From the President – Summer 2010 #4

Dear Colleagues,

My work this week is a piece by Dave Brubeck called “To Hope.” I guess the best way to describe this rather engaging extended work of about an hour is to call it eclectic, and maybe it might be compared with Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” although it is not nearly as long or complex. I am sure that it comes as no surprise that this famous jazz artist/pianist and composer has written a fair amount of choral music, and maybe we had ‘ought to explore it a bit more; always with an open mind and a sense of adventure!

The original title of this piece was “To Hope! A Mass For A New Decade.” It is interesting that Brubeck’s original inspiration to write some sacred choral music came from his WWII experiences, when he conceived the idea of writing an oratorio based on the Ten Commandments. He actually never did complete that project, and maybe he never even started it, for all I know! But I think it is a splendid idea that deserves more attention from composers? At any rate, for your information he did write a piece for his brother Howard whose son died of a brain tumor at the age of sixteen, entitled “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled;” this led to more large scale works: The oratorio “The Light In The Wilderness” (1968), “The Gates Of Justice” (1969), “Truth Is Fallen” (1971), “La Fiesta de la Posada” (1975), and “Beloved Son” (1978).

“To Hope” received two prestigious premieres; one in Philadelphia in 1980 and another in Providence, Rhode Island. This work was Brubeck’s first encounter with the Roman Catholic Church and his first experience with writing music to a fixed text that he had no say in. It is interesting, if we think back to a few weeks ago when I introduced Paul McCartney’s Oratorio, that Brubeck was warned here “Dave, you don’t like rules and he’s (the commissioner of this work) talking about rules. He’s talking about absolute liturgical tradition.”

One interesting story. One night after dinner (“To Hope” was already completed and this was while the premiere was being prepared for Rhode Island) a priest asked Brubeck why he had not included an “Our Father” in the piece; Brubeck responded that he had not been asked to! Furthermore, he decided not to, as he did not want to “wreak a lot of confusion” with the completed piece. However, the following month, while on vacation, Brubeck dreamt the ENTIRE setting of the “Our Father”, jumped out of bed and wrote it all down, in its’ entirety! After that dream he became a Catholic!

In reflecting on this music for some time, what a treat it would indeed be for this piece to be done as part of the Mass! It was intended to be (and was part of the commission language) performed as either a concert piece OR as a mass setting. Having been raised as a Catholic, and probably somewhat conservative as well about the music I prefer to hear in a liturgical setting, I am a bit careful about using certain music in a setting where I believe the music should be a vehicle for purposeful reflection. I have had experiences where popular music and jazz have been used in the worship service, and for me it never seemed to work, because it seemed to be more about “entertainment” rather than our relationship with God. But I must confess that Brubeck presents a good case for inclusion with this wonderful piece; indeed, the few times that he lets the music take flight as a jazz improvisation (and that is not often in this oratorio) in this piece, it somehow works and brings one closer to the center of reflection. I would love to hear this performed as part of the Mass, but I suppose the forces necessary and the level of preparation and competency make this a dream. But it is something to think about!

This oratorio has fifteen sections as listed below:

1.) Processional
2.) Lord, Have Mercy
3.) The Desert and the Parched Land
4.) The Peace of Jerusalem
5.) Alleluia
6.) Father, All Powerful
7.) Holy, Holy, Holy
8.) While He Was At Supper
9.) When We Eat This Bread
10.) Through Him, With Him
11.) Great Amen
12.) Our Father
13.) Lamb Of God
14.) All My Hope
15.) Gloria

I will not comment on all the movements, but maybe a few brief words about some favorite parts?

The 3rd Movement is quite beautiful (a soprano solo) followed by an exquisite yet simple improvised (?) piano solo that retains the introspective character of the text. The soprano follows with a reiteration of the text “Say to you whose heart is frightened, “Fear not, be strong!” Here is your God!”

The 4th Movement is quite interesting, rhythmic and exciting. The choir plays a prominent role in this movement, but in the middle section a drum set, rhythm section and piano present what appears to be an extended improvised section (I do not own the printed score, so do not know for sure) using the melodic material presented by the choir to great advantage. The bass player also has an opportunity to improvise as well (and on this recording it is quite interesting, original, inventive and artistic) This choir has the last word: This movement would be a great way to feature your concert choir with a jazz trio from your school?!

The 5th movement is by far the most complex and demanding of the entire oratorio. Full of rhythmic excitement and some difficult passage work, this is just a very fun and exciting movement that would be very performable by a choir (experienced and capable) as a single selection on a program! It does have some short solo parts for a soprano and baritone soloist, and a wonderful improvised section for the jazz group that features the saxophone. It is worth a look for sure!

The 5th Movement has some wonderful moments and a few surprises that warrant a listening!

The 6th Movement, for tenor solo, is a marvelous setting of this communion text and should be heard more often; either in Mass or as a solo piece.

The 9th Movement is quite simple, but with a very nice moment on the words “again in glory.” But what makes this part all the more special for its’ simplicity is the piano solo that follows directly after and pulls us immediately into the Doxology for Tenor Solo. The silent, reflective and reverent moment is strongly felt and quite effectively scored by Brubeck here.

The 12th Movement (Our Father) is very nice, but the most original section is when the tenor intones the text “deliver us from all evil, and grant us peace in our day.” The choir has a moment of great beauty in the final lines “are yours now and forever.” This movement is worth several listening’s.

The 13th Movement (Lamb of God) has some difficult intervallic moments (does that make sense?!) Not easy, but a very effective ending.

The 14th Movement is a wonderful a cappella setting reminiscent of more traditional gospel arrangements with some predictable but effective harmonic movement. But look out, because all of a sudden this movement explodes into total accompanied exuberance; fun if a bit trite, but soon the jazz element is brought forth again in instrumental form. I must say that although the connection seems weak to me, the total movement is satisfying and effective.

The last movement is of course dramatic and boisterous and makes a very effective concluding coda to the oratorio. The demands on the chorus are considerable.

It is worth noting that Musica Sacra, under Richard Westenburg’s direction, has championed this work in performances at St. John the Divine in NYC, and twice in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. He also introduced this oratorio one year at the Berkshire Choral Institute in 1995. This is simply to say that maybe this piece is worth our time to see if we might also be able to introduce parts of it to our own singers?

My recording is on the Telarc Label with the Cathedral Choral Society Chorus and Orchestra, Russell Gloyd, Conductor, with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. J. Reilly Lewis is the director of the Choral Society, with Shelley Eaite, Soprano, Mark Bleeke, Tenor, and Kevin Deas, Bass-Baritone. Dave Brubeck is the pianist, Robby Militello, saxophone, Jack Six, bass, and Randy Jones, drums. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir is also present under the direction of Samuel Ronds. The entire performance takes place, recorded live, in Washington National Cathedral. CD-80430

If anyone is serious about mounting this oratorio, you should know that the instrumental demands are not as cumbersome as I might have mentioned earlier. Violins, violas, cellos and bass, 1 Horn, 2 Trumpets, 1 Trombone, 1 Tuba, Timpani, 2 Percussionists and celeste.

I hope the following wets your appetite! It is a clip that takes one of the piano solos from an earlier part of the oratorio and than moves into the 14th Movement (All My Hope). The beautiful choral a cappella section is cut out here and they start immediately with the more rhythmic section. PLEASE don’t judge the entire oratorio by this one clip…that would be unfair; but it gives you an idea……

Most Sincerely,

Frank Whitcomb

One thought

  1. Dave Brubeck has been very active with the National Pastoral Musicians Conference (NPM). If you ever have the opportunity to take part in one of his music celebrations, you will be left awe struck. He understands and appreciates the power of music and the power of prayer – with which he has moved many to tears and an experience of conversion.

    Listen to the Mass of Hope and imagine yourself in a cathedral, surrounded by 5,000 musicians, who are totally absorbed by his music!

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