In 1913, English composer Charles Villiers Stanford composed his “Songs of Faith” for the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Yale School of Music’s summer home. Stanford planned to travel to the United States to conduct the piece but canceled his trip after RMS Lusitania’s sinking indicated the danger of Atlantic crossings. As a result, the piece was not performed until long after Stanford’s death, in 2015.
“[The Stanford composition] is supposed to be a Yale piece, and it’s never been done here before,” said David Hill, principal conductor of the Yale Schola Cantorum and The Bach Choir. “It’s a wonderful piece set to text by Walt Whitman.”
On Sunday, March 8, the Yale Philharmonia, the Yale Schola Cantorum and The Bach Choir will present a concert of English music titled “English Musical Splendor.” The program will open with the fourth song in Stanford’s “Songs of Faith,” called “Song to the Soul.” Then, the ensembles will perform Arnold Bax’s “Mater ora filium,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune” and William Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Each work was composed in the 20th century.
“The harmonic language is such that it’s relatable to the Western canon, but it stretches the imagination of classical tonal repertoire because each piece has its own harmonic language,” said Madeleine Woodworth MUS ’20, a choral conducting student and member of the Schola Cantorum.
The pieces by Vaughan Williams and Walton will feature pianist and School of Music Dean Robert Blocker and baritone David Pershall MUS ’10 ’11 as soloists, respectively. The concert will be at 4 p.m. in Woolsey Hall, and the collaboration celebrates the School of Music’s 125th anniversary.
The Yale Philharmonia is the School of Music’s symphony orchestra, and the Yale Schola Cantorum is a chamber choir comprising singers from all departments — a chorus Hill called a “crown jewel in Yale’s music scene.” The Bach Choir is much larger with 240 choristers, 114 of whom will travel to New Haven from London for the concert. The choir, founded in 1876, is one of the world’s most well-renowned choruses. Hill, who is from England, directs the Schola Cantorum in the United States and The Bach Choir in London. The concert will bring together his two primary ensembles.
“Hill is an incredible conductor in that he puts much of the responsibility on his singers and players,” Woodworth said. “There’s a lot of trust that goes into that, because there are so many moving parts to take into account.”
Two of the composers on the program were directors of The Bach Choir — Stanford was the ensemble’s second principal conductor, and Vaughan Williams, one of Stanford’s students, was the fourth. Hill is the choir’s ninth.
Violinist Xiaoxuan Shi MUS ’20 said that the Stanford piece has an “extremely singing quality and long phrases.”
Bax’s “Mater ora filium” — which translates to “Mother, pray thy son” — will follow. This was the first piece Bax wrote for unaccompanied chorus. It is a virtuosic, almost rhapsodic setting of an old Oxfordian carol.
“Most people don’t know about [Bax], but he’s a remarkable composer,” Hill said. “He’s done an extraordinary job with the text. It requires so much of the choir in its dexterity and virtuosity.”
Sunday’s concert will be the Schola Cantorum’s second performance of the Bax this year. Woodworth noted her “new appreciation” for the piece. In coming back to the challenging work for a second time, she found it “refreshing and valuable.”
Then, the ensembles will perform the Vaughan Williams. According to Hill, Vaughan Williams was a “deep admirer” of Whitman. Hill noted the uniqueness of the piece’s virtuosic solo piano passages that connect the song’s verses.
The program will close with Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast.” The work tells the story of Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon in the biblical Book of Daniel. The Israelites lament Babylon’s fall and talk about its riches. During the feast, someone inscribes a prophecy of the king’s demise into the room’s walls — Babylon is not faithful to the Israelites’ God. That night, Belshazzar dies. The work concludes with a hymn praising the “God of Jacob.”
“This is one of the great 20th-century works that came out of England,” Hill said. “It’s so vivacious, and it has striking rhythms, harmony and drama on a scale no one in England had written before.”
Shi and Woodworth both emphasized the need for the three ensembles, who do not often perform together, to create a cohesive sound.
“It is very important to listen to the singers so we [can] blend our sound with their voices,” Shi said. Woodworth noted the importance of “getting everyone to feel things in the same way and to make music that ultimately pleases the listener as well as the musicians that are producing it.”
The collaboration between chorus and orchestra will continue after Sunday’s concert on a tour of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
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