Duke Chapel was the site of a performance by the Choral Society of Durham and Orchestra, Rodney Wynkoop, conducting. The program consisted of sacred works by two composers, both expressing some of their personal and intimate faith: Giuseppe Verdi, the 19th century opera master, and Samuel Barber, one of the first internationally-recognized American composers.
The Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30, by Samuel Barber, was begun in 1942 on a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and, after interruptions by the war and other events, was finished and first performed in 1954 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Charles Munch with soprano soloist Leontyne Price. It is a setting of four prayers by the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard. Sung without pause, it never-the-less falls into four sections.
The first speaks powerfully of "God the Unchangeable" and begins with a passage sung by tenors and bases in plainchant style. It was elegant in its simplicity and monastic phrasing. After an exquisite violin bridge, the full chorus and orchestra joined forces to reiterate the unchangeableness of God.
The second section is a soprano solo expressing the suffering of Christ for our redemption. The soloist was Rachel Copeland, widely experienced in opera and oratorio and a member of the voice faculty of East Carolina University School of Music. Her crystalline voice soared over the orchestra which expressed the redeemer's suffering. Toward the end of this part we also heard two fine local artists: mezzo-soprano Karyn Friedman and tenor Wade Henderson.
The third section is written for double chorus and large orchestral forces. It builds to a powerful dance of praise, using the phrase "Father in Heaven." This section gave the chorus quite a workout with complex counterpoint and a lot going on in the orchestra at the same time. The Choral Society, with Wynkoop's guidance, did an outstanding job with keeping the entrances crisp and clear and delivering a coherent and stirring sonic impact.
The final section is a chorale; a prayer of gratitude for what God has done for us. It is structured in homophonic chords, somewhat dissonant, but at the same time harmonically rich and pleasing; the singers delivered it as a solid and fervent gift. This prayer asks the Redeemer – and us – not to dwell on the sins we have committed and how we went astray, but on the forgiveness and salvation that has been given to us.
The Four Sacred Pieces (Quattro pezzi sacri) of Giuseppe Verdi were written at different times for separate occasions over a period of eight years or so, late in the composer's life. They were published together by Ricordi in 1898 and are often performed in the order used in that publication, as follows:
• Ave Maria: a setting of the devotional hymn for four voices a cappella, composed in 1889. using an enigmatic scale (C, D-flat, E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, B, C) published in a music magazine with a challenge to composers to harmonize it(!).
• Stabat Mater: a setting of the Latin poem describing Mary's emotions at the foot of the cross as her son was crucified, composed in 1896-97.
• Laudi alla Vergine Maria: another Marian hymn based on a short prayer from Canto XXXIII of Dante's Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy. It is set for four female voices a cappella and employs subtle harmonies in the style of renaissance music. It was composed in 1886-88.
• Te Deum: this setting of the magnificent Ambrosian hymn of praise was completed in 1896 when Verdi was in the 83rd year of his life. It is the longest and most intricately developed of the four pieces, set for double choir and an expanded orchestra. It contains the kind of energy and creativity one would expect from a much younger composer.
These four pieces were all composed after Verdi had "retired." They were written for his personal pleasure, and he was reluctant to publish them. They are full of subtleties and unique opportunities that offer both challenge and pleasure to performers as well as audiences. Some of these are: the clever setting of the "enigmatic scale" of the Ave Maria along with its pure choral sound; the emotional and dramatic setting of the Stabat Mater, especially the magnificent crescendo and resolution on the last verse and the unique scoring of the Laudi Alla Vergine Maria for female voices with the delicate touch of a renaissance motet.
In the Te Deum, we have the mystical plainchant beginning developing into a glorious hymn of praise; numerous examples of text-painting; passages where the tenor (or alto or base) line takes momentary preeminence in a four-part texture; the entrance of the solo soprano voice (Copeland) at the end and more. None of these ingenious touches missed the insight of Wynkoop or the delivery of the Choral Society or the outstanding orchestra. We are vastly fortunate to have such dedicated and accomplished artists in our midst.