|About this Recording
9.70223-25 - WACHNER, J.: Choral Music, Vol. 2 (Trinity Wall Street Choir, Trinity Youth Chorus, Novus NY, Majestic Brass Quintet)
Julian Wachner (b. 1969)
In the second movement of Julian Wachner’s Come, My Dark-Eyed One, as the solo baritone sings the peroration of John Clare’s “First Love” (“I never saw so sweet a face”), the orchestra breaks into swirling sea of polyrhythm. The vibraphone plays five notes in the space of each beat, the harp six, the marimba seven; the woodwinds switch between threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens; the strings play slow triplets and quarter notes. The four-to-a-bar beat is still there, but just barely—the overlapping streams nearly wash away the musical grid.
Wachner’s music is filled with moments like this, of simultaneous, heterogeneous flow. At times, the flow is harnessed—in the first half of the “I am wild” movement, for instance, a near-constant stream of sixteenth notes channelled into a coursing 6/8 dynamo. But then it breaks free: at the climax of “I am wild,” chorus and orchestra burst into unmeasured, uncoordinated, furious improvisation. The music conjures ecstasy by sheer multiplicity.
Style, language, spirit—in every aspect, the music in this collection refuses to be pinned down. Recitative-like melodic expression gives way to sharp-cornering mixed meters, the music subdivided into quick two- and three-note groupings that tumble and race forward. Tonal and atonal follow on each other like pages in a book. The most austere ambiance exists side-by-side with the most unashamed entertainments. In moments of both anguish and joy, the music aims to make the experience all-consuming.
Come, My Dark-Eyed One, commissioned by Boston’s Back Bay Chorale and premièred in 2009, might seem like an outlier among the music collected here—an –exploration of worldly love surrounded by sacred exhortations—but it is entirely congruent with the rest of Wachner’s music. The focus on the voice, for one thing: Wachner is a composer completely at home with singers. The choral writing in Come, My Dark-Eyed One is confidently, pragmatically virtuosic, derived from—but not beholden to—the repertoire’s best exemplars. (The setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” that forms part of the “I am wild” movement swirls with a thoroughly contemporary drive, but the choir’s rocketing scales claim appropriate genealogy, marked in the score as requiring “Handelian swagger.”)
But it is the expanse of varying moods that is the most telling link. Wachner is a composer who seems to pack encyclopedic surveys of emotion into each piece. Come, My Dark-Eyed One runs the gamut, from longing to infatuation to devotion to loss. It is a description that could easily apply to any number of his works.
Wachner’s eclecticism is uncommonly deep, a reflection of his multivalent career: a virtuoso organist, an omnivorous conductor, an exploratory composer; a church musician with a dramatic sense of the sacred and a concert-hall veteran with a reverence for the dramatic. His goals—to encompass, to illuminate, to transport—are unwaveringly pursued in his first symphony, premièred in 2001 after years of drafts and revisions. Symphony no. 1: Incantations and Lamentations is formidable—a full canvas of orchestra and chorus, music of density and expanse—but its real ambitions are theodicean. In its most provocative dialectic, it undercuts the confidence of Psalm 103 (“I will praise the Lord as long as I live”) with the despair and frustration of Psalm 137 (“by the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept”). In a sense, the Symphony considers the famous verse from Psalm 137—
—less as a cry of despair than as a vital, practical question. We are alienated from Eden; we can glimpse the divine in moments of ecstasy; but praise and damnation can, each in their own way, be equally ecstatic. The symphony deliberately walks the tightrope between rapture and frenzy.
Incantations sets the stage orchestrally: a call to prayer overwhelmed by a flood of harsh, mixed-meter petitions. But the prayer comes, the promise of Psalm 103 set as a slowly expanding series of clustered harmonies. That shimmering dissonance turns savage in “Exile”—Psalm 137, a whiplash of lament and bloodlust. The centre of the symphony is its most brutal trial. The violence of biblical rhetoric is made uncomfortably direct—a barrier of eye-for-an-eye morality that must be confronted.
The historical “Exile” turns both emotional and theological, the violent dislocation of exile and the human violence that exiles us from the divine. The choir’s prayer for God to arise and scatter their enemies is a fugue, a chase, one that is promptly inverted: the uncomfortably exact mirror of righteousness and vengeance. The final “Hallelujah,” hammered out on an asymmetric anvil of rhythm, returns the word to its Hebrew roots, not a term of praise itself, but a command to praise, an injunction, in this context almost a challenge.
Remembrance is the second movement’s prayer, recoloured only by the angst of “Exile.” Even the final “Reconciliation” balances reunion (the choir’s echoing lines coalescing into a chant) with disquiet. An “Amen” settles but doesn’t resolve, the E-B fifth that opened the symphony softened—or troubled—by an overlaid fifth a step away. It is not exactly comfort; it is acceptance, hard-won.
Wachner’s insistence on acknowledging the dark of human nature in the midst of the light of prayer was also noted by the great African-American preacher Howard Thurman, longtime dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel (where Wachner would serve as organist and choirmaster). “The prayer experience must ever take into account the times of dryness, of denials, of emptiness,” Thurman wrote, “sometimes the urgency is so great, the pain growing out of the need so overwhelming, that the anguish and frustration spill over into a cry which in itself becomes a judgment and a startling accusation!”
A prayer of Thurman’s is the impetus for Alleluias, Intercessions, and Remembrances (composed in 1995 for the 25th anniversary of United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts). The alleluias are suitably festive, pealing and bright; the requests are all searching, hesitant lines, a hall of ethical mirrors: courage for fear, hope for despair, wisdom for confusion, love for hate. When the alleluias return, they are changed, renewed, accelerated into new and more fluid rhythms.
That pattern—naive praise, experiential wisdom, discerning thanksgiving—turns up again and again in Wachner’s sacred music, though the balance is often tipped to one side or another. Canticles (first written in 1991, and revised in 1994) shades the sometimes abstract obligation of prayer with the reported, televised, mediated experience of modern warfare. Passages from Psalm 2 and Simeon’s song from the gospel of Luke—the contrast between war and peace—bookend poems by Shelli Jankowski-Smith capturing instances and moods from the first Gulf War. A mother, watching the news, turns that witness into a form of intercession:
Passages of free rhythmic improvisation in Canticles connect our best and worst impulses, standing in for an aggressive mob in the first movement, becoming an undercurrent of quiet devotion in the third, and a flame of rapture in the last. Over the final chord, the organ murmurs (“presto, purring”), the “Amen” percolating its way into the populous world.
Psalm Cycle I—the earliest music in this collection, dating from 1990—shares with Canticles a particular expressionism, wide intervals and churning harmonies: the soprano opens with a leap of a seventh, the strings and organ work their way through all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale in the first three measures. The stylistic range, though, is wide and kaleidoscopic, a whirlwind musical tour of “the world and all who dwell therein” pledged in Psalm 24, part of which forms the first movement. The second movement, setting Psalm 27, starts off with an angular refrain that, throughout, keeps veering into an almost machinelike drive, a factory of reassurance. The third and fourth movements—from Psalms 121 and 119—turn the chromaticism to lyrical ends, first song-like, then more operatic.
Extroverted brightness saturates Regina Coeli (1999), an ample splash of festivity for choir, soprano solo and orchestra. Where Canticles and Psalm Cycle I mediate between the drama of the concert hall and the formality of liturgy, Regina Coeli transplants the entire theatre into the church, purposefully adopting an unapologetically entertaining attitude. The mixed meters bump and groove, the singers show off with roller-coaster feats of melismatic derring-do, the slow movement takes a detour into a Renaissance pageant, and all the while the instruments pour forth colour and rhythm, choreographed into a shiny spectacle.
The age-old cathedral combination of brass and organ—a sound explored on numerous pieces on these CDs—is similarly spiffed up in Blue Green Red (commissioned by the International Trumpet Guild), which lets a solo trumpet and organ escape the church, or at least throw the doors open. The organ part fast-forwards from a Baroque positive through a Romantic cathedral sound to a modern brightness—“think old Harvard Fisk,” the score instructs, referencing an instrument that epitomized postwar organ-building—while the trumpet shows of its jazzier possibilities. Blue Green Red finds pop sensibilities lurking in the organ loft.
Jubilate Deo (premièred by the Providence Singers in 2006) also seems to pick up where Regina Coeli leaves off, arranging its cast-of-thousands forces—three choirs, a children’s choir, brass, harp, organ, and an extroverted percussion battery featuring taiko drums and tom-toms—into a kind of holy jam session: the drums joyfully pound away, the choirs immoderately syncopate and bounce off of each other canonically. It is one of Wachner’s favourite places to end up, pulling the spontaneity and brazenness of Old Testament praise into the here and now, David dancing before the ark to the accompaniment of a big band in full cry.
The bricolage of performers was designed to bring together the disparate threads of the specific concert for which Jubilate Deo was composed. It is, in other words, an occasional piece. But Wachner’s long experience as a church musician—trained at the choir school of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City, going on to direct the music programs at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montréal, and New York’s Trinity Wall Street—makes the “occasional” label less of a distinction than it might be. In the week-in, week-out practice of church music, the difference between an occasional piece of music and an enduring musical statement tends to fall away: all church music is both occasional and meant to endure. In theological terms: the occasion of worship is fundamental.
The three hymn settings gathered here unite the occasional and the enduring by making the singing of enduringly familiar hymns into an occasion, instruments and choir providing a virtuosic lift to congregational singing. But it’s the reframing of style and mood that, in the most literal sense, refresh the old songs. In All Creatures of Our God and King, “Lasst uns erfreuen” seems to arrive as the culmination of a chromatic evolution; at its climax, it is coupled to the Old 100th psalm tune, the children of God brought together in a family reunion. Joy to the World, surrounded by piquantly tinseled fanfares, pulls its Handelian bustle through a Victorian revival into a ringing, jazz-tinged present. Holy, Holy, Holy reimagines one of the sturdiest of hymn tunes—John Bacchus Dykes’ 1861 “Nicaea”—as a luminous, sleepy haze that gradually dawns into full splendour.
The Somerville Service (2000) finds opportunities for novelty in that most utilitarian of sacred repertoire, service music and responses. Commissioned by The Rev. Peter Gomes to honour the tenure of Murray Forbes Somerville as organist and choirmaster at Harvard’s Memorial Church, the service threads a line of musical drama through the liturgy. The “Kyrie” sets the stage with a simple tonic-dominant outline; the “Sanctus,” however, brings in brass and timpani, vaulting from key to key. The “Agnus Dei” combines both vectors, mellowing its opening phrases with an influx of flats, only to have them enharmonically shift into sharps, suffusing the plea for peace with a quietly bright hope.
Psalm Cycle III (2003) was also written to mark an occasion—it was commissioned for the bicentennial of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montréal, where Wachner was soon to be hired as director of music—but its progression of styles still reflects a pilgrim’s journey. A solo soprano setting of Psalm 23 sets the stage for a full, brassy, choral proclamation of Psalm 98. This pattern turns up frequently in Wachner’s sacred music, a determined burst of enjoined joy that comes early in a piece, only to be tempered by reflection and questioning—in this case, an almost entirely diatonic but quietly unsettled Psalm 139, an austere, homophonic rendering of Psalm 67, and a Psalm 130 that tensely recapitulates the stylistic progression. The finale, the familiar praises of Psalm 150, replace the force of Psalm 98 with energetic dance: the soul and the body made whole.
But the backbone of Psalm Cycle III is formal, a deliberate tour of historical musical structure and technique: the plainsong evoked in Psalm 23; a prelude and fugue for Psalm 98; Psalm 139’s symmetrical formal arch; the Anglican chant of Psalm 67; a stretch of Renaissance-like polyphony in Psalm 130. The seemingly irrepressible, unruly joy of Psalm 150 is channelled into a disciplined rondo.
In Psalm Cycle III, Wachner’s penchant for multiplicity comes full circle: versatility and craft are asserted to be one and the same. The variety of expression is inseparable from the variety of technique. Style is a toolbox. The history of the repertoire is a living resource. Wachner’s eclecticism, in the end, is less about adopting an aesthetic stance and more about that most basic requirement for art: curiosity about a complex world.
On Wachner’s First Symphony
In some cases, theology in musical contexts can only be discerned and evaluated with the aid of insight into the composer’s intention for the work. In other cases, the theological force of a musical work extends no further than the biblical, liturgical, or other texts upon which it draws. In yet other cases, the theological point trivializes its texts by hijacking them without regard to their own internal integrity. Wachner’s Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations, by contrast, is one of these rare musical creations that blends text and music to make a self-standing and profound theological point that faithfully discloses the possibilities of the texts themselves. Wachner’s symphony is, therefore, a theological achievement as much as it is a musical one.
Incantations and Lamentations weaves together the classic themes of God, suffering, alienation, and faith to create a poignant interpretation of the Babylonian Exile that expresses with uncanny fidelity the agonizing aspect of human life. Within this framework, along with all the subtle overtones and undertones, Wachner’s main theological point is this: Comfort in the face of suffering and loss is the hard won fruit of a faith in God that does not shrink from welding together praise and accusation, hope and brokenness. There is much to be said for this insight, which is as much psychological as theological in character. Indeed, in the phenomenology of developing faith, the ordinarily fierce distinction between praise of God and accusation of God loses focus long before the bliss of irrefragable comfort becomes faith’s constant companion. The superficial opposition between worship and indictment of God is comforting, and their breath taking merger shocking, only to faith’s neophyte. Wachner works hard to illumine for the careful listener the deeper reaches of the psychology of faith, and he does not hesitate to draw out and leave unresolved the wonderful and disturbing consequences for our theological understanding of God.
All this is accomplished in a number of ways, from the choice of texts to the use of rhythmic patterns that intimate conceptual continuity between thematically and conceptually disparate material. I will comment on two of Wachner’s methods that are more nearly related to theological content.
First, the large-scale organization of the work is a deliberate juxtaposition of praise (the second and fourth movements) with reflective exploration of despair and grief, tinged with self-mortification, resentful accusation, and hope (the first, third, and fifth movements). This structure legitimates these diverse forms of response to suffering and loss, presses them tightly together, and serves as the context within which the blurring of the distinction between them and the resulting comfort of faith can be portrayed.
Second, all of the thematic material of the work falls outward as willow branches from the central trunk of the third movement. Accordingly, attention is drawn to that middle movement as the dynamic heart of the work. There we see a series of transitions: from grief (“By the waters of Babylon…”), to vengeance (“happy the one who pays you back…”), to almost vicious worship (“Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered…”), to despairing accusation (“O God, why have you utterly cast us off?”). The effortless quality of the musical transitions is crucial to the success of this portrayal of the psychology of grieving faith, for it makes the movement from one state to the next credible. Only the last phase, that of despairing accusation, is in the mode of prayer. It must be thus, for only when everyone else has been addressed in fits of displaced rage and bewilderment can the faithful finally turn to their greatest nemesis and their greatest love to speak their secret resentment with heart-breaking openness. And then it is that praise is discovered in the midst of tear-pressed accusation, with “O God, why is your wrath so hot? hot? hot?” (fortissimo), yielding to a blistering “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” The pianissimo “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord” that follows immediately in the fourth movement’s “Remembrance” echoes the second movement’s “Prayer” nearly exactly, but is infinitely more profound as a result of the intervening “Exile” of the third movement.
Wachner is right: the bliss of praise and the bliss of blazing, accusatory lament are indistinguishable. This is the path that faith must tread if the peace that passes all understanding is to be realized. Incantations and Lamentations make this point with clear-headed energy. It is a disturbing, convicting, wonderful synthesis of theological insight and musical creativity.
Dr. Wesley J. Wildman
Notes on Come, My Dark-Eyed One
As a composer-conductor perched between the Apollonian world of church music and the academy and the Dionysian world of Opera and the stage, my compositional process has enjoyed the benefits and challenges of drawing on these two historically diametrically opposed world-views. In Bach’s time this tension was articulated between pietistic and orthodox elements of theological understanding—in the 19th century Nietzsche’s seminal work on the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic The Birth of Tragedy fanned the fires of Wagner’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk, and in the 20th century, Ned Rorem famously transformed this philosophical dichotomy into a simple statement: “it is a truth universally acknowledged that the entire solar system is torn between two aesthetics: French and German… virtually everything is one or the other.” For North American composers, then—it was virtually essential throughout the 20th century to belong to one of these aesthetic camps, as articulated by the followers of Schoenberg versus the followers of mid-period Stravinsky.
For me, I always found this a difficult decision to make, and thus found myself living and working in the no-man’s land between pure post-Impressionism and post-Expressionism—composing music that was criticized as “too simple” from one camp and “too complex” from the other!! As I have always considered my compositional process and philosophy to be aligned with the assimilators of previous eras, (Bach, Stravinsky and Foss come to mind)—I have found equal inspiration from strict form or unbridled chaos; tonality, modality or post-tonality; and lyricism, pointillism or minimalism—I find it crucial to have as sweeping a palette of creative possibilities at my disposal as possible, believing that this desire is no different from any composer of the past.
My music lives in a sound world that seeks to balance harmony and melody, movement with stasis, simplicity with chaos, and contemporary techniques with unabashed borrowings from the past. As my teacher Lukas Foss often said to me of his process: “I want everything hitherto invented, currently being invented, and those ideas to be invented—available to me as compositional possibilities and choices.” In this way, musical languages and aesthetics themselves become specific options of technique. The challenge therefore, is to ride this wave of self-proclaimed eclecticism with sincerity, individuality and spontaneity, writing music that speaks to the human condition and makes a contribution to the art form.
My music therefore is decidedly not “post-classical,” “post-minimal,” “post-modern,” “neo-romantic,” or any other post or neo form, although as a conductor, I actively support and love composers living in many of those “–isms.” For me, I can only write what I feel to be true and real, so while this current collection of music may, for some, lack a unanimity of stylistic adherence, for me it captures perfectly my proclivity for the eclectic and my interest in writing music for a variety of musical audiences.
Come My Dark Eyed One was commissioned by Boston’s Back Bay Chorale to celebrate the Chorale’s 35th anniversary. Scored for 3 Flutes, Piccolo, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, 3 Percussionists, Harp, Strings, Soprano and Baritone Soloists and Chorus, the work was commissioned as a companion piece to Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. The work was premièred 16 May 2009 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre.
For a composer, to be commissioned to write a companion work for the Brahms Requiem is the equivalent of charging a visual artist to create a canvass that will hang in tandem with the Mona Lisa. In addition to that universal challenge, being asked to compose a work for the first major ensemble with which one worked, in the city in which one was trained and being performed by colleagues and friends sets up a myriad of personal expectations and challenges. Thus, the process of sitting down to begin putting pen to paper with this work was one filled with this overwhelming combination of excitement and dread!
Although the programmatic pairing with the Brahms could be taken simply as a technical connection of shared instrumentation, it became important through the compositional process that Come My Dark Eyed One lead into the Requiem in a coherent arch. Therefore, it was necessary that the subject matter of this new work share the down-to-earth humanity of the German Requiem and not be a work mired in mysticism—matching neither Orthodox nor Catholic Christian sentiment, but a more “Protestant” verisimilitude. Thus, the choice was made for a secular subject matter without specific dramatic intent, but rather a series of poems that could create a scrapbook of vignettes that reference the life and death of two lovers.
To avoid the “dramatic” means that the sense of time and timing is lost in this work—characters can be in different dimensions simultaneously at any given time—two souls somewhere between life and death searching for meaning and resolution and asking the question “does love end after death?” Even in the canonic duet of the 6th movement, it is not clear who is alive, who is dead, who is remembering an experience, who is having the experience in real time, if the characters are together or separated by dimensions and time. Indeed, while composing it became clear to me that this wasn’t a requiem for one or other of the lovers, but that it was a timeless story, and that both characters could be ghosts, or that both characters could be very much alive projecting their life experience into some future uncertainty.
My grandmother, whose husband had passed away when my father was only 3 years old, used to tell me a story of how the thirty-plus years without her husband were filled with moments of her sensing his presence with her, actually feeling the blow of his breath on the back of her neck and often, and commonly sensing his aura with her. They had conversations together, one of which I witnessed at his grave site when I was a young child. It is this kind of life-connection–verging-on-ghost story that underpins the thematic and textual structure of Come My Dark Eyed One.
The musical work itself is structured in a circular fashion taking the 5th movement as the axis of symmetry. The work begins with a short invocation and follows into a three movement symmetrical structure exploring sexuality, romance and sentiment, with the 2nd and 4th solo movements surrounding an energetic erotically-charged 3rd movement. Similarly, movements 6, 7 and 8 share a symmetrical relationship, surrounding the 7th movement—a striking statement made by the chorus a cappella. Thus formalistically and architecturally there are the paired structures of: movements 2 and 4, 6 and 8 and 3, 5 and 7. This allows for a very clear musical form that allows the textual ambivalence to be supported.
The language of the score continues my eclectic understanding of post-Bernstein America, which is the logical musical vocabulary of a Greek-Mexican-Hungarian-German, half Jew, half Catholic, born-in-Hollywood, grew-up-in-New York City, Anglican boy chorister, formally trained in Boston, protégé of Lukas Foss, thirty-something composer! One then expects to find driving pulse, mixed meter, modes of limited transposition, aleatoric gestures, overtly tonal melodic structures, references to Jazz and the Blues, large-scale orchestration, and harmonies that have become known as “American.” All of these sounds are there, with the intention that the collage of the component parts make a unified whole: a statement that is clear and emotionally intact. A work that perhaps has elements of derivative familiarity—but in a manner where the successful synthesis of stylistic variety becomes the objective.
Trinity Wall Street
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