Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Czech Vocal Music From An Earlier Age

 Although this music entered my collection at the same time as the original manuscript version of Leoš Janáček's Glagolitic Mass (mentioned in my last article), the music of this Baroque Czech composer couldn't possibly be more different.

Jan Dismas Zelenka here takes his first bow in my writing, with a recording devoted mainly to choral music for the Advent and Christmas season.  Zelenka was a nearly exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frideric Handel, but his music (at least in this collection) treads a different path from those two great masters.

Zelenka's posthumous reputation has been one of the great beneficiaries of the age of the compact disc.  The arrival of this form of musical storage device in the 1980s triggered a vast wave of recordings of little-known and unknown music, blasting hundreds of composers out of history books and off the shelves of archives to return into the realm of living music.

This process has uncovered some wonderful and beautiful masterpieces, and some relatively tedious clangers too, but Zelenka's music comes down firmly in the masterpiece category -- for my money, at any rate.  Here is a distinctive and creative voice, presenting musical ideas with both skill and love.

The centrepiece of this Supraphon recording is a cantata mass for the Christmas season, the Missa Nativitatis Domini.  The sources indicate that this mass was composed in haste in December of 1726, and it was most likely performed during the Christmas festival of that year.  

It's rather curious that this puts it just a few brief months ahead of Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion.  That proximity throws the differences between these two contemporaries into the starkest possible relief.  Zelenka's music is bright, brisk, at times even jolly, filled to the brim with Italianate energy and sunshine.  And yet, Zelenka's work also for the most part stands worlds away from the vocal acrobatics of Handel's Italian operas and cantatas.  A closer reference point might be the choral works of Vivaldi.  

And yet I can't help feeling that the sound world of Zelenka's music most strikes me as an anticipation of the classical style of Haydn.  Over and over there are progressions and melodic turns of phrase which call to mind the works of that later master.  The generally bright tone of most of the music also puts me in mind of the inveterately cheerful Haydn.

The Missa Nativitatis is scored for strings and continuo, with flutes, oboes, and bassoon, and with parts for a pair of brass instruments -- these are specified as clarini (high trumpets) in the manuscript source. The manuscript does not include the settings of the Sanctus, Benedictus, or Agnus Dei.  All the later copies of the score include settings of these movements identical to those of the composer's Missa charitatis, which was composed a year or so later.  In that mass, the instruments are a pair of horns.  Subsequent copies of the Missa Nativitatis vary -- some specify clarini, while others call for the horns.  These performers have chosen to retain the horns, for the valid reason that no other work of Zelenka's incorporating trumpets omits the timpani, as the Missa Nativitatis does.

The horns give a relatively mellow sound, forsaking the brilliance of the clarini for an appropriately pastoral tonal palette in keeping with the Christmas festival.

The Kyrie of the mass takes the entire tripartite text in a single movement, with the three statements overlapping each other throughout.  The later pages of this movement are characterized by some florid writing for the horns which fits well with the general tone of the music but seems a little at odds with a text which is a prayer for divine mercy.

The Gloria and Credo are each subdivided into five distinct movements.  Choral and solo movements alternate.  While there are slower tempi and quieter music at such passages as the Qui tollis or the Crucifixus, these do not in any wise attain the mournful depths found in Bach's B Minor Mass.  Both Gloria and Credo end with brilliant fugues.

The Sanctus verges on the monumental in chordal style, but is very brief.  The Benedictus is a lovely, triple-time duet for soprano and alto, and the final Osanna is little more than a closing cadence.  The Agnus Dei then brings the one movement really dominated by virtuoso vocal brilliance in the choral parts of the final fugue.

The recording includes three other choral works bracketing the mass.  The disc opens with a Magnificat in C, with a lengthy first movement in the style of a concerto grosso.  It's rooted in one of the traditional Gregorian chants used for this hymn.   The choral ritornello recurs between and around the contrasting sections with smaller ensembles of instruments.  This long main setting of the text is then balanced by a briefer fugal Amen, again much sunnier than the massive Amen fugue in Handel's Messiah.  The overall tone of Zelenka's music in this work in particular calls to mind the Magnificat of the Italian composer Francesco Durante, formerly attributed incorrectly to Pergolesi.

There follows a briefer setting of the Christmas motet text O Magnum Mysterium, adapted from an earlier motet on a quite different text.  This might explain the apparent disjunction between the awe-inspiring text and the rather more genial music.

The concluding work of the programme is the only surviving vocal work of Zelenka setting a Czech text: a solo motet composition on the text of Psalm 150 entitled Chvalte Boha Silného.  This last of the psalms enumerates the different musical instruments which should be turned to the praise of God, and concludes with a stirring invocation: "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.  Hallelujah!"

This text gives Zelenka more scope that any of the other works on the disc for illustrative writing, not so much for the baritone soloist as for the various instruments -- many of which are turned to the task of imitating other instruments that are not represented in the orchestra.  Zelenka's musical illustrations here are both engaging and fascinating.

The ensemble Musica Florea, consisting of a dozen singers and 18 instrumentalists, gives splendid performances of all this very fine music under the spirited direction of Marek Štryncl.  The sound is resonant, but not overly so, suggesting fairly close miking of the performers in a church setting. 

For anyone who enjoys Baroque vocal and choral music, this 2012 Supraphon recording will amply repay your interest.



Friday, 30 April 2021

Spectacular and Unique Czech Mass

I'm always fascinated by the fact that some of the most vibrant and gripping works of religious-themed choral music in the twentieth century were composed by artists who were avowed atheists.  In a way, it's both fascinating and amusing to watch as the Great Experts tie themselves into knots while they struggle to make sense of this apparent contradiction.

In the case of the work I'm considering today, perhaps the easiest explanation is that the composer, Leoš Janáček, intended the work to be a celebration of Pan-Slavic history, culture, and national pride.

The Mša glagolskaja, known in English as the Glagolitic Mass, is like no other setting of the liturgy ever written before it.  Safe to say also that it has few if any successors, since it is such a distinctive creation that anyone trying to follow in the composer's footsteps would risk a charge of plagiarism.  There's no doubt in my mind that the Glagolitic Mass is sui generis.  

Equally, there's no doubt that the work as we know it suffers from a decidedly questionable pedigree.

Start with the text.  Most people from other parts of the world would have had no idea that the language in which the text is written, Old Church Slavonic, was actually an approved liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church.  The title Glagolitic does not refer to the language per se, but rather to the alphabet in which the text was originally written, a script which predated the Cyrillic alphabet used today in Russia and other countries.  The text has many resemblances to words used in the modern Slavic languages but is by no means exactly identical to them.

Next, there's a significant lacuna in the text which renders it unsuitable for liturgical use.  Janáček omitted the final line of "Grant us peace" from his setting of the Agnus Dei.

In any case, a work conceived on this kind of festival scale would hardly fit into the framework of any liturgical occasion short of a royal ceremonial or perhaps a victory celebration.  The Glagolitic Mass requires four soloists, double choir, a large orchestra with multiple brass instruments, four flutes (three of which have to double on the piccolo), triple woodwind, a large percussion section, two harps, a celesta, an organ, and strings.  The organ in particular has a significant solo role in the work, rather than being consigned to simply filling in the texture as in so many major choral-orchestral works.

Stylistically, Janáček's music is unique.  One of his favourite composition techniques is the use of short little 1-2 bar melodic figures which he repeats in endless chains of ostinati, all the while varying dynamics, instrumentation, registers, contrasting melodic figures, and whatever else came to his hand.  Longer melodic lines use many wide intervals and sweeping arpeggios.  
The Glagolitic Mass opens with an introductory movement for orchestra.  This is followed in order by the five main segments of the Ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.  A turbulent movement for solo organ then ushers in the final instrumental blaze of glory, curiously entitled Intrada -- or "Processional" as we might say in English.  More on that point later.
A two-bar phrase of blazing chords for the brasses launches the Úvod ("Introduction").  The movement consists almost entirely of two ostinato figures.  The first is the two-bar figure heard on the brass choir, and the second a one-bar ostinato arpeggio heard mainly in the strings.  The kinship to the opening and closing sections of the composer's near-contemporary Sinfonietta is clearly audible.  
The music flows directly without a pause into the first choral movement.  Strings usher in the plea of Gospodi pomiluj ("Lord have mercy") in a lyrical utterance for the choir, lightly orchestrated but with deep tolling chords in the low brasses.  The Chrste pomiluj ("Christ have mercy") features broken phrases for the soprano soloist, later answered by the chorus, in which the rhythm staggers wildly across all the barlines in a kind of drunkard's walk.  The shortened reprise of Gospodi pomiluj is quieter, sounding more chastened after the highly emotional eccentricity of the central part.  
The Slava ("Gloria") dances in lightly, with wind and string instruments playing in the high registers, and the soprano singing a swirling melody in triple time that resembles a folk dance or waltz.  The choir later joins in, as do the heavier instruments and the organ, adding more weight and power.  Throughout the movement, passages sung by the soloists or choir alternate with sections scored vividly for the orchestra.  The waltz rhythm reasserts itself in the buildup to the concluding repeated cries of Amin, Amin, Amin ("Amen"), and the movement ends with a brief dramatic coda for brass, timpani, and organ.

The Věruju ("Credo") opens with a jagged cello theme which will permeate much of the movement.  The first vocal utterance is a chromatic figure for the choir's intonation of Věruju, with a built-in pause in its rhythm on each utterance of the second syllable.  This short phrase becomes a motto, repeated regularly throughout the movement.  Each time, as it holds up the progress of the music momentarily, it pointedly reminds us (as Beethoven did in a very different way in his Missa Solemnis) that the entire text of the Nicene Creed is in fact a single sentence, every clause of which is a completion of the principal subject and verb, Věruju ("I believe").

At the centre of the movement, the singers fall silent for an extended interlude.  The orchestra leads off with a slow lyrical section, which then develops more speed and passion, breaking into a vigorous celebratory dance.  At a peak of excitement, the organ cuts in with a wild, disjunct solo, rhythms scattering all over the map.  The solo is interrupted by a single unaccompanied choral interjection just before the final bars for the organ, describing the crucifixion.
Several commentators concur in the suggestion that this orchestral interlude might depict Christ preaching in the wilderness, then the celebratory entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, with the violent organ solo representing Christ's Passion.
The final section of the Věruju opens with vigorous, surging rhythms as the choir describes the resurrection.  After another reminiscence of the Věruju phrase, the music sweeps steadily forward through the remainder of the doctrinal clauses.  A climax of grandeur comes at the phrase I jedinu svetuju katoličesku i apostolsku crkov ("and in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church"), and the movement ends with a cadence of five emphatic chords, again for brass and organ.

Contrary to the tradition of blazing celestial glories so commonly heard in the Sanctus sections of the great orchestral Masses of the past, Janáček has his orchestra open the Svet with a gentle, undulating melodic line featuring the strings and flutes, giving the music an undeniably pastoral, open-air quality.  This undulating texture continues through the soloists' exposition of the text, even when joined by the choir.  At the words Plna sut nebozem ("Heaven and earth are full of thy glory"), a more raucous celebration erupts over rapid motoric rhythms, with tolling bells, and this energetic rhythmic pattern continues through the Blagoslovem ("Benedictus") and the Osanna.

The final sung movement, Agneče Božij ("Lamb of God"), opens in a chastened mood with ethereal strings singing a gentle melody, alternating with the choir which chants the text in the most liturgical-sounding passage of the entire work.  After the choir sings the verse three times, it is taken up and elaborated by the soloists before the final gentler reiteration by the choir is followed by the orchestral theme pianissimo to conclude the movement.

The great organ solo erupts at once, with a vigorous ostinato moving from bass to treble while other melodic fragments cut across the rhythms.  The ostinato breaks off only for six brief cadential phrases in the middle of the movement, phrases which also stall the music's otherwise relentless forward momentum.  The organist then winds up into an even more ferocious assault on the thematic material with the ostinato driving the music fiercely to its conclusion.  This piece has taken on a life of its own, separate from the whole Mass, as a concert showpiece for organ.

The concluding Intrada returns us to the sound world of the opening Úvod.  Again the blazing brasses and timpani are very much to the fore, and the surging string writing propels the piece towards its stunning conclusion on a heavily off-beat final cadence.

Sadly, Janáček's vivid, vigorous masterpiece is beset with questions of textual integrity.  The original manuscripts of the work differ in many and significant ways from the final published text.  These differences can be broken down into three classifications:
[1] Changes made by Janáček during rehearsals for the premiere in Brno.  These may have been made by his own choice after hearing the work in rehearsal, or they may have been forced on him because the less-experienced singers and musicians in that smaller provincial city may have been unable to cope with his wildly original style.
[2] Changes made by Janáček after the premiere and before publication.  These can be considered authoritative.
[3]  Changes made in the work at the time of publication, after the composer's death.  These quite plainly can not be considered as representing Janáček's intentions.

Sir Charles Mackerras, a pre-eminent conductor of the composer's music, made an eye-opening recording for Chandos Records in 1993 of an edition based on his researches into the composer's original manuscripts (not to be confused with his earlier 1984 recording for Supraphon Records of the standard published score).  There is also a recording conducted by Tomáš Netopil in Prague which uses an edition based on the first performance in Brno (this version I have not heard).

Musicians are often divided about the value of this kind of archival excavation and "explanation" of a composer's first intentions.  In this case, it all turns on the question of whether the changes Janáček made for Brno were made willingly, or because his uniquely wild style simply had to be tamed a little to help the performers out.  That issue doesn't affect his own authoritative editorial alterations made after the performance, while the changes made without his sanction between his death and the first publication are definitely improper.  It's this mixed bag of conflicting intentions and actions which, as I see it, makes the Mackerras and Netopil editions valuable, and access to performances of them of much interest for the general listener who loves the music (me, for instance) as well as for the scholar.  

The key differences in the Mackerras edition based on the original manuscripts can be summarized thus:

[1] The concluding Intrada is also played at the beginning of the work, before the Úvod.  This gives the entire piece a 9-movement symmetrical structure, with pairs of instrumental movements framing the five choral-orchestral sections, and the tripartite Věruju as the central pivot point of the entire structure.  That also explains the curious use of the term Intrada ("Processional") to identify the instrumental piece which, in the published edition, occurs at the very end where "recessional" would be more accurate!

[2] Asynchronous, overlapping phrases presenting material which is given sequentially in the standard edition of the Úvod.

[3] Considerably greater and more complex rhythmic shifting in the Gospodi pomiluj.

[4] Repeated interruptions of the organ solo in the central portion of the Věruju by three sets of tuned timpani, and by multiple choral interjections .

[5] Extended and more complex development of the material in the Blagoslovem and Osanna.

In any case, the standard published edition continues to hold the stage, and has been frequently recorded to dramatic effectEven despite the editorial issues, you should certainly seek out the Glagolitic Mass and get to know it.  There's no other setting of the Mass text which I've ever heard that can compare to the wild, energetic, startling qualities of Janáček's unique composition. 

* * * * * * * * * *

A final personal note: the Glagolitic Mass was one of the many Czech masterworks programmed for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during the all-too-brief tenure of the leading Czech conductor, Karel Ančerl, as the Orchestra's music director.  Sadly, his death in 1973 intervened before the planned performances of the Mass could take place.  The Orchestra's management had to scramble to line up enough guest conductors for the upcoming 1973-74 season, and it might reasonably be expected that a rare bird of this sort would likely become a victim of a programming change -- as did Smetana's cycle of symphonic poems, Má Vlast.  
But no.  The Orchestra was able to engage a 28-year-old, up-and-coming English conductor with experience in this particular work, and the resulting performance in the fall of 1973 was a blazing success and a huge personal thrill for me to attend -- even if the venue, Massey Hall, lacked a pipe organ and a rather crude-sounding electronic organ with massive batteries of speakers had to be substituted.  That performance was, I believe, the Glagolitic Mass' Canadian premiere, and it remains (as far as I am aware) the only occasion when the work has been performed in Toronto.  On the strength of his success in conducting this spectacular work, Andrew Davis was afterwards engaged as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's next Music Director, and his memorable 12-year tenure of that position began in 1975.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

There Were Shepherds....

 One of the most endearing musical traditions of the Italian Baroque era was the tradition of writing an instrumental piece of a special type called a "pastorale."  The name refers to a gentle piece in a moderate tempo, written in 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8 time, which has a peaceful, open-air feel to it.  The character is enhanced by the simple chordal texture of the music, often with parallel melodies a third apart, and by the presence of a consistent drone bass rather like the drone of a bagpipe.

The tradition arose (and continues today) in the south of Italy, with the music being played on a zampogna (bagpipe) and piffero (reed pipe).  It's worth remembering in this context that the bagpipe was originally found in the Mediterranean world, and later travelled north over the Alps on its way to Scotland.

The association of the pastorale with Christmas is owing entirely to the verse in St. Luke's Gospel which states, "There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night."  And I think we all know what happens in the story after that.  

Undoubtedly the most-often heard example is the so-called "Pifa" (the name plainly derived from piffero) which is played immediately before the scene with the shepherds in Handel's Messiah.  

But there are others, from such pens as Corelli and Torelli (not, of course, to be confused with Torelli and Corelli -- precise diction is essential on such points).  Corelli's Christmas Concerto, Op. 6 No. 8, which was subtitled "Written for the night of Christmas," provides a beautiful example.  It's cast in an unusual form of six movements, ending with the gentle Pastorale.

Although resembling these other examples at first glance, the sinfonia which J. S. Bach wrote to open Part II of his Christmas Oratorio is a different kind of piece altogether, using the pastorale's lilting 6/8 time as the basis for a display of complex polyphony. 

Several examples of the pastorale occur in a delightful recording which I recently acquired, featuring Canada's renowned Baroque orchestra, Les Violons du Roy, under the direction of Bernard Labadie.  The disc is entitled Simphonies des noëls.  In this beautiful anthology you find a fusion of Italian and French baroque traditions in music for strings.

Opening with music from the French side, the programme begins with the three-movement Simphonies des noëls by Michel-Richard de Lalande, and nine of the Noëls pour les instruments by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.  I've written several times about other French works using these bewitching folk melodies, and the music presented here is just as rewarding as the earlier examples I've reviewed.  

From the Italian side, you then get the Christmas Concertos of Corelli, Torelli, and Sammartini, each of which includes a delightful Pastorale.  Torelli's example is a bit different from the others, taking on a more upbeat tempo.  In this way, the composer produces a lively dance-like atmosphere, although the parallel thirds and the drone bass are still present.

In addition, from Germany, comes the much rarer Concerto pastorale in F Major by Johann Christoph Pez.  In this seven-movement work, the pastorale comes first and is in a slower tempo than the other examples cited.  

Few of these works will be at all well known to a wider musical public.  I myself was only familiar with the Corelli and with the Charpentier noëls.  The music is arranged so that the record ends with the familiar and soothing strains of the Pastorale which closes Corelli's concerto.

Even if this music doesn't carry any overt Christmas associations in today's world, this glowing record, with its skilled players captured in a warm acoustic, will give pleasure at any time of the year.

Simphonies des noëls was originally recorded and released by Dorian Recordings, and has been re-released under licence in 2016 by the Quebec label ATMA Classique.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Hail! Bright Cecilia!

Today is November 22, St. Cecilia's Day.  St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians, and what better time could there be to feature a work of music written in her honour?

There are quite a few, actually.  In England, the feastday of St. Cecilia was for many years a time for special musical festivities.  The work I'm looking at, and listening to, today is a product of a man known as one of the greatest composers in English musical history, Henry Purcell.  He is making his first bow in this blog today.

His ode, Hail! Bright Cecilia, which was composed in 1692, was one of a series of commissions by the Musical Society of London, which began to hold its annual St. Cecilia Festival in 1683.  Purcell himself composed odes for them on two earlier occasions, and Handel too joined the parade at a later date.

The traditional commission called for the setting to music of a poetic ode in honour of the saint, and of music.  These honorary odes were a singular feature of English poetry -- sometimes lengthy, full to the brim with flowery language, and always written in rhyming couplets.  I have to admit that this kind of poetry can often trigger my gag reflex, but the music which it inspired is another matter altogether -- and this 1692 ode is often considered the best of its kind ever composed.

That's not surprising, because Purcell at this time was at the very height of his powers as a composer, and he lavished the complete range of available musical styles and the full force of his gifts as a composer on this celebratory poem by Nicholas Brady.  

In the conventional style, the poem open with general praise of St. Cecilia and of music, then goes into a series of verses praising the characters of different instruments, eventually arriving at the organ as the ultimate musical instrument.  This was due to a mistranslation of an ancient text which seemed to link Cecilia specifically to the organ.  After discussing how the other instruments must yield to the organ, the ode closes with another hymn of praise to the saint.

Purcell's musical setting opens with an extensive overture in multiple sections, lasting 10 minutes and entitled "Symphony."  A slow introduction in dotted maestoso rhythm leads to a vigorous "Canzona", marked allegro, with trumpets and drums prominent.  A more relaxed adagio features the strings and oboes.  The score then directs a full repeat of the Canzona and the adagio.  Another allegro now follows, full of brilliant rapid staccato writing for the trumpets.  After a brief slow passage marked grave, this second allegro is also repeated in full, to bring the Symphony to a spectacular conclusion.

The opening chorus is actually led off by a bass soloist, singing the first phrase of "Hail! Bright Cecilia," complete with a florid cadenza.  The chorus then take up his song of praise.  Both solo and chorus share a curious feature, with the repeated word "Hail! Hail!" sung on the second and fourth note of a four-beat bar, normally the two weakest beats.  The chorus ends with these lines:

May make the British forest prove / as famous as Dodona's vocal grove. 

The reference is to the shrine of Zeus in ancient Greece, where the voice of the oracle spoke through a talking oak tree.  Such references to ancient Greco-Roman history and mythology were an integral part of the English ode tradition.

The succeeding duet, "Hark! Each tree its silence breaks," takes up this idea in a moderate 3/4 time, with the bass and alto voices alternating and overlapping.  With the singers spinning out increasingly elaborate lines, this movement tells how the voice of the forest can be heard in the flute, violin, and harp.  In line with the St. Cecilia tradition, of course, the violin and flute feature as instrumental voices, with the flute being the 17th century version which was made of wood.

The alto continues with an accompanied recitative, "'Tis Nature's Voice," full of lavish ornamentation and musical effects to denote grief, sighing, laughter, and the like.  This bridges into a choral movement, "Soul of the World."   Again the music becomes illustrative as the polyphony of "made up of various parts" segues into the chordal writing of "one perfect harmony."

The next movement, "Thou tun'st this world," begins as a solo for the soprano, and then continues as a choral movement on the same theme.

A trio begins with two altos asking, "With that sublime celestial lay / dare any earthly sounds compare?"  The bass responds by telling them that the organ may do so, and then he proceeds to sing the elaborate aria in praise of the organ, "Wondrous machine."  The accompaniment moves in a steady marching rhythm with a typical Baroque "walking bass" line.  

This is followed by a series of movements telling how the other instruments must yield place to the majestic organ.  "The airy violin," for alto, is a brief but showy solo.  Then comes the very slow and somewhat mournful sound of "In vain the amorous flute," an extended duet for tenor and alto.  

The trumpets and drums return for the first time since the opening to accompany "The fife and all the harmony of war," another alto solo.  When looking at this preponderance of alto solos, it's important to remember that these were adult male altos (countertenors as they are more commonly known today).  The extreme ornamentation of these alto solos makes even more sense when we read that Purcell had for the premiere the services of Mr. Pate, the foremost male alto of his day.

Two basses then sing a duet, "Let these amongst themselves contest."  This number finally affirms the supremacy of the organ.

The way is thus paved for the final majestic chorus, again beginning with "Hail! Bright Cecilia."  The trumpets and drums return, along with the rest of the orchestra, in more elaborate writing around the block chords of the choir.  A slower and quieter central section intervenes before the full forces burst into a reiteration of the first section, bringing the entire ode to a grandiose end on "Great patroness of us and Harmony!"

I've been very fond of this work ever since I had a chance to sing it as a young chorister in Toronto when I was 19 or 20 years old.  It was just one of several unusual and (at the time) adventurous choices of repertoire made by Dr. Melville Cook for his Festival Choir at Metropolitan United Church.  Although the performance we gave predated the great push for authenticity in Baroque music, it was still a great musical work and a great experience for a young singer.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

After Sunrise -- The Rest of the Story

This is one of my periodic posts in which I draw attention to some less-well-known aspects of a well-known piece of music.  In this case, the less-well-known aspects are found in the final 28 minutes of a work which normally lasts 30 minutes in performance, give or take a bit.

So what is found in the first 2 minutes that has caused the rest to fade into relative obscurity?  Simple answer: the most renowned, most often played-to-death, most instantly-recognizable sunrise in all of music.  And here we are, with the symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra ("Thus Spake Zarathustra") by Richard Strauss.

That sunrise shot from relative obscurity to lasting, world-wide fame, when it was used by Stanley Kubrick for the soundtrack of his epic 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Less often remembered is the fact that the four uses of the musical theme in the film are each accompanied by a significant shot of the sun rising over the earth or in alignment with the mysterious black monolith.  Kubrick was undoubtedly aware of the implications when he chose this music for underscoring those scenes.

The majestic grandeur of the sunrise with its brass fanfares and organ chords over, what happens next?  Strauss set himself the unenviable task of trying to somehow capture something of the flavour of the long, densely-written philosophical novel published in segments (1883-1885) by Friedrich Nietzsche. 

The sustained organ pedal note at the end of the sunrise leads us on into the next section, and part by part the music unfolds for us.  The titles of the various sections are perhaps more mysterious than the music itself, unless the listener has in fact waded through Nietzsche's massive work.  But for the sake of completeness, here they are:

Von der Hintenweltlern ("Of the backworldsmen")
Von der grossen Sehnsucht ("Of the great longing")
Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften  ("Of joys and passions")
Das Grablied ("Song of the Grave")
Von der Wissenschaft ("Of Science")
Der Genesende ("The Convalescent")
Das Tanzlied  ("The Dance Song")
Nachtwandlerlied ("The Night Wanderer's Song")

In practice, as section flows into section, it's not easy to discern where one part ends off and the next begins, unless you have recourse to studying the score with the subtitles marked.  But a few sections are instantly recognizable.  Von den Hintenweltlern features a warm, broad lyrical melody on the cellos and (later) the violas.   
Von der Wissenschaft opens deep in the bass with the same C-G-C progression that launched the sunrise -- a progression which appears from time to time throughout the work as a motto.  This leads into a slow rising and falling theme which takes the form of four triadic arpeggios that among them comprise all 12 notes of the chromatic octave.  This theme is then treated to a lengthy fugal development -- appropriate, since a well-structured fugue is among the most scientific of musical forms.  
The Tanzlied -- no surprise here -- launches into a perky triple-time dance on a solo violin.  The music grows and grows until it erupts into a full-throttle, swirling Viennese waltz in the massed forces of the orchestra.

The greatest climax of the work arises at the end of the Tanzlied as the music swells into frenzied activity, then suddenly darkens and -- amid the thunderous orchestral textures -- a deep bell tolls 12 strokes -- the hour of midnight.  From this point, the music slowly dies down into the spare orchestration of the final pages, the Nachtwandlerlied, inspired by the poem in the novel which begins with these words:

Oh, Mensch!  Gib' acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
("Oh, man!  Take heed!  What does deep midnight speak?")
As a side note, that poem also served as text for the fourth-movement alto solo in Mahler's epic Symphony No. 3.

At the very end, the music closes with what some experts have identified as the "World-Riddle Theme."  The deep strings intone the C-G-C motto pizzicato, but above them the woodwinds quietly play the chord B-F#-B simultaneously, leaving the music without a clear resolution in either key.  Evidently, the great riddle continues to resist solution.

Like many of the Strauss tone poems, Also sprach Zarathustra requires a massive orchestra with multiple woodwinds and extra brasses, not to mention that essential organ.  Thus, it's a very costly piece to perform.  Its obscure philosophical programme has also told against it, with audiences more willing and eager to embrace the clearer storytelling of Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel, or even Ein Heldenleben.  It's been more often performed in the German-speaking countries than in North America, where it enjoyed a brief vogue in the years after 1968 (surprise, surprise) but then lapsed back into the twilight zone on the periphery of the repertoire.  
In fact, despite having accumulated three or four recordings of this music, I've never actually heard a live concert performance of it.  The Toronto Symphony Orchestra had it programmed for the spring of 2020, and we all know where those concerts went.  But some day, my luck will be in.  Fingers crossed!

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Honouring A Mother

I've been planning for some time to write a post about this remarkable and scarcely-known piece of music, but I've been holding on to it until Mother's Day.

Welsh composer William Mathias wrote his cantata, Lux Aeterna, in 1982 on a commission from the world-renowned Three Choirs Festival.  This wide-ranging and deeply-felt work was composed in memory of the composer's mother, and there's an implied thread of connection that links several aspects of the piece to womanhood and motherhood.  It's not an overt connection, but is none the less present.

What is overt, and striking too, is the series of resemblances to Benjamin Britten's masterpiece, his War Requiem, composed 20 years earlier (you can read about that work here:  In Remembrance....

Many of the resemblances are structural.  Mathias also sets the Latin text of the Requiem Mass (portions of it, at least) along with other texts from the liturgy for large orchestra and chorus, and uses a children's chorus in a separate, more sparely accompanied role, singing Latin hymns to the Virgin Mary, underscored by organ.  He also interweaves the Latin sections with poetry from other hands, sung in English by soloists.  

Stylistic similarities are there too, most openly and strikingly in the final section, Libera Me, in which Mathias closely follows Britten in building a helter-skelter climax out of disjointed, rhythmically irregular melodic sequences highlighted by particular use of the whip-crack.  I think it's safe to say that Mathias would have produced a very different kind of work if the War Requiem hadn't been there to stake out a precedent.

But don't be deceived.  For all the large number of similarities, the souls of these two works reside in very different neighbourhoods.  Britten's is more edgily dramatic, pleading, exhorting, and warning (in line with the poetry of Wilfred Owen which so profoundly influenced Britten).  William Mathias leans much more towards the consoling, the inspiring, the philosophical, and the tone of his music is far more lyrical with long-arched melodic lines reflecting that very different character and emphasis.  Nor is this entirely surprising, since the innate musicality of his homeland of Wales has been known and celebrated for centuries on end.  The orchestration overall makes effective use of harps, vibraphone, celesta, and marimba to evoke in sound a tissue of light, reflecting the theme of "lux aeterna."

Mathias chose three of the mystical poems of St. John of the Cross, written during the 1500s in Spain and here translated into English.  The poems reflect in a mystical tone the songs of a bride to the bridegroom, an image which in Catholic theology especially is held to reflect the union of the Church with God, and particularly with Christ.  These poems are sung by trio of female voices, one each of contralto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano, in that order -- since the poems reflect the theme of a journey from the Dark Night of the Soul to the moment of final union with God, personified as Light.  A fourth poem, a reflection on the first chapter of the Gospel of John ("in the beginning was the Word") is sung by all three soloists.

The work divides into three main movements and lasts for nearly an hour in performance.  The first two movements each begin with one of the sections of the liturgy, proceed into one of the Marian hymns, and then continue into one of the solos.  A final utterance of the main choir concludes the first and second movements.

The longer and more complex third movement, Libera me, begins by following this pattern.  But after the soprano solo comes a significant change in the layout.  The main choir (rather than the children) launches into the Latin hymn, Veni, sponsa Christi., which is sung to the same intense and dramatic music sung at the beginning of the movement to the Libera me of the Requiem.  Then comes the magnificent trio of the three soloists together, its intricate melodic lines gradually entwining and mounting towards a soaring climax which is reached by way of a dramatic acceleration.  The three soloists drive forward with unstoppable energy into an ecstatic setting of the Sanctus.  This breaks off suddenly as the children intone the Agnus Dei, with its "plea for inner and outer peace" as Beethoven so memorably described it. 

The final pages feature a complex, multi-layered tapestry of sound, with the orchestra underpinning the singers with its shimmering, glittering textures.  The main choir sings the Lux aeterna of the Requiem, while the children chant an ethereal Ave maris stella that rides atop the texture.  Meanwhile the trio of soloists are singing the Requiem aeternam, with a small but significant change of the text.  Instead of singing "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine" ("Grant them eternal rest, Lord") the key word change alters "eis" to "ei", and we then have "Grant her eternal rest, Lord."  The work ends on a luminous, unresolved suspension which, so far from feeling incomplete, actually opens a sense of the continuity of eternity.

Mathias may have been inspired by Britten's War Requiem in some particulars of this work, but his own special and considerable gifts led him to create a totally striking and original work, a masterpiece of great beauty in its own right, which deserves much wider circulation.

I have a copy of the premiere recording on Chandos Records, made in 1984 under the direction of Sir David Willcocks, and their 1998 reissue of that recording is still available from the Chandos website.

Monday, 6 April 2020

The Isle of the Dead

From the title, some of my readers may be expecting me to bring in Rachmaninoff's tone poem of that name.  Well, they're right -- but only partly.  Rachmaninoff was not the only composer whose musical inspiration was fired by Arnold Böcklin's symbolist painting, Die Toteninsel.

The picture, first of all, depicts a towering rocky island  punctuated with doorways that suggest burial crypts.  A boat approaches the shore, rowed by an oarsman, and bearing a draped casket, with a robed and hooded figure standing watch over the body.  Böcklin plainly set great store by the theme, since he created five versions of the picture between 1880 and 1886; the third version is shown here.  The title of the picture was actually not the artist's, but was suggested by an art dealer.

Rachmaninoff's tone poem, composed in 1909, is remarkable for its uniquely unsettling and evocative use of 5/8 rhythm.  The choice of a barcarolle, with its rhythm replicating the sounds of the oars dipping into the water, was a natural enough idea.  Rachmaninoff, though, dislocates expectation by setting his A minor barcarolle in a stately 5-beat rhythm, 2-2-1, repeated over and over as a rising tonic-dominant-tonic figure in A minor in the bass.  Over this rhythm, melodic lines slowly appear, all of which are variants on the idea of a rising triadic arpeggio.  This simple formula produces a lengthy musical paragraph of great diversity of texture.  Over the course of the music, the orchestration grows steadily broader and grander, to the point where that main theme erupts with great force in the full orchestra.

A contrasting central section brings a more varied, somewhat wistful melody, very plainly by the same composer as the slow movements of the more famous second and third piano concertos.  This too is gradually worked up to a climax of passion and regret.  After a brief lull, a second and even more anguished climax grinds its way through the orchestra until the music darkens and disintegrates into a massive tremolo above which six huge staccato chords extinguish this more humane song of life.  The Dies irae medieval plainchant appears, is briefly developed, and then a cello solo leads to the return of the opening barcarolle, in all its quiet, mysterious depth.

Incidentally, or perhaps not, Rachmaninoff had not seen any of the versions of the painting but only a black-and-white reproduction of it before composing his tone poem.  After he saw one of the actual paintings, he remarked that he preferred it in black and white and probably wouldn't have written the music at all if he had seen the picture in full colour!

Rachmaninoff was only one of half a dozen or more composers who composed works inspired by this painting. The only other version I've heard is the work of Max Reger, one of four movements of his Böcklin Suite.  Although written four years after Rachmaninoff's work, Reger's piece sounds like it could be older, some of the densely chromatic harmonies being positively Wagnerian.  

This work was actually a major departure for Reger, who until this time had resolutely continued to compose absolute music, often denying the value of programmatic music.   In sharp contrast to Rachmaninoff's approach, Reger makes no attempt to portray the scene, being content to capture the moods evoked by the picture.  His musical painting always strikes me as being steeped in a very real and human sorrow where Rachmaninoff's more severe work suggests a deeply fatalistic, even hieratic view of death.

The other three movements of Reger's Böcklin Suite are equally fascinating.  The Hermit With a Violin uses winds, brasses, and a double string orchestra, one playing with mutes and one without, to provide a backcloth for the slow, lyrical violin solo.  At Play in the Waves, representing a painting of naiads and tritons disporting themselves in the sea, brings a faster, more playful sound world whose sparkling sea music can stand comparison with Debussy.  The Isle of the Dead follows in third place, and the final Bacchanal is a riotous summing up of sheer virtuoso orchestral brilliance.