Mass in B Minor: Program Notes

“The greatest musical artwork of all times and all people.”


So wrote Swiss publisher Hans Georg Nägeli in 1818, who bought the original manuscript from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s heirs and wished to publish it. Unfortunately for him it took 27 years to complete and an additional 41 years later for it to receive its first performance.

The genesis of the B Minor Mass begins with the composition of the Kyrie and Gloria, written in 1733 as part of a petition to the newly installed Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II. Bach was seeking a title of “Your Highness’s Court Capella” -- one of the most revered musical ensembles in all of Europe. (Bach did indeed eventually receive the title of Hofcompositeur but not until 1736, a full three years later and only after a 2nd petition and assistance from Count Hermann von Keyserlingk.) Bach was seeking a title from the court because he was deeply frustrated with the authorities in Leipzig and he wished to gain leverage over them during a protracted dispute between factions on the town council. One faction wished to have something more like a town kapellmeister -- which is how Bach viewed himself -- and the other wished for a more traditional, school teacher type. The latter group actually tried to have Bach removed but did not prevail.

By writing a so-called missa brevis, Bach composed a work that would have general appeal to the Catholic Elector but also could work just as well in a Lutheran context, especially in the Lutheran churches of Dresden and Leipzig. (Though the Elector was Catholic, his father having converted to gain the crown of Poland, the Saxon citizenry remained Lutheran.) In Leipzig, a conservative Lutheran bastion, the church authorities held onto Luther’s exhortation to not abandon the Latin mass. During Bach’s tenure as Kantor, Renaissance motets of Palestrina and others were regularly performed for the Hauptgottesdienst and concerted settings of the Latin Mass and the Magnificat were performed for feast days. Additionally, it seems that both out of gratitude and obligation to provide the Dresden Court with music “for the church as well as the orchestra” Bach composed four mass settings, called by the Neue Bach-Ausgabe the “Lutheran Masses,” in 1738. Ever the pragmatist, as pointed to earlier, these missa consist only of the Kyrie and Gloria and would be suitable for performance in Leipzig.

Before we dive straight into the Credo let’s examine briefly the technique of parody. Parody is the process wherein a composer refashions older works to a new text and/or purpose, a common practice in the Baroque era. At first blush it may seem merely a shortcut. This was, of course, sometimes the case. But combined with Verbesserung -- the German idea of improvement -- parody becomes an end in and of itself. Some of Bach’s parody works are so extensively recast that it might have been easier to just compose afresh. Parody was a practice greatly admired at the time as part of a composer’s musical art. “For the aging Bach, parody became a central part of the creative process, enabling him to be increasingly self-critical. The supreme refinement of the B Minor Mass is due in large part to the parody process.”

Though the genesis of the Mass in B Minor begins with the Kyrie and Gloria of 1733, the oldest music of the Mass, found in the Credo, is the “Crucifixus,” taken from the chorus of the 1714 Weimar cantata, “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” (which, incidentally, will be performed on March 16th by the Trebles of St. Luke’s, members of Bella Voce, and the Bella Voce Sinfonia.) The “Patrem omnipotentem” section is parodied from the cantata, “Gott, wie dein Name,” BWV 171. The amorous duet, “Et in unum Dominum” is parodied from a duet Bach originally considered for the secular cantata, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen,” BWV 213.

Space will not permit an in-depth discussion of the entire Credo but I do want to point out two remarkable things. The opening is just one example of what Bach has achieved stylistically with the Mass. George Stauffer points out:

The seven upper parts--the five voices of the chorus and violins 1 and 2--represent a Renaissance a cappella motet. The allabreve meter, the abundance of white notes, the chant-like melodic lines, the mixolydian harmony (signified by a key signature one sharp “short”), the dense web of vocal counterpoint, and the absence of affective figures point to the classic church style of Palestrina. The motet is supported, however, by a quasi-ostinato, walking-bass continuo line that is purely Baroque. The continuo provides a tonal framework, yet at the same time preserves the modal character of the upper material by avoiding clear cadences. By joining motet and ostinato, Bach merged the vocal tradition of the sixteenth century with the instrumental tradition of the eighteenth.

The second thing is that this is not the only place Bach works this kind of comprehensive, systematic synthesis of styles. The entire Mass shows Bach mastering sixteenth century counterpoint all the way up to, as with the “Et resurrexit,” the latest in galant style. Bach is clearly making a statement for posterity.

The Sanctus, which comes next, was an independent movement written in 1724 for Christmas Day very early in Bach’s tenure as Kantor of St. Thomas’s. The Sanctus appears largely unchanged in the Mass in B Minor. But this presented a particular problem for Bach: it is composed for 6 voices as opposed to 5, which is the prevailing texture of the mass. Bach decided to include this independent Sanctus without alteration because he knew he was nearing the end of his productive life. Blindness was setting in and his handwriting was becoming increasingly wobbly. It’s probable that Bach chose the expedient route of including it as is rather than re-working it for 5 voices.

The intimate, pleading aria for the Agnus Dei has an interesting history in that it is a parody of a parody. The model is the aria “Ach bleibe doch” from his Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11, which itself was taken from an earlier, lost cantata Auf! süss entzückende Gewalt of 1725. Or it may also be that Bach returned to the original aria as the one from BWV 11 is more ornate. So in fact they may be “sister parodies” as Stauffer describes them. Moving on from the aria, Bach follows a well-established tradition of setting the “dona nobis pacem” as an independent chorus. And, in a further nod to tradition and established practice in Dresden, he “recapitulates the music of the “‘Gratias agimus tibi.’” This borrowing therefore constitutes a kind of intra-parody and serves to help bind together the Mass’s architecture.

So we can see from this extensive use of parody and Verbesserung that, during the last decade of his life, Bach turned his focus from composing music for church services and the Collegium Musicum (the university student group that he directed beginning in 1729) toward more personal projects such as the publication of selected keyboard works, the study of Latin church music, the sorting of earlier compositions, and the compilation of encyclopedic compendia. He traveled more frequently to Berlin and Dresden, even when duty or family called back home. “During the very last years of his life, Bach appears as an almost Beethoven-like figure, working independently on projects destined--it would seem--only for himself or posterity. The most ambitious of these projects was the B Minor Mass.”

Could the Mass have been performed in Bach’s lifetime? It’s quite possible that Bach traveled to Dresden sometime in the summer of 1733 with his manuscript in hand but no set of parts, implying that he was not expecting a performance to take place. But parts do exist and they were written on manuscript paper that was produced in Dresden. They are mostly in Bach’s hand -- which was not his practice in Leipzig -- and carry markings that imply a rush job. If a performance took place then, there are two possible venues. The first is the Hofkirche, the court chapel. Bach was friendly with nearly all of the musical luminaries at court: Jan Dismas Zelenka, Silvius Weiss, Johann Georg Pisendel, and Johann Adolf Hasse. And of course it was this illustrious ensemble Bach had in mind when composing the work. But there is a second possibility. Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was just awarded the post of organist at the Sophienkirche (the Lutheran Church in Dresden) -- something for which Bach himself vigorously pursued for his son, inserting himself into the process in several different ways. It’s conceivable that the Kyrie and Gloria were performed at the Sophienkirche with at least some of the members of the Capella taking part. What’s more it seems that Wilhelm Friedemann may have directed from the keyboard as the part contains vocal cues his father would not have needed. Both performance circumstances are possible but there is not sufficient evidence to prove either. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that a performance did take place otherwise Bach would not have worked so feverishly to produce a set of parts with performance instructions.

Bach clearly had a systematic mind. When first arriving in Leipzig he labored industriously to produce a 5-year cycle of cantatas for his own use there. These years can be separated into groups, such as one devoted exclusively to chorale cantatas. In 1722, right before coming to Leipzig, he composed his first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. He then wrote another book 20 years later. He assimilated the national styles of the Italians, French, and English, most notably perhaps in his transcriptions of Vivaldi concerti. Regarding another late-life work, Christoph Wolff writes of The Art of Fugue as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject. The carefully constructed subject would generate many movements, each demonstrating one or more contrapuntal principles and each, therefore, resulting in a self-contained fugal form.” Other examples abound of Bach’s scientific mind, his desire to save for posterity what he must have increasingly understood as his legacy, but none quite achieve the majesty and personal, artistic summation as the Mass in B Minor.


Andrew Lewis




Recollection: Some Recommended Listening

Here are a few selections of recommended listening to help prepare for what's in store in the Recollection concert.  These clips have been selected by Anne Heider, our Artistic Director Emerita who has curated the program and will be conducting.  

 

Vigilia   Vespers, Psalm of Invocation, by Einojuhani Rautavaara

https://youtu.be/L9xGp1-JVdA

 

Gloria from Mass for Double Choir, by Frank Martin

https://youtu.be/Zs8iIkjnMdo

 

Cantiones Sacrae, by Heinrich Schütz

https://youtu.be/NEs2-8VwAFE

Recollection: Program Notes

PROGRAM NOTES

by Anne Heider

 

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621):  Rendez à Dieu  (1604)    

This motet is based on the rhymed, metrical verses and melody for Psalm 118 in the Genevan Psalter (1562), a best seller not only in Geneva but also in France and the Netherlands. Sweelinck was a Dutch organist of international renown, and the bass line of this psalm setting certainly sounds at times like an organ pedal line.

 

Juan de Lienas (fl. c. 1640):  Salve Regina        

16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century choral music from the New World was a repertoire His Majestie’s Clerkes did much to introduce to Chicago audiences. This setting of a Marian antiphon comes from a late 16th-century Mexican manuscript source, the Convento del Carmen Codex. It alternates chant, which even the greenest choirboys could sing, and polyphony, the province of experienced adult singers. Later in the program you’ll hear other kinds of alternatim techniques as translated into 20th-century musical language.

 

John Tavener (1944-2013):  Funeral Ikos (1984)         

Many of Tavener’s greatest works draw on liturgical traditions from Orthodox rites. This one has always appealed to me for the frankness and simplicity with which the poet asks staggering questions: what’s death? what’s it like to be dead? do the dead remember us? We were introduced to Tavener’s powerful compositional style by Paul Hillier, who twice appeared as guest conductor of His Majestie’s Clerkes.

 

Frank Martin (1890-1974):  Gloria from Messe pour double chœur a cappella    

Martin’s mass for double choir was written between 1922 and 1926, a period when he was experimenting not only with modal counterpoint and triadic harmonies but also with Indian and Bulgarian rhythms. The mass was neither performed nor published until the 1960s because of Martin’s deep ambivalence about the suitability of religious music for concert presentation. Hmm. His Majestie’s Clerkes first performed the complete Mass setting with guest ensemble Chicago a cappella, a highly successful vocal group whose founder, Jonathan Miller, is one of my oldest friends in Chicago.

 

C. Hubert H. Parry (1848-1918): “My soul, there is a country,” from Songs of Farewell (1916)

Parry was an eminent music educator and oft-commissioned composer. His most inspired, most personal music is contained in the six Songs of Farewell, which he worked and reworked intensively. They were premiered in somewhat piecemeal fashion in 1916 and 1917, but Parry did not live to hear them sung as a complete set. His choice of texts reveals a crisis of faith (he was deeply disillusioned by World War I); his musical settings, introspective and even tragic, open for us the universality of those emotional depths. His Majestie’s Clerkes performed the entire set in 1997 and recorded it for Cedille Records the same year.

 

Anne Heider (b. 1942):  Pleasure Tunes my Tongue (2011)

When David Hunt, past president of North Shore Choral Society, suggested I write a piece for the NSCS’s 75th anniversary, the text that sprang immediately to my mind was this stanza by Isaac Watts, because it captures both the spiritual and the earthly delights of singing. William Billings of Boston (1746-1800) wrote a tune for these verses and published it in The New England Psalm Singer (1770). Each phrase of his tune provided me with the seed for a short choral fantasia. Like the four movements of an 18th-century sonata or suite, these sections have contrasting tempos and distinct characters.

 

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016):  excerpts from Vigilia (1971)

    from Vespers:

    First Katisma, Invocation

    Avuksihuutopsalmi, Psalm of Invocation

   from Matins:

    Katabasis, Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Mother of God

Rautavaara’s setting of the Orthodox All-Night Vigil is a glorious and monumental work requiring at least five soloists including a basso profundo and a choir that sings in eight parts much of the time and twelve parts in one movement. There are avant garde techniques—cluster chords, whispers, glissandi—which heighten the music’s expressivity, within an overall texture that is predominantly consonant and richly harmonious. Bella Voce’s 2002 performances of the complete Vigil earned us national acclaim through the Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award for “adventurous programming that is a stretch for singers and audiences alike.” The Katabasis is a modern example of a kind of alternatim technique: the chant-like verses, sung by soloists in a virtuosic style, alternate with a refrain sung by the entire choir.

 

C. Hubert H. Parry:  “Never, weather-beaten sail,” from Songs of Farewell

[Please see notes on “My soul, there is a country,” above.]

 

Frank Ferko (b. 1950):  “O ignis Spiritus Paracliti,” No. 5 from Hildegard Motets

Though it is the middle movement in a set of nine motets, “O ignis” was actually the first to be written. His Majestie’s Clerkes performed it on a concert program of newly-composed choral works presented by Chicago Composers’ Consortium in 1991. Frank told me at the time that he hoped to write more settings of Hildegard’s poetry, and asked, “If I write them, will you perform them?” Indeed, we would! and did! The set of nine was subsequently published as “commissioned in celebration of the tenth anniversary season of His Majestie’s Clerkes and dedicated to His Majestie’s Clerkes and Anne Heider, Artistic Director.” Here’s a different kind of alternatim writing: verses for two voices in free-flowing declamation alternate with slow-moving, monumental verses for the full choir.

 

William Byrd (1543-1623):  Ave Regina (1605)

Sir David Willcocks twice appeared with His Majestie’s Clerkes as guest conductor. It was on his second visit, in 1990, that he introduced us to this lovely, lively setting of a Marian antiphon by the 16th-century English master William Byrd. Byrd composed in every genre of his time except opera; he was a virtuoso at the keyboard and a master at writing choral music for both English and Latin texts.

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):  Silence and Music (1953)    

I included this gem in today’s program not only to acknowledge one of the 20th century’s great choral composers, but also to indicate that HMC/BV’s programming has always encompassed secular as well as sacred music. Silence and Music was one of ten songs by ten different British composers written “to mark the occasion of the coronation of H. M. Queen Elizabeth II.” We sang it first in 1989.

 

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672):  Cantate Domino  SWV 81 (1625)

Schütz is honored as the composer who brought the novel Italian Baroque style to the German-speaking parts of Europe. He twice sojourned in Italy to study with Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, and this Latin motet is one of the happy results. HMC/BV has performed it on numerous occasions; it celebrates the joy of singing and provides a virtuosic finale to the concert.

 

Reich's Proverb In Dialogue with Medieval Masters

Bella Voce has for decades presented programs that contrast ancient music with the music of our own time, going back to the days of His Majestie’s Clerkes (our former name) and our artistic director emerita, Anne Heider. It is in our DNA. More recently, with the founding of the Bella Voce Camerata in 2014, we renewed and expanded upon that idea by pairing David Lang’s The Little Matchgirl Passion with the Membra Jesu nostri by Dietrich Buxtehude. Our programming now includes music for one-voice-per-part ensemble that hitherto was unavailable to us. One such work that would not have been performed by the larger choral ensemble that is Bella Voce but can be performed by the Camerata is Proverb by Steve Reich.

Proverb perfectly encapsulates the Camerata’s aesthetic and raison d’être: an acknowledged masterpiece by a living composer written for vocal and instrumental chamber ensemble that self-consciously looks to ancient music for inspiration and connection. Proverb is the linchpin for this program, which has been lovingly and meticulously curated by Kirsten Hedegaard, our music director for this project. It includes the music by Magister Perotinus that Reich studied, other works of Reich’s, a work by the living composer Richard Reed Parry, and works by Arvo Pärt, a composer that Bella Voce has championed for years.

We are delighted to welcome into the Camerata musicians who are experts in the field of new music. Please read about them in the program at the concert.

 

Perotin the Great

The Medieval era, at least where music history is concerned, lasted about 1000 years. 1000 years! That’s a long stretch of stability. Consider that for 450 years or so the sole music of the church was Gregorian chant (most likely named after Pope Gregory II, who was in power from 715 to 731, for ordering the cataloguing and standardization of notation for what has become one of the greatest bodies of music in the Western canon). Now imagine that monophonic chant being stretched and elongated and a newly composed voice written above it. Now you have two voices! It may seem comical to us to think how mind-bending this was but when it first occurred people were astonished by its sensuality. For such a thing to work a new way of measuring rhythm would need to be developed. Leonin (fl. ca. 1163-1190) the first master of what came to be called the Notre Dame School, developed this system, called mensural notation. Perotin (fl. ca. 1190-1225), Leonin’s successor and the composer represented on this program, added to the complexity by adding a 3rd and even 4th voice to the texture. All of a sudden one can hear, instead of just one voice or—magically—two voices happening simultaneously, now someone has accomplished the feat of composing for 3 and 4 voices. It really must have been a stunning development to those people at that time. Afterall, very little changed over vast expanses of time. Indeed, John of Salisbury, a teacher at the University of Paris during Leonin’s time wrote:

“When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of voices … whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale; so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes are so mingled with tenor and bass, that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion; but if it is kept in the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels.”(Hayburn, Robert F. (1979). Papal Legislation on Sacred Music 95 AD to 1977 AD. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. Accessed from Wikipedia on 2/13/2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9rotin)

 

Steve Reich, Proverb

Influenced heavily by Perotin’s music, Steve Reich composed Proverb in 1995 for Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices ensemble.  Paul Hillier was a founding member of the Hilliard Ensemble, has gone on to a brilliant conducting career, has recorded works with Bella Voce (under the name His Majestie’s Clerkes) for Harmonia Mundi, and, incidentally, is Kirsten Hedegaard’s teacher and mentor. Here Steve Reich describes the origin of Proverb and the way the piece unfolds:

“The idea for Proverb was originally suggested to me by the singer and conductor Paul Hillier who thought of a primarily vocal piece with six voices and two percussion. What resulted was a piece for three sopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones and two electric organs, with a short text from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Since Paul Hillier is well known as a conductor and singer of early music and since I share an interest in this period of Western music, I looked once again at the works of Perotin (Scholl of Notre Dame – 12th century) for guidance and inspiration.”

The three sopranos sing the original melody of the test in canons that gradually augment or get longer. The two tenors sing duets in shorter rhythmic values against held tones from the sopranos. The two electric organs double the singers throughout (except at the very beginning when they sing a cappella) and fill in the harmonics. The piece is in constantly changing meter groupings of twos and threes giving a rhythmically free quality to the voices. After about three minutes of voices and organ only, the vibraphones enter enunciating these interlocking shifting groups of two and three beats.

The original theme in the voices is then inverted and moves from B minor to E-flat minor. In this contrasting section the original descending melodic line becomes a rising one. The last part of the piece is one large augmentation canon for the sopranos returning to the original key of B minor wit the tenors singing their melismatic duets continuously as the canon slowly unfolds around them. This is concluded by a short coda which ends, as the piece began, with a single soprano. 

Though the sopranos sing syllabically with one note for each word, (and every word of the text is monosyllabic) the tenors sing long melismas on a single syllable. Perotin’s influence may be heard most clearly in these tenor duets against soprano, which clearly resemble three part Organum. That same influence plays a more indirect role in the soprano augmentation canons which are suggested by the augmentation of held tenor notes in Perotin’s Organum.

The short text, "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!" comes from a collection of Wittgenstein’s writing entitled Culture and Value. Much of Wittgenstein’s work is ‘proverbial’ in tone and in its brevity. This particular text was written in 1946. In the same paragraph from which it was taken Wittgenstein continues, "If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far".            Credit: Steve Reich. Used by permission.

We are honored that you are here with us on our journey together to “the society of angels.”

Andrew Lewis

Recommended Listening: Brahms Requiem

Here are some recommended recordings related to Brahms' German Requiem, curated and with comments by our Artistic Director Andrew Lewis.

 

A German Requiem (London version)

 

1.  Accentus, dir. Laurence Equilbey | Sung in German

https://youtu.be/OrB2TBqGOKY?list=PLsFBSiH5HQI8Mhdif6gTobMUNzWQUQX03

Comments:

Laurence Equilbey and Accentus have made a series of recordings that are exquisite and powerful. This recording dates from 2013.

 

2.   Choir King’s College, Cambridge, dir. Stephen Cleobury, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass | Sung in German

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2W6pNKclmm7i1ZZOVLLyF_Pa5ERIJO5p

Comments:

Very different take from the Equilbey recording, this one features the boy trebles of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The 2nd movement, particularly, has a surprising amount of power, verging on the vicious, while the 4th movement is sweet and tender.

 

 

 

Related music by Heinrich Schütz

Brahms had a fascination with Schütz and was one of the first conductors to revive his works for public performance. As music director of the Wiener Singakadamie he programmed a concert including works by J.S. Bach and Schütz. The Singakadamie have put their programming archives online. You can view Brahms’ program, from the 1863-64 season, here:

https://wienersingakademie.at/archiv/program.php?year=1863

 

1.  Selig sind die Toten, SWV 391

https://youtu.be/08E5TbcTyHo

Comments:

Both Brahms and Robert Schumann almost certainly knew of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien of 1636, a kind of German Protestant funeral mass coming from the tradition of Begräbnisfeiermusik, music for the burial service. Indeed, Brahms chose to set for the closing of his Requiem the same text that Schütz set, “Selig sind die Toten,” -- “Blessed are the dead.”

 

2.  Das ist je gewisslich wahr, SWV 277

https://youtu.be/zLJE8EeQ4y4

Comments:

This was on Brahms’ 1863 program he conducted with the Wiener Singakademie.

 

 

3.  Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, SWV 29

https://youtu.be/7JiUqd3NUbE

Westminster Cathedral Choir, dir. Martin Baker

Comments:

It is uncertain whether Brahms was familiar with this work but nevertheless quite interesting to compare the two settings.

Re-Creating Brahms' German Requiem: The 1871 London Version

Program Notes
by Andrew Lewis, Artistic Director

In 1853, Robert Schumann returned to the magazine for which he was once the editor, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, to write an article proclaiming a messianic-like figure “called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion: a musician who would reveal his mastery not in gradual stages but like Minerva would spring fully armed from Kronos’s head. And he has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…” (translation from A Brahms Reader, by Michael Musgrave). Brahms was a mere 20 years old. While this certainly was a boon to the young man it was nevertheless a tremendous burden. He had not produced much yet and it was not until the 2nd performance (the first being a disaster) of his Ein deutsches Requiem in Bremen Cathedral in front of an international audience of musicians and public luminaries, in 1868 (i.e. 15 years later) that Schumann’s prophecy finally came true.

 The 20-year-old Johannes Brahms appears in a photograph circa 1853, the year of Schumann's praise for him in the  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

The 20-year-old Johannes Brahms appears in a photograph circa 1853, the year of Schumann's praise for him in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

The death of Schumann seems to have inspired the idea of a German Requiem in Brahms.   He discovered, in what may have felt like a direct message from the beyond, a brief outline for “A German Requiem” in his mentor’s notes and manuscripts when he was helping Schumann’s widow Clara deal with the administrative aftermath of Robert’s death. And there is evidence that Brahms began sketching notes for the second movement in particular during this time. What’s more, both men almost certainly knew of Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien of 1636, a kind of German Protestant funeral mass coming from the tradition of Begräbnisfeiermusik, music for the burial service. Indeed, Brahms chose to set for the closing of his Requiem the same text that Schütz set, “Selig sind die Toten”—“Blessed are the dead”.

Schumann’s death greatly moved and disturbed Brahms. He wrote in a letter, “I shall probably never again experience anything so moving as the meeting between Robert and Clara. He lay for some time with closed eyes, and she knelt before him with greater calmness than one would think possible . . . he recognized her but was past being able to talk any more.” And a few days later: “We should have breathed with relief at his deliverance . . . what a blessing! . . . how sad, how beautiful, how touching this death was. Joachim, Clara, and I have put in order the papers Schumann left behind . . . with every day one thus spends with him one comes to love and admire the man more and more.” (Quoted from the Afterword of the 3rd Edition of our performing score, edited by Lara Hoggard, published by Hinshaw Music.)

If Robert Schumann’s death was the impetus for Brahms beginning his own German Requiem, the death of his beloved mother, Christiane Brahms, inspired him to complete it. He received news from his brother in 1865 that “If you want to see our mother once again, come immediately.”  Though he undoubtedly dropped everything, the journey from Vienna to Hamburg proved too long for him to make it in time. She had died by the time he arrived. The following year he had completed the original form of his masterpiece.

As alluded to earlier, the first performance of the Requiem was a disaster. The musicians were poorly prepared and the conservative, Catholic Viennese public was not predisposed to Brahms’ Protestant and unorthodox outlook. For instance, nowhere is the word ‘Christ’ uttered.  But six months later, on Good Friday, Brahms mounted a performance of the complete work (that is, six movements: the now Fifth Movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit,” had not yet been composed nor even conceived) in Bremen Cathedral. Brahms was on the podium and his friend Julius Stockhausen was the baritone soloist. A few weeks later Brahms added the soprano solo as an “afterthought” commemorating his mother.

The final form of Ein deutsches Requiem—all seven movements—received its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1869.

In 1866 Brahms devised a piano four hands arrangement that is not a reduction of the work but rather a creative new look at the musical material of Ein deutsches Requiem. In 1871, this version of the work travelled to England for its British debut at a private residence in London, presented in English and without the Fifth Movement. Brahms’ friend, Julius Stockhausen, who was the baritone soloist in the performance in Bremen (and who also, by the way, was appointed music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic over Brahms) led 30 singers and two pianists in the performance, himself singing the baritone solo again. The English translation used at this performance has been lost.

 Brahms’ manuscript of the choral entrance of the First Movement.

Brahms’ manuscript of the choral entrance of the First Movement.

The central question I have asked myself in deciding to perform this work in the manner that we are about to do for you is, 'Why should Bella Voce do this?' There is so much music out there for us to perform. The answer is that we approach music—even new music—from the standpoint of historical performance practice. We make connections between music of our own time to that of the Renaissance and Baroque. It gives us the opportunity to revisit great masterworks well-known to the public as well as those that have fallen into obscurity. It is ironic that this work, which is second only to Handel’s Messiah in the frequency of performance, is little understood outside of what I now realize is an ideologically driven quest for purity to perform only the orchestral version and in German. This, despite Brahms’ insistence that he could have just as easily called this “ein menschliches Requiem.”  A truly 'human' Requiem - especially one of the Romantic mold - would not set up but rather tear down barriers to immediate comprehension. What follows shows that Brahms expected performances in England to be in English. Additionally, the piano four hands accompaniment is not a reduction of the work but rather a creative re-interpretation done by Brahms himself; its Fourth Movement loosely resembles the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52.  Moreover, it was common practice in the 19th century to disseminate orchestral works through piano four hand versions. What arises from this version is intimacy and clarity, but also a lean, muscular power, especially since Brahms himself, a virtuoso pianist, re-wrote the work, a task normally left to arrangers working directly for the publisher, not the composer. That world, where highly-skilled amateur musicians craved and paid for a steady flow of new music, is almost entirely lost in our time. Electricity and the phonograph have done great wonders for our society, but we have ceded much of the work of music to other people and technology. It used to be that, if you wanted to hear music, you either had to make it yourself or be in the same room with another human being performing it for you. Alas, a direct connection with the musicians is no longer the common experience. Now we put on our headphones, purposefully tuning out other people, and escape into our manicured tonal reverie created almost entirely by machines. That is, except for you, our dear, intrepid, and valued concert-goers!

We have the opportunity here to recreate and connect with the spirit of a bygone age.

Additionally, by performing in English, we erase the barrier to immediate comprehension for those listeners whose German is not advanced enough to understand the text as it flies by them. They will not need to split their focus between having their eyes in the program and their ears attuned to the performers. Shakespeare was beloved by the Romantics all across Europe. What language were the plays performed in throughout Europe?  Almost always in the local vernacular. In the tradition of German Lieder, of which Brahms was a proponent, Shakespeare’s texts were always set in German. This is something that seemed to be critically important to not only Brahms but the entire ethos of Romanticism: directness, immediacy, connection, and the awakening of the senses.

Finally, Brahms’ own words:
[Excerpted from Leonard Van Camp's  A Practical Guide for Performing, Teaching, and Singing the Brahms "Requiem"]
In a letter to his publisher, which was trying to get the Requiem translated into Latin, Brahms replied, "why then is it called a German Requiem? Who needs the Latin text, and where do you plan to get it from? For it cannot simply be translated at will, fits with difficulty under the same notes, etc. etc. The English, on the other hand, fits easily." [Styra Avins, Johannes Brahms, p. 360.]

Also, Brahms went on to make the argument that the Requiem should be performed in whatever language the singers and audience are most accustomed to hearing (again, quoted from Van Camp): "’In Holland everything is sung in German. France is not under consideration. [Brahms did not like the French, and the war with France was only two years away.] That leaves only England and an English text, which would do quite well, certainly, and in any case already fits of its own.’ Here is Brahms himself suggesting an English translation for performances in England!”

To be sure I am not arguing that all performances of this work be performed in English when presented to an English-speaking audience. I have performed this work twice as conductor with the Elgin Symphony and Elgin Master Chorale and will be performing it with them again at the end of April. I also sang it under Robert Shaw's direction at Eastman—all in German. But our performance is entirely different—it’s almost even a different work, as it was performed in London for its UK premiere. We are recreating that experience, summoning up the lost practices of Brahms' time, while also improving it: the text in this version is a thoroughly researched, much revised and edited version by Lara Hoggard that fits the notes, declamation, and prosodic underlay of the original German while maintaining a King James and Spenserian/Elizabethan idiom, itself contemporaneous with Luther's translation of the Bible. Brahms would definitely approve. Do you?

Let us know via Twitter, @BellaVoceChicag, or Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/BellaVoceChicago/

 

 Johannes Brahms & his friend Julius Stockhausen circa 1870.   Stockhausen performed as the baritone soloist in both the successful 1868 performance of  Ein deutchses Requiem  in Bremen (in German) and in the 1871 London performance (in English).   Stockhausen also was appointed music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic over Brahms.  

Johannes Brahms & his friend Julius Stockhausen circa 1870.   Stockhausen performed as the baritone soloist in both the successful 1868 performance of Ein deutchses Requiem in Bremen (in German) and in the 1871 London performance (in English).   Stockhausen also was appointed music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic over Brahms.  

Bach: The ‘Wedding Meal’ Cantata and The ‘Refugee’ Cantata

Essay and recommending listening by Andrew Lewis, Artistic Director

 

Feeding the hungry, detail from Caritas, The Seven Acts of Mercy, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

The two cantatas on this program address the idea of and need for radical hospitality. BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Adorn yourself, O dear Soul”), encapsulates the Christian reality of the achieved state of grace through the radical hospitality of Christ, received by the believer without her agency. BWV 39, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (“Break your bread with the hungry”) exhorts the listener to then act upon this achieved state of grace in the same way as Christ would: “When you see one who is naked, clothe that person even though it may mean you yourself will go naked.” [My paraphrase.] When I programmed these two cantatas I could not have guessed the turmoil our society would face with a new presidential administration. Perhaps this is one of the fundamental lessons any of us can learn about our earthly existence: justice is always timely.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata BWV 39: Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (23 June 1726) Part I. 1. Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (Chorus) 2. Der reiche Gott (Recitative: B) 07:46 3. Seinem Schöpfer noch auf Erden (Aria: A) 09:13 Part II. 4. Wohlzutun und mitzuteilen vergesset nicht (Aria: B) 13:21 5. Performed by Philippe Herreweghe and the Chorus & Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent (1993).

The ‘Wedding Meal’ Cantata

BWV 180 is part of Bach’s second yearly cycle of cantatas written for his new position as Thomaskantor in Leipzig and is of a genre called “chorale cantata,” for it is based on the chorale tune, in this case the eucharistic hymn, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele. The gospel reading for the day was Matthew 22:1-14, the “Parable of the Great Banquet” (or, using Martin Luther’s term, Hochzeitsmahl – ‘wedding meal’) in which, among other things, Jesus correlates the invitation to attend the wedding feast of a king’s son to that of the invitation to the heavenly glory of God’s kingdom. Those invited, presumably the elite of society, seem to cavalierly reject the invitation, which leads the king to invite strangers to the feast. (Please read the text itself. My summary does not offer a complete understanding.) The extension of hospitality to those who would otherwise be excluded, and the joy at the invitation, shapes this entire cantata.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Cantata BWV 180: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (22 October 1724) 1. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (Chorus) 2. Ermuntre dich, dein Heiland klopft (Aria: T) 05:05 3. Wie teuer sind des heilgen Mahles Gaben! -- Ach, wie hungert mein Gemüte (Recitative, Chorale: S) 09:56 4. Performed by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players.

The ‘Refugee’ Cantata

“Break your bread with the hungry, and those who are in misery into your house!”

Before the chronology of Bach’s cantatas was thoroughly known it was believed that this cantata was written in 1732 in response to the banishment of Protestants from Salzburg, hence the ‘Refugee’ title. Alas, though an “agreeable legend” (Alfred Dürr), this cantata was written for the third yearly cycle of cantatas Bach wrote for Leipzig, which was in 1726. Bach makes expressive use of the Blockflöte, also known as the alto recorder. This was the final cantata in which Bach employed the instrument. According to Charles Sanford Terry, in his seminal 1932 work, Bachs Orchestra, published by Oxford, “Of no other instrument is Bach's characterisation so clear and consistent as the Blockflöte ... No other instrument identifies itself so closely with the simple piety of Bach. It voices his tenderness for his Saviour, his serene contemplation of death as the portal to the eternal ... it is the vehicle of mysticism so deep-rooted in Bach's nature... for in its clear tones he could utter the ponderings of his devout mind.” If Terry is to be believed, one can add a layer of meaning to the text of the cantata, namely, the giving of oneself is the vehicle for a profound acceptance of and gratitude for the gifts of life and death. The sharing of the grace that the individual has received is a simple and straightforward act, uncluttered by rationalization and justification.

The Sermon on the Mount, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1582

While we don’t wish to promote a specific Christian ideology through this concert, it is impossible to escape the central tenets of this music, especially given our present state of national anxiety: give gratitude for your privilege, share your good fortune without jealousy or envy even to the point of your own deprivation, and extend mercy and welcome to the stranger in your midst.

© Andrew Lewis, 2017