February 26, 2017
Sunday | 2:30 pm | Van Wezel
Tickets from $33 | Seat Layout
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is world renowned with two Grammy Awards to its credit. Mozart’s Requiem is long venerated as one of the most poignant works for orchestra and choir ever composed. Arvo Pärt has become synonymous with renaissance-inspired choral tranquility and is the most performed living composer today.
This concert will be performed without an intermission.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Born near Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, composer Arvo Pärt entered the Tallinn Conservatory in 1957 while working as a recording engineer with Estonian Radio. Although still a student, he was already composing music for the stage and film. By the time he graduated in 1963, he was considered a professional.
Immediately preceding World War II, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, leaving the young Pärt with only limited access to the musical developments in the West. His early compositions, including his first two symphonies, employed serial techniques, but he soon tired of the rigid rules of twelve-tone composition. After studying French and Flemish choral music from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Pärt began incorporating the style and spirit of early European polyphony into his own compositions.
The forced isolation behind the Iron Curtain and the endless struggle against Soviet bureaucracy forced Pärt to leave Estonia in 1980, settling in West Berlin. Since then, the majority of his compositions have been settings of religious texts. Around 2000 he returned to Estonia and now resides in both Berlin and Tallinn.
Pärt composed Credo in 1968. The brief Latin text is not taken from the Creed of the mass:
I believe in Jesus Christ. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil. I believe.
Matthew 5: 38-39
Although it is biblical rather than liturgical, it was still openly Christian and created a scandal in the atheistic Soviet Union. Every new score had to be approved beforehand by the Composers’ Union, and Neeme Järvi, then conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic, knew that he would never get approval for it. But the Philharmonic Association decided to go ahead with its performance nevertheless. Järvi said: “Next morning it was a big scandal in the Politburo of Estonia. Then the pressure started. Some people were sacked from the Philharmonic organization.” Järvi assumed that he retained his position because no one was available to replace him; but the scandal dried up Pärt’s official commissions, forcing him to rely on writing film scores to earn a living.
Throughout his career, Pärt has returned repeatedly to the music of J. S. Bach as an aesthetic and moral reference. Pärt juxtaposes the Prelude against violently discordant music.
Credo opens with women’s voices singing the text in the angelic block harmonies that underlie Bach’s Prelude. They are answered fortissimo by full chorus and orchestra.
Pärt gradually transforms the harmonies into a recurring motto.
The work becomes increasingly dissonant as the chorus whispers – and finally screams, “Oculum pro oculo, dentem pro dente.”
The “twelve-tone” chord clusters were anathema for the official Soviet aesthetic as well. But it is not unreasonable to understand the cacophony as symbolic of the “old law” of revenge and violence.
When the discord descends into improvised noise...
... the chorus returns to the text, first with the four-note motto and eventually to the Bach Prelude on the solo piano.
At last the chorus achieves a triumphant resolution, once more on the word Credo, For this unusual – and controversial – setting, the composer wrote: “I wanted to put together the two worlds of love and hate.”
Program notes are written by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn. Wordpros@mindspring.com. www.wordprosmusic.com.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791)
Probably no single piece of classical music has generated as much speculation, rumor, mythology and – yes – money as Mozart’s Requiem. And all of it began with the melancholy fantasies of the composer himself, later enhanced by the reports of his widow Constanze.
The true story of the composition of the Requiem, while not a murder mystery, is still a bizarre one. The first part is well known and accurate: in July 1791 an “unknown messenger” approached Mozart with a commission to write a Requiem Mass for his master, who wished to remain anonymous. Mozart – at the time desperately short of money – accepted the lucrative assignment, working on the Requiem intermittently along with some of his greatest music, including The Magic Flute. Overburdened with churning out as many compositions as he could in order to make ends meet for his family, Mozart sank into despondency and dyspepsia, leading to the nagging thought that he was being poisoned and the premonition that he was composing the Requiem for his own funeral. The fact that Mozart met his untimely death a mere six months after the appearance of the mysterious stranger – the Requiem still unfinished – provided grist for scholars and poets alike, culminating in the Broadway play and Hollywood blockbuster Amadeus.
In the early 1960s, however, the musicologist Dr. Otto Erich Deutsch found a report of the history of the Requiem in the archives of Wiener Neustadt by the hand of a certain Anton Herzog. An eye-witness to the whole affair, Herzog reports that Mozart composed the Requiem for Count Franz von Walsegg, an amateur musician and composer who was in the habit of commissioning works by established composers and passing them off as his own. When the Count’s 20-year-old wife died, he wanted to have two special memorials in her honor: one was a sculpture; the other was the Requiem, which was to be played annually on the anniversary of her death.
Although von Walsegg even went to the extreme of copying the original plagiarized score in his own hand – leaving it to servants to copy the parts – in order to make his claims more credible, Herzog impishly indicates that the Count fooled no one. Yet the fact that no one challenged the Count to his face tells us something about the social mores of the decadent Habsburg Empire.
Obviously aware of the tremendous talent he was hiring, von Walsegg paid well, including a down payment, and gave Mozart free rein in the composition of the Requiem. The superstitious and overworked Mozart, in turn, procrastinated. The same composer who could dash off a string quartet in a single sitting, never managed to finish the work and was dictating portions of it to his student, Franz Xavier Süssmayr, even on the day of his death. Mozart’s final illness, in fact, had nothing to do with the Requiem; it has now been fairly well established that he died from an acute attack of rheumatic fever. There is also no evidence that he spent six months obsessing over the mysterious commission. Nevertheless, as he lay dying, the Requiem still far from completed, Mozart ramped up his obsession with the mysterious stranger who had delivered the commission, now believing he was composing the Requiem for his own funeral. His last act of composition was to write out the first eight bars of the Lacrymosa and gather his friends together to sing with him what he had written so far, but he collapsed in front of them and died several hours later.
After Mozart’s death, Constanze needed the rest of the money from the unfinished commission. It was left to Süssmayr to finish the manuscript, after a number of other composers turned it down. Claiming to be very familiar with Mozart’s ideas about the work he finished the missing parts. But since no original manuscript pages of the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei have been found, there remains a running argument among scholars as to where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins.
Despite this more pedestrian account of the genesis of the Requiem, the fact that Mozart attached to it such macabre significance clearly affected the emotional intensity of the work. It contains section after section of high drama and grippingly poignant music. Notably absent is any sense of optimism about a better life hereafter. Mozart’s unusual orchestration reinforces the grim message of the text. Along with the requisite five string parts, the Requiem is scored for two bassett horns (lower pitched clarinets), two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and organ; the absence of flutes, oboes and horns, render the score dark and bottom heavy. We can also credit the composer with setting a standard for subsequent settings of the Requiem Mass, particularly for its centerpiece, the spine-chilling Dies irae.
Given the familiarity of the Requiem and the tendency to hear it as a unified work, it can be disappointing to be reminded that hands other than Mozart's had a significant role in its composition. Süssmayr’s additions included: the orchestration of the “Kyrie,” completion of the “Dies irae”, and the orchestration of the Offertory, based on Mozart’s notes – now lost. Of the composition of the “Sanctus,” “Benedictus” and the “Angus Dei,” perhaps based on sketches or conversations, Süssmayr wrote in a letter to the first publisher in 1800: “The Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei were wholly composed by me; but, in order to give the work greater uniformity, I took the liberty of repeating the “Kyrie” fugue at the line “cum sanctis” etc.” For the first part of the Communion ("Lux aeterna"), Süssmayr repeated music from the Introit ("Te decet hymnus") although he doesn’t mention this fact in his letter.
As for the completion of the "Dies irae," there is still some question. It is well known that Mozart had skipped around in his composition of the piece, leaving incomplete, for example, the last four lines of the "Dies irae" – only eight measures of the “Lacrymosa” are in Mozart’s hand. Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that Mozart probably had already composed this movement in his head and proceeded in his haste to the succeeding Offertory, and that Süssmayr, who was with him at the end, probably knew what Mozart had intended for the completion of the "Lacrymosa." Frankly, no neophyte could ever have created the exquisite harmonies of the Lacrymosa without Mozart’s intervention.
Others have attempted to improve on Süssmayr but have less than he did on which to base their versions. With all its faults – and there are many – his version is the one most often performed and beloved.
The Requiem begins with a short orchestral introduction, the theme, echoed by the chorus in a somber fugal entry – initiated appropriately deep in the range of the basses – on the words: ”Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Lord, grant them eternal rest).
The soprano soloist makes a brief appearance on the words "Te decet hymnus," to music that Süssmayr later used for the Communion.
Mozart’s setting of the "Kyrie" harks back to a not uncommon practice of “stacking” liturgical texts, the chorus sections singing more than one text simultaneously. Normally, the "Kyrie" is set as a standard ABA form with the second invocation, “Christe eleison,” constituting the middle section.
In the Requiem, however, Mozart writes a double fugue, the “Kyrie eleison” sung by the basses and sopranos, the second, on the words “Christe elesion,” by the altos and tenors. The movement is also a further indication of Mozart's debt to Handel, the first fugue subject being the same as the chorus from Messiah "And with His Stripes We Are Healed."
It is important to examine the centerpiece of Mozart's contribution to the Requiem, the "Dies irae". This section of the Mass for the Dead, known as a Sequentia (Sequence) replaces the Alleluia during Lent and on other particularly serious occasions. It is also the liturgical focus of the Mass for the Dead. The poem, written by Thomas of Celano (ca. 1200-1270), consists of 17 verses of three lines each, with a rhyme scheme of AAB in four feet of trochaic tetrameter. When set to music, like the other text-heavy parts of the Mass, it is traditionally divided into shorter sections whose music reflects the meaning of the specific verses.
Mozart divided the Dies irae into six parts: "Dies irae" (Day of wrath); "Tuba mirum" (The trumpet's wondrous sound); "Rex tremendae" (King of awesome majesty); "Recordare, Jesu pie" (Remember, Jesus, that I am the reason for your journey); "Confutatis maledictis" (Once the damned are sent to the flames) and "Lacrymosa dies illa" (Day of weeping). Other composers, most notably Giuseppe Verdi, divided the text in nine sections in order to more finely mirror the words in the music. The agnostic and gentle church musician, Gabriel Fauré, left it out altogether.
Mozart begins the first two verses of the sequentia, its famous words recalling the prophesy of the day of wrath when all souls will be judged, with a violent chorus.
The next five verses he gives to each member of the quartet of soloists in turn. A trombone solo begins and accompanies the "Tuba mirum," a bass solo – the closest Mozart comes to a true aria. The tenor takes up with the two verses beginning "Mors stupebit," which describes how all nature and even death itself will be struck dumb, as the book of judgment will be brought out as testimony of the deeds of all people. The alto, singing "Judex ergo cum sedebit" describes God sitting in judgment. The soprano completes the musical image of the sinner before the throne of judgment with "Quid sum miser" where she is joined by the other three soloists.
"Rex tremendae majestatis" is a plea for mercy from the chorus.
The quartet of soloists elaborates upon the prayer by appealing directly to Jesus in the four verses beginning "Recordare, Jesu pie."
The mood shifts briefly, but violently, with a musical depiction of the damned and the saved in two verses beginning "Confutatis maledictis." Just as the authentic Mozart ends at this point, some scholars posit that Celano's poem ended here as well. The verse beginning "Lacrymosa" goes back to describing the day of weeping, adding additional supplications, but the verse pattern and rhyme scheme are abandoned.
As for the Requiem, on the basis of the sheer elegance of the vocal line alone, there is no doubt in our minds that the "Lacrymosa" is Mozart's, although the orchestration is certainly Süssmayr's.
The final part of the Requiem composed by Mozart was the Offertory, a standard part of the Catholic mass, the text for which changes according to the day or occasion.
Mozart divided it into two musical sections, the first, "Domine Jesu Christe!" a plea to free the souls of the faithful in fulfillment to the promise made to Abraham and his descendents ("Quam olim Abrahae promisisti, et semini ejus").
The second part, "Hostias et preces tibi," also for the chorus, is the offering of prayers and sacrifices. Mozart rounds out the movement with a repeat of God's promise to Abraham. It is at this point that the burden of composing new music passed to Süssmayr.
Among the inadequacies pointed out by Süssmayr's critics is the paltry fugue in the Sanctus movement for the "Hosanna in excelsis."
The "Benedictus," in its role as centerpiece of the larger Sanctus movement, is a more elaborate piece, scored for the quartet of soloists. Setting this text for one or more soloists follows a standard eighteenth-century tradition.
Because the "Sanctus" is part of the ordinary of the Mass, Süssmayr would have had virtually hundreds of models – which unfortunately did not prevent him from writing in some incorrect harmonic progressions that continue to dog editors.
The "Agnus Dei," also part of the ordinary of the Mass – although substituting the text, "dona eis requiem"(grant them rest) for "dona nobis pacem" (Grant us peace) – is also more effective than the "Sanctus." Süssmayr conceived it as a final fervent plea, its minor key giving it more than a hint of fear that it might not be granted.
As mentioned above, Süssmayr recycled the soprano solo from the Introit and the "Kyrie" fugue for the setting of the Communion, "Lux aeterna, luceat eis" (May eternal light, shine on them). And it is certainly conceivable that Mozart had conveyed to his friend and student that he wanted the entire Requiem to be cyclical in this manner.
Finally, it should be noted that everyone from musical scholars to the general public has been so focused on Mozart's internal drama surrounding the Requiem that little attention has been paid to its place in music history. While there were concerted Requiem Masses starting from the early seventeenth century, many of them commissioned for the funerals and/or memorials of European princes, most of them have been lost to posterity. Those few that remain have never achieved sufficient interest to be championed even by the early music movement. Excerpts from the Requiem Mass were also set to music for large orchestra and operatic soloists – particularly the "Dies irae." Given Mozart's groundbreaking innovations as a musical dramatist, it is probably fair to posit that none of the predecessors had achieved such dramatic coherence and power. Certainly, the great subsequent settings of the Requiem owed much to this fragment and its unfortunate creator.
Program notes are written by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn. Wordpros@mindspring.com. www.wordprosmusic.com.
February 23, 2017 | 10:30 am | David Cohen Hall
Tickets for Classical Conversations are $12 at the door. Light refreshments, sponsored by Hotel Indigo, are served at 10:00 am, with the program beginning at 10:30 am.
Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation
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