A Musical Feast – May 4, 2019
Princeton University Chapel
©Ryan James Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
There are ensembles around the globe whose names include the words pro musica. This shouldn’t surprise us: the act of establishing an excellent performing ensemble is the essence of the notion pro musica. I’m so grateful that forty years ago, Frances Fowler Slade undertook that very endeavor, and I’m delighted today to be celebrating the culmination of Princeton Pro Musica’s anniversary season alongside her, with our musicians, in this magnificent space. Having kicked off this anniversary season with Romantic offerings by Brahms and Vaughan Williams, I thought it appropriate to look back to a composer whose music Princeton Pro Musica has performed every single season since its founding: George Frideric Handel. As for the repertoire, it seemed appropriate to me to venture away from liturgical fare, Requiems, and the like, to works whose subject is celebration and music itself. Fortunately, Handel wrote celebratory music for occasions as important and ceremonial as a coronation and two works in honor of music and its patron saint, Cecilia: Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music and Ode to St. Cecilia.
By Handel’s time, composers had been marking St. Cecilia’s feast day, November 22, through compositions in her honor for more than a century. Annual celebrations were a regular part of the London concert scene. Henry Purcell, Handel’s superstar predecessor, had written several Odes in her honor. But Handel’s successes in the early part of his career, in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century, were in Italian opera. His first forays into oratorio in English, Esther and Deborah, were met with tepid response from the English public. He waited several years before trying again until Newburgh Hamilton encouraged him to set not an oratorio libretto but John Dryden’s 1697 work, Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Musick. Alexander’s Feast marked a definitive turn in Handel’s career towards English music, that is, both music in English and music setting the work of English writers. It was a bit of a risk to set the words of a poet as beloved as Dryden, but Hamilton, who adapted Dryden’s text for Handel, avowed in the preface to their publication:
“[Handel’s] Compositions have long shewn that they can conquer even the most obstinate Partiality, and inspire Life into the most senseless words. If this Entertainment can, in the least degree, give Satisfaction to the real Judges of Poetry or Musick, I shall think myself happy in having promoted it; being persuaded that it is next to an improbability to offer the World any thing in those Arts more perfect than the united Labours and utmost efforts of a Dryden and a Handel.”
The work was immediately a hit, and the English public embraced Handel’s setting of one of their favorite poets. Within two years, a statue of Handel, with a copy of the score, was erected at Vauxhall Gardens. Handel would revive Alexander’s Feast many times throughout his career, particularly when he needed a guaranteed success. Alexander’s Feast wasn’t quite long enough to fill an evening, so Handel presented it with a harp concerto, a concerto grosso, and an organ concerto. I’m delighted to feature Princeton Pro Musica’s accompanist and the Princeton University organist, Eric Plutz, in this concerto. Three years after its 1736 premiere, Handel paired Alexander’s Feast with a second Cecilian ode, also on a text by Dryden, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. We’ll start this afternoon with two of Handel’s Coronation Anthems. One of the last acts of George I before his death was to sign “an Act for the naturalization of George Frideric Handel.” Handel’s first commission as a British citizen was to write music for the coronation of George II. Written to fill the acoustic of Westminster Abbey for an exceedingly festive occasion, the Coronation Anthems hold nothing back. The long procession, nudged along by noodling sixteenth notes, eventually cracking open into a massive choral eruption “Zadok the Priest!” is a matchless bit of musical theater. We’ll open the second half with an entirely different but no less stunning piece of royal music: the first movement from Handel’s Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, in which soprano and trumpet slowly circle round each other over a blanket of barely perceptible strings.
Personally, I love to revel in Handel’s blatant, rhythmic pomp, tapping my toes or drumming a finger. Nobody does it better. But I also love to be drawn into the heated rhetorical arguments posed by the intertwining strands of imitative polyphonic music, whose rhythm, ebbing and flowing far below the music’s attractive surface, was intended to mirror not the footsteps of terrestrial time but the concentric clockworks of the celestial spheres. Music can open up vast spaces for contemplation by the mind as often as it can spark movement in the body. I’ve always appreciated Frances’ choice of name. Something about the Latin of Pro Musica evokes the centuries-old study and practice of music – our beloved discipline – and links it to other pursuits of inquiry and art in a way that “Princeton Symphonic Chorus” never could. Early modern writings celebrated music’s utility and warned against its dangers, noting how the very same art form that might rouse martial spirit might also lure one’s spirit into love. Classical poets and philosophers had been searching for explanations for these phenomena for centuries before Handel was born. Educated men learned music as part of the quadrivium, as a science of measurement – an earthly embodiment and link to the perfect “tuning” of the skies. Copernicus upset the geocentric apple cart in the sixteenth century, of course, completely reorienting those “celestial spheres.” By the time Purcell wrote his ode in 1683, London’s legendary Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge had been in existence for twenty-three years. While John Dryden penned poetry musing on the power of music, his contemporary Isaac Newton was grappling with concepts that laid the foundations of classical mechanics and articulated the laws of motion. Dryden’s Song for St. Cecilia appeared the same year as Newton’s seminal Principia.
The story of Alexander’s Feast depicts the many emotions and states of being that can be aroused by music: martial vengefulness, tender love, deep pity, bacchanalian joy, and reverence. Alexander and his mistress Thais hold a banquet to celebrate the capture of Persepolis during which they’re entertained by the court musician, Timotheus. Timotheus’ first song establishes Alexander’s demi-god status as the son of Jove. In the first choral movement we’ll perform today, “The list’ning crowd admires the lofty sound” and hails the “present deity.” The soprano soloist then describes how Alexander takes in this song “with ravish’d ears” and “seems to shake the spheres.” Timotheus’ next song, in praise of Bacchus, ushers in a scene of wine-soaked revelry during which Alexander vainly relays his victories. Timotheus, fearing the burgeoning bellicosity of Alexander, then sings about a fallen soldier and summons a sense of pity, moving Alexander to tears. To close the first part, Timotheus sings of love, and Alexander “at length with love and wine at once oppress’d” sinks onto Thais’ breast. The chorus hails: “The many rend the skies with loud applause; So love was crown’d, but music won the cause.” In the second part, music rouses his sense of revenge, and Thais incites him to burn the city. Cecilia arrives and quells the belligerence with her more lofty music. The chorus acknowledges that Timotheus, who “rais’d a mortal to the skies,” must “yield the prize” for composition to Cecilia who “drew an angel down,” and a grandiose choral fugue ensues. The work ends with a lilting, gentle paean to Cecilia (by Hamilton, not Dryden) and a call to rededicate ourselves to the art of music:
Let’s imitate her notes above,
And may this evening ever prove,
Sacred to harmony and love.
In Dryden’s conceptualization of her, Cecilia and her music are the conduit between the earthly and celestial realms. Dryden’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day opens with this cosmological account:
From harmony, from heav’nly harmony,
This universal frame began,
From harmony to harmony,
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.
Dryden then outlines the ways various instruments can arouse us. “The trumpet’s loud clangor / Excites us to arms, / With shrill notes of anger, / And mortal alarms.” “Sharp violins proclaim / Their jealous pangs, and desperation, / Fury, frantic indignation.” But for the organ – Cecilia’s instrument – Dryden reserves his highest praise and greatest powers:
But oh, what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring noly love,
Notes that wing their heav’nly ways
To join the choirs above.
Dryden ends where he began. Music is an essential part of the same cosmological force gluing us all together: The universe simply can’t hold together without it.
As from the pow’r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the bless’d above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
This essentialism is reflected in the music itself. Like the stupendously varied fauna of planet earth, Handel’s compositions display endless variety yet are built of almost identical DNA. Handel’s nucleotides are simple scales, predictable hemiolas, and regular harmonic progressions, but with an expert deft hand, he sequences them into striking musical phrases, powerfully cohesive movements, and colossal entire works. Until the advent of musical minimalism, no composer was able to build so much musical mass with so little material.
Since the time Dryden wrote his Ode and Newton wrote Principia, music and science have developed by leaps and bounds. The theory of relativity has supplanted some of the laws of Newtonian physics. Dizzyingly complex cooperation among probes, satellites, and telescopes has allowed us to confirm calculations about the celestial spheres and has provided imagery from heavenly bodies millions of miles away. In the musical field, our increasingly developed knowledge of acoustics and physics has allowed us to measure music’s parameters such as frequency (pitch), amplitude (volume), and beats per minute (tempo). A spectrograph can show us the particular harmonics that give an instrument or voice its special character. The technological capacities of the organ have been outpaced by synthesizers, processors, and amplifiers. Computers can produce music that would quite literally blow Handel away. Whenever I work on early music, I always marvel and delight in the thought that, at the time, before technology, car horns, and jet engines, this choral-orchestral music was probably the loudest think they’d ever heard (save a thunderclap, breaking tree, or some other force of nature). Music had to be heard live, but it was always an occasion. Now, through the power of recording technology and electronics, music pervasively accompanies more of our daily lives than it ever has. And yet, no technology has ever or could ever improve upon the perfection of harmony. The delicious ring of an in-tune chord is simply a fact of physics. Centuries from now, when we want to celebrate an anniversary or a coronation with music, we will likely turn to the same major triads born out of the perfection of whole-number frequency ratios. As the birth and growth of the academic disciplines of music theory and musicology, the frequent appearance of pop psycho-acoustical book titles, and our ravenous appetite for recorded music suggest, the more we have learned in the ensuing three centuries, the more we have been forced to accept that music’s magic is as beguiling and hard to explain as ever. And so we shall carry on, reveling in our artistic pursuits, pro musica.
Carmina Burana – March 17, 2019
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University
©Ryan James Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
More than eighty years ago in Frankfurt – June 8, 1937 – a cantata by Carl Orff, which would become one of the most beloved and enduring of the choral masterworks of all time, was seen and heard for the first time: Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae contoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (“Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images”). That proper title is a mouthful, but it reveals several things about Carmina’s origins and its composer’s intent. Beuern refers to the Benedictine monastery in Bavaria where, in 1803, a collection of 13th century songs and poems was uncovered. Orff himself discovered a version of that collection in a second-hand bookstore, in a publication with the rather tawdry title, “Wine, Women, and Song.” He was rapt:
I obtained the book on Maundy Thursday 1934, a memorable day for me. Right when I opened it, on the very first page, I found the long-famous illustration of ‘Fortune with the Wheel’, and under it the lines: ‘O Fortuna velut Luna statu variabilis.’ The picture and the words took hold of me. Although I was, in the beginning, only acquainted with the broad outlines of the contents of the poetry collection, a new work, a stage work with choruses for singing and dancing, simply following the pictures and text, sprang to life immediately in my mind. That very day I had sketched the first chorus. After a sleepless night during which I nearly lost myself in the voluminous poetry collection, a second chorus, ‘Fortune plango vulnera,’ was finished, and on Easter morning a third, ‘Ecce gratum,’ was put on paper.
With the help of a Latin scholar named Michael Hoffman, Orff chose twenty-four poems from the collection and grouped them into three scenes: Spring, In the Tavern, and The Court of Love. These poems were likely written by authors in various bands of itinerant scholars and defrocked priests – learned, literary men who, for whatever reason, fell out with the academic and religious institutions of the 13th century Europe and made a living entertaining hosts (and each other) with their too-clever words and catchy rhymes. The poems herald the beauty and warmth of spring, surely welcome to men without a home to call their own. They toast the delights of the tavern, mocking clergymen, imagining the lament of a roasting swan, while subtly criticizing the simony and greed of the ever-powerful church of which they were no longer a part. They revel in the intrigue of courtly love – the longing for a chaste and typically unattainable lady – that animated the noble courts that provided them a few nights’ stay. Taken as a whole, they trace the way life’s delights and challenges are subject to Fortune’s whims.
Orff set out to vivify the texts through both song and “magic images.” At the school that Orff created with Dorothee Guenther, dancers were expected to improvise music for their movement, and instrumentalists created movements for their melodies. In Orff’s art, as in some African cultures where there aren’t separate words for “music” and “dance,” the two were essentially interchangeable. Princeton Pro Musica has a history of performing Carmina Burana in the multi-disciplinary way its composer conceived it. Past collaborations have featured the work of Teamwork Dance, the American Repertory Ballet, and Reverence among others. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Mark Roxey and the Roxey Ballet, whose musical choreography has transformed the way I think about the relationship between music and movement and has revealed new possibilities for storytelling with Carmina.
Orff’s choice of medieval texts complemented his inclination toward older music. Turning away from the urbane iconoclasm of Weimar Germany and the intellectualism of composers like Schoenberg, Orff sought a more elemental, primal music inspired by nature and earlier musical models. At Orff’s school, students played simplified, large percussion instruments which allowed them to use their bodies to develop complex rhythmic ideas from simple melodic materials. For his own performances as conductor of the Munich Bach Society and other organizations, Orff arranged the music of Monteverdi and created staged versions of works by Schütz and Bach. He was a student of medieval music, too. The contours of medieval plainchant inform the chorus’ music in the third movement (“Varies leta facies”) and the baritone’s first utterance (“Omnia sol temperat”) in the fourth. The jaunty mixed meter of the sixth movement, “Tanz,” (“Dance”) was inspired by medieval Bavarian dance.
Unsurprisingly, Orff’s music begs for movement. Powered by rank upon rank of soldiering beats, marching along in insistent ostinatos, rhythm vanquished melody to noisily proclaim itself the primary musical parameter. A near-constant barrage of sharp accents and snappy staccatos adds crispness and angularity to the musical surface. Unlike so much of the music Princeton Pro Musica sings, Carmina offers almost no harmonic narrative; the movements remain steadfastly in one key, never daring to modulate to other tonal areas via added sharps and flats. Indeed, the choral score for Carmina looks like few others in the repertoire. It’s as though Orff deliberately compensated for the conspicuous lack of flats and sharps by adorning nearly every note with a diacritic crown of articulation. The choir, of course, isn’t the only component of Carmina responsible for the rhythm and the accents. the score calls for no fewer than three glockenspiels, five timpani, various drums, chimes, and some of the most idiosyncratic sounding instruments of the percussion section, such as sleigh bells, castanets, and triangle.
This straightforward musical approach creates a very powerful experience in the concert hall. Sometimes, in attendance at a classical music event, we bear witness to a solo performer’s solipsistic reverie with her instrument, gleaning pleasure from being given access to that intimate, interior world. Other times we sit in awe of the way a composer’s creation raises universal, profound questions or conveys majesty. But Carmina can elicit an emotional response of a more primordial sort. It externalizes our interior impulses without chagrin. Its clamor and pulse can sweep us into communal ecstasy. Much time has been spent in rehearsal getting one hundred people to rattle off lyrics and fire off accents exactly together. It’s hard work, but when we get it right, it’s thrilling.
It’s no wonder, then, that few pieces from the choral repertoire have been used so much outside the concert hall context. Carmina’s topics – springtime, sunshine, tipsy conviviality, stirring loins – are innocent enough. But its effects – unification through rhythm, a sense of triumphalism – harness powerful potential. The piece was written in a time when several odious regimes were gaining power in Europe. Though Orff claimed the Nazis proscribed Carmina due to its Latin text, communal “European” sensibility, and “jazzy atmosphere,” other Nazis embraced the work and at least one appreciated the rhythms’ evocation of “the stamping columns of the Third Reich.” Carmina’s first performance at Italy’s La Scala served as a showpiece for fascist values. Less worrisome and more widespread has been Carmina’s cooptation in the commercial realm. Countless bands have sampled Orff’s music. Film and television creators pump up their soundtracks with it. Madison Avenue ad smiths use it to sell everything from sports cars to beer. Sports franchises blast “O Fortuna” when their players take the field or court. they all lean on these familiar sounds to signal to us that their protagonists face a battle with fate of epic proportions.
Indeed, despite its familiarity, the famous “O Fortuna” is always arresting. This is never more the case than in concert performance, when it returns at the end of the work. Orff saves his richest, most exulted music for the penultimate movement. Having followed the courtship and seduction gradually unfolding between baritone and soprano and at long last riding the rush of consummation after the soprano’s orgasmic ascent to high D, the full throated chorus, three clanging glockenspiels, timpani, and pianos erupt in a paean to “the most beautiful one.” Their hymn-like “Aves” extol beautiful women of legend and Venus herself. But just as soon as we’ve reached this apex, pounded low octaves from the pianos and thundering blows from the timpani turn Fortune’s wheel upside down once again. Soon thereafter, the last line of the famous chorus bids: “since Fate strikes down the strong man, everyone weep with me!”
By the time this broad invitation returns for the second time, we have risen and fallen through the lifecycle of the twenty-five movements of Orff’s cantata. We have been powerfully reminded, through word, sound, and movement that, on Fortune’s wheel, it’s all too easy to slip from one side to the other. Perhaps certain aspects of life are today felt just as acutely as they were in the Middle Ages. Who among us hasn’t sometimes felt: like what was up is down, what was down is up; like others are suddenly exalted in triumph while we are suddenly knocked down; like others get lucky and we’re dealt a losing hand. Yet each day we wake up and roll the dice. Now, as then, there are communities forced to wander and seek refuge from Fortune’s cruel fickleness. Triumph and tragedy continue their uneasy coexistence. Though its potency has been used over the years in a variety of ways, in this particular moment, Orff’s brilliant Carmina provides a way for more than one hundred musicians, a dozen dancers, and hundreds of audience members to celebrate life and love’s triumphs and bemoan their tribulations. By helping us to experience these highest highs and lowest lows together, Carmina captures the bittersweet, tempest-tossed way that life constantly commingles joy and struggle and, for me at least, suggests that we do what we can to right Fortune’s wheel for others when it starts to fall.
To Music, to Joy – November 4, 2018
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University
©Ryan Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
This concert kicks off the celebration of Princeton Pro Musica’s fortieth anniversary. The idea for this program came easily to me and started with our name – pro musica – “to music.” For forty years, the artists of Princeton Pro Musica have worked passionately to bring you the very best in music, and this afternoon we want to offer our thanks to you, for your support, and to music itself which has inspired all of us. I’ve selected pieces whose composers and poets hail music’s mysterious ability, whether weeping in sadness or clamoring in “fire-drunk” joyousness, to amplify our feelings and reflect experiences we can’t adequately describe in words. We feature two titans of the Germanic tradition – Beethoven in the finale to his Ninth Symphony and Brahms, in two rarely heard masterpieces, Alto Rhapsody and Nänie. I intentionally sought to pair with Beethoven and Brahms two later composers of a different stripe: Claude Debussy, a composer who chaffed at and deliberately rebuffed the goal-driven, Teutonic, symphonic ideal; and the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music has always seemed to me to exist on its own terms. I’m fascinated by the magnificent variety of musical expression these pieces present. The dense, rich works of Brahms lead us on journeys through darkness toward light. The Debussy and Vaughan Williams pieces paradoxically create, through the actions of the players, utter tranquility. The Beethoven, on the other hand, joyously delivers some of the repertoire’s most shrieking high points. What other art form can be both raucous and gentle, can move so readily from the angry to the sublime?
The two works by Johannes Brahms, while somewhat gloomy in comparison to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, suggest to me that the rather pessimistic composer invested what hope he had in the art of music. Brahms composed Alto Rhapsody in 1869, as a wedding present for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter, Julie. It is impossible to resist seeing Brahms’ choice of text as a reflection of his lovesick anguish. Goethe wrote Harzreise im Winter, from which the Rhapsody’s text is drawn, after a visit to the Harz Mountains in 1777, where he met a young man who had withdrawn completely from the world and had escaped to nature. In the opening section of the Rhapsody, anxious tremolos and stormy sforzandi establish the moody atmosphere of the bleak “wasteland” that “engulfs” the subject of the poem. The subsequent aria-like andante portrays the subject “swallowed up by solitude…Who had drunk hatred of humanity from the fullness of love, who, first scorned and now a scorner, secretly feeds on his own merit in unsatisfying egotism,” with dramatic vocal leaps, buffeted by Brahms signature rhythmic push and pull. The poetry and music of the contrasting third section suggest Brahms hoped music might buoy the leaden misanthropy of the poem’s speaker (or himself – it’s hard to tell). In a deft, sublime touch, Brahms reduces the orchestration to the intimate combination of alto solo, cellos strumming like a psaltery, contrabass, and bassoon, and the merest apparition of a men’s chorus, just as the gray dark clouds of C minor dissipate to reveal a clear blue sky of C major. The singer bids, “If there is… Father of love, one note his ear can hear. then refresh his heart!” Music, she hopes, is so potent that just one note might, “open his clouded gaze.”
Brahm’s friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach, died in 1880. Waiting to elegize his fellow artist, Brahms turned to Schiller’s Nänie. Nänie is the German form of the Greek Nenia, goddess of funerary lamentation, and of the Latin nenia, meaning funeral song. Brahms opens with a beautiful essay for the orchestra led by one of the greatest oboe solos ever penned. The sopranos commence a gently unfolding fugato on Schiller’s line, “even the beautiful must die,” their poignant melisma on sterben (“die”) seamlessly interweaving with strands of violin melody. The text that follows muses on divine indifference to the suffering of mankind, recounting through allusion how Orpheus failed to soften the heart of Zeus to save Eurydice from Hades, how Aphrodite was unable to prevent her “beautiful boy” Adonis from falling prey to a wild boar and and finally how Achilles died in the Trojan War. These Gods might not save the mortals in Schiller’s poem, but in Brahms’ hands, they most certainly can sing. Emerging from a circling current of harp plucks and string pizzicatos, the chorus in sumptuous unison portrays Achilles’ mother, Thetis, rising out of the sea with all the Nereids to mourn, “her glorious son.” Long, arcing lines stretch across the churn in an exquisite representation of all the gods and goddesses weeping, lamenting the perishing of the beautiful and “most perfect.” After the gods submerge, a subtle harmonic shift ushers in a return of the opening material, the oboe solo now sweetened by some arpeggios in the cellos. It’s here that Brahms takes matters into his own hands with Schiller’s poem. Rather than end as Schiller does with, “for the common goes down to Orcus [and the underworld] unsung, Brahms chooses to repeat the second to last line: “but a song of lamentation on the lips of a loved one is glorious.” The piece closes gently with the chorus repeating, herrlich (“glorious”)as harps and woodwinds ascend to the beyond. In the face of his friend’s mortality, Brahms found a way, without renouncing his bleakly realistic worldview, to reach for eternity through song and find permanence in an otherwise ephemeral art form. We’re fortunate that he was moved enough to pick up his pen because this lament is, indeed, glorious.
Claude Debussy, who died 100 years ago, wrote music that inhabits an entirely different sphere than that of Brahms or Beethoven. Alex Ross recently suggested in the New Yorker that “Debussy’s rejection of the musical status quo was fueled by his jealous love of poetry and painting… For him, music had fallen behind: It had nothing that rivaled free verse in poetry, the drift toward abstraction in painting, and the investigation of mystical spheres that was happening across the arts.” He eschewed traditional forms like the symphony in favor of music that felt improvisatory (in spite of its meticulous craft), as though it were conjuring itself to life bar by bar. Writing in 1901, for the premiere of the complete set of three Nocturnes (of which “Sirènes” is the third), Debussy noted:
The title Nocturnes is intended to have here a more general and, more particularly, a more decorative meaning. It is not meant to designate the usual form of a nocturnes, but rather all the impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests… Sirènes” suggests depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the song of the Sirènes” as they laugh and pass on.
The score is remarkable for its uncanny combination of complexity and restraint. “The muse,” Debussy said, “should always be discreet.” Indeed, there isn’t a single note of superfluous pith or unnecessary doubling larding the score. Yet some bars of music have three or four different rhythmic cells sounding simultaneously. This evocative music reminds us of music’s synesthetic power to help us see, smell, and imagine.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was asked to write a piece to celebrate the conductor Henry Wood and decided, with Wood, to create a paean to Music herself that might live beyond the particular occasion in 1938. The resulting Serenade to Music was an instant success and has remained beloved ever since. The text, taken from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, situates two characters on a riverbank taking in the beauty of a moonlit evening, discussing the power of music. Vaughan Williams idiosyncratic orchestration imbues each image in Shakespeare’s text with its own atmosphere, whether it’s a gossamer shimmer of strings evoking moonlight-dappled water or sumptuous brass-beefed climaxes extolling the richness of harmony. At the premiere, Sergei Rachmaninoff (no stranger to exceedingly beautiful music) was so overcome by the beauty of the music that he wept. Could there be a better salve to soothe anxiety than the opening two minutes of this work? What a gift to hear something so unhurried, so free of the tensions of rhythm and harmony that composers can use to convey turbulence and strife.
And then, of course, there’s Beethoven’s ubiquitous, indelible “Ode to Joy.” Both its music and its message – whatever that may be – have been met with a vast array of responses. The musicologist Richard Taruskin notes that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was “immediately notorious” in the decades following its 1824 premiere, and, by the 1900s, Debussy noted, “a fog of verbiage and criticism surrounds the Ninth Symphony.” Beethoven’s last symphony threatened to topple the genre’s formal bounds with its considerable length and its fourth movement’s unusual structure and unprecedented use of the chorus. Composers in the second half of the nineteenth century, embroiled in debates about absolute music versus music with outside associations, wielded strong reactions to Beethoven’s last symphony in the service of their arguments. Beethoven’s contemporary, Louis Spohr, who had played under his baton, dismissed the eccentricities of the Ninth, including its “monstrous and tasteless” fourth movement ,as the result of Beethoven’s deafness. “Was it then to be wondered at that his works became more and more eccentric, unconnected and incomprehensible?” For Fanny Mendelssohn, too, it was a miss: “a gigantic tragedy with a conclusion meant to be dithyrambic, but falling from its heights into the opposite extreme – into burlesque.” Admiration for the Ninth’s innovations, on the other hand, was a shibboleth that gained one access to the cult of Wagner. In light of the appearance of their music alongside the Ninth on this concert, I became particularly interested in the evaluations of Debussy and Vaughan Williams.
Though Debussy wrote music of an entirely different type and intent, he understood Beethoven’s aim in writing the Ninth Symphony, and considered it successful. Writing to a colleague, he assessed:
A little notebook with over two hundred different renderings of the dominant theme in the finale of this symphony shows how persistently Beethoven pursued his search and how entirely musical his guiding motive was: Schiller’s lines can have only been used for their appeal to the ear. Beethoven determined that his leading idea should be essentially self-developing and, while it is of extraordinary beauty in itself, it becomes sublime because of its perfect response to his purpose. It is the most triumphant example of the molding of an idea to the preconceived form; at each leap forward, there is a new delight, without either effort or appearance of repetition; the magical blossoming, so to speak, of a tree whose leaves burst forth simultaneously. Nothing is superfluous in this stupendous work.
Ralph Vaughan Williams appreciated the candor of Beethoven’s finale. Writing in 1939 he admits:
For me there are certain passages in the Ninth Symphony which I find hard to swallow, but I do not include in this indigestible matter the the choral finale, though even here there are certain things which stick in my gizzard. I understand that the pious Beethovenite always makes an exception for this finale; but then I am not a pious Beethovenite. To me, the finale is potentially the greatest movement of the four.
Specifically, the prestissimo eruption after the stringendo just before the end, he muses:
No Sunday school about this, no angel choirs but real rowdy human beings: Pour out the wine without restraint or stay; Pour not by cups but by the belly full; Pour out to all that will. The drums thump, the cymbals crash, the trumpets blare, the chorus sings this atrociously vulgar tune; which nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, is one of the great inspirations of this symphony.
Debussy makes a fine suggestion: “Perhaps we ought in the Choral Symphony to look for nothing more than a magnificent gesture of musical pride.” I’m guessing that many of us don’t have an axe to grind in European aesthetic debates that are now a century and a half behind us. I’ll admit that there are elements of the music of the Ninth that I find terribly impractical and difficult to prepare, but, I, like Vaughan Williams, ultimately can’t resist its palpable humanness. By the time Beethoven’s “Ode” is over, we’ve heard its simple melody dozens of times. But its last few iterations, as the orchestra gallops through the homestretch, feels not repetitive but rousingly cumulative, like we’ve achieved something great together. His method creates madness of the most joyous sort, and it’s nearly impossible not to applaud after those last five notes.
Parsing the message of the Ninth is even trickier than assessing the music. Scholarly inklings make me want to consider the work in its historical, context. One possibility is that the Ninth was, as Harvey Sach’s puts it in The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, “Beethoven’s declaration in favor of universal brotherhood.”
Following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, a congress of monarchs met in 1814-1815 in Vienna, where Beethoven was living, to restore monarchic authority and divvy up the territories of Europe neatly among themselves. The decade during which he wrote the Ninth was marked by the return of political repression of those rulers and the foment of ultraconservative nationalism, and he was pushing back. But Sachs also suggests that Beethoven “had to camouflage his libertarian aspiration” and “pay lip service to the rulers on whose patronage he depended and for whom expressions of universal brotherhood were only too reminiscent of the ideals bandied about by the French Revolution.” Indeed, he did a bit of careful editing of Schiller’s “Ode” cutting out lines like, “safety from the tyrant’s power.” Whether this represents Sach’s lip service or Beethoven’s attempt to ensure that his work transcended the politics around him, we can’t know, but it broadened the work’s omnipotence and lent the “Ode” a universality and ecumenism that meant it could be interpreted in a variety of ways, religious or secular.
Indeed, the “Ode’s” more recent history reminds us that it long ago escaped its nineteenth century context. In the twentieth century, the Ninth was touted as an amulet protecting against totalitarianism, as readily as it was trotted out as a soundtrack, abetted by legends of the podium. A piece of music that has heralded the Third Reich, inspired protesters at Tiananmen Square, celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and soundtracked films as endearing as Dead Poets Society and as disturbing as A Clockwork Orange can have no definitive meaning.
And yet, here I am, nearly a fifth of the way through the twenty-first century, coming up on the Ninth’s 200th anniversary, pummeled by recent tragic news, despairing of the atomized state of our discourse, as desperate to find a pure expression of the universal brotherhood as Beethoven might have been, and the Ninth feels in this moment to mean exactly what I need it to mean. I’ve never heard the message of universal brotherhood more loudly. For years, my reaction to it was resistant because I focussed too much on certain musical elements and remained closed to hearing my own version of its message. All of those high A’s grated. Too much piccolo. The power of Beethoven’s statement finally broke through to me when I stopped listening to it as what Taruskin calls “prepackaged greatness,” handed-down incontrovertible genius, and heard it instead as the outpouring of an artist desperate to hear and eager to be heard. Deaf, dyspeptic, and depressed, Beethoven nevertheless wasn’t too disgruntled (or was just delusional enough) to painstakingly create something that broke the bounds of the genre he was working in to express a deeply held belief in the universal brotherhood. Where other pieces aim for subtlety and sophistication, Beethoven’s finale is almost radically straightforward. The baritone soloist spurns the music of the previous three movements and turns instead to a simple melody that nearly anyone, anywhere, can sing. Whether your ear aesthetically to the music itself, I’ll bet something in your heart responds to its audacious intent.
Working on this music has provided another pleasant reminder. Why as a youngster did I persist in my piano lessons. Why do we listen to music in the car? Because music, while it can elevate us to a higher plane, is also, simply, a great pleasure. Sometimes the thing we need most is to bask in beautiful sound. For me there’s just as much pleasure in the first bite of a perfectly cold, creamy, scoop of ice cream as there is in conquering the final, hard-earned squares of real estate on a crossword puzzle. Debussy said to a former teacher of his, of his musical talent, “There is no theory. you merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” If you came today simply to hear beautiful music, you’re in luck.
But if you came here today on edge, I hope this music provides you with something more than pleasure. Like Beethoven’s “Joy,” whose “magic binds together again what custom has sternly divided,” music’s alchemical combinations of pitch and pulse have a way of bringing us together as they organize sound. Shouts at a rally or ballgame, without rhythm, are meaningless din. Regularized in time, they become uplifting (or harrowing). The pitches across the massive range of the orchestra, played without regard to one another, cancel each other out in a wash of distorted noise. Structured through harmony, they can move us to tears. But everyone has to work together. Therein lies an important part of Princeton pro Musica’s forty year legacy. Choral-orchestral music making is, necessarily, an act of community. Just take a look at the one hundred and fifty people on this stage doggedly singing and sawing away at these difficult works of art, listening intently to each other, so that you can experience in real time an idea put on paper more than one hundred years ago. Like a flourishing society, a concert is a whole vastly greater than the sum of its parts, whose success depends on the careful cooperation of its constituent individuals, players and listeners alike. What a beautiful facet of our work. To Music Indeed!
An die Musik by Franz von Schber
You, noble Art, in how many grey hours
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world
Transported into a better world!
Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you
Unlocked to me the heaven of better times.
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!
Vespers of 1610 – March 3, 2018
Princeton University Chapel
©Ryan Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
There are a number of composers whose works, in the context of the changes in musical style that happened around them (and because of them), might be deemed revolutionary. Music history timelines typically mark the year 1600 C.E. as the transition point from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Of course, Baroque musical characteristics appeared in music before 1600, and Renaissance musical characteristics guided some music written after 1600, but as the seventeenth century dawned, new musical styles and genres were taking shape while existing ones reached a highpoint of refinement and polish. After decades of Reformation and Counter-reformation debate about musical style, theorists such as Zarlino had codified rules for and articulated the aesthetics of sacred polyphonic music that extolled the exemplary works of composers such as Josquin. Meanwhile, starting in the 1580s, an artistic movement emanating from Florence upended those aesthetics by prioritizing the free treatment of text setting and expressive declamation over adherence to Zarlino-esque rules rules that governing composers’ treatment of harmony. Its composers favored monody—a texture featuring a single prominent melodic voice with supporting bass instruments—over polyphonic textures built from several equal voice parts. The lifespan of Claudio Monteverdi (1567 to 1643) straddles this transitional time, and his musical output includes work in both styles. In his sacred polyphonic music, Monteverdi demonstrated craftsmanship commensurate with paragons such as Josquin and Palestrina. In his books of poetry-based madrigals and in his pioneering contributions to the upstart, inchoate genre of opera, Monteverdi, equipped with excellent singers in the lavish, music-loving Gonzaga court in Mantua, eager to exploit the expressive potential of words, experimented with daring shifts in harmony and speech amplified through music in the recitativo style that would eventually dominate the Baroque.
Revolutionary ideas are rarely met entirely with open ears, and Monteverdi and his brother found themselves in the middle of a debate over musical style. In his 1600 publication, “Of the imperfections of modern music,” the theorist Artusi assailed the madrigals of an anonymous composer using Monteverdi’s Cruda Amarilli as the offending example. Monteverdi initiated a response in the dedication to his Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1605 (whose first entry is Cruda Amarilli), by indicating that he wasn’t ignoring or breaking rules but trying to establish a separate “practice” altogether, with its own rules. He writes:
Do not be surprised at my publishing these madrigals without first replying to the objections raised by Artusi to a few tiny portions of them. Since I am in the service of His Grace the Duke of Mantua, I do not have the necessary time at my disposal. Nevertheless, I have written the reply to show what I do is not done by accident. As soon as my reply is copied out it will be published under the title Seconda Pratica, overo Perfettione Della Moderna Musica (Second Practice, or the Perfection of Modern Music). Some people may marvel at this, thinking that there is no other practice than the one taught by Zarlino; but they can be sure that, with regard to consonances and dissonances, there is yet another point of view which defends modern compositional practice to the satisfaction of both the mind and the senses. I wanted to tell you this both to keep others from pre-empting my expression “second practice,” and so that even ingenious persons may meanwhile countenance other new viewpoints on harmony.
Monteverdi’s brother jumped into the fray to further clarify Claudio’s designations, “first practice” and “second practice:”
Both are honored, revered and commended by my brother…
By First Practice he understands the one that turns on the perfection of the harmony, that is, the one that considers the harmony not commanded, but commanding, not the servant, but the mistress of the words, and this was founded by those men who composed in our notation music for more than one voice (polyphony), was then followed and amplified by … Josquin Desprez … and others of those times, …
By Second Practice, … he understands the one that turns on the perfection of the melody, that is, the one that considers harmony not commanding, but commanded, and makes the words the mistress of the harmony. For reason of this sort he has called it “second,” and not “new,” and he has called it “practice,” and not “theory,” because he understands its explanation to turn on the manner of employing the consonances and dissonances in actual composition.
My brother, knowing that, because of the command of the words, modern composition does not and cannot observe the rules of practice and that only a method of composition that takes account of this command will be so accepted by the world that it may justly be called a usage, has said this because he cannot believe and never will believe – even if his own arguments are insufficient to sustain the truth of such a usage – that the world will be deceived, even if his opponent is. And farewell.
If ever a case is to be made that the first and second practice can coexist and, moreover, enhance each other, one can do no better than to look to Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610. Published five years after his dedication-cum-defense in the Fifth Book of Madrigals, the Vespers convincingly established his bona fides as a Renaissance composer: The publication included, in addition to the psalm settings for Vespers, a Mass based on an existing work by the older Renaissance composer Nicholas Gombert, compliant with the “rules” of the first practice. But it also includes intimate ‘sacred concertos,’ for one or two solo voices and continuo, redolent of Monteverdi’s operas, that exemplify the second practice and make a compelling case for Monteverdi as a progenitor of the Baroque. His was a musical imagination that recognized and exploited equally the excitement of colossal choral compositions and the direct impact of a solo singer. In addition to featuring examples of these two styles side by side in his publication, he created movements that innovatively combined them.
The heterogeneous early Baroque orchestra Monteverdi wrote for also had one foot in the past and one in the future. Its “brass” family adds an idiosyncratic color. The sackbuts, early trombones with a less-flared bell than the modern trombone, trade the brassy blare of their future cousins for a subtler timbre that evokes burnished bronze and blends beautifully with voices. The cornetto held a prominent place in Renaissance and early Baroque instrumental ensembles, before the insurgent violin family vied for dominance and eventually took over. It’s a short tubular instrument with a wooden body like a recorder but a trumpet-like mouthpiece. Its unique timbre combines the penetrating brilliance of brass with the plangent roundness of woodwinds, and blends seamlessly with sackbuts and voices alike. Violins, violas, cello, bass, recorders, organ, and arch-lute round out the ensemble.
As though he were making an explicit point about the way elements of secular music can enhance sacred music, Monteverdi begins the Vespers by embedding a choral chant, harmonized to a single chord, in a resplendent toccata borrowed from his opera, Orfeo. We’re introduced to the instruments of the orchestra as they erupt in fanfares and prance around in dance-like ritornelli(instrumental interludes).
A series of psalm settings and a hymn form the backbone of the Vespers. Monteverdi changes the number and disposition of voice parts for each psalm setting, inventively varying textures. We will highlight this textural variety by featuring different ensembles and combinations for each psalm. Our guest artists will present the first three psalm settings (movements two, four, and six): the soloists will sing the six-part Dixit Dominus, the Chamber Choir of Bridgewater Raritan Regional High School the eight-part Laudate Pueri; and the Chamber Choir of Princeton High School the six-part Laetatus Sum. The two subsequent psalms and the hymn (movements eight, ten, and twelve), Nisi Dominus, Lauda Jerusalem, and Ave Maris Stella, are scored for two choirs of five, three, and four voice parts each. Princeton Pro Musica has divided into two choirs, and each will be joined by one of our guest choirs.
The full title of the Vespers includes compost sopra canti fermi (composed over cantus firmi). Indeed, each of the psalm settings features the text sung to a plainsong psalm tone—a simple melodic formula that intones most of the syllables on a single pitch, rises to a stressed syllable, and falls or moves through several tones at the end of the half verse, as a form of punctuation. The first three psalm settings use the psalm tone in a variety of ways. Both Dixit Dominus and Laudate Pueri open with tenors presenting the psalm tone melody verbatim but quickly becoming enmeshed in a web of imitative polyphony, as the other voices echo the melody, fold it back onto itself, and flip it upside-down. Laetatus Sum opens with the psalm tone in the tenor accompanied by a jaunty walking bass line. Some verses are set to falsobordone, a type of unmetered choral chant, that Monteverdi explodes into multi-voiced cascades on the text’s final syllable. Other verses employ a trio texture, where one voice declaims the psalm text simply, using the psalm tone formula, while two other voices present an excited duet above or below it. Dancing instrumental ritornelli provide contrasting punctuation between some of the verses. Monteverdi fashions the Nisi Dominus into a broad essay sung by two five-part choirs that embeds the psalm tone in the second tenor part, near the bottom of the texture. In the Lauda Jerusalem Monteverdi moves quickly and excitedly through the text by volleying half-verses between two choirs of sopranos, altos, and basses. The tenors stand their ground between them, incorporating their declamatory version of the psalm tone into each choir to complete a four-part texture. Vespers settings include a hymn, and Vespers for Marian feasts used Ave Maris Stella. For his 1610 publication, Monteverdi riffed variations on an ancient tune for that hymn, bookending a series of solos, quartets, and instrumental ritornellos with two sumptuously harmonized choruses.
In between these psalm settings lay the series of Monteverdi’s innovative “sacred concertos” for solo voices. In concert performance, the stunning simplicity and directness of the sacred concertos shines, and is not overshadowed by, the splendor of the grand psalm settings. In the first two, the tenor solo Nigra Sum and soprano duet Pulchra Es, Monteverdi’s musical imagination illuminates the Song of Songs’ easy slippage between the sensual and the sacred. The vocal parts coo, heave, and sigh, sometimes lingering on past the bass instrument’s resolution and at other points jumping in eagerly ahead of the accompaniment. Duo Seraphim begins as a tenor duet representing two archangels crying out to one another across the span of heaven. Half way through, where the text notes that “there are three who give testimony,” Monteverdi introduces a third archangel who joins the first two in a simple triad; where the text finishes, “and these three are one,” the three voices come back together, in perfect unison. Audi Coelum introduces a stunning acoustical effect whereby a second voice echoes just the last part of the first voice’s final word in each phrase, refracting it via a heavenly reflection. In the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, the balance shifts toward the instruments, who present a series of variations on three motifs while a soprano subtly weaves in a short bit of plainchant on the text “holy Mary, pray for us.”
The capstone of the collection is the Magnificat. Its text is Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth after she’s received the shocking news that she, a virgin, is to bear God’s son, and that her barren cousin is also with child. She is on the one hand exhilarated, magnified, and, on the other, utterly humbled. The verses reconcile paradoxical opposites: the high are brought low, the meek are exulted, the mighty are deposed, and so on. At once compendium and showcase, Monteverdi’s Magnificat brings the two styles face to face to give each verse a distinct atmosphere. The ancient psalm tone melodies, which have been with us throughout the work, sometimes subsumed into polyphony or nestled between massive choirs, are here laid bare, given to one voice to deliver unobscured in clear long tones, while pairs of violins, voices, or cornetti drape florid garlands of faster notes upon them. To train one’s ear on the psalm tone is to transport beyond rhythm and meter to a realm beyond time; to train one’s ear on the florid duet around it is to revel in the expressive flexibility of the human voice and the fleet fingers of instrumentalists. One layer feels eager and ardent, the other unhurried and stoic. Their reconciliation creates something sublime, as the activity of the modern music casts different shades on the long notes of the ancient tones. The whole of the Magnificat—dazzling variety married to simple unity—is a revolutionary conception beyond anything any composer had created to that time.
When performing early music, inevitably the matter of authenticity arises. The decision to perform Monteverdi’s Vespers requires a special willingness to confront a stream of unanswerable questions. To start, we’re not entirely sure why Monteverdi published it in the first place. On one level it might have been a vanity publication meant to distill and display in one impressive volume Monteverdi’s gifts in the realm of sacred music. By 1610 he was growing weary of working (and being overworked) at the Gonzaga court, and a volume like the Vespers could come in handy as a work sample for prospective employers (he dedicated it to Pope Paul V). On another level, Monteverdi may have been creating a resource for church musicians, as the music within his volume could be used to provide music for the celebration of Marian many feast days. A number of composers in the late Renaissance (Praetorius, Handl, Byrd, and Monteverdi’s sometimes contemporary, Viadana, to name but a few) produced comprehensive, resourceful publications with music for an entire service, or, in some cases, the entire liturgical year. The usual questions surrounding early music performance practice apply. How many performers, playing which instruments, at what pitch and tempo, with how much and what type of ornamentation? Performance practice from Monteverdi’s time proves especially difficult to ascertain because, in addition to the paucity of information available, the existing evidence shows great variability in actual practice. Performers in the seventeenth century adapted their performance practice according to what best suited their circumstances and needs (and budget!). Where instruments are concerned, by using replicas and tuning the organ to a different temperament than that of modern keyboard instruments, we can try to create sounds that are likely close to what Monteverdi might have heard. Voices are harder. In Monteverdi’s time, women would not have sung the Vespers; the alto and soprano parts would have been sung by boys, countertenors, and castrati. While we can be certain that Monteverdi never performed his Vespers with more than one hundred singers, we can’t be sure where voice parts were sung by single voices versus small groups. This evening you’ll hear a wide range, from solo voices singing as an ensemble to our full tutti. No two performers or historians will agree on precisely how music of a particular period should be ornamented, but what has always fascinated me about this work is the degree to which Monteverdi wrote out so many ornamental elements. Much of the florid passagework that you’ll hear from singers and players is written in the music itself. In addition to demanding the utmost sensitivity of interpretation, Monteverdi’s music in the sacred concertos and solo passages of the Magnificat demands virtuosic vocal and instrumental technique. Listening to this music, we begin to understand that the musicians with whom Monteverdi worked in the Gonzaga court at Mantua were highly-trained virtuosi—an impressive team of experts for which the Duke was willing to spend (and thereby display) considerable wealth.
Monteverdi’s contribution to the repertoire with the Vespers feels particularly staggering when we remember that it was written hundreds of years before Beethoven, Mahler, and Stravinsky rocked our concert halls with the modern symphony orchestra; before technology eased virtuosity with keys and valves on instruments; and even longer before electricity and computers enabled the thrillingly amped-up soundtracks shaking the walls of our Cineplexes. How splendorous this must have sounded to Monteverdi’s first listeners! What impresses me more than that, though, is the enduring universality of the music. Whether sung by six voices or one hundred and fifty, whether we determine that this section or that section exemplifies the prima pratica or the seconda pratica, whether sung as part of a liturgy or a concert, Monteverdi’s music just works. The opening fanfare and multi-voiced choruses still excite us. The intimacy of the sacred concertos still silences us. The interplay between chant and embellishment in the Magnificatstill conjures portals to vast spaces for reflection. In the same way that we can take in the paintings and plays of Monteverdi’s lauded contemporaries, Rubens and Shakespeare, and immediately appreciate the historical craft while seeing our modern selves in the work, Monteverdi’s Vespers, four hundred years on, sounds ancient yet resonates in new and fresh ways with every performance. Because, by looking back to the music that came before him while forging a new style in the fires of his imagination, Monteverdi tapped into some essential expressive urge and found a way to reflect the variety of humanity through music. He was a maverick in his own time and remains a model for artists of any era. Though these days I’m weary of any statement that begins with “believe me,” I wholly accept Monteverdi’s salutation in his aforementioned dedication in the Fifth Book of Madrigals. Speaking of that particular collection of music but surely also of his entire life’s endeavor, he closes:
“Believe me, the modern composer is building upon the foundations of truth. Live happily.”
Brahms German Requiem November 5, 2017
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University
© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
If he will only point his magic wand to where the powers amassed in the orchestra and chorus lend him its might, yet more wonderful glimpses into the mysteries of the spirit world await us.
Thus predicted the great Robert Schumann in 1853 about the then twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms. Johannes had impressed Robert and his wife Clara with his piano compositions, and they anticipated how this talented young man might contribute to the great Beethovenian symphonic tradition of the nineteenth century. Brahms set to work on a symphony around 1855, but it wouldn’t be until 1876, more than twenty years later, that he would manage to emerge completely from the shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth and complete it. But Brahms’ first symphony was not the piece that established him on the German musical scene; it was, instead, his Ein deutsches Requiem from eight years earlier – the longest piece he would ever compose.
At one point or another, all of us suffer the loss of those we love, and eventually we face the end of our own lives. Composers who have dared to respond to this grim reality with music have created compositions of immense power and, sometimes, have conjured portals through which we might gain “glimpses into the mysteries of the spirit world.” Each is as different as the circumstances under which it was written. We, the artists and audience of Princeton Pro Musica, began our musical journey in 2012 with Mozart’s Requiem. Scribbling feverishly in the final days of his tragically curtailed life, the thirty-five-year-old Mozart poured out his grief and highlighted the urgency and uncertainty animating the traditional Catholic Requiem text. With just two movements fully scored and the fate of his soul unknown, Mozart’s manuscript – and life’s work – ends with the sketchy indications of the agitated “Confutatis” and breaks off just eight measures into the tearful sighs of the “Lacrymosa.” In 1854, Brahms’ mentor and great champion, Schumann, checked himself into an asylum following a suicide attempt and a long battle with mental illness. He would never leave or recover and died two years later, in 1856, at just forty-six. Through his grief, Brahms sketched a piece that would later become the basis of the second movement of the Requiem. In 1865, Brahms received a telegram from his brother saying “if you want to see our mother alive again, come immediately.” Brahms arrived to find that his mother had just died. He spent much of the winter of 1866 working on the Requiem. As the text of Brahms’s Requiem makes clear, the work was written not just for his other, to whom it is dedicated, but also for Brahms himself, and for all who remain and mourn the loss of their loved ones.
Brahms’s text for the Requiem is itself a work of art. He neither used the traditional Catholic Requiem nor imported its imagery. Instead, he hand-picked and edited scripture from various well-worn pages of his cherished childhood copy of Luther’s German bible to create an original textual collage with a focused trajectory. Where the traditional Latin requiem opens with a bid to grant eternal rest to the souls of the departed, Brahms begins with “blesses are they who carry sorrow, for they shall be comforted.” Throughout, he focuses on comfort, joy, reassurance, and reward for patience and personal effort, and avoids judgement, vengeance, religious symbolism and, notably, the sacrifice of Christ for human sin. Brahms’ carefully edited selections give his work a broader, more ecumenical reach. Brahms’ use of “deutsches” (“German”) in the title suggests the way he treasured the German literary heritage of the Luther bible, but he explained to Carl Rheinthaler, the chorus master for the premiere, that he would have just as happily used “menschliches” (“human”). During the preparation for the premiere, Rheinthaler anxiously admonished “the work lacks the whole point on which the Christian religion turns, the sacrificial death of Christ” (and added a performance of Handel’s “I Know My Redeemer Liveth” to the event). Brahms wrote to Rheinthaler, “I would dispense with places like John 3:16. I have chosen my texts because I am a musician, and I needed them.”
Brahms begins with one of the Beatitudes, “blessed are they who carry sorrow (who mourn) for they shall be comforted,” and continues with the assurance from Psalm 126 that “they who sow in tears will reap in joy.” The second movement expands these ideas. A passage from Peter reminds us that all flesh is like grass, and the glory of man is like a flower that withers. Brahms pairs it with a bid to be patient, like the farmer who waits for the morning and the evening rain to water the fruits of the earth. At the end of the movement, sorrow again gives way to joy, now everlasting. In the third movement the perspective shifts to the individual, represented by the baritone, contemplating his own destiny. His question “Now Lord, how shall I find comfort?” beckons a repetition from the chorus and the response: “I hope in you.” Like the second movement, the third ends with a text of assurance. The fourth movement’s text, from Psalm 84, paints a picture of a state of blessedness. In the fifth, the impact of the first-person, subjective point of view is striking, as in the third movement. But where the baritone announced: “behold my days are as a handbreadth before Thee, and my life is as nothing,” here the soprano assures: “behold me: I have had a little time for toil and torment and now have found great consolation.” The sixth movement opens with a passage from Hebrews for the chorus, seeking their home. The baritone returns, now as a voice of authority from on high, portending a changed state for our souls. The word “Tid” (“death”) is presented for the first time, but only in the context of victory over it. The last consolation for the mourners, in the final movement, is the assurance that the dead, too, are blessed for “they rest from their labors.” and “their works follow after them.” Brahms has thus created an arc: the first three movements deal with the struggle to accept death and the transience of life. The fourth is a picture of a state of blessedness, and the last three suggest reconciliation to and victory over death Repetitions of “selig” (“blessed”) book-end and bind the work together.
But as Brahms himself suggests (“I have chosen my texts because I am a musician, and I needed them”), it is insufficient to consider the texts and their themes without considering how Brahms uses music to bring them off the page. One bit of craft is Brahms’ careful use of key. The first and seventh movements are both in F major, rounding out the musical form. The second, third, and sixth movements all begin in a minor key and end in the major, underlining the transitions from sorrow to comfort and tears to joy. In other places, Brahms uses distant keys to differentiate an entire movement or important passage. The second movement opens in the flat-rich gloom of B-flat minor. During that movement’s “be patient” section, Brahms slides into the rare key of G-flat major. After the extended pedal tone on D to end the third movement, the opening of the fourth movement, in the completely unrelated key of E-flat major, sounds worlds away. When the second, third, and sixth movements move into major keys, Brahms also uses fugal techniques to elucidate his text, The second movement ends with thirty-five measures of B-flat, depicting a joy that lasts forever. the foundation of low D at the end of the third movement flows unbroken for thirty-six measures while counterpoint churns above it, performing, in a way, the firm faith that “no torment shall touch them.” After evoking the sting of death and hell with harmonic tempests, Brahms closes the sixth movement with a hymn of praise in plain old C major, whose conspicuously simple fugue subject outlines all of the notes in the C-major scale (“for you have created all things”).
Much of Brahms’ meaning, and the answer to the text’s central questions about comfort, falls between the lines, in the wordless passages of the orchestra. With the exception of some parts of the fugues, passages in which the orchestra merely doubles the choral parts are few and far between. Brahms manipulates texture, register, and instrumentation to highlight the difference between dark and light, sorrow and comfort, and other dualities. The opening of the entire work wraps the ear in the cashmere of violas, cellos, and basses divided into six interweaving lines, with subtle smoothing-over from the horns. the choir enters quietly, without accompaniment, a stark, haunting response to the string choir. Brahms introduces the inimitable sound of harps at “they who sow tears” only to draw us to their jaunty triplets at “shall come with joy.” The alto section’s solo delivery in the first movement of the full statement (“blessed are they who mourn”) is crowned by a glowing halo of flutes, oboes, and solo horn, with no supporting accompaniment. Other statements smolder with the darker glow of doubling trombones. In the second movement, after the somber funeral march, Brahms crafts music of delicious lightness, gently sprinkling our cheeks with raindrops of flutes, harps, and pizzicato strings. At the end of the second movement, the choir sustains chords in the middle register on “everlasting joy” while the strings ascend, from low to high, leading our ears upward to the radiance of the high woodwinds, but then turn down the scale, to the lowest note in the bassoon. Nearly all of the movements end with a high chord sustained by the shimmer of the woodwinds. In the third movement, Brahms uses orchestration to illuminate the baritone’s increasing desolation. When he repeats his opening lines (“Lord, let me know that I must have an end”), the sustained string support of his first statement has been broken down into brittle pizzicato chords, with just the quiet tremor of timpani to connect the dots. The heart of the work – the fourth and fifth movements – stands apart from the rest. Marked “with movement” the fourth movement’s fluid triple meter, nudged along by noodling eighth notes, combines with the high entry of the winds in counterpoint with singing cellos to feel like a dance. It’s as though the gossamer petticoats of Viennese waltzes twirl weightlessly in an otherworldly ballroom, reveling in a state of blessedness. In the fifth movement, the languid pace and iridescent, humid haze of muted, dolce strings transport us to another atmosphere entirely. We hear from a solo voice – not a baritone but a soprano – unspooling a silken melody in her top register as if in slow motion. At the sixth movement’s depiction of the last trumpet and the battle with death that ensues, Brahms does not disappoint and marshals a full flex of orchestral muscle, from blasting tuba to shrieking piccolo.
After the triumphant fugue at the end of the sixth movement, Brahms doesn’t ease into lighter, more heavenly music, but instead returns to the starchy orchestral textures of the first three movements. He purposefully connects the first movement and the last. Both open with the same word, “blessed.” Both share the tonal center of F major. The declamatory alto melody that delivers the words “blessed are they who mourn” in the first movement returns in the last movement in exactly the same way (though down a tone) for “blessed are the dead.” Thereafter, until the end, the music recalls the first movement, with the woodwinds reprising melodic material directly, there are explicit motivic connections, too. The three-note motive with which the sopranos begin the entire work is outlined by the basses and cellos in the first three notes of the last movement, and at their entry, the sopranos sing the same pattern, in reverse. the same motive turns up in other guises throughout the entire work. On the large scale, Brahms creates a work that rises toward the fourth movement and arcs back down to its close at the end of the seventh. On the small scale, too, Brahms continually evokes ups and downs. the opening melody of the cellos and violas rises a few steps but falls, its feet mired in the weight of the harmonic clay. The somber chant melody of the second movement rises just enough to feel like it’s getting somewhere, but then collapses on itself, withering like the blooms on the grass. But elsewhere, Brahms inserts signs of hope. At the very end of the work the harps, which have been silent since halfway through the second movement, dramatically re-enter, rolling from their lowest notes up to their highest. Though fronted by the heaven-bound harps, the instrumentation at the end bears Brahms’ characteristic balanced registration. The woodwinds provide their customary high chord, but the trombones keep one foot on the ground. Both those who have left and those who remain are represented in this final moment. Is Brahms implying that comfort is an escape to heaven? Is he providing a vision of the resurrection, from Revelation? Is he merely trying to lead us from dark, burdened sounds to something lighter? He doesn’t give it text: while the choir murmurs “blessed, blessed,” he leaves it in the ears and hearts of each individual listener.
Any encounter with a composer’s “glimpse into the mysteries of the spirit world” is refracted through the lens of our current world context and tinted by our own emotional filters. Five years ago, the shadowy strands that open Mozart’s Requiem thickened and swirled as Sandy churned in the Atlantic, hours from landfall. Urgency and uncertainty flowed from the text through the music into our bodies. In summer and fall 2017, during the preparation for tonight’s performance, it was impossible to ignore that our burgeoning global population, though more technologically advanced than ever, dwells in a natural world that cannot be tamed, whose winds whip through trees and fuel fires, whose seas swell and spill into our streets, and whose very foundations can tremble beneath us. Surely some among us have faced storms of a more personal nature: loss of a loved one, challenges to our core beliefs, frustrations with friends and family. I have no way of knowing which lenses and filters you have arrived with today or what, if anything beyond the pleasure of hearing beautiful music you hope the Requiem will give to you. Pieces as layered and profound as Ein deutsches Requiem have a way of revealing to us that in fact we needed something more, or something different, than we anticipated.
At the time he composed the Requiem, Brahms needed to experience and process his grief, and to look for some hope beyond it. The conductor Jonathan Khuner, considering Brahms’s Schicksalslied, mused that for Brahms, the root of human suffering is “the combination of our restless, homeless, buffeted condition and our ability to imagine and to yearn for a state of perfect unconscious bliss akin to that in which the gods live. And the answer to this torment? Brahms creative lief is in its entirety a struggle to answer it.” In Brahms’ own time, “progress” was being reconciled with the cyclical rhythms of agrarian life. A few weeks after his mother died, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann: “Time changes everything for better or worse…It does not so much change as it builds up and develops, and thus when once this sad year is over I shall begin to miss my dear good mother ever more and more.” The genius of Brahms’ Requiem, for me, is the way it almost ends where it began, and in between offers music that can meet each listener wherever she happens to be. It gently resists frightening us with operatic depictions of medieval judgment or leaving us in ethereal, palliative visions of paradise. Just as each day has its ups and downs, each month its good days and its bad, and each year its high season and its off season, within each movement, sorrow dances with comfort, tears mingle with joy, the transient withers while the everlasting abides, and the whole thing ends with a sweep of hope from the harps. Just before Brahms would put pen to paper to create his masterpiece, an ocean away, a melancholic but ultimately hopeful politician perfectly encapsulated what I, at this moment, in this year, hear Brahms’ words and music saying to me. Abraham Lincoln, in a speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, after extolling the virtues of steam power and consoling farmers facing disappointing yields, shared:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! – How consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
Carmina Burana May 21, 2017
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University
© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
Eighty years ago in Frankfurt – June 8, 1937 – a cantata that would become one of the most beloved and enduring of the choral masterworks was seen and heard for the first time: Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibusinstrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images). That proper title is a mouthful, but it reveals several things about Carmina’s origins and intent. Beuren refers to the Benedictine monastery in Bavaria where, in 1803, a collection of 13th century songs and poems was uncovered. Orff himself discovered a version of that collection in a second-hand bookstore in a publication with the rather tawdry title, Wine, Women, and Song. He was rapt:
I obtained the book on Maundy Thursday 1934, a memorable day for me. Right when I opened it, on the very first page, I found the long-famous illustration of ‘Fortune with the Wheel,’ and under it the lines: ‘O Fortuna velut Luna statu variabilis.’ The picture and the words took hold of me. Although I was, in the beginning, only acquainted with the broad outlines of the contents of the poetry collection, a new work, a stage work with choruses for singing and dancing, simply following the pictures and text, sprang to life immediately in my mind. That very day I had sketched the first chorus. After a sleepless night during which I nearly lost myself in the voluminous poetry collection, a second chorus, ‘Fortune plango vulnera,’ was finished, and on Easter morning, a third, ‘Ecce gratum,’ was put on paper.
With the help of a Latin scholar named Michael Hoffman, Orff chose twenty-four poems from the collection and grouped them into three scenes: Spring, In the Tavern, and The Court of Love. These poems were likely written by authors in various bands of itinerant scholars and defrocked priests – learned, literary men who, for whatever reason, fell out with the academic and religious institutions of 13th century Europe and made a living entertaining hosts, and each other, with their too-clever words and catchy rhymes. They herald the beauty and warmth of spring, surely welcome to men without a home to call their own. They toast the delights of the tavern, mocking clergymen, imagining the lament of a roasting swan, while subtly criticizing the simony and greed of the ever-powerful church of which they were no longer a part. They revel in the intrigue of courtly love – the longing for a chaste and typically unattainable lady – that animated the noble courts that provided them a few nights’ stay. Taken as a whole, they trace the way life’s delights and challenges are subject to Fortune’s whims.
Orff set out to vivify the texts through both song and “magic images.” At the school that Orff created with Dorthee Guenther, dancers were expected to improvise music for their movement, and instrumentalists created movements for their melodies. In Orff’s art, as in some African cultures where there aren’t separate words for “music” and “dance,” the two were essentially interchangeable. Princeton Pro Musica has a history of performing Carmina Burana in the multi-disciplinary way its composer conceived it. Past collaborations have featured the work of Teamwork Dance, the American Repertory Ballet, and Reverance among others. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Mark Roxey and the Roxey Ballet whose musical choreography has transformed the way I thin about the relationship between music and movement and has revealed new possibilities for storytelling with Carmina.
Orff’s choice of medieval texts complements his inclination toward older music. Turning away from the urbane iconoclasm of Weimar Germany and the intellectualism of composers like Schoenberg, Orff sought a more elemental primal music inspired by nature and earlier musical models. At Orff’s school, students played simplified, large percussion instruments which allowed them to use their bodies to develop complex rhythmic ideas from simple melodic materials. For his own performances as conductor of the Munich Bach Society and other organizations, Orff arranged the music of Monteverdi and created staged versions of works by Schütz and Bach. He was a student of medieval music, too. The contours of medieval plainchant inform the chorus’ music in the third movement (“varies leta facies”) and the baritone’s first utterance, “Omnia sol temperat,” in the fourth. The jaunty mixed meter of the sixth movement, “Tanz,” (“Dance”) was inspired by medieval Bavarian dance.
Fittingly, Orff’s music begs for movement. Powered by ranks of soldiering beats marching along in insistent ostinatos, rhythm vanquishes melody to noisily proclaim itself the primary musical parameter. A near-constant barrage of sharp accents and snappy staccatos adds crispness and angularity to the musical surface. Unlike so much of the music Princeton Pro Musica sings, Carmina looks like few others in repertoire. It’s as though Orff deliberately compensated for the conspicuous lack of flats and sharps by adorning nearly every note with a diacritic crown of articulation. The choir, of course, isn’t the only component of Carmina responsible for the rhythm and the accents. Carmina requires no fewer than three glockenspiels, five timpani, various drums, chimes, and some of the most sparkling instruments of the percussion section, like sleigh bells, castanets, and triangle.
This straightforward musical approach creates a very powerful experience in the concert hall. Sometimes, in attendance at a classical music event, we bear witness to a solo performer’s solipsistic reverie with her instrument, gleaning pleasure from being given access to that intimate, interior world. Other times, we sit in awe of the way a composer’s creation raises universal, profound questions or conveys majesty. But Carmina can elicit an emotional response or a more primordial type. It externalizes and makes explicit interior impulses without chagrin. Its clamor and pulse can sweep us into communal ecstasy. Much time has been spent in rehearsal getting one hundred people to rattle off lyrics and fire off accents exactly together. It’s hard work, but when we git it right, it’s thrilling.
It’s no wonder, then, that few pieces from the choral repertoire have been used so much outside the concert hall context. Carmina’s topics – springtime sunshine, tipsy conviviality, stirring loins – are innocent enough. But its effects – unification through rhythm, a sense of triumphalism – harness powerful potential. The piece was written in a time when several odious regimes were gaining power in Europe. Though Orff claimed the Nazis proscribed Carmina due to its Latin text, communal “European” sensibility, and “jazzy atmosphere,” other Nazis embraced the work and at least one appreciated the rhythms’ evocation of “the stamping columns of the Third Reich.” Carmina’s first performance at Italy’s La Scala served as a showpiece for fascist values. Less worrisome and more widespread has been Carmina’s cooptation in the commercial realm. Countless bands and solo artists, from Michael Jackson to Busta Rhymes, have sampled Orff’s music. Film and television creators pump up their soundtracks with it. Madison Avenue ad smiths use it to sell everything from sports cars to beer. Sports franchises blast “O Fortuna” when their players take the field or court. They all lean on these familiar sounds to signal to us that their protagonists face a battle with fate of epic proportions.
Indeed, in spite of its familiarity, the famous “O Fortuna” is always arresting. This is never more the case than in concert performance when it returns at the end of the work. Orff saves his richest, most exulted music for the second to last movement. Having followed the courtship and seduction gradually unfolding between baritone and soprano and at long last riding the rush of consummation after the soprano’s orgasmic ascent to high D, the full-throated chorus, three clanging glockenspiels, timpani, and pianos erupt in a paean to “the most beautiful one.” Their hymn-like “Aves” extol beautiful women of legend and Venus herself. But just as soon as we’ve reached this apex, a crash of the tam-tam and thundering blows from the timpani turn Fortune’s wheel upside down once again. Soon thereafter, the last line of the famous chorus bids, “since Fate strikes down the strong man, everyone weep with me!”
By the time this grand invitation returns for the second time, we have risen and fallen through the lifecycle of the twenty-five movements of Orff’s cantata. We have been powerfully reminded, through word, sound, and movement that, on Fortune’s wheel, it’s all too easy to slip from one side to the other. Certain aspects of life were felt just as acutely in the Middle Ages as they are today. Who among us hasn’t sometimes felt: like what was up is down, what was down is up; like others are suddenly exalted in triumph while we are suddenly knocked down; like others get lucky and we’re dealt a losing hand? Yet, each day we wake up and roll the dice of life. Now, as then, there are communities forced to wander and seek refuge from Fortune’s cruel fickleness. Triumph lives side-by-side with tragedy. Though its potency has been used over the years in a variety of ways, in this particular moment, Orff’s brilliant Carmina, provides a way for one hundred and fifty musicians, twenty dancers, and hundreds of audience members to celebrate life and love’s triumphs and bemoan their tribulations. By helping us to experience these highest highs and lowest lows together, Carmina captures the bittersweet, tempest-tossed way that life jostles joy and struggle and perhaps suggests that we do what we can to right Fortune’s wheel for others when it starts to fall.
A Joyful Noise March 18, 2017
Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ
© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
When I was programming our current season more than a year ago, as campaigns heated up and weather cooled down, the noise around me – noisy city streets, noisy airwaves – seemed to crowd out my thoughts more readily. Past concerts in the Chapel have included requiems, Lenten works, and works of a more ethereal nature. But for this year’s concert in the chapel, I found myself craving music that unabashedly celebrates its clamor. What better piece than Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms which opens with a cymbal crash and blast from the organ? It was a quick move for me from the Bernstein to Benjamin Britten’s Festival Te Deum. That setting, written like the Chichester Psalms for a British choral festival, also amplifies the highs and lows of its text using the organ to brilliant effect. I’ve long appreciated the way the Chichester Psalms balances a palpable love of a good tune with infectious rhythm. Tghe uneven 7/4 meter in the first movement’s setting of a psalm about praise and joy, having shaved off half a beat, feels like a child on a dance floor so physically enthralled with his surroundings that his little stomping feet just can’t wait to get to the next downbeat. For another extended work for the program, I searched for something that shared Chichester’s willingness to admit influences outside of the sphere of classical music. Bernstein said of Chichester, which was based largely on musical theater works, “It is quite popular in feeling … and it has an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments.”
Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych fit the bill. O’Regan remains open to all kinds of sound as music. “I think it’s a very fine line between music and noise; I’m not sure if there is a difference particularly. Some people think of it, I suppose, as organized noise, but I love the randomness of sounds that I hear.” His Triptych combines elements of Renaissance polyphony, rock, jazz, and North African music into a moving three-movement work with a refreshingly new sound. I’ve performed the work before in its version for chorus and strings, but I’ve been eager to perform the version for chorus and percussion ensemble. The kinetic quality of its rhythms, pulsing through percussion instruments, and the beautiful hailstorm of all those mallets striking so many wooden and metal bars will surround us in sheets of swirling sixteenth notes. I’m honored to feature the College of New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, led by William Trigg, in the O’Regan and also in a selection by Shostakovich. This “intermezzo” for un-pitched percussion foregoes words and melodies to revel in rhythm and sheer sound. These instruments, along with the organ, harp, and the voices of Princeton Pro Musica, will fill the chapel with a joyful noise.
In the last fifteen years, Tarik O’Regan has become an important figure on the contemporary music scene, and I’m delighted to introduce his music ton this program. His multi-faceted musical style reflects the various influences on his life. O’Regan was born to an Irish-English father and Algerian mother. He has lived mostly in England, but has also lived in New York City. He cites several musical influences: the Renaissance choral music at the heart of the collegiate chapels at Oxford and Cambridge where he was educated; the music of North Africa where he spent summers as a youth; the 60s and 70s British rock of his mother’s LP collection; the jazz in his father’s LP collection; and minimalist music. Traces of each of these influences can be heard across the three movements. The churning ostinato pattern of the first movement, pulsing with punchy cross rhythm, has origins in the music of North Africa. Of the music there, he notes: “North African music is so highly intertwined, what I like about that is there’s not so much a divide between what I would call concert music, pop music, and folk music. It’s much more closely put together, much in the same way that I think jazz is today.” It might also reflect the frenetic pace of city life: O’Regan sand the first movement, “was the first composition that evolved entirely from my New York perspective.” The overlapping phasing rhythms of the upper parts in the first movement resemble the phasing of pedal effects in rock muskc (or the reverb-born harmonic blending of ancient cathedrals). The gently arcing polyphony that emerges from the second movement evokes the music of Thomas Tallis. And the catchy tune of the third movement could just as easily be an electric guitar riff. Asked what recorded music he might take to a desert isle, O’Regan names Led Zeppelin. “That’s the music that my mother listened to, but I’ve always enjoyed thseir music because I think their level of musicianship is so high. They really compose their songs very carefully. But I just love the playing, and I love the rhythmic drive. I love the fact that there is such a dynamic range, very soft songs, very heavy songs.”
O’Regan’s cultural curiosity and ecumenical spirit allow him to absorb aesthetic influences from other art forms and everyday experiences. He speaks reverentially about architecture, for instance: “Whether it’s new architecture or historic architecture, there’s something about these buildings that speaks to people both within the walls and those outside, and we can all take great inspiration looking at a cathedral or a mosque. Beautiful. I don’t feel alienated by that because I’m not of that faith, or a Buddhist temple, or a Hindu temple, or the secular temples that we have like Grand Central Station. I see beauty in those buildings, and I think that’s very important: beauty, regardless of the function.” I feel a sense of kinship with O’Regan in his love of New York City whose “addictive” frenetic buzz he deems “a music of its own with its own rhythms and textures.” We also share a love of the uncannily human experience of riding the subway. He notes, “It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your ethnicity, nationality, social background, sexuality, whatever it is. You have to sit next to someone on the subway whether you think you’re going to like them or not. There’s a greater understanding of people simply by sitting next to them. It’s so powerful.” Experiencing the crosscurrents of New York’s many immigrant communities inspired O’Regan to explore his own mixed heritage through composition.
Fittingly, the collage of texts that comprise the lyrics for Triptych is as fascinatingly diverse as the musical style. Poem fragments by British giants like Blake, Milton, Wordsworth and Hardy are intertwined with words of Quaker William Penn, Muslim poet Mohammad Rajab Al-Bayoumi, Jewish poet Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, Hindu poet Bundahis-Bahman Yast, and Sufi poet Jalalu-‘d’Din Rumi. Like Brahms’ collage of textx assembled for his German Requiem or Bach’s librettists’ collections for his cantatas and passions, these texts are impactful because of the way the components interact with each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By representing many traditions without prioritizing, O’Regan is able gently to highlight similarities over difference. Emerging from the inter-textual, transcultural traffic is a sense of our inherent sameness. Reading from one fragment to the next and back again, an ethos emerges. It’s perhaps besty encapsulated by the line from Psalm 133 that ends the first movement which, in this context, powerfully, paradoxically, is radically simple and commonplace: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for [people] to dwell together in unity.”
Though Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms ends with the very same lyric, it reflects a different composer and a different cultural-historical moment. Bernstein, famously, was not just a composer but also a conductor, a television personality, and an educator. He regretted not making more time for composition. Chichester Psalms appeared during a period between 1957 and 1971 when he produced only Chichester Psalms and one other work, Kaddish (his third symphony), amounting to just an hour or so of music. By contrast, the period between 1951 and 1957 saw the creation of three Broadway musicals, a one-act opera, a film score, and a violin concerto. Bernstein took a sabbatical year (1964-1965) from his directorship of the New York Philharmonic in order to focus on composing. A planned musical based on Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth didn’t pan out. Attempts at composing classical music fell short too. There is some sense that part of the struggle with composing was determining which style, of the many distinctive classical musical styles of the 1950s and 1960s was his true voice. Kaddish had embraced dissonance and the twelve tone technique. Chichester Psalms, by contrast, are straightforwardly, almost politically, tonal. Bernstein wrote a poem about the sabbitical year which includes these lines on the composition of the Chichester Psalms:
For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality,
Over the fads of Dada and Chance,
The serial strictures, the dearth of romance,
“Perspectives in Music,” the new terminology,
Pieces called “Cycles” and “Sines” and “Parameters” –
Titles too beat for these homely tetrameters;
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists, and the palms
-And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
These psalms are a simple and modest affair,
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E-flat major.
But there it stands – the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering –
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
Bernstein was no stranger to the musical-political statement. In recent years, on the noisy pixel plots of social media, I’ve seen (and posted) his call to arms made after learning of the death of JFK: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more devotedly, more beautifully than ever before.” Notably, for a memorial concert with the New York Philharmonic shortly thereafter, Bernstein eschewed the traditional requiem for Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. Bernstein cited Mahler’s “visionary concept of hope” and summoned “strength to go on striving for those goals Kennedy cherished.” Five years later, he would conduct more Mahler (this time the “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5) at Robert Kennedy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As early as 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, he led seventeen Jewish survivors of the St. Ottilien internment camp in a program that included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. On the eve of the inauguration of Nixon’s second term, January 19, 1973, Bernstein led a “Concert ror Peace” at the National Cathedral, in protest, performing Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of War.” And the list goes on. He performed at the Vatican for John Paul II in 1981. With James Levine in 1987, he conducted a benefit concert for AIDS research at Carnegie Hall. Just a year before his death, in 1989, Bernstein refused a National Medal of the Arts in protest of the revocation of an NEA grant for AIDS-related art.
Dr. Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, commissioned Bernstein to write a work for the combined choruses of Winchester, Salisbury, and Chichester Cathedrals. Hussey wrote to Bernstein: “I hope you will feel quite free to write as you wish and will in no way feel inhibited by circumstances. I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” In fact, much of the musical material came from the discarded musical The Skin of our Teeth. The most intense part of the Psalms – the tenors’ and basses’ gruff outbursts in the second movement – actually began as a chorus cut from the “Prologue” to West Side Story. Sondheim’s words, “Mix – make a mess of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay” became “Lamah rag’shu goyim, ul’umim yeh’gu rik?” (Why do nations so furiously rage together?) In 1965, while in the middle of working on the Chichester Psalms, Bernstein flew to Alabama at the behest of Harry Belafonte to perform at the “Stars for Freedom Rally” alongside Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, and Mahalia Jackson. One has to imagine that intercultural conflict wasn’t far from his mind, be it the turf wars of the Jets and Sharks, or the fight for racial justice in Alabama and across the U.S.
In 1973, he would conduct the Chichester Psalms at a concert for the Pope televised all over Europe. In September 1989, Bernstein conducted the work at a concert in Warsaw marking the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The orchestra and choruses were Polish, the soloists Polish and American. The program included Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw narrated by the granddaughter of a Holocaust victim and Penderecki’s Polish Requiem. This was just a few months before he famously conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its “Ode to Joy,” at the Berlin Wall substituting the titular “Freude” (joy) with “Freiheit” (freedom). Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy transforms it into a radical statement about brotherhood and togetherness. “Your magics join again what custom strictly divided,” The famous tune is the essence of simplicity. Everyone in this chapel could hum its stepwise simplicity in near-perfect unanimity. Beethoven dreamt of a joy so deep and universal that it could bring us all back together and fashioned it in idealistic music that he would never hear outside his mind. That Bernstein fervently believed in such an idea is evident not only in his politically-motivated conducting exploits, but also in his own compositions. I can’t help but think of the optimism of the rising seventh in “there’s … a … place for us.”
And, of course, there’s the end of the Chichester Psalms. In the last measures of the piece, Bernstein revives the chords that open the entire work to set the words, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity.” The accompaniment disappears, leaving just the choir – who are instructed to sing as quietly and slowly as possible – sustained chords charged by twinges of dissonance. When the chords resolve on the word “yachad”, the music reaches for the origins of that lyric in the word “yachid” which connotes oneness in unity.
Where can one dwell? Why do the nations rage so furiously together? Do we feel a sense of oneness and unity? Such concerns are generating quite a bit of noise in our current, chaotic moment. One wonders what Bernstein would have to say about our own time and how he would enter the gray. Would he have an active Twitter feed? Would he be organizing concerts? Twenty-six years after Bernstein’s death, even if some of the arguments have remained the same, the way we communicate around them has not. Much ink has been spilled about the ineffectuality (at best) or insidious impact of echo-chamber intra-enclave dialogue. It can be very difficult to hear music amidst the noise. Blitzes of 140-character cherry-bombs leave the mind and nerves too tattered to wage the longer battles of complex conversation. Fleeting chyron captions flash on and off before stories can be fleshed out with facts. Caustic talking-head crossfire eats away at the ideal of reasoned discourse like so much acid rain on a classical edifice. It’s all too easy, too, to shun long-form music amidst such exhaustion. Pop song playlists and Twitter feeds aren’t so far apart. The just-right length of a pop hit requires that we pay attention only for a few minutes. The formulaic structure requires us to establish expectations only to have them unfailingly confirmed in the final chorus, perhaps with an all-caps key change. But the decision to attend a concert signals a willingness to risk hearing different musical ideas and to become a participant in a longer, nuanced exchange. The decision on the part of the musicians of Princeton Pro Musica to prepare these works required discipline, teamwork, and imagination. Perhaps not every piece we perform today will be to your liking, and I don’t expect that one concert could summon the magical joy of Beethoven’s dreams. But, hopefully, our joining together for these moments of joyful noise brings us all one step closer.
Holiday Classics December 11, 2016
Patriot’s Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, NJ
© Ryan J. Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica
I’ve loved the music of the holidays for as long as I can remember, and I’m delighted to share some of my favorite tunes with you, in arrangements for chorus and orchestra. It has been a joy to craft these carols, combine them with some of Pro Musica’s favorites by Bach and Handel, and create Joy to the World: a Christmas Suite. At several points throughout the suite, melody and harmony are met by poetry, and I am grateful to Longfellow and Robert Kelly for their words, and to our guests for their reading. I’m also honored to welcome the young artists from the Trenton Children’s Chorus.
The movements of this suite don’t tell the Christmas story so much as trace its outline and try to capture the essence of some of its themes: the transition from darkness toward light, the tender love of a mother, the joy of sharing great news, the wondrous mystery of every newborn’s potential, the boisterous mirth of group celebration, the ever-burning need for peace, and the remembrance of times past. These are touchstones for any ear and every era. Amidst the instantaneous clip and clamorous whirr of contemporary life, it’s no wonder that this season of waiting and expectation—for the arrival of a favorite holiday or a special gift, for waxing warmth of longer days, or the promise of a new year—still holds sway. Pausing, to listen, to sing, and to enmesh ourselves in a community of musicians and listeners lets us cut through the din of our noisy recent discourse and tune in to the shared feeling flowing between us. I hope that some combination of music, word, and space conjures for you a doorway into a realm of repose, reflection, or even reverie.
Over the past several Decembers Princeton Pro Musica has turned to the music of Handel and Bach. It has been our privilege to learn and perform their colossal Christmas masterpieces, Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio. These two composers have been providing the soundtrack for this story for centuries, and the gilded Baroque splendor of their monuments never ceases to dazzle. In the first part of Messiah, the soprano announces the shepherds visit by the angels, who descend in a flutter of wings, heralded by heavenly trumpets, to proclaim “Glory to God.” The second and third parts of Messiah offer an omniscient meditation on the impact of Christ’s arrival. The “Hallelujah” chorus conveys assured joy and captures the emotional rush of hope fulfilled in triumph. The expansive, scenic chorus that opens the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (and the second half of today’s suite) teems with excited humanity, as the shepherds scurry and shout, heralding the good news with pipe, horn, and drum. The jaunty triple-time number that opens the third part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio gleefully depicts the shepherds’ rustic dance of celebration.
The rest of the suite brings together music from several centuries and diverse sources. The work opens with its most ancient melody, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, whose plaintive rise and fall laments the darkness in our world and pines for renewed light and new possibility. The German chorale Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming draws us into the humility of Mary’s role. The familiar words and gentle melodies of Infant Holy and O Holy Night might evoke nostalgia, but when heard as if for the first time, we might notice they celebrate the way a new person in our lives can alter our perspective and infuse new hope. I Heard the Bells and John Leavitt’s Ose Shalom, both ardent pleas for peace, remind us that our holidays take place in the context of a broader world, where peace on earth and good will are sometimes cherished, difficult-to-reach dreams. And Deck the Hall, well, that’s just jolly.
Music might help us reimagine or reconnect to the past. It might underscore our present, amplifying our joys, deepening our longings. If I could bring joy to the world, I would. In the meantime, I hope this suite plays its small part. But, above all, I hope our final selections might remind us all that music, like holidays, can be an occasion for togetherness and future reunions. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas gives voice not only to those who can be together at the holidays but also to those who cannot. Auld Lang Syne bids us to lean on each other, put aside our differences, “take a cup o’ kindness,” and raise a glass “for auld lang syne”—for the sake of old times—while we turn toward the next chapter. Thank you for your decision to join us this afternoon, as we look back and look forward to our next time together.
© Ryan James Brandau, December 2016
Haydn-Brahms-Mendelssohn October 30, 2016
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University
© Ryan James Brandau, October 2016
As performers and lovers of music, we can never predict how real-world events will shape the music we perform and the music we hear. As much as music helps us transcend our here and now, there are certain times when it’s impossible to perform in a vacuum and ignore the way the music we make can resonate with life, echoing and amplifying the joys and struggles our world presents. That’s the agony and the ecstasy of live music. At our first concert together, four seasons ago, we stepped searchingly through the ominous gray opening of Mozart’s Requiem as the swollen clouds and swells of Sandy rolled toward our shores. In December 2014, the resplendent fanfares that close Bach’s Christmas Oratorio resounded in joyous tribute to the life of Bach scholar and music supporter William Scheide. Just last week, Princeton Pro Musica lost one of its greatest friends and champions, alto Lockie Proctor. We lift up the music we sing today in Lockie’s boisterous spirit.
I’ve long been eager to explore with Princeton Pro Musica the choral masterworks of Haydn, and his six great late masses in particular. Last winter, when I was building this season’s programs, I realized that this first program would fall just a few days before our national election. This fall has been a time of distress for some, and, hopefully, a time of discernment for all. I chose the Missa in Angustiis (Mass “in a time of distress”) first and foremost because of its astoundingly good music. But there was something about that music and the way it spoke both to my anxious premonition about the national moment we might find ourselves in come election time and to the hope I feel about the future. Now that the moment is upon us, my anxiousness and hopefulness intensified beyond anything I could have anticipated, Haydn’s score feels more alive than ever.
Between 1796 and 1802, Josef Franz Haydn composed six masses on a grand scale for the annual name day celebrations of Princess Marie, the wife of his patron Prince Nicholas II. Haydn wrote these works, along with his large-scale oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, after his famed visits to London, for which he expanded and perfected his symphonic style, and where the grand, ceremonious music of Handel made a lasting impact on him. The first of these, 1796’s Missa in Tempore Belli (“Mass in a Time of War”), acknowledged the reality of the Napoleonic Wars throughout Europe and North Africa. Two years later, the Wars more intense than ever, Haydn penned his only mass in a minor key, the Missa in Angustiis (“Mass in a Time of Distress”).
The Missa in Angustiis stands apart from the other late masses in the way it uses instrumentation, texture, and musical procedures to pit a powerful, prevailing urgency and anxiety against jubilant, effervescent assurance and joy, and to highlight the part versus the whole, the individual versus the community. In his original scoring, which you will hear today, Haydn eschews the woodwinds of the orchestra altogether, leaving the string orchestra with just an organ, three trumpets, and timpani. The stark contrast in timbres sharpens the martial blare and beat of the brass and drums. The pointed trumpet fanfares and pleading sighs of the chorus in the opening Kyrie and the almost menacing advance of the trumpets and timpani in the Benedictus are as severe as any music written to that point. From the strings, Haydn coaxes sweet, limpid lyricism and fiery, surging passagework.
The famously acrobatic, impassioned soprano solo in the opening movement gives individual voice to the predominant sense of anxiety, crying high above the storm of the strings and trumpets. The four sections of the chorus enter one on top of another, piling up dissonances through insistent repetitions of the plea “have mercy on us.” Elsewhere, such as the end of the Gloria movement and the final Dona Nobis Pacem, Haydn uses fugues and fugal techniques, where one musical idea is presented in each of the four voice parts, altered ever so slightly so that they overlap harmoniously, cooperatively. In the first of the movements setting the Credo text (the mass’s group statement of belief) all voices sing the same music: the sopranos and tenors sing exactly the same line throughout, an octave apart; the altos and basses follow a measure behind and a fifth below. A single line of music, refracted through the laws of counterpoint and harmony, creates a sparkling, colorful whole. Out of one strong idea Haydn makes many. Later, in the midst of a fiery Et Resurrexit, he does the opposite, uniting the many vocal parts into one unison declaration.
Princeton Pro Musica is no stranger to the music of Arvo Pärt, who turns eighty next year. I built today’s program around Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of Distress,” which opens with a tempest of strings and trumpets. Something about Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, in its version for violin solo, string orchestra, and percussion, captures the same stormy, stringy anxiety, using Pärt’s one-of-a-kind musical language, which he calls “tintinnabuli.” Pärt’s first works in the tintinnabuli style appeared in 1976, and Fratres first appeared in 1977. Pärt has created many different versions of Fratres, and I chose the version presented today, with solo violin playing a set of variations atop the two layers of the string orchestra, because it teems with subjectivity, like the soprano solo in the Haydn. The piece opens with the solo violin outlining the repetitive harmonic structure of the piece through a flurry of impossibly quick arpeggios (she skitters across twenty-four notes in a single beat). The upper strings repeat the harmonic pattern, in calm, dulcet bow strokes. The solo violinist abandons the arpeggios to rejoin the upper strings with feathery, fluty harmonics. Thereafter she throws nearly every violin technique she has—arpeggios, double stops, harmonics—into her effort to explore and reconcile with the underlying harmonic pattern of the piece.
The constant drone in the cellos and basses, unwavering like the steady passage of time, creates the sonic backdrop, which the harmonies of the upper strings push against and meld back into. Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique pits the stable notes of a triad against a freer melodic line. In some compositions, those two elements combine in a consonant way. In Fratres, the melodic line introduces B-flat and C-sharp—two notes a mere half step away from the A and C of the stable A minor triad. We hear over and over again uneasy motion, among the voices, between C-sharp and C-natural. The B-flat to C-sharp move that gives the D-harmonic minor of the Haydn’s first movement its edginess, in Pärt’s hands, spreads out the sense of struggle over the entire ten minutes of the piece. His music enacts our human struggle, over the passage of time, between our more earthly and our more spiritual selves. Pärt himself understood the technique this way. Conductor and Pärt biographer, Paul Hillier, shares: “Pärt described to me his view that the melodic line always signifies the subjective world, the daily egoistic life of sin and suffering; the tintinnabuli voice, meanwhile, is the objective realm of forgiveness. The melodic line may appear to wander, but it is always held firmly by the tintinnabuli line. This can be likened to the eternal dualism of the body and spirit, earth and heaven; but the two lines are in reality one line, a twofold single entity.”
The two Brahms quartets offered by the Polydora Ensemble epitomize the brooding, melancholy atmosphere of Brahms’ late style. The unsettled, yearning quality of the second-person texts is conveyed in the tightly wrought two-against-three rhythmic conflict and aching lyricism of both the vocal and piano parts. The two choral motets, however, flow easily and steadily, conveying the steadfast assurance and sense of peacefulness hearkened to in their texts. Like Haydn’s Credo, Brahms’ Geistliches Lied enacts in music the beauty and serenity latent in complete and perfect order. The soprano and tenor parts, and the alto and bass parts, are exactly the same, but a ninth apart from each other in pitch. Were the voices sounded simultaneously, they would create almost unbearably dissonant cacophony the entire way through the piece. But by setting the voices in sequence, each four patient beats after the other, Brahms unfolds a canon of understated but utterly gorgeous grandeur. Mendelssohn’s prayer for peace, Verleih uns Frieden, begins with an irresistibly sinuous tangle of lines for the cellos and violas to create a context for a chorale, the form par excellence for community singing in the Lutheran tradition.
In the summer of 1798, as now, political divisions and warfare brought distress around the globe. Then, news traveled slowly; now, news saturates our screens instantaneously. Over the last year, we’ve had to confront our base inclinations but, hopefully, have been inspired to appeal to our better angels. Both halves of the concert today move from distress toward peace. If you came to the concert today to escape the noise, I hope you were lifted by the unfettered joy of Haydn’s setting of the Dona Nobis Pacem and calmed by the tranquility of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied. If you came to the concert today with minds as stormy and dissonant as the Kyrie, I hope this music shows us paths forward.
Theoretically, at least, it presents avenues for reconciliation and reminds us that it’s the counterpoint between different elements, when organized through harmony, that makes the most satisfying whole. But it’s not the theory of the music that matters most, or even the way it sounds: it’s the community it builds. Your presence here today signals your willingness to pause and to listen—to enfold yourself into a single moment of musical communication. It’s a beautiful way of reminding each other that, no matter what happens next week, we will still all live under one national motto: e pluribus unum—out of many, one. Let’s keep listening.
© Ryan James Brandau, October 2016