Jan 2012 - Transforming Traditions

Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) was appointed maestro di capella at the German College in Rome at age 24, an appointment he held until his death.  Although he became famous for his vocal compositions, both liturgical and non-liturgical, he is still celebrated for his crucial work in the development of the oratorio.  The oratorio was the church’s response to the public’s growing infatuation with genre of opera, which was banned during the season of Lent.  His masterpiece, Jephte, reflects the pioneering elements of the genre, which applied operatic techniques without staging and costumes.  The stories were based on Biblical texts, which were brought to life by a narrator (Historicus), characters portrayed by soloists (Filia and Jephte), and the chorus which reacts to and comments on the action at hand with a wide variety of musical depictions that range from triumph to lament.  The compositional techniques employed to express these emotions and the borrowed techniques of recitative and accompanied aria became standard practice in later oratorios composed by composers like Handel and Mendelssohn. 

Carissimi was relatively unknown as a composer, organist, and choirmaster mostly due to his lack of ambition.  Although he was offered prestigious posts, including that of Saint Mark’s in Venice, he was content to stay in one position for nearly 45 years.  His works were never published during his lifetime and only a few of his works survived thanks to copies made by his pupils.


The spiritual is the source from which gospel, jazz, blues, and hip-hop evolved and was born in the American South by slaves.  The organizing concept of this music is not the melody of Europe, but the rhythm of Africa.  The theology of these songs convey a potent mix of African spirituality, Hebrew narrative, Christian doctrine, and an extreme experience of human suffering.   The Fisk Jubilee Singers first popularized choral arrangements of spirituals in their internationals tours.  Since then, the genre has undergone transformation in its compositional style, but also by its power to express the human experience on a universal level.

Soon Ah Will Be Done was arranged by William Dawson (1899-1990) who began composing at age 16.  After running away from home at age 13, he entered Tuskegee Institute for a formal education.  Dawson later earned degrees from Horner Institute of Fine Arts and the American Conservatory of Music.  Early in his career he served as trombonist of the Chicago Civic Symphony Orchestra then later returned to teach at Tuskegee Institute from 1931-1956.  It was during this period that he developed the Tuskegee Institute Choir into an internationally acclaimed ensemble.  His composition exemplifies the best of the genre in the early 20th Century.

Deep River expresses a longing for the days when oppression ceases and relief is at hand.  The piece was arranged by the composer and conductor, Alice Parker (b. 1925), and the legendary American choral conductor, Robert Shaw (1916-1999).  Parker and Shaw worked together to arrange spirituals, hymns, and folk songs, which became some of the best know in the choral repertoire.

Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho brings the drama of this Old Testament story to life with energetic rhythms and bold harmonic textures.  The arrangement by Moses Hogan (1957-2003) is an example of a contemporary treatment of the spiritual.  Hogan was sing-handedly responsible for bringing African-American spirituals into the mainstream repertoire of choirs around the world with over 70 contemporary arrangements for classic spirituals.

The Beatitudes

Arvo Pärt (b.1935) was graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory in 1963.  His early compositions received little attention.  However, in the early 1960s and 1970s he began to study the music of medieval composers like Machaut, Ockeghem, and Josquin des Prez.  In 1976 he developed a tonal technique called “tintinnabuli.”  Derived from the Latin for "little bells," Pärt described his technique in the liner notes of his Fratres album as the evocation "of bells, the bells' complex but rich sonorous mass of overtones, the gradual unfolding of patterns implicit in the sound itself, and the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux."  Tintinnabulation is a minimalist approach that resembles chant and other types of medieval music.  The entire structure of a tintinnabuli work is predetermined either by a numerical pattern, or by the text, or both. The tintinnabuli technique begins with a two-part homophonic texture: a melodic voice moves mostly by step around a central pitch, and the tintinnabuli voice sounds the notes of the tonic triad.

The Beatitudes, one of his only choral compositions in English, was composed in 1990 and vividly sets the well-known sermon from the Gospel of Matthew.  The piece reflects the best of Pärt’s groundbreaking composition technique while evoking the ancient sound of medieval musical language.

Chichester Psalms

The Chichester Psalms were commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Walter Hussey, for the Cathedral’s 1965 music festival. When writing to invite Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) to compose the piece, Hussey stated that he would be delighted if the score had “a hint of West Side Story” about it. Bernstein must have taken this suggestion literally, for he lifted much of the musical material from pre-existing stage scores, not only from his most famous musical but also from his sketch of The Skin of Our Teeth.

Bernstein spent April and May of ’65 in Fairfield, Connecticut working on the Psalms, and premiered the work two weeks early on July 15th in Philharmonic Hall with a performance by the New York Philharmonic and Camerata Singers.  The piece had its official premiere in Chichester two weeks later on July 31st.  Bernstein described the work with a poem published in the New York Times:

The Psalms are a simple and modest affair,
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E flat major.

Bernstein explicitly states that the psalms are to be sung in Hebrew and that the solo in the second movement should be sung by a boy or counter-tenor, possibly to evoke David himself singing his 23rd psalm.  Hebrew was not a language historically used by choral composers of major works, but Bernstein made a strong statement about his own Jewish faith, possibly to remind the Anglican clerics of the Jewish origins of the text.  The psalms were a stark contrast to the works of composers like Stravinsky and Cage who employed serial and aleatoric composition techniques.

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