Hubert Parry - Songs of Farewell
Last Performed by BCCS on October 26, 2014
I have long thought of doing a program of musical settings of sacred poetry found outside both the liturgy and the scripture. Poetry and music have always been for me an important way to probe what we call the spiritual context of our life together – where we search for meaning, higher purpose, connection.
Many of the great religions have within them a divide between doctrine, scriptures, precepts that necessarily define and sustain the tradition and the less-well-defined creative imagination that has given people the motivation to try to live by those precepts. Many of the greatest composers of sacred music in the Western tradition have found themselves on the edge of organized religion or philosophy – composers such as Brahms, Verdi, Vaughan Williams, and Hebert Howells among many others – preferring to call themselves "agnostic" - another way of saying "I don’t know, but I want to know."
The English composer Hubert Parry was one of those – he was so offended by organized religion he could not bring himself to attend his own daughter’s christening, and yet his hymns are among the most profound and beloved in the Christian canon. A royal wedding in his home country cannot go forward without his anthem setting of Psalm 122, "I was glad when they said unto me." He was teacher and direct inspiration to a renaissance of English composers in the generation to follow, most notably Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, and Gerald Finzi.
It was surprising then that after over twenty years as a choral musician, it was only recently I took the time to take a closer look at his valedictory masterpiece, Songs of Farewell, a set of six pieces seldom performed all on the same program in the United States. This is the kind of music that makes you feel enriched, ennobled, fulfilled more and more at each encounter. Like the Brahms Requiem, the Rachmaninoff Vespers, and the Sea Symphony we performed last season, it is music you wish you could rehearse forever.
Each of these six motets, or sacred partsongs, is so rich in itself, I thought they would benefit from being spread across the program with contrasting but complementary works. For this we are exceptionally fortunate to have two of the most communicative vocal soloists I have had the fortune to work with, mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and bass-baritone Kevin Deas, both of whom have appeared with BCCS to great acclaim in the past.
Suzanne will be singing two short sets of songs with sacred-poetic texts by American composers Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson, William Bolcom, and Paul Bowles, and connect to our previous season through Vaughan Williams' rarely performed song "The New Ghost." Kevin Deas suggested to me Four Songs on Chinese Poetry by Pavel Haas. These poems touch the "ineffable" though the close observation of nature as is common in many Asian religions and philosophies. For the composer, who wrote them while incarcerated in the Terezin death camp of World War II, they also speak profoundly of a longing for home.
The theme of longing for home is a common theme of many of the other texts on the program, and in fact might be a good way to describe the essence of spiritual probing...a desire for connection, for escape from isolation. For this reason we also included a setting of the spiritual "Steal Away" by William Dawson. Connecting to our program devoted to the Spiritual last Fall, this song finds hope that faithful longing for Jesus will lead to freedom both physical and spiritual in a new home where the sorrows of the past can be left behind.
With the hopes and dreams of those soon-to-be-freed slaves, and of Pavel Haas, Hubert Parry, and many others, we close the program with one of the best known choral pieces in the repertoire, a song of thanksgiving – Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, composed to be sung by student musicians at Tanglewood in 1941 and used for that entirely secular but numinous purpose ever since. – Thomas Lloyd