Hymn of Praise programme notes

We close our 56th Season with guests Madison Craig, soprano; Erinn Evdokimoff Roberts, mezzo-soprano; Jason Ragan, tenor; Chinook Chamber Singers; and Vox Musica in a celebration of grand proportions, including the world premiere of Rolf Boon’s Sesquicentennial Fanfare, a new rendition of our national anthem, and Mendelssohn’s unique Symphony-Cantata.

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Series 6 – Hymn of Praise

Rolf Boon – Hyacintho Caelum: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th
Canadian composer and University of Lethbridge professor Rolf Boon’s Hyacintho Caelum is part of the Canadian Mosaic project, which features thirty-seven different composers and orchestras from across the country. The project, commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with financial assistance from the Canadian Government, consists of a series of fanfares written to underscore Canada’s rich musical history.

Boon illustrates Lethbridge’s geography and cultural heritage in his fanfare. The work’s title is a reference to the blue skies that adorn our prairie environment. The piece opens with a quiet horn section, whose glowing timbre evokes the warm rays of the sun rising over the coulees. By the end the sun is fully risen, a process signified through a continuous orchestral crescendo taking place over the entire fanfare’s duration. As a reminder of Lethbridge’s Japanese history, Boon includes two Taiko Drums in his instrumentation, which feature throughout the closing measures.

Calixa Lavallée – O Canada
Our national anthem has a long, surprising history. Québec Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Robitaille commissioned O Canada for Saint-Jean-Baptiste day of 1880, desiring a French patriotic song that would rival the popularity of English Canada’s “The Maple Leaf Forever”. Québécois composer Calixa Lavallée wrote the song’s music while Adolphe-Basile Rothier supplied the text. Upon its premiere, Lavallée’s music was praised for its stately quality, while Routhier’s words remain the anthem’s official French lyrics.

The anthem would not be heard in English Canada until 1901, when a choir of Toronto schoolchildren sang it in French for the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V). O Canada was well received once again, and later translated for the enjoyment of English-speaking Canadians in 1906. However, this word-for-word translation was seen to be somewhat lacking, leading to widespread demand for better lyrics. After authors tried their hand at writing better words for the song, amateur poet Robert Weir came up with the lyrics widely deemed the most appropriate in 1908. Of the four verses Weir wrote, the first is sung most frequently, while the other three are relatively neglected.

O Canada became the de facto national anthem in 1939 after a performance before King George VI, but was not officially recognized as such until 1980 – 100 years after its composition. Though continually cherished, some efforts have been made since 1980 to alter the anthem’s lyrics slightly with the intent of making them more inclusive. Despite this, O Canada’s lyrics have remained largely unchanged since its inception as our official national anthem.

Felix Mendelssohn – Hymn of Praise, Op. 52
Felix Mendelssohn’s prodigious musical abilities as a child rivalled those of young Mozart, having written fully mature masterworks by the age of 16. Born into a wealthy and intellectually sophisticated family of bankers, his talents were recognised right away and he was given the greatest education money could then buy. In addition to his renowned abilities as a pianist, conductor, and composer, he was active as a polyglot, administrator, educator, and painter during his short life of 38 years.

Mendelssohn referred to his Hymn of Praise as a “symphonic cantata”, a nod to the influence of JS Bach on the final movement of his work. Mendelssohn had long admired his German forefather. When he was only twenty, he had conducted a revival of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, an event that initiated a wide-scale re-evaluation of Bach’s music, through which he became one of the most revered figures in music. Hymn of Praise is comparable to Bach’s cantatas not only through the fourth movement’s structure and its Lutheran inspiration, but also through its use of recitative, fugal writing, and chorale.

Work on Hymn of Praise occupied Mendelssohn intermittently from 1838 to 1840. It was commissioned to premiere at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche – the same church where Bach had served as cantor and performed many of his cantatas – in 1840, for a festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Guttenberg’s invention of the moveable-type printing press. The press had been invaluable to the spread of Protestantism due to its ability to quickly disseminate copies of the bible in vernacular German, so it was hardly surprising that Mendelssohn would write a sacred work to celebrate this occasion. Though well received after its premiere, Hymn of Praise’s popularity dwindled over the years, and it is now one of the least frequently performed of Mendelssohn’s symphonic works.

The slow opening dotted-rhythm theme of the first movement in the trombones aptly conveys a celebratory character, while the movement’s later use of rapid exhilarating string figurations is distinctly Mendelssohnian. The theme appears prominently throughout the rest of the piece as a unifying motif, consistently communicating the work’s stately character. A dancing 6/8 tempo propels the second movement, which features beautifully orchestrated dialogue between string and wind sections. A slow third movement, marked adagio religioso, features some of the most majestic writing of the piece in its opening, encountering significant dramatic tumult before returning to its more peaceful nature.

Snatches of the opening theme of the work in the brass accompanied by a bounding string section open the cantata portion of the work, wherein a chorus and solo singers join the ranks of the orchestra. Most texts in this cantata are derived from biblical passages praising God, a fact tangibly heard in the opening chorus’ exultations. Solo numbers and duets give praises in just as deeply and expressive a way, such as the soprano duet “I waited for the Lord”, which contemporary composer Robert Schumann described as “a glimpse into a heaven of Raphael’s Madonna’s eyes”. At key points in the work Mendelssohn shifts between numbers for great dramatic effect, such as between the sixth and seventh numbers. Here, the solo tenor’s final question “Watchman, will the night soon pass?” is answered with a resounding affirmation of faith from the choir: “The night is departing!”

The only non-scriptural text in the piece, Mendelssohn’s chorale setting of 17th century Lutheran theologian Martin Rinckart’s “Now Thank We All Our God”, is now the standard setting of this hymn. This chorale adds a distinctly Lutheran element to the work; another way for Mendelssohn to pay tribute to the tool that led to the spread of his Protestant faith. The cantata’s final number is an energetic choral fugue, which comes to a dramatic pause before recapitulating the opening, celebratory theme of the piece to conclude its final measures, this time with the lyrics, “All that has life and breath, sing to the Lord! Hallelujah!”

Zain Solinski