Choral & Organ Masterworks
Program Notes

by Scott Youngs, AMC Music Director

In this concert we hear contrasting choral works which are rarely heard in performance.  They are both on sacred texts, but from two different Centuries and two different harmonic palettes.  Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Psalm 42 “Like as the hart” from 1887 is one of five for large scale-orchestra and choir.  Robert Schumann considered the piece to be the pinnacle of Mendelssohn’s church music, and Mendelssohn himself rated this work highly (it was actually composed during his honeymoon).  We hear it in a version for organ instead of orchestra, but with the addition of two French horns and timpani.  The piece did not break new ground in form or harmony but is a supremely enjoyable masterwork in a genre that was greatly admired during the 19th Century. 

In Psalm 42:1, an hart, the ancient name for a mature male red deer, it’s throat parched, cries out for water in the opening, but finds tears, waves, billows instead.  The work moves from longing, to assurance of God’s goodness.  Being just under 30 minutes in length, compared to the more than two-hour length of Mendelssohn’s oratorios Elijah and St. Paul, makes it a condensed jewel in the repertoire.  We have paired it with Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No. 6 in D-minor, from 1845 and based on Martin Luther’s chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich, almost as a prelude.  Our ears will be well set in the Romantic language of Mendelssohn before the choir sings a note.

We then shift to an entirely different tonal palette, still introduced by the organ.  Jean Langlais (1907 – 1991) is remembered as one of the giants of the French organ world.  He was blind from the age of two but spent a lifetime composing and performing across the globe.

The changes and conflicts around church music that occurred with Vatican II (1962 – 1965) were deeply discouraging for him.  He was the organist of the Basilique St.-Clothilde in Paris, the job previously held by César Franck.  He was steeped in the French organ traditions of Marcel Dupré and Charles Tournemire, and was working alongside Maurice Duruflé, Gaston Litaize, also blind from infancy, and Olivier Messiaen.  Vatican II moved music from being mystical and beautiful in its own right, to something purely functional.  Every fiber of Langlais’ being was tied up in the creation of beauty, and the transcendent experience of worship.  His improvisations were legendary around the world, but in Paris the clergy considered him a mere functionary.  When I was studying with him at St.-Clothilde, the priest would sound a buzzer loudly to end any music when they considered it time to move on. 

Langlais was particularly fond of touring in the United States.  Between 1952 and 1981 he gave more than 300 concerts and masterclasses in the US.  In the US, he was given much greater respect, and had a wonderful collegial relationship with clergy.  From 1959 to 1967 he was featured in a large Roman Catholic music workshop at Boys Town, outside of Omaha.  The choir in residence was the Roger Wagner Chorale, so he had at his disposal a fine choir, a fine instrument, and an adoring public.  From these summer workshops we get the three solemn psalm settings for brass, organ, timpani, and choir, including today’s Arizona Premiere of Psaume Solennel No. 1, Laudate Dominum in sanctis ejus (1962).  I know of no other performance of these psalm settings since, so this is a rare and wonderful experience for us. 

Also on the program are the Te Deum from Hymne d’Actions de Grâces, for solo organ, part of his Paraphrases Grégoriennes (1934), and Missa in Simplicitate (1952) for organ and a single voice.  The latter work shows off his extraordinary use of color and drama in the Mass setting and is another wonderful, yet rarely heard, musical treat.  Langlais told me the story of its creation, saying that during a summer holiday they had invited singer Jeannine Collard, of the Paris Opera, to lunch.  She was asked to remain and sing Mass the next morning at the small church, but demurred saying that she had nothing to sing.  Langlais immediately sat down and composed the Kyrie, working through the night to provide an Agnus Dei as well.  The work is built on a single theme which is a Braille transcription of Collard’s name.  The work was completed that year, 1952.

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