The Music, by Dominic Argento
In the summer of 2005, my wife, Carolyn, was hospitalized with an undiagnosed neurological ailment. After several months in an intensive care unit, she spent the following six months in a Bethesda Rehabilitation Center in Minnesota. During this period, I was contacted by Reilly Lewis, who wished to commission a work to commemorate Washington National Cathedral’s 100th anniversary. Highly flattered, I nevertheless replied that I intended to spend every day at my wife’s bedside until she recovered, and thus had neither will nor energy to compose music. Persistence by Dr. Lewis and others did not change my mind.
What did change it was Carolyn herself. When she was a young child, her father had taken her to visit the Cathedral, an experience she had never forgotten. Largely because of this wonderful memory, she wanted me to accept the commission. I told her that I would consider the commission after she recovered and was back home. She never recovered.
After her death in February 2006, Dr. Lewis renewed his request. I told him that I probably would never compose again, least of all a celebratory kind of work that the Cathedral’s 100th anniversary seemed to call for. He astutely turned the tables on me: What about a work honoring your late wife? I concluded it would have pleased Carolyn to know that I had accepted the commission.
On the 180 consecutive mornings I walked into the Rehabilitation Center, the name Bethesda above the entrance brought to mind the passage in John 5 which speaks of the angel that troubled the water and the sense of hope it quickened in the afflicted who surrounded the pool waiting—like me—for a miracle of healing. Angels were Carolyn’s favorite icon, and she collected them wherever we traveled. Throughout her illness, I kept remembering that angel and hoping for a miracle. When I felt I was ready to write Evensong, I wanted it to be, as the title says, Of Love and Angels.
Normally, a choral Evening Prayer service is a hodgepodge of musical pieces— some old, some new, nothing standard except the traditional order or sequence of its parts. I wished to compose an evening service unified from beginning to end with recurring themes and motives. This even entailed writing the texts of the nonliturgical pieces (Sermon and Anthem) and altering the Phos Hilaron and Prayer texts. The first three notes heard are C, B, and A (Carolyn Bailey Argento).
The final three chords concluding the piece fifty minutes later are also based on those letters. These and other variants of them are used throughout the work although not always in recognizable forms.
The Composer: Dominick Argento
One of America’s leading composers and librettists, Dominick Argento has been hailed as the most eminent creator of lyric opera in the United States. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for the song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf commissioned by the Schubert Club of St. Paul. In 2004, he received a GRAMMY® award for best classical contemporary composition for Casa Guidi, five songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, recorded by Frederica von Stade and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Argento earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Peabody. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Alan Hovhaness and Bernard Rogers. After a year in Florence, where he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola on a Guggenheim Fellowship, Argento accepted on three days’ notice what he expected to be a temporary post teaching music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota. During his four-decade tenure there, he was named Regents’ Professor, the university’s highest honor.
Over forty years, in which he has written more than sixty works, he has been commissioned by nearly every arts organization in Minnesota, most notably the Plymouth Music Series (now VocalEssence) founded by his former student Philip Brunelle.
Evensong: Of Love and Angels is a crypto-memorial to his beloved Carolyn. He began work on September 6, 2006, their wedding anniversary; he put on the finishing touches exactly one year later. “I suppose it was inevitable I would get back, even after vowing not to write anymore,” he said. “It fulfills something in me.”
C-B-A: Remembering CAROLYN BAILEY ARGENTO (1930-2006)
For fifty-one years, Carolyn Bailey Argento was her husband’s most influential adviser and critic. She studied voice at Peabody, where she was the youngest student ever to receive a personal scholarship. There she met and married fellow student Dominick Argento. In 1958, they moved to Minneapolis, where he taught at the University of Minnesota.
“When I would go off to the university,” Argento recalls, “Carolyn would practice in the studio and my notes were on the piano there. When I’d come back in the evening, on the margins of all these pages would be: “Too high,” “Where does she breathe?” “How many times are you going to ask for that note?” And I would ask, “Was anybody in my studio today?” “No,” she’d say.
“In a way, that’s how I learned to write vocal music. I never intended to write for voice. I started out to be what I thought would be an instrumental composer. And she made a vocal composer, an operatic composer out of me.”
Carolyn premiered many works by her husband before retiring in the 1970’s. She died after a long struggle with an
indeterminate neurological illness.
I | Threnody
II | Preces: Phos Hilaron
An Angel (solo treble)
The Afflicted (mixed chorus)
As the first candle is lighted:
AN ANGEL Hail Gracious Light, pure brightness everlasting!
THE AFFLICTED: Come, long-awaited Light! Most holy, most blessed!
As the second candle is lighted:
AN ANGEL Now as we come to the setting of the sun.
THE AFFLICTED: Now as our eyes behold the vesper light.
As the third candle is lighted:
AN ANGEL It is meet to sing your praises,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
THE AFFLICTED: Ever worthy to be glorified,
throughout all the worlds.
As the fourth candle is lighted:
AN ANGEL O, Giver of Life!
THE AFFLICTED: Come now, long-awaited Love! Come, heal us, renew us,
let Thine living waters cleanse us and wash away our sins
that we may dwell with Thee in Thy glory forever.
As the fifth candle is lighted:
AN ANGEL Light of the World!
THE AFFLICTED: Let Thine everlasting Light shine upon us.
As the sixth candle is lighted:
AN ANGEL As it was in the beginning,
THE AFFLICTED: Is now, and ever shall be. Amen. —Book of Common Prayer, 1979
III | Psalm 102
Chorus a cappella
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.
Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble;
Incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily.
For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin, O Lord!
I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.
I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.
For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.
My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass. —Psalm 102: 1-7, 9, 11, KJV
IV | The Lesson
Now there is at Jerusalem a pool which is called Bethesda. Around it lay a multitude of invalids,
blind, lame, malformed, waiting for the moving of the water: For an angel went down at a certain season
into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in
was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. —John 5:2-4, KJV
V | Sermon
Homilist (solo soprano)
Picture that Angel – the Angel That Troubled the Water. His head enclosed in a shining halo made of gold as bright as the sun, and the wings dark red and blue, edged with rose.
In the early Renaissance a humble friar painted scores of angel-musicians playing strange-looking instruments in praise of God. But the Angel John speaks of had a special mission, a special music and his instrument was Divine Love. With his sacred fingers and sacred breath he stirred up the pool, he troubled the water and miracles of healing were performed.
Today the pool of Bethesda is a relic, without so much as a drop of water to be troubled. Still, its parched and dusty ruins have something to teach us. They teach us to pray that an Angel will stir up our hearts, will trouble our souls and move us to comfort the afflicted; to offer them our steadfast hope and understanding, our unflagging sympathy and solace, and most of all, never-ending love, our eternal love. We, of course, cannot perform miracles of healing, but we can assuage their pain and suffering – perhaps we may even palliate their fear of dying – by showing how boundless is their significance to us, letting them know that we will always love and remember them. Remember them forevermore.
Can we not do more than that?
Can we not do more than that? Perhaps not, for we are not Angels; we are mere mortals. In time we too must die, and with us all the cherished thoughts of those whom we have loved also die. We too survive but a while in the thoughts of those who loved us. Yet the love will have been enough. What a gift from Him whose love for us is neither brief nor fragile.
Love is not consolation. It is light. And what more precious gift than that can we bring to those afraid to face the darkness? Or to those already standing in the shadows, longing for light? The light of love.
Yes, we are mere mortals and the gift of love comes at the cost of everything we are, and all that we will ever be. Giving it is the greatest blessing within our power. To give it is to be – for a little while at least – among the Angels.
VI | Meditation
VII | Canticle: Nunc Dimittis
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, [Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace]
secundum verbum tuum in pace [according to thy word.]
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum. [For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,]
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum: [Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;]Lumen ad revelationem gentium, [To be a light to lighten the Gentiles :]
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. [and to be the glory of thy people Israel.]
—Latin text: Luke 2:29-32, Latin Vulgate Bible; English version: Book of Common Prayer, 1979
VIII | Prayer/Lullaby
The Angel (solo treble)
Keep watch this night, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary, bless the dying,
soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous and wash away our sins
that we may dwell with thee in thy glory forever;
and all for your love’s sake we pray. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer, 1979
IX | Anthem
Like sleepers, we drift down Night’s cold corridors,
Unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling.
Then, in the distance, a ray of light
Appears, growing into a brightness
As white as an angel’s wings.
And in its celestial glow
Our lives are forever altered.
This radiance is love
And in our illuminated souls
A new knowledge is formed.
Fantastic landscapes appear;
Choirs of Cherubim intone
A music never heard before;
While compassion unveils a world
Of warmth, kindness, unselfishness, and care.
Love is not consolation. It is light.
It is a light acquired by patience and pain,
Doubt and understanding, sorrow and forgiveness.
Encircled by torch-bearing angels
Banishing the dark.
We are transformed,
Transformed and Enlightened by these blessed guides of love.
Love is light.
Text and alteration of the liturgical texts by the composer