Peaceable Kingdom: The American 20th Century

A retrospective...

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March, 2017 at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle


The Peaceable Kingdom by Randall Thompson
Four Motets by Aaron Copland
Missa Brevis by Leonard Bernstein
Love Letters by Bern Herbolsheimer

The American choral tradition took center stage when we presented four enduring a cappella works by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson, and Bern Herbolsheimer. To choral singers everywhere, Randall Thompson’s music needed no introduction. His 1936 choral cycle,The Peaceable Kingdom, was a groundbreaking musical statement. This concert was included in the Bern Herbolsheimer 2017 Music Festival.

The Peaceable Kingdom ~ by Randall Thompson

A Sequence of Sacred Choruses for Unaccompanied Mixed Voices

In 1934 a painting entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom" appeared by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), the preaching Quaker of Pennsylvania. Hicks is said to have painted over one hundred versions of this setting, one of the most well-known of which may be viewed at the Worcester Art Museum. It illustrates Isaiah 11:6-9, one of Hicks' favorite subjects in preaching and painting – “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them (v.6).”

Composer Randall Thompson saw the painting and reacted to its message of hope and peace and decided to write a sequence of sacred choruses based on the texts of Isaiah. The resulting work, The Peaceable Kingdom, was a commission for Randall Thompson from the League of Composers for a piece to be performed by the combined Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society.

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The Peaceable Kingdom was first performed on March 3, 1936, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For years it has served as the benchmark in American choral a cappella literature for its colorful and expressive text painting, vast emotional scope, and mastery of compositional technique.

The first chorus contrasts the rewards of the righteous, who “shall sing for joy of heart,” with the fate of the wicked, who “shall howl for vexation of spirit.” The second chorus, “Woe Unto Them,” is a dramatic admonition to those who “regard not the Lord.” The third chorus continues to foretell the doom of the wicked, reaching a dramatic climax in the fourth movement “Howl Ye” for double antiphonal chorus. The fate of the wicked is finally stated:

“The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and everything sown by the brooks shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.”

The remainder of the work is more optimistic, preparing us for God’s promise to the righteous and concluding with a majestic double chorus, “Ye Shall Have a Song.”

Four Motets ~ By Aaron Copland

  1. Help Us, O Lord
  2. Thou, O Jehovah Abideth Forever
  3. Have Mercy On Us
  4. Sing Ye Praises To Our King


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Aaron Copland's music for chorus reveals his stylistic range, from accessible to challenging, simple to grand, from student works to his mature style. Like many other composers, Copland went to Paris for lessons with the now-famous French pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. Remaining fruitfully in this ‘boulangerie’ for three years, Copland wrote his Four Motets―his first compositions for chorus―as a student exercise for his teacher in 1921, These were his first compositions for chorus. Nadia Boulanger required her pupils to learn to compose traditional forms, among them the motet. Written under her instruction, Copland's motets make use of biblical texts for an a cappella chorus of mixed voices.

Predating Copland's conscious turn to Americanism, these motets bear the influence of European composers like Mussorsgsky, Messiaen, Faure, and Stravinsky. Copland heard them for the first time in Fontainebleau only in 1924. When they were finally published several decades later, Copland commented that he had “agreed to their publication with mixed emotions. While they have a certain curiosity value—perhaps people want to know what I was doing as a student—the style is not yet really mine.” But, for today's listeners, the settings of these Biblical texts are progressive and fresh. 

Each of the motets, settings of adapted Old Testament texts, maintains a discrete personality—from the gently rocking serenity of Help us, O Lord to the rousing jubilation of Sing ye praises to our king. An overall technical assurance is enhanced by moments of arresting ingenuity—such as the imitative entries at the mid-point of Thou, O Jehovah, abideth forever—and the delicate, two-part ostinato that establishes itself in Have mercy on us, O my Lord.

Missa Brevis ~ By Leonard Bernstein

The twenty-year-old Harvard music student Leonard Bernstein met Aaron Copland—eighteen years his senior—at a post-concert party in November 1938. Bernstein would later say that, in the absence of a formal compositional training, Copland was the ‘only real composition teacher’ he had. Choral music, for neither composer, would become a mainstay of their output; the orchestra and the stage were much stronger pulls. There are only three choral works in the Bernstein catalogue: a short liturgical work for the Jewish Sabbath evening worship, Hashkiveinu (1945), the Missa brevis (1988) and, the best known, Chichester Psalms (1965).

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We have the American conductor Robert Shaw to thank for the Missa brevis, although his planting of the idea with Bernstein took a full thirty-three years to be realized. In 1955, Bernstein composed French and Latin choruses for a play about the trial of Joan of Arc, The Lark. This incidental music had a deliberate medieval/Renaissance feel, and was performed (on tape) in those performances by a specialist early music group, New York Pro Musica Antiqua. Robert Shaw’s suggestion that the material could be reworked as a Mass setting obviously lodged with Bernstein, because he did just that to mark Shaw’s retirement in 1988 as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The Lark’s incidental music featured three French choruses—the first of which, Spring Song, became the dancing section of the Dona nobis pacem—and five Latin choruses. Robert Shaw’s suggestion of a Missa brevis was not surprising, because what he heard in that Broadway theatre in 1955 were Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus movements already in place. Bernstein reworked the Prelude and Gloria from The Lark, which share the same assertive choral opening and countertenor solo, not only into the Gloria of the Missa brevis, but into the openings of the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem too. And The Lark’s other movement, Requiem, Bernstein adroitly turned into the Kyrie. It is all a fascinating exercise in recycling and resourceful extension of material.

The prominence of percussion and a countertenor (or boy treble) solo in Bernstein’s mid-60s hit Chichester Psalms was not the original thing it might have seemed at the time; it was anticipated in his 1955 incidental music, and then replicated in the later Missa brevis. Pealing tubular bells are the main thing here, in the latter parts of the Gloria and Benedictus, together with the banquet dance-style percussion of tambourine, tabor and hand drum in the final movement. The countertenor solos, much more austere here than in Chichester Psalms, add to the ancient, ceremonial air of the music generally—not mock-medieval as such, but infused with a stone-vaulted, bare-fifths severity.

Love Letters ~ By Bern Herbolsheimer

  1. Gold and Silver
  2. Red or Coral
  3. White
  4. Rosy

 
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The Tatar people’s historical home was the broad steppes of Russia, especially the region about five hundred miles south and east of Moscow, along the Volga River. For his unaccompanied choral cycle Love Letters, Bern Herbolsheimer has chosen four traditional Tatar love-songs in the four-line poetic form of a ruba’i (the plural is “rubaiyat”). The poems are united by the mention of colors and by the composer’s natural lyricism and craftsmanship. Composed in April 2005, Love Letters is a perfect example of Herbolsheimer’s luscious lyricism and consummate craftsmanship.

Born in Montana, Herbolsheimer long made his home in Seattle. He taught at the University of Washington and Cornish College of the Arts and was among the most accomplished composers in the Northwest. His operas have been performed internationally; his symphonic music, across the country. His output is well known to Seattle choral audiences, as his works are often performed by the Cascadian Chorale (where he served as Composer-in-Residence for many years), Opus 7, and the choirs of St. James Cathedral. Herbolsheimer was a remarkably prolific composer for whom the choral sound world seems to have special resonance.

Notes by Gary Cannon, used by permission

1. Gold and Silver ~ Once I had a gold and silver thimble, But I can’t set it on the table now. I would go to you within this note I write, But I can’t fit inside of it.

2. Red or Coral ~ There are six rows of beads in that red necklace, But this one of coral has seven shiny rows. I will not write. I’ll not send a letter. If you really miss me you’ll come back on your own!

3. White ~ On this sheet, this white sheet of paper, I wrote your name again and again. O! my dove, O! my beauty, Only God knows how much I love you.

4. Rosy ~ Many flowers in the garden; only one is the sweetest rose. Yesterday I read your letter; all day long I was rosy-cheeked! Many trees are in the orchard; only one has the sweetest fruit. Yesterday I read your letter; all day long I was rosy-cheeked!

— Traditional Tatar, translated by Aidar Galeev and the composer

 

More about The Peaceable Kingdom...