Mixed Chorus, 2 Flutes (Flute 1 doubling Alto Flute, Flute 2 doubling Piccolo), 2 Violas, Violoncello, and Contrabass
Text: Burial Anthems from The Book of Common Prayer; Psalm 103:13-16
Publisher: C. F. Peters Corporation, Edition Peters 67948
Shortly after the death of my mother, Eloise Robertson Biggs, in 1988, I began a setting of two of the traditional Anglican Burial Sentences, which I thought would be for unaccompanied chorus. I had what I thought to be a great beginning, but couldn’t seem to get any further. Naturally other events and pieces intervened, though periodically I returned to the sketch, just to remind myself of it and think about a suitable memorial work.
In 1997, shortly after Dr. Gail Archer assumed her duties as Director of Music at All Saints Church in New York City, where I was a member of the choir for many years, she commissioned me to compose a piece for the inaugural concert of a series she was beginning at the church, which would take place on Palm Sunday of 1998. The instrumentation was to consist of a small group of strings and two flutes, in keeping with the extraordinary compositional company I was to be in on that occasion.
J. S. Bach’s Cantata No. 106 (Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit”) and Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, two of the greatest examples of funeral music in the repertory. I at last had found the right opportunity to use the material I had sketched some ten years before.
The motet makes much use of polytonal harmonies, which put me in mind of Henry Purcell’s settings of the Burial Sentences, mostly because my harmonies often directly allude to the sorts of contrapuntally derived major-minor clashes he loved so much and exploited so tellingly. The tonal center of the piece, like that of the first part of the Schütz, is E. After the turmoil of the first major section of the piece, there is a sudden change of mood and texture, as an unaccompanied solo soprano begins the text from Psalm 103 (“As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him”); in its childlike innocence, this passage clears the way for a peaceful, if hard-won conclusion on a darkly voiced E minor triad.