Of Heaven & Earth
Jennifer Higdon b. 1962
Jennifer Higdon
b. 1962
Jennifer Higdon
blue cathedral

While grief can paralyzes ordinary individuals, it can inspire great artists to create their finest works. We owe many masterpieces in classical music to the ability – in fact, sometimes the emotional need – of their creators to embark on the disciplined outpouring of emotion that constitutes great art. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Brahms’s Horn Trio, for example, were composed in response to the death of a loved one; Schubert’s final works, the Quintet in C major, the song cycle Die Winterreise and his last piano sonatas sustained him as he approached his own death. Jennifer Higdon composed blue cathedral as a memorial to her brother.

Higdon composed blue cathedral in 1999 on commission from the Curtis Institute to commemorate its 75th anniversary. It premiered the following year and has become one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works in the United States, receiving more than 50 performances in the 2004 -'05 season alone.

Higdon expressed some of her thoughts about the creation of this programmatic work: “When I began blue cathedral, it was the one-year anniversary of my (younger) brother’s death, so I was pondering a lot of things about the journey we make after death. …I was imagining a traveler on a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky (therefore making it a blue color). …I wanted the music to sound like it was progressing into this constantly opening space, feeling more and more celebratory...As the journey progresses, the individual would float higher and higher above the floor, soaring towards an expanded ceiling where the heart would feel full and joyful.”

The sound of high-pitched bells and percussion throughout blue cathedral creates an ethereal ambience, while Higdon’s own instrument, the flute, and her brother’s, the clarinet, give an intimate personal dimension to the piece. The work opens quietly, with whispered cellos and the delicate striking of glockenspiel and piano in groups of the three. Example 1 The solo flute introduces the main theme of the work and is joined by the clarinet. Example 2 The two instruments expand on the theme together, gradually building in volume and orchestration until reaching a dance-like climax. Example 3 After returning to the gentle sounds of a flute duet and solos for English horn with glockenspiel. Example 4 Additional instruments enter one by one including oboe, violin and cello. The tempo picks up leading into an almost military incarnation of the theme for low brass percussion and bells. Example 5

Higdon, using a host of musical effects created by the high range of the strings, bells and percussion, restates the main theme with the full orchestra. The piece ends quietly, returning to the main theme again with flute, clarinet and English horn over gently muted strings. As the clarinet fades, a prepared piano, with two screws added to change the timbre to sound more like a clock chiming, gives thirty-three strikes in groups of three, representing the age of her brother when he passed away. Example 6

Jennifer Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in composition, a B.M. in flute performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma from The Curtis Institute of Music and is currently on the music composition faculty of the Curtis Institute. She has received many national awards and grants, and her list of commissioners is a veritable who’s who of American music. Her music is extensively performed and also recorded.
Francis Poulenc 1899-1963
Francis Poulenc
Francis Poulenc

The pampered son of a French family of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers (the forerunners of today’s giant chemical conglomerate Rhône-Poulenc SA), Francis Poulenc was the black sheep of the family. His artistic mother, however, approved of his talents and interests, and his wealthy family supported him throughout his life. Poulenc was included among the disciples of the iconoclastic composer Erik Satie, known as Le groupe des six. His early compositions were light, urbane, even leaning towards the Dadaists. His harmonic style owed much to Ravel’s impressionism and to neoclassicism, always with a clear sense of melody. He never participated in the musical experiments so popular among his colleagues in Paris between and after the wars.

In 1936 Poulenc underwent a dramatic spiritual crisis brought on by the death in a car accident of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud. During this period, he visited the church of Rocamadour, containing a famous wooden statue of a black Madonna. His first religious composition, Litanies a la Vierge noire, was followed by several additional religious works that are among his most profound compositions. They include a setting of the Stabat Mater, his opera The Dialogue of the Carmelites and, in 1959, on a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation of the Library of Congress, the Gloria.

The Gloria is part of the ordinary (the text that remains the same) of the Catholic Mass, an outpouring of jubilant praise of God combined with reverent supplication. Because it is a complete statement of the personal relationship with God, composers since the Baroque period have often set it separately. Poulenc's Gloria dramatically reflects the contrasting moods inherent in the text. The harmonies and rhythmic choral declamation are reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. As the text becomes more intimate, the soprano soloist emerges as a spokesperson for the chorus. The slow tempo and extremely high tessitura of the voice renders the solos both dignified and ethereal. Following the soprano's lead, the choral sections become increasingly somber as the joyous thanksgiving of the opening is transformed into awe and a plea for mercy and redemption.

Poulenc imbues each section of the Gloria with a different mood befitting the text, and most of the sections have substantial instrumental introductions to set the mood. The Gloria opens appropriately with a fanfare for the orchestra Example 1, following by an almost jazzy invocation by the chorus. Example 2 The "Laudamus te" is a string of praises, set as a dance. Example 3

The mood then shifts dramatically as the soprano leads the chorus, evoking the awesome image of God the Father ("Domine Deus"). Example 4 Yet, in the "call-and-response" dance, Poulenc symbolizes musically the joy of salvation through Christ ("Domine fili unigenite") Example 5 & Example 6

After a mysterious introduction, Example 7 the soprano soloist invokes Christ as Lamb of God in a heartfelt prayer for mercy ("Domine Deus Agnus Dei") Example 8

The final movement ("Qui sedes ad dexteram Paris") is a summary of all the emotions shifts from the previous movements, but all variants of the same melody. It begins with a chant-like a cappella declamation by the chorus with an instrumental echo of the opening of the piece Example 9, followed by a dancing restatement of the text. Example 10 The long conclusion, opening with the soprano's "Amen," Example 11 returns to the air of supplication and repentance.

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te
Laudamus te, benedicimus te
adoramus te, glorificamus te,
gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam.

Domine Deus
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis
Deus Pater omnipotens.

Domine fili unigenite
Domine fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,
Filius Patris, Rex caelestis,
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram.

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus,
Tu solus Dominus.
Glory to God
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men of good will.

We Praise Thee
We praise Thee, we bless Thee,
we adore Thee, we glorify Thee.
We give thanks to Thee
for Thy great glory.

O Lord God
O Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father almighty,
Glory to God.

O Lord, the only-begotten son
O Lord, the only-begotten son, Jesus Christ.

O Lord God, Lamb of God
O Lord God, Lamb of God,
Son of the Father, heavenly King,
Thou who takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou who takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.

Thou who sittest at the right hand of God the Father
Thou who sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.
For Thou only art holy,
Thou only art the Lord.
Tan Dun b. 1957
Tan Dun
b. 1957
Tan Dun
Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds

Chinese composer Tan Dun* was born in Hunan province. Caught up in the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1970s, he spent two years living among the peasants where he took the opportunity to learn and collect the indigenous music and folk songs and play the erhu, a Chinese fiddle. As luck would have it, a boat carrying the local Beijing opera troupe capsized in the river, where many of the musicians drowned, and Tan was recruited as fiddler and arranger with the troupe for more than a year.

At the age of 19 he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the first time and dreamed of becoming a composer. In 1978, with the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, he was accepted at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. There, he started a hugely successful career as a composer and arranger, integrating traditional Chinese music and instruments into Western musical structures for which he has received numerous awards.

In 1983, however, hardliners in the Chinese Government were temporarily in control, and Tan’s music was criticized as too Western. For six months his music was banned from broadcasts and performances. In 1986 he received a fellowship to attend Columbia University and now lives in New York City.

Chinese musical tradition evolved independently from that of the West. Until the détente of the 1970s, there were few attempts to bring the two traditions together. Over the last few decades, however, there has been an increasing exchange of music and musicians between China and the rest of the world, leading a wide variety of “hybrid” styles. Tan has developed a personal musical language that combines Western and Eastern traditions in a way that is, in the words of one critic, "…no longer national, not even international, but simply human."

In 2015, Carnegie Hall commissioned Tan to write a new piece for National Youth Orchestra of the USA’s tour of China. The composer notes:
“What is the secret of nature? Maybe only the wind and birds know…
“In the beginning, when human beings were first inventing music, we always looked for a way to talk to nature, to communicate with the birds and wind. Looking at ancient examples of Chinese music, there are so many compositions that imitate the sounds of nature and, specifically, birds. With this in mind, I decided to start by using six ancient Chinese instruments, the guzheng, suona, erhu, pipa, dizi, and sheng, to record bird sounds that I had composed. I formatted the recording to be playable on cellphones, turning the devices into instruments and creating a poetic forest of digital birds. The symphony orchestra is frequently expanding with the inclusion of new instruments…
“It has always been a burning passion of mine to decode the countless patterns of the sounds and colors found in nature. I immediately decided to take this idea of waves and water as a mirror to discover the motions of the wind and birds. With melody, rhythm and color, I structured the sounds in a passacaglia.
“A passacaglia (Chaconne) is, to me, made of complex variations and hidden repetitions. In this piece, I play with structure, color, harmony, melody, and texture through orchestration in eight-bar patterns. Thus, the piece begins with the sounds of ancient Chinese instruments played on cellphones, creating a chorus of digital birds and moving tradition into the future.
“By the end, the winds, strings, brass, and percussion together cry out as one giant bird. To me, this last sound is that of the Phoenix, the dream of a future world.”
* In the Chinese manner, Tan Dun's family name is Tan; his personal name is Dun. It is proper to refer to him as Tan Dun, Tan, or Mr. Tan, but not as Dun or Mr. Dun
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
La mer

“Perhaps you do not know that I was destined for the fine life of a sailor and that it was only by chance that I was led away from it. But I still have a great passion for it,” Claude Debussy wrote to a friend as he began work on La mer in 1903. Shortly before the premiere in 1905 he commented to his publisher: “The sea has been very good to me. She has shown me all her moods.” Ironically, Debussy composed most of La mer far from the sea in the hills of Burgundy, believing that countless recollections were worth more than “…a reality whose charm generally weighs too heavily.”

The sea itself was not the only inspiration. Together with many late-nineteenth century painters, Debussy greatly admired Japanese art, especially the prints and drawings of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). One print in particular, The Hollow Wave off Kanagawa, appealed to Debussy. It portrays three boats with their terrified crews almost swallowed by a giant wave, the curve of the wave breaking into spray and foam. Debussy chose the detail of the wave as a cover for the score of La mer.

During the period Debussy was working on La mer, his life was in turmoil. He was in the process of leaving his wife Lilly to move in with his lover of many years, Emma Bardac, a wealthy married woman. Lilly threatened suicide, creating a scandal that alienated many of Debussy's friends of long standing, including the composer Gabriel Fauré (The fact that Bardac was once his mistress as well may have played some part in the rift.) Finally divorced in 1908, Debussy married Emma, but the episode put him in financial straights for the rest of his life.

The three movements of La mer are entitled Symphonic Sketches, although they approach the symphonic structures of César Franck's Symphony in D minor as well as the symphonies of Vincent d'Indy. There are numerous memorable melodic motives that appear in more than one movement, but like the sea itself, there is an unpredictable quality in how Debussy uses them.

The first sketch, "From Dawn till Noon on the Sea," opens with a gentle murmur on the strings and harp, eventually adding the the oboe and then the English horn with two of the principal themes of the movement - the last a motto of the entire work. Example 1 Parallel to the interplay of sunlight and waves, fragments of melody are tossed around with constant shifts of rhythm and orchestral color, reflecting the irregularity of the water's surface. Example 2 & Example 3 The second half of the sketch portrays the sleeping sea gradually awakening and flexing its immense power in a motive with a Japanese cast, perhaps in reference to the inspirational Hokusai drawing. Example 4 Towards the end a chorale evokes the splendor of the midday sun as the brass presents work's melodic motto that will reappear at the end. Example 5

The second sketch, "Play of the Waves," opens with the upper wooodwinds playfully tossing musical fragments around Example 6 until, hesitantly, the wind and the action of the waves picks up. The water becomes choppy before subsiding again into the calm playfulness then gradually fading away. This section involves many solos, illustrating the infinite variety of the waves. Its principal musical theme is a trill motive in the violins and woodwinds and a lyrical melody introduced on the English horn. Example 7 & Example 8 

"Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea," by far the most turbulent of the three sketches, was composed during the worst period of the composer's personal troubles. The approaching storm growls ominously growing in strength with the beginning of a motive that will be the principal theme for this sketch, Example 9 a surging motive in the flute and oboes. Example 10 The storm then subsides as if the sea is in the eye of the storm. Slowly the violence picks up again, but Debussy's storm while powerful, is never a force five gale. The movement repeats and transforms melodies from the first movement as well, including the motto and the chorale that now conclude the piece, now in an energetic metamorphosis. Example 11

La mer initiated a change in Debussy's style from the shimmering, melodically and structurally amorphous "symbolist" style epitomized in his opera Péléas and Melisande to the more conventional one that seemed to its critics less immediately evocative of nature. And, indeed, La mer, while retaining the rhythms of the sea, definitely has more defined melodies than many of the compsoer's earlier compositions. There erupted around the composer a rash of polemical articles, and even a book published in 1910 entitled Le cas Debussy (The Debussy Case). Today, the arguments are of only minor interest, but the fact that the critics and the public could get so exercised over a matter of musical style continued a centuries-long tradition in French aesthetics.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017