Downers Grove 
Choral Society

PROGRAM NOTES – FOR LOVE OF SONG


Music has always been closely associated with the concept of love. This is not surprising, given Hans Christian Anderson’s assessment regarding the power of music, “Where words fail, music speaks.” The joys and pains of love often leave us speechless and music fills the wordless void. Today’s concert, For Love of Song, explores many diverse styles of music which likewise express the many diverse aspects of love, romantic and otherwise.

The most important secular genre of the Renaissance was the madrigal, a secular vocal composition that encouraged composers to creatively express emotion-filled poetry, often about love. While the genre originated in Italy, England saw a much-heralded, though short-lived, madrigal tradition including the publication of over forty separate books of English madrigals between the years 1588-1624. The trio of English madrigals that opens this concert features Sing we and chant it, a light ballet of Thomas Morley (c. 1557-1602) complete with characteristically witty rhymes and “fa-la-la” passages.  John Bennet’s (c. 1570-after 1614) Weep, O mine eyes, written in an imitative, polyphonic style, begins with a quotation of the well-known English lute ayre, Flow, my tears, by John Dowland (1563-1626). The set concludes with John Farmer’s (c. 1570-1605) evocative and pastoral madrigal Fair Phyllis I saw, which is replete with text painting and double entendre.

Der Abend (The Evening) is a vocal quartet by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), which sets a nocturnal and myth-infused poem by the German romantic Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). The quartet is a picture of a hot summer afternoon cooling into night. Schiller evokes various deities of Greek mythology as Phoebus (Apollo) rides the chariot of the sun across the sky toward the beckoning invitation of the sea goddess Thetys. As the sun reaches the sea’s horizon, Phoebus leaps into the arms of the goddess while his chariot’s horses are attended by Cupid, the god of love. As the lovers embrace, the world settles into the sweetness of night. Brahms masterfully captures the emotions of languish, excitement, and stillness expressed in Schiller’s poem.

Eric Whitacre’s (b. 1970) Five Hebrew Love Songs is a profoundly personal set of songs with poetry written by his then girlfriend, Hila Plitmann. Plitmann, a native Hebrew speaker born in Jerusalem, wrote these five delicately poetic “postcards” while the couple was traveling to Germany to give a concert together with friend and violinist Friedemann Eichhorn. Whitacre shares that, “each of the songs captures a moment that Hila and I shared together.  ‘Kalá Kallá’ (which mean ‘light bride’) was a pun I came up with while she was first teaching me Hebrew. The bells at the beginning of ‘Éyze Shéleg!’ (What snow!) are the exact pitches that awakened us each morning in Germany as they rang from the nearby cathedral.” These songs are “born out of my new love for this soprano, poet, and now my beautiful wife.”   

Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme is a folksong from British Columbia that shares similarities to the English ballad Scarborough Fair. In this song a girl requests three things of her suitor, an acre of land, ploughed, and reaped, before he can be her true love. He, not to be outdone, requests three things of her, a fine shirt, washed, and dried. This arrangement by Canadian composer Donald Patriquin (b. 1938) captures this lively and vivacious dialogue between young lovers.

The Four Robert Burns Ballads of James Mulholland (b. 1935) are gems of American choral literature. At one time, A Red, Red Rose was the highest selling choral piece in the country. The pieces are masterful settings of the poetry of Robert Burns (1759-1796), the much-celebrated romantic who is heralded as the national poet of Scotland. Burns, also known as the Bard of Ayrshire, is well regarded for his use of Scots-English, which has been preserved in these musical settings. The set celebrates the beauty of love, how nature reminds us of this beauty, the joy of female companionship, and the sorrow of loves lost.    


The Rose, the Briar, and the Bicycle is a triptych of ballads and love songs for chorus, oboe, and piano arranged by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947). This concert features the first two pieces of the three, The Rose and the Briar, based on the English ballad “Barbara Allen,” and Dinner for the Family, based on the folk ballad “The Fox.” In both arrangements the oboe plays a prominent role by adding commentary to the action of the two stories. In The Rose the instrument reflects the buds of May, the dying Sweet William, Barbara’s indifference and dancing as well as her hardheartedness and eventual lamentation.  In Dinner the oboe portrays the scurrying fox, the awakened farmer, the sound of the horn, the quacking duck, and the fox running back to her den.

Look at the World is an “environmental” anthem which the British composer John Rutter (b. 1945) composed in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The anthem, with original words by Rutter, is a wonder-filled reaction to the greatest gift of love, the creation.

Program Notes by John Rakes