Triumphs of the Spirit

February 3, 2002, 07:00 PM
Grant Gershon, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Miserere Henryk Mikolaj Górecki
Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Jinyoung Jang , Bass
Robert MacNeil , Tenor
Tracy Van Fleet , Mezzo Soprano
Susan Montgomery , Soprano


It doesn't matter if you win or lose… It only matters if you win,” a dull thud of a sports coach once waxed prosaic. He was right of course. In that world, no one cares about the also-rans. The score is final; the trophies are handed out.
Life is different. Our “standings” vary from day to day. Contrary to the popular bumper sticker, “the one with the most toys” ends up with a storage problem. It's not always about winning or losing. Sometimes it's just about playing the game the best that it can be played, about determination, about strength of character. When the rules change in mid-play, we struggle with this sudden adversity. We hope and pray, and with luck and support, persevere long enough for the tide to change. These are no feckless wins, as at sports or elections. These are not even the significant victories of fair-minded armed forces over egregious tyrants. These are nothing less than very personal, very powerful Triumphs of the Spirit.
With his Miserere, Op. 44 of 1981, Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki would experience just such a triumph, eluded only by an interlude of time in which the gears of revolution turned slowly, wrenchingly. The overtly political impetus for the work’s creation arose from a demonstration by the members of Rural Solidarity in March of 1981 at the headquarters of the United Peasant Party in Bydgoszcz. The government’s swift and brutal response, meted out by 200 baton-wielding militia, catalyzed a quickly-escalating national crisis that soon caught the world’s attention. Górecki’s response was equally swift and provocative — an imposing work for unaccompanied chorus in protest of such unrepentant violence — one that had no hope of performance. With its five-word text and bearing a dedication to the town where the first demonstration was held, the time was finally ripe for the Miserere to be brought before the public in September 1987.
Those familiar with Górecki’s Third Symphony will recognize a similarity in the structural plan. Here, the chorus begins its protracted address to God in the lowest of eight voices, using only the first three words of text, “Lord our God.” Subsequent voices, each with a distinctive melody, enter a third higher, so that the pattern begins and ends on A (A-C-E-G-B-D-F-A). As such, the harmonic scheme is revealed over time, much the same way a sculptor unwraps his subject from the stone by strokes of the chisel. Not until the final three minutes does the composer utter the long-awaited request for “mercy.” Although deliberate in its pacing, the Miserere undergoes several subtle fluctuations on its way to a moving climax. It demands concentration from performer and listener alike. It rewards both with a profound sincerity, grounded on Górecki’s “values of personal individuality and compassionate responsibility” — a spiritual triumph in the humblest sense. (Portions of this material were adapted or paraphrased from Adrian Thomas’s liner notes to the 1994 recording.)
The key of D minor played a crucial role in Mozart’s music: the first 25 minutes of Don Giovanni never venture from it and the Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, and two of the middle string quartets make bold statements in it. Indeed, much has been written about Mozart’s use of certain keys for certain types of works — either because selected instruments exhibited idiosyncratic characteristics in them, period sensibilities acknowledged an inherent mood in them, or because the tonality itself could establish a pervasive unity for an extended work. Composers since the 16th century were well aware of the complementary nature of key relationships in multi-movement structures. Bach used that nature to form the rigorous architecture of his B-minor Mass. But what was it about Mozart’s synergy with D minor? In the String Quartet, K. 421 it’s the decidedly somber mood. In the Piano Concerto, it’s that ‘demonic’ character, so popular in the 19th century that Beethoven wrote two cadenzas for it. In the opera, it presages Don Juan’s inevitable destiny of doom. That it doesn’t figure in so many other works is also important, for it was not until the end of his life that Mozart returned to this dark, disturbing key to fulfill a commission for, of all things, a requiem mass.
About his completion of the work, the eminent musicologist and performer Robert Levin has written: “Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626, the composer’s last and unfinished work, was commissioned by Count Franz von Wallsegg, who wished to have it performed in memory of his wife as his own composition. In order not to forfeit the handsome commission, Mozart’s widow, Constanze, decided to have the work completed in secrecy so that the finished version could be presented as her husband’s final effort. The Requiem is known to the general public in this version undertaken by Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr based his completion on Mozart’s virtually complete score of the Introitus and drafts of all sections from the Kyrie fugue to the Hostias. These contain the completed vocal parts (solo and chorus) and the orchestral bass line, with occasional motives for the orchestral accompaniment. However, the Lacrimosa breaks off after the eighth bar. To these materials Süssmayr added settings of the Sanctus/Hosanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Communion (Lux aeterna — Cum sanctis tuis).
“In making his completion, Süssmayr could draw on the partial completion of the Sequence done by Joseph Eybler soon after Mozart’s death. He may have had access to a further important source — a sketch which includes contrapuntal studies for the Rex tremendae as well as the beginning of an Amen fugue to close the Lacrimosa. However, Süssmayr did not include a realization of this fugue in his version; he set the Amen with two chords at the end of the Lacrimosa.
“The key question about Süssmayr’s version is whether any of the portions of the Requiem that are not in Mozart’s hand were based on his ideas. Although Süssmayr claimed to have composed these alone, they display the tight motivic construction of Mozart’s fragment, in which a small number of themes recur from movement to movement. Süssmayr’s own music lacks such motivic interrelationships. Perhaps, then, the ‘few scraps of music’ Constanze remembers giving to Süssmayr together with Mozart’s manuscript contained material not found in Mozart’s draft. Mozart also may have suggested certain ideas to Süssmayr on the piano.
“A clear evaluation of the movements Süssmayr claimed to have composed is clouded by unmistakable discrepancies with them between idiomatically Mozartean lines and grammatical and structural flaws that are utterly foreign to Mozart’s idiom. First attacked in 1825, these include glaring errors of voice leading in the orchestral accompaniment of the Sanctus and the awkward, truncated Hosanna fugue. Furthermore, Süssmayr brings back this fugue after the Benedictus in B-flat major rather than the original D major — in conflict with all church music of the time.
“The version heard [in this concert] seeks to address the problems of instrumentation, grammar, and structure within Süssmayr’s version while respecting the 200-year-old-history of the Requiem. A clearly drawn line of separation, in which everything except the contents of Mozart’s autograph was to be considered spurious per se, was explicitly rejected. Rather, the goal was to revise not as much, but as little as possible, attempting in the revisions to observe the character, texture, voice leading, continuity, and structure of Mozart’s music. The traditional version has been retained insofar as it agrees with idiomatic Mozartean practice. The more transparent instrumentation of the new completion was inspired by Mozart’s other church music. The Lacrimosa has been slightly altered and now leads into a nonmodulating Amen fugue. The second half of the Sanctus resolves the curious tonal discrepancies of Süssmayr’s version, and the revised Hosanna fugue, modeled after that of Mozart’s C-minor Mass, K. 427/417a, displays the proportions of a Mozartean church fugue. The second half of the Benedictus has been slightly revised and is connected by a new transition to a shortened reprise of the Hosanna fugue in the original key of D major. The structure of the Agnus Dei has been retained, but the infelicities of Süssmayr’s version have been averted in the second and third strophes. In the final Cum sanctis tuis fugue, the text setting has been altered to correspond to the norms of the era. It is hoped that the new version honors Mozart’s spirit while allowing the listener to experience Mozart’s magnificent Requiem torso within the sonic framework of its historical tradition.” —Notes by Robert D. Levin, used by permission.
Mozart must be considered among if not the best and most universal of composers in all of western music. Brahms thought so and wasn’t one to take such decisions lightly. That’s the problem with genius: Who else is really capable of judging or appreciating the full measure of one’s accomplishments? Biographer Stanley Sadie seized the irony in this case when he wrote, “Mozart’s reputation stood high in Vienna and throughout the German lands at the time of his death. Although his music was widely criticized as audacious, too highly flavoured, and too complex for the ordinary listener to follow, it was widely understood that he was an artist far out of the ordinary.”
So there he was in a frenzied struggle to complete the Requiem, worried about his wife Constanze’s welfare, confronting adversity and withering disease on every side. Contrary to the somewhat farcical if engaging portrayal in the film Amadeus and the other myths and legends that have accrued, there was no poisoning, no mysterious visitor, no Salieri, no snow storm at his funeral, and no pauper’s grave. As Dr. Sadie reports, “He was quietly buried in a mass grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at St Marx churchyard outside the city, on December 7th. The day was calm and mild.” Sadly for us, Mozart was able to take it with him — his miraculous musical treasure, that is — to a place that would surely know better what to make of it. That is the ultimate triumph of his indomitable spirit!

Track Name Listen
Miserere 20020203-01.mp3
Requiem: Introit 20020203-02.mp3
Requiem: Kyrie 20020203-03.mp3
Requiem: Dies irae 20020203-04.mp3
Requiem: Tuba mirum 20020203-05.mp3
Requiem: Rex tremendae 20020203-06.mp3
Requiem: Recordare 20020203-07.mp3
Requiem: Confutatis 20020203-08.mp3
Requiem: Lacrimosa 20020203-09.mp3
Requiem: Amen 20020203-10.mp3
Requiem: Domine Jesu 20020203-11.mp3
Requiem: Hostias 20020203-12.mp3
Requiem: Sanctus 20020203-13.mp3
Requiem: Benedictus 20020203-14.mp3
Requiem: Hosanna 20020203-15.mp3
Requiem: Agnus Dei 20020203-16.mp3
Requiem: Lux Aeterna 20020203-17.mp3
Requiem: Cum Sanctis tuis 20020203-18.mp3
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