Singing Bach

So, I Googled “singing Bach” just for fun. I got lots of these:

Sebastian Bach performing at The Palladium in Worcester, MA on F

….and lots of these:


….and a wonderful article about Kurt Elling, the great jazz singer:


by  :

Though Kurt Elling is one of the most well-loved and highly praised jazz singers of our time, he first developed his chops singing Bach motets. As Elling returned to his native Chicago for performances at City Winery, he spoke about how classical music has influenced him throughout his life.

Though Elling confessed, “I never thought of a professional career in music,” becoming a musician was perhaps inevitable. His father was the music director of a Lutheran church in the Chicago suburbs, and music was always a part of his childhood. He began singing in his church choir, “starting with soprano, then alto, then tenor, and finally all the way to the bass. I was so happy to finally sing bass because that’s where the root is, that’s where the power is,” he said. He also sang with the Rockford Choral Union, and later, as a student at Gustavus Adolphus College, with the Gustavus Choir.

From singing in several choral groups, Elling was exposed to a broad range of repertoire including “12th century plainsong, crazy Norwegian composers, Duruflé, and Mozart, of course.” But as the son of a Lutheran music director, naturally, one of his favorite composers is the great Lutheran music director J.S. Bach. Elling has a particular fondness for Bach’s motets….

…Elling says that singing classical music can help any singer “develop your technique because it insists that you sing in tune and requires a lot of agility. The basic mechanisms of good singing are always going to be in play: good breath support, being able to move from very forceful and loud passages to very subdued and restrained and quiet passages, the ability to maneuver with dexterity among challenging intervals. Beyond pure technique, singing classical music teaches you about the structure of music, too. I learn so much about the structure of a piece by singing it.”…

… Though today jazz is Elling’s bread and butter, classical music has remained an important part of his life. “There’s nothing that compares to the emotional thrill and uplift that one receives from the greatest possible music. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. But there are few more powerful experiences or feelings of being fully alive, focused, and engaged than when I have been making music with a choir and orchestra.”



The Heart of Motet No. 3

The heart of BWV 227, Jesu, meine Freude, is the chorale melody. The text was written by Johann Franck, the tune by Johann Crüger (below is some general information about both men). I am reminded of some of my favorite cooking shows, where the chef somewhat smugly announces that he has prepared “Salmon, three ways” – in this masterful motet, Bach sets the chorale melody 5 different ways in 6 of the 11 movements of the motet. You can hear the 1st and 3rd settings here, surrounding the magnificent 2nd movement, a setting of Romans 8: 1:



Johann Fran(c)k (June 1, 1618 – June 18, 1677) was a German politician, mayor of Königsberg and a member of the Landtag of Lower Lusatia, a lyric poet and hymnist. Under the influence of the Silesian School and of Simon Dach of Königsberg, he produced a series of poems and hymns, collected and edited by himself in two volumes (Guben, 1674), entitled: Teutsche Gedichte, enthaltend geistliches Zion samt Vaterunserharfe nebst irdischem Helicon oder Lob-, Lieb-, Leidgedichte, etc.. His secular poems are forgotten; about forty of his religious songs, hymns, and psalms have been kept in the hymals of the German Protestant Church. Some of these are the hymn for Communion Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness), which Bach used as the base for his chorale cantata Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 180, the Advent hymn Komm, Heidenheiland, Lösegeld (Come, Ransom of our captive race, a translation into German of Veni redemptor gentium), and a hymn to Jesus, “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, my joy), which was the base for Bach‘s funeral motet Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227. Bach also used single stanzas in his cantatas. [Wikipedia]

Crüger, Johann, was born April 9, 1598, at Gross-Breese, near Guben, Brandenburg. After passing through the schools at Guben, Sorau and Breslau, the Jesuit College at Olmütz, and the Poets’ school at Regensburg, he made a tour in Austria, and, in 1615, settled at Berlin. There, save for a short residence at the University of Wittenberg, in 1620, he employed himself as a private tutor till 1622. In 1622 he was appointed Cantor of St. Nicholas’s Church at Berlin, and also one of the masters of the Greyfriars Gymnasium. He died at Berlin Feb. 23, 1662. Crüger wrote no hymns, although in some American hymnals he appears as “Johann Krüger, 1610,” as the author of the supposed original of C. Wesley’s “Hearts of stone relent, relent” (q.v.). He was one of the most distinguished musicians of his time. Of his hymn tunes, which are generally noble and simple in style, some 20 are still in use, the best known probably being that to “Nun danket alle Gott” (q.v.), which is set to No. 379 in Hymns Ancient & Modern, ed. 1875. []

Verdi Requiem program notes

Giuseppe Verdi conducted the first performance of the Messa da Requiem on May 22, 1874, at the church of San Marco in Milan. “Like Brahms’s A German Requiem completed five years earlier, Verdi’s Requiem Mass is a deeply religious work written by a great skeptic.” (Phillip Huscher, CSO)

In the past, a less secular age, there were ongoing arguments over whether Verdi’s massive Messa da Requiem was a religious work or, as the conductor and critic Hans von Bülow put it, “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes.” The discussion is interesting, because it leads us simultaneously to two truths: one, that Verdi was not by any means a religious man. He had little use for organized religion – his wife Giuseppina said he was “not an outright atheist, but a very doubtful believer.” He was a man of the world, a man of the theatre, and until 1874, hadn’t written any sacred music since his youth. The other truth is that Verdi essentially worshiped Alessandro Manzoni, the great Italian writer whose novels helped promote the Italian nationalist movement.

Even after his wife was introduced to Manzoni through a mutual friend, Verdi was satisfied with the autographed photograph she brought home, inscribed “to Giuseppe Verdi, a glory of Italy, from a decrepit Lombard writer.” Verdi hung the picture in his bedroom and sent Manzoni his photo, writing across the bottom, “I esteem and admire you as much as one can esteem and admire anyone on this earth, both as man and a true honor of our country so continually troubled. You are a saint, Don Alessandro!” (Huscher)

Upon news of the writer’s death, the composer immediately proposed to his publisher and the city of Milan that a Requiem Mass be performed on the anniversary of the death.

So in this work we have both Verdis – the agnostic operatic composer, and the man who wanted, deeply, to honor the memory of another great Italian artist. Verdi’s Requiem was driven by the latter impulse, which gives the work its depth of feeling.

Tonight’s version of the Messa da Requiem came about in stages. The final movement, the “Libera me”, was composed in 1868 for a Requiem Mass in honor of Gioacchino Rossini – a Mass with each movement set by a different composer. That project never saw the light of day (until 1988 when Helmuth Rilling conducted it). After Manzoni’s death, Verdi reworked the “Libera me” and set the remaining texts for the May 22, 1874 premiere. At that point the Liber scriptus was a choral fugue; Verdi re-wrote the movement as the glorious mezzo-soprano solo it is now for a performance on May 12, 1875.

Verdi was, of course, a supreme melodist and the Requiem has many tunes worthy of any opera. Here he also took the opportunity to develop material for the chorus, writing two magnificent fugues and, bookending the work, two very different a capella sections. The other choral material is operatic in character – picture the singers listening to and commenting on the soloists’ distinctive characters (the “Salva me”, “Liber scriptus”, and “Lacrymosa”). It is a sad truth that in very many sacred choral compositions, one finds text setting that is, at best, careless, and at worst, banal. Verdi’s approach to the various poems and prayers of the Requiem is unwaveringly meticulous and thought out; he pays attention and honors the material.

Requiem & Kyrie

The composer Ildebrando Pizzetti wrote, in his preface to the published facsimile:

… In that Requiem aeternam murmured by an invisible crowd over the slow swaying of a few simple chords you straightaway sense the fear and sadness of a vast multitude before the mystery of death. In the change that follows into the “et lux perpetuam” the melody spreads its wings up to an F sharp before falling back upon itself and coming to rest on an E more than an octave below, you hear a sigh for consolation and eternal peace. You see first a shadow, then a general radiance. In the darkness are human beings bowed down by fear and sorrow, and in the light they reach out their arms towards Heaven to invoke mercy and forgiveness. Far from being merely lyrical the music portrays sadness and hope. (from Verdi (Master Musicians Series) by Julian Budden)


The long poem beginning with “Dies irae, dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla: Teste David cum Sibylla” is commonly thought to be by Thomas of Celano, a 13th century friar; it probably is actually from the 12th century. 17 of its stanzas are three lines in trochaic meter with two-syllable rhymes. David Rosen, in his excellent book on the Requiem, notes that the chorus acts a narrator, while the sections sung by the soloists are more character-driven, more individual. There are too many astounding moments to describe – the ‘last trump’ that will wake the dead, the bass soloist’s faltering, terrified “Mors”, the Aida-like “Ingemisco”, and throughout, the constant, terrified “Dies irae” shout. The “Lacrymosa” is two stanzas of two lines and the “Pie Jesu” is poetically completely different, and Verdi solves the problem of this abrupt metrical change by introducing the text with the soloists singing a capella before they are joined by the chorus and orchestra in a sublime close – listen for the choral “Amen” on a gorgeous G major chord before the orchestra ends the movement in B-flat.

Offertorio and Sanctus

The “Domine Jesu Christe” opens with the mezzo, tenor and bass soloists, singing about the lion’s mouth and the bottomless pit, albeit in a more restrained manner than one might expect. As the text turns from darkness to light, the soprano enters on a floating high E; Michael Steinberg calls this “a momentary glimpse of transcendence.” The movement continues with a traditional contrapuntal setting of “quam olim Abrahae”, followed by the tenor’s magical “Hostias”. The text “face as, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam” closes the movement quietly, and then the brass and choir burst into the Sanctus. Verdi combines the “Sanctus” and “Hosanna” texts in a completely joyful fugue for double chorus.

Agnus Dei

This movement is utterly simple, chant-like and still – an oasis of calm in the Requiem. The scoring of the soprano-mezzo duet and the woodwinds is magical.

Lux aeterna

The mezzo soprano opens this section with a rhythmically-free chant by, the strings accompanying her in what Rosen calls “the most extreme example of harmonic mystification in the entire Requiem.” The bass enters with an entirely Verdian melody and the movement picks up in energy, then ends mezza voce with the reiterated text from the beginning. “Instruments of light (divided violins and violas, flute, clarinet) and darkness (bassoons, trombones, timpani, bass drum) illustrate the twin texts of the Lux aeterna, which serves as a valedictory for the mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass soloists.” (John Maclay)

Libera me

This movement for soprano and chorus has some “mad scene” soprano singing, angelically soaring high notes, and a fugue that the English music critic John Francis Toye described as “the clamor of a multitude intent on achieving salvation by violence.”

It could only have been composed by someone steeped in opera, yet it’s unlike anything else in Verdi’s output. The music moves freely from dramatic recitative to soaring arioso, reprising both the “Dies irae,” in all its concentrated terror, and the opening Requiem aeternam, here magically rescored for soprano and unaccompanied chorus. The last stretch, climaxed by the urgent pleas of the soprano, and finally dissipating into hushed and desperate prayer, is as compelling as anything Verdi ever put on the stage. (Huscher)


In 1875 Ernest Reyer described the final measures as: la dernière lueur de la lampe qui s’éteint sous les arceaux d’une cathédrale – “the last light of the lamp which is extinguished under the arches of a cathedral.” Francis Toye wrote, “Force has failed; only the appeal to mercy remains, now so abject that it is spoken rather than sung.”

—Anne Watson Born

Death on a Pale Horse

Some commentary on our artwork:

“Although possibly incomplete, the subject can be identified as Death, the last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who announce the Day of Judgement (Book of Revelation). The choice may have been in response to the death of Turner’s father in 1829, suggested by the unusual treatment which is both tender and menacing. Death appears, not as a triumphant, upright figure astride his horse, but as a phantom emerging from a turbulent mist: his skeletal form, arms outstretched, and draped submissively over the horse’s pale back. Such disturbing visions were considered to embody the very concept of the Sublime.”


Dies Irae


Robert Shaw on the Verdi

from the archives of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus:

(from May 5, 1977)

More, perhaps, than with any other composer or oratorio the Verdi Requiem depends upon vocal splendor and authority. The soloists and chorus must soar over the orchestra. Every bit of text must be inflected and fashioned. No tone left unsternum’d as to color, accentuation and dynamics.

Beauty in music is not always quintessential. But Verdi unadorned and unadorned is green without gold. His is not a paste-on beauty. No house-pet, quick-change, easy-on-easy- off. No skin-deep.

Think Michelangelo, da Vinci and Donatello. Think St. Peters, San Marco, La Scala and Pizza Hut. Think Otello, Falstaff and Marlon Brando. Think sunshine, cannelloni, Alps and olive oil. Think Sophia Loren, Arturo Toscanini and Two Ton Tony Galento. Think beauty. And think sub-cutaneously.

Sing same. R

estremamente italiano

In addition to learning the musical language of Verdi, this late Romantic period gorgeousness, we are learning as well the profound text of the Requiem Mass. The Latin Requiem Mass has been set to music by many composers (we have sung settings by Mozart, Fauré, Cherubini, Rutter), and each composer decides which “extra” movements to include. So in the Verdi we have, in addition to the Introit, Kyrie, Sequence, Offertory, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the Lux Aeterna and the Libera me. The translation of Verdi’s work is found on our website – search for Translations and it pops up.

The other language we’re learning is a boatload of Italian. Verdi was meticulous about marking not only his tempi (Allegro, Adagio, etc) and metronome markings, but he also peppered his scores with expressive phrases to guide the performers to the exact emotion of each moment. Here are a few glorious and evocative phrases:

con voce cupa e tristissima – “with a hollow voice and the utmost sadness”

sempre ppp e sotto voce – “always ppp and in an undertone” (sotto = below)

animando – “becoming more lively”, quickening

estremamente piano – “extremely soft”

piangente – “weeping”

dolciss. (abbreviation of dolcissimo) – “as sweet as possible”

senza misura – “without time”, in free time

ancora più piano – “still more softly”

tutta forza – “all accented” (forza = force; forzando = strongly accented)

And of course…

morendo – “dying away”

E allora cominciamo

After a gorgeous performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, the Chorale is beginning to rehearse another work which has been often criticized for being too operatic: Verdi’s magnificent Messa da Requiem. We are excited to present this on Saturday April 23, 8pm – save the date!


“WHETHER AFFECTING indignation or simply delighting in the outrageous comparison, pundits have long gibed at Verdi’s Requiem as one of the composer’s greatest operas. Yet it is a bit unfair to focus pious criticism on Verdi’s setting of the Mass for the Dead, splendorous as it is. Spectacle seems an intrinsic element, or at least an invariable dramatic byproduct, of any musical requiem.

The dread and terror of eternal damnation, and the fervent supplication for divine protection from such a fate, cry out (quite literally) for extreme expressive resources. And the composers who have answered that spiritual and musical challenge in the most compelling terms — Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi — all used quasi-operatic means just as surely as they adopted the traditional Latin text.

But…the experience of a requiem has something else in common with opera: It is better seen than merely heard. Irrespective of whether one believes in the religious precept, the profound urgency of the requiem’s message, especially as it is heightened by music, bears a specifically communal weight.

To experience a choral requiem as it was meant to be, one should be able to look into the faces of the singing hosts, behold the assembled orchestra — the very trumpets of the Tuba Mirum — and sense the solemnity of the occasion, the place and the fellow travelers gathered there.” (Lawrence B. Johnson,

Program notes for January 16 2016

It is much easier to write program notes for concerts presenting works by a variety of composers, or works by lesser-known composers. With the former one can use a lot of ink explaining who everyone was (or is); with the latter there is some room for individual explication (aka ‘guessing’) as the annotator’s work comes down to describing the music, with little fear of being caught out by a musicologist. Tonight, though, we have two works by one of the most revered, most listened-to, and most-written-about composers, Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (Amadè was the composer’s favored replacement for Theophilus). There is no lack of scholarship to be found – I have re-waded through books from my college years and read from more recent books and articles in an effort to distill bits of information about these pieces in order to: a) pass along interesting facts, b) explain what you’re about to hear, and c) express why we are so passionately eager to sing and play these pieces for you.


The Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503) and the Great Mass in C Minor (K. 427) are both works that take the listener in two or more directions and back again. The concerto (1786) oscillates between a “military style” grandeur and the light, dancing Mozart that we adore. We hear a typically-Classical theme – symmetrical, repetitive, balanced – and then a storm breaks loose with a series of rapid figures and military brass. And often the music begins in a melodic, graceful major key only to have it shift to the minor, upsetting any comfortable dozing we may have been contemplating.


The Mass, composed in 1782, spends a great deal of time as well surprising us with its tonalities and harmonies, but its fundamental contrast is between two compositional styles, one derived from the Baroque, and the other being the composer’s budding operatic style. So we are presented with a work in which the outer sections of the Kyrie are reminiscent of Bach’s B Minor Mass in their serious tone while the “Christe” section of the Kyrie is warm, lyrical and operatic; similarly, the Baroque French Overture that is the “Qui tollis” is followed by the “Quoniam” trio, which sounds like an ensemble piece from Don Giovanni (1787).

Piano Concerto No. 25, K.503

K 503 was composed in 1786, the year that brought us The Marriage of Figaro, two other piano concerti, a lot of chamber music, and, two days after Concerto No. 25, the “Prague”Symphony. The opening movement contains several melodic themes heard throughout the piece:

  • Grandiose chords, and energetic scale passages;
  • The dominant motif – short short short long, used with variety and inventiveness;
  • The second theme, a little marching melody – think “La Marseillaise”. This is instantly lifted out of the routine by Mozart’s presenting it in the minor and then (in the winds) in the major.

The solo piano entrance is delicate, almost tentative, until it takes charge with the scale passages. As the piano embarks upon the first of its many long decorative passages, the harmonies move from major to minor and the strings return to the dominant motif. And eventually we hear a new, completely Mozartean theme, graceful and symmetrical, answered by the oboe, bassoon, and flute.

The development contains more traveling harmonies, more shifting from major to minor, the return of the dominant motif, virtuosic decoration by the soloist, themes combining and recombining. Then a cadenza (in tonight’s performance Shawn will play a cadenza by the pianist Andreas Schiff), and the triumphant end.

The second movement is a beautiful, spare slow movement filled with murmuring strings and tender woodwinds responding to the feather-light piano melodies. This is followed by a concluding movement which is a rondo (a form where one melody returns again and again in the midst of other melodies). Often a rondo is merely jolly; here Mozart takes it into a more serious realm. A wonderful description of this section is by Michael Steinberg:

“For the finale, Mozart goes back to adapt a gavotte from his then five-year-old opera Idomeneo. In its courtly and witty measures, there is nothing to prepare us for the epiphany of the episode in which the piano, accompanied by cellos and basses alone (a sound that occurs nowhere else in Mozart), begins a smiling and melancholy song that is continued by the oboe, the flute, the bassoon, and in which the cellos cannot resist joining. Lovely in itself, the melody grows into a music whose richness of texture and whose poignancy and passion astonish us even in the context of the mature Mozart. From that joy and pain Mozart redeems us by leading us back to his gavotte and from there into an exuberantly inventive, brilliant ending.”


Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427

What we will sing tonight is a complete setting of two movements of the Ordinary of the Mass (the Kyrie and the Gloria), along with a chunk of the Credo – one of the jolliest settings of “Credo in unum Deum” I have heard, followed by an Italianate “Et incarnatus est”, written for Mozart’s wife Constanze. Helmut Eder has reconstructed and completed Mozart’s Credo sections, along with the Sanctus and Benedictus and the fantastic Hosanna fugue.

The Mass was begun late in 1782, after Mozart’s marriage (in August, in Vienna) to Constanze Weber. A big influence in the work was the music of Bach and Handel, and the work contains two long fugues (the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” at the end of the Gloria, and at the end of the Sanctus, the “Hosanna”, which returns at the end). Regarding his forays into composing fugues, Mozart wrote to his father, Leopold:

My dear Constanze is really the cause of this fugue’s coming into the world.
Baron van Swieten, to whom I go every Sunday, gave me all the works of Handel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me (after I had played them to him). When Constanze heard the fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Handel and Bach. Well, as she has often heard me play fugues out of my head, she asked me if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me roundly for not recording some of my compositions in this most artistically beautiful of all musical forms and never ceased to entreat me until I wrote down a fugue for her.

Such a wonderful quote, and if true, one of the few hints we have as to Constanze’s character. But Leopold disapproved of his son’s marriage, and it is quite likely that Mozart was trying to pave the way for a cordial visit by the couple to visit Leopold in Salzburg. Mozart may have exaggerated Constanze’s love of counterpoint with the aim of placating his father, who was himself an accomplished composer.


There is certainly a sense that Mozart, after working out the technical details of writing counterpoint, felt no need to complete the Mass – he had no commission to write it, no planned concert. He may have begun it as a wedding present to Constanze; he may have wanted to have a piece to present to Leopold as a kind of apology for his marriage; he may have wanted to write something as monumental as the B Minor Mass. A version of the work was sung in Salzburg in October 1783, though it is unclear whether other Mass settings by the composer were used to fill in the missing parts. Over the years many editors and composers have “finished” the Mass by adding the rest of the text to the Credo movement and adding an Agnus Dei, using other Mass movements by Mozart. I have not found any of these versions particularly satisfying, though it is true that it feels a little odd to end the work with the reprise of the “Hosanna” fugue. The sublime solo sections – the exuberant “Laudamus Te”, the pastoral siciliana that is the “Et incarnatus” and the operatic ensemble pieces – the “Quoniam” and the serious and gorgeous “Benedictus” – give the piece an intimate, sensual feeling balanced against the quasi-Baroque splendor. The Mass reveals the delight Mozart felt in exploring the works of Bach and Handel as well as his genius in writing for the solo voice in the operatic language of his day.

For the Chorale, it is simply a blast to sing. The brilliantly majestic choruses are filled with grandeur (“Qui tollis”), tender moments (“suscipe, suscipe”) and finally, with jubilant cadences tossed back and forth between our two choirs (“Hosanna in excelsis”). What Mozart left us in the Great Mass in C Minor is music that is profound, joyful and exciting – enjoy!