Creator and Creation: Â A Feast of Music Sacred and Secular
By Thomas May
After beginning the current season with a celebration of its own half-century, the Master Chorale likewise pays tribute to the major composer anniversaries of Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten in this fall’s programming. By happy coincidence, the Italian master’s 200th birthday occurred less than a month ago (October 10). His late-period setting of the Te Deum makes an especially fitting choice to remember Verdi on several levels.
This music held special personal significance: Verdian lore has it that the composer even asked to have the score placed in his coffin and buried with him. The Te Deum also forms an ideal complement to his Requiem, which the Chorale, prepared by Grant Gershon, performed this past August under Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl. Even more, within its relatively compact span, the Te Deum presents a compendium of Verdi’s mature artistry — and, as the work of a man in his 80s, an affirmation of the creative spirit that remained incandescent at the very end of his long career.
The text of the Te Deum dates far back and is traditionally associated with the baptism of St. Augustine by St. Ambrose in the 4th century (hence its alternate name as “the Ambrosian hymn”). Blending elements of the Credo with a visionary call to praise the Creator, the Te Deum became historically linked to grand state occasions and ceremonies and is shared by the Anglican Church and some Lutherans as well. Earlier in the 19th century Berlioz composed an impressive setting of the prayer, while Bruckner had just written his glorious Te Deum in the mid-1880s, a decade before Verdi. As far as Verdi was concerned, however, this text posed particular challenges that had been satisfactorily solved neither by the old masters nor by his contemporaries. “I know several of the old Te Deums and I’ve heard a few modern ones and I’ve never been convinced by the way this canticle has been interpreted — quite apart from the value of the music,” the composer wrote to an archivist in Padua while researching an 18th-century setting. “It is usually sung during grand, solemn, and noisy ceremonies for a victory or a coronation, etc…But toward the middle the tone and color change…and [it] ends with a prayer…which is moving, melancholy, and sad, even to the point of terror.”
Verdi’s solution is to reference numerous musical tangents, while at the same time achieving a remarkable sense of integration of the whole. Most of the musical fabric is woven from variants on the opening plainchant melody given by male voices. “Verdi never wrote a more thematically organized work than this,” observes Julian Budden, the great authority on all matters Verdian. This anniversary year has, alas, sparked a number of silly and meaningless “Verdi versus Wagner” debates. (The Beatles versus the Rolling Stones makes more sense.) But works like the Requiem and Te Deum only emphasize the uniqueness of Verdi’s own approach to the burden and significance of music history. Another oft-repeated claim — that his sacred music is just opera “dressed up” in clerical garb — is a canard to the extent that it implies (as this is usually intended) that Verdi’s music is motivated merely by a search for “effects” as opposed to his authentic response to the big questions taken on by the prayer.
That said, his instinct for musical dramaturgy here is impeccable. Each element unfolds with tremendous economy as well, making the Te Deum a rich, dense score fraught with meaning. After the opening chant and the call-and-response by the tenors and basses from both choruses — all sotto voce — Verdi introduces the full double chorus and orchestra in a blaze of E-flat major on “Sanctus.” This outburst is elaborated before coming to rest on a new harmonic vista that echoes Beethoven’s setting of a similar moment of epiphany in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony. And then…a retreat into choral pianissimo once again. (Verdi was actually so concerned about potential intonation problems with this a cappella opening that he considered adding a prelude to be improvised on the organ as a way to firmly set the key before the singers begin.)
The orchestral writing beautifully complements the choral forces while also establishing the various thematic segments and counterthemes with which Verdi builds his entire structure. Along with passages of majestic homophony (“Patrem immensae majestatis” or “Tu, Rex gloriae”), he develops thrilling counterpoint around the continuing praise, replete with calls from trumpets that sound like a positive reversal of the terrifying “Dies irae” summons from the Requiem. (Verdi was especially fond of this passage of “canto liturgico grandioso” in his setting.) The use of maximal contrasts adds dimension to the prayer by distinguishing the divine from the human perspective. It is the latter which comes to the fore in the final section, starting with the subdued plea by double chorus, “Dignare, Domine,” against an anxious tread, and continuing into the “Miserere.”
Repeating a stratagem from the “Libera me” in the Requiem, Verdi asks for a solo soprano — a voice individuated from collective humanity — to voice the hope for redemptive meaning. The final gestures are profound: Verdi’s choral setting ends in affirmation, but this is followed by a brief orchestral postlude, which casts doubt. Against a high E sustained by the first violins, which “shines like the faintest of stars in the night sky,” as Budden memorably writes, an A minor chord is sounded; to an E low in the strings, the Te Deum ends in stillness and near silence.
As the Wheel Turns
If there is irony in the defiantly anti-clerical Verdi’s setting of a traditional Catholic hymn — his humanism face to face with the ultimate existential questions is what makes this music so moving — this is matched at least by the paradox behind the anthology of poetry Carl Orff used as his source for Carmina Burana. This treasure trove of 254 medieval poems in praise of earthly delights was long hidden away in a monastic library in Bavaria, only to be rediscovered in the early 19th century (around the same time as the somewhat comparable reawakening of interest in the fairy-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and the folk songs that were brought out as Des Knaben Wunderhorn.) Carmina is simply the Latin plural for “songs” or “poems,” while Burana is the Latin adjectival form of the German place-name Beuern, the town where the monastery was located.
Written for the most part in the simpler medieval Latin style — though also including texts in the vernacular Middle High German as well as Old Provençal and even mixtures of German and French — the Carmina Burana were products of the so-called goliards (clerical students who enjoyed themselves by crafting bawdy and satirical verse: think medieval hippies venting against the establishment and giving it the finger through clever lyrics). Frequently these were wandering drop-outs who amused themselves by competing with each other’s latest conceit, and they clearly had a good time giving their verse an obscene edge. The erotic and earthly aspect of such “goliardic” poems stands in fascinating contrast to the idealized, lofty tone of the contemporary troubadours and the emerging cult of Romantic love — but that’s an entirely different story.
Orff’s Carmina Burana similarly resulted from an unexpected discovery of such personal importance that the composer later told his publisher to destroy everything he had hitherto written, declaring, “with Carmina Burana my collected works begin.” The composer recounts that he happened upon an old 19th-century edition of this anthology in a rare bookstore, and must have been among the first editions to have been published. What impressed Orff in particular was the combination of poetry with the illustration of the “Wheel of Fortune” in the edition he came across. He selected 24 of the poems to create a “scenic cantata.” The array of performers Orff demands is vast: along with large mixed chorus, there are a children’s choir, three vocal soloists and a big orchestra fitted out with expanded percussion. The phrase “scenic cantata” refers to Orff’s mid-1930s experiments in music theory and education, which sought to inspire and activate what he believed was a universally innate musical ability (much as spoken language is a universal trait).
Like Wagner, Orff hearkened back to the aura of ancient Greek theater as a model for a theatrical kind of presentation involving a synthesis of music, bodily movement, spoken language, and visual elements. Dance and gymnastic cultivation of the body were allied in his pedagogical thinking to the discipline of musical performance. At the same time, Orff’s perspective was decidedly anti-Romantic and much closer in spirit to the kind of thing Igor Stravinsky and his collaborators had been exploring. To that end, Orff envisioned Carmina Burana as a modernist revival of the classical spirit. While we usually hear it today in the concert hall, it was premiered in 1937 in Frankfurt’s Opera House as a fully staged work, complete with scenic backdrops, costumes, lighting and dance. The fact that this became the most famous composition to emerge from Germany’s Nazi period has also cast a shadow over Carmina Burana (see sidebar). Orff went on to compose two related cantatas on actual classical themes — Catulli Carmina (1943) and Trionfo di Afrodite (1953) — with which he hoped to make a festive, evening-length trilogy, to be collectively titled Trionfi.
For Carmina Burana, Orff assembled his selection of medieval poems into a structure of 25 numbers, repeating the opening address to “Fortuna” so as to frame the whole with the iconic image of the Wheel of Fortune which had so impressed him. One signature of his musical style is the rejection of conventional patterns of thematic development as well as complex polyphony. In their place, Orff draws on his massive battery of performers to use timbres and colors — instrumental as well as choral and solo vocal — as essential compositional elements.
Another trait that’s easily recognized is the avoidance of a grand, harmoniously blended “wall of sound” you might expect from Wagner and other late Romantics. What Orff does is to build his musical structure with discrete blocks of orchestral sound that reinforce the mostly choral vocal parts. In fact Orff’s full Latin title for the work draws attention to the central role of the singers and chorus (as well as to the cantata’s theatricality). In English, the full title is “Carmina Burana: Profane/Secular Songs for Singers and Choruses To Be Sung Together with Instruments and Magical Images.” And with its prominent use of striking rhythms, percussion effects, dynamic contrasts, and melodic lines which are repeated with incantatory charisma, Orff’s music does possess an intensely theatrical sensibility.
This style has been compared to the choral works Stravinsky pioneered — works such as Les Noces, a “cantata/ballet” with vocalists celebrating wedding folklore — along with the Russian’s “primitivist” rhythmic thrust familiar from The Rite of Spring. Such comparisons are almost always to Orff’s disadvantage, with the implication that Carmina Burana represents a “vulgarization” of Stravinskian models. But clarity is an essential value in Orff’s aesthetic of the pristine, magical power of music. After all, by the composer’s own description, the singers are said to be accompanied not only by instruments but “by magical images.” In a way, it might be said that Orff also looks ahead to the future, anticipating Minimalism with his radical stripping away of rhetorical complexity so as to make fresh contact with the wellspring of musical ideas.
The Wheel of Fortune serves as an organizing principle for the grouping of texts. The urges of pleasure and desire illustrated by the poems and music are oriented around the recurrent and implacable figure of Fortuna. Carmina Burana is revealed to outline a vast circle, ending with the chorus that begins the piece, as if to signal the eternal return of the cycle of life. Within this framework Orff maps out a tripartite scenario of sensual delights. These involve the innocence of nature (Part One: “In the Springtime” and “On the Meadow”), the social sphere of partying (the briefer, testosterone-heavy Part Two: “In the Tavern”), and the amorous and bittersweet awakening of courtship (Part Three: “Court of Love”).
The wheel’s rotations — ceaselessly repeated, much like human desire — are cleverly echoed in the repeated melodic material and refrains. Orff evokes a pre-Christian, pagan sensibility while relying on clever word painting that can sound both archaic and modern. (Among the most famous examples are the solo tenor’s high D’s to depict the not exactly comfortable situation of the swan being roasted in “Olim lacus colueram.”)
The wheel is similarly mirrored in the poems’ images of the cycle of seasons, the luck of gambling, social role reversals, the swan turning on its spit, and — in what are arguably the most enchanting sections of the score — the emotional ups and downs of sexual passion in the final story of “Blanziflor and Helena.” Throughout, Orff balances the score’s vigorous exuberance with moments of introspective tranquility, inviting us to an understanding of pleasure and pain as opposites of the same coin.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
The Dark Side of Carmina Burana
Carmina Burana is celebrated as that rare phenomenon — a classic from the modernist decades of the last century, and indeed a core work of the repertory whose popularity seems indestructible even regardless of its appearance in commercials and horror film soundtracks. But its origin during the Nazi era — along with Orff’s own complicit behavior — has given rise to reservations about Carmina Burana. One of Orff’s most damning choices as an active composer in those years was to agree to write new incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace the iconic score by the impermissibly “non-Aryan” Felix Mendelssohn.
At the same time, Orff had an ambiguous relationship with the Third Reich. Carmina Burana was actually viewed with suspicion by some of the cultural police for being insufficiently traditional (not to mention the bawdy content of the texts). The positive public response won advantages for the composer from Nazi authorities, but Orff doesn’t appear to have kow-towed to official stylistic directives and never became a Nazi himself. “[Orff’s] collaboration with the regime was therefore probably the result of a desire to survive rather than to achieve personal advantage or to advance some high-minded artistic agenda,” is the conclusion Nick Strimple reaches in his survey of 20th-century choral music.