2013-02-10 Notes from the Bench

“Alleluia” by Randall Thompson (1899 – 1984)
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the conclusion of the Epiphany season.  This Wednesday we begin our observance of the Lenten season, a time of prayer and fasting.  During these six weeks, we observe a liturgical fast as we refrain from singing or saying the joyful word “alleluia,” which we enjoy throughout the rest of the year.  However, today we feast one last time on our alleluias just as many of us on Shrove Tuesday will feast on our favorite rich foods before entering into our own personal fasts and sacrifices.  Our choirs will sing the anthem, “Alleluia” by Randall Thompson (1899 – 1984) today as we say “farewell” to alleluia.

Randall Thompson was an American composer best known for his many choral works and was in the forefront of American choral music through much of the twentieth century.  He studied music at Harvard University, Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and the American Academy in Rome.  He was particularly inspired by the music of Renaissance era composers.  Thompson taught music at Wellesley College, the Curtis Institute of Music, the University of Virginia and Harvard.  In addition to his many well-known choral works, Thompson also wrote symphonies, operas, songs and instrumental music.

“Alleluia,” Thompson’s most famous anthem, was commissioned by the Russian-born music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood.  It is based almost entirely on a single word, alleluia.  The slow tempo, lento, and the soft dynamics indicated in the score are unusual for a setting of this text, and yet were important aspects to the composer.  This work was written in 1940, and the world was in turmoil as World War II raged on in Europe and France had fallen to the Nazi regime.  Thompson explained that “the music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous… here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ ”  And yet, as this piece progresses, the repetitions of this word praising God builds toward a glorious climax before concluding with a single statement of the only other word of the text, “Amen.”

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