Adolphus Hailstork: Seven Songs of the Rubaiyat (1981)
Aaron Copland: Four Motets (1921)
Nadia Boulanger: Songs
Nicholas Maw: Three Hymns (1989)
Robert Shafer: The Sun Never Says (2012)
Thea Musgrave: Four Madrigals (1958) (1958)
Russell Woollen: Two Motets for Holy Week
Irving Fine: The Hour-Glass (1951)
Tonight’s concert showcases what Cantate audiences have come to expect: a varied program of motets, hymns, madrigals, and songs; works by underappreciated composers; underappreciated works by well-known composers; new music; great poetic texts; and — of course — masterful performances. The binding thread is the legacy of Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979), known as “Mademoiselle,” whose teaching had a profound and lasting influence on multiple generations of musicians. Her many students do not represent a “school” of musical thinking; she maintained that her role was simply to help a student find his or her unique musical voice.
The American Conservatory at Fontainebleau is still in operation. It was founded in 1921 and is housed in a 12th-century chateau not far from Paris. The chateau has a history as a musical center during the reign of Louis XIV and beyond. Mlle. Boulanger was one of the first teachers at the conservatory, and she later took over as director. The conservatory was a successor to the music schools in France that were formed at the behest of Gen. John J. Pershing toward the end of World War I to improve music in the U.S. military.
Mlle. Boulanger also gave private lessons and hosted Wednesday soirées in her crowded Paris apartment. The apartment housed a small pipe organ and two pianos, as well as an extensive library of scores, many of which she inherited from her grandmother. She mainly taught lessons in harmony and counterpoint, drawing from old and new music alike. She was an early advocate of Hindemith and Stravinsky, but she also championed the great contrapuntists, including Bach and Tallis, and other composers — including Monteverdi, whose works she is credited with bringing out of obscurity. Her skill as a teacher resulted from her own insatiable curiosity about the inner workings of music, new and old. She guided students in a way that was both humble and forceful, and she endeared many a student with her deep knowledge and her endless wonder at the vastness of the musical treasures at her disposal. As Mlle. Boulanger would say, “Ecoutez!” — “Listen!”
Adolphus Hailstork is an African-American composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau after completing his bachelor of music degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He went on to earn his master of music degree at the Manhattan School of Music and his doctorate in composition from Michigan State University, and he has held prominent teaching positions and received many awards for his compositions. In 1992 he was named a Cultural Laureate of Virginia and is a Professor and Eminent Scholar in music at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
The texts of the Rubaiyat were first published in 1859 as Edward Fitzgerald’s free translation of four-line poems attributed to the medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam. The Fitzgerald work made its way almost instantly into the canon of English literature and has remained popular ever since. Hailstork says that these pieces “were begun simply as an exercise in creating a series of songs using a variety of different scales.” However, his text setting is so natural and graceful that no theoretical skeleton is apparent. He begins and ends the cycle with the same poem set to almost identical music; however, his expert setting of the intervening poems almost makes it sound different the second time.
Aaron Copland composed these four motets in 1921, the year that the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau was founded. It was Nadia Boulanger’s first year to teach there, and Copland was one of her first American students. She later recalled that she did not speak any English at the time, and she gave lessons despite her complete inability to understand anything her students were saying. Copland and Boulanger remained lifelong friends. Remarkably, Copland’s unique voice comes through even in these very early works. The rhythmic diversity — especially in the third and fourth motets — foreshadows Copland’s later ballet writing and Americana compositions.
Nadia Boulanger felt that her own compositions were respectable, but she gave up serious composition after a few years of trying. She never considered herself to be an inspired composer and tended to speak of her attempts in the past tense. In these songs, however, her melodic and harmonic gifts are apparent. Some of the harmonies reveal the jazz-influenced sounds also explored by the likes of Ravel and Debussy. However, the simplicity of a song like Cantique also shows her skill at restraint — no small feat for someone who was already working through harmonic treatises and transposing music into every key by the time she was eight years old.
Nicholas Maw was born in England but spent his last decades in Washington, D.C., where his magnum opus — the opera Sophie’s Choice — was given its North American premiere by Washington National Opera in 2006. His music features extended melodic phrases and ethereal harmonies; the flashy organ writing in these hymns complements the choral textures. The poetry Maw chose for these hymns is a joy, and his gentle and good-natured personality shines through in the music.
The Sun Never Says was begun in late July of 2012 and completed in early October of the same year. Following the death of my father in April, I was unable to compose at all. I had promised my dear friend, Gisèle Becker, to write a new piece for her November concert, but I feared it would be impossible. Just as my wife and I were about to leave for Italy in late July, I decided to keep my promise to Gisèle and began looking at poems by Hafiz, the 14th-century Persian poet. The Sun Never Says immediately struck me as an ideal text for this new work. While dedicating the work to Gisèle, I also composed the piece in memory of my father. It is scored for choir and handbells.
The opening section is quite mysterious and chromatic. I use many major/minor triads in first inversion, steadily repeating the poem’s first three lines. During this opening section, the music builds to a great climax in the voices followed by a general peal of the handbells. The next section is a choral recitative, setting the words “The sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.” The final section is quite warm, expressive and tonal, setting the final three lines. The tension of the opening two sections is resolved in this final meditation on peace and love.
Scottish composer Thea Musgrave wrote these pieces in 1953 while she was Nadia Boulanger’s student. Her settings of love poems by the early 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt are a nod to the traditional madrigal sound, contrasting homophonic sections with independent vocal lines. She supports these traditional idioms with new harmonies, to great effect. These pieces are popular with many well-known choruses, including The King’s Singers.
The compositions of Russell Woollen were extremely well known in Roman Catholic circles in the mid-20th century and are beginning to experience a renaissance. Woollen lived most of his life in Washington, D.C., where he was on the faculty of Catholic University from 1950 to 1962. It was in 1951 that he went to France to study with Mlle. Boulanger. She noted that he showed compositional maturity so early that her assistance was minimal; however, Woollen did feel that he benefited from the studies. Robert Shafer tells that Woollen had a difficult time securing a spot in Mlle. Boulanger’s world-renowned studio: “Woollen and Boulanger had exchanged letters, and she had agreed to teach him. When he arrived in Paris, he repeatedly telephoned her to confirm a lesson time. She would not return his calls. In frustration, he asked his friend, Nicolas Nabokov, what he should do. Nabokov replied, ‘All women love flowers, so just show up to her studio tomorrow morning with two dozen red roses!’ Russell took the advice, and appeared, roses in hand, at her front door the next morning at 10:00 a.m. Her butler came to the door, took the roses, and told him to wait. In a few minutes, he heard a lot of moving about inside and upstairs. Then Mademoiselle herself came to the door, welcomed him to her home, took him upstairs to the studio, and dismissed her current student immediately. She gave him a two-hour lesson on the spot, and they met weekly for the remainder of his time in Paris.”
Irving Fine was a Boston-based composer; he first became acquainted with Mlle. Boulanger in 1939. Her reputation was well known at Harvard by that time, but women were barred from teaching there. Consequently, she gave classes at Radcliffe, where Harvard students had to go to study with her. She was so impressed with Fine that she helped him get a summer grant to study with her in France. He became one of her favorite students and found funds to extend his stay past the summer; however, he was forced to return home in September at the outbreak of the war in Europe. Fine’s settings of poems by Ben Jonson reflect the sounds that are characteristic of his composition: quick-leaping melody lines, changing textures, and rhythmic acuity. His music is known for pushing the bounds of harmony while maintaining an uncluttered sound. Rounding out tonight’s program, these poems have similar themes to the Rubaiyat poems that Hailstork set: the fleetingness of time and youth. Fine died of heart disease at age 47.