Masterworks Old and New Program Notes

How do we recognize masterpieces? Do they have to stand the test of time, and, if so, how much time? Do they represent the supreme achievements of artists in a class by themselves? Do they break new ground or make definitive statements, or do they instead offer quiet perfection from a place of deeply personal emotion? This evening’s concert, marking the 50th anniversary of the Choral Arts Ensemble, presents five very different masterpieces that nonetheless have much in common—sacred texts, rich orchestration, challenging vocal lines, complicated counterpoint, but, most importantly, the ability to move us in ways we may never have anticipated.

Some artists make their mark by breaking with the styles of their day and establishing a whole new line of development. By contrast, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) represents the culmination of both Baroque style and the tradition of Lutheran sacred music dating back nearly 200 years. Serving as Kapellmeister (director of music) of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1723-1750), he composed a cantata for every Sunday of the year, as well as dozens of other choral works, large and small, nearly all of them in German, the language of his congregation and choirs. Two of his most important works, however, set Latin texts from the Roman Catholic tradition: the Magnificat in D (1733) and the B minor Mass (1749). His son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, even archived the latter as the Great Catholic Mass.

Bach did not originally set out to write an entire mass, instead composing separate sections at different times. His first version of the Crucifixus dates from 1714, the Sanctus from 1723, and the Kyrie and Gloria from 1733. That year, Augustus II, the Catholic King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, died, and all public music-making went on hiatus during five months of mourning. Bach used the extra time to compose a work dedicated to the new Elector, Augustus III, in hopes of being named his court composer (Bach received the title, though not much else, in 1736). No one knows why Bach decided to rework the various portions of the mass into a single composition late in his life. One theory suggests that he hoped to have it celebrate the dedication of the new Hofkirche in Dresden, but the church was not completed until after Bach’s death. Indeed, he probably never heard the work performed in its entirety at all. Many see the Mass as the choral counterpart to his Art of the Fugue, in which he worked out his complex musical ideas. Certainly the Kyrie illustrates his complete mastery of vocal counterpoint.

While Bach spent his whole life in German-speaking lands, mostly composing sacred music, his compatriot George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) traveled far more widely and composed in many musical genres. Born and educated in Halle, he moved at age eighteen to Hamburg, where he served as harpsichordist at the opera; this inspired him to compose two operas of his own. In 1706 he moved to Italy where he composed more operas and his first oratorio before traveling to London in 1710. By 1712 he had decided to settle permanently in England and soon received patronage from Queen Anne and her successor, King George I. Not only did Handel enjoy royal financial support in return for compositions for ceremonial occasions, but George I naturalized Handel as an English citizen shortly before the king’s death in 1727.

Handel then composed not one but four anthems for the coronation of the new king, George II, all performed the following October. From the first, they proved popular for concerts and festive occasions. In fact, at least one of the four has been a part of every subsequent British coronation. This is music intended to fill the vast spaces of Westminster Abbey, which may account for the almost flamboyant style, complete with timpani and trumpets; for the coronation itself, Handel also deployed 180 singers in different parts of the church. He chose for his text verses from Psalm 21 and the sunny key of D major for the first and last movements. The final movement builds in drama and intensity, adding instruments one by one (strings, then oboes, then brass) in a dazzling double fugue, with two melodies played against each other throughout. The choral Alleluias occurred at the precise moment that the king was crowned.

Born in Salzburg, Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed his first symphony at six and first opera at twelve. As in Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, Mozart seems to have “heard” all the harmonies and instrumentation simultaneously in his head–his autograph scores have few of the cross-outs and editing of other composers’ works. This gift certainly played a part in his astounding productivity–626 works in a mere thirty years of composing. In just the last year of his life, he composed three full operas, concertos for piano and clarinet, and the unfinished Requiem, his final work.

Franz, Count von Walsegg, commissioned the Requiem in 1791 as a tribute to his young wife who had died a year earlier. Desperate for money to pay his debts, Mozart took on many commissions that year and worked feverishly to complete them all. He began work on the Requiem in late October but fell ill the next month. Medical scholars now believe that Mozart suffered from rheumatic fever and complications. Still, he remained lucid and continued work on the Requiem with the aid of friends. A scant fifteen days after he fell ill, he lapsed into a coma and died on December 5, 1791, leaving the mass unfinished; he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. His widow requested that one of his pupils, Franz Xavier Sussmayr use Mozart’s sketches and notes to finish the Requiem, but we perform only the choral portions that Mozart himself actually composed. Sussmayr’s version was first performed in January 1793, in tribute to Mozart and as a benefit for his widow and children.

The music itself makes us wonder if Mozart knew he was dying as he composed. While other masses for the dead take a cosmic perspective (like those by Berlioz and Verdi) or focus on the grief of those left behind (like Brahms’ German Requiem), the Mozart Requiem presents the experience of an individual soul confronting eternity. In the swirling fugue of the Kyrie, one can almost picture a solitary figure alone in a church while a storm rages outside. Despite the ferocity of the “Dies Irae” and “Confutatis” sections, the Requiem embodies penitence, submission, and a hard-won trust in God, especially in the pleading final measures of the Lacrymosa. So perhaps Mozart guessed that he was, in fact, composing a requiem for himself and was offering this as his final understanding of faith. Through Mozart’s personal struggle and emotional directness, his Requiem offers these gifts–and deep comfort—to us still.

As a boy, Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) won a place as a chorister at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where he also learned to play various instruments and to compose. After his voice changed and he could no longer sing there, he remained in Vienna and eventually entered the service of the Esterhazys, the most prominent noble family in Hungary. His responsibilities included composing new works (operas, symphonies, chamber music) almost every week and managing the family’s staff of instrumentalists and singers. Despite restrictions on traveling or publishing his music, Haydn remained in the family’s service for nearly thirty years until 1790; in the late 1790s, he returned to serve them again, this time with a generous pension and fewer formal responsibilities.

This period inspired some of his richest work, including six masses, his oratorio The Creation, and the Te Deum we perform this evening. St. Ambrose reputedly wrote the text in the 4th century, but choral settings of this hymn of praise and thanksgiving have served both sacred and secular functions from the 15th century to the present; William Walton composed a setting for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, as Handel had composed anthems for George II. Empress Maria Theresa (wife of Emperor Franz II) commissioned Haydn’s Te Deum in 1799 to celebrate Lord Nelson’s victory over Napoleon’s forces in the Battle of the Nile. Unlike Haydn’s masses, which use soloists, this work is choral throughout, and like the three preceding works, Haydn’s also includes a fugue. Despite the political overtones of the work’s premiere in 1800, Haydn paid homage to the text’s sacred origins by incorporating elements of Gregorian chant, as well as exuberant orchestration.

We close with Lux Aeterna (1997), a major work by Northwest native Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943), who was born in Washington, grew up in Portland, and still has a cabin on an island in Puget Sound where he does most of his composing. He earned a doctorate in music at the University of Southern California and taught composition there for over thirty years. He wrote Lux Aeterna during his mother’s final illness, so both the title and circumstances would lead listeners to expect a traditional requiem mass. True, the first and last movements do use the familiar words of a requiem mass, but there the similarity ends. Lux Aeterna contains no Dies Irae, with vivid depictions of the Day of Judgment, no Libera Me, pleading to be spared from Hell. Instead, Lauridsen focuses on light, always and everywhere, in death as in life—what he has called “a quiet, direct, and introspective meditation on Light.” In keeping with this contemplative mood, the first movement has a gentle canon on the words “et lux perpetua” in place of the energetic fugues of our other works. The three central movements take their texts from other sources. “In te speravi” comes from the Te Deum, the same hymn of praise set by Haydn that we just sang. The gently lilting “Veni sancte spiritus” comes from a Pentecostal hymn of the 13th century. And at the very heart of Lux Aeterna lies “O Nata Lux,” which ponders the ineffable mystery of light born from light. These words go back to an anonymous 10th-century hymn sung on the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is the only movement sung a cappella, and the murmured repetition of the mystical phrases brings a reverent peace.

Lauridsen has stated, “There are too many things out there that are away from goodness. We need to focus on those things that ennoble us, that enrich us.” That hopeful belief may explain why he chose to conclude Lux Aeterna with Alleluias like the joyful pealing of bells, for great music—his and that of our other composers—has allowed us to sing our way toward the light.

— Susan Wladaver-Morgan