September 22, 2022


Illuminating Truth & Beauty: The Choral Music of Samuel Adler (Michael De Sapio, September 17th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)

Gloriae Dei Cantores (singers to the glory of God) is a choir based in Orleans, Massachusetts, along Cape Cod. Their mission statement declares their aim to "illuminate truth and beauty through choral artistry, celebrating a rich tradition of sacred choral music from Gregorian chant through the twenty-first century." The ensemble's more than fifty recordings, made during their nearly 35 years of performing, bears witness to this wide and catholic repertoire and commitment to values spiritual and artistic.

One of the ensemble's frequent collaborators over the years has been composer Samuel Adler. Adler, who was born in 1928 and turned 94 this year, is something of a national treasure: a living link to the midcentury American musical "school" of Aaron Copland (who was among his teachers). He has particularly concentrated on sacred choral music, and the album To Speak to Our Time gathers together several of his pieces for choir and organ from a long career.

The centerpiece of the album is To Speak to Our Time, a cantata composed in 2018 for the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi atrocity against the Jews. It is an event which Adler experienced firsthand. The booklet notes to the CD recount the remarkable story of how he escaped Germany with his father on that very night in 1938. I could hardly improve upon the description:

"Samuel Adler was ten years old--huddled with his father in the balcony of the Mannheim synagogue. He didn't know if he would survive. He saw the lights; he heard the crashing glass; he smelled the acrid smoke of gunfire; and tasted the burn in the air. This night was an invasion--Kristallnacht. What stood between the frightened pair and possible capture or even death, was the collapse of a pipe organ in that balcony where they were hiding, which allowed them to escape. When Adler recounts this story, he leaves no doubt that his life was spared for a purpose.... Today, at ninety-four years of age, there are few composers whose music is more perfectly positioned to speak to our time."

Adler's cantata has texts in four different languages: German, Hebrew, Latin, and English. What strikes you in sampling Adler's music, and his comments on it, is his sincere universality and ecumenical spirit. Born and raised Jewish and the son of a cantor, Adler worked for many years in Christian churches and he has set texts from both the Old and New Testaments. His Choral Trilogy, my favorite of the works on this album, sandwiches a text from Romans between two texts from the Psalms. There is a beautiful spiritual progression in both the texts and music of this triptych. The first movement sets "Why have you forsaken me," the words of Psalm 22 which Jesus appropriated on the Cross. The desolate mood of the opening of this movement gives way to an affirmation of divine authority at the end: "For dominion belongs to God, and He rules over all the nations." The second movement sets a well-known text from Romans, Chapter 8: "Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us," providing a hopeful answer to the question posed in the opening movement. Finally, the last movement dances with the jubilant text of the penultimate Psalm: "Sing to the Lord a new song, sing His praises in the assembly of the righteous," with music that the CD booklet likens to a Jewish village dance.

Adler's music harkens back to the classic midcentury sound of Copland, Piston, Hindemith, Randall Thompson. It's what we might describe as conservative modernism, using harmonic and rhythmic innovation in the interest of expanding and building upon tradition. In interviews Adler has emphasized the importance of knowledge and craft in musical composing. He may be one of the last representatives of this neoclassical approach, standard in the U.S. in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, before postmodern sensibilities came to the fore. True to the neoclassic aesthetic, this music induces a sense of contemplative calm and order. 

Posted by at September 22, 2022 8:45 AM