Songs of Hope: A Dream of Time

I’m really glad we’re recording A Dream of Time.  Composed specifically for The Choir, this piece was the result of a commission to honor Greg Funfgeld on his twenty-fifth anniversary as Artistic Director and Conductor.  We’ve sung it three times now:  the first and second for the 2009 Bach Festival, and once at Bach at Noon.  Each performance has had the effect of furthering my esteem for the piece for how beautifully it seems to serve its purpose, and then some.

The Minnesota composer, Stephen Paulus, has a rare acumen for setting texts, and in this case, he sets the poem, Hope is a Tattered Flag, by Pulitzer-winning poet and author, Carl Sandburg.  This poem has long been one of Greg’s favorites, and bears a lot of resonance for The Choir.  Written in the 1930s, the poet lists reasons for hope in American life during the Great Depression.  Among the many reasons for hope catalogued by Sandburg is one of particular interest to The Choir: Bach being broadcast from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania…

Those moments of resonance don’t end there, however: mention is made of the blue hills beyond the smoke of the steel works, and Sandburg combines images of cosmopolitan worldliness with intimate domesticity – from tall skyscrapers to the luckpiece in the pocket and the kiss and the comforting laugh.  These ballasts of hope, offered in a time of great adversity, remain relevant today, which confers on Sandburg a remarkable prescience.

Setting a poem that lives in tension between past, present, and future, would seem  a bit of a challenge.  In this commission, Stephen Paulus was also asked to incorporate the fugue theme of the Dona Nobis Pacem from the Mass in B Minor, and to set the poem for choir, a small instrumental ensemble, and two vocal soloists.  No small order, right?

Fortunately, Stephen persevered with alacrity, and the result is a deeply-affecting piece – one that fits comfortably with the three established masterpieces it shares on this program.   What I have grown to love, evermore, about this piece, is the gentle use of text-painting Stephen employs through judicious use of colorful harmony.  The choral parts are largely homophonic, that is, they are chordal – each part building a greater whole, much like a hymn’s four parts.  This is subtle stuff – you realize the genius of his harmony often as it’s just passed  by.

If you will indulge me, I’d like to discuss this technique as pertains to thirteen bars of the piece near the beginning.  The text Stephen sets is as follows:

The evening star inviolable over the coal mines,
The shimmer of northern lights across a bitter winter night…

This passage begins in unison on the words “The evening” and the choir breaks into beautiful harmony on the word “star” – as the melody ascends to the words “coal mines,” the chords themselves go higher in the singers’ range.  The rhythm picks up on “the shimmer of northern,” creating a sound picture of something shimmering, and then slows to half the speed of the notes that preceded it on the words “lights across a,” leaving for the listener an opportunity to visualize those shimmering lights, then, on the words “bitter winter,” the harmony switches to a minor key  – conveying the bitterness, but returns to a restful major on “night.”  These thirteen bars represent less than thirty seconds of music, but the harmony and melody create an aural picture of everything mentioned in the two lines of text. We see an evening star above a coal mine, we watch the shimmering northern lights, and sense the melancholy beauty of a bitter winter night.  All in thirteen bars.  That having been said, all of this analysis isn’t what will strike the listener – only after the moment is past one wonders how he conveyed so much, with such eloquence, in such a short span.  This is but one example of the sensitivity to the text that Stephen demonstrates through the entirety of the piece.  Each line of text becomes its own discrete musical moment, but the sum isn’t merely a pastiche of individual musical ideas – the piece is remarkably cohesive, no small feat, considering that the poem basically comprises a list.  Despite that list-like quality, Stephen gives it a musical arc through the utilization of a few lines of text as a refrain, and by taking advantage of the increasing grandeur of the imagery as the poem reaches its conclusion.

In the center of the piece is the aforementioned fugue theme from the Agnus Dei, introduced by the men of the choir, then the women, then everyone.  Rather than “re-contrapuntalize” it, Stephen sets it as a a single melody, an echo of the music we perform and revere, surrounded by beautiful, watercolored harmonies from the piano. Hope is an echo, hope ties itself yonder. This is an arresting moment of music.

I’ve been thinking about how the pieces on this program end:  the Bach in a blaze of contrapuntal glory, the Bernstein and Britten with their own distinctive hushed reverence.  The end of Stephen’s piece is hauntingly beautiful.  Throughout, he’s not afraid of putting the choir in thick textures of up to eight voices.  At the end, the texture lightens, and with the ethereal tones of a vibraphone joining the instruments, the choir sings that “Hope is an echo,” with harmonies that evoke the overtones of a bell. Each time we’ve sung it, I’ve ranked the ending of this piece as one of my favorite musical moments in recent years.  With the recording we’ll be making in the days after the concert, I’m eager to have a lasting remembrance of this piece, and I strongly suspect our audience will, too.

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