Soli Deo Gloria performs Mass Appeal
Two giants of teh 19th century repertoire grace this program. Cherubini's Solemn Mass in G major may be the best of many masses he composed. Robert Schumann's darkly scored Requiem reflects a gentle acceptance of approaching death.
Robert Schumanns Requiem, the last of his choral compositions, is one of his more neglected works it isnt even mentioned in the main Wikipedia article on Schumann. After the composers death, his friends denounced the piece as the result of Schumanns deteriorating mental state: the Requiem bears a date of 1852, and in 1854 Schumann committed himself to a mental institution, continued to work on the Requiem and other pieces, and died there two years later. More recent critics have dismissed the Requiem as the least theatrical setting of the Mass for the Dead in the 19th-century repertoire, said it lacked innovation, and informed potential listeners that it (and other late works) need not detain us.
We beg to differ.
True, Schumanns Requiem lacks melodrama and bravura solos. But it is stirring and beautiful, introspective, melodic and poetic, with a feeling of acceptance yet still at times conveying an intense dread. The piece does not rely on fireworks or flash. Many of the movements have slow tempo markings, and volume is used sparingly and for effect rather than throughout. As a result, much of the piece has an elegant, almost languid feeling that contrasts sharply with the text. One writer ascribes this dreamy otherworldliness in part to the key of D-flat major, which in Schumanns time was generally used for piano rather than orchestral compositions. The use of this key also means that hardly any of the strings notes are played on open strings, giving the piece a dark tone.
As the Requiem opens, the chorus sings quietly over shimmering orchestral harmonies for the short first movement, followed by a straightforward, triumphant psalm (Te decet hymnus). Then the darkness enters with the Dies irae. But this isnt the typical musical portrayal of the end of the world. Not the screaming souls in hell, as in the Verdi Requiem, or an unstoppable, fierce march of the Day of Judgment, as in Mozarts, this is more a slow, steady, swaying funeral cortège. The disquieting, slightly discordant theme a rising half-step, followed by an octave leap begins quietly with the basses, progressing through the tenors, altos and finally up to the sopranos, while the voices not carrying the theme sing a mournful dirge. The half-step mirrors the falling half-step that begins the plainchant Dies irae; Berlioz used that plainchant prominently in the "Witches Sabbath movement of his Symphonie Fantastique, which Schumann knew well and reviewed favorably in 1835. The rising half-step has another sinister meaning to modern ears: its the Jaws theme, the signal that danger is coming to get you! (Its also in the themes from Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and other horror movies.) But this is no loud scream: the movement begins piano and much of it remains so. In the following movements that complete the Dies irae text, soloists not prominent in the piece as a whole enter only when the text turns to the first person. The entire section feels less a dire warning of the end of the world for all humanity than a personal, gut-level fear.
In contrast, the Domine Jesu Christe is marked Feierlich celebratory and the plea to God to free the souls of the faithful dead from hell contains all the pent-up, explosive drama that the Dies irae doesnt. From there to the end, Schumanns treatment of the text is notable: he leaves out a section of the Hostias (let them pass from death to life, O Lord ); he repeats Sanctus twice or even once instead of the canonical three times; he omits the Hosanna after the Benedictus; and the last movements are a kind of mashup of the Agnus Dei and the Communio, omitting or conflating various phrases and words. The piece ends as it began: on the word requiem, pianissimo.
The Requiem was not published or performed until eight years after Schumanns death. Schumann said one writes a requiem for oneself. Whether or not he knew he didnt have much longer to live, its easy to believe that he felt very personally about this overlooked but very beautiful and in its own way, very dramatic piece of music.
Luigi Cherubini isnt as well-known in America as his German contemporaries, but in Europe he is a household name. Born in Italy, he spent most of his life in France, significantly as the head of the Paris Conservatory, where he molded young musicians for almost half a century, and became the first musician to be awarded Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. His contemporaries, with the exception of Berlioz, admired him and considered his music exemplary. His Requiem in C minor was famous throughout Europe and was performed at many funerals, including Beethovens, and his operas were also well received, at least outside France.
In his younger days, Cherubini traveled to Vienna and met the leading musicians of the day, including Haydn and Beethoven. He revered Haydn and traveled frequently after that to hear his music performed; he even wrote a mass dedicated to Haydns patron, Prince Esterhazy, shortly after Haydns death, and his numerous masses are largely modeled after Haydns. He was less enamored of Beethoven, however, seeming to think his music unrefined; but the younger Beethoven considered Cherubini the greatest living composer and learned much from his compositions, incuding (as youll hear today) a penchant for unsubtle dramatic contrasts and a very slow harmonic rhythm, tools which later composers exploited in new ways throughout the nineteenth century. This is clearly a work intended for concert performance (on stage if not at a real coronation).
Cherubini served as court composer to both Louis XVI and Louis XVIII, which meant he had to keep his head down during Napoleons reign, which occurred in between. The mass which we are performing today seems to have been intended for a coronation ceremony for Louis XVIII in 1819, well after the second Restoration in 1814. As a result of its intended grand occasion, the work is particularly dramatic, full of brass fanfares and string tremolos, sudden dynamic changes and obvious word painting. The phrase Gloria in excelsis Deo is treated as a refrain, recurring throughout the movement. The movement Crucifixus is scored only for bassoons, lower strings, tenors, and basses; the dark color provides a somber contrast of mood beyond the imagination of Haydn. There are no vocal solo parts; the chorus carries the entire text of the mass, including the additional text O salutaris hostia, a hymn originally written by Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi, but often used in France for the Elevation (a segment of the Eucharistic rite in which the host is raised on high by the priest). Even more unusually, Cherubini follows this hymn with a third invocation of the Hosanna response, which normally follows only the Sanctus and Benedictus.
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