For many music has always been a way to deal with adversity and now during a third national lockdown is once again an important method to help with these growing pressures. There have been several studies that show the beneficial impact of listening to music of whatever genre on mental health and in reducing stress. And we would like to share our experience of making music and how it has helped us through this difficult time.
Sung by Junias Wong
I think, especially during the national lockdowns that we have been facing and are currently in, continuing with as much music as possible has been a way that I have been able to relax but also feel like it has been productive at the same time. I have been struggling with not being able to take time away from working as there has been no clear-cut end of the school day whilst being at home and so going away from my computer to play piano and lose myself in the music has allowed me to build that structure back and take control of my time. With everything else in my life grinding to a halt music and music making, even if alone, has been one of the things that has allowed me to move through this difficult time.
Maybe the ancient Greeks were getting somewhere by making Apollo in charge of both medicine and music. It’s no secret that music affects our brain, mood and stress through the function of neural networks which slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce levels of stress hormones. Yet, these clinical observations might not glean the full extent of music’s effect. Perhaps dramatically put by the poet Robert Browning, “He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once”. In many ways this holds true, as personally music often provides a solace and respite. Small things like putting on a good tune whilst washing the dishes are exceedingly therapeutic activities! However, above all, playing and listening to music is plain fun. I’ve spent countless hours browsing through many eras of music just appreciating the little quirks and characteristics. To stop there would be a shame, so I’ve tried my hand at emulating my favourite works on the piano and even an acapella voice. So, whenever the tiring online school day gets to you, remind yourself to have a break and immerse yourself with some music!
A Holistic Analysis of Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung
Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’) is a symphonic poem, composed by Richard Strauss between 1888 and 1889. The work was written during Strauss’s tenure as a conductor at the Weimar Opera and, although it is one of Strauss’s early compositions, completed when he was just 25 years old. At this same time one of his most acclaimed works Don Juan was premiered and the composition of this work certainly shows the prowess of a young composer who would go on to epitomise the maximalism of opera in the 20th century1, with controversial works such as Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909). This modernist orientation was, however, not initially Strauss’s musical inclination. His father, a professional horn player, was an admirer of the Viennese, conservative style of the romantic era, rather than the more progressive ‘zukunftsmusik’ which was pioneered by composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt. The latter is considered to be the inventor of the tone poem: a genre which gave composers a symphonic vehicle for extra-musical ideas. In keeping with his musical grounding exclusively in the classics, Strauss composed at first in the style of composers such as Johannes Brahms. In 1885 he was appointed assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra. It was in this post at Meiningen that, through his friendship with the Lisztian composer and violinist Alexander Ritter, who would become a central figure in the composition of Tod und Verklärung, Strauss started to become more familiar with the symphonic poems of Liszt and ultimately a convert to the later nineteenth-century, romantic ideal that music should be expressive of states of mind and has the potential to arouse similar emotions in the listener. Strauss went on to write fifteen operas and a wide variety of instrumental and vocal works, including his last completed symphonic work: the solemn Vier letzte Lieder (1948), the last movement of which, ‘im Abendrot’, contains a quotation of the transfiguration theme from Tod und Verklärung as the soprano sings the final line, ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (‘Is this perhaps death?’). Throughout Strauss’s long life, Tod und Verklärung clearly remained a very personal work for the composer. On his deathbed the composer remarked to his daughter-in-law, ‘It’s a funny thing Alice. Dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.’2
For modern ears, and in contrast with the near-atonality of his later works, this tone poem is fairly harmonically conventional. However the premiere of the work divided listeners, with the conservative critic Eduard Hanslick writing that the work received ‘stormy applause from one portion of the room and hisses from others.’ He denounced it as a ‘dreadful battle of dissonances’ and also criticised what he saw as Strauss’s degenerate tendency for ‘poetic rather than musical elements.’3 This view was not shared by all at the time.Romain Rolland, a French music critic, considered the composition ‘the summit of Strauss’s work.’4 This speaks to the heart of the division between different schools of musical thought in the nineteenth century. On one hand the so-called progressive musical view, championing chromaticism and programmatic music and modelled on the image of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt; on the other hand the view of absolute music, taking its cues from Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. This view was also supported by Eduard Hanslick, who wrote that ‘sounding forms in motion are the one and only content of music.’ Although the general consensus amongst twentieth century critics and biographers is that Tod und Verklärung is not amongst Strauss’s greatest compositions, eclipsed by works such as Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, it still has streaks of brilliance. Norman del Mar comments in his 1962 biography of Strauss that the work is one of ‘Strauss’s imperfect masterpieces’,5 whilst another biographer, Ernest Newman praises Strauss’s reconciliation of musical form and extra-musical programmatic elements.
Tod und Verklärung is a one-movement tone-poem, with a typical performance lasting around 25 minutes. The work’s subject is the depiction of the death of an artist and is divided thematically into four parts, each part being described in a poem by Alexander Ritter. This poem, written at Strauss’s request, acts as a programme note for the listener and was later prepended to scores of the composition. The four sections are arranged thus:
Largo. The sick man near death.
Allegro molto agitato. The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man.
Meno mosso. The dying man’s life passes before him, recalling his youth and his unfulfilled idealism.
Moderato. The sought-after transfiguration of the soul. The heavens open to show the artist what the world denied him: redemption, transfiguration.
Throughout the work, Strauss uses a series of themes to represent these ideas which the tone-poem expresses – death, transfiguration, and childhood.
Tod und Verklärung begins sombrely on the key of C minor with pianissimo, muted strings playing a slow, irregular rhythm which consistsof syncopated triplets. This theme is often labelled as the ‘heartbeat motif’ as the rhythmic quality imitates the irregular heartbeat of a man on his deathbed. After a series of hushed entries in the horns and clarinets, sighing dominant sevenths in the strings and an entry of the heartbeat motif in the timpani, a dream-like triplet motif is heard in the flute, answered by an ascending, chromatic reply by the oboe. This flute theme is developed throughout the piece and is thought to represent the man’s dreams and childhood memories. After several further statements of this triplet theme in other instruments, there are entries of a conjunct, descending theme in the oboe and violin, soaring wistfully over harp arpeggios. This theme returns in the long third section and represents the man’s childhood innocence. there is a brief period of tension at un poco agitato, introduced by a low divisi tremolo in the double basses and the triplet theme appears in the cor anglais and is answered by syncopated strings in thirds, although the theme is altered to outline a diminished chord on C minor. The tension decreases with a long diminuendo and ritardando.
This decrease in tension only lasts briefly, as the second section marked Allegro molto agitato starts. This section is very chromatic, and represents the dying man’s frantic battle for life and against death. The section begins abruptly on an upbeat with an accented, fortissimo timpani stroke and accented pizzicatos in the low strings, whilst a more agitated instance of the heartbeat motif is heard as a D-flat minor chord in the flutes and oboes. A rising chromatic figure builds the music to the introduction of the ‘death struggle’ theme, which appears first as a homorhythmic accented statement, followed by a descending chromatic figure in the winds. This figure has thematic significance as both here, and as part of a wider trope, descending chromatic scales are often associated with pessimistic notions such as death in the Western classical tradition. These descending chromatic entries build an impassioned moment in the music when the woodwinds, horns, strings and timpani play the heartbeat motif whilst the trombones and trumpets play an imitative entry of the death struggle theme. This is followed by the entry of a new, rising theme in the winds, representing ‘life’, before another tutti entrance of the death struggle theme, whilst at the same time the trombones play the clashing disparate heartbeat motif, introduced by four accented timpani notes. The vigour of the music seems to dwindle after this tutti statement, as the descending chromatic motif is heard in a descending sequence, but in fact the music is building to the real climax of the second section, when the descending chromatic gesture representing ‘death’ and the ascending ‘life’ motif are pitted against each other contrapuntally, culminating in a fervent tutti chord, with rapid string tremolos, introducing a fragment of the ascending transfiguration theme in the brass. After the overwhelming introduction of the transfiguration theme there is a gradual transition to the third section of the piece, consisting of a stunning modulation in which a high A-flat in the oboe (comprising the seventh of a dominant seventh chord on E-flat major) is re-spelled as a G-sharp and the music resolves onto D-major, making the G-sharp a dissonant, non-chord tone which resolves upwards by semitone onto an A.
The third section details a series of vignettes of the man’s dreams of his innocent, joyful youth as he slowly passes away. These vignettes culminate in a battle between life and death, which eventually sees death victorious. The section begins with the first of these vignettes on G major with a wistful dotted theme in the flute: a paraphrase of the theme heard in the solo violin during the opening slow section and is regarded as the ‘childhood theme’. This theme is accompanied by undulating triplets in the second violin that contain the first four notes of the transfiguration theme. This dreamy, lightly orchestrated material is briefly interrupted by a waltz-like section, before this fleeting dance returns to the dotted childhood theme from before, this time heard as a series of imitative entries between the first and second violins. There is then a hasty musical ‘scene change’, similar to those often utilised by Wagner in his operas in order to signify such scene changes. The short transition, consisting of material representing death from the second section, reminds the listener of the imminence and unavoidable nature of death. This scene change leads the music into a joyful second vignette marked ‘Etwas Breiter’ (‘somewhat broader’), consisting of a more vigorous youthful theme. This scene is brief, however, and the music soon moves onto a third vignette with a transition in the form of a challenging tutti violin outburst. The third vignette is deliriously joyful, containing a rhythmically augmented version of the childhood theme which is combined with a more rhythmically complex transformation of the ‘life’ theme from the second section. This final vignette concludes with increasingly dissonant instances of the heartbeat theme in the brass, signifying a return of the battle between life and death. The regularity of the meter is interrupted by several unexpected bars with a ½ (one bar of one minim) meter. Instances of the heartbeat motif, the life motif and the childhood theme form a crescendo leading to a set of compressed, frantic rising triplets in the ‘cellos, double basses and bassoons, outlining a dominant seventh chord in the key of E-flat. This leads to the second entry of the ascending ‘transfiguration’ motif on A-flat major. The last two notes of the motif, similar to the sighing string gestures of the opening, are repeated several times, whilst the raised fourth in the harmony creates a lydian quality to the sound. The remainder of the long third section consists of a battle between the ‘death’ themes and the ‘life’ theme, over which death eventually triumphs. This battle consists of instances of the transfiguration theme, fragments of the chromatic descending death theme and metrically shifted instances of the childhood theme, whilst the accented death struggle theme enters the mix in the trombones. The third and most triumphant entry of the transfiguration is heard on D-flat major, after which the tension dwindles out in a long diminuendo. Aided by the murmuring heartbeat motif in the timpani, the music fades to nothing, representing the petering out of the man’s heartbeat. The third section finally reaches its conclusion with one last boisterous Allegro molto agitato statement of the death struggle theme and a final battle between the life and death themes, culminating in the dominance of the death theme. The transition into the final section is led by a transcendent, ascending chromatic scale in the strings and winds, representing the soul leaving the body and ascending to the heavens.
The fourth and final section represents the sublime transfiguration of the soul as the ideals which the protagonist failed to achieve in life are perfected in the most glorious form in death. The section is in the tonic key of C, although unlike the beginning, the tonality is on C major, symbolising the perfection of heaven compared to the anguish of the man on his deathbed. The transfiguration begins with a long tonic pedal in the timpani and contrabassoon, whilst the reverberant sonority of a tam-tam is audible in the distance as a series of brass and wind entries form a drawn-out dominant seventh chord over the tonic pedal. This pedal lasts for 35 bars until the long-awaited resolution to the tonic with the transfiguration theme heard for the first time in its complete form. The music is initially quiet and tentative, but the theme gradually climbs ever higher, dazzlingly, into the empyrean. This sublime C-major statement of the theme feels like a re-birth of the soul as it enters the heavens, manifested by high sustained flute notes and shimmering harp arpeggios. A series of modulating entries finally returns the music to the tonic key for the final climax of the piece: the transfiguration theme returns over a dominant pedal in its most tumultuous and poignant statement, rendered more emphatic by rhythmically augmented entries of the theme in the brass. The piece finishes with seven separate overlapping entries of the first part of the transfiguration theme staggered at an interval of one crotchet and a held tutti C-major chord marked Lento. The soul has achieved transfiguration.
A remarkable aspect of Tod und Verklärung is Strauss’s reconciliation between the thematic demands of narrative-based programmatic music and the requirement of a coherent musical structure which can act as a vessel for these extra-musical ideas. The design of the tone-poem is that of a modified sonata form: a slow introduction, an exposition without repeat, a development section followed by a short recapitulation and finally, an epilogue. In terms of the relationship between sonata form and the narrative of the four-part programme, the introduction forms the first section, whilst the second section, containing the death struggle motif, is the first subject of the exposition in the tonic key. The beginning of the third section on the dominant key of G major, containing the childhood theme, is the second subject of the exposition, which is shorter than the first. The development begins on E-flat major with the second vignette of the third section at ‘Etwas Breiter’ (b. 235), and there is a brief recapitulation at b. 377. In the recapitulation there is no return of the second subject, an unusual omission in sonata form; however, some material from the second subject is heard during the coda (or epilogue), which corresponds to the fourth section: the ‘transfiguration’ at b. 395. The brevity of this recapitulation could be perceived as a defect in the sonata form structure of the piece, which requires a balancing return to the tonic key in the recapitulation after the harmonic instability of the development. This lack of tonal balance in the return is mitigated by the lengthy coda in the tonic key of C major, resolving the tonal drama of the work.
A further way in which Strauss uses the structure of sonata form to call attention to the narrative of the music is found in the polarity between the first and second subjects of the exposition. This contrast is characteristic of sonata form, in which the first subject is in the tonic and the second subject is usually on the dominant (or on the relative major in the case of a minor-key sonata form). The character of these two subjects should also be contrasting. This effect is achieved by Strauss here both musically and thematically. The two subjects are contrasting in character whilst also representing two conflicting ideas: those of death and anguish; and childhood and innocence respectively. This creates a musical and thematic dual-polarity between the first and second subject, the synthesis of which occurs, as required, in the development section.
A common feature of programmatic music is the attachment of musical ideas to semantic concepts in order to aid the narrative element. This is achieved through the temporal placement, the temperament, and the development or transformation of motifs throughout a work. In Tod und Verklärung, motifs are fashioned to fulfil all of these possibilities. These possibilities range from the symbolic development of the transfiguration theme throughout the work, to more prosaic thematic characteristics. These latter elements include the construction of the themes relating to death (which are presented in minor keys and accompanied by more dissonant harmony). In contrast, the childhood theme is diatonic, more conjunct and has a major tonality.
A significant thematic idea within Tod und Verklärung is expressed through the thematic transformation of the transfiguration theme. This is elaborated and increased in length throughout the work, finally appearing as a fully-developed, expansive melody in the coda. The fully-expanded melody represents the moment when the soul undertakes its final sublime transfiguration. This consequently makes the transfiguration theme a metaphor in itself for the glorious perfection of the ideals in death which the protagonist failed to achieve in life.
As shown in ex.1, the transfiguration theme is first heard as a 6-note fragment, whilst at b.319 the final two notes are repeated. At the transfiguration at b.429, the theme is extrapolated into an expansive melody on the key of C major. The arrival on this key is also hermeneutically noteworthy, given the associations drawn in the Viennese classical tradition between C major and notions such as purity and perfection. Whilst this interpretation may not have been a specific intention of Strauss, there is thematic significance in the ideas of redemption which are easily drawn from the transformation of the brooding C minor at the opening into the bright and dazzling tonality of C major.
Other themes are also transformed throughout the work. For example, the flute’s dream-like triplet motif in the opening section:
This theme is transformed in the development section and comes to represent the protagonist’s vigorous youth:
The ‘life’ theme (ex.4 – b.124) is also significant throughout Tod und Verklärung. It is often used in counterpoint with the themes representing death, in order to constitute the fervent struggle between life and death within the music. In ex.4, the chromatic rising oboe motif (b.19) from the opening section appears as the progenitor of the life theme. (b.124)
The life theme is also further developed with this wild elaboration in the development section, narrating the third vignette from the protagonist’s youth.
To constitute the ostensible victory of death over life musically, the final instance of the life theme is transformed into the chromatic descending death motif:
The work, both musical and philosophical, of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a source of great inspiration for Richard Strauss and there are clear influences of both of these aspects of Wagner’s legacy in Tod und Verklärung. It is also impossible to explore Wagner’s philosophy without discussing the work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who was a close friend of the composer and whose enthusiastic view of aesthetics, particularly music, inspired his nickname of ‘the musician’s philosopher.’6 Schopenhauer, a primarily pessimistic philosopher, influenced principally by Platonism and Eastern philosophy, had the view of human nature that people live in a cycle of constant desire and dissatisfaction owing to an aimless, blind impulse that drives us all. He called this ‘Will.’ Schopenhauer was also strongly influenced by Kant. Both held that there is a deeper reality beyond the construction of reality in our minds. In Kant’s writings this is referred to as the ‘phenomenal world’ and Schopenhauer identifies this deeper reality as ‘the world as Will,’ which is roughly equivalent to Kant’s ‘noumenal world’ or ‘Ding an sich’ (‘thing-in-itself’)7. The ‘world as Will’ is, however, somewhat more abstract in nature, as Schopenhauer held that the world as Will was a single, unified force behind everything, comparable to what one might describe as a ‘life force.’ The significance of this theory of the world as Will in reference to his philosophy of aesthetics is that Schopenhauer held that art and, in particular music, can provide relief from the endless cycle of striving and desire which torments our lives. In a platonic sense, his view was that music is able directly to articulate a form of ultimate reality. As a result of this view, Schopenhauer developed a markedly transcendental outlook of a composer’s gift, attributing a quasi-mystical faculty of vision to the act of composition. He wrote: ‘The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.’8 This view was shared by Strauss who held that ‘First comes art and other considerations come afterwards,’ and ‘[The melody] is the greatest gift of divinity and cannot be compared with anything else.’9
The Schopenhauerian and Platonic philosophies of death also had a direct effect on much of Wagner’s writing, as well as Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Schopenhauer’s view that death is the aim of life is echoed in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an opera anchored musically in dissonance and suspension, both of which are only resolved in the final, dramatic scene of the opera. This resolution is realised with Isolde’s Liebestod (‘love-death’) as she collapses, dying beside Tristan, although the term Liebestod in relation to Isolde’s final aria is in fact a misnomer10. Tristan und Isolde does not end with the Liebestod. Wagner called the final, impassioned monologue of the opera ‘Isolde’s Transfiguration,’ or ‘Verklärung,’ the same noun used by Strauss in the tone poem Tod und Verklärung. The view of death in both is analogous. There is no resolution in life until our eventual death, a concept which Schopenhauer himself championed. This musical representation of death in the form of a sublime, metaphysical transfiguration was clearly the intention of Strauss. In a letter to his friend Friedrich von Hausegger in 1894, Strauss writes about the Platonic ideal of the soul’s liberation from the body at death which he sought to express:
‘It was six years ago when the idea came to me to write a tone poem describing the last hours of a man’s life who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realisation that could not be fulfilled here below.’11
After Strauss’s death, many biographers considered the peculiar fact that a healthy, successful composer and conductor in his mid-twenties should want to write such a seemingly-morbid work, exploring notions such as death, pain and anguish. However, to focus only on the Tod aspect of the work is to neglect the final Verklärung; the pinnacle, the triumphant joy of the soul’s liberation and rebirth after death. It is in this sense that Tod und Verklärung is an optimistic, hopeful work, made even more so by the ascendency of the sublime, consonant transfiguration theme over the chromaticism and dissonance of death.
Whilst the work plainly communicates a message of hope at its core, the fact that Strauss prevailed on Ritter to provide semantic interpretation does raise the question of whether this message we derive from the work is gained through the music itself or the extra-musical text. This question functions as a reformulation of a debate that has existed within musicology and the philosophy of music for many decades without meaningful resolution. Namely, can pure music communicate extra-musical meaning in itself, or is a programmatic or extra-musical element, for instance a programme, a poem or a set of lyrics, required to overcome the inability of pure music to communicate extra-musical meaning? The latter argument was espoused by the philosopher Peter Kivy, who developed the now pervasive theory of expressiveness which challenges the nineteenth-century ideal that music is itself a manifestation of the composer’s psychological state. Kivy’s theory of musical expressiveness lies in the crucial distinction between the idea that music is an outward manifestation of actual emotions and the now more widely accepted idea that instead music manifests outward characteristics associated with an emotion.12 This contradicts the empirical thinking of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach who wrote in 1753 that:
‘A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the effects that he hopes to arouse in the audience, for the revealing of his own humour will stimulate a like humour in the listener.’13
C.P.E. Bach’s view seems to be refuted by Strauss’s own positive and youthful frame of mind whilst simultaneously writing a work which grapples with themes which are at times extremely dark and troubling. Nevertheless, the necessity of the programmatic explanation alongside a tone-poem such as Tod und Verklärung remains a contentious point. Whilst philosophers such as Kivy would argue for the platonic idea that music’s expressive power lies in the resemblances between melodic contours and both human speech and bodily behaviour, it is unclear whether pure music can build more complex narrative structures for listeners. Strauss himself was markedly ambivalent towards programmes incorporating semantic exegeses as whilst he held that the programme is advantageous to the listener, the music still occupies an autonomous position. Schopenhauer explained his view of the relationship between music and extra-musical meaning in a similar way, commenting that specific images, in this case the Ritter poem elucidating the musical narrative, are not connected to the music ‘with universal necessity’, rather they are instead an arbitrary example of a general concept.14 My own view is that Schopenhauer is correct to make this distinction as, whilst the Ritter poem is required in order to understand the exact narrative of the work, the narrative itself is a front for a more general concept. A criticism of hermeneutic approaches to pure music is that interpretation will invariably lie somewhere between conjecture and inference. However, I do think that the overarching theme of redemption and transfiguration is reachable purely through critical analysis of the music as Strauss uses idiomatic musical devices in order to communicate the thematic ideas of the work. The brooding minor tonality of the opening and the chromatic frenzy of the exposition, in contrast with the tranquility of the second subject and the final, sublime resolution of the epilogue suggests in pure musical terms the idea of redemption, as the discord and turmoil finally finds resolution at the coda of the work. An extrapolation of this idea is espoused by the emotivist Jenefer Robinson who writes that highly-expressive works of art allow the listener to feel what it is like to be in the emotional state which the work expresses.15 This view also supports the idea that some hermeneutic understanding of music is possible without extra-musical reference; however, the specific narrative outlined by Ritter has helped musicologists to identify specific themes as relating to specific concepts. It is this less-superficial level of detail within the score, such as the ‘battling’ between life and death expressed through the counterpoint between the life and death themes which enriches our understanding owing to this extra-musical semantic foundation.
Requiring words in order to explain music in detail is not a weakness of musical study, although the inability to understand fully and communicate music purely on its own terms is often regrettably viewed as such. The relationship between language, speech and music is closely interlaced. According to resemblance theories16 of musical expressiveness, we find musical material to be happy or sad in nature partly based on resemblances between speech and melodic contours. For example, sprightly music consisting of series of leaps often occurs to us as happy in nature whilst slower, descending melodies tend to strike us as more melancholy. In an embodied sense, this musical material resembles human physical behaviour. If one maintains that, in a Schopenhauerian sense, music can communicate a reality which lies beyond the capability of linguistic expression, words are still a useful medium for explaining musical concepts in a way that can achieve greater understanding. In this case, the written programme allows for common understanding of the work, whilst not being requisite for an interpretive view of the music, nor the ontology of the work.
1 – Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Early Twentieth Century. P. 36. Oxford University Press, 2010
Antonia Lucio Vivaldi, born in 1678, is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period. Vivaldi spent his most productive years at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice as a priest, teaching a variety of instruments and composing instrumental concertos and choral pieces for the girls’ gifted orchestra and choir. Vivaldi was also regarded as a virtuosic violinist and was highly renowned throughout Europe for all his wonderful compositions. Because of this, he enjoyed great success and fortune in his lifetime which he unfortunately wasted on extravagance leading to his death in poverty in 1741. Lots of Vivaldi’s music, including the Gloria, was lost for two centuries until the 1920s when it was rediscovered amongst a pile of forgotten manuscripts.
The Gloria, Vivaldi’s most famous choral piece, was composed around 1715 for the choir at the Ospedale. It presents the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in twelve varied movements.
The opening movement is a joyful chorus with trumpet and oboe obbligato and establishes the triumphant key of D major. The energetic orchestral introduction uses two motifs, one of octave leaps and the other a quaver-semiquaver figure. The choir enters dramatically with a dotted rhythm, announcing the text syllabically. These declamatory outbursts are punctuated by trumpets and oboe which bring a sense of grandeur to the movement
ii. Et in terra pax hominibus
This second movement (“And on Earth peace to all people”) completely contrasts the first as it is in triple time, a minor key and much slower. There are two subjects which appear throughout the movement, woven together in all the voices: “Et in terra pax…” and “Bonae voluntatis…”. The expressive chromatic harmonies in the music create a feeling of tension, which brings to mind how difficult it is for the world to be at peace.
iii. Laudamus te
The third movement is a joyful duet for two sopranos. The texture alternates between sections of simple imitation between the vocal lines and passages in parallel thirds where the voices sing together in cheerful harmony.
iv. Gratias agimus tibi
This six bar long, entirely homophonic movement in E minor uses homorhythm to solemnly evoke praise to God. The declaration of “Gratias agimus tibi” in two short phrases with dramatic pauses in between makes this a grand introduction to the following movement.
v.Propter magnam gloria
This movement, in the same key as the ‘Gratias’, showcases Vivaldi’s skill at contrapuntal writing. The movement is a fugue with the main subject starting in the soprano. It is characterised by four short crotchets followed by a minim and several quavers sung melismatically on the word “Gloria”. The subject is passed through the vocal parts but never sung by all four parts at once, giving the music a playful feel.
vi. Domine Deus
The Largo ‘Domine Deus’ is a beautiful duet between soprano and oboe. The movement is reminiscent of the Siciliana musical style with its dotted rhythms and compound time, which help to evoke a pastoral mood and the oboe adds to this graceful atmosphere.
vii. Domine Fili Unigenite
The ‘Domine Fili Unigenite’ is lively in tempo with the orchestra playing molto energico e ritmico (very energetically and rhythmically). The music embodies the French style of dotted rhythms making it sound like a rousing country dance. Whilst it may sound effortless and cheery, the music is rhythmically tricky as the choir have to be careful not to double dot every note.
viii. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
This Adagio in D minor starts with a brief cello solo introduction followed by a beautiful alto solo. Later on in the piece, every phrase sung by the alto soloist is paired with an antiphonal response from the choir, “Qui tollis peccata mundi”.
These interjections are generally loud with the final response from the choir sounding like a plea with its fortissimo dynamic.
ix. Qui tollis peccata mundi
This movement builds on the words introduced by the choir in the previous movement. Its rich harmonies and expressive chromaticism makes the opening of this movement especially emotive. The slightly faster “suscipe deprecationem nostram” is in triple time and the use of dotted rhythms gives this section a feeling of urgency.
x. Qui sedes ad dexteram
Although an Allegro, the ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram’ continues the serious mood of the previous two movements with its B minor tonality. This movement is originally an alto solo but in this afternoon’s interpretation it will be a bass solo.
xi. Quoniam tu solus sanctus
The ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ marks the return of the optimistic D major music from the opening movement but introduces some new text: “Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus. Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.”
xii. Cum sancto spirito
This Allegro double fugue ends the whole work with unstoppable energy and is actually borrowed from a setting of the same text by Venetian composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri. The two subjects share the same “Cum sancto spiritu…” text but the first subject is introduced by the basses with a marcato bass accompaniment to sound majestic whilst the second subject starts on the off beat and is sung first by the sopranos, sounding much lighter. There are also “Amens” sprinkled throughout the movement to decorate both these subjects but the fff “Amen” at the end of the movement triumphantly ends the whole work.
The dramatic contrasts in mood, distinctive melodies and the rhythmic drive of the music makes Vivaldi’s Gloria one of the most well-known pieces in the repertoire of Choral music.
On 31 September 1853, a 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, then completely unknown to the musical world, paid a visit to Robert Schumann to play him his C-major piano sonata. Shortly after this brief preview, Schumann wrote in his diary, “Visit from Brahms, a genius”. It was clear from very early on that Brahms’s music was something special, and in decades that followed the “genius” German, born in Hamburg in 1833, became recognised as one of the finest composers of the 19th century, later to be heralded as one of the three “B”s of classical music alongside Bach and Beethoven. An extreme perfectionist who believed in “absolute music” and rejected music with any programme or narrative, Brahms scrapped anything he didn’t believe to be good enough, regardless of how far through the composition process he was (it took several performances of his First Symphony before he decided to completely rewrite the slow movement), and this is perhaps what accounts for his relatively small amount of compositional output; only four symphonies, four concertos, two serenades, two overtures and a theme-and-variations make up his orchestral works.
Of his four symphonies, the third is the shortest, lasting between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on whether the frequently-omitted repeats are played. However, its length does not detract from how remarkable an achievement this symphony is. It opens with a striking statement of Brahms’s oft-used F-Ab-F motto, followed by a passionato introduction of a theme that bears an unmistakable resemblance to one from Schumann’s Third Symphony; given the close relationship between the two composers, this is unlikely to be coincidental. Though the movement is in F major, and indeed begins with a triumphant F major chord from the wind, the theme more-often-than-not flattens the A, undermining the otherwise straightforward major mode, giving the overall tone of the piece a sense of complex maturity, a feeling aided by the use of a diminished chord as early as the second bar. This unexpected darkening of the music’s character is something that occurs in several places elsewhere in the piece, most notably in the bars immediately preceding the A major second subject, where a sinister F natural in the viola part (darkened further by its repetition by the ‘cellos two bars later) crafts a foreboding set-up for the much more carefree music that follows. The dance-like
⃪Bob Whalley (KES/KEHS Symphony Orchestra, 1960)second subject offers a moment of calm after the stormy opening, though this respite is quickly dashed by the quick, staccato crotchets that are bounced around the string section before the intense lead-up to the development. The relatively short development, where the second subject returns in a sinister C# minor, is concluded by a triumphant restatement of the F-Ab-F motto, leading directly into the recapitulation. The coda brings the movement to an atypically quiet end, though quiet endings become something of a theme throughout the symphony.
The storm clouds subside for the first (for there are two in this symphony) slow movement. It offers a striking textural departure from the previous movement, being mainly wind-dominated and featuring huge amounts of empty space in the string parts for the wind and brass to quietly tiptoe above. The dialogue between the strings and woodwind is inspired by folksong, and its simplicity and pastoral quality create a colourful landscape of blissful tranquillity. The mood suddenly brightens with a semiquaver-based decoration of the melody bytheoboeandstrings,thoughthisissoonreplaced byamysteriousatmosphere of uncertainty, with a simple motif of two repeated notes that echoes throughout the orchestra through “a kaleidoscopic spectrum of harmonies”.After the recapitulation brings us back full circle, the movement fades away, leaving nothing but complete stillness and calm.
The famous third movement is driven by its breathtakingly expressive ‘cello melody. This haunting theme is encircled by a delicate glimmer of strings, an accompaniment that gradually intensifies as the piece progresses. Although it moves through several different keys and textures, the movement never loses its evocative intimacy, as every repetition of the theme adds a new layer of emotional intensity that only serves to fuel the shadowy aura surrounding it. Any slight humour implied by the syncopation of the bass line in the middle section is spoiled by the menacing teasing of the main theme by the woodwind that leads to the full return of the opening section. It is here that the opening theme feels the most isolated, as it is played by a solo horn, so that it sits outside the texture while the strings rustle in a whispered business around it.
And so we come to the very end, with a finale that opens with a winding, dactylic theme in octave unison that is meant to remind the listener of the finale of Brahms’s Second Symphony, composed six years earlier. As soon as the music begins to gain some momentum, with the entry of the flutes and clarinets being supported by a steady plod from the double basses, it is brought to a grinding halt by a solemn, serious chant driven by the strings. However, a sforzando upbeat at the end of this section launches the orchestra back into a frantic aggression, and though the second subject, on C major, livens the mood, the music nonetheless retains its energetic rhythmic drive. Invasive recollections of the opening motif add to the polyphonic chaos, which reaches its peak during the development, where, after a short but dramatic silence, a return of the chant from the exposition, now blasted out by the brass, is surrounded by a furious flurry of triplets in the string section. The return of the opening theme in the recapitulation appears far more violent than its initial iteration. Soon, however, the chaos once again subsides, and as the piece gradually fades away, a faint echo can be heard of the very opening theme of the symphony.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer born in Himmelpfortgrund. He started learning the piano from his brother, Ignaz, at the age of five. However, he announced after a few months, that he had “no need of any further instruction”. Holzer, the local parish organist, gave Schubert a grounding in piano, organ, and figured bass. He then played viola in his family string quartet, writing his first quartets for them. Schubert began studying at the Stadtkonvikt(Imperial Seminary) on a choral scholarship. It was there he developed an admiration for Beethoven, particularly his overtures. After periods teaching at his father’s school, accompanying and writing operas, more of his works, from 1823, were being published. From 1823 alone came his eighth symphony, the ‘Unfinished’ and his first large-scale song cycle, die schöne Müllerin. Die Forelle, arguably, was written in 1819, but was published posthumously in 1829.
The name of this quintet, die Forellenquintett (“Trout” Quintet), comes from the theme in the fourth movement, which is based on Schubert’s earlier Lied “Die Forelle”. The inclusion of this Lied was the suggestion of Sylvester Paumgartner, an amateur ‘cellist and the man who gave the work its patronage. There are two interesting aspects of Die Forelle, the five-movement structure and the inclusion of the double bass. Both stem from the same place, the opus 87 piano quintet by Hummel. A quintet is conventionally piano and string quartet: Hummel’s decision was to substitute the second violin for double bass. Furthermore, Hummel wrote his op. 74, a wind septet, also including a double bass. The most intriguing aspect of the scoring is that no other of Schubert’s contemporaries, included a double bass in their piano quintets or string quartets neither Beethoven (despite including a double bass in his wind septet) nor his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. Furthermore, the Hummel op. 87 also contains five movements, including a theme and variations, for the fourth movement, as does die Forelle.
The theme starts in the key D major, a semitone higher than the original Lied, with the strings, playing a quasi-chorale melody. Several musical aspects played first here, become the emphasis of later variations, all have been corrupted from earlier in the piece, or from the Lied. For example, the string portato (b.1 in all the strings) comes first in die Forelle in b. 25 and briefly appears in the Lied in bb.62-3. The dotted rhythms are more ambiguous, as the lied uses even notes. According to M. J. E. Brown, editor of the 1974 Edition Eulenburg score (the edition from which the author is working), Schubert “made certain changes in the melody… to render the tune more instrumental”. Trills, ornaments, added dotted rhythms are all cited by the above, as ways Schubert did this. The theme is set up into two-bar phrases often with a healthy dose of repetition and without the complex semiquaver sextuplet rhythmic motif accompaniment, of the Lied.
The piano assumes control with the theme played in octaves, decorated by ornaments. The slurring changes to being between b. 212-3, rather than the whole bar, further changes exist. The strings can be divided into two here: the viola and double bass, who play an arpeggio motif (albeit the violas triplet semiquavers and bass as staccato quavers) and the violin and ‘cello who pass a triplet semiquaver motif between eachother. This motif is a corruption of the complex semiquaver sextuplet rhythmic motif, as found in the Lied. The second half, of the variation, sees a continuation, but with the violin occasionally launching into the stratosphere, as violinists tend to do.
This variation is where the violinist earns their wages, by continuously playing triplet semiquavers. In the violin part, two interesting things happen: portati are used in bb. 49, 51, 55. Underneath that, the remaining continue with the tune passed between the strings and piano, until the cadence. It is a much grander section this, grandure derived from louder dynamics and thicker textures. From b. 49 onwards, the viola, ‘cello and bass play together, alternating with the piano.
In a surprising move, the double bass and ‘cello are given the theme, albeit dwarfed by the sheer virtuosity of the piano, playing its demi-semiquavers. The upbeat contains a trill utilising the chromatic neighbour-note. Further on, in the first- and second-time bars, there is an ascending chromatic scale, played by the piano. Schubert shifts where the beat of each bar falls, in b.67 for example, by displacing the strong beat of the bar, through the phrasing of the demi-semiquavers. The violin, having a rare moment out of the spotlight, and the viola conspire together creating the accompaniment, with some, at times, jovial, off-beat semiquaver chords.
Until this point, the variations had been rooted in D major and the theme has been prominent: both change here. We move to D minor, though the up-beat of octave A’s create harmonic ambiguity, and the theme ostensibly disappears. Instead, triplet semiquaver chords appear antiphonically in the piano and upper strings. Underneath, the ‘cello and bass play a tricky motif, tricky for the bass at least. The most interesting aspect of this, aside of the sheer virtuosity being demonstrate by the double bass, is the D-G sharp-A pattern. The G sharp is diminished fifth below the D, an interval otherwise known as the devil’s interval. The fortissimo chords are contrasted with a more lyrical, major, pianissimo section, featuring a dialogue between the piano and violin. Ultimately, despite indications of movement back towards a major key, landing in D minor. At this moment, the trills which have been such a prominent feature of this movement are repeated by the piano, b.93-100, this offbeat chordal pattern appears, which derives from the Lied.
This variation corrupts the Lied’s original melody one step further, by introducing a double-dotted version of the melody. It is played first by the ‘cello before being imitated by the piano. The violin adds a simple counter-melody, whilst the viola and double bass play the accompaniment. Harmonically, this variation becomes interesting from b. 114 onwards. The harmonic progression is thus, Gb minor – Db major (the original key of the Lied) – Ab major – Db major (this then repeats) – Ab major – Db major – E major – A major – C# major – F# major – A major. There isn’t an obvious pattern as to how this harmony works; there are plagal and perfect cadences, amongst other stranger cadences. Instead, the following chord always has one note of the previous chord contained within it, occasionally two. That is how Schubert manages to take from Db major to A major (which then allows us back to safer ground in D major).
The Allegretto, or coda, introduces a new rhythmic idea, new for the piece that is. These five sextuplet semiquavers form the vast majority of the accompaniment in the original Lied. The quintet’s coda is texturally thin, with all the instruments playing together only in the last eight bars. The violin and piano exchange the rhythmic idea, the violin and ‘cello the theme and the viola and double bass do their duties accompanying. In b.17, the piano increases the unease, instability and interest of the movement when it has a chromatic feature, which gets repeated later. The cadence runs thus, V7 – I, that is A major seventh to D major. It is a rather simple end to the movement, which proffers rhythmic and harmonic interest throughout, testing the instrumentalists often.
On the 4th of August, I arrived apprehensively with around 60 other composers from all across the UK at the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. We were all there to attend the annual week-long Summer school run by Sound and Music, the UK charity for new music. Having applied last April, I was lucky enough to be given a place, and was allocated to the ‘Vocal composition’ group (there were also others, including Film, Instrumental, Jazz and Cross-Cultural). By the end of the week, there were over 60 brand new compositions written, performed and recorded!
In the vocal composition group, I was able to work with six professional singers, after several days of exploring different types of vocal music, from the madness of Cathy Berberian’s ‘Stripsody’ to the comparative minimalism of Laurence Crane. We then had just 3 days to compose and rehearse our compositions until the recording session and, finally, performances.
As the creative process began, I took a newfound interest in Swedish folksong, something with which I was unacquainted beforehand, but which I found really haunting and bewitching. With the help of one of the tutors, who was very knowledgeable about the techniques used in Swedish folksong, I learnt about specific techniques such as Kulning, as well as traditional Swedish vocal ornamentation and the modes that Swedish folksong traditionally explores.
Struck by fleeting inspiration, I decided to combine a Swedish folk-inspired vocal line with the singing bowl (a type of bell that vibrates and produces a rich, deep tone when played) which one of our tutors had brought with them. This constant drone created the illusion that the singer’s line was almost suspended in mid-air, yet always in relation to the drone, which the voice slowly materialises out of at the start of the piece and disappears back into at the end.
I absolutely loved the Sound and Music Summer School and would fully recommend it to any composer looking to gain experience working with professional musicians or hoping to expose themself to a really wide range of intra-classical styles.
It’s been another amazing summer for Notebenders, the Ladywood based community big band.First, a main-stage slot at the Moseley Jazz Festival in Moseley Park, a hidden gem just off the high street. It was a slightly nerve-wracking, but exciting feeling looking out over the crowd; I’m glad we were all in it together.
Next, the Birchfield Jazz Festival, a smaller, friendlier event with delicious, home-made Jamaican and African food in a local church.The acoustics were incredible and the reception genuinely warm.
Finally, the renowned big band afternoon at the Spotted Dog in Digbeth, an annual gathering of rowdy jazz fanatics.As well as awesome music (check out the incredible jazz flautist, Gareth Lokrane), there was a ready supply of great food and, for those of us playing, a free bar!
The best thing is being part of the music-making and coming together with some brilliant musicians to have fun. Roll on next year!
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873—1943): Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
“Rachmaninov was made of steel and gold; steel in his arms, gold in his heart.”
Rachmaninov is seen as the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism and was a leading piano virtuoso during his lifetime. In his youth he was a student of piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory, studying piano under Nikolai Zverev, graduating aged 19 in 1892. His fame and popularity, both as composer and concert pianist, were launched by two compositions: the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, played for the first time in public on September 26, 1892, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, which had its first performance in Moscow on October 27, 1901.
Rachmaninov’s second symphony was composed during 1906 and 1907, and first performed in Saint Petersburg on January 26, 1908. This came over a decade after the disastrous 1897 premiere of his first symphony, which sent Rachmaninov into a depression that took four years to break out of. The scars created by this ordeal drove him away from the idea of a second symphony. However, by the autumn of 1906 enough confidence had returned for him to begin, in secret, to compose a second symphony and Rachmaninov conducted the work at the Saint Petersburg premiere in January 1908, with great success. The symphony won the Glinka Prize of 1,000 roubles that year and quickly made the rounds of the major orchestras of the world.
Despite its success whenever it was performed it was extensively cut, usually reducing it in length from an hour to between thirty-five and forty-five minutes. Before 1970 virtually only the cut version was performed; since then orchestras have used the full version almost exclusively.
Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his family left Russia and settled in the United States. With his primary source of income now being from piano and conducting he devoted most of his time to performance, only completing six works between 1918 and 1943. These included Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. He died in the spring of 1943, four days before his seventieth birthday.
During his lifetime Rachmaninov’s work was often seen as unfashionable and dated, and he was often regarded as a much greater pianist than composer. Rachmaninov’s great Russian contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, for example, never could stomach the music or the man, even when they were neighbours in Los Angeles. However, now, as Rachmaninov always hoped, it is his music and not his piano playing that keeps his name alive. The Second Symphony has become one of Rachmaninov’s best loved works and has far surpassed his other two symphonies in popularity.
The first movement begins with a seven-note motif, played by the lower strings, which then frequently reoccurs thought the entire symphony. The long introduction reaches its climax, and a cor anglais solo, which leads the movement into the first subject of its sonata form. The first subject is based on the original motif. A relaxed and expressive secondary theme on G major provides some contrast before violin and clarinet solos mark the start of the development, where the movement modulates through multiple keys. The recapitulation begins unusually, the first subject returns over a dominant pedal. The pedal only resolves at the second subject which returns in the key of E major. Rachmaninov adds much greater expansion to the second subject, in comparison to when it was first heard in the exposition.
2. Allegro molto
Rachmaninov reverses the Classical order of a symphony’s interior movements by putting the scherzo (Allegro molto) before the slow movement. The movement follows an ABACABA form and begins with a lively ostinato played by the upper strings that unexpectedly makes way for a broad, lyrical melody.
The Dies Irae motif is referenced by the horns from the third bar into the movement, with that theme returning throughout. Rachmaninov’s interest in the Dies Irae motif suggests symbolic interest in the Day of Judgement and subsequently religion.
The central trio begins with a fugue launched by the second violins. After the return of the scherzo, Rachmaninov introduces the same Dies irae chant melody that he also cites in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The third movement begins with a short violin gesture, which soon passes over the melody to a clarinet solo. The clarinet solo is long, but seems never to repeat itself. Once the solo is over, the clarinet hands back over to the violins, who grow the melody even further in dynamics and range.
The second part of the movement is based on the initial motto theme of the symphony. After a transition back to the opening theme, the central melody of the movement is restated, this time played by the first violins, while fragments of the opening theme are heard in the accompaniment. The movement concludes in a tranquil fashion, dying away slowly in the strings.
4. Allegro vivace
The final movement is also written in sonata form. It begins with the whole orchestra playing a fanfare- like melody, that soon dies away into a march-like melody. The development section builds with an astonishing passage of descending scales, falling at different speeds and from differing heights. The recapitulation begins to set the stage for the triumphant final section of the movement. Melodies from all movements can be heard throughout the recap, with woodwind lines singing above the unrelenting strings. A brief but excited coda ends the work, leading to an exciting and emphatic conclusion.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Mozart is one of the most well-known and beloved classical composers of all time, and his Requiem Mass is no exception to this popularity. (A Requiem Mass is a piece of music of which the words have been taken from the Catholic Requiem Mass, or the Mass for the Dead, which is often celebrated in the context of a funeral.) Mozart advanced the classical era greatly over the course of his lifetime, pushing the boundaries of contrapuntal motion and emotional reach. And so, with such popularity, it comes as no surprise that the Requiem has acquired its fair share of myths and legends.
The unusual origin stories of Mozart’s Requiem go back beyond Alexander Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri (1830), in which Mozart is poisoned by the jealous composer Salieri. In fact, it is most likely Mozart who is to blame for the origin of such sinister myths. He was a superstitious man, who had once written in a letter, “I think that something is going on behind the scenes, and that doubtless here too I have enemies” (1778). Hence, it is quite probable that Mozart’s paranoia grew when an anonymous patron commissioned a Requiem, around July of 1791.
That summer, Mozart had been ill. He was nearing his death, and experienced mood-swings often. According to his wife Constanze a few years after his death, Mozart declared that “I know I must die… they have ordered a Requiem, it is for myself I am writing this”. Indeed, Mozart was to die in December of the very year he was commissioned to write the Requiem. It is now easy to see how such a coincidence may have attracted so many rumours, and how even Mozart himself may have believed them; Mozart reportedly exclaimed that the commissioner must have given him “aqcua toffana”, a powerful poison, hence explaining the origins of Pushkin’s tale of poison.
In reality, the patron had other, less dramatic reasons to commission a Requiem. He was Franz von Walsegg, an eccentric count who had wanted to memorialise the recent death of his wife, who passed away on Valentine’s Day 1791, aged only 20. Walsegg had a history of commissioning works from several famous composers of the day and playing them in front of friends and his household, unnamed (perhaps in the same way we play “guess the song” today, to varying degrees of success). Walsegg would pass these compositions off as his own as his guests were unable to name any composer.
Mozart had been paid half of the fee up front, the rest to be paid after the delivery of the full composition. However, Mozart was to only complete the Introit fully before his death on the 5th December. Other parts up to the Lacrimosa were mostly written or heavily suggested in Mozart’s manuscript. After Mozart’s death, his widow Constanze was determined to finish the Requiem, and to receive the second half of the payment, worrying that Walsegg would ask for a refund otherwise. And so, the Requiem Mass was completed in secrecy.
Constanze asked several accomplished composers, many of whom had worked with or studied under Mozart, to complete the Requiem. However, nobody was capable of actually finishing the piece, although some contributed to the final composition. It was only when Constanze asked Franz Xaver Süßmayr, did she find success.
Many scholars have pointed out that it would have been impossible for Süßmayr to have ever completed the Requiem perfectly, not only because of the technical intricacies of Mozart’s style, but because of the no-win situation he was left with. Where the work is of high quality (such as the Agnus Dei), it is assumed that Süßmayr must have used notes left behind by Mozart, and where the work is of low quality (such as the final “amen” of the Lacrimosa, where Mozart had clearly indicated a fugue) it is assumed that Süßmayr is to blame completely.
Mozart’s Requiem was completed in 1792 and sent to Count Walsegg. By then, however, Constanze had organised a public benefit performance in which it was performed, unfortunately making Walsegg’s 18th century version of “guess the song” redundant.
1. Requiem Aeternam (Introitus)
The Requiem opens rather succinctly, the violins seeming to sigh heavily with swelling quavers, supporting a sweet but sorrowful lament from the clarinets and bassoons. A shining soprano line floats over the light string semiquavers. Grand moments of forte splendeur alternate with warmer moments of compassion
2. Kyrie (Introitus)
The Kyrie is a powerful and completely Mozartian fugue. The altos, violins and clarinets soon introduce one of the motifs of the movement, which is a fiendish semiquaver run. This motif forms part of the cornerstone of one of the trickiest movements in the Mozart’s Requiem. The movement ends on a D chord with the third removed. As a result, the movement is left undecided on its mood, neither major nor minor, appropriately illustrating the undecided “fate” of the choir.
3. Dies Irae (Sequentia)
Dies Irae is the most furious point of the entire Requiem, crying out the terrifying vision of the “day of wrath”. The violins play rapid passages of semiquavers, rarely allowed the chance for even a breath. It is in Dies Irae where the orchestra is most focused and the choir is roaring with power, and it is then when each musician truly comes alive.
4. Tuba Mirum (Sequentia)
This solemn, solo movement opens with a serene trombone solo, making the Last Trumpet a voice of consolation and not of threat. With each lyrical soloist comes a new emotional revelation, before all four soloists join at the end in stunning, quasi-angelic harmony.
5. Rex Tremendae (Sequentia)
Even without a latin education, one can tell that this will be a dramatic movement. The full chorus starts by begging for mercy in short and thundering chords, but soon the altos and sopranos sigh for salvation on a dying fall in a change of heart.
6. Recordare (Sequentia)
The Recordare, a vision of paradise in the heart of the Sequentia, consists of breathtakingly expressive melodies. The words honour Jesus’ role as redeemer, and Mozart honours such words with appropriately beautiful, sunlit harmony and delicacy.
7. Confutatis (Sequentia)
Confutatis comes as a great shock, with savage and unstoppable ostinato rhythms in the strings, but there are also tender interjections of the women’s cries of “voca me”. The movement ends in a descending chromatic sequence which ends quite unexpectedly: what one expects to be the final chord is in fact the penultimate. The last chord is in fact an inverted dominant 7th chord, creating tension and anticipation for the next movement.
8. Lacrimosa (Sequentia)
A pulsing heartbeat from the strings opens possibly the most famous and poignant movement of the Requiem. The choir enter quietly, but slowly let a surge of emotion flood the Lacrimosa up to a climax, before dropping down both in pitch and volume. It is said, according to Mr Monks, who cites Mr Bridle (“So it must be true,” as Mr Monks is quoted), that it was after composing the first 8 bars did Mozart die. Perhaps it was the knowledge of his looming death did Mozart compose such grave bars, but in any case the Lacrimosa is a universal symbol of grief.
9. Domine Jesu (Offertorium)
It was this movement we started learning all the way back in September, but it remains as one of the most exciting movements nonetheless. It also contains the feared “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus ne cadant in obscurum” motif, which involves several leaps at a high speed, and though difficult to sing, the dramatic motif is aurally rewarding.
10. Hostias (Offertorium)
The Hostias opens with a flowing and gentle melody in triple time, which illustrates the more hopeful words’ message, whilst simultaneously keeping its passion and spiritual conviction.
11. Sanctus (Offertorium)
Left with only a few sketches from Mozart, Süßmayr composes a majestic movement with long minims and forceful chordal harmonies. Then, the deceptively simple Hosanna fugue enters, which utilises everything from long-held minims to quick quavers. In a powerful yet sustained movement such as the Sanctus, stamina is of the essence.
12. Benedictus (Offertorium)
The Benedictus consists of short soloist passages before all soloists sing together, creating harmonies that transport you far beyond the Ruddock Hall. Süßmayr claimed to have written this movement and Agnus Dei entirely from scratch, and if so, he masterfully crafts the movement by letting it gradually grow in intensity.
13. Agnus Dei (Offertorium)
The Agnus Dei starts off low and ominous with a gorgeous and rich semiquaver pattern at the beginning. Possibly, the most beautiful moments occur in this movement. The original theme of the movement returns.
14. Lux Aeterna (Communio)
The music of the opening returns, now in a magnificent major key. The ethereal opening soprano solo replaces the originally despairing men’s voices from the start of the Requiem, and to the request of Mozart himself, the Kyrie fugue from the start returns to finish the piece. It is an apt finish, bringing his life’s work to an end as it encapsulates the Mozart Requiem: it is technically challenging, musically intense and in dignified splendour.
The cyclical nature of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor could be interpreted to represent the cycle of life and death itself. It is also specifically suited to a concert audience, rather than to God; Mozart uses darker movements not so much as to symbolise hope, but more to illuminate the fear behind death itself. Ironically, it is in the darkest movements, such as Dies Irae, in which the most joy and excitement is found in the choir. Personally, Mozart’s Requiem has shown me intense, emotional sides to people that I did not know existed. It has brought me much joy, and I hope that our performance of the Mozart Requiem may bring joy from darkness to you in the same way.
As Mozart recommended in a letter to his father, Leopold (1787):
”Since death, when we come to consider it, is seen to be the true goal of our life, I have made acquaintance during these last few years with this best and truest friend of mankind, so that his image not only no longer has any terrors for me but suggests, on the contrary, much that is reassuring and consoling.”
Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957): Violin concerto in D minor, op. 47
i. Allegro moderato
ii. Adagio di molto
iii. Allegro, ma non tanto
It was in 1903, with his successful second symphony behind him, that the Finnish composer, Sibelius, wrote his violin concerto. It was the only concerto he ever composed and had long been promised to Willy Burmester, a prominent soloist of the day. Sibelius was himself a violin virtuoso and described as a “genius” by one of his teachers in Helsinki. However, he appeared to have lost confidence and it was not without regret that he accepted his future as a composer rather than a violinist. This concerto was written during one of the most turbulent periods of his life where he was a heavy drinker and had mounting debts. His wife had regularly to seek him out and take him from the fashionable clubs and bars of Helsinki to encourage him to work on the score. Once completed, he could not afford to fly Burmester to Finland to perform the piece and therefore he asked the Czech violinist Victor Nováček to play it. However, Nováček was not equal to the technical challenges of the work and the concerto met with incomprehension and disapproval; one critic of the time writing, “a red-faced and perspiring Nováček fought a losing battle with a solo part that bristled with … great difficulties.” After the lacklustre debut, Sibelius revised and condensed the work and Burmester again offered to play it, writing, “All of my twenty-five years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be at the service of this work … I shall play the concerto in Helsinki in such a way that the city will be at your feet.” However, Sibelius’ German publisher wanted Karl Halir, a violinist and the concertmaster in Berlin, to undertake the solo part and Sibelius agreed. Burmester was understandably outraged and vowed never to play the work, a promise which he kept. The revised version was heard in 1905, Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
Despite the frailties displayed by Sibelius in his personal life, there are no signs of weakness in the concerto. That said, there is certainly Nordic melancholy, and powerful emotions are expressed throughout. The concerto follows the classical tradition and retains the usual three-movement form. The soloist takes charge from the beginning of the expansive first movement with a long lyrical paragraph which is beautifully shaped over the tapestry of the accompanying divided violins. The second theme is impassioned, initially appearing in the orchestra, anticipated by the bassoons and clarinets, and taken up by the solo part. This is followed by the orchestra’s introduction of a third thematic idea. Sibelius replaces the development section with a solo cadenza and this is followed by a recapitulation. An aching nostalgia is displayed in the three-part second movement, a woodwind introduction with a melody in thirds preparing for the broad, singing theme of the solo violin. The mood changes dramatically at the opening of the third and final movement which is a restless scherzo in rondo form. Over the rhythmic ostinato of the orchestra, the virtuosity of the violin is displayed most clearly, often in the violin’s highest range and the strong march-like tune passes back and forth between violin and orchestra. Its dance-like energy prompted the British musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey, to describe it as a “polonaise for polar bears.” However, this was clearly not intended to be derogatory as he went on: “In the … looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn and Schumann, I have not met a more original, a more masterly and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto”.
Some projects are a long time in the making, but often all the more satisfying because of it. Earlier this week I was in Birmingham for the culmination of a glorious, ambitious, beautiful project, hosted by King Edward School and their music teacher/conductor Dr Martin Leigh, music teacher Keith Farr, and embracing seven other schools in the Birmingham area.
With the idea of using story and art in music as an aid to inspire primary school children to compose their own music, I helped develop a book for schools, “Exploring Music through Stories”, full of useful teaching notes. Meanwhile Martin and Keith were actively involved in working directly with schools and teachers to encourage the children to create something wonderful – and they did!
They should be named: Hallmoor (who presented – and charmingly acted – songs from Hansel and Gretel); Bourneville and Tiverton (who offered a fresh look at Peter and the Wolf); Brownmead (who conjured the witch Baba Yaga with a beautifully slavic sounding song); The Oval (I loved their midnight clock for Cinderella!); Elms Farm (Their “Snegurochka” song touched the heart in their version of The Snow Maiden) and Hillstone (who brilliantly used percussion and all kinds of unusual sounds to share the underwater world of Sadko – amazing!). Huge congratulations to them all – it was truly wonderful to witness! all the children, shining with pride and achievement!
Afterwards, in keeping with the Russian Fairy Tale theme, I narrated and illustrated the original version of Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, plus a couple of extracts from Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the KES symphony orchestra, who played superbly.
But that wasn’t all – there then followed an evening performance of Peter and the Wolf and the full 1919 suite from The Firebird. A pretty full day! For me, the challenge was to learn the narration for Peter and the Wolf and many complicated cues, by heart. As I was illustrating the tale simultaneously, at my easel, it wasn’t possible to use a score, so it all had to be firmly embedded in my memory. Happily I survived both times without mishap, and the lovely warm Birmingham audience made me most welcome.
My thanks to and admiration for Keith and Martin are boundless. The way Martin thanked every single student in the orchestra, as they left the stage, was utterly heartwarming. Also thanks to Sarah Mullen of the brilliant Busy Parents Network, who so ably supported this glorious, unforgettable event. One of the best I’ve ever been involved in.
I’m now looking forward to returning to Birmingham for several Busy Parent Network events at their Bournville Book Fest in March, including another concert, with Birmingham opera singer Abigail Kelly, an event full of art and arias as I accompany her singing with painting! You can find out more here:
James is the creator of the much-loved Katie and Ella Bella Ballerina series and many other books, including Koshka’s Tales, Miranda the Explorer and Boy. Alongside his work in publishing, James has devised and performs in a hugely successful series of concerts for children, combining live classical music, storytelling and art.