Listen, and Take Heart: Music that Shines Through the Darkness

Our musical adventures this month will take us through the twenthieth-century to contemporary times.  You need not fear.  Despite the temporary triumph of cacophony for about half a century, beautiful music was written even under the siege of the avant-garde and is still being created today.

I begin with the great good news that one of my most cherished LPs has finally been reissued on CD by Decca Eloquence (480 2328).  It contains music of Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Four Songs for Voice and Violin, This have I done for my true love, Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born, Two Carols, a short chamber music piece, and several choral works.  This music is the antithesis of Holst’s orchestral blockbuster, The Planets.  These are exquisitely set, intimate, medieval love poems to either Christ or Mary, and Cornish carols.  They are like medieval ivory miniatures in sound.  Disarmingly simple, the songs are ineffably moving.

I have often wondered what sort of music one would dare to play at the foot of the cross or at the empty tomb. Holst gave his answer in his heartrending part song, “This have I done for my true love.”  The words, spoken by Christ, by themselves are enough to pierce the heart.  Here’s a sample:

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Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.
I would my true love did so chance.
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to the dance. 

Refrain: Sing oh my love, oh my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.

When on the cross hanged I was,
When a spear to my heart did glance,
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to the dance. 

These words, combined with Holst’s early twentieth-century music, make for one of the finest expressions of Christian culture that I have ever encountered.

Of course, soon after Holst, the great atheist project of the last century began under Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  One of its victims was Laszlo Lajtha (1892-1963), whose music was obscured by the Hungarian communist regime.  Thanks to the end of the Cold War, it has now emerged.  In my book, Surprised by Beauty, which was published ten years ago, I dedicated a chapter to him.  While all his symphonies had been released by that time, it is only now that a complete traversal of his ten string quartets has been made available by the Hungaroton Classic label.  My most recent catch included his String Quartets Nos. 6, 8 and 10, beguilingly played by the Auer String Quartet (HCD 32544).  These are quartets for those who have trouble digesting the quartets of Béla Bartók.  One hears in Lajtha a Mendelssohnian fleetness, French refinement, and Hungarian folk melodies.  This is music of enchantment with an entrancing level of fancy.  No wonder it was suppressed.

Another victim of communism was Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), who eventually fled his country for England.  The CPO label has been issuing installments of a complete series of his orchestral works, including his ten symphonies.  I have always expected to like Panufnik’s music more than I do, but the reason I do not is that, in his later years, he developed an overly systematized, geometrically-based plan of composition with some semi-mystical notion of palindromic symmetry.  Admirable in conception, but not necessarily audible in execution.  Nonetheless, there is some wonderful music in this CPO series that my reservations should not prevent you from hearing.  The best of the lot that I have heard so far is contained in vol. 4 (CPO 777 683-2), which includes Sinfonia Elegiaca, Sinfonia Sacra, and Symphony No. 10, played with complete commitment and assurance by the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, under Lukasz Borowicz.  The Sinfonia Sacra was composed, as Panufnik wrote, “as a tribute to Poland’s Millennium of Christianity and Statehood, and as an expression of my religious and patriotic feelings.”  He based the work on the first known hymn in the Polish language, a magnificent Gregorian chant.  It begins with bold trumpet flourishes and fanfares that give way to a hushed, contemplative theme in the strings. This disc is a revelation.

Another Polish composer, born only five years after Panufnik, was Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996).  Weinberg’s family was murdered by the Nazis.  He ran in the wrong direction and ended up spending most of his productive life in the Soviet Union, some of it under the sponsorship of Dmitri Shostakovich, by whom he was enormously influenced.  He is one of the great unsung composers of the 20th century.  (I also devoted a chapter to him in Surprised by Beauty).  Naxos has issued a splendid new recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 6, with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, under Vladimir Lande (8.572779).  Shostakovich exclaimed, “I wish I signed my name to this [Weinberg] Symphony.”  It begins with a hauntingly beautiful horn theme, which recurs and is developed throughout.  Several of its movements include a children’s choir.  Despite its gruesome subject matter, the murder of Jewish children, it is an ultimately affirmative work, suffused with faith and hope.

The Chandos label offers the premiere recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 3, along with a suite from his ballet The Golden Key.  The Third Symphony is an atypical work for Weinberg in that it shows almost no influence from Shostakovich, carries no angst within it, and is wonderfully melodious and pleasant throughout.  Certain sections of it almost have kind of insouciant breeziness to them, such as found in the music of Malcolm Arnold.  It is brilliantly played by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, under Thor Svedlund (CHSA 5089).

By the way, if you think you have all the music of Shostakovich, let me assure you: you don’t.  For instance,  Toccata Classics has just delivered the first recordings of Shostakovich’s Songs for the Front (TOCC 0121), which are his arrangements – for voices, violin and cello – of songs, operatic arias and popular Soviet hits by a number of composers, ranging from Beethoven and Rossini to Mussorgsky and Dargomyzhsky.  Shostakovich made these arrangements for the entertainment of the soldiers defending Leningrad from 1941 to 1944.  This I will listen to with my Russian neighbor on Victory Day, May 9.  Of the twenty-seven songs, only the first five are from Western European sources.  The remaining ones from Russian sources I find more convincing and entertaining.  The performances by the soloists of the Russkaya Conservatoria Chamber Capella are completely authentic.  This is certainly a must for the Shostakovich completist.

The CPO label has provided another pleasant discovery with a CD containing Symphony No. 1 and Symphonic Metamorphosis by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984).  He, too, experienced the Nazi nightmare, and fled Germany for Palestine before World War II.  He went on to become the grand old man of Israeli classical music.  One can see why from this powerfully propulsive, muscular, highly-charged Symphony.  It packs a punch and ends exultantly. On the basis of this piece, I hope this is the beginning of a CPO series of Ben-Haim’s orchestral works, with the excellent NDR Radiophilharmonie, under Israel Yinon, who directs a very exciting, visceral performance (CPO777 417-2).

Every so often, a CD that I meant to review closer to its date of issue slips by me.  So it is that I’m only now delivering well-deserved praise for a CD of the music of Gareth Walters (b. 1928) that the Toccata Classics label released several years ago (TOCC 0090).  On offer are two song cycles and some chamber music.  When first listening to Song of the Heart for soprano and string quartet, I wondered if the soprano was having trouble with her diction.  I finally looked at the lyrics in the CD booklet and discovered the songs are in Welsh.

While the language may be Welsh, the sensibility is thoroughly French.  It turns out that Walters studied in Paris with Jean Rivier and Olivier Messiaen.  He obviously ingested the salutary influences of Debussy and Ravel, as well.  The second song cycle presented here, Poesies du soir for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra, is in French, something even I was able to grasp without looking at the lyrics.  In either case, these are beautifully and expertly set songs.  The quartet writing is highly expressive – in fact, exquisite.  For instance, in the third Welsh song, the cello sings the bass line in the song.  It is every bit a vocal participant as the soprano.  Walters makes all his instruments sing.  Then there are the enchanting Little Suite for Flute and Harp and the Berceuse for harp that both could easily pass for French in their charm.  The longest work on this CD is a substantial Violin Sonata (24:54) that shows that Walters is not only a sophisticated jeweler but can sustain the longer line of larger musical forms. What expertly-made, fluent, lively music this is.  If you care for the works of Ravel, don’t hesitate here. Why is there not more of Walters civilized music available?

Last year, I briefly but very enthusiastically reviewed the Dutton Epoch release of Lionel Sainsbury’s Violin Concerto.  The review actually brought me into contact with the composer, and we were able to meet in London and attend a concert together.  At that time, he told me that Dutton would be bringing out a recording of his Cello Concerto, with cellist Rafael Wallfisch and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates.  I have been very anxious to hear it and wondered if it would meet the high standards of the violin work. The verdict is in: it does.  This is another open-hearted, totally accessible, and immensely appealing composition. Few composers anchor what they do so completely in gorgeous melody.  Sainsbury sets up an exclamatory, endearing theme and then discourses upon it in a way that does not tire.  The results, animated by an energetic rhythmic pulse, are exhilarating. There is something unabashed about this music in its emotional directness – a kind of joyful innocence, a generosity of spirit. The final allegro dances off in a spirited jig. Wallfisch digs in, partnered by the Royal Scottish forces.  It is no small attraction that the Sainsbury work is accompanied by the John Foulds Cello Concerto (CDLX 7284).  If you wish to dispel gloom, to be stirred in your heart, to move to music – even if you are sitting in your chair – try the Sainsbury concertos.

Before we leave Great Britain, I must say something about the music of Francis Pott (b. 1957), compiled in a new Naxos CD (8.572739). It includes a Mass for 8 Parts, Ubi Caritas, A Hymn to the Virgin, and other choral works, performed exquisitely by Commotio, under Matthew Berry.   Of Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century contrapuntal masterpiece, Spem in Alium, Pott writes, “the surface effect unashamedly seeks to capture and bottle eternity, mastering literal time to become spiritually timeless.”  This is what he tries to do, and achieves in these precious pieces.  Lament, a setting of a poem by Wilfred Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), is dedicated to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, who lost his life in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  Shortly before he was to return home, he was killed while trying to defuse a bomb.  I go to Great Britain often and am well aware of the signs of decline there. However, so long as there are men such as Schmid and composers such as Pott to memorialize their sacrifices, all is not lost.  The CD also contains a touching setting of  I Sing of Maiden, one of the same texts set by Gustav Host, with which we began. If you are moved by the music of Morten Lauridsen, you should try this.

And you thought Western civilization was over? Listen, and take heart.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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