by ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Annotator, Los Angeles Master Chorale
Mass in G minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Mass in G minor was composed in 1922, when Vaughan Williams was 50. In this work, he paid homage to the modal polyphony of the early Tudor composers, as he had earlier in the orchestral Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis (1910). In both works, he utilized a musical vocabulary developed by Ravel, with whom he had studied in 1909; but in Vaughan Williams' hands, the result was as English as Ravel's music was French.
The Mass is scored for double chorus and solo quartet, a cappella. In practice, however, the solo quartet is treated as a third chorus of lighter texture. The listener's attention should be drawn to three particularly magical moments: in the middle of the Credo, when the choruses' Et homo factus est ("and was made man") is interrupted by the solo alto on the word Crucifixus ("He was crucified"); the angelic interweaving of the treble voices in the triple Sanctus; and the closing Dona nobis pacem ("grant us peace"), in which the entire ensemble, spread over a range of more than three octaves, contracts to the final four-part chord.
The Wedding ("Les Noces")
Igor Stravinsky (b. 1882)
"Les Noces is a suite of typical wedding episodes told through quotations of typical talk. The latter, whether the bride's, the groom's, the parents' or the guests', is always ritualistic. As a collection of clichés and quotations of typical wedding sayings, it might be compared to one of those scenes in Ulysses in which the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse. But Les Noces might also be compared to Ulysses in the larger sense that both works are trying to present rather than to describe.
"Individual roles do not exist in Les Noces, but only solo voices that impersonate now one type of character and now another. Thus the soprano in the first scene is not the bride, but merely a bride's voice; the same voice is associated with the goose in the last scene. Similarly, the fiancé’s words are sung by a tenor in the grooming scene, but by a bass at the end; and the two unaccompanied bass voices in the second scene, however much their music may suggest the actual reading of the marriage service, are not to be identified with two priests. Even the proper names in the text, such as Palagy or Savelyouchka, belong to no one in particular. They were chosen for their sound, their syllables and their Russian typicality.
"Les Noces is also - perhaps even primarily- a product of the Russian Church. Invocations to the Virgin and the saints are heard throughout the work. Among the latter, the names of Cosmo and Damian occur more often than any others. They were recognized as wedding saints in Russia, and they were popularly worshiped as deities of a fertility cult. The binding of the bride's tresses with red and blue ribbons was a religio-sexual custom, of course, and so was the tying of the tresses around her head to signify the married state. In the period of Les Noces (early nineteenth century), however, such customs were hardly more than ritual for ritual's sake. The bride weeps in the first scene, not necessarily because of real sorrow at her prospective loss of virginity, but because, ritualistically, she must weep.
"A knowledge not only of the cultural customs, but also of the language of Les Noces is necessary to anyone aspiring to a true appreciation of the work. For example, the word 'red' in the last tableau is an exclamation for 'beautiful'; it does not refer purely to color. 'The table is red' and 'the table is beautiful' are one and the same statement ... But I wonder if Les Noces can ever completely reveal itself to a non-Russian.
"The Wedding Feast tableau is made up largely of quotations and scraps of conversation. The (non-Russian listener should understand in this scene that, first of all, the swan and the goose are folk characters and that the solo voices who impersonate and quote them are enacting a traditional folk game. Swans and geese both fly and swim and therefore, have fantastic stories to tell about the skies and the waters, stories that are mirrors of peasant superstitions, incidentally ... But 'swan' and 'goose' also refer to the bride and groom. They are popular terms of endearment like 'my little dove' or 'my little mouse.'
"I began the composition of Les Noces in 1914 (a year before Renard) in Clarens. The music was composed in short score form by 1917, but it was not finished in full score until three months before the premiere, which was six years later.
"When I first played Les Noces to Diaghilev - in 1915, at his home in Bellerive, near Lausanne - he wept and said it was the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet. I think he did love Les Noces more than any other work of mine. That is why it is dedicated to him." (From Expositions and Developments, by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft.)
Carl Orff (b. 1895)
Catulli Carmina was begun in 1930 when Carl Orff set to music a selection of poems from the works of- the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (87-54 B.C.). Then, in 1943, Orff added a prologue and brief epilogue, with a Latin text written by himself, and his self-styled scenic cantata received its first performance in Leipzig on November 6, 1943.
These Songs of Catullus sketch the story of the poet's passion for the promiscuous Clodia, or Lesbia, as she is called in the poems. Orff frames this story with his own caustic commentary on the conflict of passion versus wisdom, youth versus age. For his prologue, Orff constructed a text that is in the style of Catallus's poems: It is plain-spoken and explicit, especially in its many sexual references.
To begin this Catulli Carmina, Young Men and Women are heard pledging eternal love. But the Old Men, weary of their libidinous bleatings, try to knock a little sense into the youngsters by relating the story of Catullus's ill-fated affair. So begins Orff's three part play within a play. When the tale is finished the young people instantly resume their avowals of passion.
The poems of Catullus are divided into three acts of unequal length. The first and third acts consist of five scenes, each beginning with the same words; the second act consists of only two scenes. The Catulli Carmina are sung without accompaniment, in contrast to the Praelusio and Exodium, which are scored for four pianos and a battery of percussion. The text is arbitrarily divided between the soloists and the chorus for dramatic emphasis. (Quotations are in part from the translation by Horace Gregory.)
As the first act begins, Catullus is seen standing by a column. “I hate and love. And if you ask me why, I have no answer, but I discern, can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture."
Lesbia enters. "Come, Lesbia, let us live and love, nor give a damn what sour old men say ... Give me a thousand kisses!"
Catul/us and Lesbia sit by the column. "He is changed to a god he who looks on her, godlike he shines when he's seated beside her ...” The chorus continues as Catullus falls asleep in Lesbia's lap. "This languid madness destroys you, Catullus . . .”
Lesbia leaves Catullus and enters the tavern. There she dances for her many admirers. Catullus awakens as his friend Caelius enters. "Caelius, my Lesbia, that Lesbia whom Catullus loved more than himself, now gives herself on the highroads and in the alleyways to the noble sons of Remus."
Catullus despairs. "My woman says that she would rather 'wear the wedding veil for me than anyone; but when a woman talks to a hungry, ravenous lover, her words should be written upon the wind and engraved in rapid waters." The Old Men applaud.
Act Two. It is night. Catullus sleeps in the street before Lesbia's house. He dreams he is with her. "My life, my love, you say our love will last forever; O gods, remember her pledge ..." "Sleep; go back to sleep," murmers Lesbia.
Catullus dreams that his place has been taken by Caelius. He awakens with a cry. The house is dark. "Look for no gratitude, tolerance, or respect anywhere on earth nor place your hopes in man, for everything is lost ... there is nothing in life so bitter as the betrayal of friendship by someone who yesterday was my one and only friend." Again, the Old Men applaud.
Act Three. It is day. Catullus stands at the column. "I hate and love ...”
The beautiful young girl lpsithilla appears at a window. Burning with desire, Catullus writes her a note, asking for a rendezvous.
The whore Ameana accosts Catullus. He taunts her as the crowd laughs. "See that girl, Ameana, the one with the big nostrils? She is suing me for a full ten thousand - personal services, of course. Someone call a physician. The poor creature's crazy. O what a face and what hallucinations!"
Catu/lus, free of Ameana, searches the crowd for Lesbia. "Poor damned Catullus, here's no time for nonsense, open your eyes, O idiot, innocent boy, look at what has happened: once there were sunlit days ... Then you took your pleasure and the girl was not unwilling. Those days are now gone; you must be more like a man; not running after her, your mind all tears; stand firm, insensitive, say with a smile, voice steady, 'Go, my girl!' Catullus strong and manly no longer follows you ... you whore I Where's your man to cling to? Who will praise your beauty? Who now will love you? Who will call you his? But always, your Catullus will be as firm as rock is."
Lesbia enters with Caelius. She calls to Catll/us, but he rejects her. "No woman, if she is honest, can say that she's been blessed with greater love, my Lesbia, than I have given you ... You are the cause of this destruction, Lesbia, that has fallen upon my mind - this mind that has ruined itself by fatal constancy. And now it cannot rise from its own misery to wish that you become best of women, nor can it fail to love you even though all is lost and you destroy all hope." Lesbia flees into her house, and the play ends.