Program Notes

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Five Mystical Songs

Ralph Vaughan Williams premiered his Five Mystical Songs for solo baritone, chorus, and orchestra at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1911 although he had been working on it since 1906. During the same period however, he had also been hard at work transcribing and attempting to preserve the traditions of English folk song and Renaissance church music. For the previous three months, he had studied intensive composition in Paris with Ravel. You can hear the fruits of Vaughan Williams’ labors in these settings of poems by the metaphysical poet George Herbert, from his 1633 collection, The Temple.

Herbert on his deathbed, left a note describing these poems as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul.” Whether Vaughan Williams found a sympathetic vibration of what he called his own “cheerful agnosticism” in Herbert, or whether he just fell in love with the poet’s elaborate conceits about music we cannot know. We can enjoy, however, the rich tapestry of sound and simile that Vaughan Williams weaves around Herbert’s poems, using the warp of plainsong, the modal patterns and intimate textures of English folk music, and the harmonic colors of late Romanticism.

In “Easter,” for example, the rising lines of baritone and choir consort and twist a transcendent song from the sinews of heart, lute, and blessed spirit. The baritone’s lovesong, “I Got Me Flowers,” unfolds above the pulsing strings of the orchestra, and the humming accompaniment of the choir, before broadening into a choral affirmation that suddenly evokes plainchant. “Love bade me welcome” brings the encounter of the self and God to a beautiful, shocking level of intimacy, while the choir quietly celebrates the mystery with the communion chant, “O Sacrum Convivium.” In “The Call,” the grace of God finds an elegant echo in Vaughan Williams' deft melodic lines. The final Antiphon opens like a peal of bells, and ends in triumphant praise song with dancing rhythms that celebrate the covenant between the people and God.

— Yoshi Campbell

Robert Stern, Shofar SYNOPSIS OF SHOFAR

The shofar is the ram’s horn of Jewish liturgy, used during the High Holy Day period to evoke the breakdown of the soul’s defenses and call the Jews back to God. Drawing from biblical and midrashic (ancient Jewish commentaries on scripture) sources and from modern poetry, the libretto for Shofar is divided into four sections, representing the four types of shofar blast used in the liturgy.

Tekiah (a long unbroken blast signifying wholeness) establishes the order of creation, and presents the giving of the Torah on Sinai as one aspect of that order. This is a movement from solitary existence to relationship, from “I am that I am” to “I am the Lord your God.” But the giving of the Torah is an experience of such emotional intensity that it imperils order: a synaesthesia of sound and light, a precarious balance of concentrated attention and perfect calm, a fusion of the erotic and the terrible. Experience at that pitch cannot continue; at its height it is suddenly interrupted.

Shevarim (“broken”, a triple blast) begins with the people’s confusion when Moses fails to return from the mountain. Though they have embraced the relationship with God, they cannot maintain it; they are only ninety days out of slavery and unused to self-governance, and they want reassurance and familiar gods. They make the golden calf, and abandon themselves
to ecstatic worship. Meanwhile Moses, at the top of the mountain, thinks sympathetically of the people’s apprehensions and recalls his own sense of dislocation at being chosen by God. Returning from the mountain and discovering the orgiastic scene, his sympathy turns to fury: he flings down and breaks the tablets of the law. God responds to the people’s rejection of his gift with a more complex paternal pain.

Teruah (“smashed”, a ninefold stammering blast) introduces the shattering of chronology, of coherent narrative, of the integrity of both parties. God’s wounded love becomes hostile and vindictive: if the people have failed him, he will fail them, setting their enemies upon them without mercy and without end. A prophecy from Hosea suggests God’s willingness to abandon his people even to the annihilations of the twentieth century. In response—in lines from the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein—the people give back the Torah: its conditions can no longer be fulfilled, since “dead men don’t praise God” (a line Glatstein borrowed from Ps. 115:17). This refusal marks the people’s formal resignation from the relationship. But the terrible discovery emerges that the bond cannot be refused. If the dead do not praise God, the living must, as it were through a biological imperative: our respiration itself conditions and condemns us to rejoice. From this strict and humiliating knowledge a tentative effort toward return emerges: a chastened and mutual longing for relationship.

Tekiah gedolah (a very long blast signaling the return to wholeness) returns to the Exodus narrative of the renegotiated covenant and the making of the second set of tablets. God and Moses speak tenderly to each other, and God’s proclamation of his attributes of mercy is echoed by Moses (though he is permitted to see only God’s back as he passes). This tenderness between two volatile personalities seems as close as the relationship can come to consummation: a sort of mutual Kol Nidre in which all vows are canceled and reestablished on the basis of inner rather than outer compulsion. From this inner compulsion—with the knowledge that God can have no better people and the people no better God, and that the relationship cannot in any case be annulled—desire and consummation emerge: the gravitational pull between the visible and the invisible, the perfect and the imperfectible, the ephemeral and the eternal, working together for a brief time in the ecstatic concord of lovers.

— Catherine Madsen 2012