On Love & Loss

Today’s concert seeks to address, in music, two universal experiences which define the human condition: love and loss. The joys of love, in all its many forms, are both balanced and made more poignant by our awareness of the brevity of our earthly existence.        

The composers and poets whose works appear in today’s program have come to terms with this theme in a variety of ways. Alice Parker, rooted in the tradition of early American frontier Protestantism, exuberantly anticipates a heavenly afterlife in her setting of the hymn Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal. By contrast, the Rilke poem Dirait-on is preoccupied with the sheer beauty of life and self-awareness: Morton Lauridsen’s hauntingly exquisite setting serves it well. Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of Marta Keen’s Homeward Bound, expresses love in a pastoral setting, tempered by the singer’s longing for freedom. And John Tavener’s powerful Song for Athene, which became widely known after its performance at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, is both a mournful dirge and a hopeful expression of comfort, faith, and even joy in the face of death.       

The Five Hebrew Love Songs (2002) by Eric Whitacre are completely and touchingly romantic. Their music is suffused with the composer’s love for his then wife-to-be, poet Hila Plitmann, who wrote the texts. The bell-like sounds at the beginning of Song IV, Éyza shéleg!, are the exact pitches that rang from a cathedral tower and awakened the couple each morning as they vacationed in Speyer, Germany.             

Stephen Paulus’s The Road Home is a wistful setting of another early American hymn tune, “Prospect,” paired with a text by the poet Michael Dennis Browne, a former Bennington College professor who resides in Minnesota. The music expresses well the poet’s yearning for meaning, beauty and a sense of belonging. Paulus himself, one of America's leading composers, died last year after suffering a stroke. The program’s preceding piece, Kim Arnesen’s Child of Song is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Paulus: its text by Euan Tait includes the memorable line, “No child of song falls into silence but into love’s rest…”

The Saratoga Children’s Chorus sings of a peaceful and idyllic future in Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, and of a happy hereafter in I’m Goin’ Up A Yonder. John Rutter's I Will Sing with the Spirit joyfully celebrates the love of music.

In Williametta Spencer’s 1968 At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, the poet John Donne, a 17th-century Anglican priest, meditates on the mystery of human mortality. He calls upon the angels to summon the Last Judgment, enumerates some of the many ways life can end, and then prays forgiveness for his own sins. The music admirably reflects the poem’s rapidly shifting emotions.

Al Fedak’s Last Verse: A Cycle of New England Epitaphs was commissioned by Schenectady’s Octavo Singers and completed on Martin Luther King Day, 2003. The poems, taken from 18th and 19th century tombstones, run the full gamut of human emotional responses to death. From the tragic to the heroic, from the defiant to the comedic, the words often reveal as much about those left behind as about the deceased themselves. Movements 1, 5, and 6 use contemporaneous hymn tunes as settings for the texts.