Archive for September, 2016
Fifty years ago, I first heard a recording of the Serenade For Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op. 31 (1943), by the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). It began a love affair with the piece, which bore fruit this summer in an arrangement of one of its melodies for the Compline Service at St. Mark’s Cathedral.
My most memorable hearing of the Serenade was in the spring of 1977 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in London’s South Bank Centre, in a Britten tribute concert. The tenor soloist was Peter Pears (1910-1986), Britten’s lifelong companion, and it was his first concert appearance since Britten’s death the previous December; when he walked on the stage, the audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. I will never forget how clear his voice was, even in his late 60s – every word distinguishable to me in my cheap balcony seat. It was always a dream of mine to sing the piece, and I eventually performed it in a house concert in the early 1990s, with horn and piano.
The Serenade is a cycle of six songs with a prelude / postlude played by solo horn using its natural harmonics. As stated in an article on the piece, the songs are “a selection of six poems by British poets on the subject of night, including both its calm and its sinister aspects.” With my love of Compline and its “end of the day” aesthetic, it is no wonder that this cycle became one of my favorites. In particular, the melody of the first song, “Pastoral,” captivated me. Listen to this recording from 1946, performed by Pears and horn player Dennis Brain, who inspired Britten to write the cycle:
The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.
The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.
A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.
And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.
One day it occurred to me that the stanza structure of the “Pastoral” was the same as the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum, or “Before the ending of the day.” Also, the beginning melody of the song was in the Phrygian Mode (think of a scale from E to octave E on the piano), as are many of the chants that we sing at Compline. So when I was asked to direct the Compline Service on July 24, 2016, I decided to do an arrangement of the Compline Hymn based on the Britten melody. The first verse is in unison, the second in three parts, and the third in four parts:
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
that with thy wonted favour thou
wouldst be our guard and keeper now.
From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
from nightly fears and fantasies;
tread under foot our ghostly foe,
that no pollution we may know.
O Father, that we ask be done,
through Jesus Christ thine only Son,
who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
doth live and reign eternally. Amen.
As summer comes to an end, I’m writing a series of posts about some of the wonderful music sung at Compline over the past couple of months.
One of these memorable moments came on Sunday, July 10, 2016. It was the end of another difficult news week, with the killings of African-Americans in Minnesota and Louisiana, and the murder of five Dallas police officers. We entered into the Compline Service in a somber mood, and I was particularly moved by the simple recitation of Psalm 25 in plainchant – it seemed very calming and centering (here’s a link to the whole podcast).
Jason Anderson, director of the choir, had very astutely replaced the scheduled anthem with The Road Home, by American composer Stephen Paulus (1949-2014). Stephen had been commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers to write an arrangement of an American folk melody, and he chose the tune “The lone wild bird” from the collection Southern Harmony (1835), with new words by Michael Dennis Browne. Here is a link to more information about the piece.
Like the psalm, the words were very grounding and calming for me, focusing me on my spiritual home – calm in the storms of life that assault us daily. We need this calm center, but “not,” as the prayer says, “for solace only, but for strength” as we pursue social justice here at home.
Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh when will I know
There’s a way, there’s a road
That will lead me home?
After wind, after rain,
When the dark is done,
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day,
Through the air there’s a calling
From far away,
There’s a voice I can hear
That will lead me home.
Rise up, follow me,
Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart
As the only song;
There is no such beauty
As where you belong;
Rise up, follow me,
I will lead you home.