Samuel Barber’s “Let Down the Bars, O Death”: Conspirare

It was during the summer of 1936 that Samuel Barber composed the String Quartet that would give rise to the iconic Adagio for Strings. During the same summer, Barber created an a cappella choral setting of Emily Dickinson’s 1891 poem, Let Down the Bars, O Death. It unfolds as a somber, homophonic chorale. As with the Adagio, it reaches upwards in search of a searing climax. When the poem’s first line returns, the hushed opening phrase is transformed …

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Jacobus Gallus’ “Mirabile Mysterium”: A Late Renaissance Christmas Motet

The late Renaissance composer, Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591), also known as Jacob Händl, was born in what is now Slovenia and traveled throughout the Bohemian lands of the Holy Roman Empire. His prolific output included more than 500 works, both sacred and secular. Gallus’ five-voice motet, Mirabile mysterium, was first printed in 1586. The text describes a mystical alchemy which is expressed in the motet’s wild dissonances and wandering chromaticism. It is “a …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Sancta Civitas”: An Oratorio of Revelation

In a 1988 biography, Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote that her husband “was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.” Ironically, it was Ralph Vaughan Williams who helped the Anglican Church to compile, through the The English Hymnal of 1906, “a collection of the best hymns in the English language.” For Vaughan Williams, music inhabited the …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Three Shakespeare Songs”: The Stuff of Dreams

Following the 1948 premiere of his Sixth Symphony, Ralph Vaughan Williams was asked to provide the “meaning” of the work’s bleak, apocalyptic closing Epilogue. For many listeners, the music suggested a chilling portrait of a world decimated by nuclear war. The composer who had so vividly captured the pastoral glory of “England’s green and pleasant land” in earlier pieces, now seemed to deliver only alienation from nature in the face of twentieth …

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Pēteris Vasks’ “The Fruit Of Silence”: VOCES8

The Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946), began as “a young, angry and avant-garde” modernist. Over time, his music evolved to embrace consonance, simplicity, spirituality, Latvian folk influences, and “echoes of bird songs.” Composed in 2013, Vasks’ The Fruit of Silence is a choral setting of a prayer by Mother Teresa: The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is …

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Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia”: A Prayerful Fanfare

The American composer Randall Thompson (1899–1984) composed his famous Alleluia over the course of five days at the beginning of July, 1940. The work for a cappella chorus was first performed on July 8th of that year for the formal opening of the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center). Serge Koussevitsky, the festival’s founder and the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asked Thompson to write a celebratory “fanfare” for voices. …

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Celebratory Bach: From the E Major Partita to the Cantata, BWV 29

J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major for solo violin begins with the famous and iconic Preludio.  Sweeping forward in a continuous stream of sixteenth notes, it forms a celebratory musical announcement. The opening bars employ a virtual pedal tone which remains rooted in E major for more than half a minute. Then, the music leaves “home” and moves through a series of adventures, only to return, triumphantly, in the coda. We get …

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