And on Earth, Peace Program Notes

As the year winds down and darkness closes in, we cherish the renewal that Christmas and a new year can bring. This evening’s concert offers music that is new in many different ways. We are proud to present recent works by local musicians and members of Cascadia Composers, a regionally based group founded in 2008 to foster a community among composers.  Other pieces re-imagine medieval carols in new ways or make familiar texts sound completely different from how we’ve heard them before. Still others help us envision living in new ways, as individuals and as nations. Even in dark times, new life and hope are being born.

In “Nowell, Nowell,” English composer Hilary Campbell revives “Sir Christèmas,” a lively carol that first appeared early in the reign of Henry VIII. French and English lyrics alternate, reflecting the aristocratic audience who enjoyed the original. Campbell considers herself a “freelance choral specialist,” acting as conductor, composer, and lyricist for several groups, but Blossom Street, the ensemble she founded as an undergraduate music student at York University in 2007, has remained a constant. To celebrate the centennial of woman suffrage in England last year, they issued This Day, a CD featuring mainly women composers to bring new attention to their work.

Cascadia Composer John Hidalgo notes that “Lux Aeterna,” with words from the requiem mass, may seem an unusual text for Christmas. Nevertheless, “with the state of the world today, the longing for peace and light is certainly on everyone’s mind. In fact, eternal light is the ultimate promise of Christmas.” The harmonies here softly shift like the emerging colors of a sunrise. Born and raised in New Orleans, Hidalgo holds degrees in music from Tulane University and Cal State University, East Bay. Now based in Springfield, Oregon, he has taught and composed both choral and instrumental music on the West Coast for nearly 20 years.

Listeners have known and loved “In the Bleak Midwinter” for over a century. English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) published the poem in 1872 and Gustav Holst (1874-1934) set it to music for The English Hymnal in 1906. In the gentle setting by American Abbie Betinis (b. 1980), warmth replaces winter’s chill, with even the hypnotic repetition of “snow on snow” seeming to enfold us tenderly. In 1922, Betinis’s great-grandfather, Rev. Bates Burt, began composing the words and music of Christmas carols that he sent to his parishioners; in 1942, his son Alfred (her great-uncle) joined in creating the annual Burt Family Carols until his death in 1954. Betinis resumed the family tradition in 2001, and now Minnesota Public Radio premieres a new carol by her every Christmas. She has composed a wide variety of original choral works with texts in many languages, and she actively encourages groups all over the country to use music to build community, with the motto “Start Local, Stay Vocal!”

Most of us are more familiar with the lyrics of Ivo Antognini’s “Puer Nobis Natus Est” in English, from the book of Isaiah and Handel’s Messiah, as well as words from Psalm 96. In contrast with Handel’s exuberant setting, Antognini emphasizes grateful wonder in deceptively simple lines and glowing harmonies. Swiss composer Antognini (b. 1963) has presented his music throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States; in 2016, he premiered A Prayer for Mother Earth, a cantata for orchestra, adult and children’s choirs, and soloists, at Carnegie Hall. His inclusion of children’s choirs reflects his work as composer in residence for Coro Calicantus, an innovative Swiss singing school for children.

Dawn Sonntag, our next Cascadia composer, has written operas, art songs, choral, chamber, orchestral, dance and film music. She has also performed as a collaborative pianist, vocalist and choral conductor in the US, Canada, Germany and Scandinavia. Her setting of “I Heard the Bells” may surprise those who know only the familiar hymn, for Sonntag returns the words to their original context. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day 1863 during the Civil War; his son had been seriously wounded just a month before. Although an abolitionist, Longfellow, like most Americans North and South, desired a peaceful solution, which seemed far off, yet the poem moves from despair to renewed faith. Using part of the Peace Pipe section from his earlier poem Song of Hiawatha (1855), Sonntag introduces a solo voice warning of the need for unity, and the chorus answers. Over a piano part that mimics chiming bells, the piece concludes with a hard-won affirmation of the Christmas message of peace.

One of the first prayers Catholics learn is the Hail, Mary—in Latin, Ave Maria. The prayer includes two verses from the Gospel of Luke: Gabriel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation, and her kinswoman Elizabeth’s greeting during Mary’s visit. The last part, beginning with “Sancta Maria,” actually does not appear in the Bible but was added less than 500 years ago. Catholics also recite the prayer as part of the Rosary and of a devotion called the Angelus to commemorate Jesus’ incarnation.

Our first setting, by German composer and choir director Franz Biebl (1906-2001), includes part of the Angelus prayer with the words that precede Gabriel’s greeting, sung almost as plainchant. The music then shifts into more modern harmonies, with lines that rise gradually and then soar. Ironically, this setting first became popular in America as an indirect consequence of war. In 1943, Biebl was drafted into the German army but was soon detained as a prisoner in Michigan. After the war, he directed a town choir in Bavaria and composed this work for them. When he later became head of Bavarian radio, he started inviting American choirs to come sing on programs with German groups, and one of those American choirs brought his setting home. His music helped heal a conflict between nations.

Both the words and original tune for “Now May We Singen” come from a 15th-century parchment found in a library at Cambridge University. Like many lyrics from that period, phrases in Latin function as a refrain while the story comes through in English. In this case, English composer Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) includes verses that depict Christ’s sacrifice for humankind and his miraculous birth as equally joyous events. As in her “Regina Caeli,” which we sang in October, McDowall plays with shifting rhythm and meter here, keeping a dance-like feel while maintaining a sense of the carol’s medieval origins.

Thomas Curran composed both the music and words for “Winter Song” for his senior recital at the University of Portland, from which he graduated this year. In addition to composing, he participated in the University Singers and in musical theater. This year he also premiered his new chamber work, The Cold Expanse, at the Atlantic Music Festival in Maine. “Winter Song” reflects his concern for the environment and our need for hope: “As our planet faces climate disaster, and news of a looming mass extinction is presented to us every day, it is difficult to see hope. The world of Winter seems inescapable…. It is only by the efforts and prayers of the chorus that Spring comes….The world of Spring is our responsibility.”

“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” sounds like an American folksong. In reality, it first appeared as a poem in London’s Spiritual Magazine in 1761, submitted by a clergyman named Richard Hutchins; an anonymous version appeared even earlier as a broadsheet. Whatever the poem’s origins, it has attracted many composers. It showed up in an American Baptist hymnal in 1784, and American and British composers alike, including John Rutter, have set it ever since. Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987), who composed our version, studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where Ralph Vaughan Williams encouraged her writing; like him, she became an avid collector of folksongs—a possible source for this setting. Early in World War II, Poston joined the BBC as music director for its European Service and reportedly used the recordings she played on-air to send coded messages to England’s continental allies. She later served as president of England’s Society of Women Musicians. Singing her best-known work as a round enhances its folksong feeling.

Robert Lockwood, our third Cascadia member, composed our second setting of the Ave Maria. Though scored in 4-part harmony, the prayer now feels inward, almost private. The two Gospel verses each start with the words in unison, while the other voices melt in behind them like a meditation. The last part begins with all the voices in harmony but expresses a personal plea to Mary to intercede for each of us. The Portland-based women’s ensemble In Mulieribus commissioned this setting of the text from which the group takes its name. Inspired by the group’s tone and blend, Lockwood composed it mostly in one sitting in June 2016. A lifelong choral singer and graduate of Yale University’s music program, Lockwood has served as Music Director of Portland’s Christmas Revels productions since 1999. In that capacity, he has arranged works from many traditions.

Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980) and Welsh-Scottish lyricist Euan Tait (b. 1968), who wrote “His Light in Us,” have collaborated frequently since 2014; their cantata The Wound in the Water eloquently expresses the need to care for our fragile planet and heal from our human greed. Many of their works have a spiritual dimension. Arnesen has composed both a Requiem and a Magnificat, while Tait describes himself as a teacher, retreat leader, poet, librettist, and liturgist. They have written that our piece is “a thanksgiving, and its key word is ‘renewed,’ reflecting what goes on in our spirits at Christmas…and how light now shines also in dark times.”

We close with the final movement of Dona Nobis Pacem, by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He composed this cantata in what was certainly a dark time—the mid-1930s. By then, those who hoped that the Great War (1914-1918) had settled international problems forever now saw widespread economic depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany. The world seemed to be drifting toward another massive conflict. Vaughan Williams had lost friends in the war and served in it himself, but he used his music to explore his complicated emotions about the possible war ahead.

The cantata as a whole draws on four main sources: the Catholic mass; three of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems; John Bright’s speech in the House of Commons opposing the Crimean War; and the Bible. All but the last movement depict painful scenes of normal life shattered by war, violence, death, and grief. But the final movement turns to the promises of the Old Testament Prophets and the Psalms. In spite of all that has come before, the words of Isaiah offer a different vision of how the world can be. One voice after another proclaims reconciliation, mercy, and peace for all nations. The work concludes with praise of God and a final, more hopeful prayer for peace. And that is our fervent wish to all of you and for the world today—peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan