Friday, September 16, 2016

Two 20th Century Choral Works

No. 230 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Our next few podcasts will explore vocal repertoire, and in particular works for large vocal esnsembles. The two works I chose this week are both from the 20th centiry, and embrace a pair of unique traditions.

I a recent Tuesday Blog, I discussed the annual tradition that is the Last Night of the Proms. This year's edition featured a work that was premiered by the founder of the Proms, SIr Henry Wood. Vaughan Williams wrote Serenade to Music   as a tribute to  Sir Henry to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his first concert.The solo parts were composed specifically for the voices of sixteen eminent British singers chosen by Wood and the composer for the premiere. In some parts of the work, the soloists sing together as a "choir," sometimes in as many as twelve parts; in others, each soloist is allotted a solo (some soloists get multiple solos).

Wood conducted the first performance at his jubilee concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 October 1938. Following Wood's tradition, the 2016 edition featured 16 hand-picked young singers.

The text is an adaptation of the discussion about music and the music of the spheres in Act V, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Vaughan Williams later arranged the piece into versions for chorus and orchestra and solo violin and orchestra.

Where RVW's Serenade is a contemplative ad serene work, the second selection is a rebel rousing choral juggernaut without compare: Carl Orff's scenic cantata Carmina Burana.

The full title of the piece is quite descriptive - Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis ("Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images").

Carmina Burana - as is the case for any work that is sung is a cantata, though we typically reserve the term cantata to imply a specific meaning. In fact, it contrasts somewhat with an oratorio - an oratorio is like an opera, but it's a concert piece, without the acting and such, and its content is often sacred. A cantata is similar to an oratorio, but it is used directly as part of a church service. J.S. Bach wrote both sacred and secular cantatas, and in his use a cantata is merely a short oratorio.

Orff developed a dramatic concept he called "Theatrum Mundi" in which music, movement, and speech were inseparable. No disrespect untended to Papa Bach, Orff's cantata is "on steroids", and is viewed as much as a stage work as it is a piece of choral music.

The work sets 24 poems from the medieval collection (mostly in Latin verse, with a small amount of Middle High German and Old Provençal.) to music, structured into five major sections, containing 25 movements total. Orff indicates attacca markings between all the movements within each scene.

The selection covers a wide range of topics, as familiar in the 13th century as they are today: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.

I think you will love this music too!

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