Friday, March 27, 2015

Handel - Messiah

When Charles Jennens gave his libretto of Messiah to George Handel in 1741, he would have no idea that almost 300 years later the oratorio would still be performed and continue to be one of the most famous and popular works for chorus and soloists.  Jennens came from a wealthy landowning family in England who was also a patron of the arts. He was a writer, Bible scholar, and had such a good knowledge of music that he complained about Handel's setting of the text:
Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d... ‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.
Eventually Handel (known for his stubbornness, which was probably intensified by Jenner's inflated ego) made some of the changes suggested by Jenner after the first English performance of the oratorio in 1743. The premiere of the work was given in Dublin, Ireland  during the winter concert season of 1741-1742. The proceeds of the Dublin premiere were given to charity, a practice that continued with every performance of Messiah throughout Handel's lifetime. In England the proceeds were given to The Foundling Hospital in London, and Handel bequeathed a copy of his score to the hospital upon his death.

The 250-plus pages of the score to Messiah were written in 24 days, quite a feat but not out of the ordinary for Handel and other Baroque era composers. Most music that was publicly performed at the time was new music, and the demand was high, so many composers wrote fast and reused their own music as well as the music of others.  The scoring of the work was also done according to the practice of the times, with parts for violins, violas and cellos, figured bass, 4-part chorus and soloists. But additional instruments would double some of the parts at performances when they were available, and not every set piece was included in every performance, thus there can never be a definitive performance of Messiah, but recent musical scholarship has allowed for accurate performances within the musical traditions and practices of the time.  

Messiah has been performed as a sacred piece as well as a work of the concert hall. Jennens and Handel most likely intended it for an evening's entertainment, as were most oratorios of the time. As a complete performance of  Messiah can last two and a half hours, it certainly takes up a full evening.  Hopefully the audience attending Messiah acted better than the typical opera audiences of the time that talked, yelled at each other, booed and cheered singers and kept up a general ruckus throughout the opera. Messiah is divided into three main parts:

PART ONE
1) Sinfony
As oratorios were in many ways unstaged operas, the convention of an overture was used. Here Handel calls it a Sinfony, and it is written in the style of a French overture. It begins with a slow section with double dotted notes in a minor key. The second section is a fugue in a slightly faster tempo.
2) Tenor recitative
Messiah is different from most oratorios as there are no assigned roles to the soloists, and no characters. The words of the King James Version of the Bible are used throught the work, and the first part begins with the foretelling of the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament, and then celebrates the birth of Messiah in the New Testament.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God:
speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth  in the wilderness:
prepare ye the way of the Lord,make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

3) Tenor air
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill
made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

4) Chorus
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

5) Bass recitative
This selection for bass shows Handel's flair for emphasizing the text. He makes use of melisma, the technique of using many notes on one part or syllable of a word. The word shake is literally shaken by the soloist:
Handel makes continual use of tone painting to enhance the text, no doubt one of the many reasons why the oratorio remains so popular.

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; yet once in a little while, and I will shake the
heav'ns and the earth, the sea, the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire
of all nations shall come.
The Lord whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple,
ev'n the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in, behold, he shall come,
saith the Lord of hosts.

6) Alto recitative
But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth.
For he is like a refiner's fire.

7) Chorus
And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may
offer unto the Lord an offering of righteousness.

8) Alto recitative
Behold, a virgin shall concieve and bear a son,
and shall call his name Emmanuel,
God with us.

9) Alto air and chorus
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain;
o thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah; behold your God
Arise, shine for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen above thee.

10) Bass recitative
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people;
but the Lord shall rise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee,
And the gentiles shall come to they light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

11) Bass air
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
upon them hath the light shined.

12) Chorus
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder;
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God,
the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

13) Pastoral Symphony
A short orchestral interlude that gives the feeling of sheep contentedly grazing, and begins the section of the birth of Messiah

14a) Soprano recitative
There were sheperds, abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.

14b) Soprano recitative

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone
round about them, and they were sore afraid.

15) Soprano recitative
And the angel said unto them fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings
of great joy which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the
city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

16) Soprano recitative
And suddenly there was with the angel a
multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying:

17) Chorus
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.

18) Soprano air
Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion, shout,
o daughter of Jerusalem, behold, thy king cometh unto thee.
He is the righteous Saviour, and he shall speak peace unto the heathen.

19) Alto recitative
Thou shall see the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.

20) Alto air
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm
and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.

21) Chorus
His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

PART TWO
The second part deals with the life, death and rising from the dead of Messiah.
22) Chorus
Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.

23) Alto air
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
He gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to them
that plucked off the hair, he hid not his face from shame and spitting.

24) Chorus
Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities,
the chastisement of our peace was upon him.

25) Chorus
And with his striped we are healed.

26) Chorus
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.
And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

27) Tenor recitative
All they that see him laugh him to scorn;
they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads saying:

28) Chorus
He trusted in God that he would deliver him:
let him deliver him, if he delight in him.

29) Tenor recitative
Thy rebuke hath broken his heart, he is full of heaviness:
he looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man,
neither found he any, to comfort him.

30) Tenor air
Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.

31) Tenor recitative
He was cut off out of the land of the living,
for the transgressions of thy people was he stricken.

32) Tenor air
But thou didst not leave his soul in hell
nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.

33) Chorus
Lift up your heads, o ye gates and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, o ye gates and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

34) Tenor recitative
Unto which of the angels said he at any time, thou art my Son,
this day I have begotten thee?

35) Chorus
Let all the angels of God worship him.

36) Bass air
Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive,
and received gifts for men, yea even for thine enemies,
that the Lord God might dwell among them.

37) Chorus
The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers.

38) Soprano air
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace,
and bring glad tidings of good things.

39) Chorus
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.

40) Bass air
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Anointed.

41) Chorus
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from them.

42) Tenor recitative
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn:
the Lord shall ave them in derision.

43) Tenor air
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,
thou shalt dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel.

44) Chorus
One of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written, the Hallelujah chorus is a supreme example of what Beethoven called Handel's genius as, "He created the greatest effect with the smallest of means."

Hallelujah, for the God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
and he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

PART THREE
The final part of the oratorio deals with the Christian promise for the believer on the second coming of Christ.

45) Soprano air
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

46) Chorus
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam we all die, even so in Christ shall all be made live.

47) Bass recitative
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

48) Bass air
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must be put in incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

49) Alto recitative
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
death is swallowed up in victory.

50) Duet, alto and tenor
O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory?
The sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law.

51) Chorus
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the
victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

52) Soprano air
If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?
It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?
It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is at the
right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.

53) Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth on the throne,
and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Schubert - Gretchen am Spinnrade

Johann Goethe was a writer that inspired the entire 19th century world of art in general, specifically the Germanic-speaking world.  Franz Schubert fell under the spell of Goethe's works early on, and the first lied he set to Goethe's text was Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel), the text of which was taken from a scene in Faust. The year was 1814 and Schubert was 17 years old. Goethe remained an inspiration to Schubert for the rest of his short life as he wrote over 80 lieder to texts of Goethe, including his famous setting of Der Erlkönig

The scene depicts Gretchen at her spinning wheel as her mind drifts to Faust, a man she has recently met and fallen deeply in love with.  Schubert uses the piano as an illustrative device as the music depicts the wheel spinning in the right hand notes, the clicking of the spool that gathers the yarn in the staccato eighth-note accompaniment in the left hand and the pedal that makes the wheel spin in the lower notes in the left hand:

The passion of Gretchen grows until it reaches near madness in the 7th stanza, when the piano depicts the halting of the spinning wheel as she is overcome with the thought of his kiss. The wheel makes a few false starts before it begins again. The passion grows once again, until the first stanza is repeated and the wheel stops.  The song begins and ends in D minor, but Schubert takes the harmony far afield, a characteristic of Schubert's music that was to continue.  This song of 1814 led to one of Schubert's most productive years when in 1815 he wrote over 100 lieder as well as many works for orchestra and chorus.

There were many composers that wrote works of musical imagery before Schubert. The cantatas of Bach as well as the oratorios of Handel are but two examples of works that contained illustrative music, but Gretchen am Spinnrade was a turning point in the history of the German lied.  Schubert's fertile imagination and his pairing of the voice and piano as equal partners in musical expression influenced countless song composers.

Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel
My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never again.

Where I do not have him,
That is the grave,
The whole world
Is bitter to me.

My poor head
Is crazy to me,
My poor mind
Is torn apart.

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never again.

I look only for him
Out the window
Only for him do I go
Out of the house.

His tall walk,
His noble figure,
His mouth's smile,
His powerful eyes,


His mouth's
Magic flow,
His touch,
and ah! his kiss!

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never again.

My bosom urges itself
toward him.
Ah, might I grasp
And hold him!

And kiss him,
As I want,
With his kisses
I should die!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Purcell - Music For The Funeral Of Queen Mary

The English-born Henry Purcell is part of a group of composers that made their mark in music and died before the age of 40, as he died at the age of 36 in 1695.  Purcell brought his gifts to music mainly through songs, anthems, incidental music for the theater and opera. His first known composition was dated 1670 when he was 11 years old, and he continued to compose up until the time of his death.

Music For The Funeral Of Queen Mary was written upon the death of Queen Mary, the daughter of James II, King Of England. She had been married to William Of Orange of the Netherlands in 1677 as a way to patch up differences between the two countries. After James II had tried to return England to Catholicism, William and Mary (both Protestants) were invited to invade England by the members of parliament that were against King James II. The result was that in 1688 William sailed to England in over 400 ships and with 14,000 troops. He marched on London and gathered more and more local support the farther he went. The peaceful change of rule came to be known as the Glorious Revolution and the couple were crowned in 1689 as King William III and Queen Mary II.

William III made most of the decisions for the country as King, but when her husband was out of the country fighting the ongoing war with France, she proved herself an intelligent and capable ruler. She was a very popular ruler, and when she died in 1694 of smallpox, her husband and the nation went into mourning.  Her funeral was the first of any royal that was attended by both House of Parliament. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Purcell wrote new music based on previously written compositions for the Funeral Music For Queen Mary.  Purcell wrote the work for the usual four voiced choir of soprano, alto, tenor and bass; 4 flatt trumpets (in essence a slide trumpet that could play in minor keys), organ and basso continuo. Modern performances include timpani, which may or may not have been used when the music was played at the funeral.

The performance of the work in the link below is comprised of seven parts:

1) The Queen's Funeral March, Sounded Before Her Chariot -  The most well known part of the funeral music. The four trumpets play the march the first time quietly with the timpani adding muffled accents. The march is repeated at a higher volume, along with sparse ornaments in the trumpets.

2) Man That Is Born Of A Woman - The texts for the anthem is taken from the Common Book Of Prayer of the Church Of England
Man that is born of a woman
hath but a short time to live,
and is full of misery. He cometh up,
and is cut down like a flower;
he fleeth as it were a shadow,
and ne'er continueth in one stay.

3) Canzona - A short interlude for instruments only. The canzona was developed from various other forms and was used in the 16th and 17th centuries.

4) In The Midst Of Life We Are In Death -
Queen Mary II
In the midst of life we are in death:
of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains
of eternal death.

5) Canzona - The previous short interlude is repeated.

6) Thou knowest, Lord
Thou knowest, Lord,
the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears
unto our pray'rs; but spare us, Lord most holy,
O God most mighty.
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
thou most worthy Judge eternal,
suffer us not, at our last hour,
for any pains of death, to fall from thee. Amen.

7) The Queen's Funeral March - The peaceful amen just sung is brought into perspective with the repeat of the mournful march.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Debussy - Preludes For Piano Book One

Claude Debussy has been identified with Impressionism, exemplified by the paintings of Renoir and Monet among others. Debussy himself disliked the term and rejected any association with it. As he said himself:
I am trying to do 'something different'...what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics. 
Some have suggested he was a proponent of Symbolism more than Impressionism, but  'isms' are but created labels that attempt to categorize. Not that these labels aren't useful. They certainly can give a sense of structure for study and understanding. But labels are models to aid in understanding. As soon as a model is used as a definite mold to force art to  conform to specific rules, the model loses its value.

Debussy's talent was such that he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire when he was ten years old. During his 11 years there he constantly challenged his teachers and the directorship of Ambroise Thomas, a musical conservative.  He earned the praise and admiration of his teachers and fellow students for his abilities as a pianist and sight-reader, but his compositions were not understood. He understood the models of music that were taught in his classes, but he refused to allow his creativity to be controlled by them.

That is not to say that he was not influenced by other composers. Richard Wagner was a profound influence, as well as Mussorgsky. Older music also had an influence, such as the Baroque clavicenists such as Couperin as well as J.S. Bach. Each one of these influences were digested and internalized by Debussy's talent and transformed into his own highly original music. American Ragtime, the Gamelan from Java all played a part as well as literature and the visual arts.

Debussy was a slow and meticulous composer, but uncharacteristically the Preludes Book One was begun in late 1909 and finished three months later.  He kept with the traditional number of preludes of 24 (in two books of 12) as set by many composers before him, especially J.S. Bach and Chopin. But where Bach had his preludes (and the fugues that went with them) follow each other in a half-step progression of keys and Chopin followed the circle of fifths, Debussy's preludes follow no set key sequence, although groups of them seem to be tonally related.  Debussy doesn't use conventional keys hardly at all as he uses church modes, pentatonic scales and the whole tone scale in writing them.

Another unique feature of Debussy's preludes is that while each one is titled, the title appears at the end of the piece instead of the beginning.

1)  Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) -  Debussy begins with music inspired by ancient Greek dancers in music that gently moves through different types of scales and melodies.  This first prelude gives a clue to what will proceed, and renders what Debussy himself said is his musical objective:

Wagner pronounced himself in favor of the laws of harmony. I am for freedom. But freedom must essentially be free. All the noises we hear around ourselves can be re-created. Every sound perceived by the acute ear in the rhythm of the world about us can be represented musically. Some people wish to conform to the rules; for myself, I wish only to render what I can hear.
2)  Voiles (Veils or Sails) - The title of this prelude is ambiguous, quite appropriate for the music. Either the sails of ships billowing in a breeze, or the sensuous form of a woman only partially hidden by diaphanous veils. The whole tone scale is used throughout with the chromatic scale added for variety.

3)  Le vent dans la plaine (The wind in the plain) -  A depiction of strong as well as gentle breezes. There is no documentation as to whether Debussy intended the preludes to be played as an entire set. Shortly after their composition, Debussy himself as well as other pianists played them in groups of three.  The first three preludes sound well together played this way.

4)  Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) - The title is inspired by a poem by Charles Beaudelaire titled Harmonie Soir (Evening Harmony).  This preludes ends with a short coda that is marked by the composer 'as a far away horn call'.

5)  Les collines d'Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri) - Anacapri is a small village on the Isle of Capri in the Gulf of Naples off the Italian coast. Debussy begins the prelude slowly until it erupts in an Italian dance, the tarantella. The dance is interrupted by a folk song like melody in the middle section. The dance returns and leads to a glittering ending in the extreme treble of the keyboard which is marked lumineux (luminous).

6)  Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow) - A bleak landscape of snow and cold is represented as a persistent motive is repeated.  Debussy gives the direction that 'the tempo must be such that it sounds like a sad, icy landscape'.  There is little relief from the cold atmosphere in this prelude that is a challenge for the pianist to bring off with Debussy's intended effect.

7)  Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (What the west wind has seen) -  The subtle colors of the preceeding preludes are swept away by this depiction of a violent wind that roars off the coast of France during a storm at sea.

8)  La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) - One of the most often played preludes, this gentle music is in stark contrast to the preceding violent one. Gentle chords surround Debussy's original melody that sounds like a folk song.

9)  La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) - Debussy continues the French love of Spanish music in this prelude that depicts a Spanish guitarist that tries to serenade his sweetheart. Is the father the one that slams the window to shut out the serenade, or the beloved? No matter, the serenader finally gives up and wanders off.

10) La Cathédrale engloutie (The engulfed cathedral) - Another of the most popular preludes, this is a representation of the legend of the cathedral of the ancient city of Ys in Brittany that sank to the bottom of the ocean when the city was swallowed by the sea. Once every hundred years the cathedral rises out of the ocean to the tolling of its bells and the chanting of monks. It then sinks back into the sea.  With thunderous chords in the middle section, Debussy has the piano do a credible impression of pipe organ sonority. Widely-spaced chords (including six-note chords to be played by the five fingers of the right hand) add to the mysterious nature of the legend before the cathedral slips back under the water.

11) La danse de Puck (Puck's dance) - A representation of the mischievous Puck from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

12) Minstrels - Traveling minstrel shows appeared in Europe around the turn of the 20th century and were very popular. European composers were influenced by ragtime and early jazz music. Debussy's creative imagination attracted him to different kinds of music and art, and led to this witty representation of the banjo and minstrel music.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mussorgsky - Song Cycle 'Sunless'

Modest Mussorgsky was in many ways a musical dilettante, for while he was a naturally gifted musician, he had very little formal training.  This was not looked upon by his mentor Balakirev as a bad thing. On the contrary, a lack of formal training was considered something that would help free the creative artist to express himself without the artificial fetters of pedantic methods.

Mussorgsky's life was a struggle after he gave up the family tradition of professional military service for music. He had to accept a minor bureaucratic position to make ends meet financially. A recurring problem with alcohol (possibly obtained while he was in military cadet school) made nothing easier and eventually cost him his life in 1881 at the age of 42. His lack of formal musical training also led to struggles with his composing.  He had plenty of ideas, but with a few notable exceptions, he left many of his works incomplete, some consisting of only a few sketches. He was both blessed and cursed with an excellent memory, which led to reports of works that Mussorgsky played at the the piano that were never written down.

The most numerous works that Mussorgsky did write down are his songs for voice and piano. In this genre Mussorgsky excelled and he brought a new fusion of the Russian language and music.  Mussorgsky was a cultured, well-read man and as such could be very selective in the texts he set to music. The poet that he used for his two song cycles Songs And Dances Of Death and Sunless was his distant relative Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov.  The two impoverished men shared a small apartment together for about two years until Kutuzov married.

Sunless (also translated as Without Sun) was composed in 1874 at a low time in Mussorgsky's life. His opera Boris Gudonov had finally had its premiere early in 1874 after two other versions had been rejected. The opera was a success with the public but the critics were very hostile to the work. This, along with other setbacks and frustrations as well as his hatred of the boredom of his bureaucratic job, brought on depression that was made worse by excessive drinking.  There are six songs in the cycle that reflect Mussorgsky's mood during this time.

I want to thank Sergy Rybin for extending his kind permission to include his translation of the Russian texts:

Within Four Walls
All six songs of the cycle are highly introspective, and the slow moving piano accompaniment sets the stage for a song that conveighs the barren feelings of being alone with the four walls.

A tiny room, quiet and pleasant,
An impenetrable darkness, irresponsive darkness;
A deep thought, a sorrowful song;
A treasured hope in the beating heart;

Speedy flight of moment after moment;
A petrified glance at a far-away happiness;
Plenty of doubt, plenty of endurance.
Here it is, my night, night of solitude.
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

You Have Not Recognized Me In The Crowd
This song is ostensibly written in D major as the first song, but the very first chord of the accompaniment takes the music to a different tonal landscape. Harmonies restlessly shift in this very short song that ends with a odd sounding chord that gives no feeling of resolution.

You have not recognized me in the crowd,
Your glance did not say anything.
But I felt wonder and fright
When I caught it:

It was only a moment;
But believe me, within it I re-lived again
All the delights of past love,
All the bitterness of oblivion and tears!
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Over Is The Idle And Clamorous Day
Over is the idle and clamorous day;
Human life has fallen silent and a-slumber.
Everything is quiet. The shadow of the May night
Embraces the sleeping capital.

But sleep escapes from my eyes.
And by the rays of the next dawn
My imagination is leafing through
The pages of the lost years.

As if again breathing in the poison
Of spring's amorous dreams,
I resurrect in my soul the stream
Of hopes, surges, illusions...

Alas, those are only ghosts!
I am bored with this dead crowd,
And the noise of their old chatter
Already has no power over me.

Only one shadow, the only one of all,
Appeared to me, breathing with love, and,
Like a true friend of the past days,
Bent down by the bedstead.

And bravely I gave to her alone
All my soul in a silent tear,
Unseen by no one, full of happiness,
In a tear I saved for so long!
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Be Bored
Perhaps Mussorgsky gave the listener a glimpse of his boring bureaucratic job in this pessimistic song.

Be bored. You were created for boredom.
Without burning feelings there is no joy,
As there is no reunion without separation,
As without struggle there are no victories.

Be bored. Be bored listening to words of love,
Immersed in the stillness of your empty heart,
Responding with a fake greeting
To the truth of an innocent dream.

Be bored. From birth to the grave
Your path is written beforehand:
Drop by drop you'll waste your powers,
Then you'll die, and God be with you...
And God be with you!
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Elegy 
Passive and passionate alternate until the ultimate ending of death is reached with the quiet tolling of a distant bell played by the piano.

In the mist the night is in slumber. Silent star
Flickering, lonely, through the veil of clouds.
Sorrowfully ringing their bells in the distance,
Herds of grazing horses.
As night clouds my changing thoughts
Fly above me, disturbed and gloomy;
There are gleams of hopes in them, which were once dear,
Which are long lost, long dead.
There are regrets in them... and tears.
Thoughts rush along endlessly;
At times, transformed into features of a loved face,
They call for me, awakening in my soul former dreams again,
At times, merged into black darkness, full of silent threat,
Frighten my timid mind with the future's struggle, 
And I hear in the distance life's discordant noise,
Laughter of the soulless crowd, the muttering of treacherous feuding,
The irrepressible whisper of life's banality,
And the grim ringing of death!..
A rising star, as if full of shyness,
Is hiding her bright face in a joyless mist,
Like my future, mute and impenetrable.
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Above The River
The text is reflected in the gently rolling thirds in the bass of the piano while the treble gives support to the melody of the singer. The contemplation of death being the only way out, whether brought on naturally or by suicide, is chilling.

Pensive moon crescent, far-away stars
Admiring the waters from a blue sky.
I look in silence at the deep waters;
My heart senses magical secrets in them.
They splash mysteriously, tender-caressing waves;
There is much mystical power in their muttering.
I hear boundless thoughts and passions...
Unknown voice, which stirs my soul,
Caresses, frightens, and evokes doubts.
When it commands me to listen -- I can't move;
When it drives me away -- I want to run in fear;
When it calls into the depths -- I want to jump without hesitation.
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Dvořák - Cigánské Melodie (Gypsy Songs) Op. 55

Antonín Dvořák's music didn't become known outside of his native Bohemia until he entered and won the Austrian State Prize contest in 1877, a competition that awarded a stipend to the winner.  Dvořák not only benefited from the prize money (which went far in helping to alleviate his condition of near poverty) but members of the panel of judges of the competition helped make his works known world-wide. One of those members was Johannes Brahms who recommended Dvořák's compositions to his publisher Simrock. With a music publisher's eye for sales, Simrock commissioned Dvořák to compose a set of dances similar to Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Dvořák filled the commission with the successful Slavonic Dances in 1878, which were played across Europe and the United States.

Hot on the heels of this great success and his new international reputation Dvořák wrote Cigánské Melodie (Gypsy Songs), a set of seven songs set to the poetry of Czech poet Adolph Heyduk. The songs were written in 1880 for  Gustav Walter, the popular tenor of the Vienna State Opera. Heyduk wrote a translation of the poems in German for Dvořák in deference to Walter, and a version of the songs using the original Czech language was made later.
Adolph Heyduk

There was something of a fad for gypsy music for much of the 19th century, although what was called gypsy music at the time was more of an idealized mixture of European folk music with a few exotic gypsy motifs thrown in.  Dvořák's Gypsy Songs owe more to Czech and Slovak folk songs than authentic gypsy music as well. But the freedom of gypsy life is in the songs and serves as a representation of the struggles for freedom of the Czech people from the repressive Austrian government of the time.

I want to thank Anna Matjas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser for extending permission to include their translation of the Czech texts:

1) Ma pisen zas mi laskou zni  (My song resounds with love) 
The piano opens with measured tremolos in thirds in the right hand that lead to rolled chords that accompany the vocalist. A middle section in major mode provides contrast before the piano repeats the opening and ends in the home key of G minor -
 My song resounds with love when the old day is dying;
it is sowing its shadows and reaping a collection of pearls.
My song resonates with longing while my feet roam distant lands.
My homeland is in the distant wilderness—my song stirs with nationalism.
My song reverberates with love, while unplanned storms hasten.
I rejoice in the freedom that I no longer have a part in the dying of a brother.
translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

2) Aj! Kterak trojhranec (Ah! My three-cornered bell)
The three-cornered bell is actually a triangle -
Ah! Why is my three-cornered bell ringing so passionately?
As a gypsy song -- when death is imminent -- the death of a gypsy
brings an end to song, dance, love and all concerns!
translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

3)  A les je tich kolem kol (The forest is quiet all around)
A simple accompaniment gently plays as the singer unwinds a beautiful melody -
The forest is quiet all around; only the heart disturbs the peace.
As black smoke gushing, tears flow down my cheeks and so they dry.
They need not dry—let other cheeks feel them!
The one who can sing in sorrow will not die, but lives and lives on.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

4)  Kdyz mne stara matka (Songs my mother taught me)
The most well-known song in the set, this song is played regularly in vocal recitals and the melody has been arranged for many different solo instruments.  A distinctive feature of this song is the time signature of 2/4 for the soloist while the piano is written in 6/8 -
When my old mother taught me to sing,
Strange that she often had tears in her eyes.
And now I also weep, when I teach Gypsy children to play and sing.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

5)  Struna naladena (The string is taut!)
The string is taut—young man turn, spin, twirl!
Today reach the heights, tomorrow down again and
after tomorrow, at the Holy Table of the Nile.
The taut string is stretched—turn young man—turn and twirl!
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

6)  Siroke rukavy (Wide sleeves)
Wide sleeves and broad trousers give more freedom than a robe of gold.
The robe of gold constricts the chest and the song within the body dies.
He who is happy -- his song blooms with the desire that the
whole world would lose its taste for gold.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

7)  Dejte klec jest`rábu ze zlata (Given a cage of gold)
Given a cage to live in, made of pure gold,
the Gypsy would exchange it for the freedom of a nest of thorns.
Just as a wild horse rushes to the wasteland, seldom bridled or reined in,
so too the Romani nature has been given eternal freedom!
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Berlioz - Grande Messe Des Morts (Requiem)

The political climate in the second decade of the 19th century in France was precarious at best. Napoleon had been exiled to Elba in 1814 after his abdication as Emperor, and the house of Bourbon was restored to power with King Louis XVIII, younger brother of King Louis XVI (who had been executed during the French Revolution of 1789-1799).

But with Napoleon's escape from Elba and return to France in February of 1815, the new King had to go into hiding. Napoleon ruled for a period called The Hundred Days before he was defeated for good. King XVIII came out of hiding and ruled until 1824 when he died. Yet another Bourbon brother then came into power, Charles X. He was to rule until 1830 when the July Revolution forced him to abdicate.  Yet another monarch was brought into power, this time a cousin of the Bourbon family, Louis Philippe I.  His reign was known as the July Monarchy and lasted until 1848, when he also became another member of French royalty that was forced to abdicate on France's long and convoluted evolution to a more democratic form of government.

It was in 1837 during the reign of Louis Philippe I when the Minister Of The Interior Adrien de Gasparin approached Hector Berlioz with a request to compose a Requiem Mass in honor of  those who died in the 1830 Revolution, but after Berlioz had composed the work and hired copyists, an official informed him that the ceremony was to be held without music (possibly at the instigation of one of Berlioz's enemies).  For the next few months Berlioz pestered and complained to the authorities until the news came that the Battle Of Constantine in Algiers had been won by the French, but that General Damrémont had been killed in the battle. Plans were then changed once again, and the Requiem was to be performed at a memorial concert in the church of Les Invalides for the General and soldiers that died in the battle.

Dome of  Les Invalides
Berlioz's Requiem reflects the contemporary improvements of intonation and mechanics of the woodwind and brass. Older versions of these instruments could be notoriously difficult to keep in tune and play. Berlioz uses a huge complement of instruments and makes great demands of the entire ensemble.  Berlioz had already shown his proclivity for using large forces in his Symphonie Fantastique of 1830, but he went even further with the orchestration of his Requiem. In the score he called for over 100 stringed instruments alone. All the other sections of the orchestra show the same use of large forces, especially the brass. Twenty brass instruments are called for, plus another 38 brass instruments divided into 4 brass choirs, with one placed on the four corners of the stage. In the premiere of the work, over 400 singers and instrumentalists participated, but Berlioz encouraged the use of even more performers if they could be utilized and suggested that all parts should be adjusted accordingly.  Berlioz made two revisions to the work over the years, the final one in 1867.

The church of Les Invalides, where the premiere was given is part of a complex of buildings relating to the military history of France. The acoustics of the large dome of the church had an influence on the Requiem. Berlioz was always concerned with orchestral color and his imagination would run the range of delicate and soft to incredibly robust and loud. The dome of the church was to be Berlioz's soundboard for his musical forces. The premiere of the work was met with success, but for most of Berlioz's career he remained on the periphery of French musical life, although his works were more appreciated in other countries.

The Requiem is in ten sections:

1) Requiem et Kyrie
Berlioz was not a particularly religious man, so his Requiem is not what could be called pious, but it certainly is dramatic.  He begins with a stark theme played in unison. The choir enters with a short fugal section, and then the key turns to major for a brief respite. The fugal texture resumes with interludes of differing moods. The music changes mood and grows quiet, until the Kyrie enters in a hush. The subdued dynamics are maintained until a crescendo brings the music to a climax. After a dissonance, the choir ends their singing and the orchestra ends the movement in quiet poignancy.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them
You, O God, are praised in Zion
and unto You shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto You shall all flesh come.
Hear my prayer,
all flesh comes to you.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

2) Dies Irae - Tuba Mirum
The ancient dies irae is sung in counterpoint by the choir and is interrupted twice by the orchestra as it plays an upward sweeping chromatic scale. After each orchestral interruption. the choir becomes more dramatic, until another orchestra interruption brings on the tuba mirum.

All four of the brass choirs, joining in one by one, blare out in a tremendous wall of sound that must have shook the church of Les Invalides, but then Berlioz summons the choir as well as 16 timpani, 4 tam-tams, and two bass drums in a section that no recording can do justice to. After this tremendous barrage of sound, the choir continues the text that is set to eerie, otherworldly themes. The fanfares of the beginning of the section return as well as the massed percussion as the choir roars out the remaining text. The music grows quiet as the choir continues in muffled tones. The movement ends as the first movement did, quietly.

In his Memoirs, Berlioz described the playing of the tuba mirum section at the premiere, and the steps Berlioz himself took to ensure that it came off properly:
François Habeneck
"Because of my habitual suspicion, I had posted myself behind [conductor François] Habeneck. With my back to his, I was watching the group of timpani players, which he could not see, as the moment approached when they were to take part in the general mêlée. There are perhaps a thousand bars in my Requiem. At precisely the point I have been speaking of, when the tempo broadens and the brass instruments launch their awesome fanfare, in the one bar where the role of the conductor is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved. When at the last words of the chorus Habeneck saw that the Tuba mirum was saved: "What a cold sweat I had, "he said, "without you we were lost!"  Yes, I know very well," I replied, looking straight at him. I did not add a word … Did he do it on purpose?… "
Day of wrath, that day
the earth will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.
What dread there will be,
when the Judge shall come
to strictly judge all things.
A trumpet, spreading a wondrous sound
Through the graves of all lands,
Will drive mankind before the throne.
Death and Nature shall be astonished
When all creation rises again
To answer to the Judge.
A book that is written in will be brought forth
In which is contained everything that is,
Out of which the world shall be judged.
When the judge takes his seat
Whatever is hidden will reveal itself.
Nothing will remain unavenged.

3) Quid Sum Miser
A short movement that conjures up the after effects of Judgement Day by including fragments of the dies irae that sound in the orchestra as the choir sings the text.

What then shall I say, wretch that I am,
What advocate will entreat to speak for me,
When even the righteous may hardly be secure?
Remember, blessed Jesu,
That I am the cause of Your pilgrimage.
Do not forsake me on that day.
I pray in supplication on my knees.
My heart contrite as the dust,
Take care of my end.

4) Rex Tremendae
The music begins by sounding majestic, and then changes to pleading. This alternation of moods runs throughout the movement. The movement ends with one last plea for saving from the abyss.

King of awful majesty.
Who freely saves the redeemed,
Save me, O fount of goodness.
Remember, blessed Jesu,
That I am the cause of Your pilgrimage.
Do not forsake me on that day.
When the accursed have been confounded (Jesu)
And given over to the bitter flames.
Call me...
And from the bottomless pit.
Deliver me from the lion's mouth.
Lest I fall into darkness
And the black abyss swallow me up.

5) Quaerens Me
This movement is performed by the choir without orchestra.  A middle section is in multiple part counterpoint. The music ends gently.

Seeking me You did sit down weary
You did redeem me, suffering death on the cross.
Let no such toil be in vain.
Just and avenging Judge.
Grant remission
Before the day of reckoning.
I groan like a guilty man.
Spare a suppliant, O God.
My prayers are not worthy,
But You in Your merciful goodness grant
That I burn not in everlasting fire.
You who did absolve Mary Magdalen
And hearken to the thief,
To me also has given hope.
Place me among Your sheep
And separate me from the goats.
Setting me on your right hand.

6) Lacrymosa
A restless rhythmic pulse begins the movement, and the texture of the music grows in density, passion and volume until the 4 brass choirs join in (for the last time in the work) near the end of the movement for a climax that fades to silence to end the movement.

Mournful that day
When from the dust shall rise
Guilty man to be judged
Merciful Jesu, Lord
Grant them eternal rest.

7) Offertorium
The chorus sings a three-note motive throughout the movement that consists of but two different notes- A, B-flat, A. Berlioz added a subtitle to this movement in the second edition of the Requiem  -Choeur des âmes du purgatoire (chorus of the souls in purgatory) which was removed from the third edition.  The orchestra plays various themes in counterpoint over the chorus' mournful chanting. This movement struck many of Berlioz's contemporaries with its form and the effect of the chorus' incessant chant.  The movement winds down with the mood of the music changing as the choir finally changes their chant to a different theme. The three-note motive returns, except this time the notes are A, B natural, A, and are sung to an amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
deliver the souls of all the
faithful departed from the pains
of hell and from the bottomless pit.
And let St. Michael Your standard
bearer lead them into the holy
light which once You did promise
to Abraham and his seed,
Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

8) Hostias
An example of Berlioz's feel for orchestral color is in the scoring of this short movement for male voices, flutes, trombones and strings. The ending of this movement has some of the most unique sounds heard in the orchestra as the trombones play very low notes that alternate with the high notes of the flute.

We offer unto You
this sacrifice of prayer and praise.
Receive it for those souls
whom today we commemorate.

9) Sanctus
This movement features a solo tenor that begins the movement and is answered by the female voices of the choir until the choir sings a fugue on Hosanna. The tenor returns along with the women's choir.  The Hosanna fugue returns and ends the movement.

Holy, holy, holy, God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full
of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

10) Angus Dei
Woodwind chords that are repeated by the violas begin this movement. Berlioz brings back themes and orchestral effects heard in the other movements, with an extended repeat (with some variations) of much of the first movement. The movement ends with a series of peaceful amens from the choir and gentle taps from the timpani.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins
of the world, grant them eternal rest.
You, O God, are praised in Zion
and unto You shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto You shall all flesh come.
Grant the dead eternal rest,
O Lord, and may perpetual light shine
on them, with Your saints for ever,
Lord, because You are merciful.
Amen.

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