The Composition of the Christmas Cantata, Its Recording and Structure The Second Cantata was begun in the winter of 1977 and finished in the following fall, most of it written in the quiet of the Day Missions Library of Yale’s Divinity School. As an undergraduate at Wheaton College, Linton had been deeply affected by hearing the first recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “St Luke Passion.” Suddenly, Linton believed, he was hearing a piece of new music that made the biblical text seem “real.” It convinced him that the way to write particularly Christian music lay in the avant-garde and not in more traditional vocabularies. After having completed graduate work at the University of Cincinnati (where he studied with T. S. Huston) Linton went to Yale for the primary purpose of studying with Penderecki and in its vocal writing and color the cantata is deeply indebted to Polish composer’s work. The cantata is dedicated to him.
Michael Linton in 1978 and the Day Missions Library at Yale. The cantata was written at the table in the alcove at the left, lit by the sun.
Bruce MacCombie, with whom Linton was also studying, suggested the cantata to soprano Phyllis Curtain, who was teaching at Yale at the time. Curtain declined to premier the piece, thinking that it was probably too difficult for anyone to perform. The New York coloratura mezzo-soprano Kathleen Shimeta thought otherwise and in 1989 premiered the cantata in January at New York’s Merkin Hall—indeed, without Shimeta’s dedication to the work Linton says that he would have probably abandoned the project all together. The performance also included Janet Linton (piano), Frances Harmeyer (flute/piccolo), John Mastrioanni (clarinet), Jeff Albright (trumpet), Elizabeth Froehrip (electronic keyboard) and Art Lipner (percussion).
The cantata was not performed again for twenty years when a grant from the Joyce Fund made the present recording possible. The project was a reunion of Wheaton alumni; Jerry Blackstone (conductor), Wendy White (mezzo soprano), Janet Linton (pianist) and Michael Linton had all been undergraduate classmates at the Wheaton Conservatory in the early 1970’s. They were joined by Middle Tennessee State faculty David See (electronic keyboard), Deanna Little (flute/piccolo), Todd Waldecker (clarinet), Michael Ardnt (trumpet), Lalo Davila (percussion), Jean Bills (cello) and MTSU alumna Elizabeth Linton (soprano). The cantata was recorded in MTSU’s internationally known recording facilities and Michael Fleming served as the project’s coordinating engineer. The thirty years since the cantata’s composition had not made the work much easier. White, who had sung over forty roles as a member of the Metropolitan Opera, coached the piece in New York with the staff of the Met; the one conductor who specialized in twentieth century opera echoed Phyllis Curtain when she warned White that she thought that the cantata was the most difficult piece she had coached. Over the spring of 2009, Linton rehearsed his MTSU colleagues in Murfreesboro and in the last week of May Blackstone, who came from Ann Arbor, and White, coming from New York, joined the ensemble in Tennessee for four days of rehearsal and taping. The process of editing the
Jerry Blackstone and Wendy White recording the Cantata, May, 2009
takes extended over a year. Combined with carols Linton had written for Mary Hopper and the Wheaton Women’s Chorale, the cantata was released as “Christmas Music” in the fall of 2010, over thirty years after its composition. Although Henry Vaughan’s texts provide the shape of the cantata, at a deeper level Linton structures the progression through the movements to reflect the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Published in 1563, the catechism was an attempt to provide a document that presented teachings on which Lutherans and Calvinists agreed and because of this character stands as of the great documents of the Reformation. As was typical of catechisms of the day, it is a series of questions and answers. The second question of the catechism outlines the progression from repentance through deliverance to thanksgiving: Question. 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily? Answer. Three; (a) the first, how great my sins and miseries are; (b) the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; (c) the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance. Although the cantata does not follow the progression of the questions mechanistically, the second movement, with its invitation for deliverance (“Leave then thy foolish rages. . .”) and extended alleluias presents the second two questions. The first movement centers on the catechism’s first question--the extraordinary melisma its direct, and wordless (because words can not convey such knowledge) expression. Unlike the First Cantata (which is based on a series of five-pitch rows) the Second Cantata’s pitch material is freely atonal, the contrapuntal relationships as well as the harmonies being determined primarily intuitively. Woven through this texture are quotations from the Bach Cantatas No. 80 and 140, the chorale “Wake, Awake for Night is flying” and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. In concert, cantata opens with a performance, recorded on LP, of the aria “Komm in mein Herzens haus” from Bach’s Cantata No. 80, played on a turntable. This purposely distorted and antiquated sound is suddenly interrupted by the beginning of the cantata proper with the full ensemble (“Awake, awake!”).
Opening of the soprano aria, Bach Cantata No 80 (“Ein feste Burg”) “Come in my heart’s house, Lord Jesus my beloved”)
First verse of the Advent chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” in its traditional translation, used by Bach in his Cantata No. 140
Part of the free counterpoint that accompanies the chorale from the fourth movement of Bach’s Cantata 140 (here it accompanies the text, “Zion hears the watchmen singing”)
Although the quotations enrich the music by incorporating within it contrasting layers of musical styles (and extending the concept of musical dissonance to include style as well as intervallic structure, something George Rochberg was doing in his string quartets of the same period), Linton’s interest in the quotations’ purely musical aspects is secondary to his purpose of exegeting Vaughan’s text. Linton expects his listeners to hear not only the older music but to remember the words and even situations associated it. The rising triad of the chorale Linton expects to immediately bring to his listeners’ minds the words of the hymn, “Wake, awake” and to recognize the direct relationship between those
words and Vaughan’s poem. But more than that, Linton expects his listeners to also remember the Bach cantata based on that same chorale, a relationship that Linton further emphasis by quoting the famous free counterpoint of Bach’s setting in his cantata of the chorale’s second verse: “Zion hears the watchmen singing”. That relationship in turn suggests the watchmen in Luke: the shepherds, who were “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” It was the shepherds who, when first told of the Incarnation, were afraid. Fear, caused by full recognition of sin in the light of Divine Majesty, lies behind the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism and has an important role in Linton’s thought. Sitz in Lebend (Ger: “setting in life”) is a concept that examines a text not only for its linguistic meaning but also for the significance it has in the life of a particular community. Although it is now used in a variety of disciplines whenever an artifact is examined for its sociological importance, it was originally introduced in New Testament studies and played an important role in the instruction Linton was receiving at the Yale Divinity School at the same time he was composing the cantata. Even though the cantata is a concert piece and not a liturgical work, the quotations and the complexity of their references testifies to the fact the Linton’s intended audience is not a secular one but a Christian one (and probably Protestant), or at least an audience familiar with the religious, as well as the artistic, traditions on which Linton builds. Without knowing the “setting in life” of the various quotations within Christian communities they can be little more than curiosities. But there are two places where the cantata’s quotations require further comment. Both are in the first movement. At rehearsal letter “B” Linton prominently includes a paraphrase the most famous theme in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. What is this melody, associated with an opera dealing with adultery, greed, and duplicity, doing here as an introduction to the text, “Man is their high priest. . . .”?
From Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
Linton paraphrase, mov’t one, “B”
The musical similarity between Strauss’ motif and both the “Wachet auf” chorale and Bach’s free counterpoint in Cantata 140 offer a musical justification for the melody’s inclusion. But there is more. Although Strauss uses the theme throughout the opera, its most importance appearance is in the second act where it accompanies Octavian’s presentation of the rose to Sofie.
The “Presentation of the Rose”, Der Rosenkavalier, Act II Covent Garden production, London
Here, in a setting of almost liturgical formality and dazzling radiance, Strauss’ Octavian takes on a god-like character as the bringer of love, a love that will transform Octavian and Sofie and radiate through the rest of the opera, bringing both transformation and justice. By placing the quotation before the introduction of Vaughan’s characterization of man as “high priest,” Linton is asking his listeners to consider the multiple parallels between Octavian’s love of Sophie, Christ as the high priest/lover of his spouse the church, and Vaughan’s universalized “man” who is the high priest of the earthly order which he husbands. The quotation is recognized, its place in the opera and its staging are remembered, and its immediate placement in the cantata is considered. By extending the Sitz in Leben of these measures beyond his listeners’ specifically Christian boundaries to include one of the most famous scenes of the West’s erotic tradition, Linton seeks to suggest how the sacred embraces and sanctifies the profane. The Rosenkavalier quote extends the cantata’s world. The quotation of the soprano melisma from Bach’s Cantata No. 80 pulls it back in, narrowing it, and serves as the introduction to the cantata’s most introspective—and brutal—moment.
The third stanza of Vaughan’s text concludes with the image of the creatures of the air-birds or stars--singing to God. The instrumental presentation of the chorale “Wachet auf” is a natural progression from that textual reference to a performance of a hymn itself. But Linton concludes the hymn surprisingly. He transforms it into a quotation of a quotation. The ensemble returns to the Bach quote that began the movement but this time the Baroque instruments are replaced by the modern ensemble and the trumpet is given the soprano part. Linton gradually diminishes the texture and reduces the volume until trumpet alone has the melisma that earlier carried the words “Herr Jesu mein Verlangen”, “Lord Jesus, for whom I long.” The Sitz in Leben here is narrow—the opposite of the world suggested by the earlier Strauss quote--extending no further back than the beginning of the performance. The affect here is to both focus the listeners’ attentions on the words they remember having heard at the cantata’s opening and to constrict the music’s atmosphere, giving it a sense of psychological heaviness, of burden. The music turns in on itself and its world is cramped. Narrow, constricted, cramped, solitary--like a dungeon and it is out of this musical prison that Linton has the mezzo soprano sing alone about the burden of sin, the fear it causes and the agony it inflicts. As the mezzo soprano progresses through her solitary cadenza Linton strips Vaughan’s text of syntactical meaning by sustaining the poet’s “and” to where it becomes a naked vowel of sustained pain. Eventually Linton extends this process to the score itself, stripping it of notation, leaving the singer only jagged lines. Whereas the first movement primarily focuses up the cadenza and the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question, in the second movement Linton focuses upon a lullaby and a series of “rotating” alleluias. When Vaughan points to a “land far beyond the stars” he is referencing the ancient model of the universe in which a series of orbs encapsulate each other like Russian dolls. The earth is encapsulated within the orbit of the moon, the moon within the orbit of the Mercury, Mercury encapsulated within the orbit of Venus, Venus within the orbit of the Sun, the Sun within Mars, Mars within Jupiter, and Jupiter within Saturn. Encapsulating
Saturn’s orbit is the orbit of the “fixed stars” or constellations (the “planets” are stars that “wander” through the heavens, from the Greek verb planeo, (to wander) and beyond the fixed stars is the shell of the Primum Mobile, or “first movement.” God, who beyond the Primum Mobile embraces all of His creation, animates the cosmos through setting the Primum Moblie in motion with His love. It is here, in the true heaven, or the caelum ipsum, where God dwells with the elect. When Vaughan is speaking of the country far beyond the stars, he is talking about the caelum ipsum. The orbiting spheres of Vaughan’s cosmos are directly referenced in the “alleluias” which Linton adds to the beginning and end of the text. Linton assigns to each of the instrumentalists a unique series of brief melodies or chords, the mezzo-soprano, usually doubled by the clarinet, singing “alleluia.” Called “wheels” because, wheel-like, the figures continually repeat, the musicians proceed independently from each other, each performing their assigned wheel at a different tempo and for a different length of time. Linton did not invent this device, it is borrowed from the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), but as with his use of quotation, Linton’s uses the wheels to express the text. His music’s contrapuntal form parallels Vaughan’s poetic conceit, the orbits of the heavenly bodies paralleled in the rotating musical wheels.
Linton, Cantata No. 2, 2nd movement, showing the independent wheels that begin the movement’s final section
A final word needs to be said about the relationship between the cantata and the Protestant Cathedral of Notre Dame in Lausanne, Switzerland. In the summer of 1973
Linton heard the cathedral bells peal while standing directly beneath them before singing a concert in the cathedral. He said “I had never heard a sound like that before--or since— it was a roar that seemed like the apotheosis of joy.” Those same bells had influenced Stravinsky when he was working on Les Noces and they inspired the closing moments of both movements of Linton’s cantata: the first ending in what Linton called “the full peal of the frenzy of joy” and the second movement finishing quietly, in the eternity of peace beyond time, in the caelum ipsum. But there is another relationship between the cathedral and the Linton’s cantata. For centuries, all over Europe watchman kept their posts on battlements and church towers watching for the danger of fire or foe. Today, Lausanne is the only city in Europe that still employs a watchman who, nightly from the tower of the cathedral stands watch, calling out the hours between 10 pm to 2 am with C'est le guet; il a sonné l'heure ("This is the night watch; the hour has struck"). Linton uses the cathedral herself--with her watchman-as a veiled witness to the cantata’s purpose, a purpose that isn’t spoken directly in Vaughan’s poems or sung in the cantata at all but is instead silent, in memories of the listeners, in their remembered text of the chorale from the first movement as they listen at its close, and the chorale’s call of the watchman: “Wake, awake, for night is flying; The watchmen on the heights are crying: Awake, Jerusalem, at last!” Linton inscribed on his score the question: “ . . . . what would it be like if God came, and we believed it?”
The bells of the Cathedral of Lausanne can be heard by clicking here.