(A Suite of Canticles for SSAATTBB choir, a cappella)
Holy Canticles was commissioned by the professional choral ensemble Bel Canto Company, with the assistance of grants from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council. The composition of Holy Canticles was begun in late 1995 and completed in March of 1996 and is warmly dedicated to Bel Canto Company and its then Artistic Director and Conductor, David Pegg.
Each of the piece’s three movements is based on well-known early canticles: 1) Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); 2) Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32); and 3) Te Deum laudamus (Anonymous). Optional opening and closing processionals are provided should the conductor wish to add a spatial dimension to the beginning and ending of the composition.
Musically, each of the movements of Holy Canticles displays antiphonal characteristics, with Magnificat being the most unusual in conception. Throughout this exultant Magnificat, the tenors and basses, singing in Latin the Biblically recorded words said to have been originally sung by Mary on the occasion of her visit to Elisabeth, are consistently answered by the sopranos and altos singing a traditional English translation of the Latin Magnificat text. Although all parts are highly rhythmical, the men’s parts are more chant-like, providing harmonic foundation and are, perhaps, symbolic of a world viewing this private moment of joy celebrating the coming of Christ. The lyrical women’s parts provide the main melodic material of the movement. The use of multiple languages is an attempt to capture the immediate ecstasy and mystery of the moment, while still “translating” its meaning. Only in the Gloria, at the end, do the women share, with the men, the Latin words of the canticle, all the while continuing to provide the English “interpretation.”
Although symbolism of the number 3 plays a role in all three movements, its importance is most obvious in the second movement, Nunc dimittis. Traditionally paired with Magnificat, Nunc dimittis settings are usually the shorter of the two. Here, however, Nunc dimittis is longer than Magnificat by a third. This prayer, said to have been offered by the elderly Simeon as Jesus was presented in the temple at Jerusalem, is serenely set and seeks to capture the beauty and peace of Simeon’s words. As in Magnificat, antiphonal writing is again present and is further enhanced by the placing of a tenor and soprano soloist away from the choir. First, the women of the choir sing Simeon’s entire hymn in conjunction with the antiphonal tenor soloist. Next, the men of the choir sing the entire hymn now punctuated throughout by the antiphonal soprano soloist. The male and female choirs then unite in a third statement of Simeon’s words. At the Gloria, the tenor and soprano soloists return to conclude the movement, here offering antiphonal dialogue with one another as the choir provides a gentle foundation.
Movement 3, Te Deum laudamus, is the longest of the three movements. For double chorus, the singers are divided into two separate SATB antiphonal choirs. Coming from the earliest period of Latin hymnody, the authorship of the Te Deum is unknown, but it is universally recognized as one of the greatest hymns of the Christian church, drawing upon the Apostles’ Creed, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Sanctus and the Psalms. My setting of the Te Deum makes use of a traditional Anglican translation of the text. Musically, I have sought to unify the entire suite by uniting this movement and the other two movements of Holy Canticles through the rhythmical qualities of Magnificat and the gentle, lyrical nature of Nunc dimittis. In Te Deum, the antiphonal and homophonic writing of the early part of the piece eventually evolves into a contrapuntal section for eight-part choir, beginning with the words, “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.” After a climax is reached at the words “We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge,” music, reflective of the first movement returns to unite, as Three in One, Holy Canticles and brings the piece to a serene conclusion.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina