Terra Mater, Mater Dei Program Notes

We initially took our inspiration for this concert from the woman at the center of the Christmas story–Mary, the mother of God. But the season also brings a renewed focus on Mother Earth herself, as she too prepares to give birth to a new year and a new chance to live peacefully with one another. So we invite you to surround yourself in music celebrating these two images of maternal caring and love.

English composer Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) wrote “Today the Virgin Comes to the Cave” after he converted from Presbyterianism to Orthodox Christianity. His spiritual adviser, Mother Thekla (1918-2011), an Orthodox nun whose family fled to England during the Russian Revolution, wrote the words for this and many of his other works. She had begun counseling Tavener after the death of his mother when he feared he could never write music again. This piece presents a dialogue between Joseph and Mary, interspersed with elaborate Alleluias that spin like ecstatic dancers.

Unlike many of his Renaissance contemporaries, Francisco Guerrero (1528-1597) from Seville composed both sacred and secular music. In his lifetime, he was almost equally famous for a book of his adventures on a return journey from the Holy Land, including being attacked and captured by pirates. Today he is known mostly for his sacred music, which has remained especially popular in Spain and Latin America. An early copy of a Magnificat by him has been discovered in Lima, Peru, and the devout “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” a traditional Advent prayer to Mary, may have been sung there as well.

“Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” with words in Quechua, dates from slightly later but is the first work of vocal polyphony published in the Americas. Juan Pérez de Bocanegra (d. 1641), a Franciscan friar who spent most of his life in Lima and Cusco, Peru, published it in 1631 in a book of texts for church rituals in both Spanish and Quechua. In his writing and composing, he drew freely on aspects of the indigenous culture and religion, integrating them with Catholicism. In this ode to the Virgin, he includes Quechua imagery in describing her.

Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) has long been a favorite of our singers and audiences; he is even composing a new work for our 50th anniversary season. He had admired the prayer “Tota pulchra es Maria” since high school, when he heard it in Maurice Duruflé’s Four Gregorian Motets. The words of the first and third sections come from a 5th-century prayer praising Mary for her purity. The middle section, however, reflects the words of St. Bernadette when Mary appeared to her in 1858 as the Immaculate Conception, an event celebrated every year on December 8. Gjeilo’s setting maintains the reverence of Gregorian chant but adds his own more modern harmonies.

We next present two Spanish carols, probably from the 17th century. The gentle “La Virgen Lava Pañales” captures a very human moment when shepherds glimpse the Virgin Mary washing diapers and laying them on rosemary bushes to dry. The solo voice foresees Jesus’ hard life in the world while the lower voices softly imitate guitar chords. Pablo Casals (1876-1973), the great Catalan cellist, popularized the haunting “Carol of the Birds” from his native region by playing it as an encore in many of his concerts. The 14 verses of the original carol mention 32 different birds, that all, led by the dazzling star, arrive in Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child.

The next two works come from the Russian Orthodox tradition, though neither composer is originally from Russia or that faith. Early on, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) had conflicts with Soviet authorities, so he and his family emigrated from the Soviet Union to Western Europe in 1980; around the same time, he converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. “Bogoróditse Djévo” is a Slavonic setting of the first part of the Ave Maria. Pärt’s version buzzes with joyous energy. In contrast, “Mother of God, Here I Stand,” by John Tavener, draws on the Orthodox tradition of venerating icons. Tavener sets a verse by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). In hushed contemplation, every earthly concern falls away in awe of Mary. This anthem comes from a larger work called The Veil of the Temple, which runs seven hours and presents aspects of many major religions “like a gigantic prayer wheel.” Tavener considered it the “supreme achievement” of his life.

Just as Mary appeared to Bernadette, she also appeared as the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, an indigenous convert to Catholicism in 1531, just a few years after Spain conquered Mexico. He encountered her three times, and her now-familiar image miraculously appeared on the inside of his cloak. She is venerated throughout Mexico and much of Latin America, especially on her feast day, December 12. In Mexico City, the celebration features singing “Las Mañanitas,” traditionally at dawn or early morning after a midnight mass that includes the “Blessing of the Roses.” But people sing this song, with a variety of lyrics, on many other occasions, too, such as birthdays and Mother’s Day. The tune comes from Mexican folk traditions, as does the instrumental accompaniment, for the native people quickly adapted Spanish instruments to use in more traditional ways.

It’s hard to believe, but Vivaldi’s beloved Gloria was virtually unknown until the mid-20th century, when Italian conductor Alfredo Casella revived many of Vivaldi’s pieces during “Vivaldi Week” in 1939. Born in Venice, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was ordained a priest in 1703, the same year that he became a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian orphanage where he began composing works for his pupils. While there, he actually composed three settings of the Gloria, probably around 1715. This version of “Et in terra pax hominibus” makes one wonder if Bach had ever heard it, since the “Incarnatus” of his B minor Mass shares the same key, meter, and tempo as Vivaldi’s composition; the two also share the theme of the divine coming down to earth.

We have featured works by American Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) many times over the years, reveling in music that ranges from the whimsical (settings of Ogden Nash) to the almost operatic (“Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”), but that always brims with his characteristically rich harmonies. “Glow” radiates warmth, even as it describes a wintry landscape that might otherwise seem lifeless. In fact, the landscape is completely alive: the snow whispers, the land sleeps, and a new season is born. Edward Esch, who wrote the original English version of Whitacre’s melting “Lux Aurumque,” wrote this poem as well.

The three 16th-century Spanish carols do a fine job of combining praise for Mary as the Virgin Mother with down-to-earth depictions of shepherds’ lives. In Spain, these songs are called villancicos, from the word villa, or city, where outdoor musicians performed on religious feast days and especially at Christmas. All three first appeared in a collection known as the Cancionero de Upsala (published in 1556), but at least the tunes probably originated as folk songs. People almost certainly danced to these lively tunes as well as sang them, judging by the many repeated choruses and vigorous rhythms. “E la don don,” sung in Catalan, invites everyone to sing and dance to the glory of Mary, “our loving queen.” “Dadme albricias, hijos d’Eva” seems especially appropriate for little ones, as it promises treats to celebrate the good news of Jesus’ birth. “Riu, Riu Chiu” uses imagery of shepherds and flocks, with the refrain thanking God for protecting our lamb (Mary, in this case) from a rabid wolf. The very words “Riu, Riu Chiu” come from a traditional call that shepherds used while tending their flocks.

All who attend the Christmas Revels have experienced the solstice poem, “The Shortest Day,” by English author Susan Cooper (b. 1935), as the show’s pivotal moment when the sun begins to return to the Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps best known for her young adult fantasy series, The Dark Is Rising and the musical play Foxfire, Cooper wrote a second poem with the same title, which Brian Holmes (b. 1946) set to celebrate the season. This setting celebrates the birth not of the Baby Jesus but of a new year in which we may learn to live more in harmony with each other. Although Holmes has spent his career as a professor of physics, he manages to combine his interests in music and physics, sometimes lecturing on the physics of sound. Like Cooper, his long association with the Revels has inspired him to compose choral settings of carols and even a one-act Christmas opera.

Though born and educated in the United States, Stephen Chatman (b. 1950) has lived in Canada since 1976 when he began teaching at the University of British Columbia; his adopted country awarded him the Order of Canada in 2012. His early works embody musical modernism, including atonality, but since 1982, his compositions have grown ever more lyrical and spiritual. The two excerpts from Voices of Earth (2004) reflect his newer style and his interest in showcasing the work of Canadian authors, in this case Archibald Lampman (1861-1899). Lampman played a key role among Canadian nature poets who were equally inspired by Wordsworth and by the landscapes of their own country. In both music and lyrics, “Snow” evokes an almost trancelike state of walking through falling snow at twilight, a feeling heightened by the sustained drone under the unison melody at the beginning. “Voices of Earth” perhaps best sums up the idea of “Terra Mater” as joyous voices tumble over each other, caroling of “Earth’s secret soul” and the multitude of sounds that inhabit our world.

We close with “Peace” by Martin Åsander (b. 1987), a young Swedish singer, instrumentalist, and composer of both choral and orchestral music; he now directs the choir and plays the organ at Immanuel Church in Stockholm. This short anthem sets a verse from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus promises peace to his disciples beyond the peace of this world. Åsander wrote it in 2014 partly in tribute to Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt who died that same year. But we can’t think of a better wish in this holiday season, for all of us here and for the world, than Peace.

– Susan Wladaver-Morgan