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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

The Supper at Emmaus (2013)
Work Notes
The Supper at Emmaus is part of the 'Sacred Trilogy'
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Programme Note
John Harbison The Supper at Emmaus (2013)
Text: (En) Luke 24:5-8 (KJV)

Composer note:
David Hoose wrote to me at the end of July 2013, asking if I would be able to compose a piece for the Cantata Singers 50th anniversary. I described to him a long-contemplated cantata, The Supper at Emmaus, which our friend Craig Smith discussed with me some years ago — for both of us a favorite Biblical passage. Completing it now, in Craig's memory, suggested a collaboration with Emmanuel Music, which the leadership of both organizations was able to arrange.

The main narrative, Historia, sets the Biblical report of the story in Luke 24 (KJV) for four soloists and orchestra. Before and after this chronicle comes a Prelude and Postlude, chorus and orchestra.

The chorus first sings the words from Luke of the guards (are they Angels?) who confront the women coming to the tomb seeking Jesus' body. The Postlude text is from a letter of Paul. Its tone is common and personal; Heinrich Sch├╝tz composed, in the Geistliche Chormusik, this same text in memory of his friend, the composer Johann Hermann Schein.

When Craig Smith and I talked about this subject we started with Bach's great Cantata 6, in which the themes of abandonment and loss are expressed as collective anguished lamentation, and as intimate loneliness and uncertainty. We also paid attention to many paintings, especially the two by Caravaggio, the first theatrical, the second later one meditative, with a mysterious new female figure, whose role, we decide, involves us. All the figures, including Jesus, were approachable, familiar. (In some of Caravaggio's other painting his historic figures have dirty feet.)

A special hint for the composer came from Duccio's marvelous painting The Road to Emmaus. Jesus is talking with the two disciples; he is disguised as a traveler, with broad-brimmed hat, knapsack, and walking stick.

One of the archetypal story beginnings: A Stranger Comes to Town.

And the strangeness, the mystery, the fervor, felicity, and awkwardness of the Scriptural account, a glowing recalcitrant found object, taken on just as it comes.

It is a great privilege to write another large piece of sacred music for two such cultivated institutions as the Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music. I am very grateful to both organizations and their Executive Directors, Jennifer Hughes and Pat Krol, to both Music Directors, David Hoose and Ryan Turner, and to the generous sponsors, David Rockefeller Jr., the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation, and Epp K. Sonin.

— John Harbison

The Supper at Emmaus bookends Harbison's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flight Into Egypt, Cantata Singers' first commission: Both take a normally festive observance (Christmas, Easter) and find anxiety lurking behind the celebration. A choral prologue sets the stage with escalating drama; the story itself — verbatim from Luke's Gospel — hovers between a lesson and a stripped-down operatic scene. Syllabic, geometric narration (soprano Lisa Lynch) guides the disciples (mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove and tenor Jason Sobol, often joined in imitative counterpoint) and a declamatory, almost severe Jesus (bass Dana Whiteside). The disciples are tense, jumpy; their recounting of the Easter story has the heightened pitch and clipped impetus of breaking news.

The disciples' invitation — "Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is spent" — is the work's center, an island of consonance and calm; elsewhere, the music is rhythmically fitful, dissonantly murky. The orchestration posits strings and double-reeds as contrasting versions of tonal wiriness. The storytelling is equally lean, keeping faith with the archaic gravity of the King James Bible. The choral epilogue is astringently joyful — austere harmonies in tripping triple-time rhythms — but ends with cloudy, disintegrating chorale.
Matthew Guerrieri, Boston Globe,11/05/2014
…far from hurling dramatic thunderbolts, Harbison's setting of the biblical narrative itself preserved the mystery of the encounter, which the composer described as "a glowing recalcitrant found object" — not a bad description of this cantata itself, actually.

"Objective" would also be a fair description of Harbison's smooth writing for the solo soprano as narrator, with the bass as Jesus and tenor and alto as the disciples singing in choppier syncopated rhythms more expressive of personal emotions.

The story's most deeply resonant passage is the words of the disciples to the mysterious stranger, "Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent." This is, in fact, the text of Bach's Cantata 6, which Harbison said was on his mind when he conceived this work, and which was performed at the end of Friday's program.

In his cantata, Harbison pointed up this passage by having tenor and alto sing together for the first time, with a minimal accompaniment of pizzicato cellos. They sang in duet for the rest of the work, always in close imitation, as if the two disciples were echoing each other's thoughts.
David Wright,,10/05/2014
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