“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” Scholars have translated this passage from the Gospel of John in various ways, but the words hold new significance now. People around the world are emerging from what has seemed an endless dark season of loneliness, isolation, and loss. Yet, despite the darkness of the pandemic, the light of community and creativity has never gone out. Making and sharing music again feels like a renewal of light, among us and within each of us. Our music also offers new light: Though starting with familiar texts, all the compositions date from the last thirty years, as composers have reinterpreted the words in fresh ways, with new insights and emotions shining through music itself.
English composer Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) achieved his first major professional success with his cantata The Whale, based on the Biblical story of Jonah. He composed on religious subjects throughout his life, though his emphasis changed after he converted from Presbyterianism to Orthodox Christianity in 1977. Tavener’s “Today the Virgin Comes to the Cave” reflects this new orientation. His spiritual adviser, Mother Thekla (1918-2011), an Orthodox nun whose family had fled to England during the Russian Revolution, wrote the words, based on ancient imagery, for this and many of his other works. She had counseled Tavener after the death of his mother, a dark time when he feared he could never write music again. This piece presents a dialogue between Joseph and Mary, interspersed with ever-more elaborate choral Alleluias that spin like ecstatic dancers.
The Advent hymn “O come, Emmanuel” began over 1200 years ago as part of monastic worship in Latin, sung as plainchant. On Christmas Eve, it both preceded and followed the singing of the Magnificat. Anglican priest John Mason Neale wrote the translation that most English speakers know in 1861, but the most familiar musical setting dates from 15th-century France. Iowa-based composer Elaine Hagenberg (b. 1979) produced this haunting arrangement in 2016. The sighing repetition of the words “O come” and the cello accompaniment intensify the deep yearning in the text. Hagenberg’s music helped us get through the lockdown of last year’s holiday season, when our singers collaborated on a virtual video of “The Music of Stillness,” her exquisite setting of a Sara Teasdale poem; you can enjoy it at our website: portlandschoir.org.
Timothy Takach (b. 1978) offers a new take on another familiar carol in “O Holy Child of Bethlehem.” American Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote the words for his Philadelphia church in 1868, with his organist Lewis Redner (1831–1908) crafting the tune most North Americans sing; in England it has a completely different melody. One December Takach unexpectedly found himself singing the words to a setting for Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” that he had composed years earlier. Yet perhaps the new pairing of text and music is not that surprising, since both sets of words focus on the birth of new hope in a bleak world. A graduate of St. Olaf College (a powerhouse in the choral music world), Takach not only composes but was a co-founder of Cantus, a men’s vocal ensemble based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. This April, we will host him and perform an entire concert of his music, including the world premiere of his setting of a Wendell Berry poem that we commissioned.
“Lux Beatissima,” by Oregon native Joshua Rist, combines two ancient texts about light. The first comes from the Catholic Pentecost liturgy and probably dates from the 12th century. The second is far older—the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Rist sees the music as “a meditation on and celebration of human nature, especially our apparent duality” of light and darkness. The music flows from light moving freely inside us, to light shining fearlessly in our human darkness, to gratitude for light filling the deepest part of our hearts. Rist discovered his love of teaching music while on a humanitarian mission in Nigeria at age nineteen. He had a portable electric keyboard and was teaching children to play on it, when someone invited him to direct a children’s choir. After his return home, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in music education at Oregon State, where he also began composing. He has been teaching and composing music, especially for choirs, ever since.
We first sang music by Michael McGlynn (b. 1964) after our late conductor, Roger O. Doyle, returned from a sabbatical in Ireland where they had worked together. Best known as the founder and director of the Irish choral group Anúna, established in 1987 to redefine aspects of Celtic music, McGlynn has composed in many genres–folk song arrangements, orchestral works, music for the theatre, and a cantata on the life of Francis of Assisi. His setting of “Silent Night” contains aspects of traditional Irish music, such as the drone in the bass line under the melody, while the crooning lullaby in the upper voices evokes Mary gently rocking her baby.
Musical settings of “Non Nobis Domine,” based on the first line of Psalm 115, rarely show up on Christmas programs, but they certainly fit, since giving glory to God matches the angels’ greeting to the shepherds. An early musical setting began in the mid-16th century before becoming a popular three-part canon. Our concert includes two modern settings. Dr. Rosephanye Powell (b. 1962) is a professor of voice at Auburn University, which helps explain why she writes so well for choruses. Before beginning her work as a composer, she focused on performing and promoting the art songs and settings of spirituals by African American composer William Grant Still, on whom she is considered an authority. Her setting of this ancient hymn of praise pulses with exultant energy.
By contrast, “Glow,” by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), could hardly feel more serene. We have featured his works many times, 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 landscape that might otherwise seem lifeless. Yet the landscape is completely alive: the snow whispers, the land sleeps, sparrows sing, and a new season is born. Edward Esch, who wrote the English version of Whitacre’s melting “Lux Aurumque,” also crafted these lyrics, describing the miracle of a new day.
The carol “I Denne Søte Juletid” sounds like a folksong, and indeed many Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden, and Denmark – claim it as their own. In actuality, a Danish pietist clergyman, Hans Adolph Brorson (1694-1764), best known as a translator of German hymns, wrote the original words, probably in the 1730s; another Danish clergyman, Carl Christian Nikolaj Balle (1806-1855), set it to music a century later. Our arrangement hails from Sweden, created by Lisa Rydberg (b. 1978), whose musical activities span everything from folk songs to solo Baroque violin, to performing jazz, folk, and tango with The Lisas, a violin-accordion duo.
Unlike the previous piece, The Holly and the Ivy” probably really is a folksong. Even though some have credited Henry VIII with both the words and music, the first documented version of the words (among many) appeared on a broadside only in the early 19th century, and the familiar tune was not collected until 1909. This version comes from a collection of carol arrangements by Norwegian-born composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978). He moved to the United States in 2001 to study composition at Juilliard and film music at USC. Gjeilo is likely familiar to CAE audiences, for we have performed many of his works, twice with the composer at the piano.
We close with another setting of “Non Nobis Domine,” by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). He studied composition and piano at Bob Jones University and the University of Kansas, where he earned his doctorate. His love for the piano led him to choral music through his serving as an accompanist. His deep Christian faith imbues all his work, including his remarkable Requiem for the Living (2013), which we performed in 2016. His “Non Nobis Domine,” with a full orchestral accompaniment, received its world premiere at Salzburg Cathedral in 2018, but we prefer his a cappella version. It begins like medieval plainchant but soon blossoms like audible light filling every space. It ends with three quiet alleluias and an almost whispered amen.
From all of us in Choral Arts, we wish you a new year of good health, light, and peace.