Harold Rosenbaum on the choral music of John Harbison
by Harold Rosenbaum for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 15, 2013

Harold RosenbaumA while ago I had the distinct pleasure of conducting my 16-voice all-professional choir, The New York Virtuoso Singers, in a 70th birthday tribute concert to John Harbison, with the composer present. All 17 of his a cappella works, including a world premiere written for the occasion, were performed. It is not often that each member of my choir loves every piece it performs on our programs of mostly contemporary music. This time we all did.

John's a cappella choral music is lyrical but challenging to sing, deeply expressive, and tonal, if barely so. This can also be said of his choral works with orchestra, e.g., Requiem, Flight Into Egypt and Four Psalms. Both I and the singers in my choir feel his compassion and sensitivity coming through his contrapuntal as well as his homophonic (chordal) writing, and we find his attention to detail refreshing, helpful and pertinent. John puts more markings (accents, tenutos, staccatos, accented staccatos, etc.) into his music than do most other composers, which is perhaps a reflection of the conductor in him. (This careful attention to detail can be seen in a few other great composer/conductors' music as well, including Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten and Jonathan Harvey.) Yet he still leaves plenty of room for personal interpretive concepts to enter into the fray. And he knows how to write extremely well for the voice. At the end of our concert of his a cappella music, the singers' voices were not anywhere near as tired as when we performed all six Bach motets on the same program, one of similar length.

In addition to the enjoyment I receive when conducting his choral music, I am personally deeply moved and fascinated by all of it. The texts which he sets, taken mainly from the Bible, have deep personal meaning to him, and contain universal messages. He is especially skillful at getting to the heart of the message, and making his point in a direct way, with no excess. And there is great beauty in all of his music, whether it be the rich harmonic language he uses, or the seemingly effortlessly-produced and natural-sounding melodies, or the compositional skill we can only marvel at, including the perfect structures of his compositions. His pieces are neither overly long, or too short. He says what he has to say, and then he is out of there.

I would like to discuss three aspects of his a cappella choral music which are of special interest:

  • Unusual works
  • Fascinating Rhythms
  • Magical Moments


John's most unusual a cappella piece is the two-part canon for male voices, Veni Creator Spiritus. Only 20 measures long, this remarkable work, based on Gregorian chant, was designed to be heard as well as seen, etched on large opaque panels placed on both sides of a staircase in the library of MIT's Theatre and Arts building.

In concert, the listener is immediately disoriented with a sextuplet rhythm beginning with a rest on the downbeat. Being a canon, everything heard once will reappear soon after. What follows are sextuplets with middle notes replaced by rests, then quintuplets, then simultaneous sextuplets and quintuplets, then 5 against 3, 3 against two, and 5 against 4 during a ritard. What fun! All this leaves listeners as tantalizingly disoriented as those who, while strolling through the MIT library, try to absorb its visual message without tripping over their own feet.

Communion Words was written for a benefactor who disliked dissonance. So John decided to please her by writing a work composed only of triads (virtually all major and minor). However, in the final section, as if teasing her a bit, he conjures up a handful of harmless dissonances, each which of course immediately resolves to a consonance. The final 4-3 suspension, possibly the most frequently used dissonance throughout the history of sacred choral music, occurs on the word "remembrance." Perhaps John was impishly challenging his benefactor torememberthat one can never escape dissonance, no matter how much one tries.

Der Abend (Evening) is a short work on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, for double choir, paying homage simultaneously to the homophonic simplicity of Schubert, the antiphonal style of the 17th century Venetians, and the bitonality of Ives. That is quite a mix! Beginning and ending both in C Major and G Minor, and seeming to traverse almost every other key in between, the effect, while appearing somewhat incongruous or jarring at first, soon transports us into a dreamlike state where, as the poem states, we begin to notice that, "ancient days and gentle sorrows now fuse like quiet showers luminously through the heart."


We have already discussed the two-part male canon, based on chant, but with rhythms which are twisted and flung about in a very disorienting and contemporary manner. Next we come to the double chorus Emerson, based on texts from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self Reliance" and "Compensation" which express the mystery of existence. There is a passage in Part 1 referring to the concepts that time and space converge in a single rose, and that all living things are in everything. "There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence." Due to the singular nature of the rhythm throughout this passage, the listener is held in rapt attention, suspended like a lone rose on a long stem. And with the addition of gentle crescendos and decrescendos, the image of a swaying flower is presented.

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled is a motet which contrasts the idea of the consoled, remaining behind, with Christ in His upward journey. There is a fascinating passage: "In my father's house are many mansions" (particularly the last three words) where the juxtaposition of four very different and repeating rhythms creates quite an aural picture of the concept of many mansions.The composer hits the mark once again by marking piu legato, paving a smooth surface for Christ's effortless ascension.


Referring to Charity Never Faileth (from I Corinthians 13:8-13 – King James Version) John says: "More ambiguous harmonies describe various states of incomplete knowledge."

Every two measures or so, the chorus lands on and sustains a different chord: first G Major, then D Minor, A Major, C Minor, Bb Major, B Minor, B Major and finally A# Minor. Although this progression on paper is quite unusual, the composer finds means to unify this passage: with regularly occurring dynamic undulations, with a homophonic text setting, and with a melody which, when its octave displacements are "adjusted," becomes relatively static and lyrical, when compared to the unstable and highly irregular chordal progression. This concept of unification continues with a textual message which spins out with no repetition of words.

Perhaps the most striking, unusual and remarkable moment in all of the a cappella works, a stroke of genius really, occurs later in the piece, when the words, "For now we see through a glass darkly" appear. Here the altos sustain a Bb, while the divided sopranos surround that note with an open fifth G up to D. Simultaneously the basses sustain a lower Bb, with the divided tenors surrounding it with a Gb up to Db. Repeated declarations of open fifths a semitone apart, with the addition of the B-flats, create bitonal triads, one minor the other major. The B-flats themselves see through the open fifths, just as we see through the glass, and a haunting, dark effect is truly palpable.

Wherefore I Put Thee in Remembrance, written to celebrate the calling to preach the word of the Lord, is a "vigorous wake-up call to the spirit" (David St. George). The listener cannot help but sit on the edge of his seat, if not literally, then figuratively, with the rapid and ever-changing infusion of ideas, including sudden dramatic dynamic contrasts, accents, long crescendos, ritards, staccatos, strings of sf's, and finally one of John's trademarks: the long pause to give us time to "recover." We are dazzled, but we never see view it as showmanship, because this kaleidoscopic activity is employed in the service of its message. And he always succeeds in making our spirits soar above the razzle dazzle, like a soprano cantus firmus soaring above the counterpoint in a Bach cantata movement.


Madrigal (written for The New York Virtuoso Singers)

"In writing this Madrigal, …I wanted to try a different tone, one I can best describe as madrigalesque, in which the continuity emerges spontaneously, even casually." JH

I told John, during a break at one of our final rehearsals before the concert mentioned above, that I felt Madrigal had been written in quite a different style from everything else on the program. His response was that it is secular (one of only three such works of all his a cappella music – technically only two, since Emerson has a religious undertone).

Upon close examination, it becomes clear that the style of Madrigal is akin to that of Renaissance madrigals, which have more of a mix of homophony and polyphony than do their sacred counterparts, and which often use word painting and unusual harmonies. Here there is an unusually wide assortment of interesting techniques for such a short work, e.g., close five-part imitation (three notes apart on the words, "The darkness of night is coming fast," and later: "waves are coming in"), long pauses (quite a few of them), portamento, imitating the sound of bells ("Listen, sound of bells") and frequent very wide spacings of chords (three octaves and more). All these elements together, along with Hindemith-like chords (built on fourths) and Bartok-like clusters at times, bring to the listener a new voice by a composer who now begins his eighth decade.

At the conclusion of the concert mentioned in the opening of this essay, an audience member, who has been to many of my concerts of contemporary choral music, approached me in awe of the stylistic variety of the music on the program. Expecting perhaps "too much of a good thing," instead he declared that there was as much variety here than in concerts presenting the music of all different composers. This certainly cannot be said even of so many of the most famous composers, both past and present.

It will be interesting to see in what direction John Harbison goes from here.

Harold Rosenbaum is the founder and conductor of the Canticum Novum Singers and the New York Virtuoso Singers.
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