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.

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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

hcs_RFH_A4_Poster

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.

Opera composers go Sacred … about Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat Mater

HCS Puccini + RossiniOne of my choirs Highgate Choral Society sings next Saturday, 4 July at 7 pm at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP a concert of Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

I love both works and I am also intrigued by them, because – irrespective of their differences – they have striking similarities and both are wonderful dramatic pieces. You can find my thoughts about both pieces below and maybe some of you are even interested to come to our concert.

1. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote his Messa di Gloria very early in his career – in fact before he really had a career. He composed the mass in 1876 and he was just 18 years old. Puccini was born into a musical family. For generations his family occupied the post of the organist and chapel master at the Duomo San Martino in his home town Lucca. This was also his destiny since he started his musical education as a boy soprano in the church choir of San Martino. However, something significant had happened to him the year before he composed his mass. He went to the theatre in Pisa (about 20 km from Lucca) and saw his first opera: Verdi’s Aida. From this moment on it was clear for Puccini that he wanted to become a composer of operas. He wanted to write for the theatre and not for the church.

In a sense his Messa di Gloria has a place between both genres – between music for the church and music for the theatre. It follows the classical structure of a mass with five movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei). It is written for two soloists (tenor and bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. But it is not the kind of piece you would expect to hear on Sunday during a service. The whole piece lasts roughly 45 minutes and the lengths of the five movements are very different. You might be able to imagine the Kyrie, Sanctus or Agnus Dei in a liturgical context, but certainly not the Gloria and Credo. The Gloria last about 20 minutes and the Credo about 15 minutes. If nothing else, they would be far too long for an ordinary Sunday mass. The whole treatment of the choir and the soloists and the wonderful melodies give already a foretaste of all the operas which Puccini will write later. You have the impression that Puccini did not so much want to write church music with this piece, he rather used the traditional well know texts and tried to express every emotion which the text encompasses. There is exuberant joy in his setting of the Gloria and singing the “qui tollis peccata mundi suscipe deprecationem nostram” (“you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer”) feels like singing the famous chorus of the slaves of Verdi’s Nabucco. In the setting of the Credo each part of the text gets its own emotional expression. For the “et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est” (“he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man”) the tenor joins the choir and the text is sung with great tenderness. The orchestra is not playing at all or very subdued and you have almost the feeling of intimacy. The next part of the credo about the crucifixion is sung only be the bass soloist and is dark and full of anguish. In the following part of the resurrection the orchestra and the choir constantly raise and you can hear the triumph that Christ has conquered death. Another part I really like is the part “et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” (“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”). It is celebratory and the voices sing in unison (all voices sing the same melody). By this Puccini almost seems to evoke the “catholic” in sense of universal and all-inclusive. 

The Messa di Gloria had its premiere in 1880 and was enthusiastically received by the first audience. Strangely Puccini never published the work, but he used parts of the mass in his operas. The work was finally published in 1951 and received then its second performance.

2. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote the Stabat Mater between 1831 and 1841. He was not an old man at this point and he lived for more than 25 years after the first performance of the work in its current form. Nevertheless, this work is the work of someone at the end of his career.

As Puccini Rossini is primarily known as an opera composer. He was hugely successful and wrote between 1806 and 1829 almost forty operas. In his middle years – between 1815 and 1823 – Rossini produced 20 operas (including his most famous opera “The barber of Seville”). He wrote his last opera William Tell in 1828 which had its premiere on 3 August 1829 and retired from writing operas with only 37 years.

Rossini got the commission to compose the Stabat Mater during a trip to Spain in 1831 by Father Manuel Fernandez Varela, general commissioner of the Santa Cruzada. As with Puccini’s Messa di Gloria Rossini used a well know text. The Stabat Mater is a medieval poem by the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (1230 – 1306) which evokes the sorrows of the Virgin Mary for her crucified son Jesus. Initially Rossini was only able so set part of the poem (no. 1 and no. 5 -9). His ill health prevented him from finishing the work and he asked a friend Giovanni Tadolini to compose the other movements. This Rossini-Tadolini version was performed for the first time in Madrid in 1833. Rossini did not want this version to be printed. Therefore he wrote later the “Cujus animam”, “Quis est homo”, “Pro peccatis” and also the Amen for the end.

The Stabat mater is set for four soloists (soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor, bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. Rossini divided the poem into 10 movements and he used various combinations of forces for each movement. This means that the character of each movement is very different. Whatever forces Rossini uses, you get the impression that his interest lies mainly in the drama and in the human emotions of the text.

The first movement is for choir and four soloists and it is dark and beautiful. It is followed by an aria for tenor which follows the tradition of dramatic opera arias and is often performed separately as a demonstration of the singer’s bravura technique. But there are also movements like the “Eia mater fons amoris” (movement 5) or the “Quando corpus morietur” (movement 9) which are fully or partially a capella (for singers only without orchestra). The movement 5 feels like an intimate prayer of the bass soloist (who is accompanied by the choir) to the Virgin Mary. These movements stand more in the tradition of Palestrina’s settings of sacred music than a setting for an opera. The last movement is again for the choir and the four soloists. It repeats the sombre start of the first movement, but finishes in a triumphant end. It is a wonderful idea to connect thereby the beginning and the end of the piece and give the piece a greater unity.

The premiere of the Stabat Mater in the current form took place in 1841 and it was a triumph. There is another performance worth mentioning. On the day of Rossini’s funeral in Paris on 21 November 1868, Giulia Grisi arranged that the Stabat Mater was performed in the Duomo at Florence. Giulia sang the soprano solo in the performance of the piece in 1841. In 1868 she was at the end of her career. Since her debut with 14 years when she sung a small part in Rossini’s Zelmira, she had a close relationship with Rossini, because he had predicted that she would have brilliant career. With this performance of the Stabat Mater in 1868 she wanted to pay a final homage to him.

3. What is final verdict on the foray of these two composers into sacred music? In both pieces you can clearly see and feel that you have an opera composer (or a future opera composer) writing sacred music. Both composers write wonderful tunes and are able to express in their music all human emotions. But are these pieces really sacred music? Critics (in particular from Northern Europe) said in relation to Rossini’s Stabat Mater that it is “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for a religious subject, too light, too pleasing, too entertaining”.

Do I agree with them? No, I think I rather agree with the German poet Heinrich Heine. He wrote about the Paris premiere of Rossini’s Stabat Mater in his Lutetia, Art. XLIII, the following: “Nicht die äußerliche Dürre und Blässe ist ein Kennzeichen des wahrhaft Christlichen, in der Kunst, sondern eine gewisse innere Überschwenglichkeit, die weder angetauft noch anstudiert werden kann”. (“Not external meagreness and paleness is an indicator for the truly Christian in art, but rather a certain internal exuberance which can neither be acquired by baptism nor by study”). There is no doubt that you can feel the exuberance in both pieces. I think we should relish this exuberance and enjoy the music and not try to judge the inner motivation of the composers who wrote it, because we will never know with which feelings and beliefs Puccini and Rossini wrote their pieces.