Smith and Amherst in Europe
This article reflects a panel that was part of a Symposium entitled College Music Abroad, which took place at the December 29, 1961, session of the CMS annual conference, Salem College, Winston-Salem, N.C. The other panelists were Elliot Forbes, Thomas A. Sokol, and Wilton Mason. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 2.
At the outset may I say that I am deeply grateful to my professors at the University of California in Berkeley, Roger Sessions, Ernest Bloch, Randall Thompson, Sir Arthur Bliss, and Albert Elkus. Through them, we students came alive to the music of our own century.
Many excellent college-age choruses have represented the United States abroad in recent years. To the best of my knowledge, however, the Smith-Amherst Chamber Singers who toured Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and France during the summer of 1961 is the only group whose repertory has been drawn largely from the works of living composers.
The Smith College Chamber Singers in their Fifth European Tour in 1958 competed with twenty-two choirs from both sides of the Iron Curtain in Llangollen, Wales. In addition to the two competition pieces, Morley's "This Love Is but a Wanton Fit," and Schubert's "Gott ist mein Hirt" the group elected to perform a contemporary piece for six-part women's chorus by Lionel Nowak, "Wisdom Exalteth Her Children," and won the initial first prize ever awarded at Wales to a chorus in any division from the United States.
As the basis of our planning a year prior to the 1961 tour, Heywood Alexander (of Amherst) and I made the decision to prepare two programs, one of which would be devoted exclusively to commissioned works, and to other twentieth-century compositions. We invited two composers on the Smith College faculty, Alvin Etler and Edwin London, to write music for the 60-voiced chorus.
Alvin Etler (b. 1913), who won the Elisabeth prize in 1953 with a symphony, and who is well established both here and in Europe, wrote a seven-minute secular piece for a cappella chorus, "Ode to Pothos," which he conducted in its Amherst premiere in May, and again in New York City where it was taped for radio before we flew to Madrid. Edwin London (b. 1929), who writes rather advanced music, and is at the outset of what I think is a distinguished career, wrote a four-minute a cappella setting of the Twenty Third Psalm. Mr. London was able to join us for the summer, conducting his own work; this proved to be most exciting to the students.
To these were added the amusing and moderately difficult triptych by Louise Talma, Let's Touch the Sky, on texts of e.e. cummings, three lovely Odes of Horace by Randall Thompson, two Pilgrim Psalms by Ross Lee Finney, and the Mass of Igor Stravinsky for which we carried the necessary winds. The Etler, London, and Talma were rehearsed from manuscript. As the New York Times article, written from Spoleto, said: "They are shunning in a sense the safe and the surefire. They sing virtually nothing written between 1650 and 1920."
In order to season such an experimental program, Amherst College organized an afternoon forum and evening concert in which four of the five composers took part as panelists and conductors. Somewhat later we learned the London and worked on the remainder of the repertory which included the Tallis Lamentations, Lasso's Prophecies of the Sibyls (selections), and a few smaller pieces. Both programs were performed and polished in six days of rehearsals and performances in and around New York City in June.
The first concert abroad was given in Madrid, a city known for its conservative programming. We decided to sing the contemporary program however, and found that the capacity audience of students and workers who flocked to the Instituto Nacional de Prevision became increasingly interested as the evening progressed, and at the end of the concert gave us an ovation in which the greater part of the hall was standing. The critics reported, "One should not just say that the concert was worthy of high praise; the affair was a great success." (Madrid, YA, July 2, 1961)
The same program was sung often, or with small changes in the four weeks which followed, before sophisticated audiences in Rome at the American Academy where Talma, Thompson, and Finney had been Fellows, at the Spoleto Festival for Gian Carlo Menotti, at the Circle Culturel at Royaumont, and at Fontainebleau, to name a few. In all we sang the Stravinsky Mass more than twenty times. Although there was some initial skepticism among Embassy officials, we found critics and musicians were pleased with our choice of music, and our decision to de-emphasize folk material, charming as it may be. In truth however, the reaction was not totally favorable: one indignant Frenchwoman at the Cathedral in Dijon shook her fist after we performed the Stravinsky at 10 o'clock Mass, and said that we had "ruined" her Mass.
We were handsomely entertained by Gian Carlo Menotti, who arranged a midnight supper following our concert so that the singers could meet the musical world that gathers at the Spoleto Festival. Somewhat later, Nadia Boulanger afforded us the same pleasure following the concert we sang from the steps of the Château at Fontainebleau.
And do college age groups in England and the continent perform difficult contemporary music? The answer is that they do not attempt to do so. Beautiful and sometimes unforgettable singing is done by the King's College Choir in Cambridge, by the Jeunesses Musicales in Paris, by the Hochschule choruses in Germany, but the repertory is largely drawn from the Renaissance, early Baroque, high Baroque, and Classic periods, and includes some contemporary music in a relatively easy idiom. The new music in advanced style is left to professional, and to state-supported radio choruses in Europe. The growing trend towards new music among our young people in the United States is unique, I think, and speaks of the health and vigor of our culture.
The results of our half-year's concentration on new music at Smith College are complex and still unfolding, and I might mention four. First, we have a core of students in our singing groups whose reading proficiency has literally jumped ahead, and who can pick up a score of Bach, Machaut or Stravinsky, and give a fair accounting of the music in one or two readings.
Second, our students' taste has developed remarkably. Two months after the tour they spent a weekend organized by four music publishing houses and Amherst College, reading through some twenty new works written almost exclusively by American composers. Spontaneously, several of them expressed a desire for another "reading" weekend; with more advanced music being covered. One or two publicly chided the publishers' representatives for publishing music they felt was of a "diluted" idiom.
Third, Smith and Amherst will collaborate to sing the Bartók Cantata Profana, in its third performance in the United States, as part of a seven-day Festival of Contemporary Music. This quite difficult work is for double chorus, and will be sung in the original Hungarian. On the same evening we will give the première of a new piece by Peter Schickele, who has written finely drawn and rather exposed settings of Japanese haikus for a cappella chorus, entitled After Spring Sunset. This was commissioned as part of the 75th Anniversary Year of the Smith Glee Club.
And fourth, we are now engaged in a new project for 1962-1963 in which our own four Smith College composers, John Duke, Alvin Etler, Edwin London, and George Walker are each to write an anthem a month for the Sunday Chapel services. The composers have agreed to write pieces which can be learned in a maximum of four-hours' rehearsal. This weekly flow of energy between composers and students on the same campus should add to the recharging of both.