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ClassicsOnline Home » GREAT SACRED MASTERPIECES (10-CD Box Set)
Music has always had an important part to play in religious ritual. Records show that plainchant existed from as early as 3 AD, and centuries later it was to provide a foundation for early polyphony and for the great flowering of church music in the Renaissance, including the transcendent works of Tallis and Allegri. JS Bach wrote most of his music for the Lutheran church, including the magnificent Mass in B Minor and the two Passions. Handel also contributed to religious music in England, with the creation of oratorios such as Messiah which, when witnessed by Haydn years later, inspired him to write The Creation. In the nineteenth century the form flowered again with Felix Mendelssohn, himself responsible for bringing many sacred works by JS Bach back to musical prominence. He completed Elijah in 1846; a work that, although modeled on the Handelian oratorio, clearly reflected in its lyricism and use of orchestral and choral colour Mendelssohn’s own genius as an early-Romantic composer. Particular attention has been given over the years to settings of the Requiem Mass. This collection includes three versions—from contemplative Mozart, to awesome Verdi, and sublime Fauré. Without doubt, in the years to come, religion will continue to be the driving inspirational force behind many a composition.
GREAT SACRED MASTERPIECES
Tallis • Allegri • Pergolesi • JS Bach • Handel • Haydn • Mozart • Mendelssohn • Beethoven • Verdi • Fauré
Music has always had an important part to play in religious ritual, whether in the cantilation of the synagogue or in the monastic chant that for centuries formed the basis of Christian worship. Plainchant, indeed, codified and reformed under Pope Gregory the Great, provided a foundation for early polyphony and for the great flowering of church music, surviving the Protestant Reformation and the attempts of Catholic Reformers, in the work in Rome of Palestrina, of Lassus in Germany and of Vittoria in Spain. Flourishing in the second half of the sixteenth century, the culmination of a long tradition, this music survives an important traditional element in the training of later composers. The Protestant Reformation in England brought various changes under the Elizabethan settlement, but this did not prevent adherents of the old religion, including Byrd and Thomas Tallis, adding to this repertoire. The religious divisions of the sixteenth century, however, brought inevitable differences, national and sectarian, in the forms adopted in sacred music.
While some sought a simplification or even an end to music in Christian worship, the followers of Martin Luther adopted a more pragmatic approach, retaining some elements of Catholic liturgy. Lutheran musical tradition reached a peak with the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas in Leipzig from 1723 until his death in 1750. In addition to cycles of cantatas for use on Sundays and Feast Days throughout the year, he set the text of the Latin Mass, and provided deeply felt settings of the Gospel Passions, adapting earlier Catholic tradition. Georg Frideric Handel also contributed to Passion settings, but in England, where he settled in 1712, he provided music for the official liturgy of the Church of England and created a new form, that of English oratorio. The Roman tradition of oratorio had its origins there in the late sixteenth century, but oratorio in English was well suited to contemporary circumstances in the England of the Hanoverians, a series of works that combined religious narrative and reflection with the attractions of Italianate melody and impressive choral writing.
Something of the English Handelian oratorio found its way into Vienna in the last years of the eighteenth century, when Joseph Haydn, impressed by the grandiose Handel celebrations he had witnessed in London, added to oratorio with his own interpretation of the genre in The Creation. In the nineteenth century the form flowered again with Felix Mendelssohn, who had done much to revive interest in Bach’s St Matthew Passion. He completed two Handelian oratorios, St Paul and Elijah, the first an acknowledgement of his Christian beliefs and the second of his Jewish heritage.
Catholic musical traditions continued in Western Europe with settings of the Latin texts of the Mass, adopting the newly developing musical techniques of the times. Haydn provided a number of characteristic settings of the Mass, as did many of his contemporaries. Particular attention was given, over the years, to settings of the Requiem Mass. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had provided music for the Catholic liturgy as a member of the musical establishment of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, capped his final ten years in Vienna with a Requiem that remained unfinished at the time of his death, a work commissioned by a nobleman who intended to pass the work off as his own. His musical heir in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven, provided, in addition to a single oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, his Missa Solemnis, a tribute to his royal pupil, Archduke Rudolph, on the latter’s enthronement as Archbishop of Olmütz.
The present collection includes two further settings of the Requiem. The operatic commemorative setting by Giuseppe Verdi had its origin in a proposed composite monument to Gioachino Rossini on the latter’s death in 1868. Finally Verdi made his own complete, monumental setting, intended to mark the death of Alessandro Manzoni. Here, like other composers, he was able to make dramatic use of the Dies irae, the Latin poem that reflects on the agonies and torments of the Day of Judgement. There is also a Requiem setting included by the French composer Gabriel Fauré. It is a more private and intimate expression of mourning, including words for the Burial Service and avoiding the terrors of Hell of the Dies irae that had appealed to the sceptical Verdi and, earlier, the elaborate orchestral ambitions of Hector Berlioz.
In spite of changes in ritual and language, however regrettable, in both Catholic and Protestant liturgies, there are composers who still continue to set traditional texts, whether Latin or vernacular, sometimes, as in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, casting a new light on ancient words, or breathing, like Arvo Pärt and Krysztof Penderecki, new life, in contemporary terms, into ancient forms, reflecting a constant striving towards the sacred.
Favourite Sacred Masterpieces
Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585)
Spem in alium
Considering that Thomas Tallis was the finest English composer of his generation, it is surprising how little we know about his life. The first time we hear of Tallis is in 1530 when he was organist at Dover Priory in Kent: by then he was clearly a respected professional musician. We also know that Tallis was described as being ‘very aged’ in 1577 and that he died in November 1585. Taking these three pieces of information together, the consensus is that Tallis was born around 1505 (thus placing him in his mid-twenties while working at Dover, in his early-seventies when he was described as ‘very aged’, and in his eightieth year when he died). Hardly conclusive, but there is not much else to go on. In 1535 Dover Priory was dissolved, and Tallis’ job with it. By 1537 he was working at the church of St Mary-at-Hill in London. St Mary-at-Hill was an important musical foundation, and from there Tallis seems to have begun his association with the English royal court (in 1577 Tallis was described as ‘serving your royal ancestors for forty years’).
By 1538 Tallis was a senior member of the music staff at Waltham Abbey in Essex, but yet again Tallis’s job dissolved along with the Abbey in 1540. Undeterred, he moved to the newly-founded secular establishment at Canterbury Cathedral, where he sang as part of the choir of twenty-two men and boys. The Reformation had a profound effect on English church music, most tangibly during the reign of Edward VI when late-medieval Latin polyphony, as exemplified by the Salve intemerata and its Mass, became outlawed. Tallis maintained his craft and his compositional voice, and provided the Church of England with largely homophonic music to English texts. He was, above all, a pragmatist, and he allowed the intimacy and directness of expression which this new style required to give another dimension to his compositional vision. Indeed, turbulent though this English liturgical revolution must have been to a lifelong Catholic, Tallis accepted the new musical order and learnt from it.
Some of Tallis’ English-texted music was written in the Edwardine years of the Reformation, and the rest of it in Elizabethan England. I call and cry began life as an instrumental piece and only later did Tallis add words to it. Sometime later it also became the Latin motet O sacrum convivium, yet the English word-setting is more fluid and convincing than the Latin version. Perhaps the reverse is true of With all our heart whose earliest text is clearly the Latin motet Salvator mundi. Most interesting of all is the ‘Armada’ anthem, Discomfort them, which acquired these English words three years after Tallis’ death. Having been conceived as the Latin motet Absterge Domine, the belligerent English text was hurriedly wrapped around the motet’s scaffolding ‘on the occasion of the Spanish invasion in 1588’.
Tallis served at court under four monarchs during his long life (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth) as singer, organist, choir trainer, and composer. His musical genius and his years of service at court were recognised in 1573 by the granting of a license which allowed him and his supposed pupil William Byrd to maintain a monopoly over the printing and publication of music and music paper for 21 years. This extraordinary royal favour seems to have followed hard on the heels of the finest musical achievement of his career, the composition of the forty-voice motet Spem in alium. In 1567 the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio came to London; he brought with him Ecce beatam lucem, a motet in forty parts. According to a recollection of 1611, a music-loving Duke (possibly the Duke of Norfolk) ‘asked whether none of our Englishmen could set as good a song’. Consequently, ‘Tallis, being very skilful, was felt to try whether he would undertake the matter, which he did, and made one of forty parts which was sung in the Long Gallery at Arundel House’. Arundel House, off London’s Strand, belonged to Norfolk’s father-in-law, the Earl of Arundel, who ran a strong musical establishment. Moreover the Earl of Arundel also had a country residence, Nonsuch Palace, which had an octagonal banqueting-hall. At Nonsuch Palace the octagonal hall would presumably have necessitated a performance of Spem in alium ‘in the round’, the octagon accommodating eight choirs of five voices each. It is unlikely that early audiences were either aware that all forty voices enter together for the first time at the fortieth semibreve, or that the piece lasts 69 longs (in the Latin alphabet, where I and J are the same letter, T=19, A=1, L=11, L=11, I=9, S=18, so TALLIS = 69). But those fortunate listeners surely shared the most impressive aural experience of their lives, and the number symbolism is a mark of the fact that when Tallis attempted something that must have seemed impossible to the average musician of his day, he still had technique in reserve.
This recording of Spem in alium was made using ‘surround sound’ (available on Naxos SACD 6.110111 and DVD-A 5.110111). The forty voices were arranged to form four sides of a huge St-Chad cross: Choirs 1 & 2 to the West, 3 & 4 to the North, 5 & 6 to the East, and 7 & 8 to the South. The recording was made to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Tallis’ birth and the 21st birthday of Oxford Camerata—old members of Oxford Camerata met with their new counterparts for this performance of Tallis’ masterpiece.
Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652)
Trained as a chorister in Rome from the age of nine, Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) continued as a singer in Rome and at Fermo and Tivoli. In 1628 he became maestro di cappella at the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome and from 1630 he was a singer in the papal chapel of Pope Urban VIII. His best known composition for the papal choir is his nine-part Miserere, a psalm-setting customarily performed by the choir in Holy Week. The work remained the exclusive property of the papal choir and was copied out from memory by Mozart, when he heard the work sung in Rome in 1770. Three years later Dr Burney took a copy of the Miserere, with other music of the chapel, during the course of his extended investigative journey through Europe.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736)
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, the family name by which he is generally known derived from his great-grandfather’s place of origin, Pergola, was born at Iesi in 1710, the third child of a surveyor. Aristocratic patronage enabled him to study in the early 1720s at the Conservatorio dei Poveri in Naples. Later on, Pergolesi’s position in the musical life of Naples seemed assured, with commissioned Mass and Vesper settings in honour of St Emedius, patron of the city and protector against earthquakes, and appointment, with right of succession, as deputy to the city maestro di cappella. Political disturbances, with the ousting of the Austrian viceroy and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Naples under King Carlos of Bourbon, took Pergolesi briefly to Rome, where, in 1734, a Mass setting commissioned by a Neapolitan nobleman, the Duke of Maddaloni, created a sensation. By 1735 Pergolesi’s health had deteriorated very considerably and the following year he took up residence in the Franciscan monastery at Pozzuoli to prepare, it seems, for his death. It was here, in the last months of his life, that he wrote his Stabat mater, for the fraternity of the Church of S Maria dei Sette Dolori in Naples, a church that is the site of the Maddaloni family tomb. His cantata da camera Orfeo also dates from this final period of his life. He died on 16 March 1736.
Pergolesi’s early death and the wide fame accorded him posthumously has led to very considerable confusion in matters of attribution, as others seized the opportunity of using his name, so that any modem listing of his works must include a large category of compositions that are either doubtful or clearly spurious, some of these misattributions finding their way into Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. There is, of course, no doubt about the origin of either the Stabat mater or Orfeo. The first, indeed, had exceptionally wide circulation, with publication in London in 1749 and adaptation by Johann Sebastian Bach, and remains the most often heard of all Pergolesi’s compositions.
Pergolesi’s Stabat mater, for soprano and alto, with string orchestra and basso continuo, was intended to replace the setting by Alessandro Scarlatti for the same resources and fraternity. It opens with a setting of the first stanza for the two voices, which enter after a brief and moving instrumental introduction, music that Mozart might have had in mind as he wrote his own Requiem half a century later. The second stanza is a more animated soprano solo, the instrumental and subsequent vocal trills suggesting the piercing sword of the text. O quam tristis et afflicts brings the soprano and alto together in a more reflective mood, to be followed by the fourth stanza, allotted to the alto and Handelian in its operatic vigour. The soprano introduces the fifth stanza, the question proposed countered by the following interrogative stanza from the alto, before the two voices blend, at first in sad reflection and then in animated conclusion. Vidit suum dulcem Natum is set for soprano, with an affecting instrumental introduction and hesitant pointing of the words dum emisit spiritum. The alto invokes the Mother of Christ, fons amoris, with deepest feeling. The two join together again in a vigorous fugal Fac ut ardeat cor meum, to which the setting of the twelfth stanza, Sancta Mater, istud agas, and the following verses, for the two voices, offer a gentler contrast, the soprano answered by the alto before both join together in Fac me vere tecum flere. The following alto solo has a dramatic instrumental introduction, echoed in the vocal line. The soprano and alto join in a duet of greater cheer, continued more reflectively in the sanguine expectation of salvation expressed in the final stanza, capped by an energetic Amen.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Ave verum corpus, K. 618
The simple clarity of Mozart’s Ave verum of reflects the circumstances of its composition. The composer spent the last ten years of his life in precarious independence in Vienna, after a childhood centred on Salzburg, where his father had done much to protect him from the practical difficulties of life as a musician. He wrote his setting of the Ave verum corpus, Hail true Body, scored for four-part choir, strings and organ, for a church of relatively limited resources in Baden, where his wife was convalescing, during the last summer of his life. The same period brought work on a setting of the Requiem Mass, commissioned anonymously and hence arousing the composer’s superstitions. This remained unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death in early December 1791, but he had sketched a good part of the work, including at least the outline of the Lacrimosa. It was at this point that, according to one account, he broke down in tears, as his friends gathered at his death-bed to sing through with him the completed parts of his Requiem. The Solemn Vespers of a Confessor belong to a happier period, 1780, before Mozart had abandoned the security of employment together with his father in the musical establishment of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Laudate Dominum is for soprano solo, with four-part choir, bassoon and strings, without violas.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) arr. Charles Gounod (1818–1893)
The well-known Latin prayer to Mary ‘Ave Maria’ was set to the music of JS Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C major from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and published in 1853. Gounod’s melody has become an enduringly popular setting.
César FRANCK (1822–1890)
Franck wrote a number of large scale choral works on Biblical subjects, with smaller scale works for occasional or liturgical use. César Franck’s Panis angelicus, originally for tenor, organ, harp, cello and double bass was written in 1872. It was later added to his Mass for three voices, and has been variously arranged. The text is part of a Corpus Christi hymn by St Thomas Aquinas.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Mass in B minor (Highlights)
The Latin Mass had continued in use in the larger Lutheran churches of Germany, at least where Pietist changes had not taken root. By the time of Bach it was principally the Kyrie and Gloria that were retained. Nevertheless it has been suggested that the four shorter Latin Mass settings, BWV 233–236, were written probably in the later 1730s in Leipzig either for the Catholic court of Dresden or for a possible Bohemian patron, Count Sporck. The Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B minor were written in 1733, making some use of earlier material, and dedicated to the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, when Bach visited Dresden, presenting at the same time a petition for a court title that might serve to protect him in Leipzig from some of the insults that he claimed he suffered in differences with the civic authorities. His request was not granted until 1736, after the death of a lesser patron, Duke Christian of Weissenfels, whom Bach had served as Kapellmeister von Haus aus, as he had from 1723 Prince Leopold. It is possible that the Kyrie and Gloria were performed in Dresden at the Sophienkirche, where Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s eldest son, had been appointed organist in 1733, or perhaps in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche to celebrate the accession of the new monarch. The remaining movements of the B minor Mass, the Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, make considerable use of earlier works and were added to the original score of the Mass in the last years of the composer’s life, between 1747 and 1749.
The Mass opens with a monumental polyphonic setting of the Kyrie eleison, scored for two flutes, two oboes d’amore, bassoon, strings, continuo and five-part choir. The Christe eleison is a largely homophonic duet for two sopranos, with accompanying violins and basso continuo, and provides a serene relaxation of tension in key and mood. The second Kyrie is in four-part fugal style, the subject announced by the basses, followed by tenors, altos and sopranos in order, the voices doubled by instruments. The atmosphere of mourning suggested in the Kyrie is dispelled by the celebratory Gloria in D major, with an instrumental ensemble that now includes three trumpets and timpani and five-part choir, its source possibly a lost concerto. This leads to an appropriately gentle setting of Et in terra pax, initially without trumpets or timpani. Laudamus te is set for solo soprano and solo violin, with strings and continuo, the violin weaving an elaborate obbligato. Gratias agimus tibi is taken from an earlier work, the Cantata BWV 29, Wir danken dir, Gott, an obviously suitable choice, the words now translated back into Latin. The cantata was composed for the inauguration of the Leipzig Town Council on 27 August 1731. This section of the Gloria, using the whole instrumental ensemble, is again a four-part fugal movement, the voices entering in ascending order. Solo flute and strings, with continuo, are used for the soprano and tenor duet Domine Deus. This moves without a pause into Qui tollis peccata mundi, a setting for five voices, flutes, strings and the ever-present continuo, taken from Cantata BWV 46 of 1723, Schauet doch und sehet (Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow). Qui sedes ad dextram Patris is an alto aria, with oboe d’amore obbligato, followed by the bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus, with corno da caccia, two bassoons and continuo. Clarino trumpets return in all their brilliance for the final Cum Sancto Spiritu, with all the instrumental and choral resources in joyful praise. The Credo, the Symbolum Nicenum or Nicene Creed, symmetrically designed, opens with a massive fugal Credo, based on the traditional Gregorian chant, set in seven parts, with five voices and two violins over a constantly stepping bass part. Other instruments are added for the succeeding and largely homophonic Patrem omnipotentem, adapted from Cantata BWV 171 Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, written in 1729. Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum is a duet for soprano and alto, with the two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo while Et incarnatus est is accompanied by violins and continuo, as the voices enter in descending imitation, the violins embellishing the descending figure with appoggiature. Crucifixus etiam pro nobis calls for two flutes in addition to strings and continuo, with a poignant use of four-part chorus. The movement is in the form of a passacaglia, over a repeated chromatically descending bass figure, derived from a chorus from the Cantata BWV 171, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen of 1714. The jubilation of the resurrection is painted with the addition of trumpets and timpani to the full orchestra and five-part chorus for the words Et resurrexit tertia die, based, it is thought, on a lost concerto. The Creed continues with a bass aria, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, accompanied by two oboes d’amore and continuo, in a compound 6/8 metre. The five-part chorus returns in fugal form for Confiteor unum baptisma, with a steadily moving instrumental bass line. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum is derived from Cantata BWV 120, where the text declares Jauchzet ihr erfreuten Stimmen, a work originally written in 1728–9 for the inauguration of the Town Council. The Sanctus, first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Day 1724, uses a six-part choir, with divided sopranos and altos, in addition to an instrumental ensemble of three trumpets and timpani, three oboes, strings and continuo. It opens with a monumental Adagio, swinging in a triplet rhythm and moving forward to a livelier fugato at the words Pleni sunt coeli. The Osanna calls for a double chorus and is derived from Cantata BWV 215, Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, a work written for the first anniversary of the election of Friedrich August II as August III, King of Poland, in 1734, an apt choice of music originally in praise of a secular monarch for praise of the King of Heaven, involving a full instrumental ensemble in which flutes are now included. The Benedictus opens as a tenor aria, with flute obbligato, its ritornello passages in a contrasted triple rhythm. The Osanna is then repeated. The Agnus Dei is based on Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben, from Cantata BWV 11, the Ascension Oratorio, written for Ascension Day 1735. It is in the form of an alto aria with violins and basso continuo and is followed by a Dona nobis pacem for four-part choir and full instrumental forces, using again the music of Gratias agimus, from the Gloria, a conclusion that some have found unsatisfactory, although the words on both occasions seem equally appropriate. This, one of the greatest of choral works, ends with both thanks to God and a prayer for peace.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
St Matthew Passion (Highlights)
The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke’s service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702. At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach’s life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music, he was able, among other things, to provide music for the university collegium musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
Traditional Roman liturgy involves the singing of the accounts of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ on four days preceding Easter. On Palm Sunday the first account, from the Gospel of St Matthew, is sung, followed on the Wednesday of Holy Week by the narrative of St Luke, with that of St Mark on Maundy Thursday and that of St John on Good Friday. The accounts of the Passion as found in the four Gospels naturally lend themselves to performance by more than one singer, with the words of Christ, Pilate and other individuals given to different singers. This seems to have become the practice by the thirteenth century, when an element of drama had already become a regular part of Easter and Christmas ceremonies. By the early sixteenth century an element of polyphony had been introduced as a possible elaboration of the liturgical tradition. Various forms of sung Passion were taken over by Martin Luther, and by the early eighteenth century German Lutherans had elaborated these earlier types of Passion. The form used by Bach was that of the oratorio Passion, as developed in North Germany in the middle of the seventeenth century. Here the biblical text is interrupted by meditative episodes, occasional instrumental passages and newly harmonized chorales.
Bach composed five Passion settings, of which those based on the Gospels of St Matthew and of St John survive. His St Mark Passion is lost and a fourth, using the text of the Gospel of St Luke, is considered spurious, while the fifth referred to in Bach’s Obituary, may be a single-choir version of the St Matthew Passion. The St Matthew Passion in its full surviving version was first performed, according to current Lutheran custom, on Good Friday, either in 1727 or in 1729, and repeated with minor revisions in 1736 and in 1740.
The text of the St Matthew Passion is taken, in the first place, from the Gospel of St Matthew in the translation by Martin Luther. The narrative is sung by the Evangelist, a tenor, with the words of Christ, Peter, Judas and others are allocated to different singers. In addition to the biblical text there are recitatives and arias that offer reflection on the events of the Passion and chorales that allow the chorus to add its own more familiar meditation. The additional texts newly written for Bach are by Picander, the pseudonym of the Leipzig poet and civil servant Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote the additional text of Bach’s St Mark Passion and of a number of cantatas. The whole work is in two parts, the first of these taking the narrative from the events leading up to the Last Supper, to Gethsemane and the Betrayal of Christ. The second part, after a contralto aria, opens with Christ before the High Priest and goes on to St Peter’s denial of Christ, the attempt of Judas to repent and Christ before Pilate, His condemnation, scourging and crucifixion, ending as Pilate orders a watch to be kept on the sepulchre. The first part of the St Matthew Passion opens with a chorus and a chorale. The chorus Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come, you daughters, help me mourn) bids the daughters of Zion moum, in a series of questions and answers and the boys’ choir sings the chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O Lamb of God, guiltless). The contralto aria Buß’ und Reu’ (Penitence and sorrow rend the sinful heart in two), with obbligato flutes, follows the anointing of Christ with precious ointment, to the scandal of his disciples. The next aria, for soprano, Blute nur, du liebes Herz (Bleed now, thou dear heart) reflects on the betrayal of Christ by Judas. In the following aria Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (I will give Thee my heart), with obbligato oboes, the soprano offers thanks for the gift of the Last Supper.
The first tenor aria, with chorus, Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen (I will watch by my Jesus), with oboe obbligato, echoes the words of the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. The bass reflects on the words of Christ: If it be possible let this cup pass from me, in the aria Gerne will ich mich bequemen (Gladly will I submit). The next aria, for soprano, contralto and chorus, So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (So my Jesus now is taken), following the seizing of Christ, allows the chorus the dramatic appeal to the elements Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden? (Have lightning and thunder vanished in the clouds?). The first part of the Passion ends with the chorale O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (O man, lament thy great sin).
The second part of the Passion opens with the interrogation of Christ before the high priest. Peter’s denial, the crowing of the cock and his bitter tears lead to a contralto aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, my God), with obbligato violin. The bass aria Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder (Give me my Jesus again), with solo violin, reflects on the blood-money offered to Judas. Christ is brought before Pilate, who offers to release a prisoner to the people, but they shout for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Christ. The contralto aria Können Tränen meiner Wangen nichts erlangen (The tears of my cheeks can do nothing) submits to the sacrifice. The scourging of Christ is followed by the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head, sore wounded). The deposition, after the crucifixion, is succeeded by the bass aria Mache dich, mein Herze rein (Make thee clean, my heart, I will bury Jesus). The chorus offers a final meditation on the Passion in Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit in tears), bidding Christ rest now in the sepulchre.
George Frederic Handel (1685–1759)
The Messiah (Highlights)
George Frideric Handel was born in Hallé in 1685. His elderly father, barber-surgeon to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, entertained natural prejudices against the choice of music as a profession for his young son, the second child of his second wife, and Handel enjoyed an education that led him, after his father’s death, to a brief period of study at the University of Hallé in 1702. The following year he moved to Hamburg, joining the opera there, at first as a string-player, then as harpsichordist and composer. Success in Italian opera in Hamburg coupled with the doubtful musical prospects the city offered, persuaded Handel to try his fortune in Italy, where he spent the years between 1706 and 1710, confirming his generally Italianate style of composition in works for the theatre, the church and private entertainment.
In 1710, rejecting an offer from the ruler of Innsbruck, Handel accepted the position of Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, and immediately took leave of absence for the staging of his opera Rinaldo in London, where Italian opera was gradually gaining a place. Two years later he was back in London for good, concerned in particular with the composition, management and presentation of Italian opera. During the following thirty years he wrote nearly forty Italian operas for the London stage, to which he devoted a considerable part of his working life.
Early oratorio may be seen as a by-product of opera as it developed at the turn of the sixteenth century in Italy. England was late in its grudging acceptance of opera and had shown little interest in oratorio, as it had developed in other countries during the seventeenth century. Handel had written Italian oratorio in Rome. His first attempt at the new form of English oratorio carne in 1732 with his setting of an adaptation of Racine’s biblical drama Esther, described by one hostile critic as a “Religious Farce”, and certainly a very profitable one to its composer. English oratorio combined the musical delights of Italian opera, with a text in English and a religious subject that might appeal to the Protestant conscience. Since oratorio was not staged, there was also a considerable saving in the cost of production.
Of all English oratorios Handel’s Messiah has always been the most overwhelmingly popular. It is the least theatrical of all his oratorios and the most purely sacred in its choice of subject, the Messiah, a compendious version of the coming of Christ, His death and resurrection. The text, by Charles Jennens, drew extensively on the Authorized Version of the Bible, and an additional attraction has always been the large number of choruses included, a larger number than in any other of Handel’ s oratorios. Messiah was written with Handel’s usual speed in 1741 for performance in Dublin, some of it rehearsed briefly by inadequate singers in Chester, as he made his way to Holyhead to embark for the voyage. The first performance was given at the New Music Hall in Fish-amble Street, Dublin, on 13 April 1742, in aid of charity. The first London performance took place in Lent 1743 at Covent Garden, but the work failed to please, in part because of reservations that some held about the suitability of such a sacred subject for a theatre. Messiah only achieved its lasting success after performances in 1750 in aid of the Foundling Hospital, established ten years earlier by Captain Thomas Coram. At his death in 1759 Handel left a fair copy of the score and all parts to the Hospital, an institution that continued to benefit from annual performances of the work.
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
The Creation (Highlights)
Born in Rohrau in 1732, the son of a wheelwright, Haydn was trained as a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where he made his early living, before appointment to the small musical establishment of Count Morzin in 1759. In 1760 he entered the service of the Esterházy Princes, and succeeded to the position of Kapellmeister on the death of his predecessor and immediate superior Gregor Werner in 1766. Much of Haydn’s life now centred on the magnificent palace and estate at Eszterháza, where his employer Prince Nikolaus Esterházy had moved his entourage for most of the year. The death of the Prince in 1790 released Haydn and allowed travel to London. There followed further service of the successors to Prince Nikolaus, now at the former residence at Eisenstadt, and concluding retirement in Vienna, where he died in 1809, as the soldiers of Napoleon again entered the city.
In London towards the end of May in 1791 Haydn had attended the great Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey, with its thousand performers. The music of Handel was known, of course, in Vienna, where, particularly with the encouragement of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, arbiter elegantium of the Imperial court, the interest of Mozart had been aroused and performances of oratorios had been arranged. The English tradition of Handel performance, however, was something new, suggesting to Haydn a possible return to a form he had explored sixteen years earlier in Il ritorno di Tobia. His madrigal The Storm, setting words by Peter Pindar, won success at its first performance in London in 1792, as it did in Vienna the following year, and further suggested that Haydn might be the true successor to Handel in the composition of oratorios. It was through the impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, who had arranged Haydn’s concerts in London, that Haydn came by a possible English text for a new oratorio, a libretto based on the Bible and on Milton’s Paradise Lost, apparently by a certain Lidley or Lindley, and once intended, it has been suggested, for Handel. On his return to Vienna he gave the English text to Baron van Swieten, who made a German version, later devising a not always particularly idiomatic English version to match the German words, as set by Haydn. It has been suggested that the English libretto given to Haydn by Salomon simply inspired a new text, but similarity with English textual sources seems to indicate that Baron van Swieten first translated the English text into German, before adapting the English to fit his own German version and Haydn’s music. Salomon, however, claimed rights to the text, later relinquishing his claim, although delays in the mail in 1800 put him at a disadvantage over the planned first London performance, which was anticipated by a young rival, John Ashley, who had received his copy of the published work by British Embassy courier. Haydn had worked on the score between 1796 and 1798, and there was a private performance on 30 April in the latter year. The first public Vienna performance, with larger forces, was given at the Burgtheater on 19 March 1799 before a crowded auditorium, an occasion that aroused the greatest public interest and the warmest applause and approval of a work described by one writer as the ‘masterpiece of the new musical age’.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Born in Salzburg in 1756, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart showed prodigious gifts as a child. These abilities were carefully nurtured by his father, whose own interests were sacrificed to his son’s advancement. Young Mozart spent his precocious childhood in a series of concert tours that took him to the cities of Austria and Germany, to Paris and to London, greeted wherever he stayed with curiosity and wonder. In 1777 Mozart left his position in Salzburg, where he had been appointed Konzertmeister, to seek his fortune elsewhere. Leopold Mozart was not given leave of absence, so Mozart set out with his mother for Paris. Paris proved a disappointment. As a child Mozart had caused a sensation: as a man he proved less of an attraction, although he endeavoured to prove as best he could that he was not just “a stupid German”, to be treated with haughty disdain by the French nobility. In the summer of 1778 his mother died and in the autumn Mozart began his slow return to Salzburg, where he was given another position in the court musical establishment, a place from which he was to secure final dismissal only in 1781.
The last ten years of Mozart’s life were spent in initially successful but precarious independence in Vienna. Here he was able to realise more fully his greatest ambition, as a composer of opera, a skill that he had hitherto exercised only in occasional commissions outside Salzburg. He excelled as a keyboard-player and pleased his audiences, until the novelty of his playing began to wear thin, while attracting amateur and professional pupils. An imprudent marriage in 1782 increased the expenses of living, in spite of his own optimistic forecasts, and his final years were rendered uneasy through the uncertainty of his income, coupled with the expectations that he and his father had long entertained. Mozart died after a short illness in December 1791, at a time when his new German opera, Die Zauberflöte, was drawing good audiences, and when it seemed that the tide might once again be turning in his favour. In his lifetime there were always contemporaries who had a proper estimate of his worth, including the composers Haydn and Beethoven. It has been left to posterity, however, to accord him something of his due as “the miracle that God let be born in Salzburg”.
The circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart’s Requiem are well enough known. In July 1791 he received a commission for the composition of a Requiem Mass from Count Franz Walsegg zu Stuppach, who sought to commemorate the recent death of his wife by the performance of a work of this kind, which he would claim as his own. To commission the music he sent his steward Franz Anton Leutgeb to Mozart and paid an advance of 60 ducats, with promise of a further sum when the work was finished. The summer of 1791 was a busy one for Mozart. His German opera, Die Zauberflöte, was to be staged in the early autumn, while Prague had commissioned a coronation opera from him, La clemenza di Tito, and this involved a journey to the Bohemian capital in September for the occasion. In May he had been appointed unpaid Assistant to the Kapellmeister of St Stephen’s Cathedral, with right of succession to the aging incumbent.
Constanze Mozart was later to claim that her husband had a premonition that the Requiem was an omen of his own coming death, a suggestion to which one may attach little credence, however attractive the story may appear to the romantic imagination. Mozart seemed, in the summer of 1791, very much more cheerful than he had been, since his fortunes had taken an obvious turn for the better. In November, however, he was taken ill and within a fortnight he was dead, his death ascribed by his doctor to military fever, but the subject of much subsequent speculation. On 4 December he felt well enough to sing with his friends parts of the Requiem, which was still incomplete. Benedikt Schack, Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, sang the soprano part in falsetto, Mozart sang alto, the violinist Hofer, husband of Constanze’s sister Josefa, Queen of the Night, sang tenor and Franz Gerl, whose wife played Papagena, while he took the part of Sarastro, sang bass. It is said that Mozart burst into tears and could go no further when it came to the Lacrimosa, of which, incidentally, he had written only the first eight bars. This was in the afternoon. In the evening his condition worsened and he died at five minutes to one on the morning of 5 December, to be buried a day or so later in an unmarked grave.
At his death Mozart left his setting of the Requiem unfinished. His widow Constanze might have been expected to entrust the completion of the work to her husband’s pupil and her own constant companion Franz Xaver Süssmayer. Instead, apparently out of pique, she asked Josef Eybler to finish the composition and scoring. He later gave up the task and the unfinished score finally came into the hands of Süssmayer, so that the best known form of the Requiem is the version started by Mozart, continued briefly by Eybler and completed by Süssmayer. Others have in recent years replaced these additions and remodelled the work from Mozart’s surviving autograph sketches. Mozart had completed the composition and scoring of the Introit and Kyrie, used by Süssmayer for the final Communion, Lux aeterna. The great Sequence, the Dies Irae, was sketched fairly fully up to the verse Lacrimosa, dies illa, a point at which Eybler too gave up his tentative work on the score. Süssmayer continued the Lacrimosa for a further 22 bars, completing it. Mozart had written the voice parts and bass of the Offertory, as he had for much of the Dies Irae, and this Süssmayer completed. Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are the work of Süssmayer. It might be added that Count Walsegg was not deterred from his original intention and on 14 December 1793 had the Requiem performed as his own composition, an imposture that amused him greatly.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the distinguished Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, was born in Hamburg, the son of a banker (the additional surname Bartholdy was added to the family name when his parents converted to Christianity). The family moved to Berlin, where Mendelssohn was brought up and able to associate with a cultured circle of family friends. He was associated with the revival of public interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in the early 1830s travelled abroad for his education, spending time in Italy and also visiting England, Wales and Scotland. He was later conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig (where he also established a conservatory), his stay there interrupted briefly by a return to Berlin. He died in Leipzig in 1847. Prolific and precocious, Mendelssohn had many gifts, musically as composer, conductor and pianist. His style of composition combined something of the economy of means of the Classical period with the Romanticism of a later age.
The first of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, St Paul, had had its first performance in Düsseldorf in 1836. It was ten years before he turned again to the form, now choosing a subject drawn from the Old Testament. The work was the result of a commission from the Committee of the Birmingham Festival, who invited Mendelssohn to direct the festival in 1846 and compose for it a new work. Mendelssohn refused to undertake the direction of the festival, but agreed to compose a work for the occasion. The prophet Elijah had been a subject that he had considered for a number of years and planned with his friend Karl Klingemann in the late 1830s. It was only in 1844 that he seems to have started thinking of the work again, but it was not until the invitation from Birmingham the following year that he began the task of composition, with a text compiled from the first Book of Kings by Julius Schubring, a friend for many years and at this time a Pastor in Dessau, a man who remained grateful for the kindness and hospitality shown him by the Mendelssohns during his student days in Berlin. Mendelssohn rightly rejected the unduly overt Christian interpretation of the text proposed by Schubring, who had suggested that the figures of Elijah, Moses and Christ should appear, as at the account of the Transfiguration, an event that Mendelssohn perhaps intended for a new oratorio, Christus, that remained unfinished at his death. For its first performance an English version was prepared by William Bartholomew, who had performed the same service for other vocal works by Mendelssohn. The first performance took place in Birmingham on 26 August 1846, when eight numbers were encored. Mendelssohn made various revisions to the work, which was heard in London on 16 April 1847, in the course of a busy and exhausting visit to England, and given three further performances, the second of the four in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, allowing the latter to pay his tribute in a note added to his programme book and sent to Mendelssohn. It was first heard in Germany in Hamburg in October, but by the time of its performance in Vienna on 14 November Mendelssohn was dead.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Missa Solemnis, Op 123
Born in Bonn in 1770, the eldest son of a singer in the Kapelle of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s Kapellmeister, Beethoven moved in 1792 to Vienna. There he had some lessons from Haydn and others, quickly establishing himself as a remarkable keyboard player and original composer. Over the years increasing deafness, of which Beethoven was first fully aware by the turn of the century, had made public performance impossible and accentuated existing eccentricities of character, patiently tolerated by a series of rich patrons and his royal pupil the Archduke Rudolph. Beethoven did much to enlarge the possibilities of music and widen the horizons of later generations of composers. To his contemporaries he was sometimes a controversial figure, making heavy demands on listeners by both the length and the complexity of his writing, as he explored new fields of music.
Beethoven’s most impressive choral work is the Missa solemnis, written for the enthronement of his pupil Archduke Rudolph as Archbishop of Olmütz (Olomouc) although finished too late for that occasion. The work is scored for an orchestra with the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, double bassoon, four horns, three trombones, trumpets and timpani, strings and organ, together with four solo singers and chorus. The work is conceived as a whole and has been described as a fivemovement symphony, but in spite of its length it still has a possible liturgical use, as at first intended. The D major Kyrie is marked Assai sostenuto and Mit Andacht (With devotion), with the superscription Von Herzen—möge es wieder—zu Herzen gehen! (From the heart—may it go again to the heart!). In the first section the soloists and choir combine in prayer, leading to the central B minor Christe eleison, led by the soloists. The third Kyrie, directed to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is a greatly varied recapitulation.
The Gloria opens with a burst of triumph, hushed for a moment at the words et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, before the jubilant return in laudamus te. In a movement where the influence of Handel is perceptible, the clause glorificamus te provides a place for fugal writing. There is a change of mood and of key, to B flat major as the soloists introduce the words gratias agimus tibi. The woodwind and horns start the C major Larghetto setting of qui tollis peccata mundi, led by the soloists. The original key is restored, before further modulation and word-painting at the words miserere nobis, a plea reinforced by the trombones. A sudden hush is followed by a triumphant quoniam tu solus sanctus, in a phrase echoing Mozart’s Tuba mirum. In gloria Dei Patris provides the opportunity for a great fugue which makes use of all possible contrapuntal techniques, before a final unliturgical repetition of the opening words, Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The Credo, in B flat major, sets the opening statement of belief to a melody of strong contrapuntal possibilities, as voice after voice enters, before finally uniting on the words unum Deum. There is a sudden quietness for et invisibilium, after which the Credo resumes, with the return of the opening motif. Ante omnia saecula brings a pianissimo, soon interrupted by Deum de Deo, followed by the fugal consubstantialem Patri. There is further word-painting in what follows, leading to the necessary tranquil devotion of et incarnatus est, with its reduced orchestration and flute ornamentation, until the dramatic solo tenor announcement, et homo factus est. There is starker drama at the Crucifixus, and the sombre passus et sepultus est, tension dispelled at Et resurrexit tertia die, leading to the fugal entries of the ascending et ascendit in coelum. The trombones suggest the Last Trump at judicare vivos et mortuos. The Credo motif returns accompanied by the later clauses of the Creed and the double fugue at et vitam venturi saeculi, a monumental conclusion to this declaration of belief.
The Sanctus, an Adagio, again marked Mit Andacht, with the violins at first silent, has the entry of the solo voices preceded by the chords of the trombones. The sense of awe, stressed by the tremolo of the lower strings, is interrupted by the joyful Pleni sunt coeli and fugato Osanna. There is a meditative Praeludium, scored for flutes, bassoon, lower strings and organ, designed for the part of the Canon of the Mass before the Consecration. A violin solo, accompanied by flutes then clarinets, ushers in the Benedictus, the instrumental element continued with the entry of the solo voices in an extended, almost pastoral movement.
The B minor Agnus Dei is introduced by the bass soloist, joined by other voices in a prayer for mercy. The final petition of the Agnus Dei, has the epigraph Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden (Prayer for inner and outward peace), words that some have seen as a reflection of Beethoven’s own inner turmoil, particularly his bitter quarrel with his brother’s widow over the care of his nephew. There is something Mahlerian about the trumpets’ entry that heralds the return of the original petition, followed by the fugal treatment of the plea for peace. An orchestral passage of baroque suggestion is succeeded by a fortissimo, introducing an extended coda, in which the desire for peace remains the overriding theme.
It might be added that the conclusion also makes a more satisfactory concert ending than many purely liturgical settings of the Mass. Beethoven achieves, in a work that he subjected to much revision and over which he took the greatest care, a new musical, dramatic and liturgical synthesis, absorbing the earlier examples of such writing, from Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, to the more immediately contemporary, Cherubini and Spontini. He creates here something that is both old and completely new, an apotheosis comparable to that he brought about with his last symphony.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Giuseppe Verdi, whose career spans three quarters of the nineteenth century, holds a commanding position in Italian operatic repertoire, dominating the form from his first considerable success, Nabucco, in 1842 in a career that ended with his last opera, Falstaff, in 1893. Verdi’s fame in Italy was allied, in part, to his association with the national aspirations of his compatriots as Italy was unified under a new monarchy. In addition to his operas, he left a certain amount of vocal and choral music, including his monumental Requiem. His operas, the main body of his work, are strongly dramatic, often grandiose in conception, expanding the possibilities of the traditional forms that he continued to use. His career, which took him to St Petersburg, to Paris and to London, was essentially that of an opera composer, intimately concerned with the details of performance, from his first association with La Scala in Milan to his last operas in the same theatre.
The Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass) was completed in April 1874 and first performed in May that year at the Church of San Marco in Milan. The origin of the work may be found in Verdi’s suggested composite Requiem for Rossini, who had died in 1868. He proposed that a number of composers should join together to provide a national tribute and this was duly organized, with Verdi himself setting the Libera me. The project ended in failure, although the composers who finally agreed to contribute duly completed their tasks. Verdi’s altruistic proposal had stipulated that the venture was to make no commercial profit and that the music written was not be performed again, a gesture, it might be thought, that he could now well afford. It was the death of the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni in 1873 that prompted the completion of a task that Verdi’s publisher had urged. Manzoni had spent much of his life in or near Milan and occupied an unassailable position in Italian letters, above all with his novel I promessi sposi (The Bethrothed), which, with its humble leading characters, patriotic background and essential Catholicism, suited current aspirations and beliefs. Verdi, in contrast to Manzoni, although he died fortified by the rites of the Church, was relatively liberal in his views, although imbued from childhood with the principles, beliefs and practices of Catholicism, to which Giuseppina Strepponi constantly hoped he would fully return. There is no doubt that the Requiem is a deeply religious work, although there were contemporaries quick to find fault. The distinguished pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, former son-in-law of Liszt, wrote scathingly of “opera in church vestments” and it was natural that some should expect from the greatest contemporary composer of Italian opera an operatic work. Verdi himself insisted that performance of the Requiem should not be theatrical, but this did not prevent the work being intensely dramatic, and it did contain, in the setting of the Lacrymosa, music originally intended for the opera Don Carlo. Its first performance at San Marco, with a dry Mass (a Mass without the Consecration), was an act of public commemoration of Manzoni, supported, thanks to the poet and composer Arrigo Boito, by the Milan city council, of which he was a member. Further commercial performances followed throughout Europe and in the New World. In Paris, where Verdi revised the Liber scriptus to allow Maria Waldmann a further solo for future performances, it was given seven performances at the Opera-Comique but there was rather less success in London, where the new Albert Hall could not be filled for such a Catholic occasion. In Venice there was little attempt to avoid the theatrical, at least in setting, with impressive Byzantine ecclesiastical decor designed for the occasion, while elsewhere the publisher Ricordi seems to have turned a blind eye to a variety of travesties, a version accompanied by four pianos and another by an arrangement for brass band, events that aroused Verdi’s anger. In general, however, the Requiem won immediate contemporary success, although it later disappeared from standard choral repertoire, to make a definitive and lasting re-appearance only in the 1930s.
Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)
Requiem, Op 48 Messe base Cantique de Jean Racine, Op 11
Louis Vierne (1870–1937)
Déodat de Sévérac (1872–1921)
During the last thirty years many of our most treasured choral works have been deliberately defamiliarized. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Handel’s Messiah, and Mozart’s Requiem are celebrated examples of works whose present form and performance standard would have been unrecognizable to audiences three decades ago. As the historical performance movement has crept inevitably towards the music of our own century, performers have begun to reinterpret the music of the nineteenth century in the light of current musicological thinking.
Before John Rutter’s edition of the early 1980s Fauré’s Requiem was generally known as a concert piece for large choir and full orchestra. The original instrumentation was, however, quite different, in some performances using a choir of around thirty singers accompanied by four violas, four cellos, solo violin, and organ. The intimacy of the scoring was a deliberate reaction against Berlioz’s Requiem which Fauré detested because of its use of massed forces to emphasize the horror of purgatorial suffering. The first performance of the Requiem took place liturgically at the Madeleine in Paris in 1888. There were at that stage only five movements; the Offertoire and Libera me (the two movements involving the Baritone soloist) were added later. In fact the Libera me had been completed as an independent work for voice and organ ten years before; the Offertoire was the only movement to postdate the first performance of the Requiem. The performance presented here uses the work’s original instrumentation whilst including all seven movements of the finished Requiem.
Vierne was a generation younger than Fauré, but like Fauré had been assistant to the charismatic organist Charles-Marie Widor at the church of St Sulpice in Paris. Vierne was soon appointed organist of the great cathedral of Notre Dame where he died at the organ console, as had been his wish, in 1937. The Andantino was purportedly written in a single evening as a sight-reading test for students. Although the piece appears technically straightforward, the subtlety and precision required of a good performance make it easy to judge an unintelligent rendition harshly. Such academicism was despised by de Sévérac who forsook the traditionalism of the Paris Conservatoire within months of his arrival there and transferred to the newly-formed Schola Cantorum. De Sévérac was not attracted to musical life in Paris: he preferred the provincial life of southern France. For this reason de Sévérac’s music frequently possesses a pastoral charm and Tantum ergo shows the composer at his most simple and traditional. Like Fauré and Vierne, de Sévérac’s formidable ability as an improviser meant that much of his most inspirational music was never written down. While it is precisely this improvisational facility that makes the music of Fauré, Vierne, and de Sévérac so immediately appealing, it is easy unjustly to resent the French tradition of organ improvisation for the loss of those musical gems that might otherwise have survived for posterity.
The appearance of Fauré’s Requiem in the 1880s, a decade during which the composer’s most successful compositions were songs and piano pieces, can only be explained by the fine choral music which preceded it. The Messe basse represents Fauré at his most practical. Written in conjunction with the French composer and organist André Messager (also at one time assistant to Widor at St Sulpice) during a holiday in Normandy in 1881, the Messe basse was composed for the modest forces of a local church. A setting of the motet O salutaris hostia and the Kyrie were Messager’s contribution; the remaining movements of the Ordinary, without the Credo, were set by Fauré. When revising the score in 1906 Fauré adapted the violin and harmonium accompaniment for organ, at the same time excising the Gloria and replacing Messager’s Kyrie with one of his own. The final version of the Messe basse is one of the few existing settings of the mass for female voices and organ. The youthful Cantique de Jean Racine dates from 1865 when Fauré was studying with Saint-Saëns at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris. The Cantique earned Fauré a premier prix in composition and is a testament to the young composer’s melodic genius and to his penchant for rich textures.
This recording is an attempt to move Fauré’s liturgical music from the concert hall to the church. In particular, the reconstruction of nineteenth-century French ecclesiastical pronunciation and the restoration of Fauré’s preferred phrasing are just two of the most useful elements in the search for the composer’s intentions. To those familiar with the more expansive versions of Fauré’s Requiem there will inevitably be unfamiliar textures in this performance. However, few of Fauré’s romantic gestures are lost in the chamber version, and moreover, the reserved translucence of the instrumentation emphasizes the fact that the Requiem—and indeed all the choral music recorded here—was originally designed for liturgical performance.
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