Voices of Today

March 2, 1991, 08:00 PM
John Currie, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
TITLE COMPOSER/ ARRANGER GUEST ARTISTS
Psalmus Hungaricus Op. 13 Zoltán Kodály
Voices Stephen Paulus
Te Deum Anton Bruckner
Susan Montgomery , Soprano
Paula Rasmussen , Mezzo Soprano
John Mitchinson , Tenor
Kevin Bell , Baritone

CONDUCTOR'S NOTES by JOHN CURRIE

The Hebrew Psalms are great poetry, powerfully influencing countless generations since their composition by King David and others. But their diction is not genteel and their subject matter is not limited to the pastoral and the picturesque. Blood, treachery, terror, hatred, politics, and the poet's struggle with a jealous god are their stuff. Thus the Hungarian, Kodály, a devotee of early twentieth- century nationalism, made passionate vent in the violent text of Psalm 55 in Michael Veg's poetic version. The occasion was a celebration, on November 19th, 1923, of the City of Budapest's 50th birthday. (See the accompanying historical notes.)
 
But Kodaly did not celebrate. Instead, he poured out a wonderfully crafted song of lament and anger. David is oppressed with sorrow and terror and cries to his god for the destruction of his enemies. The work's contemporary relevance, and the turbulent history of Hungary are burned into the score. More than this, Kodály created a masterpiece which immediately surpassed its local significance and became a standard twentieth-century choral and orchestral masterpiece. For me, it stands with Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (again, an old Hebrew shout) as a great choral and orchestral poem.
 
 Kodály frames the poet's cry with a unison, folk-like chant which is the main theme and recurrent refrain of the work. "Sad was King David, sore and afflicted ...” The heldentenor (such a voice is necessary) takes up the poem in the character of David, calling on his god to lift him from his depression and destroy his enemies. At one climactic point Kodaly leaves the solo voice unaccompanied for the shattering words "Keseru halal" (Bitter death to them!)  Chorally and orchestrally the work has rich and romantic textures, and the poem's violent outbursts are expressed in tempi that never sit still. The work is strongly structured, but defies formal categorization. Words like "rhapsody" and "tone-poem" come to mind.
 
Towards the end, an uneasy resolution is reached in a beautiful orchestral passage (strings, solo clarinet and violin) followed by a strong choral declaration of faith in the one god and the pious hope that he will support the righteous.
 
Bruckner's large-scale romantic symphonies are supplemented and crowned by his settings of the Mass, the 150th Psalm, and, above all, his acclaimed Te Deum. Set for large orchestra, chorus and four soloists (with the tenor dominating), the Te Deum quotes from his Seventh Symphony. This theme, heard just before the final double fugue ("In te ... non confundar") was associated in Bruckner's mind with news of the death of his hero, Wagner. Bruckner also intended to quote the opening of the Te Deum in the Ninth Symphony he never finished.
 
Those who have come to love this composer's music as well as those who are new to his style should note that this is vintage Bruckner. The "barbaric" pounding ostinato figures (the very opening of the work), the melting, reflective choral phrases at the ends of paragraphs, and the climactic unaccompanied choral declamations are all Brucknerian finger-prints.
 
The opening dramatizes the old plainchant Te Deum theme, introducing the "angelic" phrases of the soloists, then returning to the massive and majestic from "Sanctus" onwards. The music melts for "Virginis uterum" (the Virgin's womb) and "mortis aculeo" (death’s needle) before the first section's grand ending.
 
The second movement is a brief tenor solo with choral and orchestral comments. The tenor prays while the chorus speaks of redemption. "Aeterna fac," the third movement returns to typical pounding rhythms.
 
"Salvum fac populum" starts in penitence, but breaks back to a triumphant C-major at "Per singulos," before a peaceful, wonderfully flexible choral ending “... speravimus in te" (... we hope in Thee).
 
The fifth, and final movement is ushered in by the solo vocal quartet. The chorus majestically confirms their "non confundar" (the Seventh Symphony theme) and takes up these words in a double fugue ending in a final C-major blaze of glory.
 
Later in life, as the century was closing, Bruckner said: "When God calls me to himself one day, and asks what I have done with the talent He gave me, I will show Him the score of my Te Deum and he will surely judge me mercifully."
 
A NOTE ON VOICES (West Coast Premiere)
 
VOICES is the last of four works written by Stephen Paulus for the Minnesota Orchestra across the span of the four seasons he served as composer in residence, and was commissioned jointly by the Minnesota Orchestra and COMISS (the Congress on Ministry in Specialized Settings). Completed in 1988, the work is inscribed "To Jim Anderson" who spearheaded the idea of the commission, and who died suddenly before its completion and premiere.
 
The search for a text culminated in the works of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), especially Die Stimmen. There Paulus found the voices of need as well as a dimension of the mysterious. "I have always liked Rilke's poetry," says Paulus - "his language, his vision, and the way his verses portray vivid characters, just as in opera. His portrait of a drunkard is pathetic, but powerful." In 1988, translator Albert Flemming wrote to Paulus: "Of all the poems I chose to translate, none speaks so directly for the needs of the disadvantaged, for the needy, for the street people, for the suicidal: for 'the drunkard,' read 'the drug addict;' for 'the leper,' read 'the AIDS victim' ... It is as if Rilke had written them (in 1906) prophetically foreseeing the human disasters of the twentieth century's ending. And his message embraces all mankind."
 
OPENING, spurred by the choral proclamation of a forceful E-major chord over a powerful pedal point in C in the orchestral bass, establishes the premise: "The rich do well to keep silent ... " Male voices continue with intensity over a disturbing figuration, "But those in need must reveal themselves." With the reminder that we try to pass by the needy, the orchestra delivers a signature theme, and angry motive, almost like a slap to shake us into awareness. Sounds of the mob pervade the end of the movement, whereupon the individual voices of the suffering come into focus: the beggar, the drunkard, and the suicide, their stories following each other without a break. The mood changes with The Song Of The Idiot, like a demented scherzo, sparingly orchestrated, while The Song Of The Leper emphasizes the blare of brass and rasp of unpitched percussion.
 
A significant pause clears the raging sounds and cleanses the emotional palette. Forming the second part of the work, based on selected Rilke poems, the concluding three movements gradually introduce hopefulness. The solo mezzo voice of "I am, O Anxious One" signals the turning point, reflecting tenderly at first, but gradually surging with emotional strength, for the idea behind this music is that feeling is the essence of humankind. Initiated by the bright beam of female voices As once the winged energy of delight gives substance to the idea. The words "For the god wants to know himself in you" are emphasized by unison voices released in a massive cluster chord, motto crescendo.
 
Beginning in mysterious tones, the concluding movement, from which the entire work takes its title, contains shades of darkness of the first six settings. But it sweeps to a radiant conclusion, engaging the entire orchestra with the voices in its spirit of celebration.
 
(The above notes are edited from an article in Showcase November 1988, supplied by the composer.)
 
HISTORICAL NOTES BY
Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph .D.
 
After the signing of the Treaty of Trianon at the close of World War I, Hungary as one of the defeated Central Powers, emerged an impoverished nation, a fragment of the former Austro-Hungarian Dual monarchy, with a population reduced from twenty to seven million. Forbidden to acknowledge the claims of the Habsburg Emperor Charles, the nation became a semi-dictatorship until 1944 under the Regency of Admiral Horthy. Like contemporary Germany, Hungary faced serious economic and social problems resulting from its depreciated currency. By 1923 the nation had reached the nadir of its fortunes.
 
The celebration in 1923 of the fiftieth anniversary of the union of the twin cities of the Danube, Buda and Pesth offered that great trio of Hungarian composers, Dohnanyi, Bartók, and Kodály an opportunity to display to the world Hungary's then vibrant musical life. Each composer was asked to contribute a work to the event. Dohnanyi produced an overture based on the National Anthem and a choral Credo; Bartók a Dance suite, and Zoltan  Kodály a masterpiece of 20th Century choral literature, the Psalmus Hungaricus, Psalm 55.
 
Casting about in his memory for a suitable text, he recalled a poet of his youth, the 16th Century Michael Veg who came from Kodály’s own birth-place Kecshemet. Veg, living during the Turkish occupation of Hungary, was one of a group of native poets who professed their patriotism and Christianity in powerful and moving verse redolent of the Old Testament prophets. Kodaly's study of the Psalm text as interpolated and expanded by Veg's poetry furnished him with that intense religious feeling in which he could universalize the tragic elements of Hungary's history.
 
After the first performance on November 19, 1923, conducted by Dohnanyi, the critics were unanimous in their praise of the Psalmus. One wrote that Kodaly "rises to those pure and refined heights of music which are only to be assessed by the standards of a master like Bach." They further described the Psalmus as "a work of fascinating depths of emotion, written by a soaring imagination that leaves one both awed and spell-bound." Another critic declared that "it is perhaps, the most accomplished masterpiece ever to have been achieved by a Hungarian composer."
 
A. V. Toth in his lengthy preface to the published score writes: "Kodály's musical setting exhausts both the national and subjective elements of the poem and molds them into one perfect and homogeneous unit of great visionary beauty, and of tremendous lyric and dramatic strength."
 
Anton Bruckner presents to his beholders a seemingly contradictory and puzzling personality. This simple, unassuming, profoundly religious man of peasant origins, retiring and deeply wounded by his vociferously strident contemporary critics has emerged as one of music's most glowing and expansive Romantics. His huge works are characterized by depth of emotion and superb orchestral and choral color.
 
He commenced his setting of the great thanksgiving hymn Te Deum in 1881 after completing the F Minor Mass and while working on the poignant Sixth Symphony. Upon its completion he dedicated it with a somewhat whimsical sense of triumph "to the dear Lord, because my persecutors have not yet finished me off."
 
Gustav Mahler crossed off his copy of Bruckner's Te Deum the listed technical components and forces of the score and wrote, "scored, rather for the tongues of angels, God-seekers, tormented hearts, and souls purified in the fire."
 
Max Auer, Bruckner's biographer, summed up the composer's religious spirit in the Te Deum. Bruckner "took literally the words of the Psalmist 'Praise him with drums and cymbals.' He displays a splendor and brilliance in his orchestral and choral compositions which are comparable to the glow of the glorious colors of a Rubens' painting."

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