Canticle of Time (Symphony No. 2)

Canticles of Time, a choral symphony commissioned by Millsaps College in celebration of its 100th Anniversary, received its premiere on November 30, 1990, in Jackson, Mississippi by the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the Millsaps Singers, conducted by Colman Pearce. The text, also commissioned for the occasion, was written by the noted Atlanta poet-physician, John Stone; though prompted by a specific moment in the life of one institution, the text is timeless, calling forth powerful images of academic life as well as of life itself.

The symphony begins with a brief Prologue, which opens with three clangorous chimings in the orchestra, each answered by a separate, ever-expanding interval in the harp. This introduction provides the germinal material for all else that follows. The harp notes are especially important, for they proclaim the characteristic interval for each of the three movements to come: the minor second for Scio (I know), the minor third for Credo (I believe), and the perfect fourth for Gaudeo (I rejoice). The chorus intones an incantation which has the effect of invoking the muse of Memory, preparing the mind for the celebration which is about to begin.

For the Scio movement the poet conjures up an apocalyptic image of “the great examination,” complete with slate, notebook, and “blue books stacked up on the desk,” a veritable setting of fear for students young and old. The reference to the Last Judgment is unmistakable and unerringly appropriate, serving to convene all generations together to review the events of time since the beginning. The test, the most academic of rituals, is rendered into music by means of the most academic of musical forms, the fugue. Moreover, this is a double fugue, with the chorus splitting into a double chorus and with everything done according to the rules learned in school. The chorus and the strings both proceed very correctly, unfolding the music with quite proper, Baroque-like turns and figures. The listener will sense, however, that something is making this fugue sound different from a Bach fugue, despite the many similarities. For one thing, it is composed in the Phrygian mode (like a minor scale with the second note flattened), something Bach would never have done. For another, the woodwinds (and later the brass) form a chorus of sophomores, chanting an accompaniment made up solely of the tonal material students are forbidden to use in fugues: parallel fifths and octaves! The orchestra alone presents the exposition of the first fugal subject; the chorus then enters with the exposition of the second fugal subject describing the great examination. For the phrase “all the generations gather,” the composer, in keeping with the neo-Baroque setting, alludes to Bach’s great thematic treatment of the same words (in his Magnificat). Then the two subjects appear simultaneously, soon leading to the obligatory dominant pedal over which the chorus casts its memory backwards (“From these windows we looked out”). What seems to be leading inevitably to a triumphal ending, however, is pricked by the pin of misgiving (“we know so much…and so little of”), and immediately the three bells intervene, reminding that John Donne’s bell “tolls for all, it tolls for you, the test is over, the papers due.”

The Credo is a response to the misgiving voiced at the end of the Scio, expressing our deepest need to know beyond what we can know and therefore our need to believe. A poem of surpassingly beautiful images, it elicits music of intense lyrical feeling. The Biblical allusion (“To consider the lily is to consider the rose”) is illustrated with a musical phrase in which two ideas are sounded simultaneously. Later, the music becomes elegiac in tone to prepare for the chorus’ words of mourning as it remembers those “whose chairs are empty.” The composer quotes briefly at this point from his Elegy for Strings to set the stage for this central section of dirge-like music, which also includes a sorrowful reference to the student song Gaudeamus Igitur. This is one of several instances in this movement when the music is diverted from its tender main theme, but each time when it returns the listener is reassured of its constancy. In one of these diversions, where the chorus sings “Between our joy and grief we know we do not know,” the music becomes quite dramatic, seeming to show how closely woven are these two opposites. As the movement comes to a close the music underscores, through its own progression from unsettled harmonies to final resolution, “the alchemy by which within the human heart our hope becomes belief.”

The chorus then interrupts to proclaim, unaccompanied and in full voice, “Blake was right: within our days ‘Joy and Woe are woven fine.’ Yet, of the faces we put on the most enduring one is Joy.” This is answered by an outburst of support from the orchestra. Two more choral phrases, one celebrating the joy of poetry, the other, that of music, reverberate from the chorus, each, again, being vigorously seconded by the orchestra. The orchestra then ushers in the music of the final movement, the Gaudeo, which consists of constant repetition and expansion of a short ostinato theme, recited over and over, now in the foreground, now in the background, in the manner of a mantra. This theme becomes mesmerizing as it concentrates upon relinquishing thought and “journeying inward,” as Joseph Campbell puts it, “to the field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent.” As the gaudeo theme (the mantra) repeats itself, it groups itself into ever longer segments. (Those interested in numbers will recognize the dimensions by which the segments are getting longer—namely, the Fibonaci series [1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.]. This series of numbers embodies the mathematical proportions of the Golden Mean; the proportions by which the movement is expanding are indeed the same by which the entire piece has been expanding since the first movement.) Each section of the movement is separated by a short interlude in the orchestra, commenting upon the progress so far and setting the stage for the next section. While the mantra-like theme remains relatively constant, the music surrounding it is continually being changed. The section containing eight repetitions of the mantra forms the middle section of the movement, during which the two melodies which had been briefly quoted in the introduction (Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light and Gaudeamus Igitur) are expanded upon with full statements from the chorus, with the gaudeo theme now being intoned in the background by the violas. The section containing thirteen repetitions of the mantra serves as something of a recapitulation, except that time is telescoped, the meters become mixed, and the sense of reality is compressed and accelerated. At the peak of this foreshortening, the chorus triumphantly reenters to repeat its opening chorale, affirming once again that the most enduring face we put on is Joy. A final coda gathers energy from all that has gone before, turning everything into a transcendent realization of the full meaning of those words sung in Latin, I rejoice! Let us rejoice!

Program Notes by Samuel Jones