with the Evelyn Dunbar Early Music Festival)
Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, Donald Nally conducting