Professor G. Wallace Woodworth has done even more than bring before the University a musically sensitive and technically accomplished choral organization. Under his direction, the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Ohoral Society, last Friday presented a concert which brought to life a musical idiom almost four centuries old. For two hours a capacity Sanders Theatre audience found itself immersed in the musical language of the "Golden Age" of choral music, and their repeated ovations made it clear that they found the experience both illuminating and thrilling.
The program was so discriminatingly planned that I cannot forebear some discussion of it. There chief strands of late 16th century music were brought together. Clement's famous Adoramus and a Benedictus by Palestrina represented what was called the stile antico, a restrained contrapuntal style used in orthodox church music. Giovanni Gabrieli's dazzling Symphoniae Sacrae combined elements of both the Renaissance splendor of Venice and the Baroque love o the spectacular; finally, a number of chansons by Lassus, Arcadelt, and Regnard exemplified the piquant secular songs of the period.
A few compositions written considerably after the sixteenth century were, in fact, performed, but the late Renaissance idiom so strongly pervaded the evening that I, for one, found myself judging these other works by 16th century standards. Thus Verdi's setting of Dante's Hymn to the Virgin Mary seemed maudlin after the more ethereal fervency of Palestrina. I do not know whether Verdi's melodramatic climaxes and sensuous cadences are inherently unsuited for religious music, but their operatic association have certainly made them so for me. Even Mozart did not fare well in such company, perhaps because the firmly established tonalities of his Ave Verum Corpus seemed restrictive and sentimental when placed next to the more highly flexible modal style. A group of chansons by Debussy, however, by no means conveyed this sense of restriction. Set to poems by Charles D'Orleans, a medieval courtier-poet, the chansons caught the naivete, humor, as well as the basically tragic outlook which characterizes much of the courtly literature. The only contemporary works on the program, a group of motets by Leo Preger, effectively dramatized some familiar Scriptural quotations.
That the standard of performance met the challenge of this rich and difficult program is a tribute to all groups involved. The Glee Club's precision has, in truth, been more faultlessly exhibited on previous occasions, and the Gabrieli works presented problems of balance which were not successfully overcome. Perhaps it was the size of the roughly 200 voice chorus which prevented the subtly shifting balance of up to eight voice parts from being clearly perceived, especially in the intricate In Ecclesiis and Jubilate Dco. Nevertheless, these works achieved a tremendous excitement, due in no small part to the assistance of an excellent brass choir. The Gabrieli Benedictus and O Jesu Mi Duleissime, on the other hand, were realized with a greater transparency of texture, perhaps because the vocal masses were more evenly balanced against each other in these works. Also, in the case of the Benedictus, the choirs were distributed in three parts of Sanders Theatre while in O Jesu the size of the chorus was cut considerably. There is no doubt, however, that the tonal chorus achieved, from the very first subdued motet to the final exultant Jubilate, place it in a unique and exalted rank among college choirs.
Finally, the remarkably sensitive work of the small group which performed the chansons deserves mention. Their diction was excellent and they were quick to catch the constantly shifting moods of the songs. Dorothy Barnhouse's contralto was perfectly suited to the solo she sang in Debussy's Quant fai ouy le tabourin. The audience demanded and received an encore of her very moving rendition.