2010 Concert Season
Festival of Magnificats
Saturday, December 4, 8 pm • Sunday, December 5, 4 pm
Performances at Our Lady of Peace Church
Festival of Magnificats
Program Notes • December 2010
The text of the “Magnificat” is Mary’s song of praise to God, upon being greeted by her cousin, Elizabeth, as the mother of God. In today’s concert we get to experience how these words inspired three composers across time working in different styles.
Since the first two composed pieces on our program are based on Gregorian chant, we will begin with the Gregorian Ave Maria to set the style and mood. The unaccompanied chant, moving at the speed of the text, seems to stop time and give us a glimpse of the eternal. The Spanish composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548–1611), begins his “Maria”with the opening phrase of the preceeding chant, and then uses the rest of its melody as the inspiration for his four part composition. In the first half of the piece, the four independent parts (polyphony) frequently overlap, sounding like chant from multiple sources. At the words “Sancta Maria, Mater Dei” all of the parts combine to sing the same rhythm at the same time (homophony). This change of texture combined with a change of meter from four to three gives a wonderful feeling of exultation. To finish, the piece returns to a meter of four and the polyphonic texture with which it began.
Also from the Renaissance period, our first Magnificat is by another Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500–553). Morales sets the text in the alternatum form of the time; that is setting the odd or even verses in polyphony, while the intervening verses are sung using the old Gregorian chant, thus combining the forms we heard in the first two pieces. In order to tie the chant and polyphony more closely together, Morales uses portions of the chant melody as the basis of his composed verses (cantus firmus). Listen closely and you’ll hear bits of that melody in the Bass (verses 2 and 4), Tenor (verse 6), alto (verse 8), Soprano (verse 10), and in verse 12, which expands to six voice parts, in canon between Soprano II and Alto II.
For the next section, we jump ahead to the 20th Century, but do not leave the world of chant behind us. Russian born Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, left for a time, and returned in the mid 1920s. The first musical results of this religious homecoming were three short sacred choruses, including the Ave Maria in 1934. The text was originally in Church Slavonic, which Stravinsky later revised into the Latin words you will hear today. The music gives the effect of an understated homophonic four-part chant, reminiscent of the music Stravinsky heard in his youth at church services.
Arvo Pärt (1935– ) was born in Estonia and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1970s. Soon after, he became very interested in early music and Gregorian chant. His Magnificat from 1989 is musically understated, like Stravinsky, in order to let the spiritual aspect of the text to shine through. Pärt bases this piece on newly composed, chant-like melodies. However these melodies migrate from part to part, beginning first in Soprano II, then Bass, then Tenor, and so on. Throughout, the accompanying voices sing only the three notes of the F minor triad: F, A flat, and C (the piece is in the key of F minor). Since the chant melodies move mostly by steps, while the harmony parts are static or move by jumps, the ear tends to focus on the melody lines. This helps the chant melodies to control the understated spiritual and musical atmosphere. Also adding to this atmosphere is the fact that all of the parts move homophonically except for two short and appropriate text phrases (“He hath scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts,” and “the rich he hath sent empty away.”). Finally, some of the melody notes clash fleetingly with the F minor harmony parts, which leads the ear onto the next sound—necessary since there is no constant sense of rhythmic motion. All of this creates a mesmerizing effect to allow the listener to contemplate the meaning of the text.
We remain in the 20th Century for the close of the first half of today’s concert. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) Composed his All Night Vigil, op. 37, for the Russian Orthodox Church in 1915. Bogoroditsye Dyevo is the sixth movement of this fifteen-movement composition for a cappella choir. Nine of the fifteen sections of this work are based on pre-existing Russian chants. The other movements, including number six, are built on original melodies that Rachmaninov tried to imbue with the spirit and style of Russian chant to create in his words “a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.” The many changes of dynamics in the piece give the music a much different feeling than the previous pieces on this program.
This leads us to the Magnificat from “The St. Paul’s Service” composed in 1951 by the British composer Herbert Howells (1892–1983) for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The piece opens in G minor with an ascending jump of a minor 3rd in the unison choir. The unison choir continues for five measures with a chant-like melody accompanied by organ, before breaking into four parts. This initial melody keeps recurring in various keys in different voice parts and organ throughout the first section, ending with “he hath put down the mighty from their seat.” A second short section modulates to a major key with a new melody for the joyful text “and hath exalted the humble and meek.” Another short section follows to the text “and the rich he hath sent empty away,” appropriately in a minor key. The tempo now relaxes somewhat for “He rememb'ring his mercy.” Then we return to the original tempo, key, and melody in the organ to introduce the final doxology. Variants of this melody are used for the performers to proclaim glory to God. This leads to overlapping parts to describe eternity, climaxing at “added notes in the harmony, and frequent dynamic changes, this piece concludes the first half of today’s concert in an even more emotional vein than the Rachmaminov, which preceded it.”
For the concert’s second half, Philomusica presents traditional carols from the areas of the world from which the composed pieces came: Spain, Eastern Europe, and Great Britain. Sit back and enjoy the sounds of the season!
In Praise and Remembrance - Spring 2010
What Sweeter Music - Fall 2009
Philomusica Celebrates Love - Spring 2009
Christmas through the Ages - Fall 2008
Celebrating Inspiration - Spring 2008
Awake, Awake - Fall 2007
Sounds of Devotion - Spring 2006
Echoes of Mystery and Joy - Fall 2006
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