Sacred Songs: program notes

My new CD, Sacred Songs, is coming out on Bridge Records this Tuesday. Here are program notes for two of the pieces on the disc – notes on the other two pieces in tomorrow’s post. John Harbison’s  booklet essay for the disc is here. That’s the soloist for these pieces, Susan Narucki, pictured below.

From a Book of Hours 

UnknownThis cycle of songs sets four poems from an early collection by Rilke entitled Das Stundenbuch, or in English, Book of Hours. Although the title refers to a medieval book of prayers for the various times of day and seasons of the liturgical year, Rilke’s texts occupy a position some distance from conventional piety.  There is a melancholy to the spirituality expressed here, which speaks of an experience of God that is fragmentary, imperfect, and unattainable. The solitude evoked in the second song (as layers of busy activity are gradually peeled away) offers some solace, but the third song is very dark and fierce, filled with a desperate, even manic desire for God. The last song returns to the mood of the first, but now in a global rather than individual context. This song, like the set as a whole, speaks of our world’s brokenness, yet strives to stammer fragments of God’s name.

Originally composed in an orchestral version on a commission from the Chicago Symphony, this chamber ensemble version was prepared for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort, with Christopher Kendall conductor, who gave the first performance in 2007.

Four Sacred Songs

When soprano Christine Schadeberg asked me to compose a new work for her 1989 Town Hall recital, she asked for something lighter in tone than my usual style, suggesting that I consider writing some folk song arrangements.  I agreed to the idea of arrangements, but rather than folk songs, I chose three old sacred melodies; the idea of sharing with a concert audience a few of the musical riches that I had encountered in my work as a liturgical musician was particularly attractive. In 1990 I orchestrated these piano and voice songs, adding the second movement which exists only in the chamber ensemble version. The first performance was given by Christine Schadeberg with the ensemble Voices of Change.

The first song, “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”, is a strophic chant hymn with a text by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian monk and preacher.

I have set “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” using a somewhat free version of the medieval technique known as a mensuration canon: except for a few freely imitative phrases, all the parts have the same melody, but played at different speeds.  For example, the low cello and harp notes mark out the tune at a pace six times slower than the voice.

The chant “Christus Factus Est” appears in the Liber Usualis  as part of the Holy Week liturgy; the melody is unusually wide-ranging and highly melismatic.  The text is part of St. Paul’s famous “Philippians Hymn”, and speaks of the mystery of Christ’s suffering and exaltation.

The origins of the tune for “O Filli et Filliae” are obscure, and may be secular in nature.  The words somewhat discontinuously narrate the Easter story, closing with a call to give praise and thanks to God.

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