An American Voice: Music of Randall Thompson







Music of


Randall Thompson
































Notes on the Music




Randall Thompson (b. 21 April 1899 in New York; d. 9 July 1984 in Boston) was a distinguished composer and educator, whose exceptional efforts in choral composition remain his lasting contribution to the repertory. He studied at Harvard University and privately with Ernest Bloch, from whom he received an early and detailed exposure to polyphonic choral music. In 1922 he won a three-year grant for work at the American Academy in Rome, where he joined fellow scholars Howard Hanson and Leo Sowerby. In coming years he would teach at such diverse institutions as Wellesley College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Princeton University and the Curtis Institute of Music, where he served as director. In 1948 he joined the faculty of his alma mater Harvard, where he remained until his retirement in 1965. There his composition classes included such students as Samuel Adler, Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss, among others.


Thompson's relatively small collection of works is dominated by a cappella choral music, most of it composed to English texts, all of it characterized by splendid craftsmanship and painstaking workmanship, with vocal lines gratefully shaped and rewarding to sing. Not surprisingly, his music is oftentimes classified as neo-classic in its inspiration, a personalized blend of 16th and 17th century contrapuntal techniques with a conservative yet recognizably 20th-century harmonic base.


His stated goal throughout his career was to create music of sensibility and good taste, which both musicians and audiences would appreciate. He favored simple melodies and harmonies over abstract modernist styles, which he felt to be antithetical to the natural use of the human voice.


He was a leader in replacing a Eurocentric style of vocal writing that often imposed “foreign” rhythms and phrasing on English texts, resulting in reduced comprehension of the words in performance. In its place he developed a native style that had the natural scansion of English as its first priority. Thompson felt that if an English text were properly treated, singers would have fewer problems in making an audience understand every word.


“Writing for voices has a `purifying and refining effect' on any composer's work,” said Thompson in describing his approach to composition. “Choral music makes terrifyingly simple demands. Good texts for choral music must be based on universality of appeal…. After choosing a text, then sing it a thousand ways to yourself until you latch on to a tune. Let the tune and the words develop the form, [and when the composition is complete] sing every part yourself. If you can't sing it yourself, there's something wrong.”


The earliest work on this disc is Thompson's a cappella masterpiece, The Peaceable Kingdom, subtitled a sequence of sacred choruses for unaccompanied mixed voices [with] text from the Prophecy of Isaiah. The League of Composers commissioned this substantial work for the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society. It was premièred in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 3 March 1936 and repeated shortly thereafter in New York City. Well received by audiences, the work received a mixed reaction from critics.


In March, 1934, the Worchester, Massachusetts, Art Museum had acquired a copy of the painting, The Peaceable Kingdom, by the Quaker artist and preacher Edward Hicks (the painting is reproduced on the cover of the E. C. Schirmer edition of the work). Shortly afterwards, Thompson viewed the painting and found his musical imagination fired by Hicks's visual imagery. This was a happy coincidence, as he was then in the midst of developing his ideas for the Harvard-Radcliffe commission.


Composition of the new work occupied Thompson from January through December, 1935. His model for The Peaceable Kingdom was the madrigal sequences of such late-Renaissance Italian masters as Claudio Monteverdi and Orazio Vecchi. In the new work, Thompson sought to transfer that secular dramatic form of the Renaissance to his new hybrid, a sacred drama in madrigal style.


Another influence felt directly in the new work was the early American Sacred Harp or “shaped note” singing tradition, which pianist and musicologist John Powell had introduced to Thompson in the early 1930's. This vibrant and primitive singing style fascinated Thompson with its direct emotionalism and unsophisticated expression.


The narrative structure of The Peaceable Kingdom is constructed from verses chosen by Thompson from throughout Isaiah and woven together for specific didactic effect: the conflict between good and evil and its final resolution.


Thompson's very personal interpretation of the prophecy is at the center of the work. The first chorus, Say ye to the righteous, contrasts the reward of those who do good with that of those who do evil. From the beginning, Thompson equates the righteous with “sing[ing] for joy” and the wicked with “howl[ing] for vexation”, striking imagery driven home by the expansive major key themes for the righteous and the jagged, dissonant harmonies for the wicked.


Choruses two through five provide an exquisitely detailed and at times gruesomely specific elaboration of the lot of the wicked, as the wrathful Lord God Jehovah of the Old Testament looses His full fury on hapless miscreants. In chorus two, “woe” is driven home in a torrent of frenetic declamation, while in chorus three horrific images of rape, pillage and mayhem pile up, layering the musical crescendo with fantastic visions of apocalyptic doom and climaxing with a heartrending shriek from the full chorus. (It is interesting to note the parallel with Franz Schmidt's apocalyptic imagery in his oratorio, The Book with Seven Seals, written at virtually the same time; it is, however, unlikely that Thompson had heard so much as a note of the Schmidt masterwork.)


Where choruses two through four contain some of the most brutally violent word painting through the sung word imaginable, chorus five, The paper reeds by the brooks, delivers a stark contrast, the turbulent anger of “Howl ye” dissipating in quiet resignation and desolation. This is the most frequently excerpted movement, due to its relative ease of execution and accessibility to amateur choirs.


Choruses six through eight elaborate the lot of the righteous, once again introducing the image of singing for joy. An exceptional moment is Thompson's rendering of Isaiah's vision of the very trees, mountains and hills breaking forth into song. Next, the fortissimo recitative by the full chorus, Have ye not known?, proclaims the eternal and timeless truth of righteousness and introduces the concluding eight-part Ye shall have a song. As an appropriate closure to the morality play that came before, and as a summary of Thompson's own deeply held convictions, singing and gladness of heart are celebrated as manifestations of the righteous spirit.


Thompson received many commissions from Serge Koussevitsky, music director of the Boston Symphony and an early friend and champion. In the summer of 1940, Koussevitsky requested an orchestral fanfare from his friend to celebrate the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Thompson's muse, perhaps responding to the news of war in Europe, responded differently, leading the composer to write his single most popular a cappella masterpiece, Alleluia. Jotted down in the white heat of inspiration during the first five days of July, this concise work was rehearsed with ink scarcely dry on the page and premièred on 8 July 1940 with the newly formed Tanglewood Festival Chorus. In later years Thompson admitted to restricting himself to a single word to minimize problems of ensemble in preparing a new work with an ad hoc chorus whose members had not previously sung together.


In later years this setting of the single Hebrew word of praise to God has been performed throughout the world and is found in the active repertoires of professional, amateur and church choirs everywhere. Alleluia may be seen as a musical embodiment of the composer's philosophy, as he declared, “I think that in all good music, all good art, the best things transcend tears and express something that is built out of sadness, but rises through spiritual elevation to truth, beauty and love.”


In 1949 Thompson received a commission to honor Koussevitsky's 25th anniversary as music director of the Boston Symphony. The specified performers were the chorus of the Berkshire Music Center and the full Boston Symphony. The result was The Last Words of David, which was premièred on 12 August 1949 and filmed as part of a documentary on Koussevitsky and Tanglewood.


Here Thompson reverts to a favorite source for his texts, the Bible, with a paraphrase of II Samuel 23:4. The idea for setting this passage had come to the composer a number of years earlier while reading Scripture out of a Gideon Bible during a hotel stay. In this recording we hear the composer's alternative organ accompaniment with brass parts added from the orchestral score, a performance solution which retains much of the drama of the original while circumventing the impracticalities of performing a very short work for chorus with large orchestra.


The first of two works from 1963 is the motet The Best of Rooms, based on a text by the 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick. It was written for the concert chorus of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, where the composer conducted its première in April, 1963. Its contemplative atmosphere, uncomplicated harmony, and flowing vocal lines create a mood of serenity that is typical of the pastoral Thompson at his best.


The other 1963 work is the cantata A Feast of Praise, based on biblical texts and scored for the idiosyncratic ensemble of mixed chorus, brass quintet and harp. It was commissioned by the Department of Music at Stanford University for its Workshop in Choral Music, which was designed for directors of school, college, church and community choral organizations. The cantata was premièred by the Stanford Summer Chorus under the composer's baton in August 1963. Its three brief movements form a fast-slow-fast concerto for chorus and instruments, one of Thompson's most ingratiating inspirations.


The first movement, marked allegro moderato, is dominated by a sprightly march rhythm alternating with staccato interjections at the words “here we be” with the chorus deployed in an mainly homophonic role. The second movement, a mysterious lento, features extended chromatic solos for the harp underpinned with sustained chords in the muted brass. Separate entries by the sections of the chorus imitate the call of the trumpet “in the new moon”. The final movement, a bright, upbeat allegro con spirito, introduces the first contrapuntal use of the chorus, a sweeping melody passed from section to section, framed by majestic chordal interjections on the words “sing praises to God”. The cantata ends with a fortissimo D-major affirmation in the chorus and brass.


Completed in 1983, a year before the composer's death, the Twelve Canticles are dedicated to the Concert Choir of Emory and Henry College, a small Methodist school located in Emory, Virginia. The texts are taken from what Thompson described as twelve of his favorite passages from the Old and New Testaments. Conductor Charles R. Davis, conducted the première in October, 1983, in the presence of the frail composer.


The genesis of the work lay in Thompson's 1981 invitation to lecture at the college. His topic was the Sacred Harp tradition and its influence on Southern folk hymnody, and Thompson had drafted three settings of biblical texts for a sung demonstration to illustrate his talk. The spirited performance by the Concert Choir and the enthusiastic reaction of the audience inspired Thompson to flesh out “this work full of joy” with nine additional numbers over the next two years. In the composer's words, “What was originally only a longing turned into fulfillment. I couldn't resist writing something for these people. I've felt a love for them since my first visit, but my love for Virginia is the background for this.”


The individual movements are simple, strophic verses—a sort of 20th century update of the Kleine geistliche Konzerte of Heinrich Schütz—in which Thompson's art is distilled to its unadorned essence. The set opens and closes with (comparatively) complex and lengthy choruses, Praise ye the Lord (#1) and Farewell (#11), with the strangely chromatic Amen (#12) as an atypical postscript. Some are unison verses, alternating men and women's voices; others use a simplified four-part harmony. The influence of the Sacred Harp tradition is strong, especially in the pithy When thou liest down (#3) and I call to remembrance (#6).


Notes by John Proffitt








The Last Words of David (II Samuel 23:4)


He that ruleth over man must be just, ruling in the fear of God.


And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth,


Even a morning without clouds,


As the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining, after rain.






A Feast of Praise




1. The Stars in Their Watches (Baruch 3:34)




The stars shine in their watches, and rejoice.


When He calleth them, they say, here we be.


And so with cheerfulness they shew light unto Him that made them.




2. Nocturne (Psalm 81:3)


Blow up the trumpet in the new moon.




3. God is gone up (Psalm 47:5-7)


God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.


Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises unto our King, sing praises;


For God is the King of all the earth.


Sing ye praises with understanding.




The Peaceable Kingdom




1. Say ye to the righteous (Isaiah 3: 10-11; 65:14)




Say ye to the righteous, it shall be well with him:


For they shall eat the fruit of their doings.


Woe unto the wicked! It shall be ill with him:


For the reward of his hands shall be given him.


Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart,


But ye shall cry for sorrow of heart and shall howl for vexation of spirit.




2. Woe unto them (5: 8, 11, 12, 18, 20-22; 17-12)




Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity,


And sin as it were with a cart rope!


Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil;


That put darkness for light, and light for darkness;


That put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!


Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes,


And prudent in their own sight!


Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine,


And men of strength to mingle strong drink!


Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning,


That they may follow strong drink;


That continue till night, till wine inflame them!


And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe,


And wine are in their feasts:


But they regard not the work of the Lord,


Neither consider the operations of his hands.


Woe to the multitude of many people,


Which make a noise like the noise of the seas!


Woe unto them that join house to house;


That lay field to field, till there be no place,


That they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth.




3. The noise of a multitude (13: 4-5, 7-8, 15-16, 18)




The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like as a great people;


A tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together.


The Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle.


They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord,


And the weapons of indignation, to destroy the whole land.


Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces,


And they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb;


Their eye shall not spare children.


Every one that is found shall be thrust through;


And every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.


Their children shall also be dashed to pieces before their eyes;


Their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.


Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man's heart shall melt.


They shall be afraid.


Pangs and sorrow shall take hold of them;


They shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth.


They shall be amazed at one another; their faces shall be as flames.




4. Howl ye (13: 6; 14: 31)




Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand.


Howl, O gate; cry, O city; thou art dissolved.




5. The paper reeds by the brooks (14: 7)




The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks,


And everything sown by the brooks


Shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.




6. But these are they (65: 11; 55: 12)




But these are they that forsake the Lord, that forget my holy mountain.


For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace.


The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing,


And all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.




7. Have ye not known? (55: 21)




Have ye not known? Have ye not heard?


Hath it not been told you from the beginning?


Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?




8. Ye shall have a song (30: 29)




Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept;


And gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe


To come into the mountain of the Lord.




Twelve Canticles




1. Praise ye the Lord (Psalm 147: 1)


Praise ye the Lord, for it is good to sing praises unto Him.


And praise is comely; praise ye the Lord!




2. God is a Spirit (John 4: 24)




God is a spirit, and they that worship Him


must worship Him in spirit and truth.




3. When thou liest down (Proverbs 3: 24)




When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid;


Yea, thou shalt lie down and thy sleep shall be sweet.




4. My grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12: 9)




My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness,


In weakness made perfect for thee.




5. The old and the young (Joel 2: 28)




Your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions. Amen.




6. I call to remembrance (Psalm 77: 6)




I call to remembrance my song in the night;


I call to remembrance my song.




7. Arise, shine (Isaiah 10: 1)




Arise, shine, for thy light is come;


And the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.




8. The path of the just (Proverbs 4: 18)




The path of the just is as the shining light


That shineth more and more with the perfect day.




9. Face answereth to face (Proverbs 27: 19)




As in water in water, face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.




10. Fear thou not (Zephaniah 3: 16-18)




Fear thou not, let not thine hands be slack;


The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty.


He will save, He will rejoice over thee with joy.


He will rest in His love, He will joy over thee with singing.




11. Farewell (II Corinthians 13: 11)




Finally, brethren, farewell; be of good comfort, be of one mind,


Live in peace, and the God of love shall be with you.




12. Amen




The Best of Rooms (Robert Herrick)




Christ, he requires still, wheresoever he comes to feed or lodge,


To have the best of rooms.


Give Him the choice; grant Him the nobler part of all the house.


The best of all's the heart.




About the Artists


The Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale, an ensemble noted for its unique choral sound, is the cultural ambassador of Roberts Wesleyan College, the distinguished liberal arts institution in the Christian tradition located in Rochester, New York. The Chorale performs regularly with the Rochester Philharmonic under such conductors as David Zinman, Isaiah Jackson, Enrique Diemecke, Darryl One, Mark Elder, Mitch Miller, Peter Bay and David Effron.


In 1986 the Chorale made its Carnegie Hall debut in a concert performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. Other major Chorale presentations include Puccini's Tosca (1993), Walton's Henry V (1994), Verdi's Requiem (1995), Bloch's Scred Service and Bach's Magnificat (1997), and Puccini's Turandot (1998), all with the Rochester Philharmonic.


Ever mindful of the need to present choral music as a living, growing tradition, the Chorale maintains an active program of commissioning, performing and recording new music. In 1980, in the presence of the composer, the Chorale performed Psalm settings by Howard Hanson, which were later committed to compact disc (Albany TROY 129). With the Rochester Chamber Orchestra under David Fetler, the Chorale presented the world première of John LaMontaine's The Marshes of Glynn. In 1992, under the direction of the composer, the Chorale premièred Ever Since Babylon, Samuel Adler's cantata commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the New World and the simultaneous expulsion of the Jews from Spain. During their 1993 spring tour, the Chorale gave the first public performances of 1 Corinthians 13, written for the Chorale by Christopher Theofanidis (Albany TROY 158).


Other Chorale recordings include Mozart's Coronation Mass (Vox CD 8164) with the Rochester Philharmonic under David Zinman; Choral Music of Anton Bruckner (Albany TROY 063); Music of Stephen Shewan (Albany TROY 149 and TROY349); I Hear America Singing!, featuring choral works of Roy Harris (Albany TROY 164) and I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, featuring choral works of Leo Sowerby (Albany TROY 238). In addition, the Chorale has been featured in nationwide broadcasts over National Public Radio.


Conductor Robert Shewan has served as chairman of the Fine Arts Division at Roberts Wesleyan College and, since 1969, has continued to direct the Chorale. He has degrees from Mansfield State College, Ithaca College and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is the author of several texts, including Singing and the Brain: a Handbook for Voice Teachers; is well known as a guest conductor at various choral festivals; and serves as a clinician and adjudicator.






An American Voice: Randall Thompson




1 The Last Words of David (1949) [4:11]


with the RWC Brass Ensemble; Barbara Harbach, organ


A Feast of Praise (1963)


2 The stars in their watches [3:12]


3 Blow up the trumpet in the new moon [5:59]


4 God is gone up with a shout [3:53]


with the RWC Brass Ensemble; Barbara Dechario, harp


The Peaceable Kingdom (1936)


5 Say ye to the righteous [5:15]


6 Woe unto them [2:04]


7 The noise of a multitude [2:06]


8 Howl ye [2:08]


9 The paper reeds by the brook [2:11]


10 But these are they that forsake the Lord [2:11]


11 Have ye not known? [:47]


12 Ye shall have a song [3:53]


13 Alleluia (1940) [4:44]


Twelve Canticles (1983)


14 Praise ye the Lord [2:30]


15 God is a spirit [2:22]


16 When thou liest down [1:41]


17 My grace is sufficient [1:18]


18 The old and the young [2:20]


19 I call to remembrance [1:17]


20 Arise, shine [:23]


21 The path of the just [1:08]


22 Face answereth to face [1:52]


23 Fear thou not [:57]


24 Farewell [2:15]


25 Amen [1:34]


26 The Best of Rooms (1963) [4:05]




TOTAL TIME, with pauses: 1:06:17


The music of Randall Thompson is published by E.C. Schirmer, Boston, Massachusetts




The Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale


Robert Shewan, conductor


A digital master recording


Produced and Engineered by John Gladney Proffitt