Songs of Love and War Program Notes

Warmth and Light for Darkening Days

The two works of our opening concert fit well in this season of ever-shortening days, as we seek comfort and warmth among friends and in the beauty of music. Paul Moravec’s Songs of Love and War (1997) looks unflinchingly at the suffering of those touched by war—soldiers, their wives, children, parents, and comrades—but also at the human love that sustains us in the face of grief. Dan Forrest’s Requiem for the Living addresses the need for rest that we all feel in a world struggling with the often self-inflicted wounds of daily life. Forrest finds the answer in Christ.

Songs of Love and War

Paul Moravec was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1957 and studied composition at Harvard and Columbia University, from which he earned his doctorate; he is currently Professor of Music at Adelphi University. A leading figure in the field of “new tonalism,” he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004 for his Tempest Fantasy, based on Shakespeare’s play. Like other new tonalists, he has reclaimed from late modernism a warm lyricism full of humanity. He especially appreciates when his work can serve a public purpose, because it makes him feel like a useful citizen. Indeed, his most recent piece, titled “Light Shall Lift Us,” premiered in September 2016 at a benefit for social services in Orlando after last June’s tragic shooting.

Seeing the inscription at New York City’s Vietnam memorial–“Don’t Ask…”—inspired Moravec to compose tonight’s work. Something about the words sang to him, so he tracked down George Robinson, who wrote the original note, for permission to set it to music. He found the texts for the other sections by reading anthologies of wartime letters, although the final piece, “Always,” was already well known after inclusion in Ken Burns’ Civil War series. Moravec’s own program notes follow:

SONGS OF LOVE AND WAR is a setting of texts excerpted from letters to and from soldiers in four American wars. The four movements proceed in reverse chronological order from the Vietnam War (son writing to mother) through World War II (wife to husband) and World War I (a Marine sending condolences to his dead comrade’s mother) to the Civil War (husband to wife). Along the way, the cantata charts an emotional and spiritual course of increasing intensity.

These texts appeal to me on the strength of their simple dignity, compassion, and eloquence. Rather than projecting any particular political attitude toward war, the cantata concerns expressions of love made by individuals living under extreme conditions. The texts convey admirable courage in the face of extraordinary anguish and uncertainty.

The baritone soloist leads the first and fourth movements, the two most intimate of the set, and so symmetrically frames the hundred years between the Civil War and the Vietnam War. The trumpet acts as a kind of shadow-narrator, unifying the various musical themes and moods across the four movements. In singing as one voice—the voice of the letter’s author—the multi-voiced chorus reflects the psychological complexity, and sometimes the ambiguity, evident in each character and situation.

Requiem for the Living

Dan Forrest (b. 1978) hails from Elmira, N.Y., and studied composition and piano at Bob Jones University and the University of Kansas, from which he earned his doctorate. In addition to composing, he serves as a music editor and chairs the music department at Bob Jones University. He won the American Choral Directors Association’s prestigious Raymond Brock Composition Competition (for young composers) in 2005 and has received numerous other honors, especially for his sacred music. Although he composed REQUIEM FOR THE LIVING only in 2013, it has already been performed around the world over 100 times. Portions of Forrest’s own program notes follow:

Overall, the work is a prayer for rest (“Requiem”) for the living, as much as for the deceased. It’s a “grant US rest,” even more than a “grant THEM rest.”

The first movement pours out the grief of the Requiem and Kyrie prayers, facing grief head-on and grappling with the sorrow that is common to all human existence.

The second movement bitterly portrays the problem of pain that we all wrestle with, and which causes a crisis of faith for many people. It expounds on the “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” refrain from Ecclesiastes, with no small amount of anger and bitterness and “rage against the machine.” The middle section quotes Job, who is the best biblical example we have of the problem of pain.

The third movement is the Agnus Dei, out of its traditional order, because at that point in the narrative, I need to see the Lamb of God, who died to redeem mankind from all fallenness–this vanity and pain and sorrow and destruction.

It’s only after recognizing the Lamb of God that we can then turn, in this narrative, to the Sanctus. It becomes a response to the Agnus Dei, instead of prelude to it as in the normal liturgical order. Looking to Job again, God’s answer to the problem of pain is literally, “Look at my works of creation–see my transcendent power and majesty.” This movement depicts the wonder of the heavens and earth (pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua) as a Divine answer. My setting of the Sanctus text is literally a depiction of God’s wondrous glory in three different places: the universe (inspired by that Deep Field picture from the Hubble Space Telescope), earth as viewed from the International Space Station, and finally, mankind, God’s wondrous image-bearers. There are three sections to the piece which are inspired by these three thoughts–an ethereal section for the Hubble image, a warmer section with more motion that grows very majestic for the view of Earth, and then a bustling energetic final section, teeming with the life and energy of a city full of image-bearers.

The final movement is simply an arrival at rest and peace, not just in the realization of the “eternal light” which God offers those who seek him, but even here and now, for us, the living, on earth–our Requiem, our Rest, is found in Christ. I purposely quoted “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you….REST,” because it’s the answer to the opening prayer for rest. The answer to that prayer is already given, in Matthew 11–Christ is our rest. I purposely lined up the English word “rest” with the return of the Latin word “Requiem” in this final movement–you can hear it in the performance when the tenor solo ends and the choir begins again, “Requiem aeternam.”  On behalf of all of the musicians performing tonight, thank you for sharing this special evening of music with us.

– Susan Wladaver-Morgan