Dextera Domine by César Franck
Born in Liège, Belgium, Franck spent the bulk of his adult life in France, first as a concert pianist, and later as a composer and as the organist at the church of Ste. Clothilde in Paris. Franck composed several miscellaneous pieces for the choir at Ste. Clothilde with organ accompaniment. Perhaps his finest was Dextera Domini. Like most of his church pieces, this work was composed for soprano, tenor and bass choral parts - in his day the Ste. Clothilde choir had no altos. Although rich in melodic invention, Franck's choral works are awkwardly written for the voice parts. The parts don't sing easily, and the choir doesn't naturally sound good. We are using an edition done by the American organist-composer Leo Sowerby, in which he has added an alto part which introduces no new musical material; it simply doubles the tenor part or doubles the soprano part an octave lower. I am usually a complete purist when it comes to doing what the composer wrote. But here is an exception. I think Sowerby's arrangement is better than Franck's original. But, whatever version is used, the piece is a favorite because of the beauty of its melodic material.
Messe 'cum jubilo' by Maurice Duruflé
The Messe 'cum jubilo' was Duruflé's last major composition. Composed in 1966 and dedicated to his wife, the organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé (my teacher), it was based on Gregorian Chant melodies known as the 'Cum Jubilo' Mass, also known as the 'Missa Marialis.' The whole work is based on these melodies, sometimes taken by the choir, sometimes by the organ, sometimes developed and expanded, other times merely hinted at. What is totally unique about this piece is that the chorus called for is a choir of baritones in unison. For this performance I am using all the men who sing the Poulenc and Franck, plus an additional eight baritones just for this piece. The sound Duruflé had in his mind were the monks at the monastery inSolesmes,France, world-famous for their singing of Gregorian Chant. I heard many services there in years past, and that is the sound we will be going for. It is a sweet French baritone sound, with tenors and some basses thrown in. Always sweet and devotional. In a practical vein, Duruflé made three versions of this Mass: one for full orchestra with organ, one with just organ accompaniment, and one with a reduced orchestra including a large organ part. On our Duruflé Album we recorded the third version, which I like very much. But, with this magnificent new French organ, The Manton Memorial Organ, I felt we had to do the organ version to show off all the remarkable French timbres. Organist Nancianne Parrella and I spent many hours last week planning the registration (the choice of organ stops) for this piece. It was an amazing experience to be able to choose from exactly the kinds of sounds Duruflé had in mind! The work contains the usual 5 movements of a musical Mass, leaving out the Credo. Just like his friend, Francis Poulenc, Duruflé was a master of balancing musical 'gestures.' While the German composers tended to be centered on the development of musical material, many French composers instead laid out a musical block, and followed it, not with its own development, but with new material that was different and seemed to organically balance with the music before. So, in this Mass, we have a personal, devotional Kyrie followed by an extroverted, flamboyant Gloria (which, itself, is balanced with a slow, deeply expressive middle section.) This Sanctus is not the glittery world of the Sanctus in his Requiem. Instead it is cloaked in mystery. And when the climax comes, it is a Hosanna recalling the procession of Christ on Palm Sunday: regal, but never forgetting the oncoming of the Crucifixion. The Benedictus for baritone solo is an extraordinarily beautiful, personal utterance. The Agnus Dei is in three parts. The first two express an anxious world. But this is completely resolved with the magnificent final page of the work. Played Adagio (slowly) and set against the luminous major chords, the Gregorian melody is finally heard in its pure, unaltered form on the organ, with the men singing a counter-melody and finally joining the organ in the last phrase. The piece ends with a feeling of profound peace.
Poulenc Stabat Mater
This has been one of my favorite pieces of music for my entire adult life. The Voices of Ascension and I have never performed it, because I could not imagine doing it without the huge orchestra called for in the score. But last year at Ascension's Good Friday service, I did three movements of it with the Church of the Ascension Choir (about 20 professional singers) accompanied by our new organ. It was incredible; and, immediately, I decided to do the whole piece with the Voices of Ascension - 40 voices strong - and the new organ. Again, Nancianne Parrella and I spent all last week working on the stops for this piece, and the sounds are truly special.
Francis Poulenc was born right before the turn of the century - in 1899 - in Paris. He grew up during the days when Debussy and Ravel (his teacher) were composing many of their greatest works. During the 1920's he came to be influenced also by Satie and Stravinsky, and by the many literary figures who were close personal friends of his. Along with other young composers, he formed a group called Les Six, often seen as a reaction against the music of the Impressionists and Wagner. During this period Poulenc composed songs, piano music, chamber music, and orchestral works. There was great sensitivity to the marvelous texts his chose in his vocal music, and often a true Parisian élan throughout, many works even evoking memories of a Parisian music hall.
The death of a dear friend in 1936 deeply affected Poulenc. He went to visit the chapel high in the hills of Rocamadour, France, which contained a famous sculpture, The Black Virgin. This experience took him to a spiritual plane that he had never before experienced, and resulted in the composition of the first of his sacred choral works, The Litanies of the Black Virgin (which we performed last season.) The Mass in G followed a year later. And, in 1949, another dear friend died unexpectedly. At first he thought he would compose a Requiem. But that text, with its formality and Dies Irae threats of damnation, was not his style. He chose instead the more human text of the Stabat Mater, a 13th century poem depicting the sorrow of Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross.
The work was completed in 1950 and premiered in 1951. Poulenc considered it his greatest composition.
The 12 contrasting movements form an utterly amazing procession of musical gestures, some deep, dark, and utterly serious; some luxuriously beautiful; others ferocious, brutal; others austere and deeply spiritual. The totally is a piece of sustained inspiration and depth matched in only a few of his other compositions.
The opening movement is immediately affecting, drawing us in to this special world in a just a few measures. It is profoundly serious, but human at the same time. The Cujus animam is marked 'very violent,' expressing the terrible suffering of the soul, as if pierced by a sword. The next movement begins a cappella in a far-away key, a whole new spiritual world. When the basses come in with the organ, speaking to the Mother of Christ, it is a human response. Measures of worldly beauty contrast with more austere sections. Quae moerebat is inspired by the text 'loving Mother,' and provides a contrasting gesture of happiness. Next follows perhaps the boldest movement of all which portrays Mary in horrible distress as she watches her Son being whipped. The immensely-moving Vidit suum, with soprano solo, depicts Mary as she watches her Son die. Only Poulenc could have composed this music, this particular combination of deeply serious, then spiritual, worldly, macabre. Only Poulenc could have combined all these elements into a profound unity. Eja Mater is another movement providing a contrasting gesture of happiness, this time inspired by the words 'fount of love.' It is followed by the most austere, antique movement of the piece, asking 'that my heart may burn in loving Christ.' As Sancta Mater begins, the basses speak in human tone to Mary. Much of the rest of the movement speaks personally, spiritually, but in a worldly cloak. This was Poulenc's amazing gift: his personal spirituality never negated his urban humanity. His soul had room for both the chapel in Rocamadour and the Parisian night club. (I think this is one reason New Yorkers find his music speaks to them. It is a spirituality that does not ignore the human urban existence.) Fac ut portem, with its sharply rhythmic sarabande style, asks to share carrying the burden of Christ's suffering. Inflammatus is the one depiction of the flames of damnation. The second half of the movement shows the ultimate victory of sharing the Cross with Jesus. The magnificent concluding movement starts with a pious prayer. And then Poulenc shows us the glories of Paradise. Motivic material from the very first movement is brought back. The work winds down, little by little, until the choir finally sings a resounding 'Amen!' The spirit is taken up to Heaven with the final dramatic chords of the organ.
- Dennis Keene ©2012