David Hoose, music director of the Cantata Singers, noticed something unusual when he began to study the Requiem by Herbert Howells, a British composer known chiefly for liturgical music. He became interested in the Requiem, written for unaccompanied voices, because of another Howells piece — “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” written in memory of President Kennedy — that the Cantata Singers performed two seasons ago. Even though he knew nothing of the Requiem’s background, he found something about the music odd.
“I kept having this feeling in the piece that there was something reluctant about the music,” said Hoose by phone recently. “I’d never had this feeling in a piece before. It was almost as if he were hesitating to put down that next note, that next harmony, that next decision. Not uncertainty, but hesitancy — not wanting to do it.”
When Hoose delved further into the Requiem, which is on the ensemble’s Friday program, he found his sixth sense about it vindicated. Howells wrote the piece in the 1930s after the death of his 9-year-old son, Michael, from spinal meningitis. So personal and suffused with quiet grief is the music that the composer kept the piece from the public after finishing it, neither publishing it nor offering it for performance. It first surfaced in 1950, in a version for orchestra, soloists, and chorus, with the title “Hymnus Paradisi.” The austere original version wasn’t published until 1980.
The reluctance Hoose felt in the music sounds like just the sort of thing you might impose on your hearing of a piece if you already knew the circumstances of its composition. Yet Hoose said he hadn’t read anything about the Requiem’s back story. “I wasn’t making it up,” he says with a laugh. “I just had the feeling there was something — uncomfortable — about the act of composing it.”
The music is tonal and sensuously beautiful, and “there are large moments that flow along just gorgeously. And then something really unexpected, or almost inexplicable, happens. It doesn’t look weird on the page but it’s really unexpected. Without preparation you’re in another world.”
It’s these subtly disruptive “knots,” as Hoose called them, that induce the music’s sense of insecurity. “It feels like it’s not by choice,” Hoose explained. “It’s not like the feeling you have with Mozart, that the music is writing itself, it’s so natural.” In the Requiem, by contrast, “it’s almost as if Howells isn’t writing it. For that moment, somebody else is kind of taking it out of his hands. And it feels very metaphoric for what he went through.”
The other large work anchoring the Cantata Singers program is the Mass for Double Choir by Swiss composer Frank Martin . In contrast to the Howells, it has a feeling “of incredible optimism and luminosity,” Hoose said. Unlike some of the composer’s more reserved later works — the Mass was written in the 1920s; Martin died in 1974 — “there’s something about this earlier piece that is just sensuous and openhearted and warm.”
What the Mass shares with the Howells Requiem, though, is a disinclination on the composer’s part to make it public. It, too, would remain hidden away, performed for the first time only in 1963. Martin wrote that he considered the piece a private expression of his relationship to God, and originally thought it unfit for performance: “I felt then that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.”
Looking at the program, you might guess that Hoose had started with the intention of joining together on one program two “secret’’ works, by composers who decided to withhold them from audiences until decades later. You might even sense something similar from the pieces that open the program: two motets by Bruckner, a composer famously hesitant and insecure about his works. You might think that the conductor had begun with this theme in mind.
But that isn’t how Hoose assembles concerts, and therein lies an important point about programming.
“You could set out, and a lot of people do, to program concerts by finding a scheme or a theme or some thread that ultimately, to me, ends up sounding self-conscious, or calculated,” he said. “I didn’t set out to make a program that had these pieces that these two marvelous composers withheld — one because it was so painful, one because it was so private.”
Instead, he continued, “I find some emotional thread or some musical thread or some dramatic shape for a concert that makes intuitive sense. And then what happens, at least for me, is that I start to find all those [external] things, all those connections. All those things make sense.”
The final connections are made by the audience, and those are, in an important sense, out of the musicians’ power. “I think it’s like a web, where there are ways in which all of those pieces react to, respond to, and presage each other. And each listener is going to feel and hear something different. We can’t control what the listeners bring to it and what they go away with. All we can do is prepare something that works beautifully for us and hope that the listener comes with an open heart and an open ear and an open mind.”