Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

Rejoice in the Lamb

Rejoice in the Lamb. SATB, 5′.

To Dr. John H. French, on the 25th anniversary of his ministry as organist/choirmaster of The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Premiered 2 July 2017.

Live recording of the premiere:


Using the same title as the Benjamin Britten 17-minute cantata, and using words from the same monumental Christopher Smart poem, Jubilate Agno, that Britten used, this is a 5-minute a cappella anthem or concert work. The first two lines of my setting (text below) are also in Britten’s, but the other two lines are not. John French had asked if the Britten work, which he loves and has often conducted, could possibly inspire another setting, and so I looked closely at Britten’s piece, and then Smart’s original poem.

After long consideration—the poem is huge—the text began to take shape around the occasion I was asked to celebrate, French’s 25 years as organist and choirmaster at one of the great churches of Philadelphia, and a landmark on Rittenhouse Square, The Church of the Holy Trinity.

Smart was a profoundly pious man, and that did not make his life a smooth one. Taken to falling on his knees in the street and praying, he was viewed as unstable and was committed first to a mental asylum and then to a debtors’ prison. He wrote part if not all of Jubilate Agno in confinement.

The life of this poet and the circumstances of this poem colored the music’s character. The shifting between E major and a parallel mode of A lydian came out of this. I thought that the halting, almost-too-sweet “Give the glory to the Lord” was appropriate, as were the repeating Hallelujahs, driving to an ecstatic proclamation at the end.

I have been Holy Trinity’s resident composer since 2013, fortunate to have most of my anthems and another commission sung in that historic church. Among the distinguished leaders who have served there are the rector Phillips Brooks and the organist Lewis Redner, who created “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at that church for a Sunday School class in 1868. John French serves as the descendant of Redner, organist Robert Elmore, and many others who were dedicated to the spiritual growth of the congregation and the integrity of the music they produce, just as they are descended from Asaph of the Psalms, “the musician of the Lord.”

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable.
For a NEW SONG also is best, if it be to the glory of God; and taken with the food like the psalms.
Let Asaph rejoice with the Nightingale—The musician of the Lord! and the watchman of the Lord!
—Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

Star Trek and the Dream of Composing

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 1 Sep 2014. Reprinted by permission.]

CaptKirkThe villain had the disabled, drifting starship Enterprise lined up in his sights, and his hand slowly descended toward a button on the console. He held it there for a moment, then dropped a finger down lightly but firmly, as if he were giving a tuning A at the piano. There was a loud whoosh and the monitor in front of him showed a bright ray shooting out.

The scene shifted to Captain Kirk, wearily slumped over his own console. He was grasping the outside edges of it and holding himself up with arms locked. He looked at his monitor and waited tensely. Seconds passed, and when nothing happened, he turned his head, looked up at Spock, and with wide eyes he smiled incredulously. “It worked!” Spock nodded.

I was watching a documentary on the Star Trek movies, which showed clips explaining points the narrator was making. I forget what was being illuminated by this scene, but I do remember that Kirk had re-jiggered something in a computer to make the Enterprise appear somewhere it wasn’t. The villain thought he was blowing up Kirk and the Enterprise, but was shooting into space instead.

Capt. Kirk speaks Swedish

Kirk went on to describe his boyhood to Spock, something from his boyhood that had made him think of this desperate evasion, as the camera panned over his head, taking in the console, a different one from what I had remembered. The two were alone, but this was a different room, not the normal bridge. Kirk’s ancestry was Swedish, which I had forgotten; his monologue included a few Swedish terms for food. At the mention of one of them, Spock’s eyebrow lifted; Kirk smiled, and explained that you have it at breakfast with—and here he spoke another Swedish word.

I kept thinking that they would stop the scene and that the narrator would take over any second, because it had been going on for a while, but I didn’t want it to stop. I noticed things I had never noticed before. Kirk’s hair, for instance. I had heard about a hairpiece, but I could see his scalp through the hair. That was interesting. I was impressed, no, moved by William Shatner’s performance. He’s taken his hits, which he’s riffed on delightfully in his long career, but I have to say that he was completely in the moment, just talking normally, with the merest touch of wistfulness, about growing up.

At a third Swedish term, though, I thought they were pushing it a little, and what was funny, so did Spock. But Kirk wasn’t rattled. Here, he wasn’t talking about food, and from the context you couldn’t infer any meaning. Spock repeated the word as a question, and I thought, yes, of course, this is odd, Spock would probably have memorized the Swedish dictionary or something, why wouldn’t he know this word?

But Kirk shook his head. No, the meaning changes, he said. It isn’t food, it’s drawing a picture, and everybody does it. It’s your girlfriend, he said, your girl then, and as she gets older. “You draw your girlfriend. You keep drawing.” How very odd.

And at this I woke up.

Whence inspiration?

I had dreamed all of it. The scene, its placement in a Star Trek documentary, the narrator’s voice-over, my growing anxiety that the narrator would cut in, and every detail, most of which I have left out: the precise blocking of the actors, the way Kirk sat in a chair and shifted his weight, the sweat on his forehead. A quick acrobatic move mid-monologue and an actual Spock smile should have cued me that this was a dream, but didn’t; it ended where it ended. I’m no trekkie, so I have no idea what Kirk’s ancestry is (if one is known), or what actual scenes or villains or dialogues I’ve conflated.

Perhaps this should be made into a musical work, my own Enigma Variations. Perhaps I should be psychoanalyzed. But what occurred to me most strongly was that I never dream of music this way. I’ve heard composers talk of it, and I’ve envied that gift. Because it is a gift if a composition can indeed come to you just like that, like a scene in a movie, in a dream. What I wouldn’t give to have that! But I don’t.

No, wait, it did happen once. I did dream a piece. The word that came to me while dreaming it, and as soon as I woke up and could still remember it, was “glorious.” I remember almost weeping. I was enraptured by the music, and wrote it down as quickly as I could, in the middle of the night. When I was satisfied that I had captured it, I went back to sleep.

A wake-up

In the light of day I played through it again, and you may guess by the words “in the light of day” where this is going. I’ve written some fairly bad music in my life, and some badly fair, most but not all of which I’ve destroyed. Others may decide how much more I should have rounded up. But no one will ever hear my dream music because it was without a doubt the worst thing I’ve ever invented. I crumpled it up and tossed it out immediately. Its treacle and self-importance out-treacled and out-self-imported any piece, any draft of a piece, any idea in any draft of any piece, that ever I composed. Its badness humbles me to this day, that I am, oh yes you are, Smith, capable of such a thing.

I haven’t dreamed music anymore, thankfully, I don’t try to, and I’m happy just with sitting down and trying to write music while awake. Benjamin Britten said to someone who asked him if he dreamed music that such talk was all nonsense. Nighttime was for sleeping, he said, and I’ll agree with Britten.

I wish I could remember those Swedish words, though.

1913: Popper, Butterworth, Britten, Lutosławski on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection broadcasts Saturday, October 5th, 2013, 5-6 pm on WRTI and wrti.org.

David Popper (1843-1913). Hungarian Rhapsody (orch. Schlegel, 1894). Matthew Allen, cello, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel. Telarc 80745, Tr 8. 8:49

Popper. Spanish Dance No. 5, Vito (c.1884) (orch. Oushoorn). Maria Kliegel, cello, Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, Gerhard Markson. Naxos 554657, Tr 12. 4:35

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Simple Symphony for String Orchestra (1934). English String Orchestra, William Boughton. Nimbus 5024, Tr 12-15. 16:51

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994). Dance Preludes (1953, 55). Janet Hilton, Clarinet, Scottish National Orchestra, Matthias Bamert. Chandos 8618, Tr 3-7. 10:10

George Butterworth (1885-1916). The Banks of Green Willow (1913). English Sinfonia, Neville Dilkes. Angel 65615, Tr 11. 6:05


Witold Lutosławski

We enjoyed our 1813 bicentennial so much last month that we thought we’d move a little closer, to the centennial of 1913. In that year, cellist/composer David Popper died, Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski first saw the light of day, and George Butterworth composed The Banks of Green Willow.

Popper was one of the great cellists of his time. At 18 he was leading classes at the conservatory for his teacher. Then he went on to premiere new works, play his own, and compose a set of etudes that are used to this day.

His legacy continues (the great János Starker studied with him), but one aspect of it has not survived. He was one of the last soloists to hold the cello between the calves (like a viola da gamba); cellists today are probably thankful that the endpin was invented.

He wrote his Hungarian Rhapsody, Spanish Dance No. 5, and dozens of other pieces for cello and piano, and we can see their popularity by how soon others started orchestrating them. Popper the cellist was known for his deft playing and large, warm sound; Popper the composer evokes those same qualities.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered raucously in 1913, but George Butterworth quietly wrote The Banks of Green Willow that same year. He died three years later, in a field in France in World War I. Because of that, this work is often used as a memorial, but it is English pastoral music through and through.

He was a brave soldier (winning the Military Cross in another battle), and he was a friend. Ralph Vaughan Williams, never intending to write a symphony, ended up composing nine. He always mentioned the one person who encouraged him to do so. It was George Butterworth.

The great English composer Benjamin Britten was born in 1913. Simple Symphony uses tunes he composed as a youth—he admitted that “there are large stretches of the work which are taken bodily from the early pieces”—but he reworked and developed much of the material and re-scored it for strings. Many know Britten’s operas and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, but he wrote prodigiously in many forms. The Simple Symphony is a charming example of a 21-year-old’s confident technique and unerring taste.

Poland’s Witold Lutosławski was also born in 1913. His energetic Dance Preludes for clarinet and orchestra come from a difficult time of on-and-off Communist oppression. Earlier, he and his friend Andrzej Panufnik, another excellent composer, worked out piano pieces in cafés, to the delight of entertained patrons, since Polish classical “concerts” were forbidden. Lutosławski later won national and international honors, and became one of the foremost composers of the 20th Century—of any country. 1913 saw much, and also handed over much, to us.

Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich perform Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini for Two Pianos (from his café period!):

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 12 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Francis Pott in the Heart of Things

My latest CD review for WRTI, podcast with musical examples below. You can read all my CD reviews here

In the Heart of Things: Choral Music of Francis Pott
Commotio. Matthew Berry, conductor
Naxos 8.572739

FrancisPott480Whether communication is too easy, or articulation is too difficult, our time is not a time of counterpoint. Instead of corresponding, we post or tweet; instead of reasoning, we shout and repeat, louder and louder. Music is often an event or a stepping-up of rungs of events: hooks and ladders, clanging past, looking for a fire.

The choral music of Francis Pott, however, flows by, refreshingly contrapuntal. That joy in the working of voices is particularly evident in his 2012 CD, In the Heart of Things. If counterpoint seems anti-modern, he admits it, and points to Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and other past masters of the polyphonic Mass as models. That’s appropriate, because In the Heart of Things is a collection of his choral music revolving around the most substantial work on the recording, his Mass for Eight Parts.

From the Kyrie through the Agnus Dei, this Mass is a triumph of intricate beauty. Upper, middle, and lower streams of voices glide by and mingle, their complexity unnoticed because they shimmer. Sometimes they sneak in, as the “Hosanna” does at first in the Sanctus, or roll in waves, gathering strength as at the end of that movement.

Sometimes the power is overwhelming, as at the end of the Gloria, the final “Amen” surging, unexpected, rank upon rank. Pott composed the Agnus Dei in memory of someone he didn’t know, a past singer of Commotio, the choir that commissioned this. His gentle, pointed lyricism melts the voices into a sea of comfort.

Francis Pott was raised in the English chorister tradition, and knows this repertoire from the inside. His setting of a familiar text, such as Balulalow (known by many from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols), or the new Mary’s Carol (Pott wrote this in memory of his father-in-law), always balances freshness of expression with aptness to the language.

His Lament honors a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Using the poem of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, “But we, how shall we turn to little things / And listen to the birds… nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things,” we know the composer feels deeply what we also feel. This fellow-feeling is at the heart of artistry.

Francis Pott weaves a living counterpoint of music and emotion because he himself has sung it. His music breathes the life of tradition, but it is ever fresh, ever modern.