Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music”: “Such Harmony is in Immortal Souls”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was conceived in 1938 as a tribute to the conductor, Sir Henry Wood. The piece endures as a shimmering and sensuous celebration of music itself, set to the majestic words of Shakespeare. The work’s Royal Albert Hall premiere, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Woods’ first concert, was a uniquely collective musical celebration. The ensemble included members from three major London orchestras (the LSO, LPO, and BBC Symphony), …

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Arvo Pärt’s “The Beatitudes”: Meditative Minimalism

“Time has a deep meaning, but it is temporary, like our lives. Only eternity is timeless.” -Arvo Pärt Sound, silence, and time are mystical properties in the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). Pärt’s early music inhabited the complex, twelve-tone world of twentieth century modernism. Then, in the late 1960s, he entered eight years of compositional silence, creating little more than musical fragments jotted in a notebook. When Pärt began …

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Bach’s St John Passion: A Divine Drama

J.S. Bach’s St John Passion is a haunting and dramatic musical depiction of the Passion of Christ, as told in the Gospel of John. The story of Jesus’ capture, judgment, and crucifixion, as outlined in biblical passages from John 18 and 19, are presented by the solo tenor (the Evangelist). A cast of other singers perform the roles of Jesus, Pilate, and the disciples, while the four-part choir represents the people at large. …

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“Salvation is Created”: The Mediative Sacred Music of Pavel Tschesnokoff, VOCES8

Spaséñiye, sodélal (“Salvation is Created”), by the Russian composer Pavel Tschesnokoff (1877-1944), is a Communion Hymn intended for the Russian Orthodox liturgy for Friday. Its text (“Salvation is created, in midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia”) is based on Psalm 74. It is a setting of a Kievan chant melody. Written in 1912, it is one of the last sacred works composed by Pavel Tschesnokoff. Following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s …

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Orlande de Lassus’ “Prophetiae Sibyllarum”: Ancient Mystic Voices

In mystical writings, the Ancient Greek Sibyls foresaw the coming of Christ. These oracles are included among the prophets Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Their poetic verses inspired the Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus to write Prophetiae Sibyllarum some time around 1555. The work is a collection of twelve brief motets which follow an opening prologue. This is music filled with chromaticism and harmonic adventure, anticipating the audacious madrigals of …

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Maurice Duruflé’s “Four Motets on Gregorian Themes”: An Excerpt from the Houston Chamber Choir’s New Recording

Here is another brief excerpt from a Grammy nominated recording we sampled last month. It comes from the album, Duruflé: Complete Choral Works, released last April. The Houston Chamber Choir is led by its artistic director and founder Robert Simpson. The serene, timeless sounds of Gregorian chant emerge throughout the music of the twentieth century French composer and organist Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). In Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens (“Four motets on Gregorian themes”), written in 1960, echoes …

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Bach’s Jubilant Christmas Cantata, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens,” BWV 110

Let’s travel back in time to Christmas Day, 1725. Entering St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, we would experience the first performance of J.S. Bach’s cantata, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (“May our mouth be full of laughter”). We would witness Bach, three years into his tenure as the Lutheran church’s music director, leading the newly written work. By the end of his life, Bach produced five annual cycles of these dramatic religious …

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