An Unexpected Calm program notes

 

Inexspectata quies –an “unexpected calm.” Tonight’s program presents one very large contrast, between J.S. Bach’s Singet dem Herrn, a joyful dance of praise, and Gabriel Fauré’s quiet and serene Requiem. In between is Mozart’s sunny motet, Exsultate, Jubilate, with its beautiful recitative: “The friendly day shines forth, both clouds and storms have fled now; for the righteous there has arisen an unexpected calm.” All three works share language of consolation, images of light, and expressions of joy.

Singet dem Herrn, BWV 225

Johann Sebastian Bach, born March 21 [March 31, New Style], 1685, Eisenach, Thuringia, Ernestine Saxon Duchies [Germany]—died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

‘Hardly had the choir sung a few bars when Mozart sat up startled; a few measures more and he called out: “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: “Now thereis something one can learn from!”’ This scene, from an account by the writer Friedrich Rochlitz in 1789, continues with Mozart sitting down with each of the eight parts of the score to Singet dem Herrn“…in both hands, on his knees, and on the chairs next to him-and, forgetting everything else, did not get up again until he had looked through everything of Sebastian Bach’s that was there.” (The Bach Reader, ed. David and Mendel)

That degree of engagement and attention is what happens when one encounters the works of Bach, and the Chorale has reveled in learning this monumental (though not long) work. Bach’s Motet No. 1 was probably not the first motet he composed – many of his motets are lost, and this one in all likelihood was composed between 1726 and 1727 in Leipzig. It may have been composed to celebrate a birthday (Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August I), or for a funeral (the Queen of Poland), or to mark Reformation Day.  The work is structured like an instrumental concerto, fast-slow-fast; the outside movements have thrilling fugues, and the middle movement is a chorale tune embellished by a choral aria.

In the first movement, the exclamations of “Singet” are the harmonic rocks upon which the piece rests; later they become, in John Eliot Gardiner’s words, the “funky, offbeat commentary to his four-part fugue.” As the piece continues, Bach has both choirs sing the fugue subject, in reverse order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) and the “Singet”s, with their accompanying figurae corta, fly around throughout the texture.

The word “Reigen” (charmingly translated as “roundelay” in Google) is indeed set to circular streams of notes, while “Pauken” is set to a wonderful arpeggiated fanfare that is passed between the voices. The movement thunders into a miraculous ending with the choirs trading shouts of “mit Pauken und Harfen” (with drums and harps).

The 2ndmovement sets the 3rdverse of the chorale “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren.” Bach harmonized this melody in five works; this is the only time he changed the meter from triple to duple (3/4 to 4/4).  It is a beautiful, expansive setting, sung by Choir II, with one of the composer’s most ingenious ideas: Choir I inserts a kind of floating, almost free-form, aria in between the chorale phrases. The author of the aria text is unknown; some think it was by Bach himself.

“Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” returns us to a fast and joyful mood, with the two choirs battling it out in a traditional antiphonal setting. Then, as Gardiner puts it, “Out of the hurly-burly the united basses of both choirs step forward in a passepied [a dance – a quick minuet] set to the words ‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.’” In a flash Bach brings the texture from a full-throated eight voices down to one, spinning a lilting and joyous fugue subject. The other voices enter with the subject (tenor, alto soprano) and there are the usual fugal elements: stretto, sequence, harmonic shifts, the subject returning again, until finally, with “perhaps the best-motivated high soprano B‐flat in the entire choral repertory,” as the scholar Daniel Melamed reportedly called it, the choir can call it quits, “using up the last Odem(‘breath’) of which they are capable.” (Gardiner)

Exsultate, Jubilate, K. 165

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria – died December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

This motet by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756-1791) was premiered in January 1773 in Milan, after the premiere of Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla. It was written for the composer and male soprano Venanzio Rauzzini, who played the title role in Lucio Silladuring its 26 performances. It has stayed in the repertory since its inception (I remember as a child hearing Roberta Peters sing it); this is primarily because of its brilliant closing “Alleluia.” Rauzzini went on to have a successful career in England as a teacher, harpsichordist, and impresario. When his beloved dog died, Franz Joseph Haydn presented to Rauzzini a canon on the words “Turk was a faithful dog.”

Michael Steinberg writes, “Mozart called this piece a motet, one of the loosest of musical terms, though the presence (in most cases) of a sacred text in Latin provides some sort of common ground. We may hear Exsultate, jubilate as a brilliant vocal concerto, whose andante (Tu virginum corona) is introduced by a recitative. The virtuosic Allelujafinale, detached from its context, has long been a favorite of singers and audiences; it even made it to Hollywood in 1937 when Deanna Durbin sang it with Leopold Stokowski conducting in 100 Men and a Girl.”

Requiem, Op. 48

Gabriel Urbain Fauré born south of France (Pamiers) on May 12, 1845; died in Paris on November 4, 1924l

Every chorus loves to sing a Requiem. The texts – from the Mass for the Dead and the Office of the Dead, have evocative imagery and, of course, a certain universality about them. Fauré’s work stands apart from many other settings in its sense of serenity and in its refusal to dwell on a judgemental god, the guilt-reddened face of the suppliant, and the other terrors found in the Sequence (he cannot resist the Dies Irae, though, and sets it with blood-curdling horn calls). The Requiemwas composed between 1887 and 1893; the work went through several iterations, not unusual from a composer who was slow and meticulous in setting his compositions to paper and also one who didn’t hesitate to recycle his pieces (the first version of the Libera me was composed in 1877; the Offertoire in 1889). For many years the work was performed by choral societies from an edition, probably prepared by a student of Fauré’s, scored for large orchestra and organ. Last fall, for the first time in my career, I prepared a choir for that orchestration, and it is in every way unsatisfactory. What we will sing tonight is the Requiemscored for a chamber orchestra and organ, and that scoring reveals the meticulous phrasing and lovely rich timbres of the composer’s original concept.

Introit The work opens in almost complete stillness as the choir sings “Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine” over long pedal notes in the orchestra. Shortly after we hear the first of several gorgeous tenor melodies followed by the contrasting “Te decet hymnus” in the sopranos. The choir interrupts the peace with an anguished “Exaudi” and closes the movement with the “Kyrie eleison” text, ending with a corporate unison D.

Offertory – this is perhaps the movement that most evokes Fauré’s words that his Requiemwas a “lullaby of death” – the altos and tenors enter, unadorned, in a kind of gentle, rocking setting of “O Domine, Jesu Christe”. The two sections are joined by the basses at the plea “ne cadant in obscurum,” then the baritone soloist makes his first appearance, singing the beautiful Hostias prayer. The choir returns with the lullaby (“libera animas defunctorum”) – listen for the pure, floating, angelic, and long-delayed entrance of the sopranos, followed shortly by a really miraculous key change at the “Amen.”

Sanctus The angelic hosts appear, represented by the harp. The horns sound the Hosanna – a rare moment of full-bodied singing from the choir – and the movement ends with the peaceful arpeggios with which it began.

The Pie Jesu, the center of the work, sets the final two lines of the Dies Irae sequence, lines that almost certainly were penned after the rest of the 13thcentury poem. It is a seemingly effortless soprano solo, of which Fauré’s mentor and friend Camille Saint-Säens said, “just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum, this is the only Pie Jesu.” (Michael Steinberg Choral Masterworks)

Agnus Dei – the structure of the entire work is made especially clear here: the Agnus Dei is the mirror image of the opening movement, with its soaring tenor melody and the return of the “Requiem” theme at the end. The a cappella soprano entrance on “Lux” (“light) is a moment out of time, followed by a slow crescendo that ends with “Quia pius est” (“for you are merciful”).

In the Libera me the solo baritone returns, singing the responsory that follows the Requiem Mass. After the composer’s foray into the “day of wrath,” the choir sings the response, reprising the Requiem’s most powerful and beautiful melody.

In Paradisum is an antiphon sung by the choir as the body is being taken out of the church (Wikipedia); this is a parallel movement to the Sanctus, with its harp and a heavenly soprano melody

Fauré wrote, “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death; someone has even called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration toward happiness above….” In a letter of April 3, 1921 to René Fauchois, he further explained, “Everything I managed to entertain in the way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” The grace, restraint and calm Hellenic beauty that characterize Fauré’s best music find their perfect realization in this work, about which the celebrated pedagogue Nadia Boulanger said, “Nothing purer or clearer in definition has been written. No external effect alters its sober and rather severe expression of grief, no restlessness troubles its deep meditation, no doubt stains its gentle confidence or its tender and tranquil expectancy.” (Dr. Richard E. Rodda)

 

-Anne Watson Born