WHY WE SING
June 4, 2016
Mary Jane Matecki
We open our Fiftieth Anniversary Concert with How Can I Keep From Singing?, which is based on a Quaker hymn arranged by Gwyneth Walker. Ms. Walker states “The hymn dates back to the 1800’s in the United States. References to the persecution of Friends (Quakers) may be heard in the lyrics. Yet faith and courage prevail. This arrangement emphasizes the celebratory and life-affirming aspects of the song.” How Can I Keep From Singing has become, for the members of NWCS, an anthem that expresses for us the strength and joy we experience from singing together.
We continue with Blue Skies, written by Irving Berlin and arranged by Roger Emerson. Blue Skies was composed in 1926 as a last-minute addition to the Rodgers and Hart musical Betsy. In 1927 it became one of the first songs to be featured in a “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. Blue Skies was recorded by Benny Goodman and his Orchestra in 1935. In 1946 Bing Crosby and Fred Astair used Blue Skies in a film by the same title. 1946 also saw versions by Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye performed the song in White Christmas in 1954. Other recordings have been done by Willie Nelson, Moon Mullican and Jim Reeves.
Motown was a record company, a musical style, and a corporation with several subsidiary labels. Founded in Detroit in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Jr. as an independent, black-owned business, it became a formidable phenomenon in the music business. Motown, a popular slang contraction of motor town, has had an impressive list of classic hit songs and its artists, producers, songwriters, and musicians have had an enormous influence on contemporary music to this day.
In 1958, Gordy started a publishing company, Jobete Music, and also formed Berry Gordy, Jr. Enterprises. In 1959, at the urging of Smokey Robinson, he founded Tamla Records and Gordy Records using an $800 loan from his family. These were the first of the companies that would eventually become the Motown empire. Over the next ten years, Motown, with Gordy as chief executive, chief shareholder, and often producer and songwriter, produced dozens of pop and rhythm-and-blues hits that became the new style known as soul music.
In 1957 Berry Gordy met and began working with Smokey Robinson who, at the time, was then lead singer and composer for The Matadors (later known as The Miracles). The Miracles were one of the first acts Gordy signed and Robinson eventually became a vice president of Motown. Gordy began to attract young unknown singers like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, and Stevie Wonder. The songwriting team of Eddie Holland, brother Brian, and Lamont Dozier began to write songs for Gordy. Many Motown performers came to Gordy as unpolished talents who were still in, or barely out of their teens. He guided them, brought in professionals to teach them how to talk, dress, and move onstage.
Not all of Gordy’s acts were novices. He signed The Four Tops, The Temptations and The Jackson 5 who all enjoyed even greater success under Gordy.
In the 1960’s, crossover between African American and white cultures in America was rare. Over a period of years, Gordy, with the help of exceptional writers and producers, developed what has become known as the “Motown Style.” Starting with the strong sonic identity of the songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland, and including the infectious gospel-inspired sounds, the music appealed to teenagers of all races and backgrounds. The music was danceable and soulfully romantic. The beats were crisp and lively and were characterized by the pounding, finger-snapping rhythms provided by The Funk Brothers, Motown’s in-house band.
Motown lyrics centered on the youthful concerns such as falling in, or out, of love, devotion to or yearning for one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, dancing, and having fun. Recordings coming out of Motown, avoided traditional Black blues, with its references to sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and gloomy, tragic love affairs. Gordy called it, as a marketing hook, “The Sound of Young America.”
Gordy was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Forever Motown is a medley of many of these hits arranged by Roger Emerson.
The Negro Spiritual, regarded as the first American folk music, grew out of the experiences of slaves in the South. Spirituals functioned as a means of self-encouragement, and it was used to communicate with other slaves via coded messages. Spirituals and other slave songs were preserved by oral tradition since literacy was unlawful for slaves.
The lyrics of spirituals were tightly linked with the lives of their authors: slaves. While work songs dealt only with their daily life, spirituals were inspired by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, “You can be saved.” The spirituals are different from hymns and psalms, in that they share the hard condition of being a slave.
Many slaves in town and on plantations tried to run to a “free country” that they called “my home” or “Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land.” This “free country” was on the Northern side of the Ohio River, that they called the “Jordan.” Some spirituals refer to the Underground Railroad, an organization for helping slaves escape to the North.
Spirituals fall into three basic categories:
Elijah Rock (arr. Jester Hairston) Ezekial Saw the Wheel (arr. Kirby Shaw) and Singing in the Spirit (a compilation of two spirituals – I’m Gonna Sing and Every Time I Feel the Spirit arr. Albrecht) are arrangements of traditional spirituals. They all are examples of fast and rhythmic Spirituals. Singing in the Spirit is also an example of a spiritual with a coded message referring to the Underground Railroad.
We go from the spiritual to Broadway and the movies. Les Misérable was adapted by Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer from the book by Victor Hugo and set to music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Misérable opened in England to dismissive reviews. However, the public loved it and nowLes Misérableshas become the world’s longest-running musical overtaking Cats.
May It Be was composed by Irish recording artist Enya with Roma Ryan for the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring. The lyrics include English words, as well as words in the fictional Elvish language, Quenya, created by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien himself said of Quenya, “Actually it might be said to be composed on a Latin basis with two other ingredients that happen to give me ‘phonaesthetic’ pleasure: Finnish and Greek. It is, however, less consonantal than any of the three. This language is High-elven or in its own terms Quenya.” Two lines in May It Be contain phrases written in Quenya. The first is Morniё utúliё which translates to “Darkness has come.” Morniё alantiё which translates as “Darkness has fallen.” Each line repeats twice in the song. The Quenya lyrics are intermingled with the English lyrics.
Daniel R. Salotti was commissioned by the Northwest Choral Society to compose a song for the chorus’ 50th anniversary. The result was O Song. It combines a melody that came almost instantly into Mr. Salotti’s mind, and the text was adapted from a variety of interest sessions the singers of the NWCS shared about being a part of the chorus. The work was premiered at the Illinois Chapter of the American Choral Director’s Association fall conference, October 25, 2014.
In 1958, Randall Thompson was commissioned to compose a piece celebrating the 200th anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. The townspeople suggested that Thompson set to music a poem by Frost, the quintessential New England poet who had lived for a time in Amherst. Thompson agreed, but rejected the town’s choice of poem, The Gift Outright. Instead, he chose to compose a suite of seven of Frost’s poems, and titled it Frostiana and subtitled it Seven Country Songs. Thompson chose well – not only favorites, like The Road Not Taken, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and The Pasture, but the relatively obscure, like The Telephone and A Girl’s Garden.
Thompson made an effort to match his music to Frost’s poetry, particularly in terms of the themes of everyday life, rural tradition, and nature that Frost highlights in his works. As a result, Frostiana has the same appealing, colloquial elements found in Frost’s poetry, but with the additional layer of musical language. For example, A Girl’s Garden and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening both have folksy melodies, while Come In features (in orchestrated form) a flute solo that imitates the sound of a thrush.
This layering effect of musical meaning over poetic meaning is particularly clear in the final movement of the piece, Choose Something Like a Star, which we will perform tonight. In the opening and closing sections, the sopranos sing the text “O star” on a high D and hold the note for several measures while the rest of the voices continue with the text of the poem. By placing the held soprano line high above the other voices, Thompson creates a musical image of the distant star that reassures mankind.
Thompson himself conducted the premiere of Frostiana at the U.S. Bicentennial Commemoration on October 18, 1959, in Amherst. The Bicentennial Chorus, comprised of singers from throughout the township, was accompanied on the piano, as Thompson didn’t orchestrate the work until 1965. Robert Frost attended, and was so delighted that at the conclusion of the performance, he rose to his feet and shouted, “Sing that again!” In fact, he was so impressed by the composition that he banned any other composers from setting his poems to music.
In “A German Requiem,” Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) did not use the liturgical texts of the Latin Requiem Mass, but biblical passages of meditation and solace which he himself chose. He labored over the work for eleven years (from 1857 to 1868), and it is his longest major work. The Requiem is written with the Romantic era’s feeling, clothed with the opulent colors of nineteenth-century harmony, regulated always by spacious formal architecture and guided by an unerring judgment for choral and orchestral effect. The shortest and the most recognized movement of “A German Requiem” is the gorgeous chorus of tranquility, “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.”
Northwest Choral Society’s Mission statement says, in part, “Northwest Choral Society believes music transforms our lives, develops creativity and musical expression, and unites all people into a community.”
Why We Sing by Greg Gilpin exemplifies that statement. Sung by thousands throughout the world, this contemporary work is an anthem for choral groups and music programs internationally.
The text describes the heart of each performer’s purpose in singing and the powerful force music plays in musicians’ lives and for all humanity.
Inside front cover of the octavo of “How Can I Keep From Singing”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Skies_(Irving_Berlin_song) Accessed on 5/11/16
The program notes for NWCS Concert SHOUT! June 9 & 10, 2012 Mary Jane Matecki & Alan Wellman
http://symposium.music.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=8775:negro-spirituals-and-gospel-music-is-there-a-diff&Itemid=133 Accesed on 5/11/16
http://www.artofthenegrospiritual.com/research/GospelTruthNegroSpiritual.pdf Accessed on 5/11/16
http://www.lesmis.com/broadway/history/creation-of-a-musical/ Accessed on 5/10/16
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_It_Be Accessed on 5/11/16
Program notes for NWCS Concert “Americana,” June, 2011, Mary Jane Matecki and Alan Wellman