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ClassicsOnline Home » FLAGELLO: Missa Sinfonica / ROSNER: Symphony No. 5
This disc brings together the first recordings of two symphonic Masses, orchestral works (without chorus) inspired by and structured according to the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. Both composers, one Roman Catholic (Flagello), the other Jewish (Rosner), were in their late twenties when they wrote their respective works, and both have pursued and aesthetic orientation that would generally be termed “neo-romantic”. However, while the two works are comparable in concept and dimension, they are dramatically different in musical style and impact (although the same traditional plainchant appears in the Gloria of each work).
On An Overgrown Path
American Record Guide
By William Zagorski
Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994): Missa Sinfonica
Arnold Rosner (b. 1945): Symphony No. 5 'Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina', Op. 57
This compact disc brings together the first recordings of two symphonic Masses, orchestral works (without chorus) inspired by and structured according to the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. The composers of these works were born in New York City, one in 1928, the other in 1945, and both were in their late twenties when they wrote their respective works, and both have pursued an aesthetic orientation that would generally be termed "neo-romantic". One of them, however, Nicolas Flagello, was born and raised in the Catholic faith, to which he remained steadfast, albeit somewhat idiosyncratically, throughout his life; the other, Arnold Rosner, is Jewish, and has maintained his own idiosyncratic relationship with that culture. The result is two works comparable in concept and dimension but dramatically different in musical style and impact, although the same traditional plainchant appears in the Gloria movement of each work.
Nicolas Flagello: Missa Sinfonica
Nicolas Flagello was born in New York City to a family that had been musically active for generations. He studied both piano and violin as a child, and began composing on his own before the age of ten. He was soon brought to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, a highly esteemed composer and teacher known for his adherence to traditional musical values. Giannini became Flagello's mentor, and the two developed a close professional and personal friendship that lasted until the older man's death in 1966. In 1945 Flagello entered the Manhattan School of Music, where Giannini served on the faculty. Earning both his Bachelor's (1949) and Master's (1950) degrees there, he joined the faculty himself upon graduating, and remained there for more than 25 years. For a time during the 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955, he took a leave to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, working under the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti, and earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori.
Throughout his career Flagello's music embodied traditional romantic musical values, although his later works were intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For him music remained a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression. His large and varied body of work includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works.
When Flagello's music first appeared on recording, The New Records commented, "If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit". Years later, Mark Lehman wrote in the American Record Guide, "What Flagello brings to his art is, first of all, an absolute conviction in the primacy of emotion: the music throbs with vitality. It can be exciting or turbulent, sweetly melancholy or tragic — but it is always openly and fiercely passionate". And in Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002), Bret Johnson states, "Flagello was perhaps the most effective exponent of the American lyrical post-romantic ideal in the generation that followed Barber. His profound belief in the expressive power of music is manifest in every piece".
In addition to composing, Flagello was active as a pianist and conductor, and made dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a degenerative illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.
Although much of Flagello's music remained unheard at the time of his death, in recent years his work has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, attracting the attention of a new generation of listeners. Violinists Elmar Oliveira and Midori, and conductors Semyon Bychkov and James DePreist are just a few of today's leading performers who have found in Flagello's work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.
Flagello's personality and life-style were far from puritanical, yet religious feelings ran strongly within him and he attributed great importance to the rôle they played in his life. Indeed, he considered all his compositions to be fundamentally spiritual in nature, some pieces more explicitly than others. The Missa Sinfonica was composed in 1957. Along with the 1956 Theme, Variations, and Fugue (Naxos 8.559148), it is the most ambitious purely orchestral work of his early period, which lasted until 1959. Although plainchant provides some of the work's thematic material, Flagello did not adapt his musical style to suit these ancient modal melodies. Not unlike Paul Creston, whose Third Symphony (Naxos 8.559034) is an emotional response to the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and draws its thematic material entirely from Gregorian Chant, in Missa Sinfonica Flagello expressed his devotional feelings in his own natural musical idiom, with its impassioned, hyper-emotional rhetoric and richly romantic harmonic language. (And, like Creston's symphony, Flagello's Missa was criticized after its première as insufficiently pious.)
As its title indicates, Missa Sinfonica reflects elements of both the Mass and the symphony. Of its five movements, the first, third, and fifth suggest hymn-like orchestral arias, while the second and fourth are rather scherzoso in character. The work was first performed in November 1957, by the symphony orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music, under the direction of Jonel Perlea.
Arnold Rosner (b. 1945): Symphony No. 5 'Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina'
Arnold Rosner was born in New York City in 1945. He earned a doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1971, during an era when the post-atonal avant-garde was in full swing. Despite this Rosner has pursued a conservative but highly individual style, and his works have been widely performed, recorded, and reviewed. He has composed two operas, six symphonies, five string quartets, and numerous other orchestral, chamber, vocal, and choral works, including three a cappella settings of the Roman Catholic Mass. Critic Steven Schwartz commented on classical.net: "[Rosner's] music packs a huge emotional wallop and it's meticulously well-written besides. He writes gorgeous, powerful, long-breathed tunes. The craft serves the message to the point where it effaces itself almost completely. Listening to a Rosner work is like hearing the music of Orpheus." Rosner serves on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. He has also worked in broadcasting and, as an avid bridge player, is a tournament champion.
Why would a composer of unmixed Jewish ancestry choose to set several Roman Catholic texts for chorus, write instrumental fantasies based on Protestant hymns, or compose a full symphony in the design of a Mass without singers—and then to dedicate that work to George McGovern, the candidate who suffered the most devastating electoral defeat in the history of the American presidency? Now, some thirty-odd years later, perhaps some explanation is in order.
To start with, during the eighteenth century, music history stepped both forward and back. The progress was in the tightening of form and structure, and in the expansion of the orchestra; but the regression was in the language of harmony, especially harmonic progression. The chief rôle of harmony became a subordinate reinforcement of a restricted and highly formulaic notion of tonality. Prior to that, modal and chromatic activity, with its attendant richness, variety, and pathos had reached a high plateau around 1600, as in the works of Victoria and Lassus. Indeed, one might argue that Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers reached a peak not attained again for centuries.
I am hardly the only composer to be drawn to pre- and early-Baroque polyphonic language. Beside the obvious cases, Bohuslav Martinů stated that English madrigals were his favourite pieces; Anton Webern was a major editor of the music of Heinrich Isaac. There is a difference, of course, between a twentieth-century composer's appreciating an earlier language, and actually using it; and then, does it become all or only part of his style. (I sometimes find myself at pains to point out that for me, I think it is just a part, important though it may be.)
Symphony No. 5 "Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina" is the most extended of my neo-modal works. As the entire Salve Regina hymn is quite long, I have used mostly the first three phrases as cantus firmus in all but the second movement of my piece. There I revert to a later phrase, treated in an almost dance-like 6/8 rhythm. The clearest statement of the fundamental chant melody is heard at the beginning of the fourth movement.
While my work and Flagello's Missa Sinfonica are natural companions for presentation on a recording — the idea of musicologist Walter Simmons — there are many other similar works and related pairings: for example, Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem (Naxos 8.557196) might be paired with Hanson's Symphony No. 4. There is Honegger's Symphony No. 3 "Liturgique" (Naxos 8.555974), and a variety of symphonies derived from metaphysical or religious-inspired operas, such as Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5 (Naxos 8.550738), Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (Naxos 8.553078), and Dello Joio's Triumph of Saint Joan. Some would argue that the true origin of this genre is in the music of Bruckner, for whom every symphony is a near-Mass (and every Mass a near-symphony).
When one is in one's twenties, one tends to see things in perhaps too simple a way. At the time I was very attracted to the peaceful aspects of Christianity — Dona nobis pacem, "turn the other cheek", and so forth. The United States was mired in the war in Vietnam and many churches were active in rallies and other projects of the Peace Movement. I somehow overlooked the history of the inquisitions and crusades, and hardly anticipated the trend of very recent history towards church support of capital punishment and various military endeavours. Thus the "Mass without Singers" was for me an anti-war statement, and I chose George McGovern as my dedicatee, believing that despite his tremendous loss in the 1972 election, his campaign had given legitimacy to the cause of peace.
On the other hand, the rabbis and sages of the Jewish tradition — again in perhaps an oversimplified view — had hardly encouraged polyphonic composition of religious music. Although there were recent Sacred Services by Milhaud and Bloch, and a whole body of Palestrina-esque works by Salamone Rossi, these were few and far between: The general stylistic range of synagogue cantorial and choral music was narrow indeed. To those who question my composition of neo-Christian works I might point out that early on I wrote a Sacred Service, and more recently Etz Chaim (The Tree of Life) for solo piano, A Sephardic Rhapsody for orchestra, and an operatic setting of the folk-story Bontsche Schweig. In the last analysis, my answer — if not too glib — is: Music is my Religion.
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FLAGELLO: Missa Sinfonica / ROSNER: Symphony No. 5