In Providence, Rhode Island, a choir has been hard at work rehearsing a new classical work dedicated to the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. The 11-minute composition is to be premiered on November 30. It is the work of classical composer Paul Nelson, whose prolific career spans the last half of the 20th century.
Conductor: "And, voom!"
Choir: "Thine are these orbs of light and shade..."
With just 10 days to go before the concert, the Rhode Island Civic Chorale is polishing up some spots of the piece called In Memoriam. The singers are under the direction of Edward Markward. Choir: "Thou madest death, and lo, thy foot is on the skull which Thou hast made..."
Conductor: "Whatever you did, do it again…" The composer of In Memoriam, Paul Nelson, sings in the back row of the bass section. At 73 years of age, he keeps a keen ear on how the choir is interpreting his musical phrasing. He took the text for In Memoriam from a poem of the same name, written by Alfred Lord Tennyson after the death of a close friend.
"Our little systems have their day.
They have their day and cease to be.
They are but broken lights of thee and thou, o lord, art more than they.
Forgive our grief, for one removed.
Thy creature, whom we found so fair."
This piece is a revision of a choral work Mr. Nelson composed in 1959, when, as he tells it, he found himself… like Mozart 150 years before him… a young composer in Vienna, short on money. "I was trying to write some, what I thought were easy pieces that could be used in church use," he says. "And came across this poem, In Memoriam, and thought that would be useful for many services. People do, unfortunately, die, and sometimes you can't work up a complete requiem."
After several performances in the 1960's, the piece lay dormant and Mr. Nelson went on to write works for student choirs and teach composition. Then, last year, he read a music critique complaining that no classical composers had responded yet to the September 11 tragedy. "They didn't realize it takes time to get music written, serious music," he says. "I mean, somebody could sit down, as was done, with a guitar, and write a little song, and make up some inane lyrics. And you can do that in an hour or so, and come out and say, 'Oh, this is because of September 11, I did this.'"
Mr. Nelson says his composition has a very simple musical structure. But it is not a simple song. "If people will listen to it carefully they will notice that the very first verse, for instance, is set to a rather simple hymn-like melody," he says. "It would be easy enough for any congregation to sing ...even without a choir. 'Strong son of God, immortal love.' That's the first phrase of it."
"A very conservative melody," says Mr. Nelson. "It could be harmonized with Johann Sebastian Bach, but I don't really like to do that, so mine are a little bit more 20th century, but not too far out there 20th century. They are still nice chords that everybody likes."
And judging by the feelings of some singers in the choir... Paul Nelson is right.
Man: "For me, the Nelson piece in many passages reminds me of the tender light. You don't know whether it's sunrise or sunset, but it's the gentle light where heaven meets earth."
Woman: "We are loving singing this piece. We're delighted because, first of all, Paul Nelson sings with us, and so it makes it doubly special. Musically, it's interesting to sing, a little challenging."
Man: "It's fabulous. I could hear one of the tenors, as we finished tonight saying 'It's hard to rehearse when you get chills even in rehearsal.' It's very moving. I almost stopped singing cuz it's so beautiful. But I better not."
Conductor: "And, one."
Choir: "Forgive our grief, for one removed. Thy creature, whom we found so fair..."
Conductor: "Don't you just love that statement? Can you make it intelligible to those who pay? Whoo-oom we found so faair... it's just heart-rending, that. We do menomoso again. You're all singers, and you sing because you love it. Love the words that you make. Love the sounds that you make. Ok? And one..."
As Edward Markward pushes the choir to make better music, the composer says the text works well for remembering the victims of what he calls the malevolent massacres of September 11, 2001.
Paul Nelson says a reading of Alfred Tennyson's poem shows the author was struggling to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful god, on the one hand, with the tragedy of loss, on the other. "That was really Tennyson's whole idea, I guess. He was living, after all, at a time that so much science was coming along, and the theory of evolution, all kinds of things," he says. "And it took him a long time, but he finally kind of reaffirmed his own faith that there is such a thing as a god, you know? The God. And when we come back into the final big chorus, 'We have but faith,' it is loud, and the same good melody, and strong."
And, says Paul Nelson, "I wouldn't be surprised if there were no dry eyes in the house" when the new version of "In Memoriam" is premiered on November 30.