|Masterworks I: “Triple Opener”|
Magnificat in C major, D. 486
Like many musical geniuses, Franz Schubert gave evidence of his exceptional talent as a child. His family was supportive in providing him at home with lessons in violin, piano, organ and composition with professional teachers. During his early adolescence, having mastered every challenge his music teachers could cast his way, his tutelage was undertaken by none other than the imperial court composer Antonio Salieri. Nevertheless, Schubert was slated to become a schoolmaster like his father. In 1814 at age 17, he reluctantly began teaching in his father’s school, unable to break out as a professional composer for another three years.
During the years of academic drudgery, Schubert was still able to produce an enormous number of compositions (nearly 600, including more than 200 songs!). The Magnificat in C was composed in the fall of 1816, probably for a service in the Leichtentaler Church in Vienna where the composer had been a choirboy and was now teaching.
Known in Latin as the Magnificat for its first verse, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (My soul doth magnify the Lord), the passage from St Luke Chapter 1, verses 46-55 is spoken by Mary when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The meeting of the two women is commemorated on the feast of the Visitation, and the canticle is sung daily as part of the Catholic office of Vespers. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, polyphonic settings of the Magnificat were second in number only to those of the ordinary of the Mass. Surprisingly, there are fewer settings after the mid-eighteenth century until the late twentieth century. J. S. Bach gave the text extended treatment in twelve movements.
Although we do not know the circumstances under which the Magnificat was composed, it was clearly not commissioned for a grand occasion nor for unlimited vocal and instrumental resources. The composer himself was a nobody – however talented – barely out of his teens, and one can’t expect a work on the order of Bach’s massive creation. Instead, Schubert’s version is in three short movements encompassing selected verses of the liturgical text (a particular custom in Vienna). It is set syllabically, so that the musicians can get through it in the shortest amount of time possible. It does not, however, go to the extremes of the Mozart’s Missa brevis (short Mass), in which each voice sings different lines of the text simultaneously.
The first movement is a choral da capo (ABA) aria, opening with the chorus singing “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” which is repeated after a middle fugal passage that incorporates three subsequent verses in which Mary remarks on the great honor she has received. The Andante, scored for solo vocal quartet, skips to the text stating how God will bring down the mighty and reward the poor and humble (”Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles”) Musically, it is the most original of the three movement in that it is through composed and features a musical motive, first heard as an introductory oboe solo, rather than a full theme, incorporated in various subtle ways to reflect the meaning of each verse. This gentle cantabile represents a kind of tone painting, reflecting the importance of raising the humble.
The final section consists of the doxology (“Gloria Patri”), the conclusion of many liturgical texts. If the Andante resembles a typical instrumental slow movement, the “Gloria Patri” is most like a rousing symphonic finale. Schubert opens with a statement of the complete text, subsequently repeating and/or developing each phrase, for example the “Amen.” Neither a true rondo nor a sonata-allegro form, it, once again demonstrates the composer’s youthful flexible approach to conventional musical structures.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart|
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467
Mozart composed a total of 28 solo keyboard concertos, most of them for his own use in subscription concerts in Vienna. Consequently, the timing of their composition was influenced by the artistic climate and the economic wellbeing of the city. In the short period between 1782 and 1786, a booming economy created a heyday for musical life in Vienna. Aristocratic families vied with one another to underwrite and sponsor concerts of the latest in musical fashion. During those flush years, Mozart was in great demand both as a composer and a performer on the keyboard, composing 17 concertos, including this one in C major.
In the late 1780s Austria experienced a severe economic slump, the result of rebellions and the war with Turkey, which menaced the Eastern frontier of the Empire. To make matters worse, the revolutionary events in France terrified the Austrian Emperor, who rescinded his earlier liberal reforms and reintroduced various repressive measures. The resultant atmosphere led to a stifling of cultural life and a decline in patronage and public concerts. Consequently, Mozart composed only two piano concertos in the last five years of his life.
The Concerto in C major was composed in early 1785, finished – in true Mozartean procrastination – on March 9, and premiered on March 10 in a subscription concert. The concert, as well as the Concerto, was an artistic and financial success; according to Mozart's father Leopold, the composer took in 559 Gulden – about $2000 in today's money. The Concerto's cheerful and outgoing character is in stark contrast to its predecessor, the Concerto No. 20 in D minor, composed only three weeks earlier. No. 21 utilizes the full classical orchestra of strings with divided violas, a flute and two each oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and kettledrums. No cadenza by Mozart has survived.
The first movement is by far the longest, presenting a common opening theme for orchestra and piano, the two parts of which are also used as refrains. Piano and orchestra, however, have a series of different secondary themes, & the piano arriving at the dominant G major via an unusual minor route. & During the development section, the piano adds yet another theme to the pot.
After 1967, when the Swedish film Elvira Madigan used the second movement of this Concerto as the principal soundtrack, it has consistently ranked among classical music’s greatest hits. The beauty of this theme resides in the manner in which Mozart spins it out to great length with poignant internal cadences.
Some listeners find the transition to the final movement like being awakened from a dream. The mood and harmonic language of the Concerto change abruptly into a generally celebratory atmosphere. The movement is not the customary rondo, but rather a sonata form. As a parallel to the first movement, Mozart uses the piano to supply a darker coloring as it moves into the secondary theme in the dominant, as well as within the development section. &
Requiem, Op. 9
French organist and composer Maurice Duruflé began his musical career in the choir of the cathedral of Rouen. For many years he was organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris and professor of Harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, at the same time traveling extensively as organ virtuoso throughout Europe. He composed some orchestral works as well as organ and church music, but the Requiem, Op. 9, is considered his finest work. It was his first choral work, composed in 1947 on commission from the French publishing company Durand.
The Mass for the Dead in the Roman Catholic liturgy sends a dual message. While it opens with the prayer for eternal rest, its longest and most important component is the sequence, Dies irae, a dramatic picture of the Day of Judgment and the eternal punishment of the damned. And for many composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Dies irae became the opportunity to indulge in their most dramatic and fiery music. Gabriel Fauré, however, was the first composer to eliminate the Dies irae from his Requiem, thereby rendering it a more comforting, even gentle piece. Duruflé modeled his work after Fauré’s Requiem. He never explained the reasoning behind his adherence to liturgical music, while at the same time departing from the prescribed text, by excluding the Dies irae. It is not unlikely, however, that at the time of its composition when the world had just experienced hell on earth; humanity was in need of consolation.
The Requiem combines the medieval chant melodies with modern orchestration and harmonies. As is true of most settings of the Mass since the Baroque period, the individual liturgical sections are musically distinct and self-contained. Duruflé was also modeling his work on the Renaissance paraphrase Mass, where each section takes a pre-existing liturgical melody and weaves it into a contrapuntal setting.
The Requiem is completely through composed, avoiding any of the standard structures and musical repeats common to Mass settings from the previous two centuries. Each of the sections opens with a simple statement or close paraphrase of the plainchant melody, which is then developed and woven into the fabric of a more modern harmonic language and often abandoned altogether as the section proceeds. The non-metric flow of the plainchant rhythm, however, is retained through most of the work. Duruflé frequently creates an antiphonal effect by separating the male and female voices.
The Introit, a plea for eternal rest, has an appropriately serene setting, the high and low voices of chorus and orchestra echoing one another quoting literally the plainchant melody. Duruflé maintains this technique throughout the movement, although the voicing and instrumentation change. The Kyrie follows without interruption, quoting the chant in the organ and building up to a dramatic climax in the chorus and orchestra.
Duruflé uses great restraint in describing the tortures of hell in the Offertory, Domine Jesu Christe, which opens with a newly composed introduction featuring the bass clarinet. The gentle mood of the first part disappears as the chorus almost demands “Libera eas de ore leonis” (free them from the mouth of the lion, lest they fall into Hell).
In the Sanctus, an ostinato figure in the strings entwines itself around the plainchant invocation, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus”, with the whole orchestra gradually joining in, reaching a crescendo to the cry of Osanna, calming down again in the Benedictus.
The gentle appeal, Pie Jesu (Holy Jesus, grant them eternal rest), is the only part of the Dies irae that Duruflé retained. It is a romantic setting for mezzo-soprano solo or – as the composer preferred – the whole alto section.
The Agnus Dei and the Communion Lux Aeterna return to the calm of the beginning of the Requiem, as they emphasize the theme of eternal rest. However, the final section of the Mass, “Libera me, Domine, de morte Aeterna” (Free me from eternal death), with its opening horn blast representing the call to Judgment, offers a thundering contrast as it portrays the trembling soul before God. The text repeats textual passages from the omitted Dies irae, and Duruflé reserves his most dramatic and dissonant music for this reprise. While he uses the famous opening notes of the chant melody, he subtly changes the first interval from a half step to a whole step. The baritone soloist takes the role of the terrified soul.
Like Fauré, Duruflé was unwilling to end this gentle work on a note of terror. He added to the Requiem Mass an additional movement, In Paradisum, from the Burial Service, gently setting the soul on its journey to the heavenly city of Jerusalem and eternal peace
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019|