• John Harbison
  • Chorale Cantata (1995)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • ob; 2vn, va, vc, db
  • Soprano
  • 10 min
  • English; Martin Luther, Michael Fried

Programme Note

One of the most prominent American composers of recent years, John Harbison has had his music performed and recorded by major orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists in this country and abroad. Active as a conductor as well as a composer, Mr. Harbison has held the Creative Chair at Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and has served as composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, he has taught at Boston University, the California Institute of the Arts and Duke University, and presently serves on the music faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Harbison has been honored with numerous grants and prizes, most notably the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his cantata The Flight into Egypt and the prestigious Arthur Award, bestowed in 1989.

Mr. Harbison wrote Chorale Cantata in 1994 for Peggy Pearson and Dawn Upshaw. The composer has had a longstanding interest in the music of J. S. Bach, particularly the Baroque composer’s church cantatas, which he has conducted in highly regarded performances. Chorale Cantata offers a present-day updating of the type of Lutheran cantata Bach cultivated so assiduously. Like Bach’s sacred cantatas, it is based on a traditional Protestant chorale, or hymn tune, in this case Aus tiefer Not schei’ich zu dir (“From deep despair I cry to you”), composed by Martin Luther. This melody appears conspicuously in the first two movements and is subtly woven into the third movement’s aria as well.

Both the Chorale Prelude and Chorale Fantasia, movements I and II, extend the venerable practice of embedding a chorale melody within a larger musical structure – or, from a different perspective, clothing the hymn tune in a raiment of elaborate counterpoint. Bach practiced such contrapuntal embroidery around chorale melodies in both instrumental and vocal compositions, and the opening movements of Chorale Cantata examine Luther’s in both these contexts.

Bach’s cantatas generally draw their texts from both Lutheran chorales and verses by contemporary poets. In keeping with this practice, the third movement of Mr. Harbison’s work, a recitative and aria, sets lines by the present-day poet Michael Fried. His verses, while not ecclesiastical, nevertheless reflect on mortality, a favorite theme of the Lutheran poets with whom Bach collaborated in composing his church cantatas. The work closes, as Bach’s church cantatas typically do, with a relatively straightforward chorale rendition.

Chorale Cantata

I. Chorale Prelude

II. Chorale Fantasia

From deep despair I cry to you
Lord God, you hear me crying.
Your gracious ear can surely hear,
Your grace can ease my sighing.
No matter what, I know you see
All sin and guilty that harries me,
For no one can outstay you.
From deep despair I call again:
Give ear to me and heal my pain.
My only hope is lodged in you-
Please take my hand and lead me through;
And if I die before you take me back
You must forgive the things I lack.
In this vale of tears
Show me how to rule my fears.
My sins have weighed me down so long
But only this defeat can make me strong.

—Martin Luther

III. Recitative and Aria

A Block of Ice
I stamp my foot and a black wave races across the field,
I close my eyes and white stones spring up that I must avoid,
My hand in the freezing water gropes for but
fails to find a block of ice.
On which to sign my name and the date and hour
of my death.

In a New Apartment
I open the curtains
And go back to bed.
Lying there I can see
The tower of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette
Massive, undecorated,
Not at all beautiful,
Nor indeed magnificent,
Not even in an unconventional way.

But, already,
A dark beacon
In the darker night
For my sleepless thoughts,
The fears that gather
As if outside the body
(and as if on wings)
To consecrate my rest.

—Michael Fried

IV. Chorale

If still today our sin is great
God’s grace takes sin away.
His helping hand will not abate
No matter how we stray.
He is alone our Savior
Who has released is evermore
From all our sin and error.

—Martin Luther