Here are two exciting new releases that expand the discography of Nicolas Flagello (see overview of Flagello's life and works at the front of this issue), while drawing attention to some other wonderful music as well. Released to coincide with the birthday of Martin Luther King in January, the Koch release highlights two extraordinary musical tributes to the black leader. As Coretta Scott King suggests in the program booklet, the Flagello and Schwantner represent very different approaches to their subject. Schwantner emphasizes King as the inspiring leader who encouraged the black people of this nation to persevere in their struggle to achieve racial justice. Flagello focuses on King as the embodiment of Jesus Christ in our time, martyringRead more himself for the principle of universal love. Having been present at the premieres of both works, I can attest to the overwhelmingly powerful effect each produces in live performance.
Flagello's Passion of Martin Luther King is constructed along the lines of an oratorio, in which five choral settings of Latin liturgical texts alternate with solo settings of lines taken from King's speeches. Actually, the choral portions originated in a work entitled Pentaptych, which Flagello had composed in 1953, but which had left him with certain reservations. King's assassination fifteen years later crystalized for him the realization that the eloquent words of the contemporary spiritual leader could provide just the human focus that the Pentaptych lacked. He immediately restructured the work, selecting excerpts from King's speeches and setting them in an expressive arioso that blends seamlessly with the choral portions, in such a way that the vernacular solo element continually reverberates against the timeless spirituality of the Latin choral sections in a deeply moving synergy. As it stood in 1968, the Passion ended with a setting of “I Have a Dream,“ followed by a choral Jubilate Deo, and it is this version, on a never-released recording with brother Ezio as soloist, that has circulated through the tape underground. However, in 1973, James DePreist, who was preparing to conduct the first public performance, persuaded Flagello to omit these two sections, for reasons that have never been made clear to me. Flagello acquiesced to this request, composing an ecstatic new finale based on material that appears earlier in the work, and this is the version we now hear. Years later, Flagello conceded that DePreist's suggestion improved the work's effectiveness, but he remained fond of the “I Have a Dream“/Jubilate Deo sequence. He had begun to compose another choral work, to be called Psalmus Americanus, which would incorporate this material, but never completed it.
One of the reasons I have presented all this background information is to explain that the music of the Passion, though dated 1968, reflects many characteristics of Flagello's ultra-Romantic pre-1959 style—more deliberate pacing, greater metrical regularity, more consonant harmonic language, and an unambiguous sense of tonality. As always, the orchestration is sumptuous and virile with no stinting on the climaxes, and the choral writing is gorgeous, with especially exquisite part-writing in the Cor Jesu and the Stabat Mater, the solo settings of King's words are apt— although, admittedly, the refined bel canto approach is a far cry from the robust rhetoric of black evangelical preaching. In truth, despite the extravagant grandeur of the music, this is a very personal, almost mystical, interpretation of Martin Luther King, rather than a work of social consciousness. Bass Raymond Bazemore lends poignant expression to his part, but a richer, fuller, more operatic voice could do better justice to it. James DePreist, who has conducted the work many times, continues to lend it his tremendous intelligence and musical sensitivity.
Joseph Schwantner was born in 1943 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for an orchestral work called Aftertones of Infinity. As one of the defectors from academic serialism, he and his work received a good deal of attention around that time. Schwantner developed a distinctive approach that combined an exquisite sensitivity to fanciful gestures and delicate, ethereal sonorities—reminiscent of George Crumb—with phantasmagoric verbal imagery, and frequent use of tonal, consonant musical elements, resulting in a colorful and accessible musical surface with some New Age qualities. For some reason, his work seems to have lost the spotlight more recently, although many of the younger orchestral composers who have emerged during the past decade have used his technique.
New Morning for the World was composed in 1982, though, like the Flagello, it also draws upon material used in earlier pieces. It is scored for narrator and orchestra, and its musical content is more straightforward and conventional than in any other of Schwantner's works known to me. Only its copious use of technicolor percussion effects dates it as a work of the final quarter of this century. In the manner of Copland's Lincoln Portrait, the orchestra serves as a backdrop, creating a vivid framework of moods and emotions against which the extensive excerpts from King's speeches are highlighted. Although the orchestra is frequently in the foreground, the text, with its own very musical sense of oratory, is the central point of focus, and retains a much stronger sense of its own identity than in the Flagello. The brilliantly scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent, hymnlike passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist.
Schwantner's work was initially recorded shortly after its premiere, with baseball star Willie Stargell as narrator. He handled his role with eloquence and dignity, and I have never been able to understand why that recording has not been reissued on CD. In my review (Fanfare 7:2, pp. 307-08), I expressed a sense of ambivalence about the work, describing my reaction as “somewhat like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.“ There is a tremendous reliance on sure fire musical devices, without the density of structure, or the sense of multiple dimensions that the Flagello offers. On the other hand, having revisited the work periodically during the twelve years since its premiere, I can testify that it retains its power. It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland's enduring memorial to Lincoln. As narrator, Raymond Bazemore offers a touching reading of King's profound words.
Rather than producing the sense of redundancy that I feared, bringing together the two works and their differing perspectives enables them to complement each other beautifully, as Mrs. King states in her introductory notes, making this a recording of historical, as well as musical, significance.
New Morning for the Worldby Joseph Schwantner Performer:
Raymond Bazemore (Spoken Vocals)
Oregon Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1982; USA Language: English
The Passion of Martin Luther King, Op. 58by Nicolas Flagello Performer:
Raymond Bazemore (Bass)
Oregon Symphony Orchestra,
Portland Symphonic Choir
Period: 20th Century Written: 1968; USA Language: English