Program notes for January 27 concert, Turmoil & Repose

Turmoil and Repose

Our program (Missa in tempore belli, “Come to the Woods” and Lux Aeterna) is eclectic. It features music by one of the great composers of the Western canon, Franz Joseph Haydn, along with works by the contemporary composers Morten Lauridsen and Jake Runestad. The two works by Haydn and Lauridsen share a similar orchestration but have vastly different aesthetics. They are bridged, I hope, by a work from 2015 which employs the chorus in a very different way and yet has similarities to the other works. The through-line of our performance is the concept of turmoil and rest: each work has moments of menace, angst, or (literally) tumult, which contrast with sublimely tranquil passages.

In the Haydn we hear a traditional Classical-era work, with 4 vocal soloists, a choir, and an orchestra of paired woodwinds, a couple of trumpets, timpani and strings. But there is much about this late Mass that is not typical, most notably the ominous timpani in the Agnus Dei, paired with the military-sounding brass.

The Runestad piece, chosen specifically for this program because of its different affect, features the piano in a prominent role. The choral voices are used in a modern way, sometimes as background music, sometimes carrying the melodic interest.

With a smaller orchestra than the Haydn and no soloists, Lauridsen creates a very different sonic atmosphere, one derived from chant. As the composer says, “…while I do not incorporate an overt reference to the single line chant anywhere…the conjunct and flowing melodic lines…and chant-like phrase structures creating a seamlessness throughout certainly have their underpinnings in the chant literature. Renaissance procedures abound throughout Lux Aeterna.”

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) worked for most of his illustrious career (from1761) for the noble Hungarian Esterházy family, which was “among the great landowner magnates of the Kingdom of Hungary during the time it was part of the Habsburg Empire and later Austria-Hungary. During the history of the Habsburg empire, the Esterházys were consistently loyal to the Habsburg rulers. They received the title of count in 1626 and the Forchtenstein line received the title of Fürst (Ruling Prince) from the Holy Roman Emperor in 1712” (Wikipedia). From 1796-1802 Haydn was required by his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, to compose a mass for the name day of his wife, Princess Marie Hermenegild; the Missa in tempore belli was composed in August 1796 for the Princess’ celebratory Mass in December 1796.

In 1796 Napoleon was battling a coalition of Austrian and Piedmontese troops in Italy and was making a name for himself as a general while threatening the Austrian holdings there. The threat to Austria was real, and some of this unease is reflected in Haydn’s mass. “The Mass in Time of War is sharply mixed music – light and dark, festive and troubled – and that duality is the source of its considerable expressive power” (Dr. Melvin G. Golzband). You will hear the tonality shift from a bright and joyous C major to an angst-filled C minor in the middle of the Credo and the first part of the Benedictus, and, finally halfway through the Agnus Dei, with its anchoring, menacing timpani strokes. Haydn returns us to a sort of manic, hopeful joy at the words “Dona nobis pacem (Give us peace).”

“Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) evinces the strong interest of the composer in expressing both the turmoil and the repose of a day in the woods. The work is held together by the opening motive (“Another glorious day”), which recurs throughout. The piano writing often portrays the wind, or the “wild exuberance” of the storm, while the voices are used in a cinematic way, for color (e.g., the women’s voices in the closing section, while the men chant “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”).

The following are notes by the composer:

Famed Scottish-American naturalist and conservationist John Muir had a giddy, child-like excitement for the natural world. After a youth spent in Scotland and Wisconsin, he found himself transformed by his first visit, around age 30, to California’s Yosemite Valley. With the vast mountainous landscape and the surreal size of the sequoia and redwood trees, these woods captured him and became his playground, his classroom, and his sanctuary.Muir was an avid “saunterer” and a profound thinker who would venture into the woods for days with a bit of food and a book of Emerson poetry in hand. Inspired by the beauty of the wilderness and a lifelong love for words, Muir penned a vast collection of eloquent and vivid writings. In one quintessentially Muirian account, he is so fascinated by a storm that he climbs up a tall Douglas Fir to experience it more intensely.

“Come to the Woods” explores Muir’s inspirations and the transporting peace found in the natural world. Using a collage of fragments from Muir’s writings, the work ventures from the boisterous joy of a “glorious day,” to the quiet whispering of wind, to the rejuvenating power of a storm, to the calming “amber light” when the clouds begin to clear. I hope it captures the self-discovery and sustenance one encounters while exploring the outdoors and its vital importance in our lives. As Muir writes, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Carol Talbeck writes, “To walk in the evergreen forests and along the waterways of the Pacific Northwest, as Morten Lauridsen loves to do, is to experience infinite variations of light. Clouds of gray loom in the skies, and deft rays of sunlight filter through the trees and touch on water with an ever-changing chiaroscuro effect. Walking here with poetry in his mind and music in his heart, Lauridsen finds inspiration for his compositions, luminous with inner radiance.” Lauridsen worked for the Forest Service as a young man and then turned to composition, studying with Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California, where he is now a Professor of Composition.

The composer has said, “I composed ‘Lux Aeterna’ in response to my Mother’s final illness and found great personal comfort and solace in setting to music these timeless and wondrous words about Light, a universal symbol of illumination at all levels—spiritual, artistic, and intellectual.”

The piece is in an arch form, with the themes of the Introitus echoed in the final movement (Agnus Dei- Lux Aeterna). In between are three quite different sections – the somewhat academic 2nd movement, with its Josquin-inspired duets combined with a canon (“Fiat misericordia tua”) and the surprising use of a hymn tune – the “Herzliebster Jesu” from the Nuremberg Songbook, 1677 – you will hear it in the brass. The heart of the work is the sublime “O nata lux”, an a capella motet. This is followed by the improbable waltz that is movement 4 (“Veni sancte Spiritus”), a wild two minutes of joy.

Here are the composer’s words about Lux Aeterna:

Lux Aeterna…is in five movements, played without pause. Its texts are drawn from sacred Latin sources, each containing references to light. The piece opens and closes with the beginning and ending of the Requiem Mass with the central three movements drawn respectively from the Te Deum (including a line from the Beatus Vir), O Nata Lux, and Veni, Sancte, Spiritus.

The instrumental introduction to the Introitus softly recalls fragments from two pieces especially close to my heart (my settings of Rilke’s Contre Qui, Rose, from Les Chansons des Roses, and O Magnum Mysterium) which recur throughout the work in various forms. Several new themes in the Introitus are then introduced by the chorus, including an extended canon on et lux perpetua. In Te, domine, Speravi contains, among other music elements, the cantus firmus Herzliebster Jesu (from the Nurembuerg Songbook, 1677) and a lengthy inverted canon on fiat misericordia. O Nata Lux and Veni, Sancte Spiritus are paired songs, the formal a central a cappella motet and the latter a spirited, jubilant canticle. A quiet setting of the Agnus Dei precedes the final Lux Aeterna, which reprises the opening section of the Introitus and concludes with a joyful Alleluia.