The Dawning after Night
Two works that affirm faith, hope and humanity
by Victoria Looseleaf
How is it possible that the composer known as a scatological clown, one in constant conflict with his vulgar inner child Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - could create music of such ineffable beauty? Music that not only shocks us from the humdrum of our inert lives, but music that, by dint of its transcendent nature, continues to move us? Such is the case with Mozart's "Coronation" Mass. Written in 1779 when the composer was 23 and beginning to break free from a fabled adolescence (as well as a domineering father), the piece, certainly among his best-loved Salzburg compositions, is regarded as one of his most popular sacred works, nearly on a par with the Requiem. As for the nickname, it was rumored that Mozart had been inspired after seeing a painting of the coronation of the Virgin Mary. Evidence suggests that the opus, though not composed for Leopold ll's coronation in 1791, was probably performed during those festivities, as it surely was the following year for Leopold's successor, Francis I.
And much like VH1's Behind the Music, the Mass' back-story finds Mozart unplugged, or at least unemployed in both Mannheim and Paris. The antithesis of a Gen-X slacker, the wunderkind, besides thriving on explicit letter-writing, bawdy jokes and a keen appreciation of his own sexuality (shades of rapper 50 Cent), had a profound need to make music, thus precipitating his return to Salzburg. Finding work as a composer-for-hire, Mozart also placated his father (however reluctantly), by becoming court organist and, between doing chapel duty, zealously penned the C-major Mass. (Think Jack Kerouac, who cranked out On the Road on a continuous roll of typing paper in a quasi speed-induced, three-week frenzy.)
Celebratory in nature, the compact, 26-minute Mass (Mozart omits formal closing fugues for the "Gloria" and "Credo"), makes use of Salzburgian string orchestration - minus violas. Listen to the robust violin part, with alto, tenor and bass voices of the chorus complementing trombones. Mozart's signature texture dazzles with oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns and timpani, and the soloists are heard as a quartet, in pairs or in solo lines set against the larger powers of the choir. The "Kyrie", a sonic cornucopia, heralds solo entries of soprano and tenor who then overlap in the Gloria. For unabashed beauty, look to the central, exquisitely muted "Credo", with its F-minor crooning of "Et incarnatus" that offers the work's most mystical moment (and whose reverberations can be traced today to the numinous works of, say, an Arvo Pärt). Following the brief "Sanctus", aural enlightenment again permeates the "Hosanna in excelsis" section of the "Benedictus" before flowing into a divine "Agnus Dei". There, in a seemingly unbroken circle, the Kyrie theme returns, propelling us to the "Dona nobis pacem," a potent plea for peace.
According to Music Director Grant Gershon, Mozart's "Coronation" Mass is like a good vodka. "You can mix it with anything and it sounds great," he says of his decision to pair the work with Billy Childs' world premiere cantata The Voices of Angels, commissioned by the Master Chorale. With this deeply spiritual (another Mozartian link), 45-minute work, the four-time Grammy®-nominated pianist and composer plunges into a musical world that explodes with an astonishing array of moods and colors: harmonically rich, rhythmically provocative and breathtakingly profound, Voices grabs an audience by the jugular and never lets go. If, as Leonard Bernstein once said, "music can make the unknowable knowable and the incommunicable, communicable," Childs has, undeniably, written a work for the ages.
Scored for full orchestra, full chorus and two soloists, including a child soprano, Voices is set to six poems from the book I never saw another butterfly. Written by children imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp as a means to express their feelings, the poems languished on a Prague bookshelf for a decade before being discovered and eventually published. They are both heartbreaking and hopeful and were the impetus for Childs' foray into so daunting a subject. Stories of extreme suffering and humanity, Childs says, remain relevant today, with hatred and adverse situations continuing to rear their ugly heads in places such as Rwanda, Croatia, Serbia and Iraq. The poems transcend race, class and generations; they speak from the nakedness of the heart to the yearnings of the soul; they are your children, they are children of the universe; and finally, in death they become life, life from which Childs has fashioned bone-rattling art
Beginning with a plaintive viola melody that not only foreshadows doom, but represents and utterance of grief, Childs set his own words - "darkness, madness, merciless prison and chamber of sorrow"- to establish a stirringly dark tone. This pastiche of sound - woodwinds, brass, percussion, piano and harp - jolts the listener into a world of pain, albeit one with occasional jazz rhythms and no established key, or, as orchestration, the listener trekking from an abyss of anguish to glimmerings of hope: "The Butterfly." Here a piccolo sounds one note as nature is conjured, before ceding the tone to alto flute and English horn. This is the work's centerpiece where beauty conquers brutality: Calm, wistful, almost waltz-like, with Ravelesque harmonies, the adult soloist soars - indeed floats, her rhapsodic voice a metaphorical butterfly, "dazzling yellow," aching to be forever free.
An extended fermata erupts into an arpeggiated run; the butterfly, alas, is gone. But hope hovers, as trumpets sound and this drama of the heart marches onward. The accelerated tempi and expansive orchestration punctuate the poem "On a Sunny Evening," with hearty fugues infusing sonic bliss into the words, "the sun has made a veil of gold." From the depths of despair to Childs explains, "I'm in whatever key I need to be in at the moment" Soon the chorus thrums with Debussy-like texture before splitting in two, announcing the entrance of the adult female soloist. This vocal condemnation of mankind flows into the first poem, "Terezín," where the camp's barbarisms ("That bit of filth and all around barbed wire") become a musical counterpoint to the kaleidoscopic emotions of anger, hope and depression. Lush chords abound, as the choir offers a descending ("falling-angel") soundscape, followed by the child soprano's entrance: "I am no more a child for I have learned to hate ."The portentous bass underscores a panoply of chords after which an a capella chorus bleeds into the fast, furious and pumped-up "Fear" section. Insistent rhythms (thousands of beating hearts?) melt into an orchestral fanfare that augments the gut-wrenching text, "Seldom a Human Being." This pivotal transition - creeping from darkness to light - is realized with bright a world where beauty can - and does - exist, the cantata concludes with "Birdsong," and the child soloist sweetly summoning the text, "blackbird greets the dawning after night" The chorus repeats "the world is full of loveliness," the orchestra crescendos with an enormous brass flourish, the tympani resound and mighty voices proclaim "how wonderful it is to be alive." A tiny word – alive – but encompassing so very much, it saturates us with joy, and, like a mantra, a prayer, a plea- like absolution the chorus repeats: "alive."
To breathe, to see, to speak, to listen, to share, to sing and, at last, to love.