Cantate Domino


14 min


pf, SATB-SATB chorus

premiered by

Choral Arts Society

commissioned by

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Cantate Domino

Composer's Notes:

Cantate Domino canticum novum. Aloft on ordinary happiness, one can sing any old tune: but to sing the joy of recognizing the infinite, only a new song will do. This ancient psalmist’s trope—linking, as it does, creation with Creation—elegantly summarizes a composer’s highest goals, and, perhaps, a chorus’s as well. On what better text, then, to build an aural vision of how we sing, pray, and exult, as the 20th century slips into history?

Thus, at Norman Scribner’s invitation, I began asking the questions to which Cantate Domino offers its answering possibilities. What musical expressions are available to a large chorus which are left largely unexplored by our usual motet writing habits? Is choral music, being narrative, contrapuntal, and programmatic, closer in expression to orchestral music than to opera, which tends towards the dramatic, the soloistic, and the psychological? If so, then, could one write orchestrally, as well as in a more traditional cantabile manner, for an ensemble of singers; could one accompany a hymn of praise with its own kinetic vocal variations? Less technically, I wondered: does boisterousness contain its own kind of reverence? What does joy sound like now?

As the piece’s architecture developed in response to these questions, Cantate Domino became as much an étude on certain choral techniques—echo, pulsation, tone clusters—as an exultant outburst cast in a large arch form. A stark, echoing fanfare opens the piece, softening as it descends in range from highest soprano to lowest bass; it then changes into regular pulsations within a broad cantabile theme on the words “canticum novum.” When the fanfare returns, its echoes ascend this time, until the last choral sopranos evanesce to reveal the soloist, trilling in D major as she embarks on a central aria, “Jubilate Deo.” Her ornamented line describes a complete D-major scale from D to G below middle C; the women’s chorus, echoing her, form a shimmering diatonic cluster over that range, from which brief motets emerge and vanish. The male chorus, on the words “Moveatur mare,” introduces, in C-minor, a turbulent and rhythmically ambiguous vocalise, which builds relentlessly as the soloist surges through music of ever more martial character. Now the sopranos assume the soloist’s music and exhort the whole chorus towards a climactic D-major; after which the entire chorus surges back first through the pulsing melodism of “qui mirabilia fecit” and an ever-more-subdivided expression of the “Cantate” fanfare. It is the soprano soloist, whose entrance cadence now appears recast as the harmonic goal of the entire score, who reappears to breathe a benediction over the piece’s final bars.

Text for Cantate Domino

Cantate Domino canticum novum, qui mirabilia fecit.

Jubilate Deo, omnis terra; cantate et exultate et psallite.

Psallite Domino in cithara; in cithara et voci psalmi. in tubis ductilibus et voce tubae corneae,

Jubilate in conspectus regis Domini.

Moveatur mare et plenitudo eius, orbis terrarum, et qui habitant in eo.

Flumina plaudent manu, simul montes exultabunt, a conspectus Domini.

Cantate Domino canticum novum, qui mirabilia fecit.


O sing unto the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

Show yourselves joyful unto the world, all ye lands; sing, rejoice, and give thanks.

Praise the Lord upon the harp; sing to the harp with a song of thanksgiving, with trumpets also and with shawms,

O show yourselves joyfully before the Lord, your King.

Let the sea make a noise, and all that therein is;

Let the floods clap their hands, and let the hills be joyful before the Lord.

O sing unto the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

Adamo's "Cantate Domino" was the most boisterous of the bunch. The text, suggested to Adamo by the society's music director, Norman Scribner, is a delightful psalm that bursts off the page, ecstatic, joyful and over the top in its praise of God. It's an outdoor psalm, something to be recited in the head while trekking through foothills on a sunny day.

Adamo responds in kind, using large clusters of tones to suggest the uncontainable vastness of the sentiment, and occasionally using staggering entrances to make the work sound almost unrehearsed. The effect is improvisatory, a delicious impossibility for a large chorus.

Philip Kennicott, Washington Post

22nd November 1999