By Peter Rutenberg
The thread that wound from early 19th-century Vienna through late-century Milan and all the way to 20th-century Aldeburgh, on the southeast coast of England, wove a tapestry linking the intellectual and creative legacies of three great composers with harmony, grace, wit and passion. Franz Schubert’s late classical style bore harmonic innovations that came to mark the standard idiom of the early Romantic era a generation later. His attempts at staged works may have suffered from poor librettos, but the drama and exuberance of his musical persona manifested themselves in hundreds of beloved works from songs to symphonies. Rossini was quite the rage in the Vienna of Schubert’s youth. Giuseppe Verdi assimilated his influences together with those of Donizetti and Bellini and achieved a dominance unequaled since Mozart, and later Wagner. It took two centuries, but with Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten resurrected the prominence of opera on the English stage. Britten’s early flirtations with the second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Berg gave way to a neoclassical stance and expressive freedom that expanded the scope of the great Anglican Revival movement. All three — Schubert, Verdi, and Britten with their strong sense of compassion and humanity — reveled in probing harmony, soared on the wings of brilliant tunes, and danced the rhythms of universal appeal.
“From the start,” writes biographer Andrew Porter, Giuseppe Verdi “had the opera composer’s most necessary gift, the ability to write melodies that communicate a character’s emotions and stir emotion in those who listen.” After Falstaff, when he, by his wife Giuseppina’s admonition, was “too old, too tired” to tackle another opera, Verdi recalled a pair of sacred choral pieces he had written in 1880. It was enough to inspire an amusement for the composer’s well-honed craft, which he set in the form of an “enigmatic scale,” writing a second setting of the Ave Maria. This, together with the Laudi alle Vergine Maria, composed between Otello and Falstaff, and new settings of two ancient church hymns — a Te Deum and a Stabat Mater written between 1895-97 — gave the composer his swan song, the Quattro Pezzi Sacri or Four Sacred Pieces. They were published in 1898 and premiered the same year in Paris, under the composer’s keen and attentive direction.
Its origin and authorship are uncertain, but the Te Deum is generally accepted to date from the early fourth century. A chanted hymn ‘in praise of God,’ its usual liturgical place is at the conclusion of Matins on Sunday in the Roman rite. In translation, it occupies a position of prominence in the Anglican rite as well. Probably owing as much to its venerable tradition as to its daunting length (30 verses), the text was not set polyphonically until the 16th century. Verdi’s Te Deum is a “noble work” says Porter, scored for double chorus and orchestra — with a brief but crucial soprano solo — and reflects both a bold sense of harmony as well as the hymn’s innate theatricality. This dramatic underpinning is evident from the very first. The stage is arrayed with a huge chorus and orchestra, yet only the basses of one choir intone the incipit of the ancient chant, answered by the tenors of the other. A quiet dialogue ensues between the two men’s choruses, using a medieval technique of harmonized chant to introduce the chorus of Cherubim and Seraphim. All the while, tension builds until the full force of the angelic host erupts in a grand harmonic display. A variety of textures shift subtly, one to another: individual sections of the chorus take phrases in turn; complex counterpoint alternates with simple unison rhythms; climaxes ebb and flow. The final line of text is set in a mood of tranquil affirmation, but the master would belie his dramatic propensities without one final, hair-raising surprise!
Close on the heels of his 1961 masterpiece War Requiem, Benjamin Britten chose the apt parable of the Good Samaritan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Red Cross. That august organization was founded by Swiss philanthropist Henri Dunant, and became his enduring response to the tenets of the Geneva Convention of 1864. Initially the organization served the victims of war; later it included natural disasters. Britten’s Cantata misericordium, Op. 69 (“Cantata of Mercy”) was premiered in Geneva in 1963 with an all-star cast: Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau sang the solos, while the great Ernest Ansermet conducted his Suisse-Romande Orchestra and the Motet Choir of Geneva. Biographer Peter Evans suggests the following assessment: “Like an appendix to the Requiem, the Cantata also culminates in a soft, bright music of sleep. But violence is less the central issue here than man’s need to counter it with compassion… Modest instrumental resources contribute an individual colouring while the major 3rd relationship (F< and D) that predominates substitutes ambivalence for the oppositions in the Requiem. The many short sections are drawn together by a ritornello for string quartet…In its delicate structural and tonal balance this is one of Britten’s most beautifully realized works.”
The summer of 1819 turned out to be “one of the happiest of Schubert’s life,” according to biographer Maurice Brown. It was spent in Speyr, some 90 miles west of Vienna, in the glorious countryside that inspired the composer’s famous “Trout” Quintet. It was in this mood that his fifth mass, the Mass in A-flat, D. 678, was begun, though shortly set aside. When he did return to it in 1822, it was an exalted time, judging by the other works completed that same fall: the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, the Quartettsatz, and the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.
The German publisher Carus-Verlag provides the following summary of Schubert’s output of Mass settings: “He had the habit, from the outset, of omitting certain central words of the Christian doctrine: sometimes belief in the Resurrection, and as a rule the words ‘credo in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.’ Instead he directed his attention, especially in the last two highly personal Masses, to the suffering Christ, and hence to the troubled destiny of every human being. The first four Masses, written during the years 1815 and 1816, are concise and relatively straight-forward… In the Missa solemnis in A-flat, D. 678, Schubert sought to attain ‘the supreme artistic height,’ treading new paths above all in the employment of his harmonic resources. Together with the Mass in E-flat, D. 950, very much a choral mass, it exemplifies Schubert’s late style, which heralds the works of Anton Bruckner.”