Donald McCullough Interview

Donald McCullough is not only a composer, he is one of the country’s leading choral conductors. As the music director of the Master Chorale of Washington (D.C.), he has led acclaimed performances of choral standards and 16 world premieres, produced three nationally distributed CDs, and received from the Chorus America organization the Margaret Hillis Achievement Award for Choral Excellence in North America. McCullough has led the Master Chorale on two international tours, most recently to participate in Europe’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of World War II.

As a composer, McCullough has published more than 20 choral works. His Holocaust Cantata, Songs from the Camps was premiered at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 1998 and has since been performed throughout the country and around the world. In his review for the Washington Post, Joseph McClellan said the cycle of songs and spoken prose “vividly evoked” their authors, prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The material was selected and arranged by McCullough from the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

For his work for the San Francisco Choral Society, McCullough chose a text by the great 19th-century English poet William Blake (added below).

“I decided to explore the two contrary states of the human soul, the paradox that resides in all of us, as expressed in Blake’s poetry,” McCullough explained. “I find his Songs of Innocence and of Experience to be profoundly personal and direct in that they thoughtfully express both Blake’s spiritual and philosophical beliefs. Blake’s point is not that innocence (childhood optimism) is always good, and experience (adult cynicism) is always bad.  Rather, they work together, and both are necessary if one wants to lead a fulfilling life. Blake said, ‘Without contraries is no progression.  Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.’

“Blake believed that men and women were the source of all wisdom, power, and love, and that they should live up to their amazing potential. He believed that the dogma of the Church of England and the Victorian rules of English society at the time stifled creative and imaginative thinking, thereby cheating men and women of one of their natural birthrights. He wasn’t suggesting, however, that people become hedonists; rather, he believed they should respond to life’s circumstances by using a higher consciousness that refuses to blindly follow a set of rules, because adherence to such repressive rules would lead to the death of the soul. And so, to me, exploring the souls of the living (seeking to discover the ‘Self’) seemed like the perfect counterpoint to Verdi’s Requiem, whose message focuses on praying for the souls of the dead while also reminding the living that to stray from the rules of the Church will certainly bring eternal damnation in the fires of hell.” (The Verdi Requiem was performed the same evening by SF Choral.)

The work, lasting about 20 minutes, is in six movements — five for chorus and one for soprano soloist. McCullough describes the work as “sometimes peaceful, sometimes urgent, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes intense — but never operatic in scale like the Verdi. The poetry is too straightforward and intimate to handle that. So, you won’t hear a lot of brass and percussion or dense textures as you sometimes do in the Verdi; therefore, I think the piece will provide a nice contrast to the Requiem.

I asked McCullough to describe how he composes and what his creative process is. “That varies in many ways, but the first thing I always do is study the text, looking for meaning, symbolism, meter, word stress, form, variation, and characters (speakers),” he said. “I always recite the poem over and over, and I have others read it aloud too; by doing this I begin to find the right tempo and rhythm for the text, and vocal and orchestral colors begin to emerge in my mind’s ear. I don’t write anything down at this point; I’m just trying to get to know the poem as intimately as I can. After I have internalized the piece, I gradually begin to create melodies for the text while also sketching figurative bits for accompaniment. I keep building on that until I complete the composition.”

McCullough is a singer himself, with a master’s degree in vocal performance. He and SF Choral Artistic Director Robert Geary know each other through their membership in Chorus America. How did the commission come about? McCullough explained, “I was a guest conductor at the Berkshire Choral Festival, and our concert included several of my pieces. One of your singers, Caroline Damsky, was participating, and she suggested that I submit my information for consideration.”

— By O’Brien Young

From William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience

The Blossom

Merry, Merry Sparrow!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Sees you swift as arrow
Seek your cradle narrow
Near my Bosom.

Pretty, Pretty Robin!
Under leaves so green
A happy Blossom
Hears you sobbing, sobbing,
Pretty, Pretty Robin,
Near my Bosom.

Laughing Song

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing “Ha, Ha, He!”

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread,
Come live & be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of “Ha, Ha, He!”

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

The Sick Rose

O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I water’d it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veil’d the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.