Adolphus Hailstork’s Sonata da Chiesa

Notes by Kyle Gann, Taylor Hawver and Frances Bortle Hawver Professor of Music at Bard College

Adolphus Hailstork was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up in Albany, singing in his youth in the choir of the Episcopalian cathedral, which became a formative experience. He was one of the many American students of the legendary Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, in 1963, and would eventually get his doctorate from Michigan State University. He also studied composition with David Diamond and Vittorio Giannini. Hailstork’s first big break came while he was teaching at Youngstown State University in Ohio: his Celebration!, commissioned in anticipation of the American Bicentennial, was conducted by Paul Freeman in 1975 at the Black Music Symposium in Minneapolis. The piece was a success and led to further performances and commissions. Hailstork went on to teach at Norfolk State University, and, beginning in 2000, at Old Dominion University in the Tidewater, Virginia, area, where he was also choral director at the Unitarian Church of Norfolk.

As a composer Hailstork is postmodern, pluralistic, and above all pragmatic. He has written much for orchestra, also for amateur choruses, and a surprisingly large amount of organ music. Much of his music refers to spirituals and African American subject matter, but not exclusively. His style is fluid, ranging from a boisterous modernism to a delicate atonality, to devoutly reverent tonal counterpoint. Sonata da Chiesa illustrates mostly the last mode. The 17th-century term “sonata da chiesa” denoted instrumental chamber music suitable for religious meditation; Hailstork has expanded on the concept to give us an orchestral analogue to a choral Mass. The piece’s seven sections, played without pause, have titles taken from liturgical music: Exultate, O Magnum Mysterium, Adoro, Jubilate, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis Pacem, Exultate (reprise). The Exultate is a vigorous chorale verging on ecstasy. O Magnum Mysterium is in quieter counterpoint, quite chromatic, yet without abandoning a sense of tonality. Adoro is like a slow dance, with an insistent melody introduced in the viola solo, and in fact the entire work gains color from frequent solos for the first-chair players. The Jubilate is more energetic and highly syncopated with changing meters. The Agnus Dei, the emotional center of the work, is a soft chorale in a minor key, limned by gestures of melodic filigree. Dona Nobis Pacem, a chantlike chorale often in 5/4 meter, gradually crescendos to a final statement of the opening Exultate.