Eric Whitacre ‘When David Heard’: Choral Catharsis

Hello dearest readers, it’s nice to be back! I am now in my second week of my Musicology MA and boy is the pressure on already! So sadly blogging has taken a bit of a back seat. I will try to write when I can though! I want to share a work with you today that I myself have only recently been made aware of by one of my housemates. This work, by the ever-popular choral musician and composer Eric Whitacre, has touched me in a very special way, and I have waited until the right time to write about it. So this blog is on Eric Whitacre’s incredibly beautiful work, When David Heard.

Eric Whitacre was born in Nevada, 1970 and from a young age he studied the piano intermittently. He later got into a band, where he played the synthesizer, and it was at this point that Whitacre aspired to be a rock musician. Just before going to university, it is worthy of note that Whitacre could not read music and was not formally classically trained. However, once at university (Nevada, LV) he undertook formal training and later took a degree in Music Composition. Whitacre was also an avid singer, and he claims that the first full-scale work he sang in was Mozart’s Requiem and that completely changed his life. He studied choral conducting with David Weiller and composition with the Ukrainian composer, Virko Baley. His relationship with Weiller was very strong, and his first professional setting of Go, Lovely Rose, was gifted to Weiller. Whitacre then studied for a Master’s degree at Julliard. He graduated in 1997.

After the raging success of his work for wind orchestra – Ghost Train, Whitacre pursued a full career in composition. Since this point, Whitacre has been incredibly successful. He has composed for the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus as well as working with top musicians such as Julian Lloyd Webber, The King’s Singers and The Tallis Scholars. Whitacre has also won a wealth of awards for both his conducting and his compositions. Most recently in 2016, Whitacre was appointed Artist in Residence with the LA Master Chorale. One of the biggest original projects that Whitacre has carried out was his ‘Virtual Choir’. He was inspired by a female singing one of his choral pieces, and from then he began a test run of two different choral pieces – Sleep and Lux Aurumque. These videos went viral and amazingly they included around 180 singers from over 13 different countries.

Eric Whitacre is now a household name and his success has flourished over the last decade. His style of music is recognisable and he uses slightly unconventional techniques without segregating a whole herd of people in the process. A technique that Whitacre is praised for is his use of indeterminacy (leaving the musical work to chance or to the interpreter’s free choice). This leads to music being performed in different ways, which thus can shed new light and colour onto works. Whitacre also often incorporates aleatoricism which is the process of chance in music. This technique is different to improvisation, with Stockhausen being a lead figure in aleaoric music. Throughout his compositions for different kinds of ensembles, Whitacre uses a mixture of rhythms, compound meters and unconventional chord progressions. Especially prevalent within his choral music, Whitacre’s style is known for its atmospheric and ‘sound world’ kind of style. Another aspect of his style which is prominent in most of his works is the use of pandiatonic (the use of the diatonic scale, without the limitations of functional tonality. Pandiatonic music uses diatonic notes freely in dissonance and usually incorporates unconventional chord progressions) clusters. The growth in these clusters are heard through Whitacre dividing the voices up from 4 parts to as much as 20.

When David Heard was premiered in 1999 and the work is one of Whitacre’s longer choral works, totalling about 17 minutes in duration. Interestingly, this work is based around a single line of text from the King James Bible; II Samuel, 18:33:

“When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!”

Whitacre claims that this work is the most deeply emotional and personal piece he has ever composed. The back story to this piece is ever so sad, as it was written for a dear friend who had recently lost his teenage son in a car accident. 3 months before this in 1998, Whitacre was commissioned to write a piece for Dr. Ronald Staheli’s choir, who were about to embark on a tour to Israel. There was a tradition of composers setting the text from When David Heard. The text is from the old testament and represents the grief felt from Kings who have lost their sons. Whitacre claims that Staheli was a king to him, so he decided to set this text for him. The work took around 15 months to complete, with Whitacre saying he built structures and then tore them down, and built them back up and so on. By doing this he was able to grasp the essence of what this text means to someone going through that kind of grief. This work is born from a place of pain and suffering, although it presents great beauty at the same time. Staheli conducted the premiere of the work in 1999 with his choir the Brigham Young Singers. The piece is dedicated “with love and silence” to Dr. Ronald Staheli.

 

 

Due to the nature and intentions of this piece, I am not going to walk through it. I believe this work has a level of dignity that needs to be respected. However, one section I do want to make you aware of is the textural and chordal build up from 1:20-2:33. This section is my favourite, and I am sure you’ll hear why. The build up and layering of the voices (which split into many parts at the end) is phenomenal and the repetition of the phrase “my son” is so breathtaking. Whitacre then builds up the phrase in cluster chords, which soon resolve to this heart-stopping open chord. The first time I heard this I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I felt so emotional, even without knowing the intentions of the piece. Every time I listen to this I cry, hell I’m blubbering writing this now! The way that Whitacre creates these build ups is very clever as when the peak and climax is heard, we are completely with him and feel the consequences twofold. Whitacre then cleverly strips back all of the texture and writes a solo for tenor voice. From this point onwards the music is emphasised through dissonances and resolutions, unimaginable textures and timbres and interesting and unconventional meter changes. Honestly, this is one of the most wonderful works you will grace your ears with, I still revel in its absolute beauty.

I have only pointed out one section, but this is at no detriment to any of the other sections as it is all fantastic. The way Whitacre writes is with such tenacity and dignity that he is able to create these other-worldly soundscapes which are just breathtaking. I urge you to listen to the work in full to fully appreciate the intentions of the composer. I absolutely adore this work and I listen to it often to ease any pain I may feel. I do hope you have enjoyed this work and blog, I’d love to know your thoughts on it!

I will hopefully write another blog soon!

This blog is dedicated to the person that showed me this wonderful work – Katie Williamson. Thank you for sharing this piece with me, it is truly wonderful – just like you!

Happy Reading!

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