PROGRAM NOTES BY
RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J., Ph.D.
The numerical designation of Bach's cantatas bears no relationship, generally speaking, to their proper compositional sequence. Cantata 150, Lord, My Soul Longs for Thee (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich) is one of a group of five (#71, 106, 131, and 196) composed between 1707 and 1710 while the youthful Bach was organist in Muelhausen and Weimar. The particular occasion for which he composed Cantata 150, dated toward 1710, is unknown and can only be surmised. Its character indicates its appropriateness for a funeral or an occasion of mourning. It thus bears an affinity to the famed Actus Tragicus, Cantata 106 (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) both in its origin and type, though it appears to be in a more advanced form. Together with the five above-mentioned cantatas, it constitutes the earliest corpus of Bach's known cantatas.
These works are transitional in character, for Bach at that time adhered to a type of cantata inherited from the Seventeenth Century. These employed sentences from the Bible, verses of hymns, and arioso movements. Choral music predominated in these over the later development which permitted a freer use of original poetry, expanded employment of the da capo aria, and embellished chorale movements. Indeed, Bach commenced in these early cantatas that life-long practice of exploiting the treasures of the Lutheran chorale, so much a part of his heritage.
Cantata 150 is scored for soloists and chorus. Its instrumentation calling for strings without viola, bassoon and continuo indicates the relative constraint the resources of Muehlhausen or Weimar placed on Bach. The Cantata sets verses 1, 2, 5, and 10 of Psalm 25.
If, indeed, Cantata 150 was composed for a funeral or an occasion of mourning the verses of the Psalm provided Bach with the opportunity to stress in his musical setting the psalmist's confidence in God's help and guidance through the light of his truth. “All the paths of the Lord are kindness and constancy toward those who keep his covenant and his decrees."
The Mass in D was composed in July-August, 1798, the third of the six great Masses produced by Joseph Haydn between 1796 and 1802 to celebrate the birthdays of Princess Maria Ermenegilda Esterhazy, wife of Haydn's patron . Subsequently he added to the title "in Angustiis (in Time of Troubles)." Even from Haydn's day the work was called the Nelson Mass, because it was heard by Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton in 1800 as they passed through Austria and Eisenstadt after Nelson's great naval victory over the French fleet at Abukir Bay off Egypt in 1798. An account of the Mass by a contemporary of Haydn recounts in 1800 a conversation with the composer:
". . . As he was actually writing this Benedictus (of the Mass) he received some news from his employer, Prince Esterhazy. A courier had arrived with news that Nelson had defeated the French. From that moment on, Haydn said, he could not banish from his imagination the image of a trumpet-blowing messenger. And since the idea of his Benedictus was so clearly related to this he therefore added the trumpet obbligato."
In his brief lifetime of 38 years, Felix Mendelssohn* created a living legacy of some of the most brilliant choral and orchestra works to grace the repertory. The youthful incidental music to Midsummer Night’s Dream, the virtuosic Italian Symphony, the incomparable Elijah – all of these are testaments to the greatness of his compositional skill. Born into an established family of culture and influence, the composer took full advantage of every opportunity afforded him. The continual acquaintance with the finest artisans, philosophers and financial magnates of the time seemed to mold his attitudes and sense of values. He was an international figure during his lifetime, and his influence was significantly felt on the continent as well as in England.
Mendelssohn’s smaller choral works have not had the performances nor the analytical scrutiny of his larger compositions. All of the works performed this evening were published posthumously and most were not previously found in choral catalogues.
Psalm 2, composed in 1843, and Psalm 22, composed in 1844, were referred to by critics contemporary with Mendelssohn as being the prime examples of his skill in presenting “the Psalm itself before his own technical ability…the music does not pretend to be scientific, or anything on its own account, but it throws life and feeling into the dry words.” (Hauptmann’s letter to Hauser, January 18, 1850).
In all of his Psalm settings, Mendelssohn uses a through-composed style, similar to the motet of the late 16th Century. His contrasts are achieved not in the rhythmic or harmonic complexities (he affords few sonic surprises) but in his keen awareness of textures: one choir versus another, soloists and soloistic sectional lines projecting from the fabric of sound, and subtle inner metric devices which give a seemingly static chord structure inner motion.
The Six Statements or Anthems are essentially settings of wise sayings or biblical-style truisms intended to be used as choral signatures, calls to worship or for more informal moments. None longer than 36 measures, they vary in style from short imitative passages to massive homophonic settings for eight-part chorus. Composed in 1845, the six anthems present a microcosm of the liturgical year in music.
*These notes on the Mendelssohn selections are based on and derived from notes supplied by Robert Page
The title "Imperial Mass" sometimes applied to this composition is a misnomer.
Like Haydn's earlier Mass in Time of War, the Nelson Mass was composed during the height of the Napoleonic Wars and exhibits martial aspects, particularly in the famed fanfare of the aforementioned Benedictus.
All of Haydn's great Masses vary in their instrumentation. The Nelson Mass is unique among them in that it is scored for three clarino trumpets in D, timpani, strings, and organ, a quartet of soloists and a four-part chorus. Woodwind instruments were omitted, being replaced by the larger role given the organ. Haydn subsequently permitted use of woodwinds, it seems, and made some minor emendations in the score. But the great Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon argues strongly against the authenticity of these additions. The German Haydn Society edition, however, prints these wind parts in smaller case.
Haydn did much to elaborate the Symphonic Mass. After completing his great series of symphonies he took the integrative principles of the symphonic sonata form and applied them to the composition of the Mass. Thus the larger portions of the text become symphonic movements, while their melodic characteristics approximate the motif-like themes of a classical symphony. A high degree of integration is established between chorus and soloists, and between voices and orchestra so that in a sense the singers are one of the "choirs" in the makeup of the whole ensemble just as the strings, winds, brasses and percussion are.
Haydn in his Nelson Mass, says Robbins Landon, can arguably be said to have produced his greatest work. The absence of the woodwinds, the solemn key of D Minor, and the biting texture of the trumpets all lend a special kind of asperity and majesty to the music, giving an almost Baroque feel to this Classical Mass. For power, exuberant exaltation, profound religious contemplation, appropriate handling of the text and abundant melody, few great Masses can surpass the Nelson Mass.