The Nashoba Valley Chorale will be holding its annual fundraiser, compliments of Ed’s Weenies, Saturday, June 3rd, from 10:30 to 2:00. You can find Ed’s Weenies truck at Gary’s Farm stand on route 119, Littleton, MA.
Come joun us for some delicious food and listen to some recordings of our recent performances while you dine and mingle with NVC members!!
All proceeds will go to the Chorale to prepare for our upcoming season.
Thank you, and see you there!
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVa3nR-2bVc
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. [hymnary.org]
We held our first Open Rehearsal of the season last night. Lots of newcomers joined us, and we had a Full House!
We read through a good portion of the Bach in the first half, and then read through a bit of the Gjielo in the second half. All such beautiful music!
The choir sounded great, considering most everyone was sight reading the pieces for the first time. Anne led the rehearsal with lots of fun and interesting musical interpretations about each piece, and kept the choir on their toes.
We have two more Open Rehearsals for the next two Mondays, for anyone to come and try us out. You’ll have fun while learning to sing some beautiful music.
Come Sing With Us !!
Well, such as it is, here’s a bit of information about our upcoming season – mainly it’s all about the Bach (the Bach, the Bach…).
August 29th read through, what a lot of fun.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.”
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
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”
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, nytimes.com)
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!
“…if, for instance, in some of the fugal choruses of the Mass in C Minor I cannot follow the part of the fugue clearly, then I feel cheated in a way. I feel that I’m not doing my job.” (Neville Marriner, Choral Journal, August 1985). In the interests of feeling that I’m doing my job ;), below is a brief explication of the “Cum Sancto” fugue.
The fugue subject, as you know, is the long whole note phrase “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, heard first in the basses beginning on the tonic note of C major. It is answered by the tenors beginning on the dominant (the 5th note of the scale). The altos sing the subject in the tonic, the sopranos answer in the dominant, and our first exposition is complete. Here’s a chart of the entire movement:
Exposition I mm. 7-31
Exposition II mm. 35-52. Subject 2x in the tonic and (tenors) in the relative minor (a)
Exposition III mm. 60-67 Sops have subject in F major; basses in tonic
Exposition IV mm. 81-88 Basses in d minor, tenors in a minor
Exposition V mm. 95-101 Altos in E
Exposition VI mm. 105-136 Triumphant return of the subject in the tonic key – basses in canon with the altos, then sopranos and tenors in canon on the dominant. Then basses in canon with the tenors in a minor, followed by altos and sopranos in C. Notice how the melismatic, wildly turning round and round motif is passed around, from tenor, to alto, to soprano, to bass.
Exposition VII mm.138-154 Subject inverted! So nice. The orchestral strings pick up the melismatic figure.
Exposition VIII mm. 167-175 Stretto: each voice entering with the subject 1 measure apart. Notice that Mozart begins with the sopranos in tonic and works down to the basses.
Exposition IX mm. 186 Unison declaration of the subject while the orchestra goes melismatically nuts.
So – those expositions are what we want to hear. Everything else is really fun gravy – or rather, a kind of salsa fresca.
One more note: usually in a fugue there is a countersubject, a contrasting motive. Here there are several contrasting ideas, anchored by the eighth-note rhythms and often following 3 light quarters:
Okay, we may not dress up on Sunday, but we will sing the glorious Messiah – not only the Christmas portion but also much of the amazing Part II (it’s all about those sheep, those sheep). Come and sing “He trusted in God,” the Hallelujah Chorus and the fabulous “Worthy is the Lamb” with the able singers of the Nashoba Valley Chorale.
Here’s a little history, from the Smithsonian magazine (2009):
George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.
The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/#x3m0wvWqxEjMAdWU.99
It will be a thrill on January 16, 2016 to hear our long-time collaborative pianist, Shawn McCann, play the sublimely beautiful Piano Concerto No. 25 by Mozart. Shawn received his Bachelor of Music degrees in Piano Performance and in Music Theory / Composition from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell where he studied under Inge Lindblad and Juanita Tsu. He is adept at playing in many styles – classical to rock, to jazz, etc., and he is also an organist. Shawn is the Director of Music at the First Parish Church of Groton, an active accompanist for Indian Hill Music School, and an integral part of the Nashoba Valley Chorale.
We are so fortunate to have wonderful vocal soloists perform in our concerts. Two of our faithful and supremely musical artists are Deborah Selig and her husband, Gregory Zavracky. We first worked with Greg in 2009, when he was our tenor soloist in Handel’s Messiah. Deborah joined us in 2011 for Haydn’s Creation, and since then we have loved performing with both of them, singing Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Orff. On January 16, 2016, they will be two of the four soloists in Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor. The solos Deborah will sing in that work are the ones that Mozart composed for his wife Constanze. We are looking forward to working with Deborah and Gregory again!
Our other soloists in January will be Donna Breitzer, singing the wide-ranging mezzo-soprano part in the Mozart, and Jorgeandres Camargo, bass. Originally from Saratoga, CA, Donna received BMus/BA degrees in Voice Performance and English from the University of Michigan, and holds a Master of Music degree in Voice from the New England Conservatory, so this is a bit of a homecoming. She maintains a private voice studio in New York City and is the co-founder and Executive Director of Five Boroughs Music Festival, a chamber music presenting organization in NYC. She currently resides in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn with her husband, Cantor Joshua Breitzer, and their sons Jonah and Gideon.
Jorgeandres Camargo is an exciting young performer. A member of the BU Opera Institute, he has sung Leperello in Don Giovanni, Roy Cohn in Angels in America and Pandolph in Massanet’s Cendrillon, and several other roles. He will sing Don Alfonso in this spring’s production of Cosí fan Tutte. Jac is a native of Houston, Texas; he received a B.M. from the Eastman School of Music and an M.M. from Boston University. He is continuing his work with Dr. Jerrold Pope while in his second year with the Boston University Opera Institute. Jac has also worked as a bass soloist with Anne Watson Born at the First Unitarian Society in Newton for several years.
Read more about our Mozart “cast” on our Concerts page! (http://www.nashobachorale.org/current-season/)
Here’s a brief overview of the first movement of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.
When we sing a Mass by Bach, or Haydn, or Mozart, we are singing a setting of what is called the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass service. The Ordinary has five movements: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. Each movement is divided into several sections, based on the text.
The Kyrie has a tripartite structure (“Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison”). The first Kyrie opens with a dramatic arpeggiated melodic gesture in all the voices, then moves into a texture contrasting long phrases with groups of 16th notes and staccato 8ths.
In the Christe eleison, a section almost assuredly composed for Mozart’s wife Constanze, this is a complete contrast to the enclosing Kyries: it is warm and lyrical and also operatic in character. The chorus responds to the soloist’s four-bar phrases, the music builds to a forte statement of “eleison” and then the soprano takes off on her own, singing in a range spanning two octaves. The music starts over with the dolce rising “eleisons” (m. 58), then becomes highly decorative as the soprano leads us into the return of the Kyrie theme.
Usually the music of the first Kyrie repeats at the statement of the second Kyrie. Mozart does this but makes an interesting artistic decision. True to the conventions of the sonata allegro form of his time, he writes the contrasting Christe eleison section not in c minor, but in the relative major of E-flat. Then, returning to the Kyrie text, he skips the first phrase (the rising melodic arpeggios sung by each vocal section) and begins his recapitulation in E-flat with the second phrase – the long, soaring soprano line:
A couple of things: notice how in the second Kyrie the tenors sing the exact same notes as the altos did in the first Kyrie (mm.13-14) while moving us back into c minor. And listen for the beautiful deceptive cadence at measure 91: the G7 chord moves to A-flat instead of to C – this signals the end of the movement coming. After four gorgeous, breathless chords, the singers cadence on C minor and the violas reiterate the violin melody from the beginning of the piece. Such a pleasure to sing this beautifully-constructed movement.
Here we are at the beginning of a new season – coming together in this ancient and somewhat arcane activity. For one night a week we abandon our devices and sing for a few hours together.
Screens do appear in musical rehearsals these days – iPads with scores loaded on them, people tweeting from rehearsals, posting pictures to Facebook, posting excerpts to YouTube, etc. But we go old school every week: we gather in a large church and open up a book filled with the traditional language of choral music. And over the next few months we will listen and we will sing – but the listening, in this loud world, is perhaps the most important thing we can do on this one night a week.
Charles Bruffy has this mantra: “Don’t start fixing until they’re committed to listening.” He didn’t mean until singers were committed to listening to a conductor [though that would be nice]; he meant until they were committed to listening to each other. It’s a good resolution for our new year. So much can be learned and refined by letting yourself really hear the sounds around you. Those of us who learn “by rote” know the value of listening and making some good guesses.
Community is a pretty overused word these days, but the choral rehearsal exemplifies it: tonight there will be 90+ strangers crammed into pews in our rehearsal space, staring at those books and making music together. Over the year friendships will form and we will share common stories, jokes, and memories – along with the moments of grace that come from the rehearsal process and from performance.
John Maclay, the conductor of the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York, says, “Communal music helps us overcome differences: there is unity from diversity as all different people come together. Everyone “speaks” and everyone listens. All are equal, regardless of musical ability, before the musical challenge.”
I love that idea that we are all equal in the work, and our organization has been built on the idea that all are welcome to sing. We are a non-auditioned group. We sing beautiful and important music, we work with deep dedication together to sing with artistry and musicality, and we are proud of our work. I look forward to our year together.
Anne Watson Born
I’m excited to begin our work tomorrow evening with the annual NVC Season Preview. (7pm at the First Baptist Church on Littleton Common, then social time at the Pub on the Common). We’ll read through some sections of the Mozart Mass in C Minor and the Verdi Requiem. One thing that these two amazing works have in common: the “notes”, per se, are not that difficult (neither approaches Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with its steep learning curve). But both are so so so difficult to sing well. Here are a couple of spot-on comments:
“Mozart’s music is particularly difficult to perform. His admirable clarity exacts absolute cleanness: the slightest mistake in it stands out like black on white. It is music in which all the notes must be heard.” (Gabriel Fauré)
“For a chorus, the Verdi Requiem ranks with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the Bach B-Minor Mass as one of the toughest. Verdi demands great extremes of sound, from triple pianissimos to the most thunderous fortissimos you’ll ever hear. The harmonies — as always in Verdi — are tightly together, and the music is an absolute bear to keep in tune.” (Phil Greenfield, Baltimore Sun)
It will make for an interesting and engaging season, working on these two masterpieces – I hope to see you all at rehearsal on September 13, rarin’ to go!
BTW, if you’re marking your plans for the year in your calendar, our rehearsal and performance schedule for the fall is posted on the website (hover over Blog).
This World and the Other
And my soul though stained with sorrow, Fading as the light of day…
In darkness and concealment, my house being now all stilled.
Blessed be the Name of the Lord: from this time forth for evermore.
Sheep can safely graze where a good shepherd watches over them.
Shepherd, shepherd leave decoying…
When we are in the tavern, we do not think how we will go to dust.
Tonight we present music about “this” world, with texts that express our preoccupations with spring, feasting and drinking, and love. And we’ll sing about the “other” world – about the comfort of going to heaven, the soul’s immortality, the “sheer grace” of faith. Some of the pieces we’ll sing tonight are concerned with big questions: who watches over us on earth and in heaven? How is our life on earth captive to our less-noble desires and to the whirl of Fortune’s wheel? And some of them deal only with the immediate pleasures of life (including lots of emphasis on, er, interpersonal relationships).
The tune and lyrics of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” appeared in William Hauser’s 1878 shape note book Olive Leaf.
Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools. Shapes were added to the note heads in written music to help singers find pitches within major and minor scales without the use of more complex information found in key signatures on the staff.
Shape notes of various kinds have been used for over two centuries in a variety of music traditions, mostly sacred but also secular, originating in New England, practiced primarily in the Southern region of the United States for many years, and now experiencing a renaissance in other locations as well. (Wikipedia)
Alice Parker, known for her many choral arrangements with Robert Shaw and for her New England choral group Melodious Accord, arranged this hymn for mixed chorus in 1967.
The famous “Sheep May Safely Graze” is from a dinner-time entertainment, the “Hunting Cantata”, written by J.S. Bach in 1716 for the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. The sheep in this case are not protected by Christ but by the noble princes and dukes of the area. The gorgeous tune has over time morphed into a song expressing a more Christian point of view.
“Shepherd, shepherd leave decoying” is from another, albeit longer, dinner entertainment – Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur (1691), with a libretto by John Dryden. The song is heard at the end of Act II, and nicely illustrates for our program tonight the perils of enjoying oneself too much: “In a pavilion in Arthur’s camp, Emmeline is concerned for her lover’s safety, but allows herself to be diverted by an entertainment from a group of shepherds and shepherdesses. The shepherds and shepherdesses sing of the joys of peaceful country life, love and marriage. The shepherds and shepherdesses leave, whereupon Oswald enters and captures Emmeline.” (Lindsay Kemp, www.barbican.org.uk)
Stephen Ledbetter writes that Felix Mendelssohn’s motet “Laudate Pueri” was “inspired by his experiences in Rome in 1830. Mendelssohn liked to watch the sunset from the top of the Spanish Steps, which offered a stunning view across the Tiber to the great dome of St. Peter’s (designed by Michelangelo) with the sun setting behind it. Standing there in front of the 15th -century church Trinità dei Monti, he could hear a chorus of cloistered French nuns singing the Office, as a kind of soundtrack to the glorious sunset. This experience suggested a set of motets for women’s voices. Laudate pueri Dominum is actually a replacement for the work he originally wrote as No. 2 in the set; he composed it on August 14, 1837 (long after leaving Rome), but there is a possible reminiscence of Palestrina’s “Missa Assumpta est Maria,” which the scholar Giuseppe Baini may have showed Mendelssohn during his visit.”
That influence on Mendelssohn of the Renaissance master Palestrina (1525-1594) makes an interesting connection in our program. Palestrina lived at the same time as John of the Cross, the activist monk and poet, whose text you will hear in “Dark Night of the Soul”. Some 300 years after Palestrina, Mendelssohn, well-versed in the music of the Renaissance and Baroque, composes a melody based on a medieval Gregorian chant such as Palestrina may have used. And of course later in the program, in Carmina Burana, we will sing medieval Latin and German texts – but no medieval melodies – taken from a collection of 11th and 12th century poems, the “Songs from Beuern”.
“Dark Night of the Soul” is a setting of part of a poem by the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. The poem was written in 1578 or 1579 when he was imprisoned for trying to reform the Carmelite order. The term “dark night (of the soul)” describes the journey of the soul as it leaves its earthly prison and travels toward reunion with God. Ola Gjeilo has commented, “I think there’s definitely a sort of cinematic quality to that piece. I really love to listen to a lot of film music, and most of my favorite living composers are actually film composers. So I felt that that should be reflected in my own music as well. Because I wanted to write music that I wanted to listen to myself. I think that piece really brought together a lot of things that I’m really passionate about, and I always wanted to give the piano more of a prominent role in a choral piece.” (www.seattlechoralcompany.org)
Another highly cinematic piece is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, scored for large orchestra, chorus and soloists. Tonight’s performance is using the composer’s own reduction for percussion, two pianos, chorus and soloists. Carmina Burana is a disparate set of poems, loosely tied together under the headings Fortune, Spring, In the Tavern, and Love. Each song has its own character, though in general Orff uses the same harmonic structures throughout and the emphasis is on simple harmonies and lots of rapid word setting. The influence of Stravinsky is apparent in Orff’s highly accented, mixed meter phrasing, and perhaps there is a hint Poulenc as well (thinking here of the somewhat odd word accents in #22 (“Ecce Gratum”).
The Wheel of Fortune serves as an organizing principle for the grouping of texts. The urges of pleasure and desire illustrated by the poems and music are oriented around the recurrent and implacable figure of Fortuna. Carmina Burana is revealed to outline a vast circle, ending with the chorus that begins the piece, as if to signal the eternal return of the cycle of life. Within this framework Orff maps out a tripartite scenario of sensual delights. These involve the innocence of nature (Part One: “In the Springtime” and “On the Meadow”), the social sphere of partying (the briefer, testosterone-heavy Part Two: “In the Tavern”), and the amorous and bittersweet awakening of courtship (Part Three: “Court of Love”).
The wheel’s rotations — ceaselessly repeated, much like human desire — are cleverly echoed in the repeated melodic material and refrains. Orff evokes a pre-Christian, pagan sensibility while relying on clever word painting that can sound both archaic and modern. (Among the most famous examples are the solo tenor’s high D’s to depict the not exactly comfortable situation of the swan being roasted in “Olim lacus colueram.”)
The wheel is similarly mirrored in the poems’ images of the cycle of seasons, the luck of gambling, social role reversals, the swan turning on its spit, and — in what are arguably the most enchanting sections of the score — the emotional ups and downs of sexual passion in the final story of “Blanziflor and Helena.” Throughout, Orff balances the score’s vigorous exuberance with moments of introspective tranquility, inviting us to an understanding of pleasure and pain as opposites of the same coin. (Thomas May, LA Master Chorale)
Working on Carmina Burana is a challenge for singers, in that they need to develop muscle memory to articulate the words rapidly, and it calls for a large palette of tonal color, but it is hugely fun to sing. “The text…celebrates the coming of spring in rather hedonistic ways. It flirts with indecency, and to quote Kenneth Clark (1969) out of context, ‘like all forms of indecency, it’s irresistible.’” (Nick Strimple. Choral Music in the Twentieth Century)
Rerum tanta novitas in sollemni vere et veris auctoritas iubet nos gaudere,
“The universal renewal of recurring Spring and her authority compel us to rejoice.”
-Anne Watson Born
Great rehearsal last night. I think we’re starting to see how to access Carmina. It’s a difficult piece to rehearse because the bulk of the work needs to be done by you, the singers, on your own, as you make the language your own. SO MANY WORDS! You need to develop muscle memory for the medieval Latin and German (remember, no Italianate qu sounds, always kv. No soft gs, only hard. Etc. etc.) So please do spend time each day speaking or singing the text.
What we can do in rehearsal together is the usual work of unifying the phrasing, the dynamics, and the articulation. Add to that the work we are beginning on sound – where we sound majestic (“Blanziflor”), liquidly beautiful (“purpuratum floret pratum”), or raucous (“Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo” and all of In taberna). We are beginning to work on retaining an open, deep tone even in fast tempi (“tempus est iocundum, o, o, o”). And we have started to take Orff’s accent marks seriously, leading to the exciting rhythmic propulsion that makes this work so popular.
So – good work! We’ll continue next week, and we’ll return to the transcendent “Dark Night of the Soul” as well.
We need to cancel due to Yet More Snow. See the post from Feb 7 for some Carmina resources. And here’s a link for “Dark Night of the Soul”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-oy_9jkeWE
We will add 1 or 2 open rehearsals to our schedule so that we may continue to recruit new members.
See you all next week!!!
We will begin working on Carmina Burana this week (unless, of course, there’s too much snow – keep thinking positive and dry thoughts). In 1935-36 Carl Orff took medieval song lyrics in Latin, German and French and set them to music for 3 soloists and chorus, originally accompanied by a large orchestra. We will sing the spectacular arrangement for two pianos and 5 percussionists.
Here’s a link to a pronunciation guide and line-by-line translation:
And here’s an excerpt from a 1980 Robert Shaw letter to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, “concerning Orff’s Carmina and home-practice (before an Internet and the convenience of a Chorus website!)” [bolded sentences mine]:
…Fortunately – both text and tempo are responsive to home study. –Balances are impossible to cure at home; and problems of pitch and intonation are difficult for some of us; -but text and rhythm and tempo can be practiced by anyone – even while jogging, or riding a bus.
Similarly, the rehearsal and performance problems of Carmina burana are primarily text-related… this work calls for a Latin unlike any we’ve performed or any tradition most of us have been exposed to. It will be… considerably less Italianate than has been our wont (or occasional will.)…
…Each of us, however, is obliged to deal personally and alone with those textual problems occasioned and aggravated by SPEED. Carmina burana is a “fun” piece. It affords none of the satisfactions of a St. Matthew Passion…Its delights are delights of Broadway – or the satisfactions of running a 200-meter high hurdles around one curve in 13.9” – backwards.
-Onwards, upwards and prepareds. (http://www.asochorus.org/06-09-09_ORFF-POETS.pdf)
Too. Much. Snow. Have a well-deserved night off, resting on your laurels, and I’ll see you next week. Wafna, Wafna!!
We are, with the aim of keeping everyone safe, canceling tonight’s rehearsal. I will see you all on Wednesday at Littleton High School. If we can get there by 7, we’ll have a little time for a quick warmup and placing everyone on the risers. Rehearsal will begin with the orchestra at 7.30 and run until 10 with a 15′ break. Please bring water (nothing else – no soda, coffee, etc -). I’ll build in some times where you can (quietly) get off the risers.
While I’m not happy about missing tonight, I think it’s the right call, and I know that you will all spend your evening wisely. Which means sitting down with your score and going through the notes I sent, or finishing your markings, or finding a way to love the second part of the Credo fugue 🙂
Another thing I always do is to write the translation of the Latin on each page of my score. As Swafford says, “Instead of Classical form and key relations, he decreed the absolute primacy of the text: the rhythms for both singers and orchestra are the rhythms of the text, the moods are the moods of the text, the ecstasies and moments of mystery explicate the text: Gloria! Et resurrexit! Et incarnatus est. As Beethoven pounded his hands and feet and bellowed as he worked, composing with his whole body, he wanted us not only to understand but to feel every phrase and every significant word, not only in our hearts and minds but also in our bodies, like the rocketing scales and ecstatic cries of Gloria and Hosanna, and the shuddering of the “Crucifixus.” In theory he deplored overt pictorial representations in music, but he had enormous powers of musical description when he wanted to use them, and he had painted plenty of pictures in works including the Pastoral Symphony. In the mass there is not a single image suggested by the text that is not mirrored viscerally in the music: ascendit races up, descendit plunges down. That both gestures are clichés does not concern him. He is after bigger matters. More than any other single element, the unity of music and text is the driving force, the form, the logic, the meaning of the Missa solemnis.” (Excerpt From: Swafford, Jan. “Beethoven.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (www.hmhco.com). iBooks)
I am very excited about our Beethoven – what a privilege it has been to learn it and work on it with you. Stay warm, safe, and healthy – see you Wednesday!
Preparing to write program notes involves always a fair amount of reading. Most of my time has been spent with the excellent biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford, but I’ve also read program notes by various writers. It’s interesting to see that with so much to write about this sprawling, intense work, the notes as well tend to be all over the place in terms of their tone, focus, and style. It’s possible that it’s just too difficult to write clearly about Beethoven’s masterwork, the “Grand Mass” the work that he, in a letter to Ferdinand Ries in 1823, called “my greatest work.” I shall, however, make a stab at it.
There are many possible reasons for Beethoven’s desire to set the Mass to music: He wanted to have the Mass premiered at the ceremony marking the promotion of the Archduke Rudolph, one of his most faithful and generous backers, to Archbishop of Olmütz. (In addition to wanting to honor Rudolph, Beethoven also wanted Rudolph to give him a Kapellmeister position.) That ceremony was held in 1820, but the Missa took Beethoven another 40 months to complete.
It’s just as likely that Beethoven wanted to measure himself against two masters of sacred music, Bach and Haydn, and against two works he admired passionately: Handel’s oratorio Messiah, and Mozart’s Requiem. (The fugue subject in the “Dona nobis pacem” is a quote from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” – “and he shall reign for ever and ever”.) And it could be that the composer wanted to write a more mature work than his Mass in C from 1807.
Beethoven began serious work on his Opus 123 in 1819. He spent hours studying the Latin text, other composers’ Mass settings, and the works of the Renaissance master of counterpoint, Palestrina. Swafford writes, “in youth he had come to feel closer to the divine in nature than in church or scripture. For the rest of his life he would have little to do with churches and priests. He preferred to deal with God directly, man to man. If he believed in eternal life, he did not unequivocally speak of it. Like most progressives of his time, he had no use for dogma concerning religion, art, or anything else.” (Jan Swafford, Beethoven, p. 305)
A setting of the Ordinary of the Mass is, by default, in five large sections. Beethoven sets each movement as a through-composed work, with the four vocal soloists’ music intertwining with the choir’s. In Opus 123, the Kyrie is the most easily understood, with its Classical phrasing and repetitive structure. The Gloria is an exuberant conglomeration of themes and word painting. The Credo gives us a fascinating look into Beethoven’s beliefs – the word “Credo” (“I believe”) insistently repeated, and other texts speeding past the ear, barely acknowledged. The Sanctus-Pleni sunt coeli-Osanna-Benedictus is somewhat traditional, after its melancholy opening, but then surprisingly brings us into an extended violin solo accompanied by voices. And the close of the work, the Agnus Dei – Dona nobis pacem wrenches us between pastoral peace and the drums and horns of war.
As in Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven takes a significant amount of time setting the three phrases of the Kyrie, with the “Christe eleison” section changing meter and moving faster than the two “Kyrie eleison” sections. The most striking aspect of Beethoven’s setting is the entrance of the opening D major chord on an upbeat, “like a premature shout of faith” (Phillip Huscher). The late conductor Robert Shaw wrote:
“Beethoven begins his work with silence – not unlike that silence which precedes biblical creation – “the darkness upon the face of the deep.” It has to be the most extraordinary “Down-beat” in the history of Western Music, for it makes of the hour and twenty minutes which follow it music’s most elaborate and dynamic “Up”-beat.” In this movement Beethoven lays out a set of notes which recur throughout the work (F# B A G F#), along with recurring descending minor 3rds (listen to the clarinet early on) – these latter will become the binding glue of the monumental “Et vitam venturi” fugue in the Credo. We also get our first taste of the dynamic contrasts that will pervade the work.
The voices rocket upwards in the opening measures, then drop to earth at “Et in terra pax”. More contrasts follow, including the vigorous “Glorificamus” theme alternating with the humble “Adoramus te”; the gorgeous middle section, the “Qui tollis”, with its aching “miserere nobis”; and the rousing, manic closing fugue (“in gloria Dei Patris, amen”). I like what Shaw says: “If it were placed at the end of the entire work, it would have listeners leaping and screaming in the aisles over the chorus’s final “Gloria!” Whenever the “Gloria” comes close to being adequately performed, it’s a wonder that the performance can continue – or needs to.”
This, the center of the Mass, is an amazing, confusing, glorious and intense movement. All of the voices are stretched to the utmost reaches of their ranges, and the orchestra is equal to the voices in its expression of the text. In the passage about the incarnation (“Et incarnatus est”) the flute plays birdcalls, representing the Holy Spirit coming from heaven as a dove (Swafford), while “the “Crucifixus” begins with the most literal of Beethoven’s musical illustrations, the hammering of nails through flesh into wood” (Shaw). In the “Crucifixus” the strings have a shivering, quaking figure, and the strings and winds repeatedly play a yearning, lamenting motif as the choir, as if numb, chants “passus, passus” before surging into one last “passus” and then receding almost into silence on “sepultus est.”
The only extended a capella section of the work occurs at “Et resurrexit”, and it lasts only six measures before launching into the “et ascendit” in which everyone in the room rockets up to the top of their range.
“Now comes the most dogmatic and troublesome part of the Credo. Christ sits at the right hand of God in judgment of the quick and the dead; then come the declarations of belief in the Trinity, in the one true church, in one baptism, in the resurrection of the dead. Again, it is not recorded precisely what Beethoven believed in regard to eternal life, likewise the celestial family and their cosmic courtroom. Of course, he could not presume to edit out the phrases dealing with these matters. Instead, he turned them to musical purposes: while the foreground takes up the opening Credo figure, in the background the dogmatic phrases are chanted like a priest rushing through the liturgy, creating a rhythmic energy that adds tremendous exhilaration to the cries of Credo! ” (Swafford p. 1798)
“As tradition dictates, et vitam venturi is a fugue, its subject here an expansion of the Credo motif. It is probably the most difficult fugue ever written for voices. Beethoven spins it out with a wondrous sense of timelessness. Like the Gloria fugue, it moves into a quicker tempo, but the end this time is a sublime and mysterious peace.” (Michael Steinberg, SF Symphony)
Instead of Bach’s glorious triplets and majestic fanfares celebrating the king of heaven, we have Beethoven writing dark, contemplative music. The four soloists end almost in a whisper before the choir enters with the joyful “Pleni sunt coeli” fugue followed by the dancing “Osanna”.
“The next pages, for orchestra alone, in a remarkable subdued organlike color, echo the beginning of the movement, with divided violas and cellos, the texture made ethereal by low flutes. In the event that this was an actual service, here the Eucharist would be celebrated. Beethoven labels the section Präludium. He has in mind the tradition in which organists would prelude, meaning improvise, during the Eucharist to join the Hosanna to the next section, the Benedictus.” (Swafford page 1803)
The sublime “Benedictus” is a moment out of time, a musical setting for violin solo, vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra, with the violin front and center. Phillip Huscher calls the solo “Beethoven’s own voice, searching for understanding and immortality.”
The final movement, like the Sanctus, begins in B minor, with a low tessitura in the instruments and voices. It builds in intensity as the voices plead for mercy, then after a last, softly chanted “Agnus Dei”, the sopranos begin, with the descending minor 3rds heard throughout the work, the lovely “Dona nobis pacem”. At this point in the score Beethoven writes: “a prayer for outward as well as inward peace”.
One might expect the movement to unfold in this pastoral mode, with occasional urgent pleas from the chorus (“pacem, pacem”), but Beethoven breaks the mood with an ominous timpani passage, flustered strings and bugle calls. The vocal soloists cry “Agnus Dei miserere nobis” and as Swafford writes, “In this moment Beethoven explodes the form, in the same way he did with the storm in the Pastoral Symphony. Armies have disrupted the rite, destroyed the peace. It is war.”
The pastoral prayer for peace returns, but is broken again by a “driving, militant fugue” with “the bugles…raging, the drums roaring, the choir crying Dona pacem! in terror.” (Swafford p. 1815). And again Beethoven pulls us back from the edge and returns to the tender and pleading “pacem”.
“In the stillness comes a gentle rainfall of scales, pianissimo and staccato. The chorus sings one last dona pacem to the Handelian phrase. And upon this mosaic, this often so private utterance in a public genre, this most intensely worked composition of his life, Beethoven sets a final radiant simplicity.” (Steinberg)
– Anne Watson Born
May 7, 1824 in Vienna: a concert was presented, with the following program:
Consecration of the House Overture
Missa Solemnis: Kyrie, Gloria and Credo – translated into German because the local authorities didn’t want sacred music performed in a public theatre.
Symphony No. 9
All of this after (brace yourselves) a smattering of choir/piano rehearsals and only two full rehearsals, with amateur musicians who donated their time. “The idea of mounting these [Missa Solemnis] movements and the Ninth with an amateur chorus and mostly amateur orchestra after a few rehearsals is painful to contemplate. Here could be at least one day in his life when Beethoven was lucky to be deaf.” (Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph)
It is heartening to read accounts from the day – according to Swafford, “some of the weaker string players were seen to put down their bows during the harder parts. The sopranos in the chorus [during the Ninth] simply left out many of the high notes.” (Don’t get any ideas.) Heartening because there are moments in rehearsal when we also struggle with the range, complexity and sheer mass of music we need to learn. But heartening as well to realize that we are carrying on a long tradition of hard-working amateurs, donating our time and often-tired bodies to singing this great music. From the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: “The impact was indescribably marvelous and strong. [The Missa Solemnis] was acclaimed with enthusiastic shouts…”
I look forward to the same for us.
Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
Some resources – the first two are “must absorbs” – but take a few weeks for it!
YouTube color-coded analysis, showing Themes [Th]:
List of general resources:
69 pages on the Credo:
Tonight we will bash through (putting it charitably) some of the Missa Solemnis and then repair to the pub for some convivial drinking – setting the stage, I hope, for a joyful and invigorating process of learning this amazing piece.
As we begin, I’d like to bring you Philip Huscher’s take on the opening of the Missa:
“As Beethoven told Stieler early in 1820, the key is D major—a key Beethoven associated with Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus and with the Gloria and Sanctus of Bach’s B minor mass, scores he deeply admired and restudied before he set to work. Beethoven’s opening chord is the same brilliant D major that Bach and Handel knew, and yet the sound is entirely his own. Beethoven sees to that, not just in the particular voicing of the chord— the way the three notes of the D major triad are distributed over five octaves and among the instruments of the full orchestra—but in the way that it arrives mid-measure rather than on the downbeat, like a premature shout of faith. As we enter this grand and holy space, it takes our ears a few moments to adjust, to find Beethoven’s pulse, and to begin to move with it as clarinets and then oboes intone “Kyrie” long before the chorus sings. That’s one of the hallmarks of this music: the instruments of the orchestra often speak the words of the mass, anticipating and answering—but never, in the conventional sense, accompanying—the singers.”
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In the living room, behind a locked door, we heard the master singing parts of the fugue in the Credo—singing, howling, stamping. After we had been listening a long time to the almost awful scene, and were about to go away, the door opened and Beethoven stood before us with distorted features, calculated to excite fear. He looked as if he had been in mortal combat with the whole host of contrapuntists, his everlasting enemies.
I can relate to this excerpt from an account by Anton Schindler, Ludwig van Beethoven’s somewhat troubled secretary and early biographer: I too am singing and howling and stamping my way through the sublime, majestic, tender, dramatic, and beautiful Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123. We begin rehearsals on Monday, September 8, 7.30pm at the First Baptist Church of Littleton. It will be wonderful to work again with all of the members of the Chorale – bring a friend along! I’m looking forward to embarking upon another amazing musical journey with you.
The Nashoba Valley Chorale will sing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on January 31, 2015, 8pm at Littleton High School.