at Quigley Chapel

March 25, 1988

Two years ago the local a cappella choral group His Majestie’s Clerkes commissioned a work from Chicago composer Daniel Tucker. Last month the Clerkes gave Tucker’s The Dream of the Rood its premiere performance as the climax of a concert that spanned almost five centuries of sacred choral music.

The setting and acoustics of Quigley Chapel couldn’t be more ideal for such a concert. Built in 1921 by Cardinal Mundelein during a period in Roman Catholicism when opulence was appropriate to anything having to do with the priesthood, the chapel, which is part of Quigley Preparatory Seminary North, is more or less a reproduction of the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the breathtaking chapel erected by Saint Louis in 1248 to enshrine what is believed to be a relic of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion.

This limestone building with large stained-glass windows has ideal acoustics for choral music: it is small enough that the music can be easily heard from anywhere in the chapel, yet it’s remarkably resonant–the music reverberates magnificently across the space without loss of texture, balance, or color.

His Majestie’s Clerkes were founded in 1982 by alto Richard Lowell Childress because “there was no a cappella choir for me to sing in.” Their unusual and exciting repertoire is the most consistently innovative and well executed of any local chamber choir’s. And there is the added allure of Quigley, the room in which they sing.

All these factors were much in evidence at the Clerkes’ recent concert, which began with a series of short works conducted by Childress. The first was a brief and rarely heard English setting called “O God, the proud are risen” by Thomas Tomkins (1573-1656), which speaks of an assembly of proud men rising up against the innocent, a common theme of Lenten and Holy Week texts. The edition heard was prepared by Dr. Bernard Rose of Magdalen College, Oxford, and lent to the Clerkes for this performance. This was followed by the famous Good Friday setting of Psalm 69:20-21 in Latin by Palestrina (1545-1594), which quotes the notorious prophecy that is so central in the Passion accounts of Jesus: “they gave me gall for food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” The piece is a somber masterpiece of Renaissance polyphony whose nuanced and hushed balances and entrances were treated with exquisite care by the Clerkes.

The short Crucifixus setting by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) introduced what was to become the dominant symbol of the concert, the cross. As a contrast, in terms of both musical style and textual setting, the Lotti was followed by a neo-romantic setting of the devotional prayer of Saint Bernard, “Jesu, the very thought of thee,” by Edward Bairstow (1874-1946). The first part of the concert came to a sparkling conclusion back in the high Renaissance with a Latin text from Psalm 24 set by the incomparable William Byrd (1543-1623).

The second half of the program was conducted by the Clerkes’ codirector, Anne Heider (it’s characteristic of the group’s egoless approach that when either Childress or Heider conducts, the other goes back into the ensemble and sings alto). It began with two somber psalm texts, one a French setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”) from the high Renaissance by Claude Goudimel, the other a fascinating and seldom heard German setting of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God . . .”) from high Romanticism by Felix Mendelssohn. The latter was marked by a purity of tone, timbre, and style little known in performances of 19th-century choral music, and what a pleasure it was to hear!

The program’s world premiere needs to be considered against the curious background of the cross as a devotional symbol. The cross obviously had little, if any, devotional value in the earliest centuries of Christianity. While crucifixion remained a common method of execution in Palestine and other conquered properties of the Roman Empire, and the sight of crucified bodies in various stages of torture and decomposition was a familiar one, the cross could hardly be contemplated in a reverential manner.

The devotional cross first developed in the East as a symbol of the victorious liberation of Jesus from death. The cross became a throne for a glorified Jesus risen from the dead, shown sitting triumphant and alive, dressed in a white garment symbolizing a glorious and eternal state.

This symbolism may be seen in an earlier form in the extrabiblical Gospel of Peter, a document discovered only a century ago that contains what many historians and biblical scholars now believe is the earliest account of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel, Roman soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus see a great light and two men come down from heaven and roll back the tomb’s stone. Suddenly three men emerge from the tomb with a cross following them. A great voice from heaven is heard to proclaim “Thou has preached to them that sleep,” a reference to the early Christian belief that Jesus’ spent the period between his death and resurrection preaching to those who had already died. The cross, in turn, responds, “Yea.”

This unusual and intriguing idea of a talking cross is developed even further in the eighth-century Anglo Saxon devotional poem The Dream of the Rood. This anonymous poem was fascinating enough to Richard Lowell Childress that he began searching for a musical setting of the text, only to find none. “I even considered setting the text myself,” says Childress.

Enter Dan Tucker, well known for years as editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune by day and award-winning composer of chamber music, symphonies, choral music, ballets, and opera by night (and weekend). From mutual admiration a commission resulted wherein Tucker would compose a setting of the Rood text for the Clerkes to introduce.

The result is a work of sublime beauty and originality.

The text speaks of a dream of a tree that becomes the cross of Jesus. The tree itself tells of its experiences as “they hewed me down at the edge of the holt, severed my trunk . . . wrought me as a gallows for rogues!” One day “I saw the King of all mankind hasten with courage great to mount upon me. Refuse I dared not, nor bend, nor break.” As the tree recounts its being pierced with black nails and its being stained with the blood from “the Hero’s side,” it reflects philosophically on the significance of this event and on the transformation of the cross from a symbol of suffering and despair to that of triumph and hope: “Now may you learn, o man, beloved man, the bitter the sorrows that I have borne. But the time is come when men on earth and through all creation show me honor and bow to this sign.” The tree proclaims the healing powers of the cross and issues a commission to “reveal this vision to the sons of men and clearly tell them of the tree of glory whereon God suffered for man’s many sins and for the evil that Adam wrought of old.”

For Tucker, the text of the poem is everything, and he has made sure that the music itself is never intrusive. Its point is to accompany the poem, which Tucker accomplished in an appropriately medieval manner, illuminating the text as monks used to illuminate scriptural manuscripts with decoration and color.

The music itself is somewhat contemporary in content, more traditional in its form and use of tonality. Tucker is trying to evoke medieval music in much the same manner that Stravinsky evokes Pergolesi in his Pulcinella ballet. In fact, Tucker’s use of parallel motion and open fourths as a central motivic element particularly reminded me of Stravinsky’s sacred music, especially the quieter sections of Symphony of Psalms and the Mass.

Featured in the work were Richard Brunner as a dramatic and appropriately pious speaker, alto Terry Sullivan, and the exquisite harpist Tija Danilovics.

This season seems to be a crucial time of transition for His Majestie’s Clerkes, having last fall presented their finest choral concert to date (and indeed, one of the finest ever heard in this city) with visiting British early music specialist Paul Hillier, and now having successfully commissioned and premiered an important new work that is bound to become popular beyond Chicago. The group may have a way to go before reaching the quality of the top European choral groups (there is no opportunity here to sing this music on a daily basis, as there is in Europe), but the Clerkes are constantly improving, and they are the only Chicago choir I know of that even strives to remain attentive to such matters as the careful matching up of voice timbres in each section.