SOME MUSIC YOU HEAR ONCE AND NEVER FORGET
By Peter Rutenberg
We embark tonight on an adventure of wonder, with three hauntingly beautiful scores to beckon us. These musical monuments, infused with good will and compassion, were chosen for their ability to wrap us in the grandeur, warmth and liveliness of our common experiences. They invite us to revel in the divine. Their message echoes humanity at its finest.
The most important feature these works share is their strong sense of architecture — always striking and at times sublime. Large chorus and orchestra perform both Anton Bruckner’s great Te Deum and Philip Glass’s propulsive Itaipu, while an unaccompanied chorus intones Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium. The form and structure of all three are powerful, while their musical ideas are distinct and specialized. Colors are bold. Textures are rich and intricate. Moods are clearly defined and themes convincingly argued. In this trio of masterworks we find a variety of musical gestures, but a single vision of the essence of humanity.
Thomas Tallis was already an accomplished composer and organist when Henry VIII split with the Roman Church. He was also one of the first to write in the newly reformed Anglican style, setting hymns and psalms some of which are still heard today. Installed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by the time William Byrd was born, Tallis and Byrd would later become partners in the music publishing monopoly awarded them by Queen Elizabeth, enjoying her favor for the rest of their lives.
Large scores — those for multiple choirs or many parts — were not as uncommon in the 16th century as some of us might think. But they were all products of opportunism, for special celebrations when royal masters might be honored by an enterprising composer, and not often performed beyond their original purpose. Still it was unusual to venture beyond 30 voices, the maximum size of most choirs. Besides its scope, Spem in Alium (for 40 voices divided into eight choirs of five voices each) is unique in many respects and still captures our fascination today.
Even when compared to the largest orchestral scores of the late 20th century, this music is quite complex. Mozart and Haydn routinely wrote for orchestras from 12 to 20 parts. That Tallis would be able to conceive of and manage a group twice that size, 200 years earlier, gives us proof of his true genius. The motet’s opening theme is sung by the first choir and picked up by the second. The third and fourth enter in turn, followed by the fifth through eighth choirs. After each choir has been introduced, they converse with the others. All 40 voices are heard for the first time at the word “praeter.” The number is quickly reduced as Tallis pursues his exploration of different combinations of choirs and their ever-changing palette of colors. The second climax begins with the word “omnia” invoking a customary pun on the word “all”. After a brief and highly dramatic pause, the final and grandest climax occurs at “respice,” with a spine-tingling key change to boot!
Spem in Alium was probably first performed in 1573 for some grand occasion of state. Its text is taken from the Sarum Rite (as opposed to the Roman Rite) and was used as a respond at Matins, in the period after Trinity Sunday, during the reading of Judith (a heroine of the Apocrypha). Since the number of voices corresponds neatly to the Queen’s age that year, it’s not hard to believe the motet might have been part of a birthday celebration in her honor!
Biographer Alan Blyth sums up Anton Bruckner in the following words: “Rustic, conscientious, cautious, in some ways naive, he was well into his thirties before his imagination took full wing, and to the end of his life he remained... unsure of himself in the intellectual company of Vienna, and something of an enigma.” Edouard Hanslick, a critic who favored Brahms, helped create a somewhat hostile environment in Vienna for Bruckner, an “ardent Wagnerian.” (Brahms and Wagner were the focal points for a Hatfields & McCoys type of feud in music circles at that time.)
It wasn’t until Bruckner’s seventh symphony received a 15- minute ovation at its Leipzig premiere that he enjoyed a solid success. Vienna soon jumped on the bandwagon. The eighth was also well received, but the ninth was unfinished at the composer’s death because he put it aside to revise earlier works and complete the Te Deum. Blyth goes on to say that “Bruckner himself regarded the Te Deum as his ‘finest work’ and ‘the pride of my life’ and dedicated it to God ‘in gratitude,’ as he wryly put it, ‘because my persecutors have not yet managed to finish me off.’”
While Bruckner has been called a direct musical descendent of Wagner and Beethoven — what composer of that era would not have gleaned something from these masters? — it is a bit erroneous to stereotype him in this way. Rather, he should be viewed as wholly peculiar in the best meaning of that word. His sense of structure was as unshakeable as his faith in the Roman Catholic Church, but his sense of continuity was unorthodox: it was more like a recurring pattern in which massive blocks of music alternate with silence, yielding a “unique symmetry” within a “great formal strength.” The Te Deum was first performed in Vienna on January 10, 1886.
As program annotator Nick Jones informs us, “Itaipu originated as Philip Glass’s response both to nature and to a modern technological wonder, the massive hydro-electric dam at Itaipú on the Paraná River, which forms the border between Brazil and Paraguay.” Glass’s musical setting, portraying both this vast landscape and the sheer immensity of the dam, draws on the largest performing forces for which he ever wrote. Like an explorer’s map, the music charts the course of the river from the highlands of Mato Grosso province down to the Atlantic Ocean. In four movements, tribal creation lore of the Guaraní is recounted with Glass’s familiar and compassionate musical insights into nature’s realm and the peoples who remain attached to it for their physical and spiritual sustenance. Itaipu was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and first performed on November 2, 1989, in Atlanta, under the baton of the late Robert Shaw.