Concert Notes: To Music




“Jubilate Deo” by Henry Purcell

It is difficult to overstate the historical importance and influence of 17th-century English musician Henry Purcell. Purcell was born in the area of London later known as Devil’s Acre, just a few hundred yards from Westminster Abbey where he would later become organist.

Purcell studied under Dr. John Blow, who was soon to be appointed organist at the Abbey. By his late teenage years, Purcell’s compositions were already performed. In 1679, Blow resigned his post in favor of his pupil, Purcell. As organist of the Abbey, Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with theatre music. Returning to the stage, his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music. After Purcell’s marriage in 1682, he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, an office that he held simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey.

For some years after this, he was busy in the production of sacred music, odes addressed to the king and royal family, and other similar works. These works included two anthems for the coronation of King James II and a setting of the birthday ode for Queen Mary. Four years later, he wrote one of his most elaborate and important works: a setting for another birthday ode for the Queen entitled Come Ye Sons of Art.

Throughout his life Purcell continued composing both sacred and secular works; in the final six years of his life he composed music for forty-two plays. The Jubilate Deo heard today and its companion Te Deum were written in 1694 for Saint Cecilia’s Day (the Patron Saint of Music). The Jubilate is sung to the 1662 text so familiar to Anglicans throughout the English-speaking world.

Purcell fathered six children by his wife Frances. His wife, as well as his son Edward and daughter Frances, survived him. His wife Frances published a number of her husband’s works, including the now famous collection called Orpheus Britannicus, in two volumes, printed in 1698 and 1702, respectively.

Henry Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music that he had earlier composed for Queen Mary’s funeral was performed during his service as well. His epitaph reads:

“Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life
and is gone to that blessed place
where only his harmony can be exceeded.”

After his death, Purcell was honored by many of his contemporaries, including his old friend and teacher John Blow, who wrote An Ode, on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell with text by his old collaborator, John Dryden. William Croft’s 1724 setting for the Burial Service was written in the style of “the great Master.” Croft preserved Purcell’s setting of “Thou knowest Lord” in his service, for reasons “obvious to any artist”; it has been sung at every British state funeral ever since. The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a famous sonnet entitled simply “Henry Purcell,” with a headnote reading, “The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally.”

Purcell also had a strong influence on the composers of the English musical renaissance of the early 20th century, most notably Benjamin Britten, who created and performed a realization of Dido and Aeneas. Purcell is honored together with Bach and Handel with a feast day (July 28) on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.

“Nine German Arias” by George Frideric Handel

Handel is considered among the most prominent English composers following Purcell. His life was twice the length of Purcell’s, resulting in a gigantic output of vocal and instrumental music.

Handel seldom set texts in his native language, but for the Nine German Arias he took poems by Barthold Heinrich Brockes called Earthly Pleasure in God, setting them for high voice, violin, and basso continuo. The texts inspired Handel to write music of great melodic beauty, qualities augmented by an almost operatic sense of declamation. The collection was written in the 1720s, and the imagery of the texts points toward evidence of the divine in the beauty of nature. The German arias stand apart among Handel’s vocal music, for they are very personal pieces, not just in the contemplative nature of their words, but also in their musical intimacy, requiring a level of interactivity between the performers that is rarely found in vocal music of this period.

Through these arias the listener glimpses Handel in one of his few creative outings with his native language, and they form what comes closest to a song cycle by him. Though they must have been performed from handwritten copies, it is sad that they were not published until nearly two centuries later.

“Phoenix” by Peter Hallock

Peter Hallock composed Phoenix in July 1975 as a retirement gift for his University of Washington School of Music mentor, teacher, and friend Miriam Terry. Hallock subsequently revised the work in 1982. Phoenix is Hallock’s first large-scale work to use harp and the second to incorporate violoncello (the first is The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet composed for the Compline Choir in 1972). Phoenix fits into a highly productive time for the composer during which he “broke the rules” of composition and explored different ways to manipulate sound in the “Holy Box” that is Saint Mark’s Cathedral. In fact, many works from this period make use of prepared sound. Corinne Odegard, a neighbor of Miriam Terry’s, recalled that Hallock said Phoenix was “like [Miriam], prim and proper, with a streak of fun.”

For Phoenix, Hallock freely adapted texts from both the psalms and Charles W. Kennedy’s translation of an anonymous old English Christian poem entitled “The Phoenix.” Some scholars attribute the 677-line poem, found in the 10th-century Exeter Book, to Cynewulf (fl. 9th cent.). The original poem is structured in two parts. The first part describes the Phoenix:

“God wotteth only, the Almighty King, what his sex may be, male or female; no one of all the race of men knoweth that, save God alone, how wondrous are the ways, the fair decree of old regarding the nature of that bird.”

And the bird’s environment:

“There stand no hills nor mountains steep, no stony cliffs rise high as here with us, nor dales nor glens, nor mountain gorges, caves nor crags. No whit of roughness
bideth there; but the pleasant field, blossoming with delights, bringeth forth beneath
the clouds.”

The second part turns the Phoenix’s life into an allegory for death and resurrection:

“Then high above the roofs of earth for righteous souls shineth the Savior Christ.

Winsome birds, radiantly restored, in bliss exulting, chosen spirits, follow Him in that joyous home forever, where the hostile shameless Fiend may not work them evil. But there they dwell forever, clothed with light, like to the Phoenix fowl, beauteous in the peace of God and in His glory.”

Hallock interweaves texts from the Psalms to remind the listener of the soul’s eternity—it is born, passes through death, only to be reborn just like the Phoenix.

The work is through-composed, held together by use of three musical devices: the pentatonic scale, heard at the beginning and end of the piece, creating structural “book ends”; parallel triads, heard first from the sopranos and altos, then by all voices near the beginning, and again at the end; and repeated use of open fifths (at the words “dawn,” “rising Sun,” and “youth refashioned”) and ascending tritones (at the words “trumpet” and “awake”) and descending tritones (at “prince of death”). Together, the violoncello and harp sonically depict the Phoenix at various stages—taking flight, conflagration in the balefire and passing through death, and rising again. Just as the Phoenix has died, it rises out of the ashes (heard in the rising cello part), while soft organ strings undergird the choir as it sings “transformed, restored.” This is the only time organ is used in the piece and to great effect. Phoenix was sung at Hallock’s burial rite at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on May 18, 2014.

Notes by Jason Anderson
Peter Hallock’s Biographer, Friend, and Caregiver and second director of the Compline Choir

“To Saint Cecilia” by Norman Dello Joio

Norman Dello Joio was an American composer whose output spanned over half a century. He was born in New York City to Italian immigrants. He began his musical career as organist and choir director at age 14. His father was an organist, pianist, and vocal coach and coached many opera stars from the Metropolitan Opera. He taught his son Norman piano starting at the age of four. In his teens, Norman began studying organ with his godfather, Pietro Yon, who was the noted organist at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1939, he received a scholarship to the renowned Juilliard School where he studied with Paul Hindemith, who encouraged him to follow his own lyrical bent, rather than sacrificing it to the atonal systems then popular. Dello Joio received numerous awards and much recognition, but he was perhaps best known for his choral music. In 1948 he became associated with the dancer Martha Graham, for whom he wrote several works. He won a Pulitzer prize in 1957, and in 1965 he received the Emmy Award for the “most outstanding music written for television in the 1964–1965 Season” for his score to the 1964 NBC television special The Louvre. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College and at the Mannes College of Music and served as professor and dean at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. In 1978, he retired and moved to Long Island. Despite infirmities, Dello Joio remained active as a composer until his final years, continuing to produce chamber, choral, and even orchestral music. He died in his sleep on July 24, 2008, at his home in East Hampton, New York.