Lauridsen Lux Aeterna and Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem
by Peter Rutenberg
The choral music lover will be hard-pressed to imagine a more felicitously gratifying pairing than Brahms' Requiem and Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. On virtually every level but the specific choice of text and musical themes, there are shared values and inspirations, uncanny similarities and mesmerizing parallels, and emotionally restorative riches beyond measure. These are masterworks in every sense of the word.
In his preface to the published choral score, Morten Lauridsen wrote, "Lux Aeterna for chorus and chamber orchestra was composed for and is dedicated to the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its superb conductor, Paul Salamunovich, who gave the world premiere in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center on April 13, 1997. The work is in five movements played without pause. Its texts are drawn from sacred Latin sources, each containing references to Light. The piece opens and closes with the beginning and ending of the Requiem Mass, with the three central movements drawn, respectively, from the Te Deum (including a line from the Beatus Vir), O Nata Lux, and Veni, Sancte Spiritus.
"The instrumental introduction to the Introitus softly recalls motivic fragments from two pieces especially close to my heart (my settings of Rilke's Contre Qui, Rose and O Magnum Mysterium) which recur throughout the work in various forms. Several new themes in the Introitus are then introduced by the chorus, including an extended canon on et lux perpetua. In Te, Domine, Speravi contains, among other musical elements, the cantus firmus Herzliebster ]esu (from the Nuremberg Songbook, 1677) and a lengthy inverted canon on fiat misericordia. O Nata Lux and Veni, Sancte Spiritus are paired songs - the former the central a cappella motet, and the latter a spirited, jubilant canticle. A quiet setting of the Agnus Dei precedes the final Lux Aeterna, which reprises the opening section of the Introitus and concludes with a joyful Alleluia."
No one who was in the audience that April evening in 1997 will forget the instantaneous and vociferously enthusiastic acclaim accorded the premiere of Lux Aeterna. In addition to the clear merit of the work and its masterful first performance, however, there seemed to be an air of surprise among us concert-goers, as if we hadn't quite expected such a triumph from "new music". Yet the more we applauded and cheered, the more we wanted to. Perhaps that is part of the legacy of the 20th century - that we've forgotten to expect wondrous things from new music.
In centuries past, greatness had been expected of prominent composers, and audiences were far from forgiving when they felt shortchanged. Brahms had already suffered the "fiasco" (as he called it) of the first performance of his D-minor Piano Concerto at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1859. His faith in the work was eventually vindicated, but the death of Robert Schumann, his mentor - in combination with the continuing struggles of the young musician, and finally his mother's death - had placed the composer under the subtle but persuasive hand of grief. It pointed the way through a very human process that would synthesize this overwhelming torrent of emotion into a musical triumph - the Requiem. It was not until the Christmas of 1866 that Brahms was able genuinely to relax, secure in the knowledge that both the work and his period of tremendous inner growth were (almost) complete. An inadequate performance of the Requiem's first three movements conducted by Herbeck at the Gesellschtift der MusikFreunde in Vienna a year later did not deter Brahms' courage. The first full performance (minus the as-yet-unwritten fifth movement), scheduled for the approaching Good Friday in Bremen, would be conducted by the composer.
Biographer Karl Geirginger recounts the events: "When at last 10 April 1868 arrived, Brahms had every reason to be 'quite happy.' All those who were present at this first performance of the Requiem felt that this was an important artistic event; this consciousness fired both singers and players to do their utmost, and inspired the audience to appreciation of all the beauties and subtleties of this wonderful work. When Brahms stepped up to the conductor's desk, a wave of emotion seemed to meet him.... On that day Brahms, at the age of 35, experienced fully for the first time complete success, and even though many such experiences were to be his, he could rarely have enjoyed any of them as he enjoyed this first triumph ... Before the month was out, [the Requiem] had to be repeated in Bremen. After this, Brahms added the wonderful fifth movement ... In this final and complete form the work was performed in Germany no less than twenty times in the following year. London followed in 1871, Petersburg in 1872, and Paris in 1875."
Since its premiere, Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna has been enjoying a similar destiny, with dozens of performances around the country and abroad, in both the orchestral and the organ versions. In addition, a 1998 Grammy® nomination for the Master Chorale's recording of the work (RCM 19705) brought widespread acclaim. What makes these two works so beloved is of course a question with innumerable answers. A view on the broadest scale must focus on their universal appeal, their warm humanity. It is certainly true that both works draw on Biblical and liturgical texts, but Brahms would aver that he was drawn there for 'musical' reasons, and Lauridsen, for his part, to texts evocative of light - an essential image in his vocabulary. This drive to impart something on a cultural level to the world takes at least some of its motivation from the most personal of experiences, in each case, the death of the composer's mother. Brahms' mother had died years before; Lauridsen's passed away while he was writing Lux Aeterna. The nurturing presence of these women is palpable in both works; in the timeless realm of the soul, the underlying emotional context of each composer's sense of love, grief and resolve unfolds at its own pace.
Any student of Lauridsen's composition comes quickly to an awareness of how important music's rich past is to him, both as frame of reference and as creative impetus. It is possible to hear in Lux Aeterna the echoes of a direct line back thirteen centuries to the codification of plainchant by Pope Gregory; to the first and second Notre Dame schools under Leonin and Perotin respectively; to the paired dialogues that distinguish Josquin's high Renaissance style; to the playfulness of early Baroque counterpoint; to cantus firmus (chant or hymn melodies in long notes) as a Palestrina or Bach might have used them; to the big, juicy sonorities heard in Brahms' own Requiem, and beyond to the 21st century. Indeed, Lauridsen's choice of ancient texts and the associations that come with them add an important component to this two-way bridge to the past and future. It is the coup of his genius that not only doesn't the music sound academic or labored, but fresh and new, as in a modem distillation of essential flavors. The connections with chant are especially important in Lux Aeterna, so that, like Duruflé, the asymmetric rhythm of the melodies seems to be suspended in time, even as the music is propelled by its inner pulse.
Brahms was no stranger to music's venerable past either. He had an immense personal library with first editions, manuscripts, and subscriptions to the newest editions exploding from the burgeoning field of musicology. He studied avidly the music of Bach, Schütz, Palestrina and many other masters, and readily incorporated elements of those so-called dead styles throughout his oeuvre, thus revitalizing them, and imbuing his own music with a dimension of timelessness and immediacy otherwise unattainable. Schütz had been the first to write a work under the tide "A German Requiem" back in 1636 (more commonly known as the Musikalische Exequien). Whether Brahms had come across this tide among the works of that composer - or more recently in Schumann's notebooks as musicologist Michael Musgrave has noted - is ultimately unimportant. Among several features in common, the text "Selig sind die Toten" ("Blessed are the dead") and a rather insistent use of modal harmonies (such as is heard at the opening of Brahms' sixth movement) play crucial roles in both works.
Like the older composers, especially Bach in his cantatas, Brahms unifies his Requiem through melody, in this case, the sad chorale Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten ("Whoever lets the loving God hold sway"), set in a minor key. Musgrave, in The Music of Brahms, reminds us that "The key to [the Requiem] development could well lie in a casual remark of Brahms to Siegfried Ochs, to the effect that the entire work rested on a chorale melody - one which we can easily identify." It is first readily heard in the opening funeral march of the second movement. Closer examination reveals that it also occurs at the very opening of the work - there, in a major key and without the upbeat - and elsewhere. That Brahms would choose to begin his Requiem with a variation of the central melodic idea, speaks directly to his principal purpose, that of consoling the living. Lauridsen also quotes from other melodies (his own and other sources) for the similar purpose of establishing both historical references, emotional associations, and other forms of continuity.
There is an old saying that architecture is frozen music. One may well posit the reverse, that music is liquid architecture. The greatest musical works have the soundness of their architecture on which to base their enduring success. Structure, including melodic development, key relationships, textural symmetries and other large-scale palette devices - and modeled after paragons of the late Renaissance, such as masses of Lassus, Palestrina and Byrd, to Schutz's Christmas Story, to Bach's B Minor Mass and Mozart's "great" Mass in C Minor- is paramount to the musical experience and to the overall emotional impact. Lux Aeterna and A German Requiem share certain aspects of their respective structures with those "paragons" and with each other. In each, the opening material of the first movement returns toward the end, but is cast in a different light by virtue of how it is reintroduced: Lauridsen sets the Agnus Dei in its entirety before a climactic flourish recalls the chorus's first entrance, "grant them eternal rest," now with the words, "shine eternal light on them," which uses the same music. This "reprise" allows a reaffirmation of purpose leading directly to the jubilant acclamation of the "Alleluia." Brahms takes the opening text, "blessed are they that mourn," and, through what Musgrave calls a "master stroke" in the modulation from E-flat to F, recasts the same music with its new text, "blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" to come full circle.
Interestingly, the central, pivotal section of each work are the movements that stand apart from the rest, not just figuratively with regard to mood, but literally as separately published pieces of music. With Brahms, it is the lightest mood of the entire work, with its happy text, "How lovely is thy dwelling place." Airier music accompanies it, with flute and clarinet melodies, many staccato passages in the winds and pizzicato passages in the strings, and a decided dearth of dissonance in contradistinction to the weightier movements. Lauridsen, on the other hand, takes this opportunity to bathe the listener in full, rich, and delicately piercing harmonies, sung by voices alone, in a languorous tempo, the effect of which fairly explodes with a building tension that is not released until the choral entrance in the following movement. Each is perfectly construed to prepare the listener for what follows: in Brahms' case, it is the voice of his mother from heaven; in Lauridsen's, the brisk litany of supplications in Come, Holy Spirit.
In Lauridsen's opening movement there are various kinds of canonic entrances on et lux perpetua, te decet hymnus, ad te omnis, and the lovely off-setting by one beat of the sopranos as they lead the rest of the chorus in the section's final phrase. The second movement relies on certain canonic techniques for its argument; the third finds short motifs tossed carefully between the voices; and the fifth replicates the first in the frequency and import of canon. (Canonic devices do not appear in the fourth movement, in deference to the unison chorus.) In the Requiem, Brahms looks once again to his musical forefathers, Bach and Mozart, as imitative entrances abound, and no fewer than three major fugues (concluding the second, third and sixth movements) show the composer's command of 18th century counterpoint as a momentous and indispensable feature of the oratorio's dramatic character.
Brahms' Requiem and Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna are two of the greatest monuments of choral music ever written: their power, relevance and finesse speak to us each in our own language. Thus with our full attention and assent do they transport us over gossamer paths to a state of enlightenment and grace.