by Donald Draganski
for the May 19, 2002 Concert of the North Shore Choral Society.
Two widely contrasting American choral pieces, both inspired by paintings depicting Biblical texts, make up today’s concert.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) received his schooling in Boston and in 1922 graduated with an MA from Harvard after private studies with Ernest Bloch. After a three-year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, he returned to accept a teaching position at Wellesley College. He subsequently earned a doctorate in music from the University of Rochester School of Music. Thompson had always felt that both composing and teaching were equally important in his pursuit of music as a vocation. Over the years he had held teaching positions at the University of California, the Curtis Institute of Music, the University of Virginia, Princeton University, and finally, at his alma mater, Harvard, until his retirement.
In 1935 the League of Composers commissioned Thompson to write a choral work for the combined Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society. (It is amusing to note that, many years earlier while an undergraduate at Harvard, he auditioned but was rejected for membership in the Glee Club.) That same summer of 1935 the Worcester Art Museum acquired a American painting by the American primitive artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849), a back-country Quaker preacher who supported himself by painting carriages, shop signs, furniture, and pictures of biblical scenes. His favorite subject – he produced nearly one hundred versions! – was the prophet Isaiah’s description of the lion and lamb lying down together.
On viewing the painting, Thompson decided to cull the Book of Isaiah for a sequence of verses to set for unaccompanied chorus. The piece was completed within a few months and its premiere was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 3, 1936.
The Peaceable Kingdom consists of eight choruses marked by a dramatic intensity that goes considerably beyond Hick’s placid painting. The passages from Isaiah contrast the rewards of the righteous with the punishments in store for the wicked. The double chorus “Howl Ye” leads to the finale in which the righteous are reassured.
No American composer has written for chorus with more ease and effectiveness than Randall Thompson. The North Shore Choral Society has in recent years also performed his Frostiana based on poems of Robert Frost, and his Alleluia.
Dominick Argento was born 1927 in York, Pennsylvania, and received his musical education at both the Peabody Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music. An early interest in the theater eventually led him to found the Minnesota Opera. For many years he held the post of professor of composition at the University of Minnesota. His song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975.
Mr. Argento has supplied the following notes for his work:
On the vaulted ceiling of the church of Härkenberga in Sweden is a painting by Albertus Pictor showing Jonah being thrown into the sea by sailors to calm the storm that threatens to overwhelm their small boat. Jonah’s hands are piously clasped in prayer as he is about to tumble into the jaws of a great fish. A few feet away from him – and simultaneously, it would appear – a completely naked Jonah, hands still clasped in prayer, is being vomited up onto dry land after the three days spent in the belly of the whale, during which time not only his clothes but also his hair and beard have been digested.
What I find so endearing and winning in that painting – and in the stained glass, predellas, manuscript illuminations, and mystery plays of that period – is the nonchalant mixture of realism (the digestive detail, for example), naiveté (the mythological whale, drawn purely from the artist’s imagination), symbolism (the trefoil patterns scattered in the background: stars? Trinity?), and the blithe disregard for time and space (the two Jonahs and two whales, the dry land only inches away from the storm-tossed vessel). This blending of simplicity and sophistication produces, for me, a delightful dynamic often lacking in certain later and more orderly artistic attitudes, although the most potent example of it that I know appears in the classical era, in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
For better or worse, I have tried in my composition to capture some of the spirit of Albertus Pictor’s painting, bringing together disparate elements, idioms and techniques, as a glance at the text will easily reveal. The basic poem, “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale,” from Medieval English of the 14th century, is interspersed with texts drawn from the Vulgate Psalms (4th century), a Protestant Hymnal (17th century), traditional worksongs and sea-shanties (19th century), the King James Bible and several other sources. This frequently creates intentional anachronisms: when the Old Testament King of Nineveh orders his subjects to “pray with all our might,” they comply with a Kyrie Eleison; Jonah, sailing to a biblical port, breaks out in a New England whaling song.
The casual listener will notice that the Whale (the trombone solo in the Intermezzo section) gets the best tune in the work. And this is as it should be since I consider the Whale, not Jonah, to be the hero of the piece – a point, I hope, that the Narrator’s concluding lines, as well as the music, will make clear.
Jonah and the Whale is scored for two soloists, a narrator, chorus, and a small instrumental ensemble comprising nine players. The North Shore Choral Society last performed it in February, 1987.
Copyright © 2002 by Donald Draganski