In the Beginning...

'In the Beginning...'

St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol
Saturday 7th November 2009

Gavin Carr    Conductor

Jeanette Ager   Mezzo Soprano

Nigel Nash  Piano

A celebration of the extraordinary richness of the new American choral tradition with music from four American composers, from two broad traditions: Copland and Barber, East-coast musicians with (in different ways) a fascination for and appreciation of European music; Lauridsen and Whitacre, West-coast dwellers whose individual styles (in different ways) owe more to the American traditions of independence and self-reliance.

Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)

Copland In the Beginning
Barber Reincarnations:
   - Mary Hynes
   - Anthony O Daly
   - The Coolin (The Fair Haired One)
Let down the bars, O Death
Twelfth Night
Under the Willow Tree from 'Vanessa'
Sure on this shining night
Whitacre I thank You God for most this amazing day
When David Heard
Lauridsen Les Chansons des Roses:
  - En une seule fleur
  - Contre qui, rose
  - De ton rêve trop plein
  - La rose complète
  - Dirait-on
Whitacre With a Lily in your Hand

Programme Notes

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) - In the Beginning

Composer, conductor, critic and encourager of others, Aaron Copland has as good a claim as any to be the pre-eminent personality of American twentieth-century classical music. He was born in Brooklyn, studied in Europe notably with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and lived mostly in New York, where he died. His music achieved a balance between modern music, influenced by European composers, and American folk styles, including jazz, Latin-American and American folksong and hymns. He was not overly concerned about the creation of an 'American' style of music, reckoning rather that:

"I no longer feel the need of seeking out conscious Americanisms [folksongs and folk rhythms]. Because we live here and work here, we can be certain that when our music is mature it will also be American in quality."

The open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are said to evoke the vast American landscape. He also incorporated percussive orchestration, rapidly changing time signatures, polyrhythms, polychords, and tone rows in a broad range of works for concert hall, theatre, ballet, and film.

Many of his most famous pieces were written (as was In the Beginning) in the 1940s: among them are the ballets Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944); Lincoln Portrait (1942), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), and the Third Symphony (1946).

In the Beginning, for mixed chorus a cappella with mezzo-soprano solo, was written in February to April 1947 for the Harvard Symposium on Music Criticism, at which meeting it was first performed in May of that year by the Collegiate Chorale directed by Robert Shaw. It is one of Copland's few pieces for unaccompanied chorus. The piece is challenging for both choir and soloist: it lasts around 16 minutes, and features many rapid changes of key, speed and time signature, angular vocal lines, complex chords and sometimes polytonality (more than one key at once).

The words are taken from the first and second books of Genesis, in the King James version. Copland's open harmonic style and lucid though sometimes complex textures evoke the newly-created world in the same sort of way as they are used in Appalachian Spring to evoke the freshness and openness of that landscape and its people.

The music, sensibly enough, is divided into sections, one for each day of creation; the first six days each end with a refrain to the words “And the evening and the morning” set as a fast chordal passage, quite easy to spot. Most days start out with the soloist, and gradually bring in the choir.

Other highlights to listen out for include:

The First Day: the solo simply evoking the initial darkness; the choir creeping in as the Spirit of God moves on the waters; and a very different creation of light from Haydn's well-known loud C major chord.

The Second Day: a 4-part canon in the choir to represent the division of heaven and waters.

The Third day: this section uses a great variety of keys, each seamlessly joined, to represent the variety of vegetable creation.

The Fourth Day: is the scherzo of the piece, with irregular and bouncy music representing the creation of the stars. The influence here is of Stravinsky (Copland particularly admired Stravinsky's use of rhythm to create vitality).

The Fifth day: calmer music for the creation of the fish.

The Sixth day: mostly simple textures, especially for the creation of man. A little jazz influence can be spotted here. Note the great descending scale on “over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”

The Seventh Day is appropriately restful until the final triumphant creation of the “living soul”.

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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Samuel Barber was born in 1910 at Westchester, Pennsylvania. He studied music at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, of which more later. He came from a comparatively wealthy and cultured and musical family: his aunt Louise Homer was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera and his uncle Sidney Homer, was a composer of American art songs. He lived for most of his life at a house named 'Capricorn' in Mount Kisco, New York state, which he shared with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti (best known for Amahl and the Night Visitors).

Despite the early fame which he gained through the very popular Adagio for Strings ( 1938) he never really received critical acceptance as a proper American composer. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly he was a cultured cosmopolitan who spent a lot of time in Europe, was fluent and widely read in several languages (he claimed to have read Proust in French, Goethe in German, Dante in Italian, Neruda in Spanish and Moby Dick in Italian). He made little effort to write works that were specifically American, or to create an American tradition. Secondly, his musical language, which has been described as neo-romantic (he was much influenced by Brahms), was out of step with the modernist approach of most American composers of the mid twentieth century. Barber's music is however always concise, well expressed and beautifully crafted, as witness all of his works in this evening's concert. Apart from the famous Adagio, his most popular works include Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet (1931), the Violin Concerto (1939), Knoxville Summer of 1915 (1948) for soprano and orchestra, and the opera Vanessa (1957).


In 1938 Barber was invited to teach and direct a chamber choir at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where (along with Menotti and Leonard Bernstein) he had been a pupil. Unlike most composers, he was not a natural teacher or conductor; he poignantly described the moment at which he realised that the choir were more terrified of him than he of them; the appointment lasted only a few years, but in that time he wrote many of his choral settings. Among these were Reincarnations, with texts translated from the Irish of the blind 'Wandering Bard' Anthony Raftery by the twentieth century Irish poet James Stephens. The title refers to Stephens' reworking of the originals rather than any human reincarnation.

The first is about Mary Hynes, whose beauty inspired many Gaelic poems, most written long after her death. Listen for the lovely setting of the words 'She is the love of my heart!' This appears twice, once near the beginning, and once in the middle; listen too for the final word given a light setting ending up on an airy C major chord.

She is the sky of the sun! She is the dart of love!
She is the love of my heart! She is a rune!
She is above the women of the race of Eve, as the sun is above the moon!
Lovely and airy the view from the hill that looks down from Ballylea!
But no good sight is good,
until you see the blossom of branches walking towards you, airily.

Anthony O'Daly was hanged for his part in a peasants' revolt in 1820. Raftery, who knew O'Daly, wrote cursing verses calling down vengeance on those responsible; but the words set here are a simple lament. Barber's setting is one of his most intense, with a three-part canon over a bass pedal note which later moves up to the upper voices. Just before the end, note the hesitant setting of After you there is nothing to do moving down the voices on a static diminished chord.

Anthony! Since your limbs were laid out the stars do not shine!
The fish leap not out in the waves!
On our meadows the dew does not fall in the morn, for O'Daly is dead!
Not a flow'r can be born! Not a word can be said! Not a tree have a leaf!
On our meadows the dew does not fall in the morn, for O'Daly is dead!
Anthony! After you there is nothing to do! There is nothing but grief!

The Coolin (The Fair Haired One). James Stephens described the word coolin as "a little, very special curl that used to grow exactly in the middle of the back of the neck of a girl. That term, 'little curl,' or 'coolin,' came to mean one's sweetheart." Thus this is another love song, but this one has, despite its lilting rhythms, a gentle melancholy about it - beautiful music.

Come with me, under my coat, and we will drink our fill
of the milk of the white goat, or wine if it be thy will.
And we will talk, until talk is a trouble, too, out on the side of the hill;
And nothing is left to do, but an eye to look into an eye,
and a hand in a hand to slip; and a sigh to answer a sigh;
And a lip to find out a lip!
What if the night be black! And the air on the mountain chill!
Where all but the fern is still!
Stay with me, under my coat! and we will drink our fill
of the milk of the white goat, out on the side of the hill!

Let Down the Bars, O Death (1942)
The poetry of Emily Dickinson is very tempting for composers: serious themes, short lines, rhythmic subtlety, and sometimes startling images. Nevertheless it is extremely difficult to find musical equivalents for these mostly short and allusive intense texts. Among American composers who have risen to the challenge are Aaron Copland and John Adams. Barber's homophonic setting of Let down the bars is, like the original poem, deceptively simple, expressing, for example, a word such as 'tender' with subtle inflections of the chord. It could be argued that by repeating the first two lines of the poem at the end Barber has altered the meaning and movement of the poem for reasons of musical shape: as any good musician would do.

Let down the bars, O Death! The tired flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat, Whose wandering is done.
Thine is the stillest night, Thine the securest fold;
Too near thou art for seeking thee, Too tender to be told.

Twelfth Night (1968)
This was written later in Barber's life, and is the most complex of the Barber settings in this programme. Laurie Lee's evocative poem of winter stasis giving way to the sun as a symbol of the Saviour is set in a chromatic idiom in which the twists of the harmony seem paradoxically to accentuate the frozen and depressed imagery of the first part of the poem. Listen for the ending: as in Let down the bars Barber repeats the start of the poem, but the music now shows awareness of the meaning of the whole.

No night could be darker than this night, no cold so cold,
as the blood snaps like a wire, and the heart's sap stills,
and the year seems defeated.

O never again, it seems, can green things run, or sky birds fly,
or the grass exhale its humming breath powdered with pimpernels,
from this dark lung of winter.

Yet here are lessons for the final mile of pilgrim kings;
the mile still left when all have reached their tether's end:
that mile where the Child lies hid.

For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows;
for men with shepherd's eyes there are signs in the dark,
the turning stars, the lamb's returning time.

Out of this utter death he's born again, his birth our saviour;
from terror's equinox he climbs and grows, drawing his finger's light across our blood
the sun of heaven, and the son of God

Sure on this Shining Night (song 1938, arrangement for choir and piano 1941) Poem by James Agee.
This comes from the Songs opus 13. In its original version it is probably Barber's best-known song, and a good example of his 'neo-romantic' style. The choral arrangement has been criticised, but only for not being quite as perfect as the original. It is still one of Barber's best melodies, a lyrical little gem which deserves to be heard more often. Just enjoy the flow of the melody.

Sure on this shining night Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north. All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth, Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

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Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)

Whitacre was born in 1970 in Nevada. He studied in Las Vegas and New York, and now lives in Los Angeles. He is best known as a composer of choral, wind band and electronic music, and as an inspiring conductor of his own music and that of others.

Whitacre's style is generally recognisable by his signature "Whitacre chords", chords with sevenths and/or ninths, and sometimes with suspended seconds and/or fourths. If this is too technical for you, just enjoy the sound of his music, with chords that are unusual but not normally too dissonant or harsh. Sometimes, for example in When Davld Heard, he uses clusters of notes; he calls this his 'oven-mitt' technique (as though playing the white notes on a piano while wearing that garment). Whitacre's music is often compared to that of Morten Lauridsen: the chords they use are often similar, but Whitacre uses more avant-garde techniques, and a greater variety of texture.

His blog reveals interest in the following: Baseball, Scrabble, The Office (UK version), John Betjeman, and the Wilhelm Scream, which he likens to a filmic version of the Dies Irae. If you don't know what the Wilhelm Scream is, it's worth checking out, especially if you like film.

i thank You God for most this amazing day dates from 1999. The odd capitalisation and word order comes from the poet e e Cummings; it is a serious poem about the transcendent beauty of existence, and one which means a lot to the composer, who has written: "I say this poem to myself every morning before I wake up, actually before I open my eyes, I have a little ritual that I've done since I learned it seven years ago..." Listen for the shimmering chords on “infinite”, the little flurries on 'wings' and the 'opening up' of a grand choral texture three times on 'opened' just before the end.

i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:
and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Sleep has an interesting history. In 2000 Whitacre set to music Robert Frost's famous poem 'Stopping by Woods', only to discover that he had not secured permission to use the poem. Rather than waste the music, he commissioned Charles Anthony Silvestri to write new words, and Sleep is the result. The most striking part of the setting is the final word, 'sleep' which repeats and fades to nothing. Note that the original also ended on the same word.

The evening hangs beneath the moon
A silver thread on darkened dune
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon
Upon my pillow, safe in bed
A thousand pictures fill my head
I cannot sleep, my mind's a-flight
And yet my limbs seem made of lead
If there are noises in the night
A frightening shadow, flickering light
Then I surrender unto sleep
Where clouds of dream give second sight
;What dreams may come, both dark and deep
Of flying wings and soaring leap
As I surrender unto sleep,
As I surrender unto sleep.

When David Heard ( 1999) is one of the most extraordinary choral scores of recent years. It lasts, unaccompanied, for about 14 minutes, and sets only the few words of David's lament for Absalom. Whitacre deploys the full range of his dramatic palate to depict David's grief: tone clusters, dramatic changes of texture (a good example after 2 minutes when a dramatic 11-note fortissimo chord for full choir is replaced by a solo tenor), repetition of short grief-stricken phrases, cross rhythms, and above all the dramatic use of silence. The second half of the piece, starting with the altos singing 'my son' four times on a unison A, builds gradually to an intense climax on the new words 'would God I had died for thee', and then gently sinks back to a repeat of the music of the beginning. The whole piece relies for its effect on creating an almost hypnotic atmosphere.

[2 Samuel 18:33] When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up into his chamber over the gate, and wept: and thus he said: 'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would God I had died for thee, 0 Absalom, my son, my son'

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Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)

Morten Lauridsen was born in Colfax, Washington State and studied at the University of Southern California, where he has been for many years professor and Chair of the Department of Composition. His works are primarily vocal, and include O Magnum Mysterium (1994), performed several times by the Bristol Bach Choir over recent years, Lux Aeterna (given a workshop performance by the Bach Choir this year) and Nocturnes (2005).

The musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple, in discussing Lauridsen's sacred music, described him as "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered."

From 1993 Lauridsen's music rapidly increased in international popularity, and by century's end he had eclipsed Randall Thompson as the most frequently performed American choral composer." The 'mystic' claim could be questioned, but Lauridsen's music undoubtedly has qualities of charm and for many its inner peace is very appealing. Lauridsen's 'signature chord', a first-inversion major chord with an added fourth above the root, can be heard (amongst other places) as the last chord of 'Contre qui rose?'.

Of Les Chansons des Roses (1994) the composer has written:

"In addition to his vast output of German poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke ( 1875-1926) composed nearly 400 poems in French. His poems on roses struck me as especially charming, filled with gorgeous lyricism, deftly crafted and elegant in their imagery. These exquisite poems are primarily light, joyous and playful, and the musical settings are designed to enhance these characteristics and capture the delicate beauty and sensuousness of the poetry. Distinct melodic and harmonic materials recur throughout the cycle, especially between Rilke's poignant 'Contre Qui Rose' (set as a wistful nocturne) and his moving 'La Rose Complète'. The final piece, 'Dirait-On' is composed as a tuneful chanson populaire, or folksong, that weaves together two melodic ideas first heard in fragmentary form in preceding movements"

Les Chansons des Roses (unlike the Whitacre pieces) is music written in a self-contained way, without recourse to dramatic gestures or extravagance of any kind. Lauridsen likes keeping the voice-parts close to one another in pitch so that the whole sound is blended and unified. The textures are generally simple and the whole, even the faster sections, has a calm and lyrical feel.

En une seule fleur is set gently and mostly syllabically. Note the subtle variety of the settings of the refrain 'mais tu n'as pas pensé ailleurs'

Lauridsen sets Contre qui, rose almost as a reproach to the rose for its thorns: the music is slow, quiet, and to be sung very expressively.

De ton rêve trop plein is the scherzo of the set, quixotically very fast and slower. Again, there is a short refrain, 'Tu te penches sur le matin'.

La rose complète is again slow. Melodies and harmonies will sound familiar to those who know O Magnum Mysterium. Note the subtle slightly unexpected chords which occur twice (differently) on 'la vie'.

Dirait-on. At this point Lauridsen introduces a piano. The lilting lyricism of this final song in the cycle, and particularly the memorable phrase on the (again repeated and varied) refrain 'dirait--on' have made this one of Lauridsen's most popular pieces. Just sit back and enjoy.

Eric Whitacre's With a Lily in your Hand is an extrovert setting of a Spanish poem by Lorca translated by Jerome Rothenberg. Its forthright style and evocations of guitars, fire and water, with just a hint of the wistful, make it an excellent piece with which to end the concert.

With a lily in your hand
I leave you, o my night love!
Little widow of my single star
I find you.
Tamer of dark butterflies! I keep along my way.
After a thousand years are gone
you'll see me, O my night love!
By the blue footpath, tamer of dark stars,
I'll make my way.
Until the universe can fit inside my heart.

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Jeanette Ager JEANETTE AGER mezzo-soprano

Jeanetter Ager was awarded an Exhibition to study at the Royal Academy of Music where she won numerous prizes. She is now continuing her studies with Linda Esther Gray. She has also won the Gold Medal in the Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition, the Richard Tauber Prize for Singing, and an award from the Tillett Trust Young Artist Platform.

As a soloist, Jeanette's concert and oratorio work has included: recitals and other appearances at the Wigmore Hall; Handel's Messiah at St David's Hall, Cardiff; Elgar's Dream of Gerontius at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; Tippett's Child of our Time at Salisbury Cathedral; Beethoven's 9th Symphony at the Barbican, and the Missa Solemnis at York Minster and in Truro and Exeter Cathedrals. In addition to performances at many of the leading venues in the United Kingdom, Jeanette's concert work has taken her to Bermuda, the Czech Republic, Spain and China.

Her operatic roles have included Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart); Dido in Dido and Aeneas (Purcell); The Marquise of Birkenfield in La Fille du Régiment (Donizetti); Rosina in The Barber of Seville (Rossini), both for Swansea City Opera and Thea in The Knot Garden (Tippett). With the Royal Opera House she appeared as one of the Apprentices in Wagner's Meistersinger at Covent Garden.

As a soloist, Jeanette has recorded for Hyperion, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips. Future events include Elgar's Sea Pictures with the RPO, Mahler's 2nd Symphony at the Bridgwater Hall, and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in Eton College.

Jeanette is part of the Artists in Residence scheme at Queen's University in Belfast where she regularly visits to perform recitals and to work with the students.