Nico Muhly on Choral Music

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lennygoran
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Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 01, 2017 4:20 pm

I see his opera Marnie will be at the Met 2018/19\\I didn't go to his Two Boys. I've left in what clips you can listen to at the actual Times Website. Regards, Len

Nico Muhly on Why Choral Music Is Slow Food for the Soul

By NICO MUHLY APRIL 1, 2017


Nico Muhly is a composer whose work has included collaborations with Björk and the choreographer Benjamin Millepied. His opera “Two Boys” was produced in 2013 by the Metropolitan Opera, which will present his “Marnie” in the 2018-19 season.

After Andrew Gant’s book about choral church music, “O Sing Unto the Lord,” came out in England two years ago — it was published in America last month — I saw it in a bookshop window in London, and immediately my mind started playing for me Purcell’s anthem of the same name. It begins with a symphonia — a 90-second instrumental introduction — and then a single bass voice sings the text in a scattered, crabwise way: “O, sing unto the Lord, sing unto the Lord, sing unto the Lord a new song, sing, sing unto the Lord a new song.” The choir jumps in with a merry Alleluia in an entirely new tempo, and thus begins a multimovement, many-sectioned anthem lasting a quarter of an hour.

Henry Purcell’s ‘O Sing Unto the Lord’ 1:00



In a flash, I recalled the visceral thrill of learning and singing this complicated anthem when I was 11 in Providence, R.I. My choirmaster was an incredible force: charismatic, disciplined, intense and possessing the sort of persuasive rigor it takes to coax music out of a handful of schoolboys. The music, though, is what really grabbed me: a giant, centuries-old library that exists in a completely different universe than the traditional pedagogical classical music repertoire. I was not a particularly skilled pianist and was resistant to the kind of practicing it takes to become one. I loved that instead of the linear narrative designed to developing pianistic skills — starting with Czerny études and moving ever upward toward grotesque Lisztian showmanship — the choral tradition operated in a series of interlocking cycles based on the liturgical year, with the music and the musicians playing a role in a larger drama.

We live in a time of chaotic global ever-availability: I was served asparagus on a plane in January and, in the same month, saw depressing-looking corns on the cob in a rural Icelandic grocery store. But English choral music is not about instant gratification. It’s reminiscent of deeply seasonal and regional food: a kind of cake baked only on Advent Sunday (Byrd’s spiky “Laetentur coeli”), or a damson that ripens only on the seventh Sunday after Easter (Tallis’s glossolalic “Loquebantur variis linguis”). While most music in my life can be (and is) listened to on a quick, recurrent schedule — it is not physically possible for me to cook without “Graceland” on — for choral music you have to wait, and I find myself looking forward to a work’s annual visits as I would the arrival of a long-distant friend.


English choral music was originally meant for worship and would be heard in a state of quiet meditation. Indeed, this music would have been performed (and often still is) by a choir divided in half — facing one another, rather than the congregation. In my own practice writing this sort of music, this is an important distinction: It is an observed private ritual. Nobody is meant to clap, and the music is not presented to an audience for approval; rather, it is meant to guide the mind out of the building into unseen heights and depths. It was not originally intended to happen at 7:30 at night for the pleasure of an audience coming from work, with just enough time for a rushed Chablis before the warning gong goes off, quickly checking ticket stubs and crawling over other patrons’ coats.

When I compose, I find myself returning to this tradition, particularly as it relates to creating musical drama without a Romantic sense of ebb and flow leading to a climactic moment. You can have a thrilling 90 seconds with roller-coaster harmonies focusing on two words only, followed by a single line of plainchant, followed by counterpoint outlining harmonies completely at variance with what we would understand to be the rules.

John Browne’s ‘O Maria salvatoris’ 1:13



Having the music be a meditative space, with micro-narratives and different areas of intensity, feels more intimately communicative than expecting everybody to agree: “Ah, that was the sad bit,” and “That was the climax right there.”

One of the most moving things about this musical tradition is happening upon it: walking through London and ducking into St. Paul’s Cathedral, for instance, and hearing the buttery luxuriousness of one of Herbert Howells’s canticles (a pair of texts sung, in the Anglican tradition, during Evensong), standing up the whole time. You’d be amazed how the body perceives musical detail when standing up: The difference between unison voices and voices in harmony, the length of line, subtle dynamic shifts — all hit you directly in the gut rather than in the sometimes detached concert muscle.

It is important to note, though, that this music is now actively performed and recorded in nonliturgical settings. Some of the more obscure 15th- and 16th-century large-scale choral works that would be awkward to include in modern worship (those of Cornysh, Fayrfax and Browne jump to mind) have been preserved almost entirely by excellent groups like the Tallis Scholars or Stile Antico. “O Sing Unto the Lord” calls attention to these more obscure composers, and in my fantasy world, everybody who reads it will immediately seek out as many recordings as they can find.


One of the small frustrations I had with the book is Mr. Gant’s tendency to offer what can feel like unnecessary superlatives, like “Thomas Tallis is easily the best composer in this story so far, and one of the two or three best of all.” (He then goes on to enumerate all of the ways in which Thomas Tallis is inarguably a fantastic composer.) Of Britten’s choral writing, he claims that the “Missa Brevis” is “the best of [his] commissioned liturgical works” — I found myself whimpering into the pages, “But what about ‘A Hymn to the Virgin,’ with that macaronic text and that Jacob’s ladder up to the lines ‘Of all thou bearest the prize, Lady, queen of paradise’?”

Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’ 1:06



After a thorough discussion of Howells, I felt something missing, and called out in silence, “What about ‘A Hymn to Saint Cecilia,’ with that toe-curlingly melismatic descant?” I have 12 recordings of that on my phone alone, and come St. Cecilia’s day in late November, most everybody I know gets an inbox stuffed with as many recordings as the mail server can withstand.

Herbert Howells’s ‘A Hymn for St Cecilia’ 1:05


To be steeped in this tradition is to have one’s strange, private favorites based on nothing more than instinct. This is especially true with music learned in childhood: Sometimes it’s a little turn of phrase in a set of Lamentations by Mundy (circa 1529-1591), or an outrageous chord progression in a Stanford (1852-1924) motet. To start ranking composers working in this tradition does a small disservice to the countless moments of accidental transcendence that are possible not just in the writer’s hand, but in the buildings for which the music was written, in the subtle personal intimacies of a small choir’s members looking at one another directly in the eye across the chancel.


But I would urge everybody interested in English history to buy this book at once: Mr. Gant maneuvers so elegantly between the better-known historical narrative and the music that reacts to and supports that political ecosystem. The tension between Protestantism and Catholicism is easily observed throughout the music of composers who lived through various monarchs in the late 16th century, notably Byrd and Tallis, whose styles varied widely depending on “external conditions”; Mr. Gant cites Beethoven and Stravinsky as modern counterparts to this sort of wild stylistic variation over a long career.

Whenever I read about Byrd or Tallis and the political complexities of their day, I laugh thinking about the luxury we have as composers now to be almost entirely free of this sort of top-down stylistic rule-making. We read about it happening to composers living in the Soviet Union with a historical distance, and living artists older than I have been through difficult periods of navigating their own musical pleasure within the exigencies of making a living.

But it certainly wasn’t the case that a despotic president suddenly informed everybody one day, as Archbishop Cranmer suggested in 1571, that “in the choir no more shall be used in song that shall drown any word or syllable.”

Mr. Gant writes, of this intervention from above: “The Tudor musician, ever the pragmatist, did his best to carry on being true to his inheritance and beliefs, while at the same time not getting into trouble, at least until the next change came along.”

He writes about Byrd, in particular, as constantly speaking in a sort of coded language. Writing music as a Catholic through the “fluctuating fortunes” of those believers allowed him to create a rich body of work filled with the sort of personal yearning that makes the quiet practice of deep religious faith so poignant, gestures of longing revealed by a single surprising interval or subtle harmonic upheaval. I think about Byrd almost every day: when I’m trying to make a piece of instrumental music imply an emotional detail without spelling it out in neon. Mr. Gant’s book encourages the reader to revisit the gems of his output, from the oft-performed “Ave verum corpus” to the mournful “Infelix ego,” with its heart-rending final minute.

William Byrd’s ‘Infelix ego’ 1:43





https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/arts ... front&_r=0

maestrob
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Re: Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by maestrob » Sun Apr 02, 2017 12:23 pm

Len: Excellent article. Choral music saved my life when I was just starting out here in NYC as a musician: it gave me a chance to be involved in something uplifting and high quality singing in Carnegie Hall and Philharmonic Hall and then Avery Fisher Hall. I learned so much about preparation skills that would help me in being a conductor, and I learned how to pronounce church Latin (as opposed to classic Latin which I had learned at Villanova).

The author describes many composers I'm not familiar with: looks like amazon will be getting some new discs on my want list! :D

lennygoran
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Re: Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by lennygoran » Sun Apr 02, 2017 1:26 pm

maestrob wrote:
Sun Apr 02, 2017 12:23 pm
Len: Excellent article. Choral music saved my life when I was just starting out here in NYC as a musician--The author describes many composers I'm not familiar with: looks like amazon will be getting some new discs on my want list! :D
Brian so glad this was helpful-gotta admit my knowledge of Choral music is very slim. Regards, Len

maestrob
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Re: Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by maestrob » Mon Apr 03, 2017 10:17 am

lennygoran wrote:
Sun Apr 02, 2017 1:26 pm
maestrob wrote:
Sun Apr 02, 2017 12:23 pm
Len: Excellent article. Choral music saved my life when I was just starting out here in NYC as a musician--The author describes many composers I'm not familiar with: looks like amazon will be getting some new discs on my want list! :D
Brian so glad this was helpful-gotta admit my knowledge of Choral music is very slim. Regards, Len
Start with Bach's cantatas, the B minor mass and the Christmas oratorio and go from there.......Schutz has some wonderful stuff IMHO, but pre-Bach I'm very weak. I love it when I hear it though. Try also the Rachmaninoff Vespers! A friend just gave me the CD below, it's quite beautiful, if you like Russian music:

Image

lennygoran
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Re: Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by lennygoran » Mon Apr 03, 2017 7:52 pm

maestrob wrote:
Mon Apr 03, 2017 10:17 am
Start with Bach's cantatas, the B minor mass and the Christmas oratorio and go from there.......Schutz has some wonderful stuff IMHO, but pre-Bach I'm very weak. I love it when I hear it though. Try also the Rachmaninoff Vespers! A friend just gave me the CD below, it's quite beautiful, if you like Russian music
Brian thanks-love Russian operas. Regards, Len :)

jbuck919
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Re: Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Apr 05, 2017 12:30 pm

I could address this in a piecemeal fashion, in part because it is such a jumble to begin with, but instead I will let some music tell a story.

John Merbecke (variously pronounced but I learned from Anglican musicians and still say MAHR-beck) wrote among other things the first setting of the ordinary of the Anglican service from the Book of Common Prayer. It is still (perhaps I should say "again") in use. I am in fact using it now (not the Gloria because it is Lent) at the church where I play. On Easter we will switch back to the well-known 20th-century setting by Healey Willan.

Very shortly after this chronologically (the difference, one could say, between Edward VI and Elizabeth I) we come to a verse anthem from the (Catholic) William Byrd in one of his latitudinarian Anglican phases. This is one of the canticles of evensong referred to by Muhly. I am sorry that I cannot find the same text set by both composers, if there is such a thing, but you will get the point.

The Merbecke is quasi-plainsong and clearly influenced by Martin Luther's original chorales (as opposed to the highly artistic version of those later produced by Bach). It was intended for singing by any old congregation. The Byrd is an artistic piece of the high if late Renaissance that is differentiated from other motets and mass settings mainly by exemplifying the form of the verse anthem (alternating between soloist and choir) which Byrd may have actually invented (I am not sure about this) and which was brought to fruition by Orlando Gibbons. The Merbecke follows Archbishop Cranmer's instruction, while the Byrd does not. The situation is not unlike that which pertained in the Roman church at the time of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent.

Neither piece, by the way, calls for organ accompaniment. The organ as we know it is a phenomenon of the Baroque. Earlier instruments are in the main quite primitive. The Merbecke would have been sung without accompaniment, and the instrumental underlay of the Byrd, though it fits well on modern organs, would have been performed by viols.




There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

maestrob
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Re: Nico Muhly on Choral Music

Post by maestrob » Thu Apr 06, 2017 12:42 pm

Thanks, JohnB for that. I appreciate the time it took to research and post, and consider myself enlightened further. :)

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