A White Flag for Tonality in Choral Music Compositions
My first academic article!
Three New York Diplomats: 1950-1965 - William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Norman Dello Joio
The concert music landscape in New York City in the 1950s was an increasingly divided one. The rejection of key signatures and traditional tonal syntax was a known expectation and point of contention among musicians in prominent New York City institutions such as Juilliard and Mannes College of Music. While the majority of composers were enthusiastically moving to the mathematical right, certain influential teachers of composition defiantly asserted that the complete rejection of tonality was contrary to the nature of the choral instrument due to the psychology of group singing. Three such composers were William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Norman Dello Joio. This research casts a broad net across their choral music output and aims to give a number of concrete examples of how they balanced the need for tonal intuition for successful choral performance with the institutional expectation of post-tonal treatments. This will be done by citing these specific examples from within their scores, noticing trends across multiple works written between 1950 and 1960, and adding commentary from respected musicologists and students of these composers to provide firsthand contexts and perspectives wherever possible.
Two distinct schools of pedagogical thought in music composition emerged in the early part of the twentieth century. These were the resultant schools of thought from the tremendous influences of Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. Although many of the core educational values of these two composers were aligned with each other, each had starkly different philosophies about musical aesthetics. Schoenberg’s predilection for the German School of composition differed from Boulanger’s favoritism toward the French/Stravinskian (Franco-Russian) aesthetic. This, coupled with the widely accepted observation that composition teachers’ personal aesthetic preferences in music are known to organically influence their students, provides the basis for how these internationally influential differences eventually sparked a rift between schools of thought in contemporary composition practice in New York City - one of the most musically influential hubs of North America.
A culmination of tension regarding the use of diatonic tonality in concert works in New York was the famous 1958 essay of Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares If You Listen,” asserting that music composition was no longer listener-oriented but rather a complex technical exploration of the interplay between music and mathematics - a demonstration of deep compositional prowess, building further on what Schoenberg started with the Second Viennese School. Teachers and students were under social and academic pressure to adopt new objective ways of thinking about composition and to eschew subjective or feeling-oriented compositional postures. Major music institutions in New York, like The Juilliard School and Mannes College of Music, felt pressure to remain on the cutting edge of thought and innovation in musical trends and sought to employ the best and most famous practitioners of these trends. After all, this is still true of high-profile American music schools today.
It is especially compelling, therefore, that Juilliard and Mannes, through the 1950s, housed a number of composition teachers (some department chairpersons) who were not solely ascribed to the anti-diatonic schools of thought quickly beginning to dominate the American musical identity of the time period. Three such composers - William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Norman Dello Joio - taught and advised a plethora of students, some of whom would become recognized as among the most celebrated, influential composers of the twentieth century. In keeping with the reality that composition students are influenced by the aesthetics of their teachers, a brief survey of music by these composers can shed light on how they held the torch for a posture of moderation in contrast to the mounting societal pressures of this time period in New York.
One area of music composition with a precarious relationship to atonality is that of choral music. The choral instrument - an instrument made of people - is reliant on synchronized listening, intonation, and breathing in a manner quite different from ensembles comprised of physical instruments. Even more importantly, the audiation skills of individual singers within a choir can vary widely. Given the fact that the so-called phenomenon of absolute (perfect) pitch is not evident in every person, singing unaccompanied choral music in an atonal environment is risky. Still, the market for choral compositions has always been one of the most profitable publishing markets in the music industry, and so the demand for choral music that fulfills both the aesthetic and accessibility criteria is evergreen.
The role of scaffolded diatonic tonality, no matter how chromatic-leaning, is critical to the successful performance of choral works. This is in disagreement with the very premise of atonality and serialism. Furthermore, an account must be made of how human beings as musical instruments learn, store, and process musical vocabulary, syntax, and forms. Some argue that this is done actively through the tangible naming and practice of intervals, keys, etc. Others contend that it is done passively through listening to folk songs, tv and radio, and casual group interaction. No matter what each person believes about this, the inescapable truth about choral musicking is that singers as instruments process sound differently and more internally - especially in collaborative settings. Furthermore, singers bring their outside lives with them into the rehearsal and performance process no matter what. Their psyches are not physically separated from their instruments. When they make music, the amalgams of their day-to-day life experiences come with them and directly impact the sound. These are foundational truths about choral music and the development of the American choral identity - being firmly rooted in Western art music but also grounded in an ever-changing non-art-music environment which was simultaneously having its advent in the 50s.
Composers William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Norman Dello Joio all understood the marriage between the popular and the obscure - the mainstream and the esoteric. This is strongly evidenced in the choral output of each of them. All three managed to strike a powerful balance between these polarized forces within their choral works. In so doing, they firmly staked a white flag for the preservation of diatonic tonality in moderation with more forward-thinking harmonic language and techniques. In addition to sharing contextual information about each of them, specific examples of choral works by each are observed herein as a means of showing how they accomplished this important task.
William Bergsma (1921-1994) was originally from Oakland, California. He moved east to study at Eastman and Juilliard, the latter of which became a teaching post for him from 1946 until 1963, when he returned west to Seattle. While at Juilliard, he served as chairperson of the Composition Department and Associate Dean. After moving to Seattle in 1963, he spent the rest of his career at the University of Washington. Notably, he founded the school's first Contemporary Music Ensemble. In his obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he is described as having "never deserted tonality" while seeing "dozens of his former avant-garde colleagues returning to the fold." In the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Kurt Stone describes Bergsma's music as "resourceful and imaginative, essentially tonal, texturally conventional and predominantly lyrical."
It is significant that Bergsma, having been described as above, was the leader of the Composition department at a school like Juilliard during the 1950s. While the majority of composers were abandoning tonality for serialism and other modalities, Bergsma remained a strong tonal moderate, teaching full-time in a highly influential institution. His compositions are an indication that while he was unafraid to push the tonal envelope, he remained drawn to the diatonic realm - especially in his choral music. He taught many students during that time, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Conrad Susa. These composers, including Bergsma, were all resistant to the ominously looming toll of the atonality knell. In particular, Susa always quipped that it took him two years to go through Juilliard but eight years to recover emotionally. Given his overall compositional output and that of Glass and Reich, it is safe to conclude that the trend of eschewing tonal music practices did not compel these composers to abandon their diatonic lookout posts. Still, one can easily hear in balanced moderation the critical presence of post-tonal-leaning practices within the tonal scaffolding of their work.
Bergsma's choral output comprises only nine works and collectively provides a concentrated example of the tonal vs. post-tonal dichotomy. There are some examples in which he takes a decidedly traditional stance, while there are other pieces in which he pushes the envelope more.
In his church anthem Praise (1959) for SATB chorus and organ, Bergsma uses a key signature of E-flat major and composes a traditionally syntactical melody evoking sentimental hymn tunes. Although it cannot be sure that this melody is based on any other existing hymn tune, it closely resembles (and shares a text with) the hymn tune GENERAL SEMINARY by David Charles Walker (b. 1938). The text is by George Herbert, and it makes sense that the metrical structure used by Bergsma resembles that of Walker, given the syllabic emphases and variations in the length of each line. This work is strophic and never leaves the home key. It ends with a great plagal cadence.
Conversely, Bergsma does not use a key signature in a movement of his unaccompanied SATB work Riddle Me This: Answer - The Snow (1957). However, this seems like a conventional tactic used to avoid what would otherwise be a disruptive number of key change junctures. The work is tonal and diatonic but fluidly moves from one key area to the next with excellent technique. It firmly establishes C-sharp minor as a home base and then sojourns to C major and A major. The work, which is the first movement of a three-movement set, ends on an F-sharp open fifth chord, the IV of C-sharp minor, leaving the work tonally unresolved. Relevantly, the second and third pieces in this set both begin and end in the same key areas.
In 1963, Bergsma composed a cantata for SATB chorus and orchestra called Confrontation from the Book of Job. Fittingly based on the biblical text from the book of Job, this work departs considerably from the more comfortable tonal postures of the above works. The work can broadly be described by turns as polytonal and pandiatonic. Bergsma achieves the tonal stability needed for confident choral singing by composing melodic fragments that are intuitively syntactical but disparate from the preceding and subsequent fragments. The orchestra then provides enough tonal context in intermittent junctures to allow for the human ears of the singers to transition accurately from one sung fragment to the next.
In another stark contrast to his choral works of the 50s, only a decade after his Juilliard years, in 1968, Bergsma composed a more esoteric 10-minute work, The Sun, The Soaring Eagle, The Turquoise Prince, The God for SATB chorus with Brass and Percussion (or Piano and Percussion). This work is based on texts from Books 2 and 7 of the Florentine Codex by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c. 1566), adapted by Bergsma. It incorporates spoken words in the Aztec language juxtaposed with sung English translations of the Codex. It is a dark and ominous work depicting the barbaric sacrifice of human captives. The use of leitmotif achieves a sense of cohesion. The more diatonic vocal parts incorporate dissonance well by preparing singing lines to move melodically from confident tonal intervals and chords to less stable sonorities, often on weak beats or weak parts of a measure. Meanwhile, the accompanying instruments interject with material that does not have an immediately palpable relationship to the singing lines. The prosodic musical treatment of the text masterfully enables confident, accurate singing of the choral parts despite the overall tonal instability.
Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) was from Philadelphia. He studied for fifteen years, starting at the age of five, at Combs Conservatory (also known as Combs College of Music). This school, now closed, had been founded in 1885. Other notable alumni of the school include John Coltrane, Gail Levin, and Robert Manno. The school conferred honorary doctorates on Samuel Barber, Marian Anderson, Keith Chapman, Leo Stokowski, and Persichetti himself, among others. He also studied for a time at the famous Curtis Institute. He received his doctorate from Philadelphia Conservatory in 1945. He also taught there starting in 1941 and was then appointed to the Juilliard faculty in 1947. A more forward-leaning harmonist than Bergsma, Persichetti published a textbook on twentieth-century harmony in 1961. He subsequently became chairman of the Juilliard composition department in 1963 - an indicator that the department was gradually moving further away from traditional tonality in the sixties and thereafter. His music is exclusively published by Elkan-Vogel, a publisher for whom he served as Director of Publications beginning in 1952. Persichetti was a champion for music education, particularly in secondary schools. Much of his compositional output aimed itself at younger players being able to approach tonal worlds that were more colorful and challenging to the ear than what was considered traditional.
Persichetti’s choral output consists of twenty works. Although he is a broadly less tonal composer than Bergsma, his choral music strikes an impressive balance by means of his knack for composing intuitive melodic syntax, which is easily adopted by singers. He draws on a neo-Renaissance posture in some of the most important of these pieces. Dennis Shrock describes the music as having “unmetered phrases and chant-like melodies, with repetition of motifs and alternating textures of imitative polyphony and homophony [which], reflect on the writing of the late sixteenth century.” His music was also described by Walter Simmons in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music as “Following the lineage of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Ravel… suggest[ing] the innocence and childlike joy of pure musical creativity.”
Another trend across his output is a clear directive toward a modernist American musical identity. Persichetti’s Sam was a man and Jimmie’s got a goil (1948), as well as his Spring Cantata (1963) and The Pleiades (1967), all indicate a vantage point of an America recovering from political turmoil and the effects of war. There is a soulfulness about this music which seems to be alive yet buried under the jaded rubble that only the realities of life can amass. A casual observer might draw a parallel between this mindset and the distinct compositional voice he established for himself beginning in the 50s.
Persichetti’s voice leading is intuitive, and his use of counterpoint is at an expert level. His choral music often combines diatonic melodies with pandiatonic or polytonal harmonies. The savvy choral singer is easily able to intuit each melodic move despite finding themselves in a less familiar harmonic framework. This feature in Persichetti’s work is key to his successful choral music boundary-pushing within the framework of the developing American identity of the time.
Six of Persichetti’s choral works are settings of poetry by, e.e. cummings. This seems appropriate as the texts of cummings are often abstract and angular, matching the melodic shapes and dark harmonic profile to which Persichetti seems to have been drawn in the late 1950s and beyond. Two Cummings Choruses, op. 46 was premiered by the Sigma Alpha Iota Treble Chorus at the Dallas conference of the Music Teacher’s National Association in 1952. Its SA two-part first movement, Hist Whist, anchors itself on an F-Mixolydian framework, giving a feeling of stability, yet includes the occasional E natural for coloristic variation (as opposed to the default E-flat from Mixolydian mode). The rhythmic profile is an engaging one with many syncopations to throw the listener off the trail of the consistent, simple meter ictus. The second movement, This is the Garden, expands the voicing to three parts, SSA, and employs a more linear and imitative texture. Sonorities comprised of many open fourths and fifths combined with dissonant non-chord tones offer a perfect mix of comfortable stability and ear-perking tonal interest. In both of these works, again written for a college-aged treble chorus, there are clear, intuitive reference points for the singer’s ear, allowing those singing non-tonally fundamental notes to easily audiate and tune them against the stable framework.
Seek the Highest SAB, op. 78, and Song of Peace SATB, op. 82 are two works for mixed chorus (the latter also available in a TTBB voicing) that also effectively push the tonal envelope. In the first work, Persichetti voices the chorus for three parts mixed - another sign of a piece written with pedagogical goals in mind and with an eye on widespread accessibility, particularly for younger performers. This work employs imitative counterpoint and triadic chords alternating between open and closed voicings. Its use of pandiatonicism marks a departure from what might be expected for a three-part mixed choral work. The expertly written counterpoint enables fluid shifts between harmonic centers in the un-key signatured score. The result is a sense of wonder and discovery in the ears of the singers as the progression unfolds rather than a puzzle of intervals to solve. The real genius of this is that such a modality as pandiatonicism may otherwise feel daunting or unapproachable for the average SAB group, given the types of settings in which one might find such a choir. Additionally, the keyboard part is also used as the catalyst for shifts in the tonal center. This provides the opportunity for singers who are still developing their ears to experience tonal shifts from both within their ears and also objectively outside of their bodies.
The second work, Song of Peace, is originally scored for SATB voices and also has an alternate setting for TTBB voices. It is also accompanied by a piano (or organ) part. This piece is less harmonically fluid. The use of repetition of both the progression from D major to C major to B-flat major as well as the employment of the Lydian fourth scale degree creates a soundscape that is both familiar enough to feel comfortable and also surprising enough to stay interested. The use of G-sharp as the Lydian fourth is also expanded to become a secondary harmonic world of its own as minor dominant of C-sharp minor at the first major tonal pivot in measure 15 as well as at a G-sharp major cadence at measure 29. The piece is threaded together by a repeating melodic motive which is always sung in unison and which outlines the fifth from D to A as a structural element with the Lydian fourth of G-sharp on the way up the scale in the antecedent and then descends in the consequent phrase from A onto G-natural. Essentially, the harmonic profile of this piece is an expansion of that one melodic motive. Persichetti confirms this on the last page of the piece by making one last extended harmonic gesture upward from B-flat major as flat 6 upward to a final cadence on D major.
Norman Dello Joio
Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), the eldest of these three composers by only two years, provides in his choral output, perhaps, the clearest boundary line between a more tonal-leaning harmonic and melodic vocabulary and one with more dissonant sounds. Born in New York City and raised in a family of Italian Catholic church organists, he received his first formal music education at the City University of New York. He then went on to study at Juilliard. Significantly, he was also a pupil of Paul Hindemith at Yale. A truly metropolitan composer at his core, he was first widely recognized in 1948 when Bruno Walter conducted The New York Philharmonic in a performance of his piece, Variations, Chaconne and Finale, which won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. He held several college teaching posts, including professor of composition at Sarah Lawrence College and Mannes College of Music and Dean of the Fine and Applied Arts School at Boston University. In 1957, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Meditations on Ecclesiastes for string orchestra and an Emmy Award in 1965 for his score for a television production called The Louvre.
Dello Joio’s choral output, though not the lion’s share of his catalog, represents some of his best-known work. He composed 32 choral works in all, several of which were completed in the 1950s. Nick Strimple describes Dello Joio’s choral writing in a concise yet thorough manner:
Norman Dello Joio created an easily identifiable style by fusing romantic melodies with tonal, though often dissonant, harmonies and energetic, extroverted rhythms. A prolific composer of choral music, he created works further characterized by a natural expressivity, equally at home with humor or pathos, and a sensitivity to text.
Of the three composers being discussed, Dello Joio is perhaps the most determined to forge a contemporary American identity using the choral instrument. The most important works of his choral output are arguably his large settings of poems by Walt Whitman. Like many other composers of this time period, Dello Joio was drawn to Whitman’s unmistakable American affinity, which is absent of hubris-driven patriotism but authentically loving of America.
Dello Joio’s Song of the Open Road, published in 1953, provides an excellent example of several things: First, it is the unabashed juxtaposition of diatonic progressions against completely atonal constructions. Furthermore, in its use of diatonic harmony, it is clearly pandiatonic. Second, the composition of this work serves a clear socio-political purpose. The aforementioned harmonic profile magnifies the dichotomy between an enthusiastic invitation for the listener to “join hands and know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers” and the menacing reality of an unsure landscape full of unknown twists and turns ahead. Finally, it is a well-balanced and level-headed contribution to the American choral repertoire offered in a time period when pressure was mounting more and more with each passing year for composers to abandon any semblance of diatonicism.
At the start of the piece, arpeggiated flourishes with both hands in the treble range of the piano hearken to the road ahead. Pauses in between each flourish indicate the seemingly imminent danger of the path and moments of second-guessing whether or not to take the first step. The harmony is evocative of blues sonorities with clear use of intervallic false relations between the right and left-hand parts. Then, seven bars in, the first diatonic chord drops in the bass as if starting an engine after several attempts. All of this is a seemingly rubato ruse which is actually written out beat for beat. After a single fermata on the final F-sharp of the introduction in the right hand, the basses launch in with exact, clean timing using a micro-syncopation for the first motive on the word “hello,” which will frequently continue throughout the entire work. A brief two measures of imitation occur, bringing in Alto, Tenor, then Soprano voices. The first tutti homorhythm then occurs on “whoever you are.” All of this is unaccompanied by the piano.
Next, the piano begins a driving marcato and fortissimo rhythm as if to signal the first real steps of the journey. The choir and the piano continue together for a while, both contrasting a broader legato lyricism in the choir against the continuing rhythmic piano part as well as repetitions of the syncopated “hello” motive. This is followed by the sudden entry of a solo trumpet heralding a middle section. The tempo shifts drastically to Adagio espressivo, suggesting 44 to the quarter note. As the choir re-enters, they sing the words “I ordain myself loosed from imaginary limits” in a lyrical but harmonically unstable environment. This suggests an airy break free from the former angular rigidity of the A section. During this a cappella middle section, the choir continues to sing broadly and lyrically while the trumpet obligato interjects periodically with a pointed reminder of the rhythmic herald. Then, the trumpet finally loosens as well, offering two eighth note triplets to dovetail into Dello Joio’s most expressive moment in the work: a section marked Amabile at 52 to the dotted quarter note in which he pleads musically with the listener on behalf of Whitman to “warn those who would hold you” and to “gather the minds of men out of their brains,” “gather love out of men’s hearts,” finally exclaiming “the universe is a path that is endless, the universe itself is an open road!”
Here, the trumpet re-enters with its herald motive and brings an end to the esoteric in favor of a resurgence of the walking rhythm. The piano and trumpet continue together for quite a long while without the choir. Finally, the choir calls to the listener one more time in a broad “Come forth” followed by a re-statement of the “hello” motive as well as the imitative texture that began the work. The choir continues, accompanied only by trumpet this time. There is no clear harmonic center here, but there are tonal guideposts at which the choir checks in at regular distance intervals. This creates a sense of control for the singers, but without sacrificing the desired harmonic fluidity and the use of atonal statements. At last, the material from the piano introduction at the start of the work brings the listener full circle, this time using the lower register of the keyboard right away. The trumpet indicates a clear arrival at the end. After Dello Joio marks the end of this passage lunga assai, seemingly suggesting an arrival at the end of the journey, he uses the same false relation motive yet again, but this time in the middle range instead of the treble and at a slower tempo. This surprises the listener with a sort of musical epilogue, eschewing thoughts of the journey being over. Instead, it is just beginning. In a Beethovenian stride, Dello Joio demands Deciso at 152 to the quarter and charges forward in full force toward an E major Lydian cadence which uses a homorhythmic chromatic lower neighbor anacrusis in the choir repeatedly, ensuring the clarity of the message that life is not that simple, but we are in it together.
In an interview with Soundpieces Magazine in 1980, Steve Reich, who studied with Persichetti and Bergsma, said:
"Since the roots of the Second Viennese School were obviously where and when they were, for an American in the 1950s, ‘60s, or ‘70s to take this over lock, stock, and barrel is a little artificial. The sounds that surrounded America from 1950 through 1980 - jazz and rock and roll - cannot be ignored. They can be refined, filtered, rejected, or accepted in part, but they cannot be ignored, or you’re an ostrich; you’re ill-informed…in terms of living composers, I don’t think that you can pretend you are someone who is completely divorced from this time and place."
William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Norman Dello Joio did not live under a rock during the 1950s in New York City. Instead, they found creative ways to incorporate popular musics of the time into their concert works while still pushing the tonal boundaries to meet their academic colleagues at least part way. More importantly, in the context of choral music, all three of these composers clearly understood the choir and wrote these works in a masterful way that allows singers to remain grounded and confident in their singing while also acknowledging the larger style conversations of the decade.
It can be argued that the subtle inclusion of popular music styles in the works of these and other composers in the same schools at the time was a smart way to build empathy between the world of concert music and the younger generation of listeners and classical music students alike. It reinforces and proves the notion that teachers and other prominent figures in music education who take the time to listen and respond to not only their own world experiences but also those of their students succeed more in securing a future for concert music by openly and enthusiastically celebrating the new contributions brought by subsequent generations and all of the beauty and possibilities these can bring. Coupled with the collective human power of the choir as an instrument, there is a mighty base of hope that can continuously renew itself if only we were to follow these great examples.
To read the full document with citations, bibliography, and Appendices, CLICK HERE.