The Call in Carolina

As you know from checking the Performances page, I have several things coming up soon. This week I will be in North Carolina for a performance of The Call by the Carolina Choir at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Susan Klebanow will conduct, and there is music by John Harbison and Allen Anderson on the program as well. I’ll be giving talks at UNC and at Duke during my visit.

Here is the George Herbert text for my piece, as well as a program note.

The Call

Come, My Way, My Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in Love.

– George Herbert (1633)

Thirty years after setting George Herbert’s The Call in a folk style for use by the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University, I have returned to the text with a setting for Emmanuel Church that retains some melodic elements of the first version.

While I usually treat a text in a linear manner from beginning to end, in this piece I have broken open Herbert’s tightly bound form by freely repeating and fragmenting the poem in two contrapuntal Fantasias based on musical motifs from the Chorales that frame the motet.

As was the case with seven previous motets, I gratefully offer The Call as a gift to the Emmanuel community. But this piece is dedicated to a particular member of that community, to John Harbison on his 75th birthday: admired composer, generous advocate, dear friend.

The Call at Emmanuel

Emmanuel Music will premiere my George Herbert setting The Call at this Sunday’s 10 am Emmanuel Church liturgy in Boston. You can read the text here; below is my brief program note on the piece:

Thirty years after setting George Herbert’s The Call in a folk style for use by the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University, I have returned to the text with a setting for Emmanuel Church that retains some melodic elements of the first version.

While I usually treat a text in a linear manner from beginning to end, in this piece I have broken open Herbert’s tightly bound form by freely repeating and fragmenting the poem in two contrapuntal Fantasias based on musical motifs from the Chorales that frame the motet.

As was the case with seven previous motets, I gratefully offer The Call as a gift to the Emmanuel community. But this piece is dedicated to a particular member of that community, to John Harbison on his 75th birthday: admired composer, generous advocate, dear friend.

The Call

I am writing this as a break from working on a new motet for Emmanuel Church, the latest in a series of pieces I have made over the last two decades for that remarkable community and its remarkable musical traditions. The text is a George Herbert poem, the same one that Vaughan Williams used in the Five Mystical Songs:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

I believe my colleague Carson Cooman has set the text as well. I am sure there must be other composers who have been attracted to the lapidary quality of this poem.

I am working a little differently from my customary process of keeping one eye on the text while composing and taking the form of the poem as a compositional constraint. Here I find myself – at least in portions of the piece – working out the musical shapes first, then fitting text to those shapes. Of course, the musical motifs were first suggested by the rhythms and inflections of the poem, but I am letting musical considerations determine how long a section goes or what dramatic contour it projects, rather than the piece being fundamentally text-driven. I wouldn’t call it a deconstruction; what I am doing is rather more mild-mannered than that. But I can’t recall when I have treated a poem in quite such a non-linear manner. It’s a way of breaking free of a tightly circumscribed poetic form, I suppose.

If I finish this soon enough, it will be heard at the Sunday Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston, on January 26. Time to get back to work.