TRUE ROMANTICS

Art Gallery of NSW Sydney
Sun 16 September
Doors open at 6.30pm for exhibition viewing and light refreshments
Concert starts at 7.15pm

As the once-staggeringly-famous British broadcaster C.E.M. Joad would have said, ‘it all depends on what you mean by “Romantics”. What precisely do we mean, then, by musical Romanticism?

Is it a purely chronological phenomenon? Surely not. Otherwise in today’s concert, Monteverdi would never legitimately share a programme with Brahms; and nor would Brahms with Australia’s Alan Holley.

Is it, instead, a purely stylistic phenomenon? No, not that either. Elgar and Ravel were composing at much the same time, yet nobody could mistake the former’s idiom for the latter’s, or the latter’s for the former’s. The contrast in creative approaches between Alan Holley and his fellow Australian, Brenton Broadstock is similarly undeniable, though the two composers were born just six years apart.

In 1923 the musicologist Percy A. Scholes, having thrashed around manfully but unavailingly in his attempt to analyse the hypnotic charm of Chopin’s Berceuse, asked himself and his readers: ‘What, after all, is romance in music? How is it achieved? … Can anyone say? Perhaps if they could there would be no romance. Is it the employment of a sixth sense? Is it the perception of the unknown?’

Maybe the undefinable is best defined through adapting a remark made by Justice Potter Stewart—of the US Supreme Court—in 1964. This judge observed that while he could not unambiguously say what pornography was, ‘I know it when I see it.’ And similarly with musical Romanticism. How it achieves its effect, neither performers nor listeners can hope to explain. But we all—performers and listeners alike—know it when we hear it.

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WARUM IST DAS LICHT GEGEBEN DEM MÜHSELIGEN? (‘WHY IS LIGHT CAST UPON THE SORROWFUL?’), Op. 74 No. 1 – Johannes Brahms Born in Hamburg, 7 May 1833; died in Vienna, 3 April 1897

The German Requiem excepted, Brahms’s choral music has long tended to lie forgotten, in striking contrast to the continuing fame of his symphonies, concertos, chamber works, Lieder, and piano variations. Consequently his Op. 74, Two Motets, never enjoyed anything like the frequency of performance which it deserves. When not in the throes of composition, Brahms derived much of his income from choral conducting in Hamburg and Vienna. During his day and long afterwards, Germany and Austria were choir-obsessed. Even the smallest town in those countries could usually boast a choir that performed at a solid artistic level, so choral conductors were then assured of ample employment. Brahms’s greatest musical loves included Heinrich Schütz’s sacred works (not nearly as well known in the nineteenth century as they would become in the late twentieth). Some of Schütz’s influence is perceptible in the gloomy polyphonic rigour – alternating with declamatory chords – of Warum ist das Licht gegeben, which dates from 1877, although its Op. 74 companion had been finished back in 1864. Part of Warum recycles a Missa Canonica that Brahms had written during his early twenties but had then suppressed. (The Missa Canonica’s manuscript went missing for decades, and turned up only in 1978, at – improbably enough – Cape Cod, Massachusetts.) For the motet’s first three sections, Brahms used biblical texts (Job 3, Lamentations 3, James 5); while for the fourth and final section, he looked to Luther’s metrical paraphrase of the Song of Simeon (Luke 2). The outcome, traces of Schütz notwithstanding, could only have been Brahms’s work. To an admirer, Vincenz Lachner, who had queried the composer’s use of trombones and timpani in the predominantly blithe Second Symphony, Brahms replied: ‘I would have to confess that I am a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output – perhaps not entirely by chance – that symphony is followed by a little essay about the great “Why?”. The motet, Warum, casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones.’

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LASCIATEMI MORIRE, from the SIXTH BOOK OF MADRIGALS
SÌ, CH’IO VORREI MORIRE, from the FOURTH BOOK OF MADRIGALS CRUDA AMARILLI, from the FIFTH BOOK OF MADRIGALS – Claudio Monteverdi Baptised in Cremona, 15 May 1567; died in Venice, 29 November 1643

As British choirmaster Edward Higginbottom observed forty years back, the madrigals of Monteverdi ‘run through his life like the string quartets of Beethoven, or the symphonies of Haydn.’ In other words, they exemplify a genre to which the composer returned again and again, from youth to age. The first three books of Monteverdi’s madrigals were respected but largely uncontroversial; it was with the fourth and fifth books that Monteverdi’s troubles began. Theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi twice (in 1600 and 1603) denounced this music for its novel harmonies, its apparent contempt for the rules of traditional counterpoint. Artusi singled out the eccentric progressions in Crudi Amarilli—nearly all of which occur during the first bars—for particular censure. Benefiting from seventeenth-century Italy’s commendable absence of libel laws, Artusi called it a ‘monstrous birth, part man, part crane, part swallow, part ox.’ This invective, if anything, augmented Monteverdi’s influence rather than detracting from it; and Artusi would today be forgotten had he not condemned Monteverdi in such harsh terms. After Monteverdi’s death the madrigal also died out. He had expanded the form as far as he or anyone could, made it as much like a miniature opera as was possible. If the music of Cruda Amarilli was radical the choice of words was not: Monteverdi took his text from the once-celebrated fifteenth-century poet Giovanni Battista Guarini. As for the other two madrigals included in this concert, Lasciatemi morire (words by the composer’s friend Ottavio Rinuccini) was first published in 1614 and reworks the only surviving music from Monteverdi’s now-lost opera Arianna; while Sì, ch’io vorrei morire (poet unidentified) appeared in 1603. American critic Todd Tarantino described the latter as being ‘filled with the sorts of “chimaeras” and “imperfections” that Artusi objected to’. None of these alleged faults will cause any twenty-first century listener the slightest unease.

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TWELFTH NIGHT
AGNUS DEI
– Samuel Barber Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, 9 March 1910; died in New York City, 23 January 1981

Twelfth Night, a Christmas carol to lines by the Englishman Laurie (Cider With Rosie) Lee, dates from 1968. At this stage Barber had lately undergone the greatest professional disappointment of his life: the spectacular critical mauling which his opera Antony and Cleopatra incurred the previous year after its première at the Met. This humiliation plunged him into a state of despair and alcoholism from which, in his remaining fourteen years, he seldom emerged. But no hint of fatigue or of artery-hardening marks this piece. It takes full advantage of the potential for harmonic juiciness and word-painting furnished by Lee’s florid text. In 1936 young Barber completed what would become far and away his most famous work: the Adagio, originally part of his Op. 11 String Quartet. Ironically, in view of the weariness Barber would later show towards his greatest hit (‘I wish they’d play some of my other pieces’), he was at first justifiably proud of what he had done. ‘I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today—it is a knockout.’ In its subsequent arrangement for a full string ensemble, it attracted the admiring attention of Toscanini, who conducted its première (from memory, as was his wont) in 1938. Thence it became to American culture what Elgar’s Nimrod became to British culture: the all-purpose funereal lamentation, used by American radio—and latterly television—networks for every time of national mourning (including the deaths of FDR, JFK, and Princess Grace of Monaco, not to mention 9/11’s aftermath). In 1967 Barber, finally conceding that the work was not about to go away, made a choral arrangement of it to the words of the Latin Mass’s Agnus Dei section.

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AND THE RAIN – Alan Holley (2017) (first performance) Born in Sydney, 1 October 1954

In recent years Alan Holley has been a featured composer at numerous music festivals and received composer profile concerts in Croatia, Serbia, Albania and Australia. His first Sydney Symphony Orchestra commission, the trumpet concerto Doppler’s Web (2005), was written for Paul Goodchild and conducted by Simone Young. Kookaburra Music publishes Holley’s works, many of which are also available on disc via Hammerings Records. And The Rain (2017) sets lines from the poem Thirteen Winds by Mark Tredinnick (also Sydney-born). The composer writes: INTERVAL (there will be no interval in Sydney) ‘For eight consecutive days from 2 June 2016 I visited Thomaskirche, Leipzig where Bach worked for more than 25 years. To be in that space where, for me and many composers, the greatest of all musical thinkers wrote some of the most amazing music in the European canon was a special time. I listened to concerts and I sat quietly and I wrote down a “few dots” each day. When I was 14 I went to an all Bach concert in St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney and heard the cantata Wachet auf and the E major violin concerto. On leaving the concert I knew that I was to be a composer. That I reached the age not far from the one when Bach died without writing a choral work now looks surprising. Lack of opportunity, busy with instrumental, orchestral and solo vocal works notwithstanding, it seems odd that the music that made me want to be a composer, choral music by Bach, did not lead me to write works in that genre before my 2017 composition And The Rain. Maybe I needed that experience in the Thomaskirche to start the whole process of wanting to write a work for choir and to find exactly the right text for my music. Selecting words to set to music is always difficult but I remembered reading the deeply touching and lyrical work of Mark Tredinnick when he won the Montreal Poetry Prize in 2011. On re-reading his work two sections from his Thirteen Winds flew to me as if the music was already in the air and all I had to do was write the notes down. When Mark wrote the lines “and I pray for you” and then later “and it is too late to pray” and then had three more references to the word “pray” it was as if my motif was apparent.’

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LUX AETERNA (originally NIMROD, from ENIGMA VARIATIONS) – Sir Edward Elgar Born in Broadheath, Worcestershire, 2 June 1857; died in Worcester, 23 February 1934

Nimrod, already mentioned in connection with Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, has a most intriguing performance history. In our time it automatically entails connotations of British public bereavement (it has become a fixture of Remembrance Day ceremonies at London’s Cenotaph, and was recently included in the soundtrack for Dunkirk); yet this was not always so. Elgar never intended it – contrary to a widespread myth – as a funeral tribute to his publisher friend August Jaeger (Jaeger = Nimrod = hunter); Jaeger remained very much alive when Elgar wrote it in 1899. And as noted in the brilliant survey Performing Music in the Age of Recording (by British scholar Robert Philip), Elgar’s distinctly moderate tempo in his own recorded account never suggests unmistakable grief. When, therefore, did Nimrod become so death-haunted? We cannot, with any confidence, say. At any rate, the current arrangement—with Elgar’s music fitted to words from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass—is by the ACC’s own Elizabeth Anderson.

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I HAD A DREAM – Brenton Broadstock Born in Melbourne, 12 December 1952.

The tradition whereby composers write pieces in memory of other composers is a very old one, dating back at least to the late fifteenth century, which was when Josquin Desprez mourned the formidable contrapuntist Johannes Ockeghem. More recent examples include John Blow’s ode on Purcell’s death, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Marcel Dupré’s Le Tombeau de Titelouze [Jehan Titelouze, early-seventeenthcentury French organist], and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in homage to Britten. With I Had A Dream …, Broadstock sought to memorialise the Englishborn but Melbourne-resident musician and festival director Michael Easton, who died in 2004 aged forty-nine, as the result of a fall. Scored for a cappella SATB choir, the composition sets words of Broadstock’s own. It begins and ends with an appropriately grim F-minor chord, and necessitates substantial division of the basic four vocal parts.

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TROIS CHANSONS – Maurice Ravel Born in Ciboure, France, 7 March 1875; died in Paris, 28 December 1937

Ravel’s attempts to enlist during the Great War foundered, thanks to his thin physique. France’s army required each soldier to weigh at least 50 kilograms, whereas Ravel in 1914 weighed a mere 48. His hopes of being accepted for the country’s still-embryonic air force likewise came to nothing. (The French government confined him to the noncombatant, but still dangerous and exhausting, role of an army truckdriver. Perils of this occupation included exposure to dysentery, of which Ravel suffered such a bad case that he had to be invalided back to a Paris hospital.) While the composer awaited officialdom’s verdict, he occupied himself with, among other things, writing these three unaccompanied choral works, all of them – most atypically – to his own texts. He dedicated the second of them to Paul Painlevé, who served two brief terms as Prime Minister: the first of them lasting for a mere two months in 1917, the second for seven months in 1925. ‘Ronde’ bears another politically motivated dedication, this time to Georges Clemenceau’s sister-in-law. 15 Ravel inscribed ‘Nicolette’ to an old and non-political friend of his: the poet Léon Leclère, whose verses he had already set in Shéhérazade, and who for most of his output used the spectacularly Wagnerian pseudonym ‘Tristan Klingsor.’ We should note the Russian connection in ‘Ronde’: specifically, the allusion to Baba Yaga, the hag depicted in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which Ravel unforgettably orchestrated.

Program notes written by Robert Stove

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The AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER CHOIR was established by Douglas Lawrence in 2007. In its first ten years, the choir has undertaken six concert tours of Europe, recorded five CDs and given over 200 concert performances, many of which were recorded for broadcast on ABC Classic FM or 3MBS FM.

In 2015, returning by invitation to Denmark’s oldest classical music festival, the Sorø International, the ACC was made an Honorary Life Member and took its place alongside such luminaries as Wilhelm Kempff, Anton Heiller, Gaston Litaize and Julian Bream. On this tour and on the subsequent one in 2017, the choir was accompanied by a group of Friends. You are invited to join Douglas Lawrence and the singers of the ACC on their 2019 tour (see the inside cover of this program for more details).

In Australia, the ACC has supplemented regular performances in key Victorian centres with interstate visits, performing in Canberra, Sydney, Albury, Bowral and Wagga Wagga. In 2016, the choir expanded its regular commitments by undertaking to present all its a cappella programs in Sydney.

Wherever they perform, the Australian Chamber Choir is met with resounding accolades from audiences and critics alike:

“the many listeners were totally captivated by the marvellous sound conjured by the Australian Chamber Choir … At the end … several minutes of standing ovation …” Schwäbische Zeitung, Ravensburg, 17 July 2015

“Impeccable pitch and articulation of the text are a feature of the ACC’s performances, and throughout (Palestrina’s Stabat Mater) the tempered contrasts of dynamics in response to the text was scholarly and splendid” Classic Melbourne, 12 April 2018

“The impact is magical and leaves a lasting impression” (Mozart Requiem) Melbourne Observer, 2 May 2018

“In Mozart’s Requiem the ACC gave us the full range of dynamic contrasts with unified control and sensitivity, … and Lawrence was in command of seamless tempo changes” Classic Melbourne 12 April 2018

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