H-R Collegium Musicum: Many Moods of Text-Setting

by Gabrielle Lochard

This past Saturday the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, conducted by Kevin Leong, associate conductor of the Holden Choirs, presented Motets and Madrigals, a joint program with the Radcliffe Choral Society (conducted on Saturday by Andrew Clark). The Collegium program was particularly remarkable for its strong sense of programmatic thrust - it was "all about death," as Leong summarized to the audience.

Though representative of a wide array of compositional styles ranging from the Renaissance (Victoria, Byrd) and Early Baroque (Monteverdi) to the 20th century (Barber’s Reincarnations), the pieces in Collegium’s set were all strongly related to a central narrative theme. As Leong explained during the concert, motets, rooted in the French for mot (word), and madrigals, its secular counterpart, are genres whose prevalent feature is sensitivity to the text.

This is especially true of the madrigal, and Claudio Montiverdi, one of the masters of the Renaissance Italian madrigal, was notable for, among other things, essentially spawning a compositional ideology in which the rules of music were deliberately broken in service of the text. Fitting for the inherent stress on text in both of these forms, the programmatic ties in the Collegium’s set on Saturday between pieces were largely based in textual relationships.

Leong, who will be leading the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio next month, explained some of the rationale behind his programming: "I tried to choose a program that was very interconnected. That is, there was the idea of Victoria’s celebration of his death [in O quam glorisum est regnum], but also music he wrote [Versa est in luctum]for funerals and for feasts of the church year. And for the madrigals, I chose madrigals that had this innuendo of death and lust. I mean, I call the program ‘death and love and memory,’ because it was death as death for the motets, and then it was about death and love for the [Renaissance] madrigals. Then, in the Reincarnations, the fact that the poems were called reincarnations by the poet implies that there is some sort of remembrance of something that has past that is living again some other way."

In a way, the program was also a walk through "many moods of text-setting." The stylistic variety in the program offered a window into different approaches to setting text. In some cases, this meant more straightforward pictorialisms, like the canonic river in James Erb’s arrangement of Shenandoah, or the dissonant harmonic mimesis in Monteverdi’s less-than-PG blazon/madrigal Si ch’io vorrei morire.

Elsewhere, in the Barber and in the Renaissance pieces, text illustration was not so much a question of literal illustration, so much as a more general affect.

"It’s worthwhile considering what the composer’s problem is when they sit down in front of a blank page - where are they going to draw their inspiration from exactly, you know, what is going to give them their first idea, how are they going to organize their music," said Leong. "Also, when a composer has to set text, he or she is interpreting the poem or the text . For example, if you look at the original settings of the Barber poems, which are by James Stephens, you can see that the poem for the first movement just ends with one word - ‘Airily.’ So you’re reading the poem, and you’re like ‘Oh that’s really beautiful.’ So then, when you perform it, even though you’re saying ‘airily’ five times, you realize that those five times really have to feel like one thing."

[Caption: PHOTO BY Jason Black '13]