North Shore Choral Society

2006-2007 Fall Concert Program Notes


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Illinois Arts Council


DECEMBER 3, 2006
By Donald Draganski

Ther is no rose of swich vertù
As is the rose that bare Jesù:
                   --Anon., ca. 1430 (MS, Trinity College, Cambridge)

          When one considers the deep veneration that Christians have held during the past two thousand years for Mary, the mother of Jesus, it may come as something of a surprise to note that she is mentioned only four times in the canonical books of the New Testament, chiefly in the Gospel of Luke. Most of the legends and folklore surrounding her life appear primarily in apocryphal writings, especially in the Proto-Gospel of James. Despite this paucity of scriptural material, Mary has assumed absolute primacy among the pantheon of Saints, and her status has steadily increased over the centuries. As recently as 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the doctrine of her Assumption into Heaven as an article of faith.

          Any number of theories have been put forward to explain how Mary reached her high station.  One of the more plausible notions that have gained currency suggests that the Veneration of Mary was a means by which the emerging Church tried to soften and feminize the unrelieved patriarchal theology of the early Pauline Christians.  Indeed, recent scholarship has shown that women played a very prominent role in administering the early church, a role that unfortunately diminished by the Middle Ages.   

          Theological arguments notwithstanding, we should nonetheless be grateful that Mary has played such a significant role as a source of inspiration – indeed, as a Christian Muse – during these past two millennia. Without her we would be much the poorer in music, art and poetry. 

          The text of the Magnificat appears in the Gospel of Luke (i, 46-55). It is the hymn that Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth as she praises God and speaks of the fulfillment of the coming of the Messiah with the imminent birth of Jesus. However, it should be noted that the earliest copies of Luke fail to specify the author of the poem, and it has been suggested that the canticle could just as easily have been sung by Elizabeth, who was destined to be the mother of John the Baptist. In either case, it is one of the loveliest poems in the New Testament and has inspired numerous composers to set it to music.  Today’s concert features four different settings of this canticle, all by 20th century composers.


          Gerald Finzi, born in London in 1901, was the son of a shipbroker whose Jewish forbears had emigrated from Italy in the 18th century. Finzi was educated privately and acquired his musical training without attending any school or conservatory.  He soon joined a circle of composers that included Gustav Holst, Edward Rubbra and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  For a brief period he taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1937 he and his wife built a house in the Hampshire hills, where he composed music and raised apples until his death.  In addition to his rather impressive output as a composer, he also engaged in a good deal of scholarly research, mostly in editing the works of William Boyce.  He contracted leukemia in 1951 and died in 1956.

          Finzi’s Magnificat was the composer’s first overseas commission, written in 1952 for the chorus of Smith College in Northampton, Mass.  Although not intended for liturgical service, the text is based on the Christmas Vesper service.  Finzi’s setting hearkens back to the early Renaissance composers with its predominantly polyphonic textures. The setting concludes with an Amen rather than with the traditional Gloria.


          As a choir director and organist, Ralph Vaughan Williams was quite familiar with the Magnificat’s inclusion in the Evensong service sung during the Christmas season.   He composed his setting in 1932, and its first performance took place at the Worcester Cathedral Three Choirs Festival in September of that year.  The solo writing is extremely ornate, suggesting the music of the composer’s countryman, Gustav Holst.  The prominent flute part, the composer informs us, represents the Holy Spirit.  Despite the ecclesiastical venue of its first performance, the composer was careful to point out that the work is not designed for liturgical use. 

          “I am trying to lift the words out of the smug atmosphere which had settled on it for so long,” he wrote to a friend on its completion.” I don’t know if I have succeeded – I find it awfully hard to eradicate it.”  Vaughan Williams achieved his goal admirably, for the whole work is suffused with the joy and wonderment of a young woman chosen, as one author put it, for perhaps the strangest moment in history.


          Jean Berger was born in Hamm, Germany, in 1909 and studied musicology at the Universities of Heidelberg and Vienna.  He spent most of the 1930s in Paris, working as a pianist. In 1939 he moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he served on the faculty at the Brazilian Conservatory.  In 1941 he settled in the United States and, after being drafted, worked for the Office of War Information.  After the war he worked as an arranger for CBS and NBC.  From 1948 until 1968 he held faculty positions at Middlebury College, the University of Illinois, and the University of Colorado.  He died in Aurora, Colorado, on March 28th, 2002. 

          Most of Berger’s compositional output consists of choral and solo vocal music.  His Magnificat, published in 1965, has been performed widely, most notably at the Heinrich Schütz Festival in Holland in 1970, and by the St. Olaf Choir during its 1984 national tour. The work is scored for chorus, soprano solo, flute, tambourine and triangle. 


          Luciano Berio, born 1925 in Oneglia (now Imperia) in the Ligurian region of Italy, was one of the most versatile composers of the post-war era. In addition to writing music in the more traditional media, he was also a pioneer in the development of electronic music.  Many of his vocal works, written for his first wife, Cathy Berberian, employ unusual speech patterns. He died in 2003 in Rome.

          The Magnificat was composed in 1949 while Berio was studying at the Milan Conservatory. What follows is the composer’s own account of the genesis of this work:

          “I was born in a small town in Italy, near the French border and far from the so-called cultural centers.  There I lived until the age of eighteen, studying and learning everything I could about my ‘heritage.’  I never felt regretful of, or under-privileged by, living in a provincial town, but I felt injured and angry when, in 1946, with the end of fascism, I realized the extent and depth of the cultural deprivation that fascism had imposed on me.  That same year (I was already twenty) I was for the first time in my life able to hear the music of Schoenberg, Milhaud, Hindemith, Bartok, Webern, etc.; that is, the real voices of my European heritage.  These composers, as well as others, had previously been forbidden by fascist ‘cultural politics.’  The impact was, to say the least, traumatic, and it took me at least six years to recover from it.  I believed, and I still do, that the best way to deal with ‘traumatic experiences’ is to cope with them to the end, and, if possible, to exorcise them on their own ground.  These are the premises of Magnificat, written in 1949.  It was one of my last exorcisms of the experiences and encounters of those years, and, I think, my last tribute to them.”


          Kirke Lewis Mechem, born 1925 in Wichita, studied at Harvard University with Randall Thompson. He has taught at Stanford University and served as composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco.  He has more than 250 published works to his credit, with vocal music at the heart of his art.  His Seven Joys of Christmas is one of his most widely performed works. Mr. Mechem describes the background of this work as follows:

          “In September 1964 I took a teaching position at the San Francisco College for Women (now part of the University of San Francisco) and was told that I would be conducting the Chamber Singers.  Knowing little about the school’s music department, I assumed that the Chamber Singers were the most expert group, so I planned a challenging Christmas program.  A week before the first rehearsal I held auditions.  To my dismay, all who came were freshmen and only one had ever sung in a chorus before.

          “I scrapped my original program, and decided that I could write easy pieces for this group faster than I could search the literature.  Fortunately, I had worked with inexperienced singers before, and had learned that anyone who can carry a tune can sing polyphony, so long as the chromaticism and difficult leaps are avoided. … Arrangement of carols was an obvious solution and I wanted to write more than simple chordal arrangements.  When I decided on seven joys, I looked for carols from different countries that would express these joys of the season:  the joy of love, of bells, of Mary, of children, of the New Year, of dance and of song.  I dedicated the work to my teacher, Randall Thompson ‘with affection, and in admiration of a lifetime devotion to the joy of song.’

          “I should say a word about the last number of the set.  It is called a quodlibet, an old musical term for a piece that uses many different tunes together – not one after another, like a medley – but in counterpoint, against each other.  See how many familiar tunes you can pick out in this piece; you will hear some of the carols you heard in the preceding numbers, but also several others as well, sometimes four different tunes at once.  Composers have fun with this kind of music – it’s like solving a crossword puzzle.  I hope that all of you will enjoy the game too.”


          Conrad Susa earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and received his MS from the Juilliard School where he studied with William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti and Richard Schickele.  He has served as staff pianist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and as assistant editor of Musical America.  He was also resident composer for the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and has composed numerous scores for documentary films and TV productions. His opera, Dangerous Liaisons, was composed for the San Francisco Opera.  Mr. Susa is currently on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

          A Christmas Garland was written in 1988 at the request of Maurice Casey who wanted a piece that would involve audience participation.  The work received its premiere on December 18, 1988, in Weigel Hall, Columbus, Ohio, and was performed by the Cantari Singers under the direction of its dedicatee, Maurice Casey.       




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