Eric Whitacre: When David Heard

Context

Eric Whitacre was born in Nevada in 1970, and from a young age he studied the piano. He later got into a band, where he played the synthesizer, and it was at this point that Whitacre aspired to be a rock musician. Just before going to university Whitacre could not read music and was not formally trained. However, once at university he undertook formal training and later took a degree in Music Composition. 

Whitacre was also an avid singer whilst at university, and he claims that the first full-scale work he sang in was Mozart’s Requiem and that completely changed his life. He studied choral conducting with David Weiller and composition with the Ukrainian composer, Virko Baley. His relationship with Weiller was very strong, and his first professional setting of Go, Lovely Rose, was gifted to her. Whitacre then studied for a Master’s degree at Julliard. He graduated in 1997.

After the success of his work for wind orchestra – Ghost Train, Whitacre pursued a full career in composition. Since this point, Whitacre has been incredibly successful. He has composed for the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus as well as working with top musicians such as Julian Lloyd Webber, The King’s Singers and The Tallis Scholars. Whitacre has also won a wealth of awards for both his conducting and his compositions. 

Most recently in 2016, Whitacre was appointed Artist in Residence with the LA Master Chorale. One of the biggest original projects that Whitacre has carried out was his ‘Virtual Choir’. He was inspired by a female singing one of his choral pieces, and from then he began a test run of two different choral pieces – Sleep and Lux Aurumque. These videos went viral and amazingly they included around 180 singers from over 13 different countries.

Eric Whitacre is now a household name and his success has flourished over the last decade. A technique that Whitacre is praised for is his use of indeterminacy – i.e leaving the musical work to chance or to the interpreter’s free choice. This leads to music being performed in different ways, which can shed new light and colour onto works. 

Throughout his compositions for different kinds of ensembles, Whitacre uses a mixture of rhythms, compound meters and unconventional chord progressions. Especially prevalent within his choral music, Whitacre’s style is known for its atmospheric and ethereal kind of style. Another aspect of his style which is prominent in most of his works is the use of pandiatonic – the use of the diatonic scale, without the limitations of functional tonality. Pandiatonic music uses diatonic notes freely in dissonance and usually incorporates unconventional chord progressions clusters. The growth in these clusters are heard through Whitacre dividing the voices up from 4 parts to as much as 20. 

The Music

When David Heard was premiered in 1999 and the work is one of Whitacre’s longer choral works, totalling about 17 minutes in duration. Interestingly, this work is based around a single line of text from the King James Bible; II Samuel, 18:33:

“When David heard that Absalom was slain 

he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, 

my son, my son, 

O Absalom my son, 

would God I had died for thee!”

Whitacre claims that this work is the most deeply emotional and personal piece he has ever composed. The works genesis came as a tribute to one of Whitacre’s friends who recently lost his teenage son in a car accident. Three months before this in 1998, Whitacre was commissioned to write a piece for Dr. Ronald Staheli’s choir, who were about to embark on a tour to Israel. There was a tradition of composers setting the text from When David Heard. The text is from the old testament and represents the grief felt from Kings who have lost their sons. Whitacre claims that Staheli was a king to him, so he decided to set this text for him. 

The work took around 15 months to complete, with Whitacre saying he built structures and then tore them down, and built them back up and so on. By doing this he was able to grasp the essence of what this text means to someone going through that kind of grief. Staheli conducted the premiere of the work in 1999 with his choir the Brigham Young Singers. The piece is dedicated “with love and silence” to Dr. Ronald Staheli.

Perhaps most prominent in When David Heard is Whitacre’s use of cluster chords. The dramatic climaxes he is able to achieve by splitting the voices from four to twenty adds to the atmosphere of the piece. Whitacre also does this opposite of this and strips back the voices so a soloist can come through. These two ideas juxtapose one another to create an effective and moving piece of music.

Happy Reading!

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