Johann S Bach (1685–1750)
The B Minor Mass: Bach’s legacy?
It contains within its twenty-seven spacious numbers all manners of the art of counterpoint and canon in that degree of perfection always admired in Bach’s work. The instrumentation, too, and even the art of interlude, are advanced to such an extent as to inspire astonishment.
So wrote Hans Georg Nägeli in his subscription announcement of the first edition of the B Minor Mass in June 1818. The original score of the work was inherited by Bach’s son, Carl Philip Emmanuel, who allowed scholarly access to it; it is also known that Haydn possessed a manuscript copy of the Mass, and that Beethoven failed twice to obtain a copy; the first performing edition of the work, however, was not produced until 1845, and the first complete performance took place in Leipzig in 1859 – over 50 years after J S Bach’s death. In terms of chronology alone, then, whether Bach intended it or not, the B Minor Mass achieved the status of a legacy work – a work that Bach never heard complete, but which was enjoyed and championed by posterity.
Possibly because of its status as a great, posthumously-performed work, the B Minor Mass has been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion. Firstly, the composition of a complete Latin Mass is often said to be an unusual project for a deeply-committed Lutheran composer –one who, furthermore, had hitherto composed religious music entirely from the viewpoint of its performance possibilities within the Lutheran church tradition. Secondly, it is known that Bach assembled the complete work in 1747–48 (two years before his death), and it is clear that he drew on several of his earlier works as the basis for many of the movements; some have argued, then, that this was a man who, with death in sight, was summing up his musical life in one great collection.
In dealing with the first point, it is essential to look at the context of Latin (traditionally the language of Catholic ritual) in Lutheran liturgy. When Martin Luther set out the wording for use in churches in his Formula missæ of 1523, he allowed for the inclusion of all five sections of the ‘Latin’ Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (including Benedictus and Osanna) and Agnus Dei; the subsequent Lutheran tradition often incorporated these parts of the liturgy (in Greek/Latin) into the communion service. Most often used were the Kyrie and Gloria (indeed, Bach wrote four earlier ‘Masses’ consisting solely of these two movements). The other portions of the Mass were often sung to plain tunes in German, or, if Latin versions were used, they might be sung as anthems during communion; on feast-days, these latter settings might be more ornate, and, again, Bach’s oeuvre contains five such settings of the Sanctus, and a Credo in unum Deum. That Bach was commissioned, in 1723, to write a Magnificat for use in a Christmas service, is a further demonstration that Latin usage was familiar to many Lutherans.
In summary, it is safe to say, then, that Bach was no stranger to the setting of non-German words for liturgical use. It is, however, the scale of the B Minor Mass that sets it apart from his other Latin works. Given the length of the work (over an hour and forty minutes), and its ornate setting of all of the words of the Mass (in Latin/Greek), it is unlikely that Bach would ever have considered it practical for full liturgical use in a Lutheran setting. Bach is known to have possessed copies of Masses by Palestrina and Lotti (in the case of the former’s Missa Sine Nomine he produced a performing edition with added brass and continuo parts), and it is possible that, having studied the work of others, he wanted to assemble the B Minor Mass simply as an essay in the form.
Although he did not complete the full written-out score until 1749, in assembling the B Minor Mass, Bach drew on many of his earlier works and adapted them as movements for the Mass. The Missa section (Kyrie and Gloria) dates from 1733, and was composed by Bach as a stand-alone work, presented as a gift to Friedrich Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, from whom Bach was seeking patronage; this work itself, however, already contained material re-worked from earlier Cantatas. The Sanctus is also a minor re-working of a stand-alone Sanctus that Bach had already composed in 1724. The following table shows the origins/influences of/on many of the movements of the whole B Minor Mass:
|Kyrie eleison||J H von Wildevrer (Kyrie)/ Luther Deutsche Messe|
|Gratias agimus||Cantata BWV 29 1st mov.|
|Qui tollis||Cantata BWV 46, 1st mov.|
|Patrem omnipotentem||Cantata BWV 171, 1st mov.|
|Crucifixus||Cantata BWV 12 1st mov.|
|Et resurrexit||Cantata BWV Anh. 9, 1st mov.|
|Et expecto||Cantata BWV 120, 2nd mov.|
|Sanctus||D major Sanctus of 1724|
|Osanna||Cantata BWV 215 1st mov.|
|Agnus Dei||Aria from ‘lost’ Cantata of 1725|
Although at first sight, this re-working of earlier material might suggest an attempt by Bach in some way to summarise his life’s work, it should be remembered that Bach, throughout his composing career, was a constant adapter and re-user of both his own and other people’s music. He did this partly out of necessity (he was a consummate ‘jobbing’ musician, producing music rapidly for any commission that came his way, for example, his re-scoring of a movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto as the Sinfonia to a later Cantata), but partly for the challenge of adapting existing music to portray a different mood (such as his many re-harmonisations of the same chorale in The St Matthew Passion).
Possibly the most interesting fact about the B Minor Mass is that much of it is not in B minor – although the piece begins in this key (and four other movements use this as their main key), the work ranges through a series of keys as diverse as A major and F# minor, finally closing in D major, B minor’s relative major. The work also displays Bach’s previously-expressed interest in symmetrical form: there are five soloists – two sopranos, an alto, a tenor and a bass – and many of the choral movements echo this voice allocation; in addition, the work contains instrumental solos for all of the instrumental families (strings, woodwind and brass). Symmetry of construction is also evident – the Gloria begins and ends with paired D-major movements, and the Credo (or Symbolum Nicenum, as Bach calls it) is symmetrical around the centre-point of the Crucifixus (two choral movements, a soloist movement and a further choral movement), the three central movements (Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus and Et resurrexit) forming a logical key progression (B minor to E minor to D major) marking the major events of Christ’s life – birth, crucifixion, resurrection.
It can be seen, then, that the arguments that the B Minor Mass is an overt attempt by Bach to sum up his lifetime’s musical output, or that it is a rebellious foray into Roman Catholic liturgy, hold little water. The Mass can, nonetheless, be seen as a great legacy work of speculative genius, falling into the same category as The Art of Fugue and The Goldberg Variations – an uncommissioned work that Bach wrote for his own pleasure, and as an exercise for his craft. That it holds a position in the canon of major choral works may simply be because it is a perfectly-realised composition by an acknowledged master-composer. The heading of Nägeli’s 1818 subscription announcement may well sum up the work when it describes it as:
… the Greatest Work of Art of All Times and Nations.
©Barry Creasy 2008
Boyd, M. (Ed.) (1999) Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
David, H.T., Mendel, A (Ed.) (1998) The New Bach Reader. New York, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
Wolff, C. (2000) Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Jesu, meine Freude
Although the motet (derived from the French mot) came into being in the thirteenth century (when words, often secular, were added to the upper parts of passages of organum), its flowering into the central genre of church music was not until the sixteenth century.
By then, the use of a plainsong cantus firmus as the foundation of the music had largely been replaced with imitation and the use of counterpoint to illustrate each phrase of text. The points of counterpoint were frequently unrelated and the structure of the whole piece was, therefore, determined by the text rather than by adherence to an existing musical line.
By the early eighteenth century, the word motet was often used loosely to describe any piece of church music that fulfilled the former liturgical function of the sixteenth century motet. Although such works might today be described as cantatas or concerti (they would often involve instrumental continuo, solo voice sections and obbligato instrumental passages), in Bach’s day, there was an understanding that a motet, even in the Protestant tradition, would draw on some or all of the features of the stile antico.
Bach’s motets might have been performed with continuo and instrumental doubling but, as distinct from his cantatas, would not normally have included obbligato instrumental parts. They were still written as a succession of unrelated points of counterpoint, but sometimes more modern elements were introduced such as fugal technique or the ritornello plan. All of Bach’s six authenticated motets were written between 1723 and 1727 for St Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was appointed as director of music in 1723.
During this period, Bach’s major output consisted of the majority of his cantatas, and it seems likely that for ordinary Sunday services he used existing motets from the seventeenth century tradition, reserving his own motet compositions for special occasions; four of the six were written for funeral services of prominent members of the congregation of St Thomas. ‘Jesu Meine Freude’ (BWV 227), the longest, most musically complex and earliest of the six, was written in 1723 for the funeral of Johanna Maria Käsin, the wife of Leipzig’s postmaster. It uses as its basis the eponymous chorale by Johann Crüger (words by Johann Franck), but includes passages from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It is set in eleven short movements arranged in a symmetrical musical structure which can be divided into three groups of settings: choral tune and text (nos. 1, 3, 7, 11); free settings of the chorale (nos. 5 and 9) and settings of the extra biblical text (nos. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10). The whole piece is centred around the fugal number 6; either side of this are two groups (nos. 3–5 and nos. 7–9) containing a chorale, a trio and an aria-like movement. Numbers 2 and 10 have material in common and numbers 1 and 11 use identical music.
Magnificat in D
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) arrived in Leipzig in 1723 to take up the post as musical director at the Thomaskirche. His first Christmas in the city presented this protestant composer with a particular challenge. Lutheran liturgical practice allowed for a Latin Magnificat to be sung at Vespers on feast days such as Christmas. The local Leipzig tradition also required the Christmas performance of this Magnificat to be interspersed with four ‘Laudes’ (hymns) in German and Latin, telling the Christmas story. Bach’s response to this challenge was the Magnificat in E flat, scored for strings, continuo, two flutes, two oboes, three trumpets and drums, first performed on Christmas Day 1723.
Bach was familiar with the Latin work – he had, in his collection, similar works by Bassani, Caldera, Lotti, Albinoni and Monteverdi. The Magnificat also comes from a period in Bach’s life when he was writing cantatas – at an average of one per week. However, the Magnificat, with its 16 movements (12 plus inserts) is twice as long as most of the cantatas; the forces available to him allowed Bach full rein to write in the most inventive contemporary style, and use the largest orchestration that he had so far worked with – using the the trumpets and woodwind in a ‘modern’ fully orchestral fashion, rather than just as solo instruments or as alternative ‘colouring’.
The four inserted movements (‘Vom Himmel hoch,’ ‘Freut euch’, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, and ‘Virga Jesse’) not only tell the Christmas story, but also demonstrate musical development in Bach’s time. ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ is a pure stile antico chorale; ‘Freut euch’ is also polyphonic, but in a lighter vein; ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ demonstrates a Venetian chordal style, and ‘Virga Jesse’, a ‘modern’ operatic style. In 1733, Bach revised the E flat work in response to a request for a Magnificat to be performed in July of that year. He lowered the key by a semitone (into D major), and re-worked some of the orchestration (substituting transverse flutes for recorders, for example); he also removed the inserted movements (which were not suitable for the season).
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Brahms’s passion for Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara, formed for a long time a central part in his life and music. Strangely, after Schumann’s death in 1856, this passion cooled. Towards the end of the 1860s, Brahms was lodging with the Schumann family and began to realise a growing affection for Clara’s daughter, Julie.
On subsequently being told by Clara that Julie was engaged to be married to an Italian Count, Brahms’s reaction was to turn to composition as a solace and to set a piece for contralto, his favourite voice. In 1869 the piece was completed and he played it for Clara, who wrote in her diary: “Johannes brought me a wonderful piece … the words from Goethe’s Harzreise … He called it his bridal song …This piece seems to me neither more nor less than the expression of his own heart’s anguish. If only he would for once speak as tenderly!” The piece had its first performance at Jena on 3 March 1870. The first two anguished verses of the poem are sung by the soloist alone, and are set in C minor, the tempo beginning slowly and becoming more agitated in the second stanza.
It is only when a hope of redemption is offered in the third verse that the key changes to C major and the mood of the piece is further warmed by the addition of a male chorus. In the Alto Rhapsody, it is not hard to find evidence for the Brahms statement that, “I speak through my music.”
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Saint Nicolas, putative Bishop of Myra, is better known to us as Santa Claus. Although he is known to have lived in the fourth century, he is one of those mediæval saints whose existence is more legend than fact. Certain works and miracles performed by him have come down as stories, notably his gift of three bags of gold to three impoverished girls to save them from prostitution (whence the pawnbrokers’ symbol of three gold balls); his saving of three innocent men from unjust death and his miraculous restoration to life of three boys slaughtered and pickled in brine during a time of famine (whence his patronage of children).
When, in 1948, Lancing College commisssioned Britten to write a piece to celebrate its centenary, it seemed natural to turn to a subject which would have association with children and allow the use of their voices. Eric Crozier, who had already provided Britten with the libretti for The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, provided the text for the work, selecting eight episodes from Nicolas’ story, from his prodigious piety at birth to his tranquil death, and added an introductory passage. The original performance (at the Aldeburgh Festival) made use of the choirs of three schools. The piece is scored, in addition, for piano duet, strings, organ and percussion.
Suite for Harp
Britten’s pieces for solo instruments often arose because of a friendship with the performers. His Suite for Harp, written in 1969, is typical in this regard, as it came out of Britten’s close professional relationship with Osian Ellis, to whom the piece is dedicated. Ellis had made a distinguished contribution to the Aldeburgh Festival over the years and had made a resounding mark with his involvement in Britten’s three Church Parables (The Prodigal Son had been premièred in 1968).
The piece was written for inclusion in Ellis’ solo recital in the 1969 season. Britten is also well-know as a composer who has an intimate understanding of the solo instruments he writes for, and this suite is no exception, using all the traditional techniques required for the harp – glissandi, arpeggio passages, dry chords and little or no use of problematic harmonics. The piece is set in five contrasting movements, concluding with a set of variations on the Welsh hymn, Saint Denio.
Christopher Brown (b. 1943)
Christopher Brown is a composer whose versatility in a wide range of musical genres has earned him an international reputation. His extensive background in the world of choral music, both as singer and conductor, has inevitably inclined him towards vocal music and opera, but he has also written a substantial amount of chamber and orchestral music.
Recent extended works include Summer Winds for symphonic wind band, Invocation for choir and organ, and a series of Star Songs for different ensembles, including string trio, piano trio and chamber orchestra. He has shown a particular interest in working with young people and amateurs. Several of his children’s operas have been successfully produced both here and abroad, while his choral music is regularly performed all over the world.
Lauds, for mixed voices and brass quintet, was written in 1971, the year of Stravinsky’s death. It was written as a tribute to Stravinsky (whose birthday the composer shares) and contains several references to Stravinsky’s harmonic and rhythmic mannerisms. The text is the 16th century Mary, Countess of Pembroke’s paraphrase of Psalm 150. The piece was written for the Purcell Consort of Voices and the Philip Jones Brass ensemble, who gave its first performance in 1971 in Tewkesbury Abbey as part of the Three Choirs Festival.
Anton Bruckner (1824–1896)
Mass in E minor
Like Dvorák, Bruckner was born to peasants and came to music early in life. His mother and father were involved in musical activities in their home village of Ansfelden, near Linz, in Upper Austria. At the age of four he took organ lessons and went on to study musical theory at the age of eleven. In spite of this early encouragement, Bruckner developed his skill and reputation slowly.
Following the death of his father, he became a chorister in a local monastery and then trained to become a teacher. In 1855, he applied to study at the conservatoire in Vienna and then moved to Linz where he studied with Simon Sechter and later with Otto Kitzler. Although Bruckner is mostly known today for his vast symphonies (his symphonic style influenced much by his hero, Wagner), his earlier life saw the composition of many small-scale religious works for organ and for chorus. These works are almost like a concentration of the symphonies – using the same chromatic style and development in a fraction of the time.
The E minor Mass, Bruckner’s first recognised masterpiece (along with the First Symphony) was completed 1866 and had its first performance outside Linz Cathedral in September of 1869; it is dedicated to Bruckner’s friend and patron Bishop Rudiger of Linz. The E minor Mass stands apart from Bruckner’s other two masses and, indeed, from almost all other 19th century liturgical music, by virtue of the forces it employs and its peculiarly expressive harmonic and contrapuntal language. It is scored for eight-part mixed chorus and a wind band of two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and three trombones.
The work illustrates more succinctly than any other Bruckner’s unique style – combining the simplicity of expression, devoutness, restraint, poignancy and austere power of Italian Renaissance polyphony with the romantic, fully Brucknerian harmony, bold motivic development and powerful combinations and contrasts of vocal and instrumental texture.
Benjamin Cooke (1734–1793)
The Christmas Ode
Until recent times the musical history of the 18th century has tended to overlook London’s native musicians in favour of Handel and other Europeans. It is easy to imagine that London after Handel became nothing more than a musical shrine to his memory and a rococo playground for the hedonistic in the pleasure gardens and at the opera. This view is beginning to be refuted by the re-discovery of composers such as Benjamin Cooke whose work thrived in the music societies of London and other cities. Benjamin Cooke was born in 1734, the son of music seller, whose wife Eliza was sister-in-law to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown the celebrated landscape gardener.
At the age of nine, the young Benjamin Cooke became one of four boys who sang the soprano line in performances of a men’s musical club called The Academy of Ancient Music. In return they received a musical education from the Director of the Academy, Dr. Pepusch (well-known for composing and arranging music for The Beggars Opera by John Gay). On Pepusch’s death in 1752, Cooke became the Director of the Academy, whose members during his directorship included luminaries of the London artistic scene such as Hogarth and Reynolds; his directorship of the Academy ceased in 1789 after what amounted to a take-over bid.
Cooke’s association with Westminster Abbey began in 1757, when he was appointed Master of the Boys; he became a Layman a year later and became organist there in 1762, a post he held until his death. In 1782 he additionally took on the job of organist at St Martin’s in the Fields. Cooke’s output of sacred music is small by comparison with the vast amount of secular glees, catches, rounds, odes and canons that he wrote. However, the relatively few large-scale multi-sectional works, mostly sacred, written for choir, soloists and orchestra, e.g. the Christmas Ode, show a remarkable talent for melodic and noble music in the grand tradition of Handel which was so beloved of the English, as the writer Charles Burney noted at the time. This performance of the Christmas Ode provides a rare opportunity to hear in one programme how different English eighteenth-century choral music was from its continental relation.
The Christmas Ode is in nine sections and is scored for an orchestra of strings (violins 1&2, viola, cello, double bass), two oboes, two flutes, two bassoons, two horns, organ, choir and soloists. The Overture is in a concerto grosso form; the choruses are grand in the Handel tradition; a bass aria, ‘Guided by Thy Mystic Star’, is reminiscent of the bass aria ‘The people that Walked in Darkness’ from Handel’s Messiah; a dramatic recitative for all the soloists and orchestra is in the style of many such movements from Handel’s works.
The soprano solos are lyric and unflorid in style. The Christmas Ode received its first complete modern performance in Chelmsford Cathedral on December 18th 1999, given by The Essex Baroque Orchestra directed by Peter Holman, and The Chelmsford Singers. Andrew Pink prepared the performing edition, published in May 2000, from manuscripts in the library of The Royal College of Music.
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Solstice of Light
Solstice of Light was first performed in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall on 19 June 1979 by the St Magnus Singers with Richard Hughes to whom the piece is dedicated. It was composed while Maxwell Davies was living on the Orkney island of Hoy, and is one of many works written in collaboration with the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.
The piece draws much upon the imagery of the sun, the seasons, water and, above all, light to illustrate the early history of the Orkney archipelago – the beauty of Mackay Brown’s words being complemented by the virtuoso writing for choir, organ and solo tenor. The opening sequence (movements 1 and 2) evokes the pre-settlement Orkney landscape. Two movements follow (3 and 4) describing the arrival of the first settlers from the Scottish mainland. The advance of civilisation through the building of stone circles and other permanent structures is chronicled (movements 5, 6 and 7), and the flourishing Celtic culture is celebrated in movements 8, 9 and 10. The early encounter of Christian monks (“lonely strangers with crossed hands”) is described, and the islands lie for a short while under the “white weave of peace”. This peace is shattered, however, by the terrifying arrival of the Viking longships and the subsequent violent conquest of the islands – described in movements 11 and 12. Christianity, however, flourishes once more through the life and sacrifice of the Viking Prince and martyr, St Magnus (movements 13 and 14). The last movement looks to the uncertain future and seeks St Magnus’ intercession on behalf of the islanders.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Danses: sacrée et profane
Debussy was born in St Germain-en-Laye, and by the time he was ten, in 1872, he was already a junior student at the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Guiraud. Much of Debussy’s earlier music was influenced by Wagner (following visits to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889) and also, strangely, by Javanese music, which he heard in Paris in 1889. Some early works, however already demonstrate Debussy’s more capricious style – achieved by the use of modal harmonies and whole tone passages (e.g. the G minor String Quartet of 1893). Debussy seems to have been inspired to begin his more Impressionistic writing by the modern generation of writers (such as Mallarmé and Maeterlinck) whose texts he began to use either directly (as in the opera Pelléas et Mélisande) or as inspirational source material (Prélude à ‘L’après-midi d’un faune).
After the completion of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s output was mostly piano and orchestral works and songs. It was towards the end of the 19th century that considerable advances were being made in the technology of harp construction. The instrument was becoming more fashionable as an orchestral and solo instrument and increasing demands were being made for a more versatile and playable instrument. The modern instrument has a three-position pedal for each ‘note’ (i.e. all of the notes of that name), allowing, for example, all of the ‘G’s on the instrument to be either flat, natural or sharp. In 1903, the Pleyel Harp Company pioneered what was actually to become a technological dead-end on the way to the modern harp – a cross-strung harp, which had a separate string for each chromatic pitch. In order to demonstrate the instrument, the company commissioned Debussy to write Danse sacrée et danse profane, two contrasting but matched pieces (in fact, they contain nothing that cannot be performed on the modern instrument).
The Danses, written in 1904, were the first pieces he completed after the première of Pelléas et Mélisande. Although the two dances are both subtly inspired by Spanish music, they are uniquely French in character. The Danse sacrée, slow and ritualistic, may have been inspired in part by a short piano piece of a Portuguese composer, Francisco de Lacerda (1869-1934), who shared a friendship with Debussy and Satie, but it also seems to breathe the same air as Satie’s Gymopedies, which Debussy loved. It summons a sacred atmosphere through the use of Dorian and Lydian modal scales, as well as by the use of parallel fifths. The movement is laid out in three-part form, in which the prayerful opening section is repeated after a more urgent middle section.
The second dance is a lively and lilting waltz in a modified Rondo form, mostly in the key of D, but with chromatic alterations and a great deal of modulation to show off the chromatic possibilities of the instrument.
Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Apart from choral passages in Pelléas and in the mystery play Le martyre de St. Sébastien, Debussy wrote very little choral music and published only one piece (two Noëls and La petite cantata were unpublished, Choeur de brises is a fragment). Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans were published as a set in 1909, although the first and last were written in 1898 and the second of the songs was written in 1908. In a letter to his friend André Caplet in 1908, Debussy wrote ‘Caplet, vous n’êtes qu’un villain, comme disait Charles d’Orléans en parlant de ‘L’Yver’’, some evidence, perhaps, that France’s greatest 15th century poet was in his thoughts.
Frederick Delius (1862–1934)
In one way, Delius might be considered the bridge between the music of France in the early twentieth century, and that of England in the same period. Delius was English, born in Bradford (albeit of German parents), but in his early twenties he emigrated to Florida and thence (via Germany) to France where he spent most of the last 40 years of his life, seldom returning to England. Delius’ music can rarely be said to have an English flavour – he was much influenced by the music of America, Scandinavia, Russia, Germany and, of course, France.
In 1914/15 Delius spent a year in England, but returned to his adopted home of Grez-sur-Loing and began a year of concentrated compositional output. Amid the large-scale pieces from 1916/17, Delius found time to write two short pieces for unaccompanied choir, jointly titled ‘To be sung at night on the water’, both imbued with the almost indefinable atmosphere of distant longing which is a unique aspect of this great and original master’s art. In 1932, blind and paralysed as a result of syphilis contracted years previously in Florida, Delius re-visited the pieces and, through his amanuensis Eric Fenby, re-scored them as ‘Two Aquarelles’ for string orchestra.
Jonathan Dove (b. 1958)
The Passing of the Year
Although known principally for his often-performed airport-opera, Flight, Jonathan Dove has written many other works for voices. His métier is particularly in writing community pieces – composing works for local musicians, both amateur and professional, to perform. Among such works are the operas Tobias and the Angel (written for the church of St Matthew’s Perry Beeches, Birmingham), The Palace in the Sky (written for The Hackney Music Development Trust and The National Opera), The Hackney Chronicles (an opera for schoolchildren), and the cantata On Spital Fields, which received its first performance this year. Dove has also written many shorter vocal and choral pieces, including The Three Kings, a carol commissioned by King’s College Cambridge for its annual nine lessons and carols service, and I am the day for the Spitalfields Festival. Other non-choral works include the incidental music for the National Theatre’s recent adaptation of Philip Pullman’s classic children’s stories His Dark Materials, Tuning In (a saxophone quartet), Out of Time (a string quartet), and Stargazer (a trombone concerto). Dove’s music was also used at the ceremonies accompanying the opening of the Millennium Dome and the Millennium Bridge.
The Passing of the Year was commissioned by the London Symphony Chorus, and was first performed by them in March 2000. It is a song cycle for double chorus and piano, which, through settings of poems by British and American poets, takes the listener through the seasons of the year, from the rising of the first shoots of spring to the recklessly rung bells of New Year’s Eve. Sometimes, the words are literally a description of the season (as in Blake’s The narrow bud opens her beauties to the sun); at other times, the words take on a more metaphorical cast (in Nashe’s Adieu! farewell earth’s bliss!, a poem about human transience is used to signify the fading of the year through late autumn/winter). Although the composer has since adapted the work for two pianos and percussion, the version performed tonight will be the original scoring.
Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)
Like his mentor, Dukas, Duruflé was incredibly self-effacing, and spent considerable time re-working his compositions until they achieved what he felt was the correct level of perfection; in fact, there are only 14 published Opus numbers to his name. Duruflé’s early musical training was at the cathedral in Rouen, where there was a famous school of Gregorian chant. This repertory of liturgical song had become something of a French speciality in the 19th century, and among the scholars working on the chants were a group of Benedictines at the French monastery of Solesmes, who developed a theory of chant rhythm as a free succession of notes of mostly equal value in groups of two and three. The Solesmes school of chant restoration and performance achieved widespread acceptance in the Catholic church and even some Protestant congregations.
After a thorough steeping in this tradition, Duruflé came to Paris and studied at the Conservatoire, where he confronted the tradition of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. When he came to write his Requiem in 1947, like the earliest composers of polyphonic Requiems, Duruflé took the Gregorian plainchant Mass for the Dead as his raw material. His declared intention was ‘to reconcile, as far as possible, Gregorian rhythm…with the exigencies of modern meter.’ That is, he did not transcribe literally the original melodies with their irregular alternation of twos and threes; he adjusted the rhythms subtly so that larger metric patterns emerge, but still he allowed the meter to shift frequently so that a sense of spontaneity is preserved. At the same time, he clothed the sometimes archaic-sounding melodies in sophisticated harmonies of the early modern school. Although he came from a different liturgical tradition, Duruflé used similar texts to those used by Fauré in his requiem.
The piece is in the true tendresse style, leaving out the chilling full Dies Irae and accentuating the aspect of forgiveness through the inclusion of a separate Pie Jesu and through constant repetition of the phrase ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine’. Duruflé published the Requiem in three versions: for organ alone; for full orchestra and for organ and string quintet with harp, trumpets and timpani ad libitum. It is this latter version (without trumpets and timpani) that will be performed at tonight’s concert.
Antonín Dvorák (1841–1904)
Serenade in D minor op. 44
‘Talented but poor’ has often been a phrase used to describe Dvorák. His origins were humble – he was born in 1841 in Nelahozeves, a small town in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic); his father was a butcher and innkeeper. Dvorák’s early life coincided with a rise in Bohemian nationalism, and this influence, together with his modest background, gave him a lifelong attraction for music which sprang from the common people; much of his work is pervaded with folk tunes and peasant rhythms. His early studies were with Antonin Liehmann and at the Prague Organ School. A capable viola player, he joined the band that became the nucleus of the new Provisional Theatre orchestra, conducted from 1866 by Smetana. From 1873 he took up private teaching but continued to compose. He won the Austrian State Stipendium three times (1874, 1876-7), gaining the attention of Brahms, who secured the publisher Simrock for some of his works in 1878 and continued as a lifelong friend. In 1878, the year the D minor serenade was published, Dvorák was at last gaining some international recognition – recognition that would take him to Paris, London and New York.
The serenade is unusually scored for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, double bassoon (ad lib.), three horns, cello and double bass. The absence of flutes seems odd, as in previous works Dvorák had used this instrument to great effect and the lack of violins is possibly a homage to Brahms who, in his own Serenade (Op. 16), had also dispensed with them. Indeed, Dvorák’s Serenade has much in common with Brahms’ Opus 16. Following a Mozartian tradition, the Serenade opens with a march; the second movement is in minuet form, with a brilliant presto trio section. The Andante con moto movement is the most extended of the four, containing exquisite writing for cello, horns and woodwind. The final movement begins energetically and ends with a reprise of the opening march.