Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC presents a recent discovery of mine, thanks to the fantastic programmers over at Classical South Florida which has been filling my drives to and from work with some eclectic and thoroughly excellent classical selections. Here’s “Ave Verum” by Karl Jenkins, performed below by Bryn Terfel and Simon Keenlyside (UK) with the London Symphony Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth conducting.
About the Composer:
Karl Jenkins (b. 1944) is a composer of whom I had never heard until the morning host on CSF introduced him as the former oboist in an art rock band who later turned to commercial music — and oh by the way here’s his totally gorgeous take on a Latin hymn, no big deal. “What, does this guy do everything?” you may ask. Why, yes — yes he does — leaving me to wonder, How on earth have I never heard of him before? Born in Wales and trained at both Cardiff University and London’s Royal Academy, Jenkins indeed spent his early career as a keyboardist, saxophonist, and — of all things — oboist in various jazz and rock groups, most notably including Soft Machine. (You can see him rocking out with his oboe at 4:16 in this video.) In the ’80’s he ventured into advertising music, resulting in award-winning collaborations with companies ranging from Levi’s to De Beers to Delta Airlines. (Here’s a video reel featuring many of his commercials.) Alongside these more popular musical endeavors, Jenkins has composed an extensive repertoire of choral and orchestral music, not to mention over two dozen albums to his name. To top it all off, he was awarded an OBE in 2005 and a CBE in 2010 by the Queen for his “services to music.” Plus, as you can see, the guy rocks an epic mustache.
About the Piece:
As I mentioned in a previous Suggested Listening, Ave Verum Corpus is a 14th-century Catholic hymn, originally a Gregorian chant describing the crucifixion and the Eucharist (you can read the English and Latin text here). To an agnostic Jew such as myself, this means very little — but luckily, the beauty and charm of Jenkins’ music lies beyond its spiritual context. The aesthetic of the piece embodies a style that I, a sage and authoritative music critic (and totally not a lowly oboe student), am going to dub “Disney crossover.” What does this mean, exactly? Well — you know how in animated Disney movies, there’s that moment right before the characters start singing, where the spoken dialogue takes on a sort of rhythm and melodic contour above an orchestral accompaniment that subtly introduces the tune of the impending song? (For your enjoyment, a playlist of examples, here.) To me, the first nine seconds of Ave Verum have that same feel — not just an introduction in a formal, music theory sense, but a suspension of plot as a tender Disney moment prepares to unfurl. At 0:08, a ritardando — a slowing down, a pulling back, a deep breath as our heroic prince prepares to sing — and then the song truly begins, operatic voices entering at 0:10, first a solo, then a duet, Terfel and Keenlyside’s voices intertwining in heartfelt harmonies above and within Jenkins’ sparkling orchestration. Interspersed between lines of text are sweet clarinet duos punctuated by harp and plucked cello; bolstering the voices is a rich texture of strings, horns, and low woodwinds. “Disney crossover” may sound almost like an insult when describing a serious classical composition, but hear me out: Jenkins’ setting of the hymn is colorful, sing-able, and incontestably delightful. It has that spark of magic and innocence that makes Disney songs so timeless and enjoyable.
Jenkins composed Ave Verum for Bryn Terfel, his friend, collaborator, and fellow Welshman, but later incorporated it into his 2008 Stabat Mater; this more recent arrangement, which you can listen to here, features female voice and choir as opposed to male duet. Both versions are gorgeous; the original strikes me as having a lighter mood, while the 2008 rendition seems a little more serious, tinged perhaps with nostalgia or regret. Which do you like better? Why? Tell me in the comments!
If you liked Ave Verum, you might also enjoy…
- Karl Jenkins: “Now My Life Is Only Weeping” from Stabat Mater
- W.A. Mozart: Ave verum corpus, K. 618
- Alan Menken: Colors of the Wind