Illuminating Truth & Beauty: The Choral Music of Samuel Adler
As a reviewer for a classical record magazine, I often receive items from off the beaten track that prove illuminating discoveries. Sometimes I am moved to share them with readers of this journal because I feel they are of interest to all who value culture, art, beauty, and the life of the intellect and spirit.… The post Illuminating Truth & Beauty: The Choral Music of Samuel Adler appeared first on VoegelinView.




As a reviewer for a classical record magazine, I often receive items from off the beaten track that prove illuminating discoveries. Sometimes I am moved to share them with readers of this journal because I feel they are of interest to all who value culture, art, beauty, and the life of the intellect and spirit. I was particularly taken with a new compact disc by the choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores featuring music by the American composer Samuel Adler. In order to unfold this tale, I need to explain something of the background of both the performers and the composer.
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. Dissonance (I would prefer the term “harmonic pungency”) is used, but always with a sense of proportion and without going to extremes. Adler ranges freely across tonal centers but almost always finds a final concord.
The Adler choral pieces are compact and brief—an indication of a commitment to create music that would work in a liturgical context, but also a testament to a concentrated musical mind that says what it has to say without a wasted note. Adler’s music grows naturally out of the meaning and expression of the words; there is little repetition of either words or notes, and the declamation often has the quality of recitative and the naturalness of speech. The music does not call attention to itself but rather exists as an enhancement to the sacred text. Despite this outward simplicity, this is music that is packed with considerable harmonic and rhythmic complexity underneath the surface, making it truly stimulating to hear.
There are only two items on the album that do not set texts from the Bible. One of these is the first movement of To Speak to Our Time. It is a German poem by Nelly Sachs about the plight of “wanderers” or refugees, with particular reference to the sufferings of the Jews during World War II. From this text Adler passes to Psalm 121 for an answer: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.”
Adler’s setting of the most beloved of all the psalms, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is a gem. Adler wrote it as a 90th birthday gift to his sister. Its most original touch is to set the psalm text twice, first in Hebrew and then in English, a gesture for which I can think of no precedent.
The anthem “My Beloved is Mine,” composed to mark the 25th anniversary of Gloriae Dei Cantores, sets words from the Song of Songs. Adler comments: “The love of a man to his beloved or as in Christian theology, the love of Christ for His Church should, in this case, be interpreted as the love for a composer for an organization which has been so supportive of his work.”
The album ends with a simple, beautiful “How Sweet the Sound,” based on the 1772 poem and tune which we know better as “Amazing Grace.” Adler’s publisher wanted him to write something in the vein of Copland, and Adler obliged in a way that recalls the Copland “Simple Gifts” without sounding at all like imitation.
Throughout his work Samuel Adler shows himself a composer unafraid to engage with the deepest spiritual questions. His ecumenicism is based on a commitment to truth, to humanity, and to the word of God, and his music is based on perennial aesthetic values of clarity and beauty. For that reason, his music speaks to our time and to every time. I knew little about this veteran composer before encountering this disc, nor about the luminous Gloriae Dei Cantores, but I am happy to have made the acquaintance of both and to pass them along to you.


*This essay was first published by The Imaginative Conservative, 17 September 2022.

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