Psalms & Requiems Program Notes

By Amelia LeClair, Artistic Director

"THOU" by Amelia LeClair

Anne Bradstreet has been named America’s First poet. She arrived on these shores in 1630, aged 18, with her husband Simon Bradstreet and her father Thomas Dudley. They were among other Puritan dissenters from England who came to America to find a place where they could be free to worship in their own way.

 

Anne must have been highly energetic and something of a rebel: while caring for six children in a new land, and with a husband frequently away on duties to the colony, she tackled the writing of poetry– a pursuit for which women were thought to be too intellectually weak. In 1647, her brother-in-law and dear friend John Woodbridge was called back to England to negotiate on behalf of the colony with King George I. Deeply impressed with Anne’s work, he carried with him a book of her poems.

 

Nothing came of his negotiations; George was eventually accused of treason, and beheaded. So in 1650, John, still in England but free of duties to king or country, found a publisher for his sister-in-law’s book, and gave it a title: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. It was hugely successful.

“The Author to her Book” perfectly illustrates the fear and trepidation Bradstreet felt at its publication; surely every artist feels this about the first public outing of their art. This poem in particular resonates, perhaps because of the beautiful language of her time which is so musical.

During the pandemic, I asked my brilliant friend, composer Elena Ruehr, to help me with a little piece that was inspired by this poem. I have never met a better teacher nor a more generous artist: Elena’s kindness and brilliance as a teacher knows no bounds. “Thou” is the result of our work together. I will be forever grateful to her for her encouragement.

"REQUIEM" by Elena Reuhr

An award-winning faculty member at MIT, Ruehr has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, and composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Known for her vocal music and collaboration with poets, she has written four operas, four cantatas, and a number of songs. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Juilliard School, and has also written extensively for chamber ensemble, orchestra, chorus, wind ensemble, instrumental solo, opera, dance, and silent film. Currently she is writing an opera for Guerilla Opera: "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage", a delightful bit of whimsy based on a graphic novel about the mathematician and the inventor. Her work has been described as “sumptuously scored and full of soaring melodies” (The New York Times), and “unspeakably gorgeous” (Gramophone).

Elena Ruehr’s work has always impressed me deeply, from the first time I heard the Cantata Singers premiere her work “Eve”. Ruehr ends the piece on the words “and the eyes of them both were opened”.  Again, the poet resonated for me. For her "Requiem", Ruehr also wrote her own text, which again speaks not of any patriarchal supreme being but to something unnameable, unqualifiable, without shape and most certainly ungendered. She seems to ask if we can accept not knowing to whom or what we pray.

“Requiem” is stunningly crafted and gorgeous, commissioned by Ryan Turner and Emmanuel Music. It  premiered in November of 2021. As always, I was blown away and resolved to give it that rare second performance that often eludes new works. 

Ruehr wrote "Requiem" for her mother who died in 2020. She writes, “ …dedicated to the memory of my mother, RuthAnn Richwine Ruehr, this Requiem was also written in memory of all who passed in 2020. The text is an English translation of a standard Latin (Requiem) Mass, but it is secular: all religious words were removed or replaced. It became a kind of outline of the five stages of grief: bargaining, sorrow, denial, anger, and acceptance.”

"PSALM 130– Du fond de l'abîme je t'invoque, Iahvé, Adonaï." by Lili Boulanger

Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger was born August 21, 1893, in Paris, and died at Mézy-sur-Seine on March 15, 1918.

Lili was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome competition in 1913 as one of thirteen competitors. Lili finished her setting of "Psalm 130" in 1917, in the midst of the first world war.  She died in March 1918 without knowing if the war would ever end. The manuscript is marked “à la mémoire de mon cher papa”, but as her father died when she was just six years old, it would seem that this is much more a cry for peace in a time when war seemed endless, and millions were dying.  Her cataclysmic times resound in our time, with war and pestilence raging, and an earth shaken and on fire. 

"Psalm 130" has been set by many composers, especially as a funereal piece, but Lili’s setting, given her fragile nature and early death (she was just 24), speaks to our human condition: we are weak, we stumble, and in our desperation we grab hold of whatever we can to give us aid or solace. In our last days, it is the unnameable. 

It is curious that Lili, a devout Catholic, uses the Hebrew words for God, “Iahvé” and “Adonaï”, not “Seigneur” (Lord) or “Éternel” in the French translations of the psalms. She has also substituted a few personal lines– “je crie vers toi”, “j’espère en toi”, “mon âme espère en Iahvé”–  to the text, suggesting that perhaps she wanted some kind of authentic and personal relationship with the psalms. Lili’s Vieille prière bouddhique provides some insight into her alternative vision of the wartime world in which she lived and worked, which values all human beings and their spiritual beliefs. It challenges conceptions of differences between nations and individuals at a time when war highlighted exactly those divisions.

Several scholars have noted that she left behind notes for a possible Requiem, and that this may have been only the beginning. It is clear that this piece was written to mourn the war dead. 

Lili was quite active in the war effort: she was a member of The Comité Franco-Américain supported by Americans at the École in Paris and New York. For the duration of the war, its purpose was to identify what returning soldiers would find most helpful: financial assistance, loans, job search, etc. The Comité also searched for the missing and families still living in the area. Both Lili and her sister, Nadia (but especially Lili, as editor-in-chief) wrote a newsletter for the Conservatoire, showing their commitment to and engagement with the most pressing issues of wartime French. Without Lili and Nadia Boulanger, this archival source of musical wartime life would not exist. 

"Psalm 130" is built essentially on 2 notes. It is in a Phrygian Bflat mode– that is, the second note is lowered, and leans heavily towards the first. You’ll hear this sighing motif throughout, matching the word “Iahvé”.  The Phrygian mode has long meant death in music; medieval funeral music was often in this key. Lili studied with Gabriel Fauré, whose Requiem is in Phrygian mode.

 

The Greek modes became the Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical modes, much in use before we arrived at our bi-tonal system. Each mode had its own character and use.  Later on, keys themselves came to signify special meaning and purpose. Bflat minor has often been used for requiems. Bflat minor Phrygian, doubly flatted, is doubly emotive of grief. 

In Boulanger’s time at the Schola Cantorum and the Paris Conservatoire, women received more access to musical training just as religious music became an important focal point of the curriculum. "Psalm 130" is from a group of psalms known as the "songs of ascent”, or the songs of the exiled Hebrew nation “going up" from captivity to the holy city of Jerusalem.

"Psalm 130" contains the number 13, with which Lili was fascinated: her name has thirteen letters, and her logo of her initials, LB, resembles “13.” Boulanger began composing in 1906 when she was thirteen years old. She won the Prix de Rome competition in 1913, one of thirteen competitors, and destroyed thirteen of her early compositions after winning. She wrote many others, now destroyed, that contained this number in some way. 

Boulanger pushed the envelope of the Catholic Church’s dicta with her Psalm settings. None of them would have been permitted in church, given that they are written for a choir that includes women. She was devout but also a liberal and spiritualist, open to foreign and exotic spiritual practices and music (along with her teacher Fauré). I have not been able to find any reference that explains her use of the Hebrew for this psalm, but it stands to reason that she might choose it as the most authentic language for this, a most deeply felt piece.

The American premiere of Psalm 130 occurred in Boston in 1939, sponsored by the newly-formed Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund. Nadia conducted.

 

"Psalm 130" is written for a full orchestra, with a full complement of low brass and wind instruments, two harps, organ, strings, and several percussion instruments. It has been suggested that a proper force to perform it would be about 120 (amateur) singers and an orchestra of about 40 players. This piece is so timely now as we are in an historical moment when our future– as was Lili’s–  is truly unknowable, as we lose millions to war and pandemic and the climate crisis.

 

Right now, winds and brass are neither wise nor affordable, so I have created a reduced edition for oboe, organ, one harp, strings (3,3,3,2,1), timpani and bass drum. I could not have created my edition without the help of Prof Dr. John Perkins who so generously shared his Finale edition with me. Harpist Nancy Hurrell has also created a brilliant single harp part out of the two just for this performance. We are very excited to share this work with you.