It would seem an accurate assertion to say that from the beginning of human self-awareness Spring has been the champion stimulus for celebration by artists at their easels, poets at their desks, musicians at their keyboards and lovers in their meadows, woods and parks. So on this first Saturday in May we could all agree the time is appropriate to sing of the season that is eternally associated with youth and vigor. Choral Society of Durham’s widely respected conductor, Rodney Wynkoop, chose for this occasion two major choral works composed about 150 years apart, both extolling the season of spring in musical inventiveness and creative artistry: the spring section of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons, first heard in Vienna in 1801, and Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony, premiered in Amsterdam in 1949.
Following the phenomenal success of The Creation in 1798, Haydn’s librettist, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, was eager to capitalize on the positive market and suggested to Haydn a long English poem; The Seasons by James Thomson.
The Seasons features three principal characters created out of van Swieten’s imagination: Simon, a farmer sung by Patrick Murray, bass; Lucas, a country lad sung by Andrew Crane, tenor; and Hanne (Jeanne), his daughter sung by Kristen Blackman, soprano. These three ruminate on aspects of peasant life, narrating personal anecdotes and reflecting on more abstract ideas.
“Spring,” the first segment of The Seasons, begins with an orchestral introduction depicting the transition from winter’s biting cold to spring’s gentle and mild breezes. The soloists enter singing of the approaching harbingers of spring. The first chorus expresses joy with a pastoral melody of great charm sung by the women, followed by a cautionary note by the men that winter can creep back. Simon sings a recitative and aria praising cheerful labor – while whistling the tune of Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony.” Lucus sings a recitative leading into “The Farmer’s Prayer” sung by the three devout country folk with the support of the chorus. Now the lovely countryside and the colorful fields assure the arrival of spring and in this “Song of Joy,” spring inspires all; youth, lambs, birds, bees to join in an enthusiastic adoration of the Creator.
Rather banal stuff to be sure. Haydn complained about some of the clearly implied musical onomatopoeia, yet his ingenuity produced memorable moments identified by Wynkoop’s skillful intimacy with the score and the musical forces’ ability to bring it to life. Such sonic images brought much delight and were perfectly balanced with the more abstract reflections contained within Baron van Swieten’s libretto and in Haydn’s remarkable score.
After intermission, in preparation for the performance of Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony, the transept of the chapel filled up with supplemental orchestral musicians and the nearly 60-voice Durham Children’s Choir directed by CSD’s own skilled Scott Hill. The soloists for this performance were Martha Guth, soprano who has sung widely in oratorio and operatic rolls; Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano who is a member of the renowned Anonymous 4; and Anthony Dean Griffey, outstanding tenor known world-wide for his interpretive skills of the music of Benjamin Britten
Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and premiered in 1949, Britten very intentionally chose the form of symphony for this work, and as his source material he carefully picked fourteen English poems, each of them underlining the concept of new beginnings. They are knowledgeably arranged in the structure of a four-movement classical symphony. The first movement (Part I) is the longest, beginning with a shivering picture of winter as “the grey wolf” that howls and bites.
Though Britten calls for a large orchestra with a broad array of instruments, he uses them sparingly for color or special effect. For example, the icy introduction is made of eerie sounds of trilling strings, tinkling xylophone, vibraphone and two harps, interspersed with passages of unaccompanied choral singing, all dancing around the tritone. The effect is an awesomely frigid winter!
The second selection, a tenor solo setting of Edmund Spencer’s "The Merry Cuckoo," was sung in Griffey’s round, warm tenor voice to the accompaniment of trumpet fanfares (mostly soft or muted). Spring has indeed arisen and in the next section it swings in irresistibly in the tenor and soprano duet extoling sweet spring and the singing of birds with Thomas Nashe’s giddy rhyming in "Spring, the Sweet Spring" (spring – king – thing – ring – sing). Also featured here is the soloists’ free-wheeling singing of bird sounds.
Two verses grouped together under the heading of “The Driving Boy” introduce to us the Durham Children’s Choir and some of Britten’s playful, a little bit naughty, music. The children not only sang with vigor, they also whistled along most charmingly. Bringing Part I to a close was Milton’s “The Morning Star.” The orchestra provides brass and bells as the chorus extols “bounteous May.”
As one might expect, Part II is the slow movement of Britten’s Symphony. It includes Robert Herrick’s "Welcome, Maids of Honour," expressing some regret at being “neglected.” Henry Vaughan’s "Waters Above," is a tenor solo in which the voice is supported only by the first and second violins in a liquid 5/4 time. The third segment of Part II features W. H. Auden’s striking verses from his "A Summer Night." The text provides Britten the opportunity for the most serious part of the symphony: a setting for mezzo-soprano solo with a wordless choral refrain. It might be well here to point out that this music is quite complex and difficult. The enticing image Auden describes of lying on the lawn implies an early summer evening, carefree, without a troubling thought. A sudden surge at the mention of Poland brings muted brass clashing distantly; too far away to cause alarm. What is it that Auden knows or intuits in 1934? What is it that “we do not care to know”? What is the price others may pay to provide our sense of security?
On this chilling note, Part II ends without lingering and Part III (the scherzo movement of the symphony) begins with a returned appeal for spring, The affectionate shepherd in the poem of that same name expresses impatience that “I may embrace thee?” Next “Fair and Fair,” a lovely duet for tenor and soprano leads to the brief, but brilliant “Sound the Flute!” The children’s choir and the adult choir are accompanied with the full orchestra except percussion here in a rollicking spree.
The Finale (Part VI) is a setting of “London, to thee I do present” (the address of the Maylord) from The Knight of the Burning Pestle by the Jacobean playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher. An infectious waltz melody is joined by the entrance of the children’s choir singing the popular thirteenth century song “Sumer is i-cumen in” in 2/4 meter against the 3/4 waltz time. The addition of the sound of a cow-horn over all this adds up to a stunning vernal romp which the tenor ends abruptly with couplet: “Which to prolong, God save our king, and send his country peace, and root out treason from the land! And so, my friends, I cease.”
It was a rich performance. Everything was special; the Durham Children’s chorus was outstanding; the orchestra with Eric Pritchard, Concert Master, was exquisitely nuanced; the Durham Choral Society sang with vigor and with fine sensitivity; and the soloists were magnificent. All credit to Wynkoop for inspiring his players and singers to perform with such energy and vitality.