PROGRAM NOTES: Florilegium Chamber Choir - An Armistice Day Concert



Florilegium Chamber Choir

William Byrd - Mass for Five Voices Thomas Tallis - If Ye Love Me, Third Hymn from the Psalter for Archbishop Parker Charles Ives - Three Songs from the War (arr. DeMaison) Eric Whitacre - Nox Arumque John Cage - 4'33" Samuel Barber - Agnus Dei


Monday, October 29, 2012 – At the moment of writing these notes, New York Harbor is enough above normal level that the harbor and Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood are now indistinguishable. Safely up on the high ground of Bed-Stuy, still only 11 a.m., I sit in a coffee shop populated by brazen young hipsters, all of us undeterred in our quest for artisanal caffeination by the bluster of either the storm or the media storm tracking. For the time being, Sandy is little more than a steady, annoying drizzle.


The indie-music plays a little too loudly and I struggle to remember stray facts, learned long ago, about English Catholics in the late 1500s and the role of Queen Elizabeth I’s Recusancy Act of 1593 (one year before Byrd published his Mass for Five Voices), which codified punishment for non-participation in the Church of England. Despite this act, Byrd and elder Catholic compatriot Thomas Tallis enjoyed considerable favor from the religiously ambivalent Queen, who at various times in her life was called illegitimate by both the Catholic and the Anglican churches. Both composers were recognized with high positions at court, and both were granted sole rights to publishing polyphonic music (and staff paper!) in England. Never mind, of course, that neither gentleman owned a printing press and that, despite their official monopoly, they had great difficulty finding buyers for the music they did manage to print, as many people were turned off by the potential consequences of owning copies of music published by Catholics. I wonder, for example, if the potential double meaning of Tallis’ “Why fum’th in fight” would have been lost on authorities. Byrd’s more contrapuntally rich music was also considered at the limits of Protestant acceptability, which held understandability of text as paramount.

Byrd and Tallis lived in a kind of cultural cold war. Much of the overt Catholic/Protestant bloodshed had subsided since the reign of Queen Mary I, whose penchant for burning Protestants (nearly 300 in her short 5-year reign) earned her the moniker we now ascribe to a certain tomato-based cocktail, but tensions remained understandably high between Catholics and Protestants for the next half of a millennium (give or take). Both composers were subject to regular official scrutiny, including searches of their property, and Byrd in particular, though bold enough to consort regularly with many known Catholic dissenters and secretly trade Catholic motets with Flemish composer Philippe de Monte, was very careful about the nature of the printed material he kept at home.

The noise in this coffee-oasis-cum-temporary-hurricane-shelter perpetrates a small storm in my mind, clouding the eye of my memory. I suspect that, if I could remove myself to a quiet place, it would be much easier to sort deeply stored mental files. In here, generalities swirl; specifics never quite coalesce. As I struggle to remember details about such things as the circumstances surrounding the premiere of Charles Ives’s Three Songs of the War, which took place just days after the U.S. entrance into World War I, during a luncheon meeting of insurance salesmen at the Waldorf Astoria, or the press quote that followed (“Despite [Ives’s] coaching, neither singer nor pianist was up to [the performance]. Likely an embarrassed time was had by all.”), I am struck by the relationship between sound, silence and memory. For me, the program today is not about war, nor about peace, nor even about conflict in general. It is about remembering, and the role that music (and silence) plays in remembering, leading us down certain trails of forgotten associations and barring our way to others. As time marches on, memories transition from specific to general. We forget (perhaps conveniently when shaping a concert program) that after penning these staunchly anti-war/anti-jingoist songs, Ives, whose Patriotism was on par with Byrd’s Catholicism, became a great supporter of the war and even volunteered (unsuccessfully) to drive ambulances in France.

But memory does not simply reside within ourselves. Barber’s Agnus Dei has become a veritable repository for cultural memory and reflection. A re-arrangement of a re-arrangement, it was originally the second movement of his string quartet, op.11, marked simply “adagio,” then reworked as the famous Adagio for Strings, and only thirty years later became the version we sing today. From the time of its premiere in the ominous year 1938 by the outspokenly anti-fascist Toscanini, this piece has become almost interchangeable with silence in terms of generating a collective pause for reflection. It played on the radio at the announcement of FDR’s death and on TV at the memorial for JFK. It was one of only a handful of American pieces allowed to be played in Soviet Russia. It played at Einstein’s funeral. It was performed at the BBC Proms on September 16, 2001. It wasn’t until the ominous year 1967 that Barber reissued the Adagio for Strings as the Agnus Dei for choir. I can think of few other pieces of music or works of art, particularly of the last hundred years, that have proved able to retain and transmit so much of our collective memory.

The storm of history churns on and on, spinning off in all directions an endless noise of names and dates, of causes and effects. As a final unsung reflection on the nature of reflection, and the things (enduring or ephemeral) that prompt us to remember and encourage us to forget, I offer this curiously poignant excerpt from a Wikipedia article on an artifact of the day of the Armistice, November 11, 1918:

The armistice was signed in a carriage of [French Marshal Ferdinand] Foch’s private train, CIWL #2419 (“Le Wagon de l’Armistice”). It was later put back into regular service with the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, but after a short period it was withdrawn to be attached to the French presidential train.

From April 1921 to April 1927, it was on exhibition in the Cour des Invalides in Paris.

In November 1927, it was ceremonially returned to the forest in the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. Marshal Foch, General Weygand and many others watched it being placed in a specially constructed building: the Clairière de l’Armistice.

There it remained, a monument to the defeat of the Kaiser’s Germany, until 22 June 1940, when swastika-bedecked German staff cars bearing Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop and others swept into the Clairière and, in that same carriage, demanded and received the surrender armistice from France.

During the Occupation of France, the Clairière de l’Armistice was destroyed and the carriage taken to Berlin, where it was exhibited in the Lustgarten.

After the Allied advance into Germany in early 1945, the carriage was removed by the Germans for safe keeping to the town of Ohrdruf, but as an American armoured column entered the town, the detachment of the SS guarding it set it ablaze, and it was destroyed.

After the war, the Compiègne site was restored, but not until Armistice Day 1950 was a replacement carriage, correct in every detail, re-dedicated: an identical Compagnie des Wagons-Lits carriage, no. 2439, built in 1913 in the same batch as the original and present in 1918, was renumbered no. 2419D.

© Nicholas DeMaison 2012 Please do not reproduce any part of these notes without express written permission of the author.


WritingsNicholas DeMaison