Alleluia. . .
Our Eastertide celebrations continue with another wonderful setting of the ancient Easter chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden by Georg Böhm (1661-1733), and the singing of one of Christendom’s most heroic Easter hymns, The Strife is O’er. But what really ties the morning together is music by two beloved 20th-century composers, both of them perhaps as well loved for their teaching as for their writing.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was born in New York City and died in Boston. The son of an English teacher, Thompson never strayed far from the academic environment. In 1916 he entered Harvard, where he auditioned for the chorus but was turned down by its conductor, Archibald T. Davison, who eventually became his mentor. Thompson later mused, "My life has been an attempt to strike back." To many music lovers, the name Randall Thompson brings first to mind the lofty sounds of his most famous anthem, based on the single word Alleluia–a piece still heard regularly in church services, choral concerts, and at academic ceremonies. Our Chancel Choir sings it in worship this morning, and will sing it again during the May 6th concert program in the Music Room. Much loved by all of us, this iconic American composition has an interesting history.
Thompson’s Alleluia was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and the trustees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1940 for the opening exercises of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Koussevitsky wanted the head of Harvard’s choral department, G. Wallace Woodworth, to lead the entire Harvard student body in the new anthem to symbolize the center’s mission: the performance of music. The date for the opening was July 8th. Thompson had been preoccupied with another commission, but from July 1st through the 5th he was able to turn to Koussevitsky’s request. The large chorus was ready to rehearse, but opening day approached and no music arrived. On July 8th, with 45 minutes to go, it appeared. Woodworth got his first look at the score and reassured his charges, "Well, text at least is one thing we won’t have to worry about." In spite of the painfully short first rehearsal, the performance successfully launched a tradition: to this day Alleluia is performed each summer at the center’s opening. The anthem’s tempo mark of lento was very important to the composer. France had just fallen to the Nazis and Thompson later explained, "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.’" Thompson’s other works include three symphonies, two string quartets, and a scattering of instrumental pieces, but his writing for voice spanned his whole life. His love of music was matched by his love of teaching the art to students. Thompson taught at Wellesley College, Berkeley, the Curtis Institute of Music, the University of Virginia, Princeton, and Harvard.
Thompson’s organ works may not be well known outside the insular world of organists, but I have always enjoyed playing them. They are beautifully crafted small gems and, to me, represent another facet of Thompson’s many intellectual interests: the desire to link his work directly to the great organ writing traditions exemplified by Bach and his predecessors. This perhaps explains why most of Thompson’s organ pieces are based on German chorales and employ the same strict contrapuntal techniques and stylistic traits found in Bach.
This emphasis on traditional counterpoint links Thompson with Dutch church musician, composer, organist, and teacher Jan Bender (1909-1994), who contributed many important works to the 20th-century organ repertoire. Particularly in Lutheran circles, Bender’s name carries great weight, and an influence similar to that of Paul Manz. Born in Haarlem, The Netherlands, Bender was a pupil of Hugo Distler, and held important posts in Holland and Germany before emigrating to the United States, where he taught composition at Wittenburg University in Springfield, Ohio, and at Concordia College, Seward, Nebraska. Bender’s works can be technically demanding, but are great fun to play because they always sparkle with an underlying energy and brilliance. In addition, Bender’s compositions show an instinctive understanding of the organ as well as of the chorales and hymns upon which many of them are based. Bender’s works are beautifully constructed, based on logical, time-tested principles of counterpoint.