Processional: Let There Be Light
Robert Reigle and Steve Koenig
score presents the title uncertainly. It declares PROCESSIONAL in capitals;
immediately below it is "Let There Be Light" in upper and lower
case, with quotation marks, but various recordings label it, um, variously.
Is Processional a form of composition, like a march or an prelude, we mused,
or is it a title? Is "Let There Be Light" the title of the composition,
or a subtitle? We remain in the dark, although Richard Warren, Jr.'s Charles
E. Ives: A Discography (Yale, 1972) does list it as Processional: "Let
There Be Light," but its information is derived from the format used
in Gregg Smith's Columbia album.
The score consists
of two pages, written in 1901 and copyrighted by Peer International (New York)
in 1955, the year after Ives' death. The structure of this two-minute piece
is on the face of it simple: in two parts, the second a repeat of the first,
but twice as fast. Starting in unison, the harmonies for each word of the
text get progressively more complex, culminating in a massive chord using
6 of the 12 chromatic pitches, which some might call dissonant, but is so
rich that it is terrifying. Then follows a brief solo organ interlude leading
to the repeat, now at double speed. Following the climactic chord, the singers
suddenly join together again on the unison that started the piece.
The seven pitches
(c f f# g g# a b) on the word "light" are like the color white,
consisting of all the colors; this chord gives way to five stacked major-sevenths
in the penultimate chord.
was to create the sound of distance and nearness, with distance invoked via
the long durations of the first half and nearness by the rapidity of the second
half. All of this gives the listeners the experience of a processional, without
having to leave their seats.
We compared the
three choral recordings, omitting the performances by brass quartet (another
option specified by Ives; there are recordings on BIS and Hyperion brass anthologies).
Ives wrote that
"Let There Be Light" can be performed by men's or mixed (male and
female) chorus, four trombones, along with organ, four violins, or string
orchestra. It consists of two parts:
1. Men's chorus, mixed chorus, four trombones, or four violins.
2. Organ or piano, or if part one is four violins, string orchestra.
Ives noted several
options for orchestrating "Let There Be Light." In his list of works,
he wrote: "for male chorus (or trombones), strings, and organ."
Peer published the score in a piano version, and states that the piece is
"for men's or mixed chorus or 4 trombones, organ or 4 violins and organ
or string orchestra." Two of the versions we listened to used Ives' first
suggestion, male chorus, while the most recent, CD recording used a mixed
chorus. All three use organ.
this processional "To the Choir of the Central Presbyt. Church, New York,
IVES. Vocal Music.
Berkeley Chamber Singers, Alden Gilchrist, organ and conductor. Musical Heritage
Society MHS-1240, LP, 1974.
Chamber Singers have the right attitude, but lack some of the cohesion and
confidence of the Gregg Smith Singers' first recording. Here the enunciation
is more clear, each syllable sounding separate, but the vowel pronunciation
can sometimes sound off-for example, "loight" instead of "light."
The Swain & Kates organ of the Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco
sounds terrific here, with granulated bass tones at the bottom of the audible
IVES. New Music of Charles Ives: Seventeen First Recordings. The
Gregg Smith Singers, Gregg Smith, conductor; Columbia Chamber Ensemble; Raymond
Beegle, organ. Columbia MS-7321, LP, 1969.
Among the three
recordings, this earliest shines as the most exciting, capturing the spirit
of Ives at his most radical, and providing the listener with a thrilling experience.
The chorus achieves the unity of spirit necessary to convey Ives' translation
of space and movement into sound. Here the chorus consists only of the men,
and they sing with moderate vibrato, using it flexibly to expressive ends
rather than as the ensemble's given style. This performance commands you to
listen, whereas the others, it just goes by
captures the spirit of Ives at his most radical, contrasting the excitement
of new harmonies with the simplicity of unisons, all assembled with a programmatic
idea that is clearly heard as sound.
is tight, yet exhilarating. One keeps feeling that the voices will veer over
the edge, that the whole piece is going out of control. But it's planned that
way, through the wild harmonies chosen by Ives. The Gregg Smith Singers pull
you with them to the precipice and return you to the safety of the unison
C that concludes the piece. This performance reveals Processional as one of
the gems of 20th century music, on a par with, for example, the miniatures
This was recorded
in Columbia Records' 30th Street Studios, New York, April 1, 1965. tpiaj
IVES. The Young Ives: Early Choral Music of Charles Ives.
The Gregg Smith Singers, Gregg Smith, conductor; Thomas Schmidt, organ. Newport
Classic NPD-85677, CD, 2006.
Kudos for Gregg
Smith for returning to this piece thirty years after his ground-breaking world
premiere recording, and for trying different forces, as Ives himself suggested.
this performance is marred by the use of a wide and slow vibrato that sounds
a bit anachronistic. We can imagine a performance using female singers who
use the full range of speed and depth in their vibratos. The dream team: Marni
Nixon, Sheila Dhar, p'ansori singer KIM So-Hee, Diamanda Galás, Roberta
Alexander, Parween Sultana, and shaman KIM Dae Rae.
This new recording
uses a mixed chorus. The edge of attack of each word is admirably sharp, but
throughout much of it the sopranos are hooting. (Ironically, neither Susan
Narucki nor Mary Ann Hart hoot Byron's owls ["
and the answered
owls are hooting
"] in their recordings of Ives' song "From
The organ of
St. Peter's Church in New York City has a beautifully clear mid-range, but
lacks the earth-shaking low end of the San Francisco instrument. Whether this
was due to the engineering or the organ itself is uncertain. The organ, however,
seems as if it could have been electronic. Although we prefer the deep organ
sounds of the MHS recording, perhaps the emphasis on the higher range of the
organ here is more in keeping with the idea of light.