Program Notes: Singing Through Centuries

Conductor David Fallis writes about Singing through Centuries: a 125th Anniversary Gala Concert taking place October 20, 2019 at Koerner Hall.

(Read composer Andrew Balfour’s commentary on his new work, Mamachimowin.)

When Augustus Stephen Vogt founded the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1894, it was perhaps no surprise that the new choral ensemble should be named after one of the most beloved romantic composers at the time, Felix Mendelssohn. His rich repertoire of choral music was sung widely, and was especially favoured in the English-speaking world. And it is perhaps no surprise that we should start this afternoon’s 125th-anniversary concert with two beautiful works by our namesake: they both display his unerring ability to create sweet, lush harmonies for unaccompanied voices.

From there, we wanted to display works that represent the three centuries spanned in the TMC’s history. Gabriel Fauré originally wrote his Requiem for use in the Church of the Madeleine in Paris where he was the organist and music director. It was music for a parishioner’s funeral in 1888, and in its first version had only five movements. For subsequent funerals, Fauré added more music, and filled out the orchestration slightly; it is the version first performed in 1894 (the year of the TMC’s founding) that we will hear this afternoon. Fauré declared that the piece was now complete, but his publisher had other ideas. If Fauré would only orchestrate the piece for full orchestra (the 1894 version has no violin section, no winds, and only modest use of brass), both Fauré and the publisher could make a little extra money by encouraging performances with symphony orchestras. Fauré was lukewarm to the idea, and only reluctantly undertook the expanded orchestration. Many commentators have suggested that the version for full orchestra, better known today, misses out on the more sombre and intimate sound of the chamber orchestra version, which is closer to Fauré’s original intentions. He also famously remarked about the work: “People said it did not express the terror of death, someone called it a berceuse of death. But that is how I feel death: as a happy deliverance, a yearning for the happiness of the beyond.”

In approaching the work, we also wanted to reflect how French singers in Fauré’s time pronounced Latin. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, visitors to France would often comment on how different French Latin was from other places in Europe, some of them notating what the differences were. This rather unique pronunciation lasted into the 20th century: there is a fascinating early recording of the Requiem which, despite the poor sound fidelity, makes clear the old pronunciation, which has been mostly lost since.

To represent the 20th century, what better work than Stravinsky’s choral masterpiece Symphony of Psalms! The work was the result of a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. It is sometimes said to come from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, but what it more clearly references is the Baroque period, especially the music of J. S. Bach. The first movement is like a chorale prelude, with a slow moving choral melody embedded in a more vigorous orchestral texture. The second movement is a double fugue, and in the first theme, the four highest notes are A, B-flat, B-natural and C. In German notation b-natural is called “H”, so the four notes spell Bach’s name! (backwards, or in retrograde, another contrapuntal device used by Bach). Despite these neo-Baroque gestures, the piece is unmistakably Stravinsky, full of his characteristic drive and power.

And to look to the 21st century, and the future of the Mendelssohn Choir, we commissioned Andrew Balfour to write a piece. A new psalm, in one of this land’s indigenous languages, to join the other great psalm settings on the program!

David Fallis, Interim Conductor and Artistic Advisor

Composer Andrew Balfour comments on Mamachimowin

“Mamachimowin (The act of singing praises) is a choral work that explores the difficult relationship between Indigenous spirituality and the impact of the Christian culture on First Nations people.  Translating Psalm 67 into Cree, I wanted to add a musical perspective that added a dimension of fragmentation into the structure of the work.  Also I wanted to utilize the instrumentation of violas, cellos and double basses to give the idea of the strings representing a foundation of the ground, or Mother Earth.  I wanted to present the idea of musical tension and musical phrases along with the choir whispering some of the text to add an element of uncertainty.  Many thanks to David Fallis and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for commissioning this work, and I am so honoured to be part of this concert that celebrates the choral legacy of Canada’s oldest choir.  Chi Migwiich!”