Between the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and next year’s 70th anniversary of D-Day (as well as a few World War I anniversaries) there are a myriad of opportunities to acknowledge the role of music in and around the military. War and anti-war songs and marches are straightforward in interpretation and role, but musical works inspired by times or literature of war are more subtle and pieces which link two completely different battle periods are especially intriguing. Princeton Pro Musica took advantage this past weekend of its opening concert’s close proximity to Veterans Day by presenting four works connected to U.S. involvement in war over the past two centuries. Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau found a common theme in works using the same poetry in some cases to showcase Pro Musica in precise choral form in both chamber and full force configuration.
Saturday night’s performance began with an acknowledgment by Dr. Brandau of veterans in the Richardson Auditorium audience, together with a musical tribute by Aaron Copland to all the “common men” involved in the war effort of World War II. One of ten fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942 (and the only to survive with any longevity), Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man has often been a go-to piece to convey patriotism, and the eleven brass players of the orchestra accompanying Pro Musica for the evening filled the hall with clean playing and spirit. The sectional sound from the trumpets, an unofficial instrument of battle, was especially vibrant and ringing.
Both early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and mid-20th century American composer Jeffrey Van musically set the poetry of Walt Whitman, in some cases the same poems. Vaughan Williams composed his choral/orchestral Dona Nobis Pacem from the depths of uncertainty between World Wars I and II, while Van’s 1990 A Procession Winding Around Me was inspired by the composer’s visit to the Civil War battlefield Gettysburg, and both pieces find commonality in the post-Civil War poetry of Whitman. Van’s four-movement work was scored for chorus and guitar (Van is a member of the guitar faculty at the University of Minnesota), and Dr. Brandau presented this piece with the 35-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus, accompanied by guitarist James Day.
Van’s setting of Whitman’s poems was primarily homophonic, with a clear-cut declamation of the text. The singers in the Pro Musica Chamber Chorus demonstrated clear diction, with a consistently well-blended sound (especially from the men) and with vowels reliably pure. The setting of the third poem, “Look Down Fair Moon,” was the hardest to tune (admirably achieved by the chorus), beginning with whistling as from afar and well accompanied by Mr. Day with guitar playing that was both accompanying and percussive. Van composed some particularly effective word painting passages in the fourth poem, “Reconciliation,” which ended the piece on a positive note.
The Dona Nobis Pacem of Vaughan Williams was textually more complex than Van’s work, combining verses from the Bible with Latin liturgical text and Whitman’s poetry. Vaughan Williams composed the six-movement free-flowing choral/orchestral work as a plea for peace, using chorus and orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists. Williams began the work with text from the last part of the Latin mass — starting right off in despair. Soprano JoEllen Miller consistently sang with pure and ethereal tone, contrasting with the chorus’s expression of past devastation and impending return to war. This composer wrote effectively for chorus, and the full forces of Pro Musica handled well the driving rhythms and demand for sustained sturdy sound.
The Civil War was a very different kind of war from World Wars I and II, yet Vaughan Williams brought Whitman’s poetry new meaning in the 20th century with sensitive orchestration and solo writing. Baritone Paul Max Tipton (who also sang an Edward Cone song setting poetry of 19th-century British poet Matthew Arnold) sang Vaughan Williams’ version of “Reconciliation” with compassion, aided by the full-bodied sound of the chorus and refined solo playing from oboist Carl Oswald. Soprano Miller returned periodically throughout the piece as the voice of the people, interpolating the text “dona nobis pacem” into Whitman’s verses. Throughout the Vaughan Williams work and the entire concert, the chorus, soloists, and orchestra together brought life to music paying tribute to the dead, and presented well these four pieces which are not heard often enough.