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.

Sacred Songs on Bridge Records

UnknownI’m very happy to report that Bridge Records will be issuing a new CD of my music in early 2014. The disc, to be called Sacred Songs, will bring together four of my pieces for voice and ensemble:

From a Book of Hours sets four poems of Rainer Maria Rilke in German.

– Four Sacred Songs comprises arrangements of old traditional sacred melodies – plainchant as well as metered tunes – with Latin texts.

– Dark the Star brings together texts by Philadelphia-based poet Susan Stewart, Rilke (in German), and a verse from the Psalms (in Latin).

– Holy the Firm sets texts by three American women – Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard, and Susan Stewart – as well as John Climacus, a monk of the 7th century Sinai desert.

The performers are Susan Narucki, soprano, William Sharp, baritone, and the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

While I am very grateful for every CD of my music, (visit the discography page to get the details on how much I have to be grateful for), this new Bridge project is especially meaningful to me. This is partly because it is the first disc devoted entirely to my vocal music, a medium that has been a major preoccupation of mine in the last two decades. It also documents an especially long-standing relationship with performers who have been among the most consistent advocates of my music. In fact, I think that over a period of more than three decades, Christopher Kendall has conducted and/or programmed my music more than any other musician anywhere!

There is a lot more to say about this album – the pieces, the performers, the process of recording with Curt Wittig and editing with George Blood, the booklet essays by Susan Stewart and John Harbison, and I will be writing about these things in future posts. For now I will leave you with the photo above. This is the interior of St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel, designed by the firm of Sanaksenaho Architects, and photographed by Jussi Tiainen. This powerful image will be used for the cover of the booklet accompanying Sacred Songs.

Singing and Meditating in DC

Soprano Mary Mackenzie, the 21st Century Consort, the Folger Consort, and members of the National Cathedral Chant Choir all did a great job recording and performing my Sacred Songs and Meditations in Washington, DC last weekend. Mary is quite a find: her sound is sweet and true and rich in all registers, her musicianship is first class, she is musically smart, and she knows how to connect with an audience. The instrumentalists, some of whom I have known for years, were up to their usual high standard. Special thanks go to the folks playing the early instruments, who were cheerful and patient in the face of the unwittingly awkward parts I wrote for their instruments.

The Cathedral is a handsome Gothic structure in northwest DC, about 25 minutes by bus from the National Mall.


The building was damaged in the earthquake that hit the east coast a while back, and repairs continue:


A simple font stands in the middle of the nave. The placement and lighting look well, but the base needs some touching up with gold paint:


Entering the place in the early evening, the late day sun made for some magical projections of color from the clerestory windows that my amateur photography skills can only hint at:


Unlike the previous performance of the piece at the Cathedral which took place in the transept, this time we worked in what they call the Great Choir, in front of the high altar. The choir stalls are intricately carved:


Here’s conductor (and director of the 21st Century Consort, as well as lutenist of the Folger Consort) Christopher Kendall (in the dark shirt) consulting with producer Joseph Gascho. The performers, from left to right, are Rachel Young, cello; Sara Sterne, flute; Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Susan Robinson, harp; Gwyn Roberts, recorder; Lee Hinkle, percussion; and Robert Eisenstein, viol.


The control room was a set up in an office not far from the high altar. This lent a monastic atmosphere to the proceedings; here is engineer Mark Huffman:


and here is Joseph Gascho speaking to the performers:


A few shots of the players at work, both “the moderns” (that’s violinist Elisabeth Adkins, with clarinetist Ed Cabarga at right):


and “the earlys” (Amy Domingues is the viol player at the far right):


Unfortunately I never got a picture of the men and girls from the Cathedral Chant Choir, directed by Michael McCarthy – before each movement of my piece they sang the incipit of the chant or carol melody on which the movement is based. They sang with uncommon refinement and unanimity of pitch, color and articulation, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

I’ll close with two pictures of the Cathedral – one taken looking down the nave from the choir, the other outside at night. (The netting visible in the interior shot is to protect those in the building from the possibility of falling stones from the earthquake damage – I am told the netting is just a precaution and has not been put to the test.)



Downtown and Uptown

IMG_0086My unwittingly cubist photo of buildings in downtown New York, including the Freedom Tower, was taken during the first part of my recent visit to New York, where I met Deirdre Chadwick, BMI’s executive director for classical music for excellent coffee and a chocolate chip cookie near BMI’s offices in 7 World Trade Center.

300px-St_Jean_Baptiste_Church,_New_York,_NYThen it was uptown to St. Jean Baptiste Church for a performance of my motet Salve Regina during the installation service for the parish’s new pastor, John Kamas. Kyler Brown led a lovely performance by the choir of St. Jean’s. One member of the choir is Mary Mackenzie, who will be performing and recording my Sacred Songs and Meditations starting the end of next week. Go here for more on the July 8 concert that will include members of both the Folger Consort of early music instruments, and the modern instruments of the 21st Century Consort.

Here’s a picture of me with John, the new pastor at St. Jean’s.IMG_0090

The Parts are in the Mail

I finally got the parts in the mail today for the piece being done at the National Cathedral in July by the combined forces of the 21st Century Consort and the Folger Consort, with soprano Mary Mackenzie. I hope now to get back to more regular blogging. As a start, here is a link a scholarly colleague sent me – you don’t have to be a musicologist to find the site amusing.

Autumn Miscellany

OK, so this is a little late for the first day of autumn, but it is still miscellaneous:

Davd Patrick Stearns weighs in with a positive spin on the Allen Kozinn re-assignment story.

– season brochures are coming in over the transom thickly now. Boston’s Collage is offering Feldman, Saariaho, Corey Dargel, Yehudi Wyner, and the late George Edwards. They are also presenting Christopher Taylor doing the complete Vingt Regards of Messiaen.

In DC, the 21st Century Consort’s year includes music by David Froom, Stephen Albert (my favorite piece of his, a Joyce setting called To Wake the Dead), Donald Crockett and Derek Bermel. Here’s how the Albert begins:

– go here for the sound of Wallace Stevens reading.

– and go here for George Perle, Paul Lansky, and Virgil Moorefield on three generations of composition teachers.

Early Heat Wave Miscellany

– First, two links outside the realm of music: I found this very impressive and touching, and this to be right on target.

Prism Quartet concerts are coming up – Thursday, May 31 at Symphony Space in NYC; Saturday, June 2 at First Unitarian in Philadelphia.


Yesterday I finished a rough draft of the first of the new set of songs I am working on with Susan Stewart – I met Susan this afternoon, played through the draft, and she was pleased with what I’ve done! Now it’s into the studio with George Blood for two editing sessions this week as we attempt to wrestle this 21st Century Consort CD project to the ground – vocal pieces of mine featuring Susan Narucki and William Sharp. Will report on progress later this week.

Susan Stewart at the Y

Poet Susan Stewart, my collaborator on Songs for Adam (see David Patrick Stearns on the piece in the column at right) will be reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Monday, January 30. She shares the bill with Mark Strand. In addition to Adam, I’ve used texts by Susan in Holy the Firm and Dark the Star, two pieces that will be on the 21st Century Consort cd that is in the editing stage. The disc features Susan Narucki, soprano, and Bill Sharp, baritone. Susan has written another set of texts for me, this time having to do with a Sibyl – I hope to get to work on that setting soon.

Curt Wittig In Memoriam

Master recording engineer Curt Wittig  has died. I knew Curt because of his association with the 21st Century Consort; he recorded their concerts over a period of decades. Scroll down to bottom of this page for a bio note. There is an archive of Curt’s Consort recordings here. Find some old snapshots with Curt on composer Maurice Wright’s scrapbook page. (Update: Maurice has posted additional pictures here.)

Curt was the recording engineer for the second recording I ever made, about 30 years ago: Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics, with pianist Lambert Orkis (reissued on Innova). He also took care of the amplification for the Consort performances Lambert and I gave of the work, creating the larger-than-life sound that Crumb wanted – not just loud, but rich and true and undistorted. Given the amount of sound being put out by the piece, a substantial amp was required, and in my mind’s eye I can see Curt setting up this massive black box of an amplifier that he took pride in like an ordnance officer taking pride in an especially large bomb… a sort of “that oughta do it” glee…

He recorded performances of the many pieces of mine that the Consort has done over the years, and he was the engineer for the recordings of my vocal music that are in the process of being edited (read more here). I will remember Curt as not only a consummate professional, but as a vibrant spirit, full of love for life, for music. He was so supportive of, so enthusiastic regarding what we musicians all try to do. I am grateful to have known him.

Update: with permission, here is the text of an e-mail announcing Curt’s passing, sent by Christopher Kendall, director of the 21st Century Consort, and Dean of the School of Music, Theater and Dance at University of Michigan:

Dear friends,
The news of Curt Wittig’s sudden departure from this world on Monday is shocking and incredibly sad news for all of us. Curt’s meaning in the music world, in which he has long been a revered figure and pioneer, has been immense. In Washington, as the chronicler and indispensable part of many of the region’s most meaningful musical enterprises for decades, his contribution has been incalculable. Both of the Consorts in which I’m involved have counted Curt a member of the family. Curt had the commitment and also the temperament of an artist, and was truly “one of us.” Our memories of these ensembles’ musical milestones will be forever affirmed in the magnificent recordings Curt produced of our activities. Our living and reliving of thirty years of music will be forever inhabited by the spirit of Curt.

As it happens, I wrote Curt an email the night he died, thanking him for the latest piece of his extraordinary archival work on the 21st Century Consort’s history. He had reached back to the very first concert the group performed in 1975, and miraculously preserved its recording. I hope he was able to read that message of appreciation for his incredible life’s work before he died, and that his passing was peaceful.

We await further word as Curt’s family makes plans for a memorial. For now, your passing on of this news to those who would want to know is appreciated.

Christopher Kendall