The legacy of the cathedrals of Rome
by Christian Hildebrandt
In 1975, when the 30-year-old Niels la Cour travelled to Rome funded by an Arts Council grant, his finely-tuned ears must have picked up echoes of centuries of music in the city’s cathedrals.
With him in his luggage, besides his degree in music theory and music history from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, la Cour also had a composing career in the making with a growing worklist of piano, chamber and orchestral music. As early as his high school years at the beginning of the 1960s, he played organ and studied with the organ icon Finn Viderø. Afterwards la Cour chose an academic path, first with basic theory of science and music studies at Copenhagen University, later in the classic Academy course as a pupil of the leading figures Finn Høffding, Bjørn Hjelmborg and Svend Westergaard. Later he himself followed in their footsteps as a teacher of music theory for many years at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The greatest source of inspiration for the composer la Cour was his studies, first with ‘the Danish Messiaen’ Leif Kayser, and later with the composers Vieri Tosatti and Armando Renzi in Rome. After his studies in Rome, sacred music gradually began to assume a central position in la Cour’s list of works which in subsequent years led to among other things the major works Missa brevis (1989), composed as a commission for the Danish National Chamber Choir, and Fantasia per organo (1993-94) as well as the major works on this release. Many thousands of Danish choir singers know and love Niels la Cour’s motets and hymns, and in 1988 he was honoured with the title ‘Choral Composer of the Year’.
It is said that all roads lead to Rome, but when it comes to the sacred music tradition one can add that all its wellsprings flow from Rome. This was where Gregorian chant grew up and this was where Palestrina created a musical treasure at the peak of the Renaissance that both gathered up the strands from the preceding generations and laid the basis for the subsequent classic polyphony. The bearing ideas of the Palestrina style are balance, internal consistency and calm, organic melody and harmony – the musical soul informing the principles behind the great architecture of the cathedrals.
Niels la Cour’s choral and organ music flows from this tradition, and it is the perfect ornamentation of the great church interiors. Used in church services, sacred music must in la Cour’s view “serve, inspire and enrich the worship of the congregation”, and for him the sacred music tradition is the natural starting point. But the tradition is not a limitation for la Cour, who on the contrary sees awareness of the tradition as the path towards the creation of a personal artistic idiom; an idiom which for him ideally seeks beauty and a suprapersonal sublimity.
Niels la Cour also seeks the suprapersonal and timeless in the texts on which he bases his choral music. Music and text must fit together, and la Cour’s attitude to sacred choral music is clear: it must be “the handmaid of the word”. “Good choral music is characterized by the fact that it sounds as though it has been written for the sake of the text,” he says, and continues: “By setting the text up on paper one almost already has the recipe for the musical progression”. As with his attitude to the musical tradition, though, this does not have a limiting effect, for in this case too the composer seeks to penetrate to the essence of the text and combine it with his own artistic idiom.
ABOUT THE WORKS
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house
In the motet Blessed are they that dwell in thy house (1985/86)la Cour has taken his point of departure in three different Psalms which he weaves together into a poetic totality, as in the theological practice where one combines scriptural texts so they fit with an overall theme. The text unfolds in a rondo-like, generally duple musical form which presents three main ideas: blessed praise, jubilant thanksgiving and fervent love. The first is the consistent main motif of the piece, from which the other motifs develop organically through subtle changes of shading. The piece begins with an underlying organ note over which the women’s voices enter in unison with a long-lasting arc ascending through a pentatonic scale, finally dividing into a simple two-part texture and forming a rudimentary half-cadence. Text and musical structure both have a gently wavering character that expresses mankind’s humility towards God. After this la Cour sets a more extroverted verse that turns the thoughts to the Gospel message of joy in Jesus. Musically the jubilation is expressed by the way the choir engages in a powerful four-part texture with rhythmically telling stresses, syncopes and triplets. Then the initial beatitude returns, with a denser but expanded sonority, until the third motif of the piece enters with a profession of faith and love of God, musically personified by the tenor voice bearing the text beneath a chromatically rich accompaniment of women’s voices and organ. Again the full four-part choir sets in, interpolating a kind of nature lyricism before the passage gradually thins out and finds its way back to the single organ note of the introduction.
The second main section unfolds in its basic features as a varied, intensified repetition of the first. The most striking variation comes with the jubilant thanksgiving which now lies like a long recitation in the soprano part with sporadic echoes in the lower parts. The organ part too has its expressive peak here, dominated by a low-lying ostinato which along with the top note of the soprano forms a major-second interval – structurally corresponding to the very first melodic step of the main motif. The piece ends with a fragment of the main motif, succeeded by a long-drawn-out ‘Amen’, which just before the final notes sees an almost medieval double leading-note cadence in the female voices.
With its 20 minutes of playing time, 3 Intermezzi (1973/74) is despite its humble title an important contribution to the Danish organ literature. This is not simply a matter of three separate character pieces; it is a unified three-movement work with recurrent motivic material. The work is dedicated to and was given its first whole performance by the organist Elisabeth Westenholz at a concert in the church Holmens Kirke on 21 January 1974, which also strengthens its identity as a unified composition. Nevertheless the designation intermezzi has a special significance, since the movements are thus, as ‘interludes’, in accordance with Niels la Cour’s attitude to sacred music, something that can be experienced in a larger conceivable liturgical framework. With customary modesty the composer also remarks that his detailed stopping instructions “are only meant as hints which the performer can freely develop and vary at his or her discretion”.
The first movement, Introit, begins with a grave chorale-like monologue in a free-tonality neoclassical style. One senses a polyphonic construction principle, but also an organically fantasizing encirclement of something as simple as a C major triad. After four phrases a second part enters as a free fugato, and gradually the space of the sonority expands until a bass part halts the polyphonic flight with a repeated accompaniment figure as underlay for a melodic-symmetric theme that will turn out to run through the whole movement. The subsequent sections offer a number of varying tableaux marked by shifts in the registration, new ostinato structural patterns and a regular return to the symmetrical theme established in the first section, with which the movement also falls calm in the end.
The second movement, Hymn of Praise, opens with a whirling, virtuoso, stepwise tremolo figure over four notes as the background for a calmly wandering melody with reminiscences of the chorale introduction in the first movement. This two-part texture results temporarily in an abrupt staccato motif of repeated dissonant chords, after which the whirling movement is resumed. The two textural types continue to interrupt each other throughout the movement, but with an expanded middle section where the abrupt chords are developed through a series of variations that lead to the reappearance of the main theme from the first movement.
The third movement, Holy Communion, is a calm, sonorous pastorale in classic AABA form. The A section is consistently laid out with a figured solo melody spun out across an almost jazzy tetrad-based chord progression. The jazziness is also helped by the soft offbeat and characteristic blue note of the solo melody about midway through the movement section. The B section changes temperament to a medieval parallel texture which discreetly takes its point of departure from the first movement. This leads into an extended, melodically figured but harmonically static segment which once more ends in the cyclic main motif of the work, before the recapitulation sets in.
With the three Marian songs written in 2005 we leap forward 20-30 years in time to a present-day Niels la Cour. Here, compared with the introductory motet, we hear a more directly communicative, almost madrigal-like choral style. The tonality is clearly coloured by major and minor sounds in what one could call a neo-Romantic tonal language. The melodic lines are more concentrated and emphasize the text in a simple, emotionally rich syllabic execution. However, the change in style could also be explained by the text, which is not Biblical, but consists of hymns with no direct liturgical function.
The threefold Tota pulchra es, however, holds a little secret, since the middle section takes its text from the Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke, also known as the Canticle of Mary. Compared with the sonorous setting of the hymn text, the interpolated canticle section is also much more ascetically set in a chanting recitando.
Niels la Cour has reworked the famous Stabat Mater hymn en miniature and picked out a few individual verses which he juxtaposes in two very different textural types. He stages the emblematic introductory words of the piece, “Stabat Mater dolorosa”, in a decidedly dolorous madrigalistic harmony. Then Mary’s sorrowful vision of her son on the cross is conjured up in a ghost-like, quickly fading fugato. From there the movement leaps to the beginning of the second half of the hymn, which praises the motherly love of Mary. Here la Cour unfolds a grand, optimistic-sounding fugato followed by stepwise-descending melismata towards an open cadence that leads back to the torment of the “Stabat Mater”.
The Regina caeli is based on the Gregorian melody of the Marian antiphon of the same name. After a singing-through of the melody in unison, la Cour sets it in a quite simple, four-part choral style but then takes his motivic material out on a long contrapuntal journey, first through a regular triple fugue with successive developments and then a cantus firmus texture in which an augmentation of the main theme is one of the three contrapuntal parts. The movement ends in a jubilant homophonic “Alleluia”.
In connection with the publication in 2013, Niels la Cour furnished this work with a programme note: “The word vesper (Latin “evening”) is used on the one hand as the name of a liturgical “evensong” (mainly Protestant) and on the other of “the prayer for the canonical hour at the onset of darkness” (mainly Catholic).
If one imagines that a church or monastery one day exceptionally decides to substitute a half-hour organ concert for the Vespers, giving the organist a free hand to put together an “organ Vespers” that need not follow the course of the liturgical Vespers, but may simply be generally inspired by it, then one has the idea that formed the starting point for this composition.
For some of the movements – such as Prayer, Silence and Hymn – the main inspiration has been the world of the canonical hours; for others – such as the Prelude and Fugue – it has been the world of organ music. Here and there, too, motifs have been used that are meant to refer to the kind of plainsong or recitation that one might for example hear in the context of a Gregorian Vespers.
In Vesper Organi (2003) one notes the same stylistic development as described above in the Cantio Mariae. The style is more direct, the melodies more motivically telling and the harmonies more classically tonal. However, this does not mean that the music sounds more old-fashioned. On the contrary the nine movements exhibit a marked contemporaneity in the undogmatic and boldly precise use of often-striking devices such as the cascades of tumbling broken triads in the first movement, Preludio, the seventh movement, Inno (Hymn),and the concluding Postludio; or the percussive chordal motif in Lauda and the persistent Dies Irae motif in the same movement. The work also offers sporadic near-gaps as in the transition to the recapitulation in the third movement, Preghiera (Prayer), or the whole sixth movement, Quiète (Silence), which with its succession of mysterious chords appears almost purged of melodic form. A stark contrast to this is the monumental middle movement, Fuga, which quite simply is a grand fugue with all the required thematic developments, counterpoint and sequences. After the neoclassical sublimity of the earlier organ works, la Cour presents a four-part fugue based on three subjects which so to speak get directly to grips with the listener with their contrapuntal constitution. The original high point of the work is however the seventh movement, Inno, with its impactful mixture of wildly virtuosic figurings and scale runs with almost impudent fanfare-like eruptions which seem to “slide” up and down the keys.
Den store mester kommer & Frelseren er mig en hyrde god
With the two chorales to B.S. Ingemann’s well known hymn texts Den store mester kommer (The great master is coming) and Frelseren er mig en hyrde god (A good shepherd is my Saviour) we get a couple of glimpses of Niels la Cour’s formidable talent for the simple strophic song. All Danish choirs presumably know his setting for Fred hviler over land og by (Peace lies over town and country) from 1987, which in the choir context has long outstripped Rudolph Bay’s catchy old Romantic hymn tune to the same text. But in the case of the chorales too these two represent la Cour from a more melodically narrative side. Both chorales are in C and swing their way up to a characteristic Mixolydian minor seventh where we hear the sacred music legacy of Carl Nielsen and Peter Møller shining through. The form is balanced, melody and harmony are appealing without being insistent. Both pieces are obvious candidates for the choir repertoire as well as congregational singing.
Between the two chorales stands Niels la Cour’s very first choral composition, which is at the same time his only non-sacred choral work, the piece for women’s choir, Wings,to a text by Karen Blixen. The work is from 1973, composed four years earlier than the series of sacred choral pieces that began with 5 Motets (1977). Wings is stylistically clearly influenced by Vagn Holmboe, whose huge contribution to the choral literature reached a peak in the 1970s. Nevertheless already here we encounter something gentler and closer to the text in Niels la Cour’s work, especially evident in the treatment of the Blixen poem’s textual leitmotif “only of wings”, which la Cour causes to emerge from the gently rocking textural flow as sensitive peaks with a recurrent, clearly recognizable sequenced motif.
© Christian Hildebrandt, 2014