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ClassicsOnline Home » Choruses for Male Voices and Orchestra - SIBELIUS, J. / DEBUSSY, D. / STRAUSS, R. / BRUCKNER, A. / SCHUBERT, F. (Lunds Studentsangare)
Drawing on the romantic spirit in music, Schubert’s moving setting is of a poem by Goethe which compares a rushing waterfall to the soul of man, while Strauss’s gorgeous Mittagsruhe depicts the peace of a summer noontide. Narrative vocal traditions are heard in Sibelius’s nationalist Vapautettu kuningatar, Bruckner’s heroic Helgoland, and Grieg’s Landkjenning, which tells of the 10th-century Norwegian king Oleg Tryggvason. Das Liebesmahl der Apostel anticipates the religious ecstasies of Wagner’s Parsifal, while Debussy’s early cantata Invocation resonates with Gallic sparkle.
By Raymond Tuttle
International Record Review
Choruses for Male Voices and Orchestra
Sibelius • Debussy • R Strauss • Bruckner • Schubert • Grieg • Wagner
Jean Sibelius grew to maturity at a time of fervent Finnish nationalism, as the country broke away from its earlier Swedish and later Russian overlords. Brought up in a Swedish-speaking family, he acquired a knowledge of Finnish language and traditional literature at school and the early Finnish sagas proved a strong influence on his subsequent work as a composer. After early training in Helsinki and later in Berlin, he made his career in Finland, where he was awarded a state pension. Although he lived until 1957, he wrote little after 1926, feeling out of sympathy with current trends in music.
Paavo Cajander’s Vapautettu kuningatar (The Captive Queen) and the setting by Sibelius was first scored for mixed choir and orchestra and in a second version for male voices and orchestra. The queen of the title, imprisoned in a castle set on a rugged hill, overlooking the plain, is eventually recognised. Words and music had an overt political message, with the queen representing Finnish and the national identity of Finland, held captive by Russia. The original work was performed in 1906 to mark the centenary of the birth of Johann Vilhelm Snellman, a champion of Finnish language and culture.
In common with other young and ambitious French musicians, Claude Debussy, at the beginning of his career, took the necessary step of entering for the Prix de Rome, the competition that brought its winner prestige, a period of residence at the Villa Medici in Rome and a small stipend for a few years. The competition involved an initial formal test, the composition of a fugue and setting of a given text. Success in this would allow entry to the main part of the competition, the setting of a given text. Debussy’s first attempt in 1882 brought failure in the initial test. In 1883 he entered again, this time passing the fugue test and the chorus setting of Lamartine’s Invocation, the set text. Admitted this time to the main part of the competition, he duly set the text of Le Gladiateur, by Emile Moreau, winning the second Premier Prix. The following year, with his setting of L’Enfant prodigue by Edouard Guignand, Debussy won the Premier Prix. Invocation, designed for male voices and orchestra, was published posthumously in the composer’s own scoring for voices and piano duet.
Although he seems to belong to another world, Richard Strauss was a near contemporary of Debussy. His setting of Eichendorff’s Tageszeiten (Times of the Day) was made in 1928, the year after the completion of his opera Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen), his penultimate collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who died the following year. The Eichendorff setting of the four poems form a song-cycle, Morning, Noon, Evening and Night, and was written for Viktor Keldorfer and his Vienna Schubertbund. The second of the set, Mittagsruhe (Midday Rest), scored for male voices and orchestra, allows the latter to depict the time of day, the peace of a summer noontide.
Anton Bruckner, born near Linz in 1824, is known chiefly as a symphonist. He was trained as a schoolteacher and organist, and served in the second capacity in Linz until moving in 1868 to Vienna to teach harmony, counterpoint and organ at the Vienna Conservatory. His success as a composer was varied in his life-time, his acceptance hampered by his own diffidence and his scores posing editorial problems because of his readiness to revise what he had written. He was nine years the senior of Brahms, who outlived him by six months. Bruckner continued Austro-German symphonic traditions on a massive scale, his techniques of composition influenced to some extent by his skill as an organist and consequently in formal improvisation. His choral compositions include a number of works for church use, both large and small scale, and a repertoire of secular settings. Helgoland, a setting of a poem by the Austrian poet August Silberstein and scored for male voices and orchestra, was written in 1893 and published posthumously. It was one of Bruckner’s compositions designed for the Vienna Männersangverein. Wagnerian in its instrumentation, the chorus honours the Saxon inhabitants of ancient Heligoland, saved by divine intervention from Roman subjugation. The work, with its contrasts of mood reflecting the changes of fortunes of the Saxons and their enemies, mounts to a climax of praise for free Heligoland. It should be added that in 1890, in the Zanzibar Treaty, Heligoland, which had been ceded by Denmark to Britain in 1814, had been exchanged with Germany for Zanzibar, while German claims to Uganda were surrendered, a matter of some contemporary controversy.
The significant contribution made by Franz Schubert to choral repertoire for male voices has generally been eclipsed by the attention paid to his very many solo songs. From 1812 until the last year of his life he continued to write setting after setting of works for male voices, compositions that largely suited the social circles in which he moved in Vienna, which provided both performers and audience. Schubert’s first setting of Goethe’s mystical poem Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Song of the Spirits over the Waters) was written in 1819 for four-part unaccompanied male voices. This was followed by a version with piano accompaniment, written in December 1820. He continued with a version for eight voices, with accompaniment for two violas, two cellos and double bass and a further version for the same forces in February 1821. His first attempt to tackle the setting of this text had been in September 1816, with an attempted and incomplete version for solo voice and piano. The poem, written after Goethe’s visit to the Staubbach at Lauterbrunnen, the spectacular waterfall in the Bernese Alps, presents the rushing water, flowing from the cliff-face downwards, as an image of the soul of man, which, like the water, comes from heaven, ascends to heaven and comes down to earth again, always changing.
In May 1872 a fête was held at the Norwegian Akershus fortress in aid of the restoration of Trondheim Cathedral. For the occasion the poet Bjørnsterne Bjørnson wrote his poem, Landkjenning (Land Sighting). A history of the kings of Norway by the twelfth-century Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson tells how the tenth-century Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason, returning to Norway, where he established Christianity, planned to build a church at Nidaros. For this poem Edvard Grieg provided a correspondingly monumental setting, scored originally for double male chorus, baritone solo, wind and organ. In 1881 Grieg rescored the work for full orchestra, dedicating it to the piano manufacturer Karl Hals.
Richard Wagner’s earlier career brought various difficulties, as he sought to establish himself. In 1841, however, when the possibilities in Paris had been exhausted, news came that his opera Rienzi had been accepted for Dresden, allowing him to move there with his wife, Minna. Rienzi was staged in October 1842, and proved successful. Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the following year, was less well received, but Wagner was appointed conductor in Dresden, although his ambitions sought a wider sphere. It was at this time, in 1843, that he was invited to join the committee of the Dresden Liedertafel and wrote for them the biblical scene Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Feast of Pentecost), for which he wrote the text. For the performance of the work Wagner recruited a very large chorus and orchestra, but apparently found the result relatively disappointing, although he was able to give an account of the performance in glowing terms to a friend in Paris. With an unusual display of gratitude, he dedicated the work to the widow of his old teacher, Christian Theodor Weinlig. The first performance was given in the Dresden Frauenkirche, and Wagner was able to make use of spatial effects, with voices from above, in the cupola, and separation of groups of singers, with the twelve apostles represented by twelve basses. The work opens with an unaccompanied section, here omitted. This is followed by the entry of the large orchestra, at first with the sound of a drum roll and tremolo strings. The whole chorus wonders at the sound from above that fills the air, but the Apostles tell them to be of good cheer and listen to the Spirit, bidding them to look to the whole world, a field in which to spread the news of the Saviour. In a foretaste of Parsifal the people resolve to preach the word of God, to whom be all glory for ever and ever.
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