Johannes Brahms wrote his German Requiem in 1868 as a memorial for both his friend and mentor Robert Schumann and his beloved mother. Despite being heavenly in its emotional impact, the work is notable for its boldly secular profile. Requiems are, traditionally, Catholic masses with Latin text, while Brahms utilizes the German language and derives his wording from a Lutheran Bible, but with all mentions of a deity or afterlife carefully excised. Kile Smith takes this cue in his new recording, Canticle.
Smith brings his devotion to Brahms to his latest choral work, Canticle. While based on the 16th-century poem A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, by one John of the Cross, Canticle does not mention Christ, nor does it refer to any specific theology. Smith intentionally shortened the title to Canticle, which is simply the Latin word for song (although it was generally presented in the form of a song of praise). It is possible to read the poem and perceive it as a traditional love story. But for those attuned to the vibrant religious symbolism (“O verdant meadows enameled with flowers! Tell me, has he passed by you?”) Smith’s setting resonates with the spiritual roots of the writing, especially in the context of his large body of overtly religious works.
Time travel through music
One of the remarkable features of Smith’s writing is his ability to time travel, in a stylistic sense. Canticle opens with a soulful duet of solo cello and vibraphone that, in its simple beauty, seems to transcend any specific musical era, seguing into the introduction of the chorus, with a wordless chant. That sound is a giant cloud of rich vocal harmony, reminiscent of the eerie choral writing of the great Hungarian modernist György Ligeti (best known for his appropriately spacey vocal contributions to the score for 2001: A Space Odyssey). Then, with a sudden gust of fresh air, a bright tambourine rattle throws us back hundreds of years to the street music of the Renaissance.
Spiritual and earthy
Once the narrative of the poem ensues, the music proceeds with a gently propulsive rhythm that carries the listener along in a dramatically cohesive way. There are no jarring surprises in Smith’s writing style, no sforzandos. Rather, there is an extremely careful musical pairing to the import of the poetry, in ways that are sweetly profound. In the composer’s own words, he finds “the juxtaposition of spirituality and earthiness.”
The heart of the 18-section work occurs a little past the two-thirds mark of the approximately hourlong composition. Our bed is in flower conveys an unabashed sensuality (“I gave to him myself without reserve”) tempered by exquisite polyrhythms and harmonies in the delicately ecstatic score, suggesting the influence of the sublime music of French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). This segment is hypnotically beautiful.
The Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble, which commissioned the work, performs superbly, with rich tone and a natural sense of pacing. I expect to hear this music again, with different forces, perhaps offering a new perspective; the work has legs, and many of Smith’s earlier creations are being performed around the world. A brief, lovely piece titled Alleluia finishes off the program, a kind of musical amen.
What, When, Where
Canticle. Kile Smith. Commissioned and performed by the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble, conducted by Craig Hella Johnson. (513) 381-3300 or vaecinci.org.