Program Notes

This afternoon, Coro Allegro marks two musical milestones. We honor the centennial of the birth of legendary Boston gay composer Daniel Pinkham (1923-2023), with The White Raven, his soaring tribute to the exceptional in creation, a work originally commissioned for Coro Allegro’s fifth anniversary season. And we celebrate our own 30 years of singing together with pride with Artistic Director David Hodgkins.
David Hodgkins and Daniel Pinkham worked together as faculty at the New England Conservatory. When the acclaimed conductor Lorna Cooke deVaron, one of Hodgkins’ mentors, retired from NEC, Pinkham wrote a piece for her retirement party that Hodgkins conducted. After programming Pinkham’s Fanfares in 1995, Hodgkins remembers approaching the composer about writing a work specifically for Coro Allegro with the same forces as Haydn’s Nelson Mass

“We met at Joyce Chen restaurant and talked about the commission for 10-15 minutes and then about the world for two hours. Pinkham picked the text. He was looking for something that was unique and also in the public domain. Christopher Smart [the 18th-century English neurodivergent poet] was brilliant and he was drawn to the idea of setting his colorful imagery, but beyond that, he saw in Smart’s poetry a metaphor for being gay in a straight world.”

As Hodgkins describes, “The White Raven opens with this huge dramatic declamation, 'For I have seen the White Raven,' combined with much more introverted reflection: '...and am myself, a greater curiosity.'” The harmonic openness of orchestral postlude that follows, with its muted trumpet and pizzicato strings, creates a space to ponder and reflect on that observation. That soaring pride in being unique, being out, combined with an awareness of the complex experience of existing outside of norms feels so fitting for an LGBTQ+ chorus.  
The program closes with Joseph Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Mass for troubled times or “Nelson Mass”), pairing its forces and vocal fireworks once more with those of The White Raven as Daniel Pinkham originally intended. In between Coro Allegro presents Many Mansions by Dr. Diane White-Clayton, a work we were honored to premiere with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, who commissioned it, last summer on the Esplanade, now in a newly reorchestrated version for the same forces. White-Clayton’s work reimagines Dr. Roland Carter’s famous arrangement of the spiritual, In Bright Mansions, for today’s troubled times, with George Floyd and the losses of the Covid-19 pandemic in mind. Per Hodgkins:

“The whole program is a perfect example of what has made Coro Allegro unique over the past 30 years. We have introduced audiences to contemporary music, gay composers, women and other gender minorities, composers of color, and geared our repertoire towards compelling contemporary issues. We are also known for our interpretations of Mozart and Haydn. All three pieces talk about overcoming struggles and give a sense of hope and even triumph in the end.”  

Performing these three works together today, of inspiring music for troubled times, is a wonderful way to celebrate David Hodgkin’s 30th Anniversary with Coro Allegro. Thank you for joining us.
The White Raven by Daniel Pinkham
Jubilate Agno, the poem from which Daniel Pinkham selected the majority of the text for The White Raven, was written by English poet, scholar and philosopher Christopher Smart (1722-1771) while he was confined to a series of mental asylums between 1756 and 1763.
Smart’s renowned scholarship notwithstanding, socially, he was a strong-drinking prodigal dandy, good humored cross-dresser and habitual debtor. It was around his 29th year that mounting pressures from his debts coupled with his growing religious mania led to the compromise of his mental health. Smart became known for flights of pontifical ranting and for stopping strangers and acquaintances alike in public assembly, urging them to kneel and pray for him. These outbursts increased in frequency and intensity, ultimately resulting in Smart’s institutionalization to St. Luke's Hospital in 1756, at the age of 34. He was moved from one asylum to the next for the following seven years. It was over the course of these seven years that Smart penned Jubilate Agno.

Dismissed outright from consideration as a deliberate work of poetry, Jubilate Agno appeared to be the desperate contemplations of a man condemned to madness and solitude. With only three exceptions, each page of his manuscript was comprised either entirely of verses beginning with “Let” or verses beginning with “For.” The style and content of the piece served only to baffle and sadden Smart’s contemporaries and critics. The work went unpublished for 180 years.
In 1939, the 32 surviving pages of the manuscript were printed and released to the public exactly as Smart had offered them in 1763. The disturbing composition of the poem, along with its apparently random sequence of declarations and observations corroborated the lingering opinion that Smart was not in his right mind during its authorship. It was not until 1954 that Harvard's Houghton Library Curator of Manuscripts William H. Bond, republished Jubilate Agno, casting a new light on the work.

Bond found that “each of the ‘Let’ verses had a matching ‘For’ verse, and that the whole was conceived responsorially, as with Hebrew poetry. By carefully piecing the sheets together and following the dates and catchwords on them, he was able to reconstruct the still incomplete poem as it was meant to be read.” The poem was suddenly transformed in the public eye from the addled musings of a madman to the significant ecstatic revelations of a tortured visionary.

In The White Raven, Pinkham carefully chooses passages from Jubilate Agno that highlight Smart’s heartfelt experience of God and nature. Immediately in the first movement, we hear Smart identify himself as a beautiful conundrum. He has seen “the White Raven,” and finds himself “a greater curiosity.” Contextually, this verse follows Smart’s declaration that, “For I have adventured myself in the name of the Lord, and he hath mark’d me for his own.” Smart sees his plight as a divine trial and finds himself mysteriously sustained by the knowledge that his infinitely unique life is God’s plan.

With Water, Smart uses the physical properties of moisture and precipitation both to celebrate perfect celestial design as well as to paint a picture of the spiritual life of man. Smart offers that water and, by metaphor, the human spirit, are both gifts from the heavens; ever purified by the Earth; ever working to ascend and reunite with the source from which they came.
Pinkham’s third movement of The White Raven, Air, opens with what is perhaps his sweetest lament. “For the Air is contaminated by curses and evil language.” Not content to remain mired in the unfortunate, Smart and Pinkham suggest anodyne in the form of open prayer. The two creative forces behind The White Raven, separated by 230 years, assert that prayer, when spoken aloud and with full commitment, can heal the physical body, the soul and the world at once.
In Fishes, Smart bestows joy to a wide array of biblical characters, coupling them with creatures of the sea. Not to be lost is the significance of the ancient identification of fish as Christian souls. More significant, perhaps, is Smart’s feeling that his confinement was his own Christian trial. Pinkham resolves the movement by repeating Smart’s final sentiment on the matter: “it is good to be at peace.”  One cannot help but hear in Pinkham’s setting the comfort Smart offers himself in his solitude.
The text for Hosannah!, the fifth and final movement of The White Raven, comes not from Jubilate Agno, but from Smart’s poetic translation of Psalm 150. Smart and Pinkham resolve the curious White Raven with pomp and revelry, calling on musical instruments and voices to send praise to the Creator. In this, Smart and Pinkham saw eye to eye. “For all whispers and unmusical sounds in general are of the Adversary.”
—Mehran Khaghani

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Many Mansions by Diane White-Clayton
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you (Gospel of John (14:2), King James Version)
Negro Spirituals are sacred folk songs birthed on American soil by people of African descent amidst the horrors of the institution of slavery. These beloved songs I heard from my youth not only as folk songs but as classically-arranged vocal works by great African-American composers on whose shoulders I stand.
One such composer whom I greatly admire and adore, is Dr. Roland Carter (b. 1942). When Maestro Christopher Wilkins approached me with the daunting task of creating a new work based on Carter’s iconic arrangement of In Bright Mansions, I knew I was treading on sacred ground.
Dr. Carter enlightened me on the classic arrangements that influenced his: from the 1874 First Edition of the Hampton Collection of Spirituals, which he remembered singing as a college student at Hampton, to a similar Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) version, to the Leonard De Paur (1914-1998) arrangement sung by the famed Hall Johnson choir in the 1936 movie, The Green Pastures.
My goal was not to “re-arrange” or to improvise on Dr. Carter’s arrangement. Instead, I analyzed his version, digging deep into its fabric. I extracted themes and harmonies, his insertion of Jesus’ words from the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, and even certain elements of the aforementioned arrangements. Seeking to build upon the strong foundation my elder composers laid, I used this source material to create a new work.
Having begun the research in 2019, I started writing more intensely at the beginning of 2020. Then, the pandemic hit. And two months later, George Floyd was murdered before our eyes. All of a sudden, this folk song that cried, “Lord, I want to live up yonder in bright mansions above,” and “My mother’s gone to glory; I want to go there too,” took on an entirely different meaning. It was palpable. Death overwhelmed us all. The trauma, the loss, the pain. The anger, the confusion, the despair.  And it wouldn’t cease. At one point in the piece, I abbreviated the lyric to say only, “I want to live!” I imagined George Floyd whispering those words as his life ebbed away.
I wrote for America. I wrote for those who lost family members, wanting us to use this piece to mourn together. I used the spiritual’s verses, “My mother’s gone to glory…my father… my brother… my sister…” But I added a verse not found in the original, “My child has gone to glory, I want to go there,” having heard the pain of a mother who lost her baby to Covid. At times, I would sit at the piano sobbing in the midst of composing. Yet, it helped to save me. It gave me hope…creating beauty out of sorrow. Remembering death is not the end.

—Dr. Diane White-Clayton
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Missa in Angustiis (Mass for troubled times or “Nelson Mass”) by Joseph Haydn
Haydn wrote a total of 12 masses: six early masses, written between 1749 and 1782, and six late masses, written from 1796 to 1802. The early masses are pleasant, not too complicated, employ small orchestrations, and last roughly 20 minutes. The late masses are conceived on a much grander scale, with a larger orchestra and more mature writing. The 14-year hiatus between Haydn’s early and late masses owed to decrees from church officials in the 1780s that forbade elaborate orchestral music in favor of a more solemn service.

Two events occurred in the interim years that directly affected Haydn’s style of composition. The first was the death of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy in 1790. His successor Prince Anton did not share his father’s passion for music. Haydn was retained as Kapellmeister with the same pay, but with far less responsibility. This freed Haydn from his isolated residency at Esterházy, allowing him to move on to the much more culturally stimulating Vienna. Second, Haydn made two visits to London in the early 1790’s. During the first visit, he attended the great Handel Commemoration of 1791, where he heard Messiah and Israel in Egypt. The experience would have a profound influence on his later choral works, namely the six late masses, and his oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.
Under Prince Anton’s successor Prince Nikolaus II, who partially restored the music programs at Esterházy, Haydn’s main duty as Kapellmeister was to compose a new mass every summer to celebrate the name day of Princess Marie Hermenegild. During July and August of 1798, Haydn penned his Missa in Angustiis, more commonly known as the “Nelson Mass.”
Missa in Angustiis (Hob. XXII/11), which can be translated as “Mass for troubled times,” was composed two years after the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War). Europe at the time was in turmoil. Austria was fighting the French on two fronts, in the west and from the south in Italy, where a menacing new military and political leader, Napoleon, had beaten the Austrian armies four times running and threatened Vienna itself.
The origins of the nickname “Nelson Mass” may lie in the coincidence that Haydn was writing it in the months that Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson won a decisive victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile. In fact, Haydn and his audience may have first heard the good news of that victory on the very date of the work’s premiere. Two years later, Lord Nelson himself visited Eisenstadt Castle and he may have heard the “Nelson Mass” performed. Whether or not that was actually the case, the association of Nelson and the Missa in Angustiis would stick.
Due to the ominous political and financial climate of 1789, Nikolaus II had dismissed the Feldharmonie, or wind band, favored by his father, leaving Haydn with added challenge of writing for a “dark” orchestra composed only of strings, trumpets, timpani, and organ. The military overtones and note of anxiety can be heard from the trumpet calls, kettle drums and choral entrances of the opening minor Kyrie, which punctuate the yearning virtuosic solo lines of Christe. The Gloria opens in D major, whose exuberance is destabilized by hints of other keys. The resulting contrasts and fluctuation lend striking expressive tension to Haydn’s text setting. In the Credo, Haydn employs the unusual technique of a canon between the soprano/tenor and the alto/bass lines. This technical masterwork is followed by an “Et incarnatus” of moving humanity and a glorious “Et resurrexit” in which Haydn manages to do extraordinarily vivid things with the dry word “Et” (and). The sublime tensions of the Sanctus give way to dancing exaltations. The Benedictus is particularly noteworthy for the martial effect of the writing, reinforced by the addition of trumpets and timpani, an unexpected setting of the text “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Haydn’s Agnus Dei ends with a resounding and joyous fugue on the text “Dona nobis pacem,” (grant us peace), offering a promise of hope that nevertheless persisted even in troubled times.

Program notes © Yoshi Campbell, Executive Director, and David Hodgkins, Artistic Director, with gratitude to Mehran Khaghani for his notes on Pinkham’s The White Raven and Dr. Diane White-Clayton for her composer notes on Many Mansions.