The Spectrum Singers

John W. Ehrlich
Music Director


Masters of the Lyric and Profound

Benjamin Britten and Maurice Duruflé

Saturday, May 20, 2000 at 8:00 pm.
Church of the Advent, 30 Brimmer Street, Boston

Benjamin Britten
      Hymn to St. Cecilia, Cantata Misericordium
Maurice Duruflé

Texts and Translations       Performing Artists       Review from The Boston Globe

Program Notes

When Benjamin Britten died in 1976, the world lost a great poet. His muse, it may be argued, was not verse, but it was poetry, and poetry need not be words.

Born, fittingly, on St. Cecilia's name day, November 22, 1913, Britten was one of those lucky composers whose works were genuinely appreciated during his lifetime. Early on, his precocious talent was brought to the attention of British composer Frank Bridge, who took Britten under his wing and rigorously taught the younger man a thorough technique. Later, at the Royal College of Music, he honed his skills as a pianist. In later years he was to become one of Great Britain's finest composers and gain lasting world fame.

Some of Britten's earliest successes were choral or vocal compositions, and this love of the human voice runs as an important thread binding his entire career. Indeed, his first international triumph was a vocal work, the 1945 opera Peter Grimes.

The first work on tonight's program is from the composer's early, generally more tonal and accessible period. Many important vocal and choral works were to follow, of course, among them the several Canticles and the imposing War Requiem. Responding to a direction set perhaps by Stravinsky and Tippett, Britten's style was to become more astringent and spare, but suffer no sacrifice of emotional impact, as we shall hear. Still, the earlier choral works are some of the composer's most important and among the best-loved of the genre, and one constantly marvels at the variety and richness of Britten's extraordinary gifts for language setting, vocal texture, and melody.

The Hymn to St. Cecilia is among the most challenging of a cappella choral works in the British literature, not only because of its considerable technical demands, but also the broad range of musical and emotional expression which illustrates its complexities of meaning. The text portrays the third century virgin and martyr St. Cecilia, reputed to be so close to heaven that she could hear the singing of angels. Deeming her prayer insufficient, she invented the organ and consecrated it to the service of God, and is thus remembered as the patron saint of music and musicians. Auden's verse, which is subject to wide interpretation, evokes a cool yet rich image of the archaic, viewed from a contemporary vantage point. Although one is tempted to try to point out all of the many flashes of genius that permeate this splendid score, it is ultimately the final impression of tenderness, calm, and bittersweet reflection that moves us so. For several reasons, the legend of St. Cecilia must have evoked a special empathy in this composer born on her name day. The St. Cecilia odes of Handel, and even more so Purcell, to whom Britten felt a special kinship, must have cast imposing shadows. And Auden's verse, so especially poignant for a writer of music -- "Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire. Translated Daughter, come down and startle composing mortals with immortal fire." -- surely fired Britten, and brought forth a genuine masterwork of twentieth century music.

It could be averred that Cantata Misericordium, Britten's op. 69 and only two works removed from the War Requiem, represents in microcosm the very essence of the composer's genius which the earlier work achieved on a much grander scale. What is large in scope and design of execution in the War Requiem is finer-focused and more terse in the Cantata. There are some interesting parallels. Both works feature prominent tenor and bass solos, a chamber ensemble of instrumental soloists (here piano, harp, tympani, two violins, viola, and 'cello) which plays in complement with a larger body of players (strings here, a huge orchestra in the Requiem), and a dramatic, narrative chorus. More important is that in both compositions Britten set himself the task of composing a work for a specific occasion. One occasion, a commemoration of and a warning against war for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, he required of himself a Herculean expression of what he felt he as a composer and a pacifist had to say. The other occasion, a celebration of the 100th birthday of the world's most famous merciful charity, the Red Cross, he required just as concentrated an effort of himself, but used a highly refined and less sprawling means of communication. Could the Cantata Misericordium, a quiet paean to compassion and love of one's neighbor, be the equal and opposite reaction to the War Requiem?

With an economy of means, the composer has created a concise masterpiece, a work which touches the heart of all compassionate human beings, regardless of faith or belief, and which reflects the gifts of drama, characterization, subtlety, and refined essence of its maker.

The first pages of Britten's Cantata Misericordium tell us that it was "Composed for and first performed at the solemn ceremony on the Commemoration Day of the Centenary of the Red Cross, Geneva, September 1st, 1963," and that "the first performance was given at 11 a.m. ...in the Grand Théâtre, Geneva. The performers were Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), the mixed choir Le Motet de Genève, with the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Ernest Ansermet." "The Latin text,* by Patrick Wilkinson, is a dramatized version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, framed by a prologue and epilogue painting the moral in terms sufficiently general to avoid a specifically Christian interpretation." **

The work has a performance span of about twenty minutes.

Chorus, vocal soloists, instrumental soloists, and string ensemble all have "roles" in Cantata Misericordium. The chorus, for example, has the interesting task, almost parallel to the Chorus in Greek drama, of not only telling the story, but taking part in it, actively addressing the characters of the drama as though the characters could hear it. Solo strings act as indicators of passing time, the two vocal soloists assume three personae each: first, as voices of a Roman and a Jew, second as the traveler and the Samaritan, and third, at the end, as "spokesmen" of the parable's moral, answering the question they posed at the beginning of the tale. Thus, this cantata is truly a work of drama, and Britten has felicitously taken advantage of the most ingratiating means of painting the drama of his text at every opportunity. The listener is urged to follow the English translation as the story unfolds to help appreciate the interweavings of text and music.

Here is a brief guide to the events within the work. A slow, supplicating introduction for solo strings builds to a chord of portent heard throughout the work at key moments of drama, here preparing the choral declamation "Beati" -- blessed. A rising half-step, whole-step combination motive, a motive which unifies the entire composition, is accompanied by harp and pizzicati strings. The Chorus introduces the voices of the Roman and the Jew who ask "Who is my neighbor?" And, agitato, the chorus answers with the suggestion that all parties enact the famous parable.

The traveler is heard lamenting his fatigue and the dangers of his long journey. To the accompaniment of spooky harp sonorities and strings asked to play sul ponticello, the Chorus warns of the robbers' impending attack. Britten paints its ferocity with frightening terseness. And with music of utter desolation, the Chorus asks "Who will help this man in such a wilderness?" Passage of time is reflected in the solo strings, interrupted by the Chorus, stringendo, urging the stricken traveler to cry for help from a passing priest. The priest will have nothing to do with this, however, and looks away. Jazzy, angry, almost sacrilegious music accompanies the Chorus's frustration and disbelief. More time passes, a Levite approaches, the traveler again begs for help, only to be passed by once more. A very angry Chorus in 6/8 hisses and spits out its indignation with repeated epithets of "sacrosancte Levita." Passage of time is once more heard with muted strings, as if to indicate the waning hope for help. The chords are much more dissonant now, painting the traveler's plight and pain. In a most extraordinary passage, the Chorus, muttering pianissimo amongst itself, calls half-hearted attention to the approach of a despised Samaritan, who could have no interest at all in the affairs of a wounded Jew. Having given up hope, the traveler this last time faintly calls only for pity from his suffering. The Samaritan responds instantly, stoops to the traveler's aid, and the music rises high from the depths of the orchestra with the unifying motive heard before.

Throughout the scene in which the Samaritan ministers to the traveler's wounds, the Chorus, ever the commenting storyteller, tells of the triumph of mercy, and that the scene is shifting to an inn. There, with onomatopoeic knocking on the door heard in the orchestra, the Samaritan rouses the innkeeper and gains lodging for the night. The traveler asks the Samaritan who he is who has saved him. The Samaritan answers only that now he need not ask, only sleep. And with an exquisite, harp-jeweled lullaby, Britten gently rocks the scene to rest.

But the tale is not finished -- the moral remains. Once again the Chorus, in an impassioned plea for more people of compassion like the Samaritan, tells of the ills and woes of the world today, and how these troubles could be eased and relieved by Charity. And, as a final gesture, the tenor and baritone, with music identical with their inquiry at the beginning of the work, answer "Who your neighbor is, now you know." And the Chorus, with music telescoped and foreshortened from what it sang at the work's beginning, speaks to its listeners with its final, moving apostrophe: "Go, and do likewise."

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* The choice of Latin as text for Cantata Misericordium is interesting. We know from the composer's writings that he finds communication in a language unfamiliar to his listener insulting. How to address and commemorate so international a body as the worldwide Red Cross? By using the root language of most contemporary Western conversational and written communication -- Latin, familiar, it was likely hoped, to almost all.

** From notes to a London Records recording conducted by the composer.

Maurice Duruflé has written the following about his Requiem:

"Completed in 1947, my Requiem is built entirely from the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead. At times, the text is paramount, and therefore the orchestra intervenes only to sustain or to comment; at other times an original musical fabric, inspired by the text, takes over completely -- notably in the Domine Jesu Christe, the Sanctus, and the Libera Me. In general, I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style, and have tried to reconcile as far as possible the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solèsmes with the exigencies of modern notation.

"As to the musical form of each of these pieces, it is dictated simply by the form of the liturgy itself. The organ plays a merely episodic role; it intervenes not to support the chorus but to underline certain rhythms, or to soften momentarily the too human orchestral sonorities. It represents the idea of comfort, faith, and hope."*

Maurice Duruflé was born at Louviers, France in 1902, and at an early age began study of music, first at the Cathedral of Rouen, later as a student of the organ in Paris with Tournemire and Vierne. During his long appointment at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, his skills as a virtuoso organist and improviser were heralded worldwide, and his classes in harmony at the Paris Conservatory were popular and admired for their concision and elegance. While the number of works he approved for publication was very small -- only 14 opera exist -- each is a highly regarded gem. Among them are a monumentally challenging work for solo organ -- the 1934 op. 5 Suite with its fiendish Toccata, and the 1960 op. 10 Four Motets on Gregorian Themes for Chorus, the latter offered twice on past Spectrum Singers programs. When Duruflé died in Paris in 1986, all of France mourned, as did much of the world community of organists and choristers.

Springing from the precedents of two extraordinary French Requiem settings of the past -- those of Berlioz and Fauré -- and yet totally individual in its voice and avenues of expression, Duruflé's Requiem has at last been accorded the 20th Century Choral Masterpiece mantel it so richly deserves. While some very erudite listeners still resist certain aspects of this grand work's architecture and harmonic richness, most now concede that this Requiem is fully worthy to join its forebears in the pantheon of great French choral works.

The composer actually prepared three versions of this work. The first, richly supported by a very large orchestra, is brilliant, colorful, and highly dramatic. Fearing that the inherent cost of a large orchestra would be prohibitive to future performances, and also to underscore the composer's wish that the work be performed in a church rather than a concert hall, Duruflé in 1961 prepared a version of his Requiem scored for voices, organ, "quintette" of strings, plus ad libitum trumpets, tympani, and harp. The work may also be performed with solo organ accompaniment, the virtuoso and demanding organ part prepared by the organist-composer as accompaniment to the piano/vocal score. Several local performers of versions of this work -- among them Suzanne McAllister and James David Christie -- feel that the reduced orchestra version offers a special intimacy and directness of expression perhaps more appropriate to the mood of the work. It is in fact this version of the Duruflé Requiem we offer tonight.

Rather than attempt a lengthy explication of this very personal and moving work, the listener is urged to approach this remarkable music with open ears and heart. Moments such as the blazingly ardent Sanctus, the heartfelt mezzo-soprano solo of the Pie Jesu, and the celestial yet ambiguous final chord of the In Paradisum are among the most memorable in a work filled with many wonders.

Here and now, on the brink of a new millennium, the Requiem of Maurice Duruflé, and Benjamin Britten's Cantata Misericordium, have still a great deal to tell us of compassion, forgiveness, comfort and consolation, if we will but listen.

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* While the composer was here referring to the large orchestra version of his Requiem, much of this quotation also pertains to his second version of the work, scored for strings, organ, harp, three trumpets and tympani, the latter three marked ad libitum in the score.

Notes Copyright (c) 2000 by John W. Ehrlich

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Created: May 17, 2000   |   Modified: May 25, 2000