Of Love, Loss & The Divine Program Notes

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on February 16, 2020, at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Of Love, Loss & The Divine” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

Bach composed his Fugue in G minor, BWV 578, also known as The Little Fugue, probably during his residence at Arnstadt (1703-1706) when still a very young man.  The music starts right off with its main subject — a simple G minor triad. Like most fugues, the simplicity leads toward tension-building complexity, working the subject through various keys and contrasting it with other secondary themes.  For such a young composer, this fugue is a masterful display of compositional prowess. It was very popular in its day and is still one of Bach’s best-loved pieces, used as a pedagogical tool as well as in the recital or concert hall. Bach composed it for the organ, but — thanks to the French-American clarinetist and orchestrator, Lucien Cailliet (1891-1985) — today our orchestra assumes the organ’s role.

When the power of words is joined with the expressiveness of music, it’s like a giant hand wrenching you viscerally from the inside.  Dmitri Shostakovich said, “When I combine music with words, it becomes harder to misinterpret my intent… Listeners don’t understand notes completely, but words make it easier.”  In the song cycle, We That Wait, by Virginia composer Rich Moriarty (1946-), the intent is impossible to misinterpret.

Moriarty got a late start in the music biz.  He became a composer only after first taking an extended detour through an entire medical career, as a pathologist.  He worked his way up to become head pathologist at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and chairman of pathology at Eastern Virginia Medical School.  But when (as Moriarty says) he was at the top of his game, the music bug bit, and it bit deep. Retiring from his pathological pursuits at age 59, he turned his analytical prowess toward writing music — starting over, as it were, as a full-time music student.   Moriarty went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition, and studied with Lee Teply, Adolphus Hailstork, and Richard Danielpour.

War is hell, especially for the combatants.  However, war comes with second-hand horrors, too — like separation, uncertainty, fear, loved ones who won’t be returning — and these are visited casually and mercilessly upon those who are left behind.  In We That Wait, Moriarty uses Civil War-era poetry to pay a somber homage to these grief-stricken fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and children.  Moriarty said it took him four months to find just the right poems: he required that they express the gamut of sentiment common to all who suffer in wartime, and not just those on one side or the other; and he wanted a strong selection of poems written mostly by women.  Seven poems made the cut, including three by Emily Dickinson and only one by a man, Walt Whitman. The result is gripping. The music splashes you with the sufferers’ bitter tears and makes you mourn the could-have-beens alongside them. War contains more than just one hell; it contains a panoply of hells, one for each sufferer.

Richard Wagner’s music had a primal influence on practically every composer in the generation that followed him, and French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was no exception.  Ravel was a diminutive man (only five feet tall) gifted at writing grand music.  However, as a student, he failed to impress the Paris Conservatory faculty and was expelled; he was eventually readmitted and studied with the singularly sympathetic and supportive Gabriel Fauré.  As Ravel’s talents matured, he acquired other influences in addition to Wagner’s. He was particularly smitten by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s sparkling orchestrations. Ravel also admired his fellow French composers: Claude Debussy, for his freewheeling chord structures; and Eric Satie, whose iconoclastic views on musical form Ravel considered to be “of inestimable value.”  Like Debussy, Ravel chafed at being called an Impressionist, but that label has stuck.

As a composer, Ravel’s creative process was notoriously slow and methodical.  He began composing his ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, in 1909 on a commission from the Ballets Russe and its flamboyant impresario, Serge Diaghilev; finally, it premiered in June 1912 (not quite a year before the same ballet company premiered Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring).  The story is from a Greek novel dating from the 2nd century AD.  The newborn Daphnis was a literal “babe in the woods,” abandoned there by his parents. He was discovered by a sympathetic goatherd who raised him as his own son.  Chloe rebounded from a similarly tragic beginning when she, also abandoned, was found by a kind shepherd and raised as his own daughter. The two naifs met and fell in love.  But then, Chloe was kidnapped, and the rest of the story follows along as Daphnis overcomes many perils, until they are reunited, married, and reconciled with their birth parents.  Ravel extracted two orchestral suites from the ballet, intending them for the concert hall; the Suite No. 2 being performed today is the more popular one and is performed more often than the ballet itself.  Pretty much every critic and scholar names this composition as Ravel’s greatest work. You can hear echoes of Wagner in Ravel’s use of leitmotifs for structural integrity, revel in the glorious harmonies reminiscent of Debussy, and lose yourself in Ravel’s lush yet perfectly crystal-clear orchestration, à la Rimsky-Korsakov.

English composer John Rutter (1945-) has become one of the world’s most successful composers of religious music, but he describes himself as someone who, though spiritually inspired by religious carols and scripture, is not particularly religious.  It doesn’t seem to matter. Rutter is plugged into the rich history that brass and chorus have enjoyed together in church music, going back at least four hundred years to the Gabrielis at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. That distinctive blend of sound has found a special home in the English musical style.  You can hear Rutter’s precursors in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie and Gustav Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus — diatonic melodies, rich chords, and enough dissonance to keep things interesting.  Many composers treat the brass somewhat delicately, like habanero peppers in a dorm-room dare, reserved for those infernal moments — e.g., as in Verdi’s Requiem, when the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) promises a hot time in the old town tonight.  English composers do things differently. They knead the brass straight into the orchestral texture as if they belong there with everyone else.

Rutter takes the Gloria text from the Latin Mass and divides it into three movements.

  • Allegro vivace – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” features a running dialogue between the choir and the orchestra (where the brass and percussion take the lead); interest is maintained throughout by a motif reminiscent of the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Rutter likes using tiered entrances to build dissonances, only then to resolve them as quickly as they were built.
  • Andante – “Domine Deus”, is more meditative; the strings set a pastoral mood while the woodwind ornamentations suggest nearby songbirds.  The choir ascends in a repeated stepwise manner to address God; they are followed by soprano voices — at first solo, but then gathering strength in numbers. 
  • Vivace e ritmico – “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” weaves a descending-octave motif in the brass around a syncopated melody in the chorus.  The first movement’s motivic character is eventually reprised, to remind us it’s still the same piece.

Music, same as poetry or novels, starts with an idea and then repeats and develops it, picking up related ideas along the way.  In Rutter’s music, this process is more transparent than in most. The text helps. Without words, music is abstract, like math.  The way physics brings palpability to math, words bring coherence to music. Together they can express the most perfect love, bury us in the deepest despair, and elevate us to the throne room of the Lord Most High.  It is all there, in the composer’s pen, the conductor’s baton, the instrumentalist’s skill, and the angelic beauty of the human voice.