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Discerning, Appreciative, Adventurous #3

discerning – a musically-informed audience appreciative – an audience that recognizes the artistic worth and merit of varying works adventurous – an audience that is willing to be challenged and to try new things These carefully chosen words of the Music Academy’s mission statement are at the core of how we approach our relationship with our audience. It is in that spirit of discernment, appreciation, and adventurousness that we offer these playlists for you to explore on your own. This is Playlist #3. Be sure to catch up on #1 and #2! LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST Happy listening!

Ave Regina caelorum – Guillaume Du Fay

Although any piece by early-Renaissance composer Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474) could be called noteworthy (he was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the leading composer of his time), this motet is particularly interesting for its exceedingly personal touches. Du Fay likely wrote Ave Regina coelorum in the 1460s (it was copied into his cathedral’s choirbook in either 1464 or 1465). At its most basic level, this piece is a prayer to the Virgin Mary:

Hail, O Queen of Heaven! Hail, O Ruler of the Angels! Hail, blessed root and gate, From whom came light upon the world! Rejoice, O glorious Virgin, That surpassest all in beauty! Hail O most lovely of beings, And pray to Christ for us.

But in the midst of those lines, Du Fay interpolated a prayer for his own salvation. Have mercy on Thy failing Du Fay, throw him not into the raging fire of sinners. Have mercy, mother of God, that the gate of heaven may be opened to the weak. Have mercy on thy supplicant Du Fay, that his death may find favor in Thy sight. Let us not be damned on high but have mercy on us, and help us that in our last hour our hearts may be upright.
Du Fay was already in his sixties when he wrote Ave Regina coelorum, so he approached the piece with an eye toward his own death. In fact, he intended for the motet to be performed at his deathbed. His dying wish was not to be, however, as his passing in 1474 happened before the singers were able to reach him. Instead, it was sung at his funeral, as well as in the years following (Du Fay had provided an endowment specifically for the purpose of ensuring recitations of his musical prayer would continue). Church music of Du Fay’s day often featured symbolism, musical puns, and other “in” references, but rarely did it include such intimate elements. While listening to the work, pay attention to the text below and listen for the ways the music changes when the text shifts to Du Fay’s personal exhortations. Although composers were not yet writing in the major/minor system so familiar to our modern ears, Du Fay’s use of altered notes in these portions provides what Richard Taruskin has called “an early instance . . . of major-minor contrast in what would become its traditional mood-defining role.” Full Text (Du Fay’s personal additions in italics): Hail, O Queen of Heaven! Hail, O Ruler of the Angels! Have mercy on Thy failing Du Fay, throw him not into the raging fire of sinners. Hail, blessed root and gate, From whom came light upon the world! Have mercy, mother of God, that the gate of heaven may be opened to the weak. Rejoice, O glorious Virgin, That surpassest all in beauty! Have mercy on thy supplicant Du Fay, that his death may find favor in Thy sight. Hail O most lovely of beings, And pray to Christ for us. Let us not be damned on high but have mercy on us, and help us that in our last hour our hearts may be upright.

Portraits of Langston – Valerie Coleman

American composer Valerie Coleman (b. 1970) is the very model of the modern multifaceted musician. As a flutist she’s an in demand performer, teacher, and clinician. As a composer her works appear frequently on concert programs; Anne Midgette of The Washington Post listed her as one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music,” and Performance Today named her the 2020 Classical Woman of the Year. Oh, and she’s the founder of the renowned wind quintet Imani Winds. Simply put, she’s a rock star. Her piece, Portraits of Langston, dates from 2007 and is written for a trio of flute, clarinet, and piano. Each of the six movements is based on a Langston Hughes poem connecting to his experiences in Harlem and Paris. Portraits of Langston can be performed with or without a narrator; in the case of this recording by the McGill-McHale Trio – New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill (the first African-American to hold that position); Demarre McGill, principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony (and Anthony’s brother), and pianist Michael McHale – the narration is provided by Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali.

String Quartet 1931Ruth Crawford Seeger

American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) wrote her String Quartet 1931 in, well, 1931 while living and working in Paris and Berlin on a Guggenheim Fellowship (she was the first woman to ever receive that honor). Her intention had been to work on a symphony during her European sojourn, but that was not to be; the music simply would not come. “It insisted on becoming a string quartet,” she wrote at the time. After that, “the music came more easily.” The result was a stunning piece that scholars and musicians have consistently described as ahead of its time. Her compositional aesthetic could best be described as modernist, and String Quartet 1931 fits very much within that realm. The third and fourth movements are the most commonly singled out for their compositional virtuosity. The plaintive third movement, marked Andante, is built around a series of overlapping changes in volume that eventually build to a dissonant climax. Her teacher at the time, whom she would later marry, described the movement as a “counterpoint of dynamics.” Writing for The New York Times in 2017, musicologist Will Robin characterized it as “a kind of discordant version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings.” The fourth movement, Allegro possible, is the most complex. She divided the quartet into two “voices.” Voice I is comprised of the first violin, while Voice II is the second violin, viola, and cello. Voice I begins with a single note phrase, followed closely by a two note one. At this point, Voice II enters with a 20-note phrase. Voice I reappears with three notes, only to be interrupted again by Voice II and their now 19-note phrase. Maybe by now you’ve noticed a pattern! Voices I and II continue to alternate – Voice I adding a note each time, Voice II removing a note. At the midpoint of the piece – which Seeger marked as “Turning Point” – the two Voices begin moving in the other direction, eventually ending with one single note from Voice I. Although the construction of this movement sounds complicated, this is all easy (and interesting!) to follow while listening! One final note: this recording comes from the latest album of the Spektral Quartet, which features two Music Academy alums: violinist Clara Lyon (’03, ‘04) and violist Doyle Armbrust (’01, ’03). The album, Experiments in Living, is intended to be a choose-your-own-adventure-style listening experience. You can read more about the album here.

Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”Ralph Vaughan Williams  

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” in 1939; it is scored for string orchestra and harp. It is based on the English folk ballad “Dives and Lazarus,” which recounts the Biblical parable of Dives and Lazarus, sometimes referred to as the rich man and Lazarus (Dives coming from the Latin for “rich man”). Vaughan Williams was fond of folk tunes, in general, and this tune in particular; it’s quoted in his English Folk Song Suite (1923), and he later arranged it again as the hymn tune, “Kingsfold.” Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” was commissioned to be played at the New York City World’s Fair in 1939. It was also the first piece played at Vaughan Williams’ funeral in Westminster Abbey, where he is interred in a place of honor near the graves of Henry Purcell, John Blow, and Charles Villiers Stanford.

String Quartet No. 5, “Rosa Parks”  – Daniel Bernard Roumain

Haitian-American composer, violinist, and activist Daniel Bernard Roumain (b. 1971), who often goes by his initials, is a musician who cannot be defined by traditional genre boundaries. He’s influenced by classical music, electronic music, hip-hop, and more, and he’s worked with artists and organizations as varied as the New York Philharmonic and Lady Gaga. Each of his five string quartets honors a figure in the American Civil Rights movement. His Fifth String Quartet, written in 2005, is dedicated to Rosa Parks.
“As a Haitian-American composer, I was raised by immigrant parents from Haiti, who experienced American life both before, and after, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their views were informed by life on a free Island nation in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; life in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois; and life in the complex diversity of Pompano Beach, Florida. They identified with Malcolm and Martin, Maya and Rosa, and the great Haitian warriors, Makandal and Toussaint. Civil rights, for our household, was global, local, and part of the very fabric of our lives and culture. I created [this work] as a musical portrait of Rosa Parks’ struggle, survival, and legacy. The music is a direct reflection of a dignified resistance. It’s telling that this work may, in fact, be performed on stages that didn’t allow the presence of so many, so often. I often refer to the stage as the last bastion of democracy, where all voices can and should be heard, where we are all equal, important, and necessary.“ The first movement* was inspired by Parks’ statement, “I made up my mind not to move.” It is the longest of the three movements and is characterized by a driving, insistent rhythm throughout, which evokes the dignified persistence of Parks herself. The second movement, titled “Klap Ur Handz,” is based around the communal activity of clapping. The final movement, “Isorhythmiclationistic,” is much more solemn and introspective in nature. *In this recording by the Lark Quartet, the movements appear in a different order. On the playlist they will appear in the Lark’s order: Second, First, Third. – Henry Michaels Resonance Editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West
Sources:  Alejandro Enrique Planchart, “Du Fay [Dufay; Du Fayt], Guillaume”, in Grove Music Online Richard Taruskin, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, 2010. Ellie M. Hisama and Judith Tick, “Crawford (Seeger), Ruth (Porter)”, in Grove Music Online.  Hugh Ottaway, rev. Alain Frogley, “Vaughan Williams, Ralph”, in Grove Music Online.    

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