Cantate Domino canticum novum
. Aloft on ordinary happiness, one can sing any old tune: but to sing the joy of recognizing the infinite, only a new song will do. This ancient psalmist’s trope linking, as it does, creation with Creation elegantly summarizes a composer’s highest goals, and, perhaps, a chorus’s as well. On what better text, then, to build an aural vision of how we sing, pray, and exult, as the 20th century slips into history?
Thus, at Norman Scribner’s invitation, I began asking the questions to which Cantate Domino
offers its answering possibilities. What musical expressions are available to a large chorus which are left largely unexplored by our usual motet writing habits? Is choral music, being narrative, contrapuntal, and programmatic, closer in expression to orchestral music than to opera, which tends towards the dramatic, the soloistic, and the psychological? If so, then, could one write orchestrally, as well as in a more traditional cantabile manner, for an ensemble of singers; could one accompany a hymn of praise with its own kinetic vocal variations? Less technically, I wondered: does boisterousness contain its own kind of reverence? What does joy sound like now?
As the piece’s architecture developed in response to these questions, Cantate Domino
became as much an étude on certain choral techniques echo, pulsation, tone clusters as an exultant outburst cast in a large arch form. A stark, echoing fanfare opens the piece, softening as it descends in range from highest soprano to lowest bass; it then changes into regular pulsations within a broad cantabile theme on the words “canticum novum.” When the fanfare returns, its echoes ascend this time, until the last choral sopranos evanesce to reveal the soloist, trilling in D major as she embarks on a central aria, “Jubilate Deo.” Her ornamented line describes a complete D-major scale from D to G below middle C; the women’s chorus, echoing her, form a shimmering diatonic cluster over that range, from which brief motets emerge and vanish. The male chorus, on the words “Moveatur mare,” introduces, in C-minor, a turbulent and rhythmically ambiguous vocalise, which builds relentlessly as the soloist surges through music of ever more martial character. Now the sopranos assume the soloist’s music and exhort the whole chorus towards a climactic D-major; after which the entire chorus surges back first through the pulsing melodism of “qui mirabilia fecit” and an ever-more-subdivided expression of the “Cantate” fanfare. It is the soprano soloist, whose entrance cadence now appears recast as the harmonic goal of the entire score, who reappears to breathe a benediction over the piece’s final bars.
Cantate Domino: Etude on Psalm 97
was commissioned by The Choral Arts Society and introduced by them under the direction of Norman Scribner in November 1999.
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