by Donald Draganski
for the March 2, 2003 Concert of the North Shore Choral Society, “A Colorful Collage.”
COLLAGE, noun (from French coller, to glue). An artistic composition of fragments;
an assembly of diverse elements. —Webster’s Dictionary
When confronted with a rich spread of smorgasbord, each diner will always find some toothsome and savory dish to his liking. Likewise (to pursue the metaphor) today’s concert gives ample support to William Cowper’s hoary saying that “Variety’s the very spice of life” – an idea he no doubt borrowed from Publilius Syrus (ca. 50 BCE) who said that “No pleasure lasts long unless there is variety in it.”
Cecil Effinger (1914-1990), a native of Colorado, was a mathematician and inventor as well as a composer. That he was also a professional oboist explains the unusual scoring for oboe and chorus in his Four Pastorales, composed in 1962. The text is by the Colorado laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferril who also provided the composer with texts for many of his other vocal pieces. (How many states have poet laureates?) The pastoral qualities embodied in these works reflect the Rocky Mountain region which Effinger knew and loved so well.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) composed his Four Russian Peasant Songs, for women’s voices unaccompanied, during the years 1915-1917. They are based on Russian popular texts, and the composer subtitled these pieces “Saucer readings.” Stravinsky explains that “choruses of this sort were sung by the peasants while fortune-tellers read their fingerprints on the smoke-blackened bottoms of saucers” – somewhat akin to having one’s fortune read in tea-leaves. The first song, “On Saints’ Day” makes mention of The Church of our Saviour which was built in 1483. The second song, “Ovsen” refers to the first day of spring in the pre-Christian Russian calendar. The third, “Pike,” tells of a mighty fish that has swum the length of a waterway several hundred miles long. The “Master Portly” in the fourth song is a sack shaped like a large belly, containing seeds which are scattered over the turnip fields. Alas, the seeds turn out to be lice and fleas.
In 1954 the composer added an accompaniment of four horns, leaving the chorus parts relatively untouched. Today’s concert features both versions, giving the audience a rare opportunity to observe how a composer can change his mind after a stretch of forty years.
Although Robert Schumann (1810-1864) is better known for his piano music, he composed a significant amount of music for chorus, as well as an outpouring of solo songs numbering in excess of three hundred. For a brief period Schumann directed a men's chorus in Dresden. It was called the “Liedertafel” and it was for this ensemble that in May 1849 he composed his Fünf Gesänge aus H. Laubes Jagdbrevier, scored for men's voices and four horns. The first song, "Zur hohen Jagd" is a paean to the joy of the hunt; the second, "Habet acht!" warns the hunters to take care that they don't shoot each other!; the third and fourth, "Jagdmorgen" and "Frühe" describe the very early morning hours, and the advantages of getting an early start. The last song "Bei der Flasche" tells how the hunters enjoy a good drink after the hunt.
The texts are by Heinrich Laube (1806-1884) who, in addition to being a poet, playwright, historian, political polemicist, critic, editor and novelist, was also a jailbird, having served a nine-month prison term for "subversive activities" connected with his association with the radical Junges Deutschland movement. A hunting expedition in 1841 resulted in his Jagdbrevier, a collection of poems about the hunt. The first edition also included an extensive glossary of terms associated with the chase.
Many of the tunes of Stephen Foster (1826-1864) – he composed over 200 songs – have become so integral a part of the American musical landscape that they have achieved the status of folk-songs. During the nineteenth century there was a great market for music to be sung by amateur vocal ensembles, and publishers met this demand by issuing songs in editions for both solo voice and chorus. We present three relatively unfamiliar songs at today's concert: "Melinda May," from 1851, was probably written for Christy's Minstrel Troupe, as evidenced by the introduction of southern Afro-American dialect in the text. "Happy Hours at Home" from 1862, and "Come where my love lies dreaming" from 1855 are both typical examples of the sentimental hearth-and-home songs which appealed to the growing American middle class. The last-named tune was originally published only in a setting for four voices.
Peter Schickele (b. 1935) is, of course, best known as the "discoverer" and perpetrator of the music of P.D.Q. Bach. But his forays into musical satire should not detract from his more serious works which he publishes under his own name. Mr. Schickele has the following to say about his Concerto for piano and chorus, subtitled "The Twelve Months":
“The concerto starts with August, a quiet, flowing, wordless prologue, The second movement, Fall uses three texts: the anonymous ‘Thirty days hath September’, a couple of verses from the October section of Thomas Tusser's sixteenth-century rhyming farm calendar; and for November, fragments of three poems: Thomas Moore's : ‘Odes of Anacreon’,: Shelley's ‘Autumn, a Dirge,’ and William Cullen Bryant's ‘Death of the Flowers.’
"One of my fondest memories of my teenage years in Fargo, North Dakota, is Christmas caroling, so the third movement, Winter, begins with a carol – the music is original and the text is adapted from a nineteenth century hymn called 'The Wondrous Birth' by E. U. Edel; January and February, the dead of winter, are represented by a sad solo passage for the piano and a setting of Thomas Campion's ‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge’ which enumerates the social forms of conviviality which should counteract the hostile environment outside.
"Spring begins with a stormy March cadenza, a brief interlude in which the chorus sings nothing but ‘April,’ and leads to a setting of several lyrics from medieval Norman love songs translated by John Addington Symonds. The last movement, Summer, consists of some celebratory bell music by the piano for June, and a wordless epilogue for July that is even more contemplative than the opening movement of the concerto."
The work was completed in 1987 and its first performance took place that same year, with the pianist Robin McCabe and the Choir of the West, conducted by Richard Sparks who had commissioned the work. The North Shore Choral Society last performed the Schickele Concerto in March of 1994.
Norman Dello Joio (b. 1913) began his professional career at the tender age of fourteen as a church organist in his native New York City. (Both his father, who emigrated from Italy, and his grandfather were church organists.) He graduated from Juilliard in 1941 and that same year began private studies in composition with Paul Hindemith.
Dello Joio's exuberant A Jubilant Song is set to a text by that equally exuberant poet, Walt Whitman. One can hear echoes of the composer's early dalliance with jazz, along with the solid craftsmanship that marks him as a student of Hindemith. Originally scored for women's voices and piano, it was written in 1945 and its celebratory mood certainly reflects America's exultation at the end of the War. Its first performance was at Sarah Lawrence College, a female-only undergraduate institution that became co-educational in 1968. Today's performance presents the composer's own re-setting for mixed voices.
Copyright © 2003 by Donald Draganski