Of War, Peace and Musical Masterpieces
By Victoria Looseleaf
While rappers Kanye West and 50 Cent have been duking it out in recent months for chart-topping dominance, Franz Joseph Haydn continues - nearly 200 years after his death – to sell music of enduring beauty, brilliance and boldness. And though this son of an Austrian wheelwright who was gainfully employed for nearly four decades by the royal family Esterhazy was considered the most famous composer of his day, since his demise in 1809 at the age of 77, Haydn has generally been eclipsed in reputation by his fellow Classical music purveyors, namely Mozart and Beethoven.
But the man dubbed “Papa Haydn” by his friend and protégé Mozart, who also exclaimed, “he is the father of us all,” is once again having his moment in the musical firmament. Indeed, tonight, as the world, still in a state of unrelenting turmoil – political, ecological and otherwise - counts down to the year 2009 and the Haydn bicentennial celebration, we can take solace in the sonic superstar’s epochal “Mass in Time of War.” Composed in 1796 and one of six choral masterpieces created during the last decade of his life, the title refers to the ill-fated campaign led by the Emperor Francis against Napoleon’s army. A soul-filled journey of aural shock and awe, it is also known in German-speaking countries as the “Paukenmesse,” or “Kettledrum Mass,” branded thusly because of the muffled beatings of the timpani in the opening of the Kyrie, as well as the more pronounced drum rolls in the final Agnus Dei. Although written in the cheery key of C major (also a reflection of Haydn’s unflappable buoyancy), the portentous drums and accented militaristic brass (similar instrumentation can be found in his earlier Symphony No. 100 in G), infuse traces of angst into what is finally a soothing prayer for peace. The Mass, too, exemplifies Haydn’s imposing symphonic form into his choral music, with the “Kyrie” akin to a symphony in sonata structure, its slow introduction ceding to the main theme, and the “Christe eleison” (Lord have mercy) heard in a mere four measures. The Gloria, divided in three parts like a miniature Italian symphony, ricochets from vivace and adagio before returning to a bright allegro. Showcased during the adagio is a sumptuous cello and baritone duet, the baritone descending at the close of this section before the chorus erupts in unabashed joy to end with a prolonged “Amen.” The Credo, opening\s with each voice part emphasizing another blissful – and rhythmic – theme, with the measured “Et in carnatus est” section introduced by a solo quartet before the choir responds, quickens its pace for the entrance of the “Et resurrexit” text. Here Haydn is in the throes of happiness, the voices, including a truncated fugue, a tapestry of sound reminiscent of his magnificent chamber music. The Sanctus begins leisurely but escalates to an ominous forte on the words, “Pleni sunt coeli,” before enveloping the brief, more refined “Hosanna in excelsis.” With the Benedictus, set largely for the four soloists, the three lower voices accompany the soprano with notes that echo the strings’ pizzicato, these clipped phrases presaging the dark foreboding mood of the Agnus Dei. Opening in a minor key, the gloomy timpani again utter frenzied throbbings when the music suddenly blossoms with trumpet fanfares, a dance-like tempo accelerating as the chorus insistently intones, “Dona nobis pacem,” an entreaty for peace. A magnum opus that meshes the militaristic with the majestic, the work gives glorious voice to what Haydn told Mozart, who, when advised by his one-time student against visiting England because he couldn’t speak the language, replied: “But all the world understands my language.”
Languages – four, to be precise - are heard in Louis Andriessen’s world premiere, “The City of Dis or: The Ship of Fools,” the first section of a five-part opera-in-progress based on Dante’s “La Commedia.” Requiring linguistic gymnastics as well as vocal and instrumental prowess, this is a wild, 18-minute ride rich with the Dutch composer’s signature sounds: tremolo chords; agitated textures; extremes sonorities and dramatic bursts of sonic flights. Opening with a jaunty orchestral toccata, replete with running sixteenth notes and punctuated with percussion – xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone and two pianos – this is Andriessen’s tribute to George Gershwin ’s “American in Paris” - traffic noises included. A curtain raiser that builds in energy and texture, the addition of orchestra and 24-member chorus makes its first entrance with the three upper voices singing in Latin (allusions to the Passions and Cantatas of Bach), the only time the language is heard. The text, from the first verse of “Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools)” is also from the Psalms and speaks of drinking and sailing. A wispy a cappella passage precedes the orchestra churning triplet sixteenths as it guns towards a triple forte. A brief hold follows before the second section - men’s chorus - commences. Sung in medieval Dutch, the altos soon join in what might best be described as aural inebriation: Gamblers, cavorters, dancers and womanizers are told they may go into the “Blue Bark” (a Dutch “Ship of Fools”), literalizing the text with rowdy sounds and mixed meters. The bawdiness gives way to a textural change: Gone are the 16th notes; a slow, mysterious mood leads us to Beatrice’s first entrance (marked legatissimo), a high soprano sung in Italian. This ravishing vocal line precedes the entrance of Virgil, here doubled by two basses, in English, who tell of “a little boat coming towards us on the water,” before the entrances, in Italian, of Maria and Lucia (soprano and alto, respectively). This linguistic juxtaposition/alternation technique serves to narrate the journey, Andriessen explains, because the use of several languages is the “heritage of the modernist avant-garde” a la Berio and Stockhausen. Soon the full chorus and orchestra climax on double forte before the return of tenors and basses, while the opening’s familiar rhythms and traffic sounds herald the arrival at the City of Dis, the burning city in Hell. Not long after comes a tempestuous musical “storm,” primarily consisting of percussion and piccolos and augmented by taped sounds of “more than a thousand angels falling from heaven.” The orchestra, now in the stratosphere register, gradually enters, with the passage stopping abruptly before the alto solo, in Italian, croons of the same “falling angels.” Nearing the finale, anxious harmonies bristle before the chorus -double forte - sings “With their nails the three tore their breasts.” Listen, too, for pre-recorded sounds of winds before Dante, the solo baritone, recites two stanzas on “ruined souls” and “turbid waves.” As the bass guitar and contrabass clarinet emit restless figures, the orchestra rises and subsides. “I was certain that she was sent from Heaven,” Dante sighs in descending tones, the work ending in a hush as the strings sustain a mysterious chord over the repeated pulsing note of the bass guitar.
A bit of heaven is also heard in Veljo Tormis’ a cappella “God Protect Us From War.” The 77-year old Estonian, making use of text culled from a collection of 19th century Finnish folk poetry, “Kanteletar,” has fashioned a tiny jewel that allows the men’s chorus to shine. Featuring chant-like melodic motifs and the underlying tones of a gong, the impression of an ancient prayer wrapped in a mysterious veneer comforts us in an evening bursting with choral masterworks.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her fourth season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.