Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music is one of his most beautiful and beloved works. It was composed in 1938 and dedicated to the great British conductor Sir Henry Wood. The text comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where the glories of music are so famously described. This piece was originally composed for 16 singers and orchestra. Each singer was given a short solo in addition to their singing in the “choir.” Our choir will be a bit larger (42), but each of the 16 solos has been given to a different member of our ensemble. And, instead of full orchestra, I have adapted the piece for organ, solo violin and harp. At the 1938 premiere, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, Sergei Rachmaninoff was in the audience and was so overcome by the beauty of the work that he wept. It has been a favorite of music lovers ever since.
The Angel’s Farewell from The Dream of Gerontius by Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
In the early part of the 20th century Edward Elgar was widely considered the greatest living composer in Britain. Success did not come easy to him, however. It wasn’t until his 42nd year (in 1899) that he finally achieved wide-spread fame with the premiere of his Enigma Variations, still considered one of his greatest works. He had been composing quite a few pieces for various choral festivals before the turn of the century. But in 1900 he embarked upon the setting of a poem by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Newman. This became arguably the greatest oratorio ever composed by an Englishman: The Dream of Gerontius. It tells of the death of a pious man and his soul’s journey to the judgment of God, and finally his decent into Purgatory (the intermediate state where souls of grace wait before entering heaven.)
Perhaps the most inspired music of this work is its final scene, The Angel’s Farewell. Here the Angel (a mezzo-soprano soloist) embraces the soul of Gerontius in her arms and gently leads him to the deep lake of Purgatory where angels will nurse him. “Farewell,” she says – but not forever. Be brave and patient, for your redemption will come. The sensitivity, the profoundly beautiful, compassionate music of this work places it almost in its own league amongst the British Romantic oratorio repertory.
Blest Pair of Sirens by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry was a composer, writer and teacher. He spent the greatest portion of his career as the Director of the Royal College of Music, where his students included Vaughan Williams and Holst. Tonight we are performing his three most famous works. Set to an ode by Milton (At a solemn Musick), Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens was commissioned by Charles Villiers Stanford for a special concert celebrating the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Its first performance was in St. James’ Hall in London in 1887. It was an immediate success and has been the favorite of many grand ceremonial occasions ever since – the most notable recent performance being the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Westminster Abbey in 2011.
Notes on Shakespeare’s Throat by the composer Martha Sullivan (b. 1964)
Shakespeare’s Throat presents three of Shakespeare’s texts about singing: “Hark, Hark! The Lark,” Ophelia’s mad lament “And will he not come again,” and the ebullient “Who is Sylvia?” Although each may stand alone, when taken together, they make the point that singing is never the same thing: every vocal utterance is something different in style, intent, and execution. Even the notion of “voice” is not fixed: in this set, a solo violin plays music to link the movements together, like a Baroque ritornello, echoing what has come before and foreshadowing what is to come. The instrument also sings, expressing various affects in its own voice, even though it sings without words.
Notes on St John of Rila Troparion by the composer Dobrinka Tabakova (b. 1980)
St. Ivan Rilski (876-c.946), also known by St. Yoan, St. Ivan or St. John of Rila is the patron saint of Bulgaria and the founder of the Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountain in Bulgaria. The monastery is regarded as one of the country’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments. 19th October is marked nationally in Bulgaria as the day of St. Ivan Rilski.
Notes on Jocelyn Hagen’s (b. 1980) Ophelia by Timothy Brown
This piece is based on passages from Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 7) in which Queen Gertrude brings news of the death of Ophelia to her brother, Laertes. Ms. Hagen’s approach to this text is simple - purposely uncomplicated - allowing the text to be the focus. She keeps the vocal range quite small for most of the work, expanding only to word-paint certain passages such as those describing clothes filling with water. It is a lovely combination of precise text setting offset with surprising musical lines and dynamics that bring the varying emotions alternately receding into blank shock, and bubbling - even churning to the surface.
Also subtly injected into the work is the little song of Ophelia who, sinking into madness, laments her lost love for Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 5). Ingeniously these lines, sung in the play, are the only ones Ms. Hagen sets without pitch; they are instead whispered as an eerie sort of accompaniment to the telling of her demented descent to the bottom of a pond. Laertes’ response to the news concludes the work; “Too much of water hast thou, Poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears.”
Evening Hymn by H. Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950)
H. Balfour Gardiner was a composer, teacher and philanthropist. Most of his compositions are forgotten today, the exception being the wonderful anthem we have chosen for our program, Evening Hymn. Composed in 1908, it has been a staple of Anglican Evensongs ever since its premiere. The melodies are memorable, and Gardiner knew exactly how to position the various voice parts for maximum effect.
Gardiner came from a privileged family and used his financial resources to promote the music of his contemporaries. He also helped a composer who was struggling late in his life with declining health and no income, by buying the composer’s house and letting him live out his life there, rent-free. That composer was Delius. Gardiner was also the great-uncle of conductor Sir John Elliot Gardiner.
I vow to thee, my country by Gustav Holst (1974-1934)
I vow to thee, my country is a patriotic song set to the words of Sir Cecil Spring Rice. In 1921 Gustav Holst adapted the theme of Jupiter from his suite The Planets to fit the text. Since then it has become a beloved national hymn, sung at patriotic or important occasions. Diana, Princess of Wales, requested it for her wedding to Prince Charles; and it was also played at her funeral (as well as the funerals of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.)
Jerusalem, I was glad when they said unto me by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
Parry's Jerusalem is also a patriotic hymn, much beloved in England. Parry composed his music in 1918 to the text of William Blake “Oh did those feet in ancient times.” The popularity of this piece is such that it regularly appears at state occasions, school commencements, sporting events, weddings (The Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge) and funerals, and even in famous films, such as Chariots of Fire.
We close our program with Parry’s most famous anthem, the quintessential ceremonial piece, I was glad when they said unto me. It was composed in 1902 for the coronation of Edward VII, and has been part of every British coronation since. The central section – Vivat Rex or Vivat Regina (Long live the King or Queen) was composed for the entrance of the monarch into Westminster Abbey during the coronation ceremony. At its premiere, the music director botched the timing, and the anthem was completely finished before the King made his entrance. So the organist improvised on and on until Edward’s entrance, at which point they sang it all over again!