An American Alleluia: May 21

An American Alleluia: May 21

“An American Alleluia” Concert Celebrates the Season of Easter

BY DAVID SINDEN, DIRECTOR OF MUSIC

Alleluia. Christ is risen!

We are in the midst of the great fifty days of Easter, a season that began on Easter Day and will continue through the Day of Pentecost (June 4, 2017). It is a season of celebration of the Resurrection.

One of the ways that we will celebrate this season of Easter is a concert by the St. Peter’s Choir: “An American Alleluia” on Sunday, May 21 at 5:30 p.m. This concert, which will be performed with orchestra, includes a variety of American music. One performance on this concert will perhaps be a small footnote in American musical history! The concert is free, and all are welcome.

Perhaps the best-known piece on the program is “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990). Bernstein, a towering figure in American music, was the director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s. His setting of verses for the Psalms commissioned by Chichester Cathedral is a beautifully crafted piece of music, full of lyrical melody one minute, and fiery drama the next. One passage even had its origin in music that was cut from West Side Story.

American composer Samuel Barber (1910–1981), probably best known for his “Adagio for Strings,” was commissioned to write music for the dedication of the central tower of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C in May 1964. The resulting music, “Easter Chorale” was originally for brass and timpani (presumably performed outside), but later that year Barber added choral parts with a text by Pack Browning.                  

Like Samuel Barber, Charles Ives (1874–1954) began a career as a church organist when he was still a teenager. A remarkable figure in American music, Ives made his living as an insurance salesman in Connecticut. Charles Ives received a remarkable musical education from his father, George, and one of my very favorite anecdotes is about church music. In church one day, Charles once complained about the loud, strident, out-of-tune hymn singing of the town blacksmith, to which his father replied, “don’t listen to the notes or you might miss the music.”

Many of Charles Ives’s musical ideas, which were avant-garde for their time, had their origins in music lessons from his father George. George especially encouraged the young Charles to hear and compose in two different keys simultaneously (as one would on the town green in-between two bands playing different pieces simultaneously). It is this kind of bitonal music that Ives has written in his wonderful densely textured Psalm 67.

Another American “maverick,” Lou Harrison (1917–2003), is being widely celebrated this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth. We will join in the centennial festivities at St. Peter’s with a rare performance of his Easter Cantata scored for brass, percussion, harp, choir, and strings.

This piece, which is not published, and is only available in a set of handwritten parts, is not widely known. The Cantata opens with a fanfare from all the instruments, and then a fugue begun by the strings. The choir tells the story of the resurrection of Jesus with the phrase “Early on the first day of the week,” serving as the basis of a Rondeau form. A solo alto despairs, “they have taken away my Lord.” The tenors, all singing together and accompanied by the orchestra, conclude the narrative. To this, the full assembled forces can only respond “Alleluia!”

Though the story this music tells is familiar, the music is not. We believe that our performance at St. Peter’s will be the first performance of this work every outside of California.

Harrison met Charles Ives in New York, and studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. He wore his hair in a ponytail and was unafraid to identify as a gay man in the 1950s. Harrison was fascinated by things that were “off the beaten path;” he was very interested in the music of non-western cultures and spoke Esperanto fluently. Harrison’s musical language is distinctly his own, and in presenting it alongside these other American composers I hope that a similar “American sound” might be heard.

Of all the music on the program, Harrison’s Easter Cantata might be considered the most “spiritual.” Harrison’s use of the percussion and the harp seems to be informed by his study of Javanese gamelans. The harp and percussion often provide a patient underpinning to the other melodies being performed. In the “Alleluia” that concludes the Cantata these instruments work themselves into a frenzy and their sounds continue after the movement has ended, obscuring the exact moment of conclusion of the music (Harrison gives the notation “let sound;” meaning that the players should not try to stifle the vibrations coming from these instruments at the conclusion of the work).

It is a wonderful moment, this final, ringing “American alleluia.” I invite you to come experience this remarkable music as we continue to celebrate the Risen Christ in this Easter season.