PROGRAM NOTES by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D
The Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) mark the grand finale of Giuseppi Verdi's productive life.
The two unaccompanied works, Laudi alla Vergine Maria and Ave Maria, appeared in that probable order by 1889, between the composition of the operas Otello and Falstaff. TeDeum and Stabat Mater were composed in that order by 1896, first performed at the Paris Opera in 1897, and then in 1898 under Toscanini’s baton in Italy.
Published in the Musical Gazette of Milan by one Adolfo Crescentini, an "enigmatic scale" not corresponding to any known mode provided a musical conundrum for Verdi. In 1889 he decided with his composer/librettist friend Ariago Boito to compose his fourth Ave Maria based on that "wretched scale." The resulting four part polyphonic chorus enunciates the "enigmatic scale" successively, commencing with the bass, the other parts embellishing it contrapuntally and harmonically. Boito wryly observed that Verdi's efforts in producing this masterly work would serve to mollify "His Holiness" for Iago's perfidious Credo, hence Verdi's next step toward ecclesiastical rehabilitation should be a Credo a Ia Palestrina, (a composer who greatly influenced Verdi's polyphonic works).
By 1896 Verdi at the age of 84 completed his last composition, the Stabat Mater. Jacapone da Todi's great Latin sequence depicting the anguish and sufferings of Mary at the foot of the cross provided Verdi with that kind of dramatic text, in Andrew Porter's words, veritable Passion/Requiem music, calculated to fire his fertile imagination. It displays all the characteristic clarity and subtlety of scoring usual in Verdi's late compositions. The music ranges with operatic power and religious fervor through an emotional gamut of intense drama to the most tender and heartfelt sympathy for the suffering Mother. It ends with a triumphal affirmation of confidence in her salvific intercessional powers to bring us sinners to paradise.
Laudi alla Vergine Maria embraces St. Bernard's paean to the Virgin Mary as found in Canto 33 of Dante's (Paradiso). Composed for four-part women's chorus of exquisite polyphonic lyricism, it expresses praise to "our tainted nature's solitary boast," the Mother of Jesus, full of benignity and loveliness.
TeDeum, often considered the greatest of these conclusive four selections, elicited from Verdi a detailed correspondence with Boito as to how it should be initially performed in Paris, a performance as he desired of a truly religious masterpiece. Indeed in its fifteen minute duration it is quintessential Verdi revealing his insights into the meaning of Bishop Nicetas' great fourth century hymn of thanksgiving.
Verdi concentrated his attention on a basic thought of this canticle, a prayer for deliverance from the wrath to come and a vow to trust in God's mercy. The setting contains many dramatic moments, but is dominated by a quiet and reverent expression, exhibiting Verdi's loyalty to the meaning of the text. The sharp dynamic contrasts, both in chorus and orchestra, are balanced by the thematic unity achieved through the many transformations of the Gregorian Chant themes.
Long recognized during his lifetime as the dean of American composers, Howard Hanson from 1924 almost until his death in 1981 was closely connected as teacher and conductor with the Eastman School of Music.
At mid-century he produced his Cherubic Hymn, a setting from the Greek Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English Translation. The Cherubic Hymn corresponds in the Latin and Western Christian liturgies to the Preface or Introduction to the Holy, Holy, Holy), (Sanctus).
The Hymn expresses a profound sense of thanksgiving for all the spiritual benefits bestowed by the Triune God. The singers then join the Cherubim and Seraphim in a crescendo leading to the acclamation Holy, Holy, Holy, subsiding with ethereal Hosannas, and dying away with distant mystic repetitions.
Two works established Gustav Holst's reputation as a significantly innovative English composer, The Planets of 1916, and The Hymn of Jesus, of 1916-19, the latter making an extraordinary initial impression.
Holst's creative genius was sparked by his reading of the Greek Apocryphal Acts of St. John. To translate them into English he learned Greek.
The Hymn is scored for two mixed choruses and large orchestra. After the meditative preface comprising settings of the chants Vexilla Regis and Pange Lingua followed by a grand doxology to the Trinity, one chorus representing humanity carries on a dialogue with the other impersonating Jesus, who responds to each petition positively. Interjected throughout the whole work are the angelic Amens and comments by the semi-choir of sopranos and altos.
Imogen Holst asserts that the message of the Hymn depicts man's longing for redemptive release from the earthly servitude to sin which can only be achieved through a profound understanding of and acceptance of what Christ achieved by suffering. To know this is to possess ultimate wisdom.
In 1906, in a personal competition with Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams commenced his setting of the episode from Walt Whitman's Whispers of Heavenly Death, beginning with "Darest thou, now, O Soul, walk out with me toward the unknown region."
Vaughan Williams conducted it on October 10, 1907, some 84 years ago, and the work led him to be acclaimed "the foremost of a younger generation of English composers." It is considered his first large-scale choral composition, transitional to the emergence of his distinctive style. A singer who took part in that initial performance, Plunket Green, said it was "new in its outlook, and new in its working out, and enthralling in its beautiful interpretation of the words."
J. McKay Martin wrote a quarter of a century ago: "For although technically the touch is secure, there is throughout a questing spirit, a feeling that is not wholly expressed in the predominantly romantic idiom of the music. Enshrined in the harmonies is the essence of the spirit as well as the letter of Whitman's text."