An Evening With Robert Shaw
By Robert Turner
MASS IN D MINOR (“NELSON MASS”) FOR SOLOISTS, CHORUS, AND ORCHESTRA
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The Haydn literature includes a dozen Masses, of which six belong to the master’s last creative years, following the London symphonies (1791-95). These Masses combine the majesty of Haydn’s final symphonic style with a polyphonic grandeur which harkens back to Baroque.
In 1796, two years before composing the Mass in D Minor, Haydn had written a Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War). Its dramatic elements reflect the seriousness of the times; Napoleon was hammering at the borders of Styria.
In his own catalogue, Haydn calls the present work (1798) Missa in Angustiis, freely translated Mass in Time of Fear. The Napoleonic threat had engulfed a larger portion of the Western world; in a few years Haydn’s Vienna was to be overrun.
Trumpet fanfares in Masses are not unusual in the Haydn period, but those in the Benedictus of this work are believed to represent Lord Nelson’s victory over the French in the Battle of the Nile, August 1-3, 1798. When Nelson himself stopped at Eisenstadt Castle in 1800, as guest of Prince Esterhazy, Haydn conducted this work and his Te Deum at a service in the castle chapel. It has been known as the Nelson Mass ever since. The organ from which Haydn conducted, incidentally, has been preserved to this day.
This is Haydn’s only Mass in a minor key. The original orchestration calls for three trumpets, timpani, strings, and organ, but no horns or woodwind. Early printed editions added woodwind parts; the present performance, however, is based upon a modern edition in which early sources have been investigated in order to reconstitute the work in its original form.
The work comprises the five traditional movements of the Ordinary of the Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. As in Masses such as those of Bach and Beethoven, the Gloria, Credo and Sanctus are divided in several movements.
NANIE, OP. 82 FOR CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA
Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
Grim death was the inspiration for some of Brahms’ most sublime music. The death of Schumann caused him to begin his German Requiem; and the death of his mother some years later moved him to bring it to completion.
In 1881 death crossed Brahms’ horizon again, in the passing of Anselm Feuerbach, a German painter and his friend of many years. Anselm, like Brahms, was a neo-classicist, the creator of paintings on such themes as Iphigenia, Plato’s Symposium, etc. To commemorate the death of his friend, Brahms set to music the Nänie of the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and dedicated the work to the painter’s mother.
A nenia was an ancient Greek ode to a departed person, sung by mourners who beat their breasts and arms in grief. Entirely in the major mode, Brahms’ tender and serene setting recalls the slow movement of the D minor concerto and certain parts of the German Requiem. Death seems to be pictured as a merciful refuge for the weary. Twin to sleep, he holds his torch inverted, and gently extinguishes the flame of life.
The melody of the orchestra prelude is sweetly sung by the oboe. The meter is the broad 6-4 of the D minor concerto of more than a quarter-century earlier. Beginning with the sopranos, the voices of the mourners enter in fugal style. At times the three trombones lend an atmosphere of funeral ceremony, while the harps suggest a background for Grecian declamation. The reference to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and fertility, is accompanied by a brightening in the music. The concluding section, beginning at the words Auch ein Klaglied zu sein, brings back the subject of the choral fugue. The quiet ending on the repeated word herrlich (glorius) is a poignant farewell to a loved friend and companion in the joy of classical beauty.
CANTATA PROFANA, FOR TENOR, BARITONE, DOUBLE CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Bartok’s greated works lie in the instrumental field, with two exceptions – the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, and the Cantata Profana (1930). The music of the cantata, although not based on folk melodies, often utilizes folk idioms.
The text is an old Rumanian ballad, translated and adapted by Bartok. It concerns a father of nine sons, who were trained in no trade, and whose only occupation was hunting in the forest. One day, in pursuit of a magic deer, the sons lost their way, and were changed into stags. Seeking his sons, the father came upon the stags. As he was about to shoot, the largest stag, who had been his eldest son, warned him not to attach, lest he be gored by the stags and crushed upon the rocks. He pleaded with the stags to come home: “Your mother is grieving. The table is set and the goblets are filled.” But the stag replies that deer’s antlers were not meant for doorways; their only clothing must be the green leaves, and their only drink the water of cool streams. The symbolism, for Bartok, was that of blessed freedom.
The short introduction is based on an ascending scale motive, which is important in later parts of the work. The cantata is in three parts; the first, principally for the chorus, narrates the early part of the story, especially the hunt. The second part is the dialogue of the father (baritone soloist) and the son (tenor soloist). The third section, for chorus, enlarges upon earlier ideas. Within the sections are smaller forms, such as arias, cadenzas, and fugues.
The choral parts are difficult to sing, for the harmonies are dissonant, and there are frequent tone clusters – easy enough to execute on the piano, but not in the chorus. The complex counterpoint includes fugues, canons, and refinements such as paired voices in thirds treated in canon.
FRIED AUF ERDEN, OP. 13
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
During the early years of the century, Schoenberg was already regarded as a radical. His tone poem Pelleas and Melisande created a riot on its first performance in 1905. The works immediately following, such as the first string quartet and the first chamber symphony, provoked similar reactions, although today they seem fairly close to tradition. Friede auf Erden (1907) also seems conservative compared to Schoenberg’s later works; but soon, in his second quartet and the Book of the Hanging Gardens songs, he was to strike out boldly in the direction of atonality.
Having originally conceived Fried auf Erden (Peace on Earth) for a cappella chorus, Schoenberg wrote out the accompaniment for small orchestra in 1911 (winds, horns, and string quartet). In the margin of the score he explained the purpose of the accompaniment as “merely to make clean intonation possible for the chorus singers.” It was to be performed “as inaudibly as possible. “
By 1923, Schoenberg seems to have given up hope that the composition could be successfully performed without accompaniment; in a letter to Hermann Scherchen, who was about to present it, he puts it rather humorously:
“Please tell your singers that Peace on Earth is an illusion for mixed choir – an illusion, as I know today, having believed, when I composed it, that this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable… Since then I have perforce learned that peace on earth is possible only if there is the most intense vigilance as to harmony; in a word, not without accompaniment.”
The text was written by the Swiss poet and novelist Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-98), a leader in modern German literature of his time.