STORY WRITTEN BY JOE BARRON
In the beginning was the Word, so the Gospel says, and for centuries, composers of religious music have adhered to St. John’s dictum. For Kile Smith, whose hour-long sacred work “Vespers” will be performed by the Choristers Nov. 21, the sound must serve the meaning.
“Art for art’s sake is a completely un-Lutheran world view. It’s all for God’s sake,” Smith said recently, speaking by phone from his century-old home in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia. “All of it is so that the word is proclaimed. That is the Lutheran view, and I entirely agree with it.”
Smith is a lifelong Lutheran, and when Piffaro, Philadelphia’s medieval music group, commissioned him to write “Vespers,” he turned to German hymns, Latin psalms, and the old chorale melodies of his denomination, many of which are attributed to Martin Luther himself.
The result is a work steeped in the sound-world of the 16th century, but brought subtly up to date through the modern technique of stacking chords.
“At first it sounds very old school,” Smith said. “It could be original chant music, but then I start adding notes. It’s more tonal, but then the chords get more smushed. Renaissance music would never sound like that.”
Even the work’s instrumental sections are tied to religious message through the verses that accompany them in the program notes. Secular listeners will find much to admire in the sonic architecture, to be sure, but, Smith said, if they approach it as absolute music, they’ll miss a lot.
“For example, in the Vater Unser [Our Father], I take great pains, because of the very words, where I put the tune in the voices,” he said. “Sin, evil, is dragging us down.”
The challenge to writing for instruments with such alien-sounding names as shawms, sackbuts and theorbos, Smith said, is that they can’t achieve the sustained volume of their modern counterparts.
“They don’t really work that way,” he said. “The way they work is they dance with each other. They have to dance with each other all the time. It’s something that I intuited from hearing them play and playing in a medieval group myself.”
The subordination of sound to meaning was one of things that attracted David Spitko, the music director of the Choristers, when he first inspected the score ― which, by the way, may be accessed by popping Piffaro’s CD recording of the piece onto any computer.
“I studied it, and just absolutely fell in love with it,” Spitko recalled recently. “It just covers a magnificent gamut of choral music in one work. Then on top of it, his tone painting is just beyond belief.”
When Spitko approached the Choristers’ board of directors about performing the work, one dissenting voice objected that it would be too difficult. Indeed, the Choristers is the first nonprofessional, nonacademic choir to tackle the score, a fact Smith and Spitko regard as a step forward for both the music and the performers.
“It’s a huge deal,” Smith said.
Another challenge concerns the balance of forces. Smith wrote the vocal parts of “Vespers” for the Crossing, an elite group of fewer than 20 singers. The Choristers has three times that number, and yet Piffaro, with only seven instrumentalists, will provide the accompaniment, as it did at the 2008 premiere.
Spitko is confident, however, that the singers will not swamp the musicians.
“I’ve been working hard on stressing that in this concert we need to be a chamber choir,” he said. “To a certain degree we’re being served well by the fact that at least every other year I schedule an a cappella concert, which keep us, in terms of being a chamber choir, fresh.”
Of course, one advantage of performing with Piffaro is that the group has performed Vesper many times, which takes some of the pressure off.
“They don’t need to be conducted when they’re playing all by themselves,” Spitko said. “I’m grateful for that.”