Program Notes

During the Iraq war, the church that my family attended read aloud every Sunday the names and ages of American service people who had died during the week. For some weeks, the number of the deceased military members was 10, other times it was 40 or 50. After that, the number of Iraqi civilians that died in the war during the past week was also read to the congregation. That number was always two-, three-, four-, five hundred. Hundreds! Were that same exercise to occurtoday, the number of dead   from various conflicts in places such as Ukraine, the Middle East, Haiti, and Uganda, would be in the thousands. What a waste of human life, and blatant disregard for human rights. With Veteran’s Day and the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’état just past, it feels important to take a step back and ponder the senseless tragedies around the world, past and present, and in so doing acknowledge that each one of these numbers has a face - an identity. This program, and the Duruflé in particular, is offered in memory of each life that was so callously cut short. – David Hodgkins

This afternoon’s program opens with the dramatic outcry of The Lamentations of Jeremiah (1946) by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. In 1942, Ginastera was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in the United States, but had to delay the trip because of the outbreak of World War II. In 1945, he was blacklisted by the Perón regime and stripped of his teaching positions. For the next two years, he found refuge in the United States with the aid of a Guggenheim grant. He attended Aaron Copland’s composition class at Tanglewood the following summer, and soon after wrote the Lamentations while staying in New York City.

Like much of his music, The Lamentations of Jeremiah is passionate, dramatic and clearly structured. The only ‘a cappella’ piece written by Ginastera, The Lamentations is in three movements—which progress from keening fury to utter desolation to hope before culminating in a passionate plea for salvation. The text is a compilation of verses from the Book of Lamentations, selected and reordered by Ginastera to create a narrative of the fall of Jerusalem that echoes with the devastation of war, the pain of exile and the persecution of the opposition in his homeland.

Written during his second compositional period, dubbed “subjective nationalism,” Ginastera’s setting incorporates many elements of Argentinian folk music. The fiery first movement has characteristics drawn from the malambo—a rapid, energetic dance of the gauchos in 6/8 meter. The predominance of open fourths and fifths suggest the open strings of the guitar as well as connections to the music of Copland, with whom Ginastera had just studied. Ginastera also drew upon European Renaissance motet form with its imitative lines. He was a great admirer of the Spanish 16th century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, an influence immediately apparent, especially in the haunting second movement whose suspensions and sudden harmonic shifts are reminiscent of Victoria’s style, textures and pathos.

Cantos Sagrados (1990), by the leading Scottish composer James MacMillan, is a provocative choral drama in three movements that portrays the anguish caused by the “disappearance” of political prisoners and the brutal oppression of indigenous peoples in Latin America by the Conquistadors. MacMillan’s libretto uses two of Ariel Dorfman’s vividly descriptive poems as structural pillars, surrounding an imploring prayer by Ana Maria Mendoza. MacMillan masterfully weaves sacred Latin texts into the texture to create his vision of a work which is meant to be “both timeless and contemporary, both sacred and secular.”

The first movement, “Identity,” is in four distinct sections. The opening “scene” is a chaotic public gathering place, where questions and declamatory cries about the discovery of a dead body which no one can, or dares to, identify, crackle through the air in mixed meter, punctuated by sharp, pungent chords in the organ. The second section represents the quiet, mournful lament of the women gathered by the riverbank, whose hearts ache with the notion that the unknown body “doesn’t belong to anybody.” With the arrival of the police, the crowd’s grief rises to anger and urgency as one woman bravely steps up to claim the body with her name and her family’s name, in order to give worth to the life once lived, and for the body to be buried with an identity and dignity. The movement ends with a chanted excerpt from the Requiem Mass: “Deliver the souls of the faithful departed...that they not fall into obscurity.”

The second movement opens with a slow, translucent, Latin prayer to the Holy Mother in the lower voices, gently repeated over and over again, much as when a parent soothes a despondent child. Above this, the sopranos give voice to a childlike figure who wonders how the Virgin of Guadalupe can be both the patron saint of the Spanish Conquerors and of the Indians they massacred. The voice is filled with the searing agony of betrayal that so often occurs, especially in the young and innocent, when the reality of the cruel things done in the name of faith collide with the aspirations and beliefs of spirituality.

In the third movement, MacMillan superimposes the text of Dorfman’s “Sun Stone,” about the execution of a political prisoner, onto the story of the crucifixion. The movement opens with a deceptively peaceful chorale in the organ, which the lower voices then sing on the text “and He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit.” Part of the chorus sings the Latin text in long, sustained note values, while short, clipped declamations of Dorfman’s poem puncture the serene backdrop. The music builds slowly. As a soldier ties the hands of the condemned, his fingers touch him, warm, gentle, at once asking for absolution and offering a compassion that seeks to carry him through his fate. The story of the crucifixion becomes more expansive as the text of the Dorfman poem becomes more insistent. The culmination of the execution is at once both electric and terrifying. One envisions the images of streams of light filling the body at the precise moment that the shots are fired. As the spirit leaves the body, the music gradually folds in on itself, until we are left with just a single low bass note in the organ, while the soldier whispers “Forgive me, compañero.”

Maurice Duruflé wrote his exquisite and transcendent Requiem, Opus 9 in 1947 just after the turbulence of World War II. One of roughly a dozen pieces that this meticulous and self-critical composer passed on to posterity, the Requiem was dedicated to the memory of his father who had died in 1945, five months after the liberation of Paris. Duruflé had been working on an organ suite using themes from Gregorian chant when he received the commission from his publisher Durand, and used his sketches, based on quotations of chant from the Mass for the Dead, as the source of a nine-movement Requiem.

Duruflé’s Requiem clearly pays homage to the Fauré Requiem, written some 60 years previously. It shares certain structural elements (the same key, similar arrangement of solos, exclusion of parts of the Day of Judgment text, and inclusion of the Pie Jesu motet and closing prayers from the early Christian burial service). More significantly, it shares the same spirit. Instead of focusing on the more operatic, dramatic possibilities of the “Day of Wrath” texts explored by Mozart, Berlioz, or Verdi, Duruflé’s Requiem resonates with forgiveness, consolation and eternal light. Although the serenity of the quiet writing is punctuated in places by marcato ferocity and darkly shifting harmonies, Duruflé keeps returning to the promise of eternal peace. Over and over again, Duruflé comes back to that single word which begins and ends the piece: “Requiem” (Rest).

What sets Duruflé’s Requiem apart are its roots in chant. A lifelong church musician of prodigious virtuosity, Duruflé spent his childhood at the choir school of the Rouen Cathedral, immersed in the traditions of Gregorian chant, as revived in the late 19th century by the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes:

“My requiem is composed throughout on the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead. Sometimes the musical text is completely respected, the orchestral part intervening merely to sustain or comment on it; sometimes I was simply inspired by it, or left it completely, for example, for certain developments suggested by the Latin text, notably in the Domine Jesu Christe, the Sanctus and the Libera. In general I have sought above all to enter into the characteristic style of the Gregorian themes. Therefore, I have done my best to reconcile, as far as possible, Gregorian rhythm as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the demands of modern meter.”— Maurice Duruflé

In traditional chant, the rhythms of text rule; there is no fixed metrical pattern, just continuous melismatic phrases whose shape is dictated by word stress. With Duruflé we get a form of metered chant, but the meter shifts constantly and word stress often takes precedence over downbeat. The melodies of the chants, and the modal scales on which they are based, shape the gracefully arcing structure of the Requiem’s movements, and the melismatic lines of chant are translated into its flowing, overlapping sections.

Sometimes you will hear a quoted line of chant in a single voice, sometimes it is set in canons. At other points, a chant fragment forms the subject of what almost seems like a Renaissance Mass with fugal imitations and a cantus firmus. Then elsewhere you might find congregational homophony or snatches of more operatic drama. All these structures are joined together and made timeless by the underlying tonal palate – the shimmering dissonant 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths, the impressionistic harmonies. It is this fusion of the bones of chant clothed in the vibrant and undulating tonal colors of 20th century modern French composition that gives this piece such life.

Duruflé published three versions of his Requiem: the original one for choir, soloists, and orchestra, and two smaller versions (being a practical church musician aware of the difficulty of assembling large forces) – one for choir, organ and small orchestra with horns, and the version Coro Allegro performs today for choir, soloists and organ alone (with a cello obligato for the Pie Jesu).

Like so many of the major French composers (Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Franck, Messiaen), Duruflé was an extremely talented organist. (He studied with Tournemier and Vierne at the Conservatoire and Notre Dame, before becoming the organist at St. Étienne du Mont in 1929). The organ part in the version we are performing is no mere orchestral reduction, but a highly realized work of a virtuoso performer. Of the 1961 version for organ and small orchestra, Duruflé noted that the organ part served to “replace temporality the sonorities of the orchestra which sound all too human. It represents the idea of peace, of faith and hope.” In the version you hear today, the organ has to carry with it both humanity and the eternal ideals. It is the vox humana that breathes with the choir, the ceaseless motion of life, and the long pedal tone of eternity.

The Introit opens with the organ whirling along with the pulse of life already in progress. Then first one voice, then others in shifting combinations, enter with the chant, before coming together in radiant harmonies that sing of perpetual light. The Kyrie is the most like a Renaissance Mass with its fugal, imitative subjects. The intertwined lines of sopranos and altos give the Christe section a more human voice, which the final Kyrie interrupts with a series of ascending entrances that plead for mercy. Domine Jesu Christe offers more dramatic contrasts; the wide open chords of the lion’s mouth, the dark and shifting harmonies of the pit of hell give way before the holy light of St. Michael and duets that bring a quiet reminder of the promise to Abraham and his seed.

In the Sanctus, a procession of celestial voices enters against perpetual motion in the organ, and climbs to a ravishing climax. The rest of the choir joins in ecstatic Hosannas, before the upper voices retreat murmuring blessings. The beautiful Pie Jesu gives its mezzo-soprano soloist the opportunity to explore the expressive possibilities of harmonized chant with intimate and painful longing. Then the soloist’s line literally comes to rest, finding consolation in low repetitions of the word “Requiem.” The choir develops this pattern and theme in the Agnus Dei, while the spinning organ below them finally slows to a rest. Lux aeterna opens with a fluid, graceful, accompanied chant and closes in the quiet insistence of unison voices over homophonic chords in the organ. The serenity established is punctuated by the dirge-like chant of the Libera me which mounts to ferocity before coming together in a unison prayer of supplication. Duruflé’s Requiem ends with the transcendent In Paradisum. Through the shimmering registrations of the organ, angelic choirs lead us into a paradise of lush and hovering dissonances. Rather than resolving in a conventional consonance, the work comes to rest on a dominant 7th chord in the chorus, with a final added 9th in the organ. The effect is one of timelessness. “I think that’s the point,” says David Hodgkins. “The last line of text is “grant them eternal rest” and the warmth of those last few chords floats above us and continues to resonate long after the final cut-off, as if to say death is not final.”

Program notes © Artistic Director David Hodgkins and Programming Consultant Yoshi Campbell. 

These notes are published here for patrons of Coro Allegro and other interested readers. It is permissible to use short excerpts for reviews. For permission to copy, publish or make other use of these notes, please contact and consider making a donation to Coro Allegro.