Ten years ago this month, the most important premiere of my life took place. Piffaro, the Renaissance Band commissioned from me a concert-length Vespers.
The project was unusual from the beginning. Early-music groups aren’t known for commissioning contemporary composers, nor do instrumental ensembles routinely ask for choral music. But Piffaro partnered with the new-music choir The Crossing for this liturgical and—to me, the most compelling aspect—Lutheran work. I was to reimagine music from the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation. Musically, this was the High Renaissance, and so it made sense for Piffaro after all.
They asked me because I am Lutheran. Raised Lutheran, I had composed, throughout my career, Lutheran service music and had used Lutheran music in concert works.
The concerts were scheduled for early January, so this would be an Epiphany Vespers. Along with bits of two Latin chants and much original melodic material, I chose some of the great Lutheran Epiphany chorales.
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (ELW 308) topped the list, but I couldn’t get the first movement of Bach’s Cantata No. 1, on the same chorale, out of my head. I finally kept myself from writing bad Bach by simplifying lines and focusing on counterpoint. Heraldic shawms and text-painting showed the way.
Because of text-painting, I set the beautiful Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn (ELW 309) in four, then 8, then 16 parts. The 16-voice third verse (different from ELW) overflows at (in my translation) “That we may taste your sweetness, / ﬁll up our hearts’ completeness / so that we thirst for you.” At “you” (dir in German), a single voice holds one high note, one of the most arresting moments in Vespers, I think.
In dir ist Freude (ELW 867), the rollicking Italian tune, is accompanied by the small Renaissance guitar. O Jesu Christe, wahres Licht (675) is a tenor counter-melody against the Magnificat’s three-soprano canon. Nun danket all und bringet Ehr (847) is an instrumental triple canon. Luther’s Vater unser (746) and O süßer Herre Jesu Christ (from the Evangelisches Kirchengesangbuch, EKG, my wife and I knew when she directed music at Philadelphia’s German-language Tabor Lutheran) rounded out the chorales quoted. I was set.
But Piffaro’s co-director Robert Wiemken called, four days before the premiere, with a problem. Could we insert an interlude between the Psalm 70 Introit (Make haste, O God, to deliver me) and Psalm 27 (The Lord is my light and my salvation)? They’re long, the choir could use a break, and another piece just for Piffaro would be great. He was not asking me to compose more; he had chosen something from that time-period as a stop-gap.
I later told Bob, laughing, that he could not have worded it any better to get me to write something new. Thus, Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein!, another EKG chorale I hadn’t found a place for. (The tune is also known as O heilige Dreifaltigkeit, ELW 571.) The five-voice sonata I wrote in two days is one of the most-performed sections of Vespers. (See it here, for brass quintet.)
In 10 years I’ve transcribed much of Vespers for modern instruments. Bach, ironically, shows up after all. I re-orchestrated four movements to the instrumentation of his Cantata No. 1 for a concert this month.
Vespers had a huge impact on my career, but more significantly, it changed my composing. The Lutheran tradition, tunes, and texts energized a circuit in me, empowering my music in a sudden, unpredictable way. With all wonder and gratitude, I have to say: It was an epiphany.