Saturday, November 14, 2020

Verdi - Requiem

The Catholic religious rite of the Mass is basic to the faith, and takes many forms. The most basic is a Mass that contains the reading of scripture and is based around the Eucharist, also known as Communion in other denominations. The Mass can be different for different occasions, as instructed in the Roman Missal. One specific type of Mass is the Requiem Mass For The Dead. It is a ceremony in remembrance of the deceased and to offer prayers for their soul to have eternal rest in heaven. The word requiem itself comes from the first word in the Latin Introit (the beginning of the Mass sung by a choir, taken from a psalm) Requiem aeternam dona eis - Rest eternal grant unto them.

The art of music grew for centuries under the auspices of the Church,  so it was natural that composers would set the Mass to music. The coming of the first documented polyphonic Mass in the 15th century brought with it a large number of settings for the Requiem Mass. At first these compositions were quite rigid in structure, but as the art of music grew, so did expression in the Requiem. By the time Giuseppe Verdi came to write his Requiem in 1874, there were many examples already written by composers obscure and famous.

Alessandro Manzoni
The work was written in memory of the Italian novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni whom Verdi admired.  Manzoni had died in 1873 and the Requiem was premiered in 1874 on the one year anniversary of his death. Verdi conducted the first performance that was given, in a Milan church. It was met with limited success, perhaps partly due to the fact that women were only just being allowed to sing in the Catholic church which delayed the work's acceptance in Italy.  But after a short time it fell out of the repertoire until the 1930's.  Some critics found the drama of the music to be more in the style of an opera than a religious work while others found the style of music too radical (meaning too modern). There is no doubt the music is quite dramatic, but it covers pretty much all human emotions which was quite in keeping with Verdi's style. The spirit of Verdi perhaps has had the last laugh, for the Requiem is now one of the most performed works of the choral literature.  Verdi's spirit has another reason to chuckle over the veneration of this religious work, for he was at the most an agnostic and at worst a confirmed atheist.

The Requiem is written for 4 soloists, double choir and a large orchestra. It is in seven parts:

I. INTROIT & KYRIE - Beginning with muted strings that are almost inaudible, the chorus quietly enters. Both sections convey a wish for gentle rest for the departed.
Grant them eternal rest, Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them.
A hymn to you is fitting, God of Zion,
and to you shall a vow be made in Jerusalem.
Listen to my prayer;
unto you all flesh shall come.
Grant them rest eternal, Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them.

Solo Quartet and Chorus
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy

II. DIES IRAE - This longest part of the work portrays the drama of human emotion, something that Verdi was known for in his operas.  The pleading for mercy and a way to salvation is interrupted by the savagery of the Dies Irae.

Dies Irae - In music that shakes the rafters, Verdi portrays the destruction of the world with strings that rip through scale passages, piccolos that screech, brass that roars and a bass drum that gets the hell beat out of it. This section is like an idee fixe as it returns throughout the work, (twice in this part alone) driving home the hopelessness of the sinner on Judgement Day.

 Day of wrath, that day
the world will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.
 What trembling there will be,
when the judge shall come
to examine all things thoroughly.

Tuba Mirum -  Trumpets off stage join the trumpets in the orchestra for an echoing effect that grows into a tremendous crescendo that spreads to the chorus that has to struggle to be heard over the rolls played on the bass drum.

The trumpet, spreading its wondrous sound
through the tombs of all regions,
will gather all before the throne.

Mors Stupebit
Bass Solo
Death will be stupefied, also nature,
when all creation arises
to answer to the judge.

Liber Scriptus
Mezzo-Soprano Solo and Chorus
A written book will be brought forth,
in which everything shall be contained,
 by which the world shall be judged.
When the judge is therefore seated,
whatever is hidden will be exposed;
nothing shall remain unavenged.
 Day of wrath, that day
the world will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.

Quid sum miser
Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano and Tenor Solos
What am I, a miserable one, to say then?
What patron shall I request,
when the righteous are scarcely secure?

Rex tremendae
Solo Quartet and Chorus
King of fearful majesty,
who freely saves the redeemed,
save me, fount of mercy.

Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano Solos
Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the cause of your journey;
do not abandon me on that day.
Seeking me, you sat down exhausted;
you redeemed me by suffering the cross.
 Such great labor should not be in vain.
Just judge of vengeance,
 make the gift of remission
before the day of accounting.

Ingemisco - This solo was sung by the late Lucio Pavarotti many times in concert, and is a favorite of tenors.
Tenor Solo
I sigh as one accused;
shame reddens my face.
Spare the supplicant, God.
You who absolved Mary 
 and listened to the thief
have given me hope also.
 My prayers are not worthy,
but you, good one, be merciful,
 lest I burn in everlasting flames!
Place me prominently among your sheep,
 and from the goats separate me,
 placing me in the portion on the right.

Bass Solo and Chorus
Silencing the accursed,
 to acrid flames consigning them,
call me with those blessed.
I pray, bowed and kneeling
my heart contrite as ashes;
take care of me at the last.
Day of wrath, that day
 the world will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.

Lacrymosa - After the roar and thunder of the Dies Irae, this is a gentle plea for mercy.

Solo Quartet and Chorus
That tearful day,
when guilty man shall rise
 from the embers to be judged.
 Oh, therefore spare him, God.
Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

III. OFFERTORY - A beautiful setting for the soloists.

Solo Quartet
Lord Jesu Christ, glorious King,
free the souls of all the faithful dead
 from punishment in the inferno,
and from the deep pit.
Deliver them from the lion's mouth,
lest the abyss swallow them up,
lest they fall into darkness.
But may the standardbearer St. Michael
bring them into the holy light,
as once you promised to Abraham
and his seed.
Sacrifices and prayers we offer
to you, Lord, with praise.
 Receive them for the souls of those
whom today we commemorate;
make them, Lord,
to pass from death to life,
as once you promised to Abraham
and his seed.
Free the souls of all the faithful dead
from punishment in the inferno.
May they pass from death to life.

IV. SANCTUS -  In this rather brief part, the choir is divided into eight parts in counterpoint in music that is jubilant and full of hope.  Near the end the orchestra plays rapid chromatic ascending and descending chromatic scales to good effect.

Choruses I and II
Holy, holy, holy,
 Lord God of the Hosts.
The heavens and earth are filled
 with your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
 Blessed is he who comes
 in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

V. AGNUS DEI - Soprano and mezzo-soprano sing a simple, gentle melody an octave apart.

Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano Solos and Chorus
 Lamb of God,
who removes the world's sins,
 grant them rest.
Lamb of God,
who removes the world's sins,
grant them rest everlasting.

VI. LUX  AETERNA - The music begins softly and wrapped in mystery. The mezzo-soprano continues pleading for mercy. The bass enters with a chilling solo that reminds all of the seriousness of the consequences (at least in the dogma of the Catholic Church) of not being one of the chosen.

Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor and Bass Solos
May eternal light shine on them, Lord,
with your saints for eternity,
because you are merciful.
Grant them eternal rest, Lord,
 and may perpetual light shine on them,
with your saints for eternity,
because you are merciful.

VII. LIBERA ME - The final part contains sections of chant, choral fugue, and a trembling soprano that is terrified by the coming judgement. The Dies Irae makes one last appearance to remind the listener about the horror to come that makes the soprano tremble. 

Libera me
Soprano Solo and Chorus
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death,
on that dreadful day,
when the heavens and earth shall be moved,
when you come to judge
the world through fire.
I am made to tremble and to fear,
awaiting the judgement that shall come,
and also at your coming wrath,
when the heavens and earth shall be moved.

Dies irae
That day, day of wrath,
of calamity and misery,
 great and exceedingly bitter day,
when you come to judge
the world through fire.

Requiem aeternam
Grant them rest eternal, Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them.

Libera me - The soloist grows desperate, only to be answered by a fugue for the chorus.  After the fugue and passionate singing by the soloist that goes from the bottom of her register to the top, the orchestra roars through as section until the soloist grows hushed and is directed by Verdi to sing without strict time as she chants Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death, on that dreadful day. The chorus and soloist sing in a very subdued triple piano dynamic Libera me two times, and the music dies away. 

Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death,
on that dreadful day,
when the heavens and earth shall be moved,
when you come to judge
the world through fire.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Albéniz - Suite española

When the father of Isaac Albéniz realized that his young son displayed prodigious musical talent
(little Isaac reportedly gave his first concert when he was 4 years old), the boy divided his time between studying and giving concerts. His parents took him to Paris, but he was denied entry into the Conservatoire because he was too young.  The pressure put on him by his father to study and give concerts may have been the reason Isaac made many attempts to run away from home.

Albéniz's father was a custom's agent, and on his job-related travels he took Isaac and his younger sister on a concert tour of northern Spain. Isaac was nine years old when his concert career began and by the age of fifteen he had traveled many parts of the world concertizing, and contrary to legends about Albéniz running away from home as a stow away on a ship to South America, his father accompanied him on his travels.

He concertized as a pianist for most of his life, in addition to composing. His style made a major shift from salon pieces to music that reflected the mood, rhythm and style of the traditional music of Spain.  Albéniz's was original in that he did not use folk tunes in his works, but he adapted the style of the Spanish folk tune.

 Suite española originally had only four pieces included, but after Albéniz died in 1909 his publisher added four more pieces to make the version of the work that is most well known.  The original four pieces are named after regions of Spain along with the type of dance or musical form used. Some of the four additional works added after Albéniz's death do not retain this distinction. The names were chosen by the publisher and not Albéniz himself.

All but one of the eight pieces in the suite are in ternary form with a contrasting middle section called a copla, an interlude of a vocal nature.  Albéniz heard many guitar players of Spain, and when some of the pieces from the suite were arranged for guitar he was delighted, and said that was the sound he had in mind when he wrote the pieces.

I. Granada (Serenade) - The meaning of the word serenade is derived from the Italian word for calm.. Albéniz creates a mood of calmness with a simple melody in the bass accompanied by rolled chords in the right hand in imitation of a guitar:
The middle section has the melody move up to the right hand and alternates between minor and major mode. Granada along with Asturias is one of the pieces of this suite most often transcribed for guitar. Granada was the last Arab-held part of Spain, and it was one of Albéniz's favorite places to be, as he wrote in a letter:
I think that Granada, where I am, is 'the treasure of Andalusian music.' I also believe that I must write this, as I am convinced that my youth is full of enough musical experiences to embark in the conquest of this wonderful land, endowed with exquisiteness, cordiality and love, but safe-keeping all this as the Arabs safe-kept the flowers of their garden and the women in their palaces.
II. Cataluña (Courante) -   The only piece in the suite that is not in ternary form. It has a dotted rhythmic pulse in the melody, and after it is played through a short coda brings the piece to a close.  Some have suggested that this piece was in honor of Albéniz's mother who had recently died.

III. Sevilla (Sevillanas) -  The sevillanas are dances that can be mistaken for Flamenco, but while it was influenced by flamenco in the early 19th century it is not the same. After the repeated notes in the bass ends the first section, the middle section begins with a plaintive melody played two octaves apart.

IV. Cádiz (Canción) -  Canción means song in Spanish, and the form is descendant from the saeta, a song of religious nature that may have had Jewish origins that go back to the 16th century. This piece evokes the subtler rhythms of Flamenco.

V. Asturias (Leyenda) - This piece is the most glaring example of the mismatching of a style to a region in the suite. The music of the Asturias region of Spain has nothing in common with the Flamenco style of the music. The subtitle Leyenda meaning Legend,  is not any dance or song form, but it is descriptive of the mood of the piece. It opens with an imitation of a Flamenco guitarist with the melody in the left hand intertwined with the repeated note in the right hand:
Albéniz imitated the guitar so well that this piece was adapted quite readily to the guitar and is more often heard in that version than the original piano version. The entire first section expands on this beginning, and is punctuated by leaps of accented chords in the right hand and octaves in the left while the melody still manages to be carried in the left hand. The slower central section is made up of different subsections that refer to motives in the opening. The first section repeats and a short coda brings one of the most representative of Spanish piano pieces to a hushed ending.

VI. Aragón (Fantasía) -  This piece has a reoccurring motive of a triplet on the second beat of the measure throughout. Repeated sixteenth notes herald the middle section which is title copla by the composer. It is a mellow theme in thirds. The copla does not last long, as the tempo of the beginning returns and the music plays a variant of the opening theme that magically repeats, twists and turns upon itself.  A short section with rolled chords in the right hand over a melody in the left segues to a repeat of the first section. A coda closes this excellent piece solidly in F major.

VII. Castilla (Seguidilla) - In another guitar inspired rhythm, the melody is in the left hand in this seguidillas, an ancient Castillian dance.

VIII. Cuba (Capriccio) -  Has also been referred to as a nocturne, Albéniz included Cuba as a region of Spain because it was indeed a possession of Spain at the time the piece was written, and Albéniz had played many concerts there. The piece is in 6/8 time and the first section's main feature is a melody that in the second and third bar of the phrase plays two notes against three in the left hand:
The middle section is in more the mood of a nocturne.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Cowell - The Banshee

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was an American composer, teacher and pianist.  He was a part of the avant-garde movement in music at the turn of the 20th century, and experimented with complex rhythms, atonality, and was an early advocate of the use of tone clusters

He also would play directly on the strings of the piano, sometimes for the entire piano piece. The Banshee is one of those pieces. A Banshee is from Irish mythology, is usually female. and appears as an omen of death and to bring messages from the other world.  The Banshee begins to wail when someone is about to die, and some legends say that each Irish family has their own Banshee. 

The work is for two performers and a grand piano. One performer merely holds down the damper pedal of the piano while the other stands at the bend of the piano. Cowell directs this performer to wave their hands over the strings like a harp, to pluck the strings, to scrape their fingernails over the strings of the bass notes. Cowell brings out some very distinctive, different sounds from the piano, well suited to the subject of the piece.