Haydn and Górecki: Mass(ive) Prayers for Peace, One Note at a Time
By Victoria Looseleaf
The distinguished English writer Aldous Huxley once remarked, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Few, one might add, have done it as deftly and industriously – creating compositions that include 104 symphonies, 50-some concertos, 84 string quartets and 12 masses – as Franz Joseph Haydn. Affectionately dubbed “Papa Haydn” by his friend and protégé Mozart, the prolific composer, who was born the son of a wheelwright in Austria in 1732, continues to fill concert halls, radio airwaves and, yes, even downloadable ringtones, with some of the most glorious sounds ever heard. And while it is one of history’s ironies that Haydn, himself trained as a singer, became celebrated as a composer of instrumental music, the power, beauty and grace of his vocal works endure. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Master Chorale, under the stellar direction of Grant Gershon, continues to showcase all six of Haydn’s famous final Masses in its “Homage to Haydn” initiative (the project culminates in 2009, the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death), this concert features the “Maria Theresa Mass” (Theresienmesse) in B-flat major. Considered the most personal of Haydn’s late masses, it was commissioned by Prince Esterhazy II to celebrate the name-day of his wife, Empress Maria Hermenegild.
Written in the summer of 1799, the opus is thought to have been premiered on September 8 in Begkirche, near the Esterhazy family seat in Eisenstadt. Scored for solo quartet, chorus, strings, two clarinets, two trumpets, timpani and organ continuo, the mass is notable for its reduction of winds. The absence of oboes, bassoons, horns and flutes, due to a dearth of wind players in Eisenstadt at that time, had Haydn turn a deficiency into an asset, as the unusual orchestral timber infused the work with a burnished glow of the B-flat instruments. The most lyrical of Haydn’s late masses, this austere scoring is complemented by ample solos, both individually and as quartets. Here is Haydn at the height of his powers. His choral writing teems with robust variety, rhythmic propulsion and contrapuntal finesse, while his vigorous work ethic had him composing this mass between the writing of two astonishing oratorios, The Creation, performed in 1798 and The Seasons, which premiered two years after Maria in 1801.
Setting the tone of the entire Mass with a chamber-like quality that begins with the Kyrie, the sense of serenity in the opening adagio is breached by chorus basses, trumpets and timpani – all forte – with the opening movement a palette for slightly varied recurring motifs. The lively choral fugue is also interrupted, if you will, with the “Christe”. Based on material from the opening, this musical dichotomy reconciles the somewhat harsh interludes with a text that begs for mercy. Moving to the spirited Gloria for chorus and orchestra, which is in three extensive sections that mirror the text, Haydn theatrically reiterates the Latin word “Te” (Thee) before being temporarily stilled by the minor-keyed “et in terra pax” and veering to C major which heralds the solo quartet’s “Gratias.” An agitated ostinato triplet announces the chorus’ “qui tollis,” after which the haunting a cappella “miserere nobis” bleeds into an optimism from the chorus on the “Cum sancto,” where radiant string melismas are followed by the liquid cadence of a coda, also heard at several points during the Mass. The Credo then cracks open, with a lowering of pitch and dynamics on the words “descendit de caelis,” and the “et incarnatus est” for soloists alone is a thoughtful meditation. This celestial quality takes us towards the “Crucifixus,” one devoid of the drama found in other Haydn masses. But the ecstasy of the life to come is ultimately celebrated in the lively fugue, “et vitam venturi,” bringing this exuberant section to a close. An intimate opening of the Sanctus cedes to vigor on, “Pleni sunt coeli,” with Haydn traversing easily from the minor mood before blazing back to the tonic in a joyful, if rather restrained, “Osanna.” The moody but pastoral Benedictus proceeds gently until trumpets and drums vamp, with the section built around a central choral climax. Characterized by powerful choral unisons and wild dynamic fluctuations – subito fortes becoming hushed pianos – the Agnus Dei features wailing violin figures that conjure a veritable Sturm und Drang before the return of a more rustic soundscape of the home key. Vital, tender and above all, hopeful, the movement draws to a magnificent close on the words “Dona nobis pacem,” a prayer for peace both sumptuous and solemn – one needed now more than ever.
This, of course, is the stuff Tolstoy may have been referring to when he said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” Another kind of shorthand to passion is the sound universe fashioned by eminent Polish composer Henryk Górecki. Born in 1933 and catapulted to fame with his haunting Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Górecki was the first living classical music composer to top the Billboard charts, when, in 1992, the 52-minute recording began its unprecedented 93-week run, eventually selling over a million copies. The symphony, composed in 1976 and bowing at an avant-garde music festival in France in 1977, belies the notion of overnight fame, with Górecki continuing to be known for music possessing an intensely spiritual quality sometimes dubbed “holy minimalism.”
His Five Marian Songs, Op. 54 were written in 1985, when fame had not yet brought him worldwide attention (including that of filmmaker Peter Weir, who made use of the first movement of the symphony in his movie Fearless). Górecki was also the first Polish composer to write for the first Polish Pope, as Cardinal Wojtyla had commissioned an oratorio in 1997 before becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978, with the work performed the following year. But Górecki’s signature – slow, contemplative, homophonic music – had been forged, the exemplary Marian Songs serving as lullabies and heartfelt pleas to the Virgin Mary, with its words speaking of God, death, peace and prayer. The 28-minute a cappella song cycle, scored for 60 singers, shifts in tempi from moderate to very slow, with the simple harmonic structure becoming more complex as additional layers are piled on, voice by voice. The power of Górecki’s music, as with Arvo Pärt and John Taverner, the trinity of “holy minimalist” composers (who had all initially begun composing in modern idioms, emulating, for example Stravinsky and Schoenberg), lies in the rejection of intricacy in favor of simplicity. Allowing the silence between the notes to become as important as the music also characterizes the Marian Songs. The first, “Mother of Heavenly Lord” – dynamically fuller than the others – glides from mezzoforte to forte; the others are slower, quieter and more intimate. “Holy Mary,” the second, barely rises above a murmur, while the third, “Hail Mary,” marked lento dolcissimo – as sweet as possible – blossoms in a radiant D major. The unhurried nature of the fourth, “Oh, how sad it is to part,” yields to the fortes of the final song, “Forever we will worship you,” which ends, however, in hushed tones. Górecki’s profoundly exquisite composition, where the listener lingers between moments alive with delicate and rapturous vocalese, can rightly be called music from the heart for the heart.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinión and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her fourth season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.