Notes on the Program
by Malcolm J. Merriweather
On the eve of a presidential election, We Remember honors two outstanding stewards of humanity: President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Settings of ancient hymns, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, contemporary poet Jamie McKenzie, as well as Mozart’s treatment of the missa defunctorum, converge to commemorate the glorious contributions of these two men to the United States of America—and the poignancy of their deaths.
Take Him, Earth was commissioned for the national conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Dallas, Texas, in 2013. The work honors President John F. Kennedy and commemorates the 50th anniversary of his tragic assassination. Composer Steven Stucky describes how he found texts for this tribute:
…I assembled a group of texts that are associated with him in some way, but that also stand alone as a more general eulogy. As a refrain, there are a few lines from the early Christian burial hymn that begins ‘Take him, Earth, for cherishing’—lines that were earlier set to music by Herbert Howells in his classic motet commissioned for Kennedy’s memorial service in 1963. The lines of Aeschylus “Drop, drop — in our sleep, upon the heart sorrow falls” from Agamemnon were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy upon the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968. The celebrated “When he shall die, cut him out in little stars” from Act III of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was cited by RFK a few months after his brother’s murder.
Stucky, who succumbed to brain cancer on February 14, 2016, links each text with instrumental interludes and illumines their meaning through passion-filled bitonality. Canons, ostinati, and the ceremonial bugle of the French horn combine with the choral texture to reflect on the grim fate of JFK. We remember President Kennedy.
Stucky’s a cappella piece, “Whispers” incorporates fragments of William Byrd’s motet, “Ave verum corpus,” amidst his own setting of Whitman’s poem “Whispers of Heavenly Death” (1886).
David Hurd’s In Honor of Martin was commissioned by Rejoicensemble and dedicated to Carl MaultsBy in 2005. Originally conceived as a work for a quintet of soloists, piano, string bass, and percussion, the five-movement work received its choral premiere last March with the West Village Chorale. This evening we present the premiere of the orchestrated version.
Through music, In Honor of Martin synthesizes King’s great dream of black and white, Jew and Gentile joining hands. The opening and closing texts are drawn from the Book of Wisdom, and the remaining texts crafted from Jamie McKenzie’s commemorative poem “Standing Tall.” Idiomatically, the piece combines elements of jazz, graceful melodic figures, and a thought-provoking approach to form. The first movement delivers the Biblical text from the Book of Wisdom as a gentle prelude to the tumultuous content of the second movement, in which raucous passages like “When the driver told Rosa / ‘Move to the back of the bus!’” are set to parallel quartal harmonies that embody the tension that led to civil disobedience during the civil rights movement. Disorder and violence are portrayed in the third movement by a jarring 5/4 meter, with the piano incessantly emphasizing beats one, three, and five. The pillar of the fourth movement is an eight-bar ground bass that supports three vocal motifs. Each motif is woven in canon until the unaccompanied choir announces “. . .Until Standing on the mountain top / They shot him / Coldly.” The ground bass resumes, and the choir laments the death of a martyr. Alluding to musical material used in the second movement, the final movement is an epitaph that proudly proclaims, “this King / even in death / even today / stands strong stands proud / stands tall / And we remember.” We remember Dr. King.
Mozart’s Requiem is one of the most beloved pieces of the symphonic choral repertoire. We remember Mozart, who met his demise while composing this great masterwork. We perform a version by Franz Beyer that retains the architecture of the well-known version by Franz Xaver Süßmayr but revises aspects of the vocal parts and orchestration long considered the awkward writing mistakes of the inexperienced, then 25-year-old Süßmayr. The Dessoff Choirs last performed the Requiem days after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, under the baton of Kent Tritle, Dessoff’s sixth music director. The grandeur of the Requiem provides a fitting close to this evening, as we not only remember JFK and MLK, but the people close to our hearts who have passed before us. We Remember.
© Malcolm J. Merriweather, 2016