About this Recording
8.559789 - THOMPSON, R.: Requiem (Philadelphia Singers, Hayes)

Randall Thompson (1899–1984)


Randall Thompson is a composer with whom few American choral singers and conductors are unfamiliar. More than thirty years after his death, several of his choral works continue to be performed with regularity, most notably his Alleluia (1941), which at one point had more copies in print than any choral work in history. Thompson was part of a generation of American composers who sought to define a musical heritage distinct from Europe, each realizing it in their own way. Rather than relying on folk melodies or jazz idioms, Thompson forged his path primarily through the use of American texts, specifically in larger works like The Testament of Freedom (texts of Thomas Jefferson), Americana (from an American periodical), and his most popular Frostiana (poems of Robert Frost).

It was not merely this text selection that endeared Thompson to American choirs. He wrote nearly every one of his works in response to a commission, and with deference always paid close attention not only to the specific choir for which he was writing, but also the occasion of the commission (a consideration that sometimes led to him rejecting requested texts). In addition to those pieces that are clearly American in theme, many of his works are sacred settings of scripture, and here his Americanism is just as evident. Thompson’s ability to capture the rhythm and nuance of the English language with his prosody—whether setting poetry or prose—is a quality that makes his music distinctly American. For choirs, that skill produced music that is both dramatic and extremely satisfying to sing.

If English text-setting was Randall Thompson’s greatest asset as a composer, then the Requiem (1958) is his masterpiece. It was written at a time in his career with freedom like no other, pure inspiration, and a personal connection to the subject matter. Consequently, no other work in his oeuvre so completely exhibits his ability to select and set texts, and the resulting work is a Requiem entirely unique within American music history or the Requiem tradition as a whole.

At no other point in his career did Thompson have a creative opportunity like that with the Requiem. In an unusual chronology for him, Thompson had the concept of the work fully formed by the end of 1954, three years before he received a commission that fit. He had been personally touched by death, first that of a terminally ill young choral director whom Thompson found to be incredibly passionate about the choral art, and second by that of a personal friend whose death Thompson witnessed.

Beyond personal inspiration, another potent contextual influence for the Requiem was time. Like an increasing number of composers in the 20th century Thompson was a career academic, holding positions at several prestigious universities throughout the country before finally settling at Harvard, his alma mater, for the remainder of his career. He rarely composed during the academic year, so it was difficult to find time to compose a work of substantial length or complexity. But, following a term as department chair, Thompson was anticipating a sabbatical for the 1957–58 academic year, and was able to consider taking on a project of some magnitude.

The Requiem was ultimately written in response to a commission from one of Thompson’s former institutions, the University of California, Berkeley, with almost no stipulations whatsoever on the nature of the piece to be composed. At no other time in Thompson’s career had these three influences coincided—purely inspired concept, time for work, and a free commission—and the outcome was a Requiem unlike any other, Thompson’s personal statement on life and death. It was premièred in May of 1958 at the University of California and presented again in 1959 at Harvard, in a performance advised by Thompson and conducted by Elliot Forbes.

By the mid-20th century, Requiem settings had been becoming increasingly personalized by composers for more than a hundred years. Texts had been added, subtracted, or even wholly replaced by composers to use the genre as a personal statement, all while remaining under the Requiem mantle. Even within that context, Thompson’s Requiem is entirely unique. He was inspired by the dramatic madrigal cycles of the Italian Renaissance, and had already applied that concept to a sacred work in Peaceable Kingdom. For the Requiem he expanded the concept, crafting a dramatic dialogue between two choirs concerning the reality of eternal life. It was this concept which Thompson had formed years before the commission. To construct the libretto for this dialogue, Thompson used only scripture, but far more selectively than Brahms had. Though every word is biblical, verses are often not used in their entirety, sometimes taken far out of context, and assembled carefully to deliver an entirely personal message.

At an hour in length, the work is grand in scope, particularly for the medium of double choir, a cappella. Furthermore, there are several sections of the piece that require each choir to divide again, to a maximum of sixteen parts. The piece is arranged in five large dramatic scenes, all but one with multiple movements within them. Throughout, one choir portrays a “chorus of mourners,” lamenting the loss of a loved one, and the other choir represents the souls of those dead, a “chorus of the faithful,” returning to comfort the mourners and convince them of the reality of eternal life.

Part I, Lamentations, introduces the characters and the drama. The mourners weep uncontrollably using the word “mourn” while the faithful bring messages of peace and comfort. Thompson’s excellence in text selection and setting are fully on display, as the two emotionally divided characters share nothing musically either: poetic rhythm, meter, harmonic content, articulation, or divisi. This opening movement also shows Thompson excellently utilizing small themes in large-scale musical structure, akin to a movement in sonata form that often opens a symphony. In the end, the characters resolve nothing.

The heart of the drama is contained in the lengthy second part, The Triumph of Faith, wherein the choirs engage in a vigorous debate over the reality of eternal life. Again, the musical and textual contrast between the choirs is stark as they debate opposing positions. In What man is he that liveth? the mourners are desperate, employing accented, harmonically sparse homophony. They are in turn answered by the faithful in calm, chorale-like statements of peace, including the introduction of a musical theme which returns several more times in the work to represent eternal life. The debate continues until the distressed mourners stand awestruck and are finally convinced, after which the faithful entreat them to put on “the garment of praise,” which is the means of their comfort.

Though convinced of the reality of eternal life, the mourners are still not relieved from their distress, so in Part III, The Call to Song, the faithful implore the mourners to sing praises, using a succession of increasingly complex choruses. The increasing intensity and vocal acrobatics of the faithful are unconvincing, as the mourners remain silent, until in Utter a song the faithful resort to simple, direct, recitative-like homophony. The mourners can resist no longer and burst into a song of praise, and in a brilliant climax, the two choirs share all musical material for the first time.

Part IV, The Garment of Praise, is an extension of what was begun at the end of Part III. Now convinced that singing praises to God will bring comfort, the two choirs sing together what Thompson called a “cumulative paean.” With the choirs finally operating as partners, Thompson was able in this part to employ a multitude of double-chorus techniques within a series of three praise choruses. Each outburst of praise reaches farther than the one before: first the mountains and forests, then the whole earth, and finally the entire heavens. In these choruses, Thompson’s uses of text-painting and madrigalisms are most clearly seen, both in melodic gesture and overall texture. When the praises have concluded, Thompson has the mourners symbolize their acceptance of the message by precisely quoting the music of the faithful that opened Part IV.

With the principal conflict of the story resolved—the mourners being comforted—Part V, The Leave-taking, shows the characters exiting the scene and returning home. First, they sing the chorus Ye were sometimes darkness together, which functions as the positive reflection of the Lamentations from the beginning. In the remaining choruses, rich with musical symbolism, the characters return to their respective ends: the faithful ascend back to heaven, physically and musically, in Return unto thy rest, and in Thou hast given him the redeemed mourners remain, singing the “everlasting life” life motive from Part II by themselves. The entire work closes with an ebullient double-fugue whose theme quotes Bach’s Mass in B minor

Due to the cohesiveness of the drama, few of the movements are able to stand alone out of context, making partial performances impractical at best. And though the harmonic language and general difficulty of the work is consistent with Thompson’s smaller works enjoyed by amateur choirs, the totality of the Requiem—its emotional content, dramatic intensity, and vocal stamina required—makes it a daunting piece to perform well. This and other various influences, such as the almost immediate overshadowing of Frostiana (1960), have kept the Requiem from regular performance. Hopefully this first-ever complete recording of the work will inspire listeners, conductors, and choirs to recognize its excellence, and lead to a revival of this American masterpiece.

Dr. Zachary J. Vreeman

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