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A Healthy Revival

Choral music by
Randall Thompson -
enjoyed by

'... performances and recording are exemplary throughout.'

Randall Thompson: The Peaceable Kingdom; Mass; Alleluia. © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

New York-born composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984) received his music doctorate from the University of Rochester School of Music and went on to teach at the University of California (1937), Curtis Institute of Music (1939), the University of Virginia, and from 1948 to 1965 at Harvard, where he'd once studied with Bloch and others. Later, Leonard Bernstein was among his students at Harvard.

Though Thompson has written three symphonies, the opera Solomon and Balkis (1942 -- after Kipling's 'Just So Stories'), a Jazz Poem for piano and orchestra, two string quartets (1941 and 1967) and much else, he is best known for choral works -- notably The Testament of Freedom (1943), Frostiana (settings of Robert Frost poems, 1959), and The Peaceable Kingdom (1936), the latter inspired by the painting (reproduced on the Hyperion cover) by Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849).

Listen -- Randall Thompson: Alleluia
(track 9, 0:01-1:02) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The most popular and familiar choral work is his (6'15") anthem, Alleluia (1940), 'commissioned' by Serge Koussevitzky for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. (Note that the bulk of his work is at the Houghton Library at Harvard, with about two hundred pieces -- letters, autographs etc -- relating to The Testament of Freedom at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library.)

In 1964 he became the first recipient of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. He was also awarded Yale University's Sanford Medal.

When choral fashions have been favourable, music of Randall Thompson has been central to the repertoire for his works are artfully crafted; cognizant of SATB qualities and often extraordinarily graceful. Such features are exemplified by this stunning Hyperion (2008) release.

The Peaceable Kingdom (1936) is based on texts from the book of Isaiah (chapter 11, verses 6-9); in addition, the programme includes his Mass of the Holy Spirit (1955/56), The Last Invocation (1922) and Fare Well (1974). Also included is his Alleluia (see above).

Artist Edward Hicks, who trained as a sign, coach, and ornamental painter, produced over a hundred versions of his renowned Peaceable Kingdom between 1820 and his death. Art provided a slender income for his activities as a Quaker preacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Listen -- Randall Thompson: Say Ye to the Righteous (The Peaceable Kingdom)
(track 1, 0:02-0:55) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The TPK concept, with its Old Testament derivation, was attractive to both Hicks and fellow Quakers for its potential graphic imagery and message of peace: Viz -- 'The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.'

For all its mastery, music of Randall Thompson is regrettably far too seldom sung; many who listen to these beautiful performances seem bound to wonder why.

Varying hues and melodic avenues found in The Peaceable Kingdom are arresting and glorious; similarly we observe a breadth of mood from the reverence of the Alleluia to prophetic God-fearing allusions of the middle few movements from The Peaceable Kingdom.

Hyperion's welcome selection brings works covering 55 years; beginning with the Invocation written when Thompson was 23, ending with Fare Well written at age 75. Three remaining titles represent the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Best of all, performances and recording are exemplary throughout.

James Burton's Schola Cantorum of Oxford performs Thompson's works with expressive clarity, striking repose, persuasive ataraxia and unalloyed musicianship.

Listen -- Randall Thompson: Howl Ye (The Peaceable Kingdom)
(track 4, 0:02-0:55) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The two major works Mass of the Holy Spirit and The Peaceable Kingdom together occupy over fifty six minutes. The Hicks-inspired music moves from benign, arcadian serenity to anguished exclamations and back again; ie from 'Howl Ye' to 'The mountains and the hills shall break forth'. And in keeping with the prophetic text of Isaiah this polarity lasts throughout the work.

Thompson's anthems The Last Invocation and Fare Well are based respectively on affecting poetry by American Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and London-born poet and essayist, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).

Listen -- Randall Thompson: The Last Invocation
(track 10, 1:23-2:19) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

It's difficult to conceive of more beautiful, radiant, closely observed performances and recording than these from Burton's SCO for Hyperion. The informative booklet notes are by one of Thompson's most constant admirers, the fellow-American composer Morten Lauridsen.

While a few of these works are available with fine American choruses (see below) each of these has its share of distracting minor blemishes.

Ye Shall Have Song -- Music of Randall Thompson (CD) with the American Repertory Singers (Washington DC) directed by Leo Nestor, includes The Peaceable Kingdom, Alleluia and The Last Invocation.

The Light of Stars -- Randall Thompson (CD Gothic) with Choral Arts Northwest (Seattle) directed by Robert Bode, includes The Last Invocation and Alleluia.

Alleluia -- A Randall Thompson Tribute (Aca Digital) with the 26-member, Atlanta-based Michael O'Neal Singers -- The Peaceable Kingdom and Frostiana (excerpts).

Though prominent before and during World War II, Thompson almost disappeared off the radar when peace returned. Tonal composers were frequently cold-shouldered while young Americans began to look toward Europe and southern California, hotbeds of Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone method. By the Sixties, respected professional music schools simply ignored a large body of highly estimable work.

Fortunately, since the 1980s there has been a backlash against wholesale modernism and, spearheaded by such recording organizations as Hyperion and Naxos, the wider spectrum of American music is enjoying a healthy revival.

Listen -- Randall Thompson: Credo (Mass of the Holy Spirit)
(track 13, 0:00-1:14) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Copyright © 21 January 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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