Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901): Ave Maria
Celebrated primarily for his operas, Verdi turned late in life to the composition of sacred choral music, a project which culminated in the 1898 publication of Quattro Pezzi Sacri. Ave Maria, the first of the set (1889), was his response to a challenge published in the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano in 1888 to harmonize a given “scala enigmata”—a scale of awkward, uneven steps. Verdi’s resultant composition utilizes this challenging scale, voice by voice, as an archaic cantus firmus, harmonizing it with the other voices in a style at once reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance, yet thoroughly modern in its extreme chromaticism—almost every note of the 12-tone scale appears in the first four measures alone. Verdi himself spoke of his Ave Maria as being “not real music: it is virtuosity, or you might even say a game,” and initially did not want it published. Fortunately, he was overruled; this small motet displays his expressive genius no less than the grandest of his dramatic works.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Salve Regina
Poulenc has been described as “half monk, half delinquent” (”le moine et le voyou”), and Salve Regina (1941) clearly represents the monkish part. Many commentators refer to his pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, France, in 1936, as the event which led to a rediscovery of the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised, and a subsequent outpouring of sacred vocal compositions. It would be a mistake to consider his life and personality, however, without giving major weight to this personal involvement in the horrors of two World Wars. His religious works impress through their delicacy of feeling, their darkness and tragedy, as well as through their sensual beauty. And they express hope for change— the Salve Regina text speaks of banishment, of mourning and exile, and prays for the transformation represented by the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.
Trond H.F. Kverno (b. 1945): Ave maris stella
A professor of music theory, composition, and church music at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, Trond Kverno is also an ordained deacon and professional church musician. He writes of his compositions for the church, “The goal is the congregation’s prayer, rather than aesthetic pleasure. The essential point is that the music hears us and interprets us before the throne of God, not that we hear the music. This is the fundamental assumption on which my work is based. I would liken my work to that of the painter of icons, where each icon is a window to a reality other than that which surrounds us.” His setting of Ave maris stella (1976) shares many characteristics with the music of the “spiritual minimalists,” including Henryk Górecki, Alan Hovhaness, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. In a departure from the complex, serial, and experimental compositional styles of the mid-twentieth century, these composers have returned to simple materials, a strong foundation in tonality or modality, and the use of limited, repetitive melodies; together these materials lend an explicitly spiritual orientation to their works.
Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928): Vigilia, part I: Vespers
In the Orthodox tradition, the All-Night Vigil is a liturgy, including both Vespers and Matins, which prepares participants for a major feast day. Einojuhani Rautavaara composed Vigilia (1971-72) specifically for the feast of John the Baptist, who announced the coming of Christ and then was beheaded by Herod, at the behest of Salome. The work was inspired by a childhood visit to the island monastery of Valamo in Finland’s Lake Ladoga, that remained in the composer’s mind as an overwhelming vision of domes, bells, and icons. Rautavaara the composer utilizes choir and soloists in as varied a way as possible—they sing, speak and whisper, occasionally in clusters and glissandi, as well as microintervals, all traditional features of ancient Byzantine liturgy. Much late-twentieth century, Northern European choral music seeks to calm the listener, and focuses inwardly. Rautavaara utilizes a similar musical vocabulary, but with very different effect. What Rautavaara calls the “unbelievable, naively harsh and mystically profound” texts inspire music which is strikingly active, varied, and pulsating with energy and emotion.
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896): Os justi
At least some of the mystique attached to Anton Bruckner’s music stems from a seeming disconnect between his biography and his accomplishment. The son of a rural schoolmaster, Bruckner was a devout Catholic who enjoyed drinking beer, developed late (he was not recognized or accepted as a major composer until he was in his sixties), and had no great expectations for himself. His humble, unpretentious lifestyle was very out of step with that of his more flamboyant Viennese contemporaries, and he seemed remarkably unaffected by the uproar and controversy occasioned by his revolutionary musical language. Os justi (1879) is typically, and deceptively, modest. In his own words, “It is written without sharps and flats, without the chord of the seventh, without six-four chord and without chordal combinations of four and five simultaneous notes.” Yet so profound is Bruckner’s mastery of his harmonic idiom, as well as his sense of structure and form, that this small work effortlessly takes its place as one of the finest unaccompanied sacred motets of the 19th century.
Stephen Paulus (b. 1949): And Give Us Peace
Chicago Chorale commissioned And Give Us Peace in honor of the choir’s 10th Anniversary Season, with the financial support of Chicago’s Harper Court Arts Council. The text combines passages from Romans and Numbers in a timeless, universal plea for peace. American composer Stephen Paulus works in a broad variety of genres, including opera and choral music. He has written nine dramatic works, and one senses his instinct for operatic forces and narrative in this motet. Paulus writes, “I decided to wrap the text in rich, broad harmonies. In a couple of spots I made differing harmonic textures between the women and men, and then overlapped them to create a kind of impressionistic blending of sounds. The piece opens with just the women’s voices in an effort to imitate the sounds of angels. Shortly before the end, this section is repeated but in a key that is one step higher than the opening material.”