Program notes written by musicologist and PhD student Rena Roussin.
Nathaniel Dett’s The Chariot Jubilee (1919) and Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (1868) were written just over fifty years apart and yet one could be forgiven for initially thinking, as I did, that the two pieces have little in common. While both pieces were written within a Christian worldview and based upon the conventions of art music, their compositional processes are distinctly separated by musical idiom and influences, cultural contexts, and the Atlantic Ocean. And yet, if one looks beyond – or, perhaps, looks at – those differences, it becomes clear that the two works in fact share central artistic goals. Brahms and Dett both drew on their distinct cultural traditions to reimagine and expand various genres of sacred music. Brahms eschewed the standardized Latin text of the Requiem Mass for the Dead, drawing on Martin Luther’s vernacular German translation of the Bible and traditions of German literature and humanism to create a Requiem that focused its message not on the afterlife, but rather on the importance of comfort and consolation for the living. Dett, an African-Canadian composer who spent his career writing and teaching at historically Black colleges in the United States, drew on African-American spirituals as the basis for art music compositions. In The Chariot Jubilee, he crafted (to his knowledge, and mine) the first oratorio based on spirituals by using textual, harmonic, and motivic components of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” throughout the work. Notably, both Brahms and Dett relied on their own extensive knowledge of the Bible to compile the texts of their compositions, interweaving numerous passages into their musical works, rather than setting one larger single section of scripture. Brahms’s and Dett’s choice of scriptural selections also share a broader theme: hope for that which comes after death.
Ein deutsches Requiem and The Chariot Jubilee also interact when considering what it means to make and experience music at this particular moment in history. This concert is the first in which the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has been able to welcome in-person audience members since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns began in March of 2020. In the interim, we have seen the world go through, and have perhaps ourselves gone through, a period of immense change, grief, and loss, all emotions and experiences that the deutsches Requiem was written to acknowledge. Over the past nineteen months, we have also begun the process of acknowledging racial inequities and the pressing need for racial justice. It is not coincidental that many of us – myself, the musicians, and you, the audience – are likely familiar with Brahms’s music but not Dett’s. The reasons for our collective lack of knowledge have little to do with the two composers’ shared musical ingenuity and insight and much to do with art music’s historic and ongoing privileging of white European composers. One of the TMC’s goals in this concert is to acknowledge this disparity, and to begin the process within their community of amplifying and performing the works of composers of colour.
In numerous ways, the music itself also speaks to insights that are, if somewhat timeless, especially beneficial to remember in these particularly challenging times. Both Brahms and Dett rely on numerous suspensions, deceptive cadences, surprising or unexpected modulations, and equally unanticipated moments of resolution to enliven their music. As Maestro Jean-Sébastien Vallée notes, these musical practices, joined to Brahms’s and Dett’s sacred texts, hold considerable meanings that are independent of any single faith tradition: that resolution and even paradise can be found in unlikely places; that sometimes, we have to wait to find those places; that resilience and the willingness to wait for closure are critical skills along the way. Tonight’s musical content also speaks to the realities of the pandemic in more direct ways, in that the necessity of physical distancing has required the use of arrangements for chamber orchestra. Ein deutsches Requiem is being performed in German flautist Joachim Linckelmann’s 2010 arrangement, and The Chariot Jubilee in Jason Max Ferdinand’s 2020 arrangement. In addition to making tonight’s performance possible, these arrangements lighten the orchestra’s texture, allowing the human voice to be at the forefront of both works.
“Coming to Carry Me Home,” Jean-Sébastien has suggested to me, is ultimately a love story. We have gathered tonight – both in-person and online – because of our love for music, for the communal experience of making and hearing it together, for the connections and stories we get to share through music. One of the gifts of music is the multiple stories it can hold: the stories of the composers, the stories that the choir, soloists, and instrumentalists bring to their interpretation of the music, and the stories that you, the audience, bring to your hearing of it. It is our hope – mine, the musicians’, and Jean-Sébastien’s – that the story we share tonight is one of resilience, patience, and hope.
Coming to Carry Me Home takes place November 2, 2021 at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. You can purchase tickets to attend in person or watch the concert livestream. Visit the concert webpage for more info.