Bernstein: Chichester Psalms – Hebrew psalms with a “hint of West Side Story”

Chichester_Psalms2018 is the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Highgate Choral Society celebrate this occasion with a performance of one of his most popular choral works “Chichester Psalms” in our next concert on Saturday 19 May 2018 at 7pm at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London N6 6BJ. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by the countertenor James Hall, Milo Harper (harp), Molly Lopresti (percussion) and Edward Battling (organ) and will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

Apart from the Chichester Psalms choir and soloists will perform a varied programme with music by Janácĕk, Lauridsen, Britten, Vaughan Williams and others. 

1. Chichester Psalms is a work by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) for mixed choir, boy solo and orchestra. Initially the work was written for a male choir where the soprano and alto voice parts are sung by boys. Bernstein allowed and conducted performances with mixed choir, but stipulated that the alto solo part should always be sung by a boy or a countertenor, but not by a woman. Bernstein prepared later a version in which the orchestral forces are reduced to organ, harp and percussion. This is the version which Highgate Choral Society will perform in the concert. The solo part will be sung by a countertenor.

2. In 1958 Leonard Bernstein became Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic. In this position he conducted a large number of concerts, made many recordings and also commissioned a substantial amount of music. However, there was only very limited time for Bernstein to compose music himself. In the 1964-1965 season he took a sabbatical year in order to have to time to compose.

Leonard Bernstein’s main project at the beginning of this sabbatical year was the composition of a new musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth. This project was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, two of Bernstein’s close friends. However by January 1965 the project had collapsed and Bernstein wrote in a letter that he was now “suddenly a composer without a project, with half of a golden sabbatical down the drain”.

This situation changed quickly. Already one year earlier in December 1963 The Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in England had written to Leonard Bernstein. He wanted to commission a work for the Southern Cathedrals Festival (held at Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals). It was not the first time that Rev. Hussey had commissioned a new work of art. As Dean of Chichester Cathedral and in his previous post as vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton he had commissioned choral works by Britten and Finzi as well as stained-glass windows by Chagall and Madonna and Child by Henry Moore.  Hussey had some ideas what he wanted from Bernstein:

The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both

In a letter in August 1964 Hussey also shared with Bernstein his hopes how the music should sound like:

many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music“.

Bernstein agreed quickly after Hussey’s first letter in December 1963 to write something for the festival, but it took more than a year and the abandonment of the musical The Skin of our Teeth for the project to become clearer.

In February 1965 Bernstein suggested to Hussey that he would set a suite of psalms or selected verses from psalms under the a general title like Psalms of Youth. He wanted the music to be “all very forthright, songful, rhythmical, youthful“. The only reservation Bernstein had was that he wanted to set the psalms in the original Hebrew. Bernstein was aware that this would make the preparation more difficult and he was not sure whether there were any ecclesiastical difficulties about singing in Hebrew in an Anglican cathedral. Hussey replied quickly and confirmed that the language would not constitute any problems. Only three month later in May 1965 Bernstein confirmed that the work was finished. He changed the title to Chichester Psalms, because he had the impression that “Youth” in the title would indicate an easy work which the Chichester Psalms were not.

3. The Chichester Psalms consist of three movements. In each movement Bernstein set one complete psalm and one or more verses of another complementary psalm, “by way of contrast or amplification“.

a) The work starts with a setting of Psalm 108, verse 2 (Awake, psaltery and harp:
I will rouse the dawn!
). Bernstein describes it as a chorale setting “evocating praise”. This introduction is a wake-up call and an invitation to the following dance like scherzo. Bernstein sets the full Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands) in a 7/4 meter. The music illustrates the text and the whole setting is a “wild and joyful dance“. Bernstein used in this first movement music he had originally composed for the abandoned musical The Skin of Our Teeth.

b) The second movement starts with a complete setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd). The soloist is accompanied by a harp and the whole atmosphere is calm and pastoral. Also the lyrical theme of this movement is taken from The Skin of Our Teeth.  After a few bars the soloist is joined by the sopranos and altos who take up the lyrical melody. This mood is savagely interrupted by the men with a “threat of war and violence“. Hussey got in this movement exactly what he had asked for. Bernstein set verses 1 – 4 of Psalm 2 (Why do the nations rage) which Hussey had suggested in his very first letter. He got also his “hint of West Side Story”, because Bernstein used music he had written for the prologue of the West Side Story, but which he had cut in the end. It is a fascinating thought that the music which is now sung by the men to the text “Lamah rag’shu goyim / Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?” (Why do the nations rage / And the people imagine a vain thing?) was originally conceived for a Manhattan street gang singing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics “Mix – make a mass of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay”. The movement ends in an unresolved way.

c) The third movement sets Psalm 131 in its entirety and in the coda Psalm 133, verse 1.  Bernstein described this movement in a letter to Hussey as follows:

Begins with an orchestral prelude based on the opening chorale, whose assertive harmonies have now turned to painful ones. There is a crisis; the tension is suddenly relieved, and the choir enters humbly and peacefully singing Ps. 131 complete, in what is almost a popular song (although in 10/4 time!). It is something like a love-duet between the men and the boys. In this atmosphere of humility, there is a final chorale coda (Ps. 133, v. 1)  – a prayer for peace“.

Bernstein used also for the main 10/4 theme in this third movement music he had written earlier (a sketch headed “Wartime Duet?”).

4. Even though the Chichester Psalms was a commission for the festival in Chichester, the work was first performed in New York (on 15 July 1965, Philharmonic Hall). Bernstein conducted a programme of his own music and was asked to include the Chichester Psalms. The first performance in England took place two weeks later on 31 July 1965 at Chichester Cathedral. The choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedral and the Philomusica of London were conducted by John Birch. Leonard Bernstein and his family went to Sussex for the UK premiere of the work.

The Chichester Psalms was generally very well received. Hussey conveyed to Bernstein also the gratitude of the Bishop of Chichester who said he could imagine “David dancing before the ark”. Less enthusiastic was the young composer John Adams who was in his early 20s. He wrote an angry letter to Bernstein. He asked him why Bernstein had decided to turn his back on new music and included the provocative question “What about Boulez?”. To Adams’ astonishment Bernstein replied to him and explained that one can only write what “one hears within one”. For Bernstein this was at that point in time tonal music.

The Chichester Psalms became quickly part of the choral repertoire. Significant performances of the work conducted by Bernstein took place in 1973 and 1989. In 1973 he conducted the Chichester Psalms at a concert for the Pope which was televised all over Europe. In 1989 Bernstein conducted the work in Warsaw at a concert which marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

5. I want to end this blog post with an excerpt from a poem Bernstein wrote about his sabbatical year for the New York Times. It includes a witty and the same time touching description of his Chichester Psalms:

These psalms are a simple and modest affair
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E flat major
But there it stands- the result of my pondering
Two long months of avant-garde wandering
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet
And he stands on his own two tonal feet



Handel: Israel in Egypt

img_2416Highgate Choral Society’s March Concert features one of the great oratorios by George Frederick Handel “Israel in Egypt”.

The concert takes place on Saturday, 10 March 2018 at 7pm at All Hallow’s Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by five wonderful soloists and the New London Orchestra. The concert will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

1. Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) is an oratorio by George Frederick Handel. It is scored for six soloists (2 sopranos, alto, tenor and 2 bass soli), chorus and orchestra. In our performance the mezzo soprano soloist will sing the alto and the second soprano solo parts.

2. Handel was a very prolific composer of operas. His first opera Almira was premiered on 8 January 1705 in Hamburg. During his life he wrote 42 operas. Typically the libretto of an opera was in Italian and there was great emphasis on virtuoso solo arias and elaborate staging and costumes. When Handel visited London the first time (in 1711), it was mainly because his opera Rinaldo was to be performed there. But opera was not the only genre in which Handel set a dramatic libretto to music. As early as 1707 / 1708 Handel wrote two works which he called “oratorios” in Italy: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrectione (1708). Both were written for Rome and both were oratorios and not operas, because operas were forbidden in Rome since Pope Innocence XI papal edict in 1681. These works did not have staging, costumes and acting, but were otherwise operas in everything but name. Handel returned to writing oratorios in London with the oratorio Esther. It was probably first performed in 1718 in a private performance and then in a heavily revised form in 1732 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket in London. Esther was the first oratorio based on a story taken from the Old Testament of the Bible and written to an English libretto.

In the 1730s Handel found it more and more difficult to be successful with Italian opera in London. From 1733 the situation became worse because of the competition by a second opera company, the rival “Opera of the Nobility” which was supported by a group of nobles (including Frederick, Prince of Wales). This competition and the declining interest of the public in operas resulted in the bankruptcy of Handel’s opera company in 1737. In the season 1738 / 1739 it was impossible to attract enough subscriptions to mount an opera season. Handel decided that if he could not afford an opera season then he would try an oratorio season with oratorios in English. Oratorios were cheaper to put on, because they did not need costumes and staging. They also had two additional advantages: The religious authorities in England did not allow stage productions of biblical stories and did not allow any stage productions during Lent. A concert style oratorio was the solution to all these problems.

3. Handel wrote the oratorio Saul which was premiered on 16 January 1739 for the beginning of the 1738 / 1739 oratorio season. Israel in Egypt was the second oratorio in this season. The premiere was on 4 April 1739 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket, London.  Handel wrote Israel in Egypt in an incredible short time of only one month (1 October – 1 November 1738). Initially the oratorio had three parts. Handel started work on the third part first (“Moses’ Song“) and wrote it between 1 October and 11 October 1738, then he wrote the second part (“Exodus”) between 15 and 20 October 1738. The time until 28 October 1738 he used for instrumentation of the work. Two years earlier he had written an anthem for the funeral of George II’s consort, Queen Caroline. It had the title The Ways of Zion Do Morn and Handel used the work (with only small changes in the words) as the first part of Israel in Egypt which he called “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph“.  For a revival of the work about twenty years later in 1756 Part one was removed and substituted with music from other works. In later performances a two part version (with only the original parts two and three) was generally preferred. We will perform the two part version of Israel in Egypt. This version does not have an overture and starts immediately with a short recitative. Our performance will start with the overture from the oratorio Susanna which Handel composed in summer 1748 and which had its premiere on 10 February 1749 in Covent Garden Theatre, London.

4. Israel in Egypt is in many ways an exceptional oratorio. It is one of only two oratorios which uses text exclusively from the Bible (without any paraphrases and interpolation). The other oratorio is Messiah. The text for the libretto is taken from the book Exodus and some passages from Psalms 78, 105 and 106 which retell and reflect the story in Exodus. It is not entirely clear whether Handel chose the text himself or whether Charles Jennens who wrote the libretto for Saul and who put the text together for Messiah also helped with the libretto of Israel in Egypt. 

The other reason why it is an exceptional oratorio is that it does not tell the story of one specific individual hero. It rather celebrates the story of the people of Israel, starting with their oppression in Egypt, their exodus and a celebration of their victory and their salvation. For that reason the choir is the main protagonist of the oratorio and the choruses clearly dominate the work. There are only very few recitatives, arias and duets. The first audience was not expecting this extensive use of the chorus and that was one of the main objections to the work in Handel’s lifetime.

5. Part one consists of only two recitatives (for tenor soloist) and one aria (for alto soloist). The other 13 movements are choruses. Part two has 23 movements. The majority of these movements are again choruses (15), but part two contrasts the choruses with two recitatives (for tenor soloist), three duets (one for two sopranos, one for two basses and one for alto and tenor) and three solo arias (one for tenor, one for soprano and one for alto).

a) Part one (“Exodus”) starts with a short recitative in which a tenor soloist sets the scene: a new king reigns in Egypt and this leads to the oppression of the Israelites. The first chorus (double choir) gives a voice to the people and describes the burdens and bondage of the people of Israel. The next recitative (again sung by a tenor soloist) introduces Moses and Aaron who will rescue the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. The next five choruses and the only aria in Part one (for alto soloist) speak about the ten biblical plagues: God turns water into blood (chorus), sends frogs – even to the king’s chamber in the palace, brings disease over the cattle and other livestock and boils over the Egyptians (aria for alto). The following chorus (for double choir) speaks about three plagues: flies, lice and locusts which devour the fruits of the ground. Next follows the hailstorm which brings hail and lightening (chorus – double choir), a darkness for three days (chorus) and finally the death of all the firstborns (chorus).

After all these plagues the Israelites are finally allowed to leave (chorus) and the Egyptians are glad that they do so (chorus). However the Egyptians change their mind and go after the Israelites. The culmination of part one comes in the following two choruses (both for double choir): God gives Moses the power to divide the Red Sea and lead the people of Israel safely through dry ground with a wall of water on both sides. When the Egyptian king and his army follow, the water returns and kills everyone (chorus). Part one closes with two choruses (one for double choir) which acknowledge the greatness and power of God.

b) Part two (“Moses’ Song“) is primarily a celebration of the victory described in part one.  It sets Chapter 15 of the book Exodus almost completely. The part starts with two choruses (both for double choir) which celebrate God’s triumph. The following duet for two sopranos is more contemplative and sets the text “the Lord is my strength and my song, he is become my salvation”. Solemn and joyful choruses follow in this part and arias and duets – some are prayerful, other are martial like the duet for two bass soloists “the Lord is a man of war”.

The last movements round off the whole work in an affirmative way. The double choir sings “the Lord shall reign for ever and ever” after a short tenor recitative a reprise of the same setting for double choir follows. The final chorus which is again preceded by a short tenor recitative has a more elaborate version of the same sentiment and sets an extended version of the text. This chorus brings the work to a triumphant and celebratory end.

6.  Perhaps because of the haste in which it was written Israel in Egypt contains only comparatively little original music by Handel. Examples of completely original pieces are the chorus “And I will exalt him” and the tenor aria “The enemy said”. Both are in part two. There is a high proportion of borrowings from other composer. Altogether ten movements across both parts contain music taken from the Magnificat by Milanese composer Dionigi Erba (1692-1730). Five movements include music borrowed from a cantata by another Italian composer Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682). In addition Handel used music from an instrumental piece by Stradella for the choruses “He spake the word” and “He gave them hailstones”. The chorus “Egypt was glad” is based on an organ canzona by the German composer Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693). Other music which Handel uses is by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612) and Francesco Urio (1631-1719). To adapt and borrow music of other composers was not unusual in Handel’s time as there were no copyright protections. But it is remarkable how much Handel borrowed and how much he made it his own to produce a musical cohesive work which uses different technics of choral settings, including settings for double choir, elaborate fugues, cantus firmus themes and also choral settings were all voices sing in one thunderous block of sound.

Also remarkable is Handel’s extensive use of word painting in this oratorio. The descending phrases in the first chorus of part one depict the “sighing” which the text mentions. The music imitates the images in the text in particular in the movements about the plagues: the leaping figures in the violins for the frogs and the buzzing strings for the flies and lice. The movement about the “hailstones” start with only a few chords. Then the music becomes more agitated as if the hailstones get more frequent and the timpani sound like a thunderstorm. Similar word paintings occurs also in part two. A good example is the galloping rhythm in the two choruses which mention the “the horse and its rider”.

7. Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was initially not very popular. It was only performed twice in 1739. Also when the oratorio was performed in 1756 in a revised version it was not a great success.

The reception of the work changed after Handel’s death. There was a revival performance in 1784 to celebrate the centenary of  Handel’s birth (one year early). The audience which included Joseph Haydn was very enthusiastic. During Victorian times the oratorio became one of the favourite pieces of choral societies. Thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, who got to know the manuscript on one of his visits to England, it was also performed in Germany with great success. He conducted Israel in Egypt on 26 May 1833 in Düsseldorf, 1836 in Leipzig and 1844 in Berlin. He performed it with a German text, wrote an overture, cut some of the movements and changed some of the instrumentation. In a letter he describes vividly the performance in Düsseldorf which even included costumes and a kind of staging.

One of the earliest recordings ever made was of a chorus of Israel in Egypt. It was made on 29 June 1888 during a performance at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London (with a choir of 4000 singers) and can be heard on YouTube.


Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater

IMG_1328The first concert of Highgate Choral Society in the concert season 2017 – 2018 will take place on Saturday 11 November 2017 at 7pm. The concert will begin with an orchestral piece: Karol Szymanowski: Etude, Op. 4 No. 3 (orchestrated by Ronald Corp). The main piece in first half is Karol Szymanowksi’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53.  In the second half of the concert Highgate Choral Society, solists and orchestra will perform Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K427. The concert takes place at All Hallows’ Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP.

This blog post is about one of the three pieces: Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater.  

1. Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53, is a work for three soloists (soprano, alto and baritone), mixed chorus and orchestra. It is scored a modest sized orchestra.

2. Karol Szymanowski sets the traditional medieval poem Stabat Mater which is part of the Roman Catholic liturgy. The poem was written in the 13th century and is usually ascribed to the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230 – 1306). It has twenty verses with three lines each. The poem depicts the sorrows of the Virgin Mary for her crucified son Jesus.

Karol Szymanowski set the text both in Polish and in Latin. In the autograph version of the work which is now in the National Library of Poland, the Polish text is written in black ink and the Latin text in red ink, but the Polish version was the one in which he was really interested in. He used a contemporary Polish translation of the text by Jósef Jankowski (1865-1935). Szymanowski said in an interview that he liked the “unusually primitive, almost ‘folk like’ simplicity and naivety of the translation”. For him the emotional content was important. He said about his aims for this setting:

“In my view, it must have a directly emotional impact, and therefore must draw upon a universally comprehensible text: the emotional content of the word must be organically fused with its musical equivalent.”

For Karol Szymanowski this direct impact could only be achieved by setting the Polish version of the text. The score states that the work should always be sung in Polish when it is heard in Poland, but could be performed in Latin elsewhere. We will perform tonight the Latin version. For me personally there are a number of reasons to perform the Latin version of the work. The specific emotional impact Szymanowski wanted to achieve was closely connected to the fact that his Polish audience would understand the text. If the work is performed for an audience who does not speak Polish this cannot be achieved by a performance of the original version. For an audience outside Poland the Latin text may not have the same impact as the Polish text for Polish speaker, but it is at least the one which is more familiar. Audience members might even know one of the many other settings of the Latin text by other composers. Szymanowski’s version of the Stabat Mater stands then in direct comparisons to settings by Pergolesi, Vivaldi or Rossini.

3. The idea of writing a sacred choral work goes back to 1924. Karol Szymanowski was in Paris and Princesse de Polignac, who was great patron of early 20th century music, asked Szymanowski to write a sacred work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. She specifically wanted a setting of a Polish text to music. He was interested in this idea and thought about writing a “Peasant Requiem”, a piece which should be “peasant and ecclesiastical … naively devotional, a sort of prayer for souls”. Szymanowski and Pricesse de Polignac lost touch and the idea of a “peasant requiem” did not develop further.

There were two incidents which had the result that Szymanowski took up the idea to write a sacred work with a Polish text in 1925. Szymanowski mentioned in an interview:

“A whole series of motives induced me to compose the religious work Stabat Mater, ranging from inner, personal experiences to external circumstances of everyday life, which prompted me to lay aside other, already started, ‘secular’ works for the time being and devote myself exclusively to the Stabat Mater”.

The external circumstances he mentioned were the commission of a requiem by the Warsaw business man Bronsiław Krystall in memory of recently deceased wife Izabella. The inner, personal experience was the sudden death of his niece Alusia Barotszewiczówna, the only daughter of his sister Stanisława Szymanowska. This personal loss and the grief of a mother about the death of her child motivated Szymanowski to abandon the idea to write a requiem. He chose instead the text of the Stabat Mater, a text in which a suffering mother grieves the death of her child.

4. Karol Szymanowski divided the text into six sections. He stressed that these sections are “thematically unconnected and different in fundamental character”, but certain movements relates to each other through their mood.

Musically Szymanowski was influenced by that time by renaissance music, in particular from Poland, and also Polish folk music. There is thematic link with Demeter, another work for alto solo, (female) choir and orchestra, a short cantata, which was composed in 1917 / 1924 and which he called his “Greek Stabat Mater”. Musically he used motives from the third of his Word Songs (Słopiewnie) which has the title “St. Francis” in this Stabat Mater.

The first section (“Stabat mater”) is for soprano soloist accompanied by the female voices of the choir and orchestra. It is a quiet and rather slow movement with lyrical music which reminds one of the colours in Debussy’s and Ravel’s music. This movement sets the scene at the foot of the cross.

The second section (“Quis es homo qui no floetus”) is for baritone soloist, full choir and orchestra. It continues to describe the scene at the crucifixion, but the music is quicker and more agitated. It is almost accusatory and calls on the listener to have compassion with the grieving mother. The movement ends with the death of Christ on the cross.

The tone and atmosphere of the third section (“Eia mater, fons amoris”) is similar to the one in the first movement. It is for soprano solo, alto solo, the female voices of the choir and orchestra. The alto soloist starts with a lyrical melody, the soprano soloist and the choir follows. The movement starts largo (slow) and dulcissimo (very sweet). The text of this movement is a prayer to the Virgin Mary and shows the compassion which the music of the previous movement demanded.

The music in the fourth section (“Fac me tecum, pie flere”) is the most archaic one, the one which is probably closest to the Renaissance models Szymanowski studied. This section is for four-part chorus, soprano soloist and alto soloist. The voices sing a cappella (without accompaniment). In this movement the prayer of the previous section continues with all voices of the choir. The sound of the unaccompanied voices reminds me of Rachmaninoff setting of the vespers.

The penultimate fifth section (“Virgo virginum praeclara”) is for the same forces as the second section, for baritone soloist, four-part chorus and orchestra. Also, musically this fifth section and the second one are related. The music is powerful and menacing. At the climax of the work soloist and chorus petition the listener to join the pains of Christ and ask for the protection of the Virgin Mary on the Judgement Day.

The sixth and final section (“Christe cum sit hinc exire”) is the only one for all three soloists, full chorus and orchestra. The music is again lyrical and full of hope that the soul of the deceased might be granted the joys of Paradise.

5. Karol Szymanowski completed the sketch for his Stabat Mater in by November 1925. The full score was finished by 2 March 1926. The premiere of the work took place on 11 January 1929 at the Warsaw Philharmonic. His friend Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the work and his sister Stanisława Szymanowska whose grief over the loss of her child was one of the motives for the work sang the soprano solo.

It did not take long for the work to be performed outside of Poland. It had its premiere in the United Kingdom in 1932 at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester with Elgar and George Bernard Shaw in the audience.

Kodály: Missa Brevis – a mass “in tempore belli”

IMG_0146The next concert of Highgate Choral Society on Saturday, 6 May 2017 has a mixed programme. The first part of the concert features English and Italian music. We will sing music by Finzi, Mascagni, Puccini, Rossini, Vaughan Williams and Verdi. After the interval we will perform Kodály’s Missa brevis in a version for chorus and organ to mark the 50th anniversary of Kodály’s death. The concert will take place at St. Michael’s Church, South Grove, Highgate N6 6BJ and starts at 7 pm.

1. Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) was born in Kecskemét, a city in the centre of Hungary. In 1900 he went to university in Budapest and studied Hungarian and German language and literature. In the same year he took the entry exam at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest and studied composition. Kodály met Béla Bartók at the Royal Academy of Music. Both became lifelong friends. After they finished university they travelled through Hungary and Romania with phonograph cylinders to collect folk music and folk songs in remote villages. Folk music and folk songs were of great influence for Kodály and his music. He was also very interested in musical education and developed his own method of teaching music to children. In this method, singing had a special role and also choral music was for Kodaly one of the most potent mediums, because he saw it rooted in the Hungarian musical and social tradition.

2. Zoltán Kodály wrote his Missa Brevis in dark times. Hungary joined the Triparte Pact between Germany, Japan and Italy in 1940 and fought as member of the Axis powers in Yugoslavia and Russia. In August 1943 Hungary decided to contact the US and their allies to start negotiations of a secret peace treaty. When Germany discovered this “betrayal” of Hungary, they made plans to occupy it. From March 1944 onwards Hungary was occupied by German troops and ruled by a government which was aided by a National Socialist military governor. In October 1944 the Red Army started its offensive against Budapest. The Russians were able to take Pest in December 1944, but besieged Buda for seven weeks until the city’s unconditional surrender on 13 February 1945. Kodály stayed in Hungary during the Second World War. The situation in the city was dire. Many civilians died during the siege, either from bombing and military action or from starvation and diseases. The houses were not safe anymore and many took refuge in cellars and air shelters. Zoltán Kodály and his wife first lived in a cellar of a Benedictine convent school, later they moved to the basement of Royal Opera House in Budapest.

Kodály started working on his Missa Brevis when he was in hiding in the cellar of the convent. In 1942 he had written an organ mass which was first performed in St. Stephen’s Basilica. While he was in the cellar of the convent he started reworking his mass into a choral work with organ. For Kodály the words of the mass were always of particular poetic significance and I think it is not surprising that he turned to them in such terrible times. The Missa Brevis was performed the first time early in 1945 in the cloakroom of the opera house which was used as improvised concert room, because the main opera house had been damaged by bombs. Kodály gave the mass the subtitle “in tempore belli” (“in times of war”). He made later another version of the Missa Brevis for chorus and orchestra. The first British performance of the Missa Brevis was a broadcast by the Belfast Co-operative Choir in October 1945. A further performance took place during the Three Choir Festival in Worcester in 1948 (conducted by the composer) and was repeated two years later at the Gloucester Festival.

3. The Missa Brevis is a setting of the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). In addition Kodály started with a short Introitus for organ solo and ended the mass with an Ite, missa est which was in original version again for organ solo. He later also prepared a version for chorus and organ. We will use in the concert the original version.

The Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy. The first Kyrie eleison in Kodály’s setting is austere and kept in the dark colours of the alto section and the bass section which sing a short melodic phrase in canon. The Christe eleison is brighter and is dominated by the higher voices. The soprano section is split in three parts which sing haughtingly beautiful chords juxtaposed with the three lower voices. In the second part of the Christe eleison the altos join the sopranos. For the second Kyrie eleison Kodály uses the same melodic phrase as for the first Kyrie for the altos and basses. This time they are joined by the sopranos and tenors who sing three long cries on eleison (“have mercy”).

The Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God. In the Missa Brevis the Gloria consists of three parts. The first part is filled with military fanfares. It is a fast section (Allegro) with many runs and raising lines for all voice parts. The second part is much slower (Adagio). It is again dominated by the lower voice parts. The altos start to sing “qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy”). The basses then join the altos with the same melodic line. Toward the end of this part, the tenors repeat “have mercy” several times. For the final part of the Gloria Kodály returns to the fast tempo of the first section and the military fanfares. The Gloria culminates in a glorious Amen which is once repeated.

The Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. The setting in the Missa Brevis is more episodic. It starts with the altos and basses in unison in a quiet march. The second part is slower and very quiet when the choir sings “et incarnatus est”. The music depicts  the mystery of the incarnation. The cruxificus starts with the three upper voices singing forte (loud) with great anguish. As this part progresses the music gets quieter and quieter and dies away. The “et sepultus est” (“and was buried”) is as quiet as possible, almost inaudible. For the joy of the resurrection Kodály chose a fast tempo and ascending choral lines which mirror the text. The choir starts soft and finishes this section in a fortissimo (very loud). The next section “et in spiritum sanctum” starts with the basses, soon the other voice parts join and sing in unison “qui cum patre et filio”. Also this part of the mass ends with a confident Amen.

The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus / Benedictus is sung in the mass after the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels. Kodály set the Sanctus (including Osanna) and the Benedictus (including Osanna) in two separate movements. Both parts are quite restraint. He decided not to repeat the same setting of the Osanna after the Benedictus, but to write a variant on it.

The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem). The Agnus Dei in the Missa Brevis recalls themes from the Gloria and the Kyrie. In particular by taking up motives of the Kyrie the music comes full circle and gives the piece unity. The movement builds towards a climax with the anguished “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace). Kodály uses for this last cry for peace the motives from his Christe eleison setting. The sopranos are again split in three parts soon the altos join. A few bars later also the tenors and basses join this plea for peace. Given the circumstances of the composition of the mass, it is not surprising that these words receive the longest treatment of any words of the Missa Brevis. The Agnus Dei is almost as long as the Credo which has far more words to set and the word “pacem” (peace) at the end is repeated over and over again.

Elgar: The Music Makers – a musical autobiography?

img_3552The next concert of Highgate Choral Society will take place on Saturday, 11 March 2017 at 7 pm at All Hallow’s Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. As our concert last March also this concert features English music.

The concert begins with an orchestral work by Frederick Delius: The Walk to the Paradise Garden. For Sea Drift by Delius the chorus and Marcus Farnsworth as baritone soloist join the New London Orchestra. After the interval Edward Elgar’s The Music Makers follow.

This blog post is about Elgar’s The Music Makers.

Edward Elgar ‘s The Music Makers, Op. 69 is a work for contralto soloist or mezzo soprano soloist, chorus and orchestra. It consists of a single movement and lasts about 40 minutes.

1. Elgar set in The Music Makers the poem Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881) to music. O’Shaughnessy was a British poet of Irish descent. He worked in the zoological department of the British Museum specialising in reptiles, but his true passion was poetry. The Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown belonged to his circle of friends. He published three collections of poetry. Ode was published in The Athenaeum of 30 August 1873 and is included in his third collection of poetry Music and Moonlight (1874).

Elgar presumably got the idea to set the Ode to music in 1903. He announced his interest in this poem in an interview in March 1904. The timing of this announcement is particularly interesting. Elgar saw himself always as an outsider. His father was merely a tradesman and Elgar was Roman Catholic. He did not study music, but was self taught. Very often he was uncertain about his abilities and his status in society and suffered from depression. However when he gave the interview things could not be more favourable for him. On 3 February 1904 he was invited to dine with King Edward VII and conducted his famous Pomp and Circumstances March after dinner. On 14 March 1904 his work was celebrated with a three day festival at Covent Garden and two days later the Prime Minister asked him whether he would accept a knighthood in the June Birthday Honours. Maybe the reassurance by these honours and recognition was the reason for him to speak about this project.

O’Shaughnessy Ode deals with the role of the artist in society. The first verse focuses on the isolation of the creative artist. It sees him as “dreamer”  who wanders along the sea shores and sits at the streams. But the verse ends with a very different image of the artist. It says  “Yet we are the movers and shakers / Of the world for ever, it seems”. For the poem the artist is really the one who changes the world and brings progress for society. For the poem artists are the shapers of human destiny and the dreams and visions of the artists become reality in the following generation. This thematic statement of the poem resonated strongly with Elgar. The poem has an optimistic and positive vision of the artist, but Elgar saw this vision as a responsibility and duty of the artist and maybe also sometimes a burden. He saw himself as a Music Maker, but also included

“… all artists who feel the tremendous responsibility of their mission to ‘renew the world as of yore.'”

2. In the following years Elgar was occupied with other projects. He composed in 1906 his oratorio The Kingdom; then his first Symphony (1908) , his Violin Concerto (1910)  and his second Symphony (1911) followed. In 1912 he experienced health problems. He complained about a noise in his ear. This was connected with a loss of balance and problems with his middle ear. He was therefore compelled to rest in April 1912, but took up his work on The Music Makers in May 1912. He finished the score on 18 July 1912. This was just in time to get everything ready for the premiere of the work on 1 October 1912 at the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival where in previous years his The Dream of Gerontius (1900), The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) were premiered. The performance was only a moderate success and many were very critical about the work.

3. Elgar used in The Music Makers many quotations of his previous works. He quoted from both Symphonies, The Apostles, The Dream of Gerontius, his Violin Concerto, the Sea Pictures and most importantly from the Enigma Variations. The quotations were also one of the main criticisms against this work. Some saw this as self indulgent and considered it to be a lack of originality. They thought that this was his response to the pressure of time. Looking at Elgar’s own explanations for the use of quotations this criticism does not seem to do him justice.

The work starts with a short orchestral prelude which presents two themes. Some have suggested that the first theme symbolises the artist’s “sadness and spiritual unrest” and the second theme is associated with the artist’s “mission”. The chorus enters quietly almost unaccompanied and chordal for the first six lines of the poem (“We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams / Wandering by lone sea-breakers / And sitting by desolate streams / World-losers and world-forsakers / On whom the pale moon gleams”). The text and the musical motive which he called the “artist theme” will be repeated throughout the work as a kind of refrain. Elgar follows the text very closely and his quotes are often are direct reaction to the text. He uses a quotation from The Dream of Gerontius for “dreamer of dreams” and generally when the text speaks about “dreams”and a quote from his Sea Pictures for “lone sea-breakers”.  Other quotes are more subtle. Elgar explained in a letter (14 August 1912) to Ernest Newman the reasons why he used quotations from his Enigma Variations.

“I have used the opening bars of the theme (Enigma) of the Variations because it expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of loneliness of the artists as described in the first six lines of the Ode, and to me, it still embodies that sense”.

Elgar does not only quote from his own work, but also includes a quote from Rule Britannia and one from the Marseillaise for the lines “out of a fabulous story / We fashion an empire’s glory”. He clarifies that he does not think that these tunes stand for “peculiarly fabulous stories”, but they are for him

“examples of tremendous influences which ‘music makers’ have achieved – destinies they have swayed and judgements they have foreseen.”

The soloist enters the piece when it is almost half over. She sings the fifth verse of the poem which had a particular significance for Elgar. For the lines “But on one man’s souls it hath broken /  A light that doth not depart / And his look, or a word  he hath spoken / Wrought flame in another man’s heart” he used a quotation of several bars from the Nimrod variation which he had written for his friend A. J. Jaeger. Elgar explained:

“Here I have quoted the Nimrod Variations as a tribute to the memory of my friend, A. J. Jaeger: by this I do not mean to convey that his was the only soul on which light had broken or that his was the only word, or look that wrought ‘flame in another man’s heart’; but I do convey that amongst all the inept writing and wrangling about music his voice was clear, ennobling, sober and sane, and for his help and inspiration I make this acknowledgment.”

For the last line of the poem “And a singer sings no more” Elgar quotes again a passage from The Dream of Gerontius, the music to “Novissima hora est”, the moment when Gerontius dies. The work ends as it had started with a repetition of the artists theme which is again sung by the chorus as a sequence of chords very quietly dying away.

4. Another criticism against Elgar’s work was that his music has undercut the hope of the poem and almost reversed its meaning. It is indeed noteworthy that the poem speaks very much of the vision of art and its importance for the future, however Elgar does the opposite in his works. He looks back and uses music of his past. I think it shows how difficult this vision and the responsibility he felt was for him.

I want to end with two quotes which show his torn relationship with The Music Makers.

After he finished the vocal score on 19 July 1912 he wandered over Hampstead Heath. It was a particularly cold day and one day later he wrote to Alice Stuart Wortley, a close friend, about his feelings:

“It was bitterly cold – I wrapped myself in a thick overcoat & sat for two minutes, tears streaming out of my cold eyes and loathed the world, – came back to the house – empty & cold – how I hated having written anything: so I wandered out again & shivered & longed to destroy the work of my hands – all wasted. ‘World losers & world forsaker for ever & ever’ – How true it is.”

In another letter about six weeks later he acknowledged that The Music Makers were one of his most personal works, maybe even a kind of musical autobiography.

“I have written out my soul in the concert, Sym II & the Ode & you know it … in these three works I have shewn myself.”

Brahms: A German Requiem – a Requiem for Humankind

brahmsThe first concert of the HCS concert season 2016/2017 will take place on Saturday 12 November 2016 at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP. It starts at 7 pm.

The programme has – appropriate for the season of the year – a sombre feeling. In the first half of the concert the New London Orchestra will play two orchestral pieces: Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow and Ronald Corp: The Somme – A Lament. Then HCS joins the New London Orchestra for Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music. Vaughan Williams set in this piece a text from Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice to music.  After the interval follows Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). 

The following blog post is about Brahms.

1. Johannes Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 is Brahms’ longest and also most popular choral work. It is written for orchestra, baritone soloist, soprano soloist and chorus. It is comprised of seven movements. Movements 1, 2, 4 and 7 are for chorus only. Movement 3 and 6 are for baritone soloist and chorus and movement 5 is for soprano soloist and chorus. A performance of A German Requiem lasts about 70 minutes.

A requiem is traditionally a mass for the dead. It focusses on the repose of the souls of the deceased using a Latin text which is a particular form of the traditional mass in the Roman Catholic Church. Brahms’ requiem is different in many ways. He did not use the traditional Latin text, but rather compiled a German text. He used Luther’s translation of the Bible and combined parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Biblical Apocrypha. Brahms had a broad knowledge of the Bible and often put together passages from different sections of the Bible in one single movement. The title “A German Requiem” meant for Brahms only that the text of the requiem is in German. He probably chose it to distinguish his work from well-known traditional requiems, e.g. Mozart Requiem. Brahms mentioned in a letter to Karl Reinthaler, Director of Music of Bremen Cathedral, who was responsible for the first performance of the German Requiem in Bremen the following:

“Was den Text betrifft, so will ich bekennen, dass ich recht gerne auch das “Deutsch” fortließe und einfach den “Menschen” setzte.”
[“As far as the text is concerned, I will confess that I would very gladly omit the “German”, and simply put “of Humankind”.]

This focus on humankind or the human being becomes clear, when one looks at the texts Brahms chose for his requiem. It is not about the souls of the deceased, but rather about the consolation of the living who mourn the loss of loved one.

2. The earliest music material of the Requiem was written in 1854 as a funeral march which was a movement of a sonata for two pianos. 1854 was a difficult time in Brahms’ life. He had moved into the house of the Schumanns in the previous year and was a close friend of Robert and Clara Schumann. Robert Schumann had mental health issues which got worse over time. On 27 February 1854 Robert Schumann tried to commit suicide and was then taken to an asylum in which he died two years later on 29 July 1856. Brahms stayed with Clara during Robert’s illness and he and other friends supported her and tried to divert her mind from the tragedy. Brahms moved out after Robert’s death, but kept in close contact with Clara for all his life.

In 1861 Brahms put the text for the Requiem together and also started composing some of the movements, but then he seemed to have abandoned the work. In February 1865 Brahms’ mother died and he again took up the work on his Requiem. He worked on it through 1865 and 1866 and also sent parts to Clara Schumann and to other friends to get their opinion about it. For Christmas 1866 he sent the complete manuscript of A German Requiem (without the fifth movement which was not yet written) to Clara as a Christmas present.

One year later on 1 December 1867 the first three movements of A German Requiem were performed in Vienna by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (“Society of the friends of music”). It was not a good performance and it was not well received. On 12 April 1868 (Good Friday) Brahms conducted the whole work (still without the fifth movement) in Bremen cathedral. The cathedral was packed and it was an overwhelming success for Brahms. In May 1868 Brahms wrote the fifth movement which he called a “soprano solo with some measures of choir”. The first performance of the complete seven movement requiem took place in Leipzig Gewandhaus on 18 February 1869. It became immediately a very popular work which received 20 performances in 1869 alone. The London premiere took place in 1873 in St. James Hall.

3. The structure of A German Requiem is symmetrical with movement 4 as axis and heart of the work. Movement 4 describes the “lovely dwellings” of the Lord. Movement 1 and 7 share musical elements and also show a parallelism in the text which begins with “Selig sind” (blessed are). They unify the whole work. Movement 2 and 6 are both dramatic movements. The funeral march in movement 2 deals with the transient nature of life and is balanced with the triumphant theme of the resurrection of the dead in movement 6. Movement 3 and 5 are both movements which begin with a solo voice.

Movement 1 takes its text from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.4) and Psalm 126. Brahms does not use the violins for this movement which means that the sound of the orchestra is warm and dark. The movement is divided in three parts (A – B – A). After an introduction by the orchestra the chorus sings hushed and subdued. The music stops each time when the chorus stars singing. The second part “They that sow in tears” is more agitated, but soon the serenity of the first motive returns. In a usual requiem the first movement asks for the souls of the deceased in Brahms Requiem it deals with the consolation of the living.

Movement 2 is in the form of a funeral march and the chorus proclaims the inevitability of man’s fate. The text is taken from different parts of the Old and the New Testament. As in the first movement the sombre funeral march is contrasted with a lighter middle section. After the return of the funeral march the music gets faster and joyful. It is a transformation from darkness to light and Brahms’ music enhances the text. When the choir sings about “Schmerz und Seufzen” (suffering and sighing) one can almost hear the pain and sighing in the music. The chorus ends this movement singing gloriously about “ewige Freude” (eternal joy).

The text of Movement 3 is taken from Psalm 39 and the Book of Wisdom. In this movement the baritone soloist and choir engage in a dialogue. The soloist asks “What is my hope?”. The question is full of grief and doubt. Everything comes to a stop and the chorus answers calm and confident “My hope is in you”. Also this movement ends joyfully in a fugue for the choir and the orchestra.

Movement 4 is one of only two movements which uses text from one source (Psalm 84). The movement is a serene pastoral and has the simplicity of a folk song. The movement provides rest and contemplation after the tumultuous and forceful movement 3. It is probably the most famous movement which is also sometimes used on its own as an anthem.

Movement 5 uses again text from different sections of the Bible. A soprano soloist is accompanied by woodwind, horns and muted strings. The chorus quietly provides a background of harmony for the soloist. The message of the soprano is maternal consolation and comfort. In movement 3 the soloist was the voice of the suffering and the one longing for consolation, in this movement the soloist is the voice of one who gives consolation.

Movement 6 is in clear contracts to movement 5. It has the most dramatic music of the whole requiem. The text is taken from different parts of the New Testament. At the beginning of the movement the chorus sings “Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt” (For here have we no abiding city). This sentiment of uncertainty and homelessness is reflected in the music. The tonality is unclear and in the same way as the chorus sings that it does not have a place to stay the music does not stay in a clearly defined key. The baritone soloist then announces the mystery of the resurrection. As he sings about the twinkling of an eye (“in einem Augenblick”) the music stops for a moment and the character of the movement changes. Similar to movement 2 the chorus then gives a passionate and dramatic commentary on the text and sings about the victory over death. Also this movement ends with an elaborate fugue for the chorus on the text “Herr, Du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre” (Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour.)

The final movement (movement 7) is the other movement which uses only text from one source (Revelation 14.13). The chorus sings again “Selig sind …” (blessed are), but this time it does not refer to the mourners, but to the departed. Also the music takes up a motive from the beginning of the work. The Requiem ends with the same word with which it began “Selig” (blessed).

4. A German Requiem was a turning point for Brahms –  financially (he received a fee which was about five times larger than for any work he had sold before) and in relation to his reputation. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick compared A German Requiem with Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

But its importance goes far beyond money and fame. Even if Brahms was reticent about his reasons for composing A German Requiem, one has to notice the link of this work to two crucial and tragic events in his early life (his mother’s death and Schumann’s illness and death). Brahms confirms the link with Robert Schumann in a letter to Joseph Joachim more than 15 years after the first performance of A German Requiem. I want to finish with a quote from this letter which gives a glimpse of the huge personal importance of the Requiem for Brahms:

Dächtest du der Sache und mir gegenüber einfach, so wüsstest du, wie sehr und innig ein Stück wie das Requiem überhaupt Schumann gehört. Wie es mir also im geheimen Grund ganz selbstverständlich erscheinen musste, dass es ihm auch gesungen würde.
[“If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you wold know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann’s and how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him.”]

Bach: Mass in B Minor – a “Great Catholic Mass”?

Bach B MinorThe last concert of the HCS concert season 2015 / 2016 will take place on Saturday 25 June 2016. My choir Highgate Choral Society will perform one of the great choral masterworks by Johann Sebastian Bach, his Mass in B Minor. The concert will start at 7 pm and  the venue is again All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP.

1. It is certainly surprising to read about a “Great Catholic Mass” by a composer like Johann Sebastian Bach who so much embodies Lutheran church music. However, when JS Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach put together a list of all works of JS Bach for publication in 1790 he referred to the work we now know as Mass in B Minor as “Große Katholische Messe” (Great Catholic Mass).

Bach’s Mass in B Minor raises a number of questions: Is it a Lutheran mass or a Catholic mass? Why did Bach compose it at all? Is it really one work or is it rather a compilation of several works which were not necessarily meant to be performed together?

The answers to a lot of these questions are uncertain, but I want to shed some light on thoughts and ideas about possible answers.

2. The Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, is a setting of the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). It consists of 18 choruses and 9 arias (solo or duets). Bach sets the text for five soloists, chorus and orchestra. In our performance the soprano 2 in the duet Christe eleison will be sung by the countertenor soloist and the solo aria Laudamus te for soprano 2 will be sung by the soprano soloist. The performance of the piece lasts nearly 2 hours.

The material for the Mass in B Minor spans almost the whole of Johann Sebastian Bach’s professional career. The earliest musical material was composed in 1714 (originally for the cantata BWV 12 which Bach used for the Crucifixus). The latest part was composed in 1749. It was an afterthought to insert for Et incarnatus est a separate section and it is probably one of the last substantial pieces Bach composed before his death.

Unusually for a Latin mass, the Mass in B Minor is divided into four parts: (1) Missa (consisting of Kyrie and Gloria), (2) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), (3) Sanctus and (4) Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis.

This division tells us something about the composition history, but also about a potential use of parts of the mass for a Lutheran service.

3. What is the history of the Mass in B Minor? The central year for the Mass in B Minor is 1733. Bach had been kantor in Leipzig for ten years, but there were problems and discussions about his role and responsibilities and Bach thought about a new job. Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland had died in February 1733. His son Frederick Augustus II became the new Elector of Saxony. Frederick Augustus I had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1697 to be eligible as King of Poland. The Catholic Court in Dresden was one of the most prestigious in Europe and Bach hoped for the post of court composer in the new court of Frederick Augustus II. He composed the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) in the months after the death of Frederick Augustus I when public mourning was ordered and no music was allowed to be performed. Once finished he presented it to the new elector. The style and scale of the Missa fitted a typical mass at the court in Dresden. At the same time the Missa with Kyrie and Gloria in Latin could also be used for a Lutheran service. Luther did not ban Latin altogether, he wanted to provide alternatives in the vernacular and the Kyrie and Gloria were still sung in Latin in services on high feast days. Bach was not promoted immediately, but he received at least the title as “court composer” three years later in 1736.

Bach used some parts of the Missa music for the cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191 which was put together at short notice to celebrate the Peace of Dresden at the end of the Silesian War for a special service on Christmas Day 1745. It is likely that also the Sanctus which Bach had written for Christmas Day 1724 was performed at this occasion and some assume that this performance inspired Bach to complete the setting of the Latin Ordinary.

There are a number of uncertainties:

It is not entirely clear when the Credo was composed. Some scholars think it was in the early 1740s, others hold the opinion that the Credo and the fourth part of the mass were written in the period from August 1748 until September 1749 at the very end of Bach’s life.

There are also different theories why Bach decided to complete the setting of the full mass. Some speculate about a further commission (e.g. for the court in Dresden), but others think that he just wanted to set the whole mass as an abstract cycle similar to the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering or other works of the last years. The Mass in B Minor would then be a kind of musical testament and culmination of his choral writing.

There are finally some speculations whether a (private) performance or at least a read-through of the full Mass in B Minor during Bach’s life time had taken place, because his son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Magnificat contains allusions to parts of the Mass (including parts of the Credo). However many people think that JS Bach never heard a performance of the full work.

More than a hundred years after Bach’s death would pass before the Mass in B Minor would finally be performed in its entirety. Even if the piece was not known to the public, the world of music was certainly aware of Bach’s extraordinary achievement. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach inherited the manuscript of the full mass and performed the Credo (Symbolum Nicenum) at a charity concert in Hamburg in 1786. Haydn had acquired a score in old age and Beethoven tried – unsuccessfully – to get one. Felix Mendelssohn had a score and considered performing the full mass for the inauguration of a Bach monument in Leipzig in 1843. This did not happen, because of the lack of a reliable edition, and it took more than ten further years until a complete performance took place. The Riedel-Verein performed the complete work in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1859 (in German).

4. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a so-called “parody mess”. This means that Bach uses for many movements existing material, in particular from several cantatas which were written for special occasions or specific Sundays. He writes the movements in different styles. Some are written in stilo antico, a style that refers back to the Renaissance and Palestrina’s time. Other choral movements are influenced by a modern concerto grosso style, very often with independent solo instruments.

a) Missa (Kyrie and Gloria)

The Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy.

Bach follows the traditional structure, but does not simply repeat the first Kyrie after the Christe eleison. He writes a very distinct different setting of the same text. The first Kyrie eleison is for chorus (5 parts, with divided soprano), Christe eleison is for two solo voices and the second Kyrie eleison is again for full chorus (4 parts). The whole section lasts approximately 20 minutes.

The beginning of Bach’s Kyrie is based on Luther’s own formulation of the Kyrie call in his Deutsche Messe (1526). The music for the two Kyrie movements is original material which was written by Bach specifically for this setting. There might be a model for the Christe eleison, but the origin is unknown. After a first section in which the whole chorus sings Kyrie eleison, a fugue follows which builds up starting with the tenors. Then a second fugue follows which starts with the basses. This movement is written in concerto style. Christe eleison is an intimate duet with two soprano soloists (in our performance a soprano and a countertenor soloist) accompanied by violins and continuo. It can be seen as a more human side of the appeal for mercy. The second Kyrie is written in an older style (stilo antico). The instruments play no independent part, but basically double the voices of the chorus.

The Gloria is divided into nine movements (Gloria, Et in terra pax, Laudamus te, Gratias agimus tibi, Domine Deus, Qui tollis, Qui sedes, Quoniam to solus sanctus and Cum sancto spirito). The Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God.

Gloria and Et in terra pax are both for chorus (5 parts with divided soprano). Other chorus movements are Gratia agimus (four part choir), Qui tollis (four part choir) and the final movement Cum sancto spirito which is again for 5 parts (divided sopranos). Bach uses for the arias all soloists. Dominus Deus is a duet for soprano and tenor, Laudamus te is for soprano solo, Qui sedes for alto solo and Quoniam for bass solo. The whole Gloria section lasts more than 30 minutes.

The Gloria starts with trumpets. It is a joyful and exuberant movement which is inspired by instrumental concertos. Et in terra pax is an original movement which is elegantly linked with the previous section. Each of the solo arias is accompanied by a different solo instrument. In the Laudamus te, the soprano is accompanied by strings and paired with a solo violin. In the Dominus Deus the duet for tenor and soprano becomes a trio by adding a solo flute. The alto solo is paired with an oboe d’amore for Qui sedes and the bass is accompanied in the Quoniam movement by two bassoons and a corno di caccia (hunting horn).

In the choral sections Bach uses again the new concerto style and the stilo antico. An example for the stilo antico is the fourth movement Gratia agimus. It is a four part fugue in which the voices are first doubled by the instruments until two trumpets enter with independent lines over the top of the vocal structure. The theme is based on Bach’s sacred cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29, which Bach composed for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig in 1731. This choice is particularly interesting, because Gratia agimus and the text of the cantata have the same meaning (to give thanks to God).

Also the following two movements of the Gloria are based on existing cantatas. Dominus Deus is based on a part of the secular cantata BWV 193a Ihr Häuser des Himmels, ihr scheinenden Lichter (Ye houses of heaven, ye radiant lights) and Qui tollis peccata mundi for chorus is based on the sacred cantata BWV 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (Behold and see, if there be any sorrow) which was first performed in 1723. Bach made considerable changes to adapt this music of lament to depict the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Two flutes duet in this movement over the falling lines of the choral parts. The whole section closes with another glorious movement for chorus Cum sancto sprito which includes a fugue and finishes with the full orchestra including trumpets and timpani.

b) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)

Also the Credo is divided into nine movements (Credo, Patrem omnipotentem, Et in unum Dominum, Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus, Et resurrexit, Et in spiritum sanctum, Confiteor and Ex expecto). The Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. Also this part lasts more than 30 minutes.

The chorus dominates this section of the mass. Seven of the nine movements are for chorus, only the Et in unum Dominum is a duet between solo soprano and solo alto and Et in spiritum sanctum is for solo bass. The section mixes again settings in old style (stilo antiquo) (Credo, Et incarnatus est, Cruxificus and Conifteor) and modern concerto style (Patrem omnipotentem and Et resurrexit). In the first movement (Credo) and the penultimate movement (Confiteor) Bach uses the traditional plain chant as a kind of cantus firmus.

The second movement Patrem omipotentem is again for chorus (four parts) and it is based on material from the church cantata BWV 171 Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm (God, as Your name is, so is also Your praise) which was written for New Year’s Day and probably first performed in 1729. A curious fact is that Bach wrote at the end of this movement the number 84 as number of bars in the movement. It seems that the number of bars was important for Bach. 84 is 14 times 6 which is in itself interesting, because 14 is the number symbolism for BACH (B+A+C+H -> 2+1+3+8) and 6 stands for the six days of the creation. The phrase “patrem omnipotentem” is repeated 84 times in this movement. If one wants to go down this route, one can find more symbolism in the Credo section. The number symbolism for Credo is 43 and the word “Credo” is repeated 43 times in the first movement. In addition one can note that the first two movements together have 129 bars (3 times 43). Also the third and fourth movement have together 129 bars as does the last movement Et expecto. Three times 43, interpreted as three times Credo (“I believe”), could be seen as an expression of the belief in the Trinity, the belief in one God in three Divine Persons (Father, Son, Holy Ghost).

Even if one does not follow this symbolism of the numbers, one has to notice a great symmetry in this section. This particularly applies after Bach had decided to include Et incarnatus est as a separate movement. The movements are now symmetrical with Crucifixus as axis and centre point. In the heart of the Credo are movements 4, 5 and 6 and therefore the three important statements of Christian faith (Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ). The music for the Crucifixus is based on the oldest music identified in the piece. It derives its motives from the first chorus of the cantata BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing) which was written for the third Sunday after Easter and first performed in 1714. This also means that the oldest musical material stands next to the newest musical material in the Et incarnatus est. The beginning of the next movement Et resurrexit (“And he is risen”) could not be more different. It is an outburst of joy after the somber Cruxificus movement. The chorus (five parts, divided soprano) starts immediately without any introduction. Also the material for the final movement in this section Et expecto comes from one of Bach’s cantatas BWV 120 Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) which was first performed in 1742 at a church service for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig.

c) Sanctus

The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus is sung in the mass after the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels.

Bach composed initially only the Sanctus itself in 1724. It was performed on Christmas Day in Leipzig. The Sanctus (without Osanna and Benedictus) is another part of the mass which was sung in a Lutheran service in Latin on high feast days. The Sanctus is for chorus (in six parts with divided sopranos and divided altos). It makes extensive use of triplets and pairs usually three voices together. The Pleni sunt coeli is an elaborate fugue which is written in triple time. These references to the number three can again be seen as symbol of the Trinity. The Sanctus is comparatively short and lasts about 5 minutes.

d) Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis Pacem

These last movements of the mass were added at its final compilation and the whole section lasts roughly 20 minutes.

The Osanna expands the voices even more and is scored for double choir (in eight parts). It is repeated after the Benedictus which is set for tenor solo. It is interesting that Bach did not specify a solo instrument for the Benedictus movement. Usually a flute or violin is given the solo part and also in our concert this part will be played by a solo flute.

The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem). Bach decides to set only the last part Dona nobis pacem separately.

The first movement, the Agnus Dei, is an aria for alto solo accompanied by a solo violin. The Dona nobis pacem at the end of the work is again for chorus (four parts). Bach uses his setting of the Gratia agimus from the Gloria with the new words Dona nobis pacem. This repetition of the music of this earlier movement has two effects. From a structural perspective it is an element of unity of the whole mass. In substance it links the plea for peace closely with the giving of thanks to God.

5. When the Hans Georg Nägli, the first publisher of the work, wrote his advertisement, he called Bach’s Mass in B Minor the “Greatest Musical Work of All Times and All People”. I want to leave it to the audience to decide whether they share Nägli’s assessment. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is certainly a remarkable choral piece which transcends time and place and may have a different meaning for every performer and every member of audience. I started my post with the question whether it is a Catholic mass or a Lutheran mass. I want to end with a quote by Albert Schweizer which seems to answer this question perfectly. He emphasises the duality of the work as

“…one in which the sublime and intimate co-exist side by side, as do the Catholic and Protestant elements, all being as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of the work’s creator”.

Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony


The next concert of Highgate Choral Society is a very special one. We will sing on Monday, 7 March 2016, 7:30 pm at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre London. But not only the venue is special, but also the occasion. It is a concert to celebrate the 65th birthday of our conductor Ronald Corp. The programme consists of three pieces of English music. All three pieces are centred around the sea. Highgate Choral Society is joined by The London Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, New London Orchestra and last but not least two world class soloists, Rebecca Evens (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone).

I will write in my blog post about one of the three pieces: Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony.

If you are interested in the concert, then please come and you will also hear Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and a World Premiere: Behold, the Sea by Ronald Corp.

1. Vaughan Williams started his first sketches for A Sea Symphony in 1903. Initially he thought about writing a song cycle for orchestra (“Songs of the Sea” in five movements). Soon he changed his mind and wanted the work to be a symphony to which he referred to as the “Ocean Symphony”. Finally he gave the symphony the title A Sea Symphony. It is a choral symphony for soprano soloist, baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra. The work had its premiere at the Leeds Festival 1910 – the same festival in which in 1907 already his shorter choral work Toward the Unknown Region was premiered and at which in 1931 Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast should be first performed.

A Sea Symphony was Vaughan Williams first major work; he called it in a letter in summer 1907 his “opus magnum” and his second wife Ursula Vaughan Williams referred to it in her biography about him as

an ambitious and terrifying project, for the scope was to be unlike that of any choral work he had attempted yet“.

A Sea Symphony lasts for about 70 min. and is certainly ambitious. It is also in his form as choral symphony remarkable and significant – for Vaughan Williams personally, but also on a more general level for the genre of choral symphonies.

a) Looking at Vaughan Williams’ own development as a composer it is maybe not surprising that he decided to write as a first symphony a choral symphony. Song and choral singing played for Vaughan Williams an important role on more than just one level. When he studied at the Royal College of Music his teacher Parry emphasised that he stood in the same tradition of English composers as William Byrd and Henry Purcell and encouraged him to

write choral music as befits an Englishman and a democrat.”

Also in the years after college and university music for the voice was essential for him. Vaughan Williams’ first popular piece which started to make his name as a composer was a song Linden Lea. In the same year in which he started to write A Sea Symphony, he developed a keen interest in folk music and travelled through the countryside with his notebook and tried to collect as many “forgotten” folk songs as possible. The last connection with song I want to mention is his work at The English Hymnal (1904 – 1906). He compiled existing hymns, but in cases in which a melody to a text was lost, he occasionally wrote the music himself. For Vaughan Williams the folk songs and also the old hymns and anthems were quintessential English music which influenced and helped him in his endeavour to find his own voice. By writing a choral symphony he maybe tried to ensure that this will also be a work with a specific English tone as opposed to a piece which stands completely and solely in the Austro-German tradition of symphonies.

b) Also on a more general level A Sea Symphony is a remarkable work. It is a choral symphony in which the choir plays a role equal to the orchestra. In earlier choral symphonies, e.g. by Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Mahler, a chorus only appeared in one or two of the movements of the symphony. It was an additional colour or climax in an otherwise purely orchestral work. The chorus was never an equal partner to the orchestra. Only in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 the chorus is equally important as in the Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, but Mahler’s Symphony had its first performance on 12 September 1910 and therefore only one month before the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ first symphony. It is extremely unlikely that he could have been influenced by it.

2. The text for A Sea Symphony is taken from the poetry collection Leaves of Grass by the American poet Walt Whitman. The collection was first published in 1855, but several times changed. The first edition only included 12 poems, the last one, the so-called deathbed edition which was published in 1892 included almost 400 poems.

Vaughan Williams discovered Walt Whitman as a student in Cambridge. In 1903 he became absorbed by Whitman’s poetry. Ursula Vaughan Williams mentions that the Leaves of Grass,

in several editions, from large volume to a selection small enough for a pocket, was his constant companion.”

He carefully selected the poems and passages he wanted to use. Only for one movement he used a poem as it was written by Whitman. For the three other movements he selected the verses he wanted to set to music. He explained in a letter to Herbert Thompson who prepared the first programme notes that his treatment of the words is symphonic rather than dramatic,

that is to say the words are used as a basis on which to build up a decorative musical scheme.

He emphasised that for that reason his work is a symphony and not an oratorio.

Asked about the influences for his music of A Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams referred to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius. A few years earlier Vaughan Williams had asked Elgar whether he could study with him to learn about orchestration. However, Elgar declined and Vaughan Williams decided to learn from Elgar nevertheless and spent long hours sitting in the British Museum to study the scores of both works. Another influence on the music and particular the way how he treats the orchestra is Ravel. In 1907 while he was working on A Sea Symphony, he decided his music needed more colour and lightness and he wanted to study with a French composer. He choose Maurice Ravel and Ravel was happy to take him as pupil. Vaughan Williams spent three month in Paris (December 1907 – March 1908). He studied mainly orchestration with him and was introduced to composers like Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin. 

 3. A Sea Symphony consists of four movements:

No. 1 A Song for all seas, all ships

No. 2 On the Beach at Night alone

No. 3 Scherzo – The Waves

No. 4 The Explorers

a) A Song for all seas, all ships

For the first movement Vaughan Williams chose five lines from section 8 of Song of Exposition (Book XIII of Leaves of Grass) beginning with “Behold, the sea itself”. He combines these with Song for All Seas, All Ships from Sea Drift (Book XIX of Leaves of Grass). The movement last for about 20 min and is scored for soprano soloist, baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra.

The movement starts with a brass fanfare, immediately followed by the chorus singing “Behold, the sea itself”. The harmonic progression to which the chorus sings these words is used several times throughout the work and it is one of the two significant musical ideas of the symphony. The second significant musical idea is the melody which is part of the opening theme which immediately follows after “Behold, the sea itself”. It is set to the words “And on its limitless, heaving breast”. Also the second musical theme comes several times during the first movement and the last movement. Vaughan Williams said that these two themes

seem to suggest the sea to my mind“.

All in all this movement evokes the immensity and force of the sea and shows how nature is intertwined with men.

b) On the Beach at Night alone

For the second movement Vaughan Williams selected the poem On the Beach at Night Alone, but he omits a few lines of the poem. Also this poem is from Sea Drift. The movement last for about 11 min.

The movement is a nocturne for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra which reflects on Man’s relationship to the cosmos. It is harmonically ambiguous and atmospheric.

c) Scherzo – The Waves

The third movement is the only one in which Vaughan Williams sets a complete poem to music. The poem is After the Sea Ship and it is again from Sea Drift. This movement is the shortest with about 8 min and it is only for chorus and orchestra. It has a rich atmosphere and Vaughan Williams uses the music and colours of the orchestra to paint a picture of wind, storm and waives.

d) The Explorers

The final movement is longest movement and lasts more than 30 min. Vaughan Williams took the text from the long poem Passage to India in Book XXVI of Leaves of Grass. It is again for the full forces of soprano soloist, baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra.

The movement unites musically and thematically the ideas of the previous movements and translates them into a more transcendental meaning. The text is not any longer about concrete images of ships, waves and flags, but the “great vessel” sailing on the sea is man himself. The movement ends soft with the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra conjuring up the last waves.

4. At its premiere A Sea Symphony was well received. The critic from the Times praised the singing and said that it will not be surprising,

if the Festival of 1910 is remembered in the future as the ‘Festival of the Sea Symphony’.”

However this was not necessarily what Vaughan Williams expected when he wrote it. In a letter to his cousin Ralph Wedgwood in summer 1907 he was very doubtful about the reception and described A Sea Symphony as follows:

This is all about the sea and is for every conceivable voice & instrument & takes over an hour to perform – so I suppose it will now go into its drawer and remain there forever.”

It is lucky for us that the piece did not stay in Vaughan Williams’ drawer.

To see its significance for Vaughan Williams, one should remember that A Sea Symphony (and Dona Nobis Pacem) were the programme chosen for a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall for the culmination of the celebrations for Vaughan Williams’ 70th birthday.

How appropriate that it will be performed again at a very special concert for the celebration of our conductor Ronald Corp’s 65th birthday.

Verdi’s Requiem – an “opera in ecclesiastical costume”

Highgate ChoraVerdi Requiem Poster 2l Society, one of my choirs, sings on Saturday, 7 November 2015, 7 pm at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP their next concert. This time we sing Verdi’s Requiem.

In a sense with this concert we continue the theme of the summer concert about which I wrote earlier this year. Again we sing a sacred work of a composer who is mainly known for his operas.

For Guiseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) writing his Requiem was of great personal importance. It had for him probably a greater significance than any of his operas.

When he was asked in 1871 by a critic whether he wanted to set the whole text of the requiem, Verdi replied: “There are so many, many, many requiem masses; there’s no point in adding one more.”

1. So what is the story behind Verdi’s Requiem and why did he change his mind? The story of the Requiem begins in 1868. The great opera composer Gioachino Rossini died on 13 November 1868 in Paris. Verdi was a great admirer of Rossini and suggested four days after Rossini’s death to his publisher Ricordi that the city of Bologna should commission a requiem mass for Rossini which should be composed by Italy’s leading composers and should have its premiere at the first anniversary of Rossini’s death on 13 November 1869. The idea was approved and Verdi was asked to compose the Libera me, the final section of the requiem. The mass was completed, but sadly not performed. There were disputes about scheduling of the performance and money and it was cancelled. The manuscript was virtually forgotten.

Verdi focussed his attention in the following years mainly on his country estate around Busseto. He reworked La forza del destino for a performance in La Scala Opera House, Milan (1869) and made an Italian version of Don Carlo (1872) for Teatro San Carlo, Naples. Most notably is that he wrote Aida which had its premiere in Cairo on 24 December 1871. The critic I mentioned asked Verdi shortly before the premiere of Aida whether he wanted to set the whole text of the requiem to music, but Verdi denied this and gave the reply already quoted.

Everything changed in 1873 with the death of another man Verdi greatly admired: the writer and poet Alessandro Manzoni who died on 22 May 1873 in Milan. Manzoni’s most famous novel is I Promessi Sposi (The Bethroned). This novel is famous for two reasons: It is a symbol of the Italian Risorgimento – a political and social movement with the aim of the consolidation of the different states of the Italian peninsula into one single state. At the same time it is also a milestone in the development of a unified Italian language. Verdi saw in Manzoni a great artist, but also a great humanitarian and leader in the movement for Italy’s unification and independence. After Manzoni’s death Verdi approached again his publisher Ricordi and proposed to write a requiem mass for the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. This time he was willing to set the whole text without the collaboration of others.

The premiere of the Requiem took place in San Marco church, Milan on 22 May 1874 as part of a church service. Verdi chose the church mainly for its acoustics. A separate permission had to be granted to allow woman to participate in the performance. The permission was given, but the women had to sing hidden. A few days later the Requiem was performed in La Scala and this performance was greeted with tumultuous enthusiasm. The Requiem became an immediate success and was performed in the musical centres around Europe. The British premiere took place in 1875 at the Royal Albert Hall. Verdi conducted the performance himself with a chorus of over 1000 singers and an orchestra of 140. Sadly the Royal Albert Hall was not sold out – maybe it was a too Catholic occasion.

2. The Requiem is written for an opera orchestra (very similar to the one he used in Don Carlo), for four soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass) and chorus. Also in relation to the soloists, Verdi conceived the whole setting with opera singers in mind. In the premiere of the Requiem three of the four soloists had sung in the European premiere of Aida (the roles of Aida, Amneris and Ramfis) and the tenor was intended to sing Radames, but was replaced due to illness.

Verdi uses largely the traditional text of a requiem mass. Interesting is that he did not set the In paradisum as final section of the requiem, but rather finished with the Libera me. The piece consists of seven movements: (1) Requiem, (2) Dies Irae, (3) Offertorio, (4) Sanctus, (5) Agnus Dei, (6) Lux Aeterna and (7) Libera Me.

The first movement starts with a quiet almost inaudible evocation of eternal rest (requiem aeternam). Verdi asks the choir to sing as soft as possible. The first soloist (tenor) appears for the Kyrie section and is soon joined by the other soloists. The setting of the traditional “Lord, have mercy” and “Christ, have mercy” has great urgency. It almost seems that the singers demand this mercy.

The next movement Dies Irae is the heart of the piece. It lasts for almost 40 minutes. It consists of nine sections:

  • Dies irae (chorus)
  • Tuba mirum (chorus)
  • Mors stupebit (bass)
  • Liber scriptus (mezzo-soprano, chorus)
  • Quid sum miser (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor)
  • Rex tremendae (soloists, chorus)
  • Recordare (soprano, mezzo-soprano)
  • Ingemisco (tenor)
  • Confutatis (bass, chorus)
  • Lacrymosa (soloists, chorus)

The beginning of the Dies Irae is probably the most famous part of the requiem. The chorus sings with full force and accompanied by a lot of percussion about the day of judgement. It seems that you can hear thunder and lighting in the orchestra. This almost violent and anxious tone also dominates other sections of the Dies Irae in particular the Tuba mirum which speaks about the last trumpet and is introduced by a brass fanfare. There are also gentler sections like the Liber scriptum, the mournful aria for bass Confutatis and the beautiful Lacrymosa. However, there never seems to be any real consolation in the movement, because the chorus always reminds the soloists and the listeners of the day of judgement. The mezzo-soprano’s aria Liber scriptum is interrupted several times by interjections of the chorus of “dies irae, dies illa“. Also the bass aria is followed by a reprise of the “dies irae” theme from the beginning. If the choir does not sing about this “day of wrath”, it joins the desperate pleadings of the soloists for salvation and repeats over and over again “salve me” (“save me”) (in the Rex tremendae section) and joins the soloist’s in singing about the “day of bitter laments” (Lacrymosa) where you can hear the weeping and mourning in the shape of the melodies. This tumultuous movement finishes with a reprise of the beginning and an evocation of eternal rest (“requiem aeternam“).

The next movement Offertorio is peaceful. It is sung only be the quartet of soloists. The following fourth movement Sanctus starts as the Tuba mirum with a brass fanfare. However, in this movement this fanfare does not sound menacing. It is celebratory. In a sense the Sanctus whose words are sung by the angels in heaven is a complementary movement to the earlier evocation of the day of judgement. Verdi sets this Sanctus as a brilliant and uplifting fugue for double choir which is the most cheerful part of the whole piece.

The Agnus Dei is of great simplicity. It starts with the soprano soloist and the mezzo-soprano soloist who sing one octave apart in unison without any accompaniment. Even when the chorus and a small group of instruments come in everything is calm and subdued. The Lux aeterna is set for the three lower solo voices. With its shimmering string tremolos and colourful instrumentation, this movement has a sense of great mystery.

The final movement is the Libera Me. The soprano soloist, who did not sing in the previous movement, starts with a chant-like pleading for salvation (“Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda” – “Deliver me, o Lord, from eternal death on that awful day”). The chorus echoes this plea. After a short aria for the soprano soloist, the choir reprises the “dies irae” theme from the second movement and the “requiem aeterna” theme from the first and second movement. After another plea by the soprano soloist to be spared, a brilliant and energetic fugue for the chorus follows. However, the requiem does not end in this optimistic mood, but rather by another final plea by the soprano soloist for salvation for which the chorus joins for the final bars.

3. The verdict that Verdi’s Requiem is an “opera in ecclesiastical costume” (Oper im Kirchengewand) was a derogatory comment by the critic Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow made this comment after he only looked through the score and used it as an excuse to skip the performance. After he heard a performance a few years later, he changed his mind and apologised to Verdi. Nevertheless, one certainly cannot deny that Verdi’s Requiem is hugely indebted to his operas. I think this is not a disadvantage, but it means that the composer set this ancient text in a dramatic and emotional way and I see no reason why this should be out of place for a work which commemorates the dead.

I want to end with a quote by Brahms who was furious about Von Bülow’s comment. Brahms said: “Only a genius could have written such a work”. This is a comment, I certainly agree with.

Monteverdi’s Orfeo

On Tuesday, 4 August I went to a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the BBC Proms. Sir John Eliot Gardiner was conducting a group of marvellous soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. I want to write about this performance, but also about the myth and the opera which is hugely significant for the history of opera.

1. The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Many stories are associated with the name of Orpheus – the best singer, musician and poet of the Greek mythology whose song could enchant wild animals, the gods and even stones. Maybe the most famous of all stories is the one about Orpheus and Eurydice. It is a story about the power of love and music, but also one about the weakness and impatience of human beings and about the irreversibility of death.

There are several sources for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice including one in the fourth book of Vergil’s Georgics and in book 10 and 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I will summarize the story as it is used in the libretto for Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

It’s the wedding day of Orpheus and Eurydice and they celebrate this joyful day where all sorrows shall end with their friends. Eurydice goes away with her friends to gather flowers. While she is doing that she is bitten by a snake and dies. A messenger brings this sad message to Orpheus. He is heartbroken and uncertain what he shall do in his sorrow. He then decides that he will go to the Underworld and will try to win her back with his music and his singing. The personified Hope accompanies him to the gates of the Underworld, but cannot go any further, because Hades is a place where no one can have any hope left. The libretto of Monteverdi’s Orfeo quotes Dante and says that there is a sign at the gates of the Underworld which says “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. Orpheus tries to convince the ferryman Charon to take him across the river Styx. Charon refuses to do so, but gets sleepy while listening to Orpheus’ music. Orpheus is therefore able to enter the Underworld. Proserpina, the wife of Pluto is so taken by Orpheus music and singing that she entreats her husband to yield to Orpheus’ demands and let him take Eurydice back to the world of the living. Pluto agrees but sets a condition. Eurydice has to go behind Orpheus and Orpheus is not allowed to turn around. If he turns around he will loose her for ever. At the beginning Orpheus is confident that he and Eurydice will be reunited and will have a happy future, but then doubts arise. In some versions he turns around, because he cannot hear her footsteps, in the opera he turns around because he hears a noise – whatever the reason is for his disobeying Pluto’s commands Eurydice’s shadow fades away and Orpheus has lost her. He mourns this loss and vows that he will never be able to fall in love again.

There are several versions about what happens to Orpheus after he had lost Eurydice. There are even two different versions in the published libretto of the opera on the one hand and the published full score of the opera on the other hand. In the version of the full score Apollo comes to Orpheus and tries to console him. He invites Orpheus to join him in heaven to discover heavenly love. There Orpheus will find the glimmer of Eurydice’s eyes in the sun and in the stars. Orpheus and Apollo then ascend into heaven.

2. Monteverdi’s Orfeo and its background

Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo was written for the court at the Duke of Mantua for a performance in carnival 1607.

It is not the first opera which was ever written, but it is the first opera which is still part of the repertory. The musical form of “opera” developed around 1600. The first operas were written in Florence. There are three composers which are closely connected with this first steps in opera writing: Emilio de’ Cavalieri who was a scholar and Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, who were both singers. Around 1600 everything Greek was the latest fashion in Florence. It was the time of the High Renaissance and the Italian nobility was greatly interested in Greek culture. Some people thought that Greek tragedies used to be performed with music and tried to do something similar with Italian plays. Before that time the form of intermedios were widely known in Italy and very popular. Intermedios were music, songs and scenes which were played between the acts of a play during the interval. Over time these scenes became more and more elaborate and can therefore be seen as a predecessor of “opera”. The main difference was that intermedios did not have a continuous story. Peri wrote the first continuously sung pastoral, Dafne in 1598, but the music for this probably first “opera” is lost. Peri’s next opera was also based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and was performed the first time at the celebrations for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and King Henri IV of France in 1600. It is called Euridice. Peri and the other Florentine composers focused on the words and the natural speech rhythms. They wanted to use a style which is half spoken and half sung and imitate with their style dramatic speech.

Monteverdi, however, focused on the words without neglecting the music. His music for Orfeo does not only use recitatives, but also arias, choruses and instrumental pieces. This different approach and interest of Monteverdi and Peri also becomes clear, if one just looks at the beginning of both operas. Peri’s Eurydice starts with the personified drama (La Tragedia) who introduces the story. Monteverdi gives this part to the personified music (La Musica). La Musica emphasises generally the power of music, but in particular the power of Orpheus’ singing and playing. For Peri it is drama which is the centre (which is accompanied and embellished by music), for Monteverdi music itself is centre stage.

Monteverdi’s opera draws its material and inspiration also from other sources – Monteverdi’s writing of madrigals. Most important is the connection with his fifth book of madrigals which was published in 1605 and therefore only two years before Orfeo was premiered. This book did not only contain musical settings for five voices, but substituted in several pieces some of the voices for instruments. This meant that the remaining voices had more freedom than in a purely vocal ensemble. The other advantage was that the text could be heard and understood better. Monteverdi used the same technique for his opera. Another close connection can be found in Monteverdi’s interest in human emotions and their expression in music. He was interested in human emotions in his madrigals and the music of the madrigals not always followed the recognised composition rules, but often departed from them, if this was necessary to express the text fully. After the publication of his fourth book of madrigals he was criticised by Giovanni Artusi, an Italian composer and music theorist. Artusi attacked Monteverdi that his compositions were “crude” and did not follow the traditional rules. Monteverdi replied to this critic in his fifth book of madrigals and made it clear that in his future style of composing the words should control the harmonies and not the other way round. The same idea of an interplay of text, emotion and music can be found in Monteverdi’s operas and in particular in Orfeo.

Listing to Monteverdi’s Orfeo I was not only reminded of his madrigals, but also his most famous sacred work: the Vespers for the Blessed Virgin (Vespro della Beata Vergine). The opera starts with a brilliant fanfare played by trumpets. This toccata is the same which he used a few years later in his Vespers. The opera has wonderful duets for two shepherds (both tenors) which reminded me of the “Duo Seraphim” in the vespers (even so there is a third tenor in that piece). Also the famous “echo” duet “Audi Coelum” has his predecessor in Orfeo at the beginning of the fifth act where Orpheus sings about his loss and his despair and Echo replies to that.

All in all Monteverdi’s Orfeo is at the same time a culmination of his ideas which were developed in the madrigals, but also a piece which is influential for Monteverdi’s later operas and other works.

3. John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of Orfeo at the Proms

The performance of Orfeo at the Proms was semi-staged. As so often with opera performances at the Proms it used simple means (colourful dresses for the shepherds & nymphs, black dresses for the spirits of the Underworld) and very limited props, but made use of all spatial and acoustical possibilities of the Royal Albert Hall. The messenger who brought the news of Eurydice’s death walked accompanied (in both senses of the word) by a Theorbo player through the arena. The Echo at the beginning of Act 5 sung from the Gallery and Apollo descended at the end of the opera via the stairs.

For me the whole performance was very effective and I hugely enjoyed it. Krystian Adam as Orpheus and Mariana Flores as Eurydice have both beautiful voices and sung and played very convincingly. A lot of the other singers were young Italian singers which I had not heard before, but all of them were very good. The singers were versatile and played often more than one role. In my opinion the combination of roles was sometimes very touching. Mariana Flores sung not only Eurydice, but also Hope. I think it is no surprise that for Orpheus Hope resembles his beloved Eurydice.

My favourite singers were Francesca Aspromonte and Gianluca Buratto. Francesca Aspromonte sung la Musica and the Messenger. She has a beautiful soprano voice. I loved the lively and vivid way in which she sung la Musica at the beginning of the opera. She even accompanied herself with a Baroque guitar. The role as Messenger has a very different character, but she brought the terrible news of Eurydice’s death with great serenity and sincerity. Gianluca Buratto sung Charon and Pluto. He has a wonderful very dark bass voice which fitted perfectly to both roles and the transformation from the ferryman of the Underworld to the ruler of the Underworld was very convincing for me.

It is the third time that I have seen Orfeo and this was the performance I enjoyed most. I think I often prefer a semi-staged version which is less likely to impose a certain interpretation because of the choices the director makes. From a musical perspective there is probably no one who has as much experience with the music of Monteverdi as Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I am certainly looking forward to future performances – including in particular his take on Gluck’s version of the story in the opera “Orphée et Eurydice” in Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in autumn. Maybe this will be an opportunity to take up the story of Orpheus and Eurydice once again in my blog.