Thursday, January 31, 2013

Elegant, Elevated, And Ecstatic ― The Sacred Choral Music of Ned Rorem

On February 10, CONCORA, the all-professional choir in which I sing, will mark the 100th birth anniversary of English composer Benjamin Britten, and the 90th birthday of American composer Ned Rorem, with a concert of “Modern Masters.” (Details on venue, tickets, etc., are at the end of this post.)

Until I began singing with CONCORA and with the South Church Chancel Choir, I wasn’t all that familiar with Ned Rorem’s music. Since then, I’ve fallen for it head over heels. Rorem gives us honest music. That may seem an odd word to describe music, but that’s how I respond to it. In this honesty is beauty and strength.

All the works by Rorem on this program are sacred pieces. Rorem is not a religious person, yet he creates utterly sympathetic settings for sacred texts. As Rorem, a self-proclaimed atheist, said about his sacred choral music: “Half my entire musical output is for chorus, about a hundred pieces, and half of those in turn are based on so-called sacred texts. Yet if I do not believe in God, I believe in Belief, and in the great works which the notion of God has inspired.”

I understand that entirely. I am not religious, either, but I respond to sacred music because I respond to the belief of the believers. I sing not for myself; rather I sing with, and for, those who composed the texts and the music, and for those who listen and are inspired. Well, it makes sense to me.

I’ve posted several items about the concert, and information about Ned Rorem, here:

Here’s the repertoire list, and my program notes, for the portions of CONCORA’s program that are devoted to Rorem’s music.

Selections from Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year
     While All Things Were in Quiet Silence (Motet for Christmas)
     Before the Morning Star Begotten (Motet for Epiphany)
     Lay Up for Yourselves (Motet for Ash Wednesday)
     Praise Him Who Was Crucified (Motet for Easter)
     God is Gone Up (Alleluia verse for Ascension)

And these:
     Thee, God…
     O Joyous Light
     Lead, Kindly Light

Here are my program notes for these selections (© 2013 Grace Notes Writing. All rights reserved).


About Ned Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year Maestro Coffey says, “These are a church musician’s liturgical buffet. These short works capture the essence of the given seasonal thought, present it without affectation, and then end as humbly as they begin. [Many of his motets are composed with] one note per syllable, such as one might find in a hymnal. There the similarities end, however, for Rorem adds delicious twists and turns of chromaticism and key-changes, yielding a most listenable and affirming effect in every case.”
While All Things Were in Quiet Silence (Motet for Christmas) is a quiet contemplation of the Word made flesh.
While all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course,
thine Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of thy royal throne. Alleluia.
Text: Antiphon of Matins, Christmas I (Liber Usualis)

Before the Morning Star Begotten (Motet for Epiphany) begins like a simple folk song. As more voices join, it grows in strength before ending in a shout of joy.
Before the morning star begotten, and Lord from everlasting,
our Saviour is made manifest unto the world today.
Text: Antiphon of Evensong, Epiphany

With ever-increasing luminosity, Lay Up for Yourselves (Motet for Ash Wednesday) looks to the promise of heaven.
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt,
and where thieves do not break through and steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Text: Matthew 6:20-21

In Praise Him Who Was Crucified (Motet for Easter), Rorem evokes the medieval organum style
Praise him who was crucified in the flesh; glorify him who for your sakes was buried; worship him who hath risen from the dead. He whom you seek among the dead now liveth; and the life of man with him hath arisen. Alleluia!
Text: Antiphon of Evensong in Easter Octave

God is Gone Up is an unabashedly exuberant acclamation of Christ’s ascent to Heaven.
God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.
The Lord is among them as in the holy place of Sinai,
He is gone up on high; He hath led captivity captive. Alleluia.
Text: Alleluia verse for Ascension (Psalm 47:5, Psalm 68:17-18)
Thee, God… is the third in Rorem’s 1973 collection Three Motets on Texts by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A deeply religious convert to Catholicism, British Victorian-era poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) remains highly-regarded. Rorem’s setting for organ and choir is elegant, elevated, and ecstatic, and inherently sympathetic to the voice. Maestro Coffey calls this “a choral rhapsody, with voices frolicking and chasing each other up and down.” Rorem once commented, “I conceive all music…vocally. Whatever my music is written for — tuba, tambourine, tubular bells — it is always the singer within me crying to get out.”
Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.

What I know of thee I bless,
As acknowledging thy stress
On my being and as seeing
Something of thy holiness.

Once I turned from thee and hid,
Bound on what thou hadst forbid;
Sow the wind I would; I sinned:
I repent of what I did.

Bad I am, but yet thy child.
Father, be thou reconciled.
Spare thou me, since I see
With thy might that thou art mild.

I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfil;
Yet a debt to pay thee yet:
Help me, sir, and so I will.

But thou bidst, and just thou art,
Me shew mercy from thy heart
Towards my brother, every other
Man my mate and counterpart. Amen.
From its earliest times, Phos hilaron (O Joyous Light), a hymn nearly as old as Christianity itself, has been associated with the ceremonial lighting of lamps at eventide. It is known to have been part of the early Byzantine vespers liturgy, and is still in use today in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The “Lamp-Lighting Hymn” was translated into English in 1675, and soon thereafter made its way into the Lutheran liturgy and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The quietly joyful evening canticle has inspired many composers, including John Stainer, Arthur Sullivan, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Ned Rorem, who included this quietly ecstatic setting of his own translation in Canticles: English Settings of Seven Liturgical Songs (1972).
O joyous light of the Father's face in heaven
shining through his Son, our Holy Lord, O Jesus Christ!
The sun fades now and one by one the stars shine forth
as we sing forth our love, O Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
You are forever worthy of our song, O Son of God,
for you bestow the light of life throughout the world. Amen.
On a trip to Italy in 1833, English priest and theologian John Henry Newman (1801-1890) fell dangerously ill. During his long recovery, he became impatient to return home to continue his work, and was further frustrated by delays in securing passage. En route, the ship was becalmed for a week in the Straits of Bonifacio, where Newman wrote Lead, Kindly Light. The poem quickly became widely-known and widely-loved. Ned Rorem set the first two stanzas of Newman’s hymn in his 1988 oratorio Goodbye, My Fancy, which was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. In its review of the premiere in November, 1990, the Chicago Tribune said that “Rorem’s music remains blissfully oblivious to the blandishments of what used to be called modernism … Rorem’s choral writing savors leanness, elegance and subtlety, even when it roars.”
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on.
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and [in] spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years! Amen.
 © 2013 GraceNotes Writing. All rights reserved.
If you're interested in using these program notes,
please contact me via the comment function below.

Read about the Britten portion of the program here:

It’s going to be beautiful.

“Modern Masters”
Monday, February 11, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
South Church, 90 Main St., New Britain, 06051
CONCORA celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten and the 90th birthday of Ned Rorem with a concert featuring works of these two musical masters of choral composition. Features Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia and selections from Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year. Masterful works from other composers such as Eric Whitacre and John Rutter add to the celebration.
General admission $25, students $10.
(860) 293-0567

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