• 2(pic).2(ca).2.2/4.3Ctpt(Bbpictpt).2.0/3perc/hp/str
  • SATB chorus
  • Soprano
  • 15 min

Programme Note

Composer’s Note:

Chanting to Paradise for solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra is a 15-minute work based upon texts by the American poet Emily Dickinson. It is scored for light lyric soprano, chorus, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (oboe #2 very briefly doubles English horn in F), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 1 piccolo trumpet (briefly doubles trumpet in C), 2 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, 3 percussion [vibraphone (bow needed), suspended cymbal, xylophone, large woodblock, tubular chimes, glockenspiel, large tam-tam, bongo, medium triangle, small triangle, crotales (bow needed), bass drum, medium triangle, small triangle], harp, and strings.

Commissioned by NDR (North German Radio Orchestra), Chanting to Paradise is dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach and NDR with admiration and gratitude. The work's American premiere was presented in January 2003 by Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Mozart is one of my musical heroes, and so it was with both nervousness and great joy that I accepted a commission from the North German Radio Orchestra to write a multi-movement companion piece to Mozart's sublime Requiem, his last work. Christoph Eschenbach had conceived a concert series for NDR in which "unfinished" works were to be paired with new compositions; my commissioned piece, entitled Chanting to Paradise, was to commence immediately after the first few bars of the "Lacrymose," exactly where Mozart had died while writing the Requiem. (Traditionally, Mozart1s Requiem is played in versions "completed" by other composers.)

The task required of me to fulfill this commission seemed challenging conceptually for many reasons. For what could I possibly compose that would be worthy to follow any bar of music that Mozart had written? And how does one start such a piece of music? What texts should I use? What formal scheme made sense, given that this piece was meant also to stand alone as an independent concert work? These and many other questions perplexed me as I began to compose Chanting to Paradise.

While I was grappling with all these musical issues, I reread the complete works of Emily Dickinson, another of my heroes. I selected about 30 poems of hers for possible inclusion in Chanting to Paradise, and ultimately used five of them. Dickinson was a prolific poet and her words — which are full of magic, tenderness, intimacy, a single-minded vision, spirituality, and grace — seemed to resonate with my conception of, and dreams about, this composition. I deeply respect her short, sparse, powerful texts, and seek to reflect them in my music.

Chanting to Paradise begins with the chorus quietly extending the many "oo" vowels in Mozart's final phrase: "qua resurget ex favilla judicandus homo reus." Humming almost inaudibly at first, the music seems to emanate from the perfume of Mozart's final earthly tones. From this, the word "pass," from a poem by Dickinson, emerges.

To me, this poem bestows a perfect means to glide from one world to another. The music is quiet, smooth, and elegant. The teardrop motives of Mozart's "Lachrymose" return, although transformed. Dickinson's inspired notion that death is a "Rendezvous of Light" also captured my attention and led me to make the sun an important part of Chanting to Paradise. After the resonance rises, as if the sun were climbing up a landscape, step by step, the first movement ends gently, in a suspended fashion.

The second movement erupts with great flair, ablaze with color and energy. The alternating lines "Bubble! Bubble!, Quick! Burst the Windows!," "Phials left, and the Sun!" lead right into the third poem, which describes a sunrise and a sunset, and reminds us of her concept of a "Rendezvous of Light."

The piece's bold second and third movements sparkle with and celebrate the kaleidoscopic possibilities of the orchestra1s vocal and instrumental ensembles. I loved Dickinson's image that the sun is a Juggler of Day; moreover, when the sun sets we land in the unstoppable night.

The fourth movement of Chanting to Paradise features the string section, which plays most often in two-part writing, perhaps symbolizing intertwined people. The movement starts dramatically, but transforms into graceful and pure sounds by its conclusion. At this instant, the chorus erupts.

At the very end of the work, the voices slowly rise from the depths.

As I wrote Chanting to Paradise, each movement took on a distinct character, manner, mood, and purpose. And because of the specific mandate given me for this commission — to compose music that would commence at the very place Mozart had died while writing his Requiem — Chanting to Paradise has proven to be slightly different from my other compositions, which tend to be more edgy and abstract than this work.

—Augusta Read Thomas