Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interesting Origins for a New Piece: At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners

Awhile back I was contacted by Adam Beeken, the fine director of choirs at Lexington (KY) Catholic High School. Adam studied at the University of Kentucky under Jeff Johnson, one of the finest choral programs around. So I knew the choirs at his school would be excellent.

Adam envisioned commissioning a piece for the school choir tour to Chicago in March 2013 and with a theme connecting music with visual art in some way. He approached me about this and I was intrigued, and we proceeded to hash out some of the possible ways to write a new piece with this premise. While Adam started fleshing out the rest of his program, I decided that I could perhaps create a sort of choral version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Thus, I would have to make the piece about a few visuals strung together, thus probably a multi-movement piece. I decided that since the choir was coming here to Chicago to sing, that I should make a trip down to our world-class art museum, the Art Institute, and see if there might be paintings that would inspire me musically and in my selection of texts. Since the school is Catholic, I also decided that my destination at the Art Institute should be the fine European Medieval through Renaissance collection of mostly Christian sacred subjects. If I could make a connection between paintings in the Art institute and the texts I chose to set, I would hope that the choir would want to visit the Art institute during their trip to Chicago to see, firsthand, the paintings that inspired their commissioned piece.

Meanwhile some text selection/musical ideas were already beginning to percolate. Not long ago the great conductor Bill Dehning suggested to me that he felt the Williametta Spencer setting of John Donne's poem “At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners” was a fine piece, but really seemed to hastily get from line one of the sonnet to the end. Bill is right, the piece is over in a blink of an eye, usually clocking in at about two minutes. 

John Donne
In addition to the Donne and possibly considering texts by Thomas Merton, I had also been sifting through the bizarre English poet Christopher Smart's oddly fragmented Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb) for text shards of interest. You may recall that this is the text source for Benjamin Britten's masterful “Rejoice in the Lamb”. One text fragment which mentions Adam and Eve as well as the crucifixion had interested me. So here were two text ideas, the Donne and the Smart, that were now rolling around in my head.

Christopher Smart

So as I visited the Art Institute, with no time restriction on my wandering that day a few months ago, I wanted to keep a very open mind about what really hit me visually and/or emotionally, while also an eye out for paintings that might mesh with those two texts (of course I was still also considering other text candidates as well). Would I stumble upon some serendipitous meeting of text, painting, and possible musical setting? It was an experiment which I thoroughly enjoyed as I wandered about. I had no idea if anything would come of this experiment.

Adam/Eve 1533/37 by Lucas Cranach the Elder
I decided to start with the oldest Christian art there. And before long I stumbled upon a painting, an “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1533/37 I had seen in earlier visits over the years. What strikes one about this two panel painting is its rather medieval flatness, the influence of Albrecht Dürer, and the slightly plaintive expressions on the faces of Adam and Eve, and I felt these expressions perfectly fit Smart's mixture of knowledge of Paradise, but also the Fall. The setting utilizes strange harmonies at times, generally minor modes, odd half-step inflections, yet also a major key momentarily ecstatic portrayal regarding the words about Paradise. Musically it draws more from Howells than Britten, and, by the way, I don't apologize for mentioning my English composer muses (which also at times includes other Brits such as Vaughn Williams and Holst).

So I had stumbled upon an expressive, yet somewhat quiet painting and a text with generally the same attributes. Adam had wanted this piece to be appropriate for a large choir, which to me also implies that the piece needs to be ”big” at times, and perhaps also needs to finish “big”. Obviously the theme of Smart's text and this simple Adam and Eve painting would not support the full requirements of the piece, and therefore it did become clearer to me that I indeed needed to write a multi-movement piece. Thus the Smart/Adam and Eve section could perhaps be a short first movement.

Crucifixion by Francisco Zurbarán
Moving along in the Art Institute I came across an amazing Crucifixion by the Spanish painter Francisco Zurbarán. This large (11 ft by 7 ft) canvas is a powerful example of chiaroscuro - a bold black background, with the crucified Jesus in the center. This painting, when viewed in person, is both stunning and overwhelming in its single message. I realized that this was the Crucifixion spoken of briefly by Smart and wondered (over the next few hours and days) if I could perhaps take the message/image of this painting and mirror it by simply setting just the word “Crucifixus” over and over (the full Crucifixus text of the Nicene Creed would be implied). I realized that my setting could be quiet and meditative and/or crying with pain. The possibilities were there for something either intimate or more overtly powerful. As I mulled this over for a few days I decided indeed that I wanted to simply use this one word, focus intently on it, and yet I decided that I would not go over the top with some kind of overtly wounded, painful music. I would visit pain and suffering more subtly through use of some slightly unusual melodic intervals and also a chorale section with unusual harmonies (almost sounding like early Renaissance Spanish music) but keep this setting, for the most part, in the zone of intimacy- as if this would be the music in one's head during a “Stations of the Cross” arrival at station eleven.

So, now I perhaps had two movements, linked to some extent by the Crucifixion theme, but also both probably introspective and not implying a “big” sound for the choir.

In the same room as the Zurbarán was a large painting by Francesco Buoneri of the Final Judgment, the theme of the beginning of Donne's sonnet mentioned above. I realized I truly should set the Donne as the final section. After all, my developing story included major highlights of Christian history; Adam and Eve, the Crucifixion- why not arrive at the Final Judgment as a conclusion? I kept studying this painting but was having a hard time truly liking it. It just seemed a little underwhelming and even a bit mundane in its imagery. I wandered the whole building looking for something else along these lines, as I came to believe that a powerful setting of the Donne would not only round out a three movement piece but also give me a final section which would certainly be the “big” music I needed for the choir. But nothing else in the building visited the theme of Donne's text and I struggled for awhile with that disappointment.

I contacted Adam and told him of my text ideas, the idea of a multi-movement piece, the paintings I had seen and so on. Adam was thrilled with my progress and we discussed whether or not this piece, now to be longer in duration than originally planned and contracted, would still fit his needs. He said it was fine with him and I gradually started setting the texts.

So here was the final plan- the piece would start with the setting (about two and half minutes) of Smart's text (linked to the Cranach painting), a slight pause and continue (also about two and a half minutes) with the single word Crucifixus section (linked to the Zurbarán painting), and then proceed to a four minute setting of the Donne (with or without a painting twin), which would contain plenty of uptempo, loud sections. Thus the Donne is the destination and the piece takes that title. Musically the sections can perhaps stand apart, yet when sung from start to finish, there are elements that unite them, notably the early and mid-twentieth century English school melodic and harmonic influences mentioned earlier (the Donne section is very Holst- influenced, it might remind one of his Rig Veda music), a certain angularity to some of the melodies, but also conversely the importance of carefully chosen semi-tones in coloring melodies or turning harmonies in an unexpected direction. Adam wanted the piece to be challenging for his choir, yet still doable for high school voices. I paid close attention to ways to make this happen, and since the piece is SATB/piano, the piano allows for more adventurous music since it can help hold things together. The piece is very lyrical and I make sure that all voice parts take turns at singing melodies or leading in various ways. There is counterpoint of varying degrees as well, something missing in about 90% of the current cloying, homophonic American choral style. I also took care in writing for the men's voices- they go to divisi rarely and the ranges stay reasonable. All in all, I think I highly succeeded in this adventure that Adam sent me to explore! I am so thrilled that we have worked on this together and I am very excited to work with him and the choir as they prepare for the premiere of the piece and their trip to Chicago.

Post Script

As I was setting the Donne text I gradually realized that the real point of the sonnet is not the Final Judgment. I will plead guilty to being stupid for not noticing this much earlier, but the real theme is personal prayer, personal repentance, and a personal relationship with God. It's all right there in Donne's words, but I guess the epic drama of the Final Judgment imagery sure can get in the way. I now feel that the most important ideas are the very personal soul-searching lines which I set in an intensely lyrical, slow speed- not the uptempo Final Judgment lines. Thus I became aware that I should revisit the Art Institute and seek a different painting which reflects this new understanding of the Donne text. Well lo and behold, there is a painting literally a few feet away from the Zurbarán Crucifixus I admire and also that Final Judgment painting I didn't really care for that much. It's a painting by another Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera, of St. Peter intensely bemoaning his betrayal of Jesus. And while the story isn't one of the Final Judgment, it is one of deep personal searching, of great intensity, and of a personal dialogue with God about our own personal shortcomings and failures. The painting itself (probably influenced by a more famous El Greco version) is very powerful, the upturned face of Peter is anguished, yet it also seems to hold out hope for resolution with God. I realized that this painting truly fits the real message of the Donne poem.

The Penitent St/ Peter by Jusepe de Ribera

So, in conclusion, this project was unique, especially the steps I had to take to make all these elements relate to each other. And yet, can the composition succeed without these specific visual reference points? Yes, of course it can, but I still feel that telling the story of the project as Adam and I developed it, makes the final piece of music much more interesting, intense, and powerful.

The Texts of Each Section

The Christopher Smart text:

For the Glory of God is always in the East, but cannot be seen for the cloud of the crucifixion.
For due East is the way to Paradise, which man knoweth not by reason of his fall.

The Nicene Creed text:
Crucifíxus (etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato;
Passus, et sepultus est,
Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas,
Et ascendit in cælum, sedet ad dexteram Patris).

The Donne text:

At the round earth's imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go ;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, death, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there.   Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that's as good
As if Thou hadst seal'd my pardon with Thy blood.

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