Shakespearean Song Cycles


Dear Friend of Sacred and Profane,

In my last letter to you, I talked about the women composers that we’re featuring in our upcoming concerts of Shakespeare settings on March 4th and 5th. In this letter, I thought I’d tell you a bit about my relationship to the other choral cycles we’re singing.

When I choose music for S&P concerts, I’m always balancing many elements. I like a concert to have a cohesive message – a theme, or something that connects the works. But it’s also nice to give a concert some variety, so the experience doesn’t become too static. The risk there is “potpourri programming” – a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Choral cycles – groups of several pieces on a theme by a single composer – can often provide the right mixture of theme and variety. So for this concert, I chose to return to four cycles of Shakespeare songs. I wrote about Amy Beach’s Three Shakespeare Songs for women’s voices in my previous letter, so I’ll turn to the other three cycles we’re singing here.


Ralph Vaughan Williams has been making his way into S&P’s repertoire more frequently lately, most recently in our March 2016 performance of his phenomenal Mass in G Minor. We sang his Three Shakespeare Songs in May 2011, and it’s been great to revisit them again. Some of Vaughan Williams’ music has a rather buttoned-down English grandeur, and I mistakenly thought that reflected his character. I was surprised to learn that he led a rather Bohemian life, interested in spirituality and adventurous artistic expression. I think his Three Shakespeare Songs reflect this – they are beautiful, yet surprising in their harmonic turns and expressive content. Like the Mass, they were written for a professional choir, and we’ve enjoyed digging into the subtleties of the music.

The Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi has become increasingly popular lately. Chanticleer recently premiered two new works by him, and I hear his music in concerts and festivals regularly now. He is a genuinely funny man. He could easily have a second career as a comedian (third, actually – he is also a professional translator). His music often reflects his gift for humor, and his Four Shakespeare Songs skillfully demonstrate his goofy disposition, as well as his mastery of the choral instrument. You’ll love hearing S&P’s singers take on witches’ voices when we sing “Double Double, Toil and Trouble” from Macbeth.

I was first introduced to the music of Swiss composer Frank Martin in the summer of 1998, when I enrolled in a week-long summer conducting course taught by the great Swedish choral conductor Eric Ericson. The course was held the summer before I began my doctoral studies at the University of Iowa, and I cut my teeth as a choral conductor there. Ericson, in his bottle-thick glasses, was quite a character – who knew he was a fabulous jazz piano player? And that he went everywhere with several recording devices that he collected? But he was also one of the great masters of the art of choral conducting. Although he was hard on me, I valued every minute with him, and still remember the week vividly.

In addition to many other wonderful works Ericson included in our repertoire for the course -- some of which have made their way onto S&P programs -- we learned the entire Martin cycle of Ariel’s texts from The TempestSongs of Ariel, for a cappella chamber choir. This is one of two works that Martin wrote for a cappella choir, the other being his Mass for Double Choir. Together, these make the top of my list of desert island music -- so when the Zombie Apocalypse hits, you’ll find me in some remote place swooning to these pieces. I programmed them in an S&P concert way back in May of 2006, but our performance of these brilliant works is much stronger now. I’m amazed at the quality the group is bringing to them.


I’m thrilled and honored to be working with a choir that sings this challenging and deeply moving repertoire with such expression and skill. I can’t wait to share them with you at our concerts in March!