The Hour Glass (1949)
Irving Fine Irving
Fine spent his career in prestigious music schools (Harvard, Brandeis) around his native Boston, devoting the bulk of his time to musical activities outside of composing: teaching, conducting, and administering. He didn’t write a lot (no surprise with a schedule like that) but fortunately for choristers, the biggest portion of his catalog is for mixed voices.
The Hour Glass is dedicated to the New England Conservatory Chorus and is an example of Fine’s lyrical style before he began 12-tone experiments in the 1950’s. Even though it was written for a student choir, it is virtuosic music. "O know to end" is as rhythmically brilliant and difficult as a choir ever hopes (or fears!) to see. By contrast, the next number, "Have you seen" is all willowy melodies and burnished harmonies that delight both the ear and voice. Vigorous rhythm and lovely tunes are also the brick and mortar of the next movements. The cycle ends with "The Hour-Glass," a reflection on the transience of life and love, and here Fine loosens up the structure so that poignant harmonies shift like sands in the glass.
Tom o’Bedlam (1950–1951)
The hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem located just outside London’s walls was founded in the fourteenth century as a priory, but a decree from Henry VIII in 1547 changed it into England’s first asylum for the insane. By the seventeenth century, its name had evolved to Bedlam and it was infamous for the cruelty meted out to its inmates and for selling tickets to gawkers. Jacob Avshalomov writes in the title page of this score: "Mad Tom—with feathers and ribbons in his hat, his hair long, his clothes rags, the mark of the Bedlamite branded upon him—was one of the many who were let out of the overcrowded asylum to roam the country as licensed beggars. Singly or in groups, some still shackled, they traveled from village to village singing, sobbing, and dancing for their supper, heralding their approach with the sound of the ox-horn strung around Tom’s neck."
Perhaps Avshalomov was attracted to this text because of his own less-thanglamorous experiences growing up. He was born in China of an American mother and Russian father, and in his late teens the family was so broke that Avshalomov had to work in a Shanghai slaughterhouse to make ends meet. He eventually found his way to the States where success struck: teaching positions at Columbia, Guggenheim fellowships, and appointment in 1954 to the post of the Portland (Oregon) Junior Symphony’s permanent conductor—one year after winning the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award with Tom o’Bedlam.
In 1938 the director of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, Randall Thompson, invited 28-year-old Samuel Barber back to his alma mater to found and conduct a chamber choir. Every Monday afternoon for the next three years, Barber hopped a train from New York to lead a two-hour rehearsal with his 24-voice madrigal chorus. Tucked in his briefcase was usually a new piece for these lucky singers, most of whom remember him for his beautiful music—not his skill on the podium. (Barber wrote a friend: "At first I came into rehearsal with trembling hands. Until I saw that they were afraid of me and that the accompanist’s hands were trembling. Now I have them in my hands, but in case I beat wrong I’ve learned the gentle arrogance with which to blame it on them. This sounds conceited, but as you see I’m still rather scared of them.") Mixed feelings aside, Barber created an especially rich group of works for his singers, including Reincarnations.
These three texts are Irish poet James Stephen’s re-writing, or reincarnating, of old Gaelic poems which in turn bring to life three memorable characters. The first is about Mary Hynes, whose loveliness was the subject of dozens of poems, most written generations after her death. Barber’s setting begins whitehot, but grows more tranquil and rapturous.
Anthony O Daly, another real-life character, was convicted of leading an Irish peasant uprising in 1820 and hanged. This lament for his passing is the most intricately designed of the Reincarnations as well as the most gripping. The basses repeat the man’s name and support a wrenching three-part canon above. Just as in Barber’s popular Adagio for Strings, the music mixes grief and consolation on its way to a searing climax. James Stephens described the word coolin: "a little, very special curl that used to grow exactly in the middle of the back of the neck of a girl. That term, ‘little curl,’ or ‘coolin,’ came to mean one’s sweetheart." Barber’s setting needs no introduction: this is music to revel in.
Spherical Madrigals (1947)
Ross Lee Finney
Finney was born in Wells, Minnesota, north of I-90 between Albert Lea and Blue Earth. As a young man he studied at the University of Minnesota, then in the 1920s set sail for Paris as nearly every American composer did to study with Nadia Boulanger. He returned to the States and became a formidable composition teacher in his own right, first at Smith College (1929–49), then at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1949–73), and he also served in WWII, earning himself a Purple Heart after stepping on a German mine. As a composer, Finney was famous for experimentation. He tried every technique from straight-ahead melody to the most ear-scratching atonality, and developed a particular affection in the 1960s for emerging electronic instruments. Finney’s Spherical Madrigals takes its name from the circles, orbs, balls, and globes mentioned in the seventeenth-century texts he chose to set.
Love is a circle that doth restless move
In the same sweet eternity of Love.
Robert Herrick (1571–1674)
Psalm 90 (1923–1924)
Several years ago the New York Times asked a dozen musicians to name the most under-rated and over-rated of the great composers. One man, Charles Ives, won each category. For critics, Ives was a hack, a tinkerer of annoying sounds that simply don’t add up to good music. For fans, Ives was the quintessential crusty New Englander, an American Original who stripped away veneers of nineteenth-century European romanticism and demanded (as he once said) "you stand up and use your ears like a man!" It took Ives thirty years to complete his setting of Psalm 90. Gregg Smith, who edited the score, says the text moved Ives "very deeply, and each time he went back to it he would have set himself a still higher goal. In the end, though, Mrs. Ives recalled his saying that it was the only one of his works that he was satisfied with." Ives’ penchant for innovation is everywhere in Psalm 90. At the mid-point he divides the choir into 22 parts and tightly clusters the voices for an elbows-on-thekeyboard effect. Near the end he asks for soft but stubbornly dissonant bells—an echo of the sounds he heard as a boy when the bells of Danbury, Connecticut, called the faithful to worship.
- Brian Newhouse