Sunday - November 15, 1998 - 3:00 pm
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
Celebrating Two Centennials
with orchestra and soloists
for the November 15,1998 Concert
by Donald Draganski
It is quite fashionable these days to establish Connections (with a capital C), to see if one can tie together all sorts of disparate elements in a single neat package. I must confess that as program annotator, I am probably as guilty as anyone for making a few stretchers in my time.
However, no such far-fetched efforts need be fabricated with today's subject, Ernst Bacon. For starters, he was born in Chicago 1898. His father was Dr. Charles Sumner Bacon, a prominent physician who maintained his practice here in Chicago; his mother, a musician, came originally from Austria and was Ernst's first music teacher.
The most notable connection that strikes closest to home is through his sister, Madi Bacon, who was appointed first permanent director of our own North Shore Choral Society at its founding in 1936. She also served as Dean of the music school at the Central YMCA College in Chicago, continuing in that capacity at Roosevelt College (later University) until 1946. (By way of completing the family dossier, I should mention that an older brother, Alfons, followed in his father's footsteps as a physician, and another brother, Charles, was a professional geologist.)
Ernst Bacon began his academic studies locally, at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, later moving to the west coast where he received his MA degree at the University of California. Among his teachers was the composer Ernest Bloch. Over the years he had assumed many musical personae : as composer; as conductor (Rochester NY Opera Company; Carmel Bach Festival in California; WPA Federal Music Project Orchestra in San Francisco); as teacher (Eastman School; San Francisco Conservatory); as author of three books; and as administrator (Dean, at both Converse College in North Carolina, and Syracuse University in New York). Ernst Bacon died in 1990, in his ninety-second year.
His compositions include two symphonies (the first winning the Pulitzer prize in 1932), three full-length operas, and several large-scale orchestral and choral works. However he is probably best known for his impressive output of over 250 songs which enjoy a respected place in the body of American art-song literature.
One could fill a whole page of accolades from performers and critics who have sung the praises of Bacon's music over the years. Let me confine myself to the following comments that Virgil Thomson wrote in 1946 in response to a Times Hall recital of Bacon's vocal music:
Mr. Bacon is a very good composer indeed, one of America's best. ... [He] has a modern musician's knowledge of American speech cadences. Few living composers prosodize to music so accurately. ... Mr. Bacon's work is remarkable pure in its expressive intent. It communicates its meaning with a straightforward and touching humanity. ... It is full of melody and variety. It is honest and skillful and beautiful.
The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes (from the Greek meaning a Preacher, one who convokes or addresses an assembly) continues the moral dilemma posed by the earlier Book of Job: why do the righteous so often suffer while the evil man thrives? The writer of Ecclesiastes, probably an elderly man who, though wealthy, suffered from both private and public disappointments, takes a quite pessimistic view by stating quite categorically that neither prosperity nor misfortune have anything to do with virtue or vice. It is difficult to determine how skeptical the writer was, but his resignation to a capricious fate comes closer to Greek stoicism than to the Semitic belief in a personal God. (Will Durant points out that the Psalmist's repetition "The fool says there is no God" indicates that such fools were sufficiently numerous to create some stir in ancient Israel.) At the close of the book (12:10), a pupil praises the writer's honesty and candor by saying "The Preacher tried to find pleasing words, but honesty required him to set down the truth unalloyed, like sharp nails that goad."
Bacon's setting is cast in four large parts, further divided into fourteen shorter sections. The texts of Part I are taken exclusively from the opening chapter of the Book, a passage of unrelieved bleakness. Part II includes an account of the writer's hard work and accomplishments -- "I built houses, I planted trees, I gathered wealth," etc. -- ending with the sour comment that "I considered the oppressions and the tears of the oppressed." Part III, which also includes a setting of verses from chapter 30 of the Book of Proverbs, continues these dark ruminations. Part IV concludes with verses that remind us that all is vanity and all shall return to God in a great unending cycle: "All the rivers run to the sea ... thither they return again."
It is always a risky business to speculate on what external circumstances might have prompted a creative artist to write as he does, but we wouldn't be too far off the mark by recalling that this work was written during the depth of the great Depression of the 'thirties, and that a good deal of the collective despair and discouragement that marked those dark days may have gone into the making of this sombre work.
Bacon's Ecclesiastes -- an earlier draft bore the title Song of the Preacher -- is scored for a full symphony orchestra and chorus, with a soprano and bass soloist. It was first performed in 1936 by the San Francisco Municipal Chorus, under the direction of Hans Leschke.
The choral music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) has only recently begun to share the recognition that his instrumental works and solo songs have always enjoyed with the listening public. As a young man Poulenc participated very much part in Parisian theater life as he established his early reputation as a composer of ballets and incidental music. The death of a close friend in an auto accident in 1935 deeply shocked him and was instrumental in restoring him to his family's Catholic faith; all of his religious compositions date from this spiritual watershed in his life.
The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress and had its premiere in Boston in 1961, just two years before the composer's death. The listener who associates sacred music with solemnity may be momentarily taken aback by sections of Poulenc's Gloria, particularly the lighthearted second and fourth movements. Poulenc himself commented: The second movement caused a scandal. I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day." This revealing statement says much about Poulenc's multi-faceted musical personality, for many of his works include passages of high lyrical and emotional intensity standing cheek-by-jowl with sections of playful caprice. It also confirms Poulenc's own religious conviction. "I have the faith of a country pastor," he said; indeed, a work such as his Gloria demonstrates a joyous faith totally lacking in ostentation.
The North Shore Choral Society last performed Poulenc's complete Gloria in November of 1987; more recently, the Society performed the "Laudamus Te" movement in February of 1992.
Copyright © 1998 by Donald Draganski