Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Elena Ruehr's Cantata

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

June 2011

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This spring the Steiny Road Poet has had the occasion to enjoy the rich sound of large choral groups. This feast of many voices included the Heritage Signature Chorale (Washington, DC) which will be featured in Ysaye Barnwell's Fortune's Bones at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts early in 2012 and which previewed their abilities at a University of Maryland gala recently, the Shippensburg Concert Choir (Shippensburg, PA), and DC's The Washington Chorus.



On April 3, 2011, at DC's National Presbyterian Church, The Washington Chorus under the direction and concert baton of Julian Wachner presented a thought-provoking program entitled "New Music for a New Age Featuring the Works by Elena Ruehr." The program offered two Washington premieres: Cricket, Spider, Bee (based on poems by Emily Dickinson) and Gospel Cha-Cha (based on a poem by Langston Hughes) as well as the world premiere of Averno, a cantata inspired by a long poem of the same title by Louise Glück. Soprano Marguerite Krull and baritone Stephen Salters sang solo parts. The tonal music offered a post-Minimalist style with accents of Middle Eastern flourishes and old world inflection.


Although there was much to enjoy and think about in Ruehr's rhythmic, upbeat, and accessible music and in the texts of Dickinson, Hughes, and Glück, the Steiny Road Poet got caught up in how a composer chooses one form over another, that is, cantata versus oratorio versus opera. Sometimes the choice comes down to the resources available. For example, a composer might be approached with a proposal that specifies the musical form and offers a commission with financial backing. Or, a composer might have access to collaborators, such as outstanding singers like Stephen Salters or high-profile choral directors like Julian Wachner. Here's what Elena Ruehr wrote in her program notes for the April 3rd concert:

ruehr-cr"Works of art as large as Averno can only come about when many good things converge. In May 2007, I had the great fortune of meeting one of my favorite poets, Louise Glück, at a concert. We spoke about collaborating, and I started to envision her work as music. Because Glück's poetry so masterfully combines a sense of personal intimacy and collective utterance, it seemed to me that the best musical form for her work would be a cantata. In a cantata the dynamic is constantly gliding between soloist and chorus, the public and the private, the conscious and the unconscious, the individual and the collective."

Ruehr's notes go on to say that by chance in June 2007, she received a commission from the Jebediah Foundation to write a work of her own choosing that would be planned for a specific performance. Coincidentally that month, her long-time collaborators Wachner and Salters approached her to create a new work for the McGill University chorus, which Wachner was then directing. Luck and proximity often figure into creative decisions, but certainly in Dr. Ruehr's case she knew what form she wanted for Glück's work.


Nevertheless the Steiny Road Poet thinks the question of these three related forms—cantata, oratorio, and opera—needs further discussion because they are not so easily differentiated. Therefore, how might these three forms be defined?

A cantata (Italian for a song or story set to music) is a vocal composition for chorus and soloists accompanied by instruments and generally containing more than one movement. Historically, the subject matter of cantatas was often based on sacred texts but modern day cantatas are more frequently secular. A well-known example of a modern day cantata is Carl Orff's Carmina Burana written 1935-36.

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus often telling a sacred story without costumes, scenery, or dramatic action though it does feature characters. The most well known oratorio that continues to be performed in our time is George Frederic Handel's Messiah which was first performed in April 1742 and whose text is in English.

An opera is an extended dramatic work with a range of subject matter in which the music features such differentiated vocal forms as recitatives, arias, and choruses as well as strictly instrumental compositions that might include overture, prelude, intermezzo, music for dance, etc. One expects operas to be fully staged with costumes, scenery, lighting and special theatrical effects. Here the Steiny Road Poet offers that Virgil Thompson's and Gertrude Stein's opera Four Saints in Three Acts has been viewed as a work that is more oratorio than opera and, in fact, it has been rendered into oratorio format. What's more, Julian Wachner, who is also a composer, showcased an excerpt from his opera Evangeline Revisited in the New York City Opera's 2010 VOX program and he calls this opera an oratorio opera.


It seems over the history of these three musical forms, each has changed and evolved to the degree that it is often hard to distinguish one from the other. The Steiny Road Poet having peered into some historical discussions of cantata noticed that in the 17th century alone, the form had gone from single voice madrigal to the many voices of the "cantata di camera" and the "cantata da chiesa." By the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote at least 200 church cantatas but this nomenclature of cantata was applied by music scholars and some of the larger Bach cantatas are seen today as oratorios. A visit to the Singers Legacy website made the S. R. Poet aware that labeling a choral work an oratorio may be a hard sell to a current day audience. Another reason why few contemporary composers write oratorios.


Coming back to The Washington Chorus concert of Elena Ruehr's work, the Steiny Road Poet was mightily impressed by the size of the 200-member chorus and its 40-member orchestra, whose collective sound was enhanced by the good acoustics of the National Presbyterian Church playing before a substantial audience spread out in all the pews. (The S.R. Poet imagines that an empty hall of this size lacking such an audience would produce a very different sound.) Between cantata and oratorio, the issue of size comes into play. One possible differentiating clue is the number of instruments accompanying the chorus—historically speaking, a small musical ensemble accompanied the cantata. However, that doesn't hold true for such cantatas as Orff's Carmina Burana, which is set for a large orchestra. So as best the S. R. Poet can determine, the oratorio differs mainly from the cantata because it has distinct characters that carry the story of the oratorio.

What's interesting about Glück's text for Averno is that the voice of the narrator is sometimes the mythological Persephone who was kidnapped by Hades to his underworld, sometimes the narrator is Glück who meditates on death not only as it plays out with Persephone but also in today's world, but at other times it is hard to tell the difference. For example: here are the opening lines and this could be either Persephone or Glück speaking. 

This is the moment when you see again
the red berries of the mountain ash
and in the dark sky
the birds' night migrations.

It grieves me to think
the dead won't see them—
these things we depend on,
they disappear.

What will the soul do for solace then?
I tell myself maybe it won't need
these pleasures anymore;
maybe just not being is simply enough,
hard as that is to imagine.

Another layer of interest is how Ruehr features not only a solo soprano voice but also the resonant male voice, a baritone. Characters are not emphasized in Averno. Ruehr is clearly a good match for Glück's complex text that flows back and forth from myth to the reality of our lives. Now that the Steiny Road Poet has spent time to understand the differences between cantata, oratorio, and opera, she sees it is logical that Ruehr's Averno is best called a cantata. 

Photo of church by Joe Irwin.
Photo of Elena Ruehr by Charles Bandes

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©2011 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

June 2011

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