Program Notes

April 1st, 2016
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor

Program:

J.S. Bach: Ricercar, from the Musical Offering, orch. by Anton Webern
J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 60, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”—Dialogue between Hope and Fear
Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Orchestra, op. 5
Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem

Notes by David Hoose

The German Requiem of Johannes Brahms can easily stand alone on a concert, and it frequently does. However, Cantata Singers has always performed the Requiem with other composers’ music, music that we hope somehow speaks to this beloved work. The music we have chosen in the past has been instrumental—Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Busoni’s Berceuse Élégiaque, Weill’s Violin Concerto—if only because the magical entrance of the chorus—“Selig sind”—is all the more affecting when that sound is fresh in the ear.

Tonight, three compact, forward-looking works usher in the Brahms. Anton Webern’s kaleidoscopic examination of J.S. Bach’s magisterial six-part fugue from the Musical Offering is no ordinary orchestration. The result, often sounding as much like Webern as Bach, becomes a tantalizing, even hyper-romantic, struggle of the old and new.

Struggle is at the heart of Cantata BWV 60, which Bach subtitled a Dialogue between Fear and Hope. The argument of two sides of the same heart and mind, one terrified of the grave, the other ever trusting, reaches through the entire cantata. Only when an external power intervenes is Fear’s doubt quelled, but the final chorale leaves open the door to more doubt or—more likely—the unknown beyond.

The hair-raising harmonization of Cantata 60’s chorale may make the eruption of Webern’s Five Movements for String Orchestra less startling than it otherwise might be. It is astonishing, though, and it takes the next four movements to unravel its violence. The anger, the unresolved arches, and the eventual nostalgic, yearning phrases help explain his words to Alban Berg that “…except for the violin pieces and a few of my orchestra pieces, all of my works...relate to the death of my mother.”

Brahms’ German Requiem is offered to all who mourn, but its one movement for solo soprano unifies the entire work as a memorial to his own mother. The Requiem hovers between a state of confidence and blessed ambiguity, encompassing all the music before: the Ricercar’s old and new worlds, Cantata 60’s spiritual struggle, and the Five Movements’ journey from discomfort to sorrow and resignation.

J.S. Bach, Fuga (Ricercar) a 6 voci (No. 2 from the Musical Offering, BWV 1079), orchestrated by Anton Webern
Webern orchestrated the six-part fugue from the Musical Offering, music that specifies no particular instrumentation, for one each of flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, and timpani, as well as a full complement of strings. The first performance was in London in 1935, with Webern conducting the BBC Symphony, but the first German performance was not until 1954, nine years after Webern’s death.

Webern’s rehearing of the Bach Ricercar offers an excellent introduction to his own music, if less so to Bach’s. Without a single note or rhythm of the original altered, this orchestration suggests Webern’s late, rarified music—Concerto for 9 Instruments, Orchestra Variations and the two cantatas—in which the phrases are refracted through changing instrumental colors. The German music critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt (1901-1988) described Webern’s thinking: “The pointillist process, i.e. the division of a melody between several instruments…The endeavor to achieve the strongest possible accentuation allows the motifs to pass from one instrument to another, in the same way that the neo-impressionist painters Paul Signac and Georges Seurat used a large number of dots in close proximity.”

The German musicologist Heinrich Lindlar (1912-2009) had a more critical opinion: “Anyone who listens to the Ricercar as a work of Bach’s is bound to be disappointed. In Bach the motifs are the foundation stones of the long line: they fulfill their function in just being there without obtruding. Webern teaches analysis with the searchlight of tone-colour. So the motifs acquire a life of their own at the expense of the line.”

Lindlar’s “at the expense of the line” is an injustice to this piece, and to all of Webern’s music. The small gestures and quick changes of color are not the heart and soul of the matter, for all of Webern’s music, including this orchestration, stems from a long tradition that lives in the musical phrase. In 1934, when Webern wrote about his anxiety over National Socialism’s rise, he was also explaining his musical creed: “Art has its own laws...if one wants to achieve something in it, only these laws and nothing else can have validity...The greater the confusion becomes, the graver is the responsibility placed on us to safeguard the heritage given us for the future.” The details in Webern’s Bach are exquisite, but the long line is still vibrant. Hearing the conversation between the two gives great satisfaction.

J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 60, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”
Bach composed his “Dialogue between Fear and Hope” at beginning of his second tenure in Leipzig. The cantata is scored for alto (Fear), tenor (Hope), bass (who, though unnamed, represents the Holy Spirit, the Voice from Heaven, or even Christ), four voices for the final chorale, two oboes d’amore, horn (doubling the chorale melodies in the first and last movements), strings, and a continuo group of cello, bass, bassoon and organ.

When the Thomaskirche congregation heard Bach’s musical sermon on “O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort” in November 1723, only a half year after he had been appointed Kapellmeister, they must have been shaken, especially since many were likely still yearning for the easier music of Telemann or Graupner, each of whom had turned down the church’s offer of the music director position.

In the centuries since, Cantata 60 has continued to startle. Its twentieth century, Freudian bearing, detailed and thorough musical organization, as well as its bold harmonic palate especially excited Viennese composers of the fin-de-siècle, who took up the cantata as support for their own music. The final chorale harmonization so attracted Alban Berg that he integrated it into his own Violin Concerto, making his music and Bach’s barely distinguishable. The cantata’s end-of-life spirit, too, infused this concerto, music Berg dedicated to the “memory of an angel,” Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who had died of polio at age eighteen.

In Cantata 60’s first movement, the alto (Fear) sings a frozen-in-dread chorale melody that the tenor (Hope) repeatedly answers with a generous vision of salvation. Throughout the movement, the strings’ shuddering reveals the truth beneath Fear’s implacability—much as Mozart’s opera orchestra often exposes feelings his characters cannot admit even to themselves. The oboes’ mellifluous intertwining paint a picture of Hope’s optimism as more complex than he implies. The conflict between Fear and Hope continues through an extended recitative (in which the arduous melisma on “martet”—torture—is particularly telling) and then, a central duet. Here, the relationship between characters and instruments reverses: the solo string instrument mirrors Hope’s faith, and the oboe d’amore amplifies Fear’s agitation. Toward the close, Hope takes up the violin’s flowing lines and sails off, leaving Fear to face the terror of the grave alone.

In the second recitative, Fear persists, but a new voice, perhaps that of Christ, enters with a steadfastness that Hope lacked. Although the baritone’s musical lines are disjunct and chromatic, they find security in the steadiness of the continuo line. The final time he sings “die in dem Herren sterben, von nun an” (who die in the Lord from henceforth), the phrase reaches down toward the grave, and Hope, softening to this empathy.

The last movement’s words leave behind the struggle, but the musical setting suggests continuing doubt, or perhaps an unimaginable vision of the beyond. This spine-tingling chorale is Bach at his most extreme, and the harmonization threatens the bonds of eighteenth century musical language, particularly the phrase “mein großer Jammer bleibt danieden.” The words declare that suffering is behind—bleibt danieden—but the music does not let go of the pain—mein großer Jammer. Even through the cantata’s last sighs, “Es is genug,” questions remain.

Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Orchestra, op. 5(b)
Webern composed his Five Movements for String Quartet when he was twenty-six. Two decades later, he orchestrated the work for string orchestra, giving the music dimensions not possible with only four players. Although he was satisfied with this version, and it has become as well known as the original, few performances are likely ever to have fulfilled his fantasy of “at least 80 players,” a string section even larger than asked for in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Webern’s music is some of the most revered and most misunderstood music of the early twentieth century. The generation of composers who came after, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen leaders among them, were fascinated with the music’s elegant and easily noticed patterning, especially in his later, twelve-note music, and they found liberation in the music’s freshness. However, they and others treated all of his non-tonal music, including the Five Movements, to such minute dissection that you could easily think that those elements were all.

Many still notice only the captivating details. The brevity of his music contributes to the narrow focus; his thirty-one compositions with opus numbers take less than three hours to perform—considerably less time than any one opera from the Ring. Even the Five Movements, not by any means his shortest composition, last only about eleven minutes. The extreme compression in Webern’s music, our tendency to focus on the miniscule, and the extended instrumental techniques can divert our attention. But if we listen for phrases—lyrical sentences with beginnings, middles, and endings—the music comes alive with what Erwin Stein, student of Schoenberg, called “its exalted expression.”

The alarming first movement, barely three minutes long, launches with the ferocity of Beethoven’s Große Fuge. Although there is a calmer middle section, most of the movement is agitated, and when it splinters, the next four even briefer movements are needed to resolve the anxiety. The second movement is so introverted that it can barely whisper its three little phrases. A dialogue between the solo viola and cello lead the first two; the violins begin the third phrase with a yearning line, but they relinquish the ending to the solos.

The third movement whips by in two agitated phrases (the second gives up in exhaustion), and a third that accelerates with the propulsion of a steam locomotive. It is over in a flash. The fourth movement, the most unconventionally shaped, begins with a tiny introduction (two measures!), and each of the three phrases that follow ends in a wistful query.

The gently rocking fifth movement is the richest of all, but its proportions are still modest: an opening phrase sung by the cellos and basses, a splintered development section that contains just one highly expressive measure, and then a lyrical phrase that expands and folds back on itself. The movement closes with a longing, heartrending coda that disappears before it can resolve.

Webern always thought his compositions were two or three times longer than they actually are, and Schoenberg said that the music could express “a whole novel in a sigh.” That those novels are really more like short stories does not diminish their wealth of emotion. Those feelings depend, of course, on all those details of sound and gesture, but they flourish in the way the phrases breathe, just like most of the music that came before. In between the Five Movements’ moments of manic restlessness flows pregnant music, phrases full of tenderness, melancholy, and a hint of the eternal.

Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45
Brahms composed his largest choral work over a period of at least ten years. The first performance, in 1867, included only the first three movements, and the first performance of six movements took place on Good Friday in 1868. Because the Biblical texts included no mention of Christ, that performance also included excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, including the aria “I know my Redeemer liveth.” A year later, Brahms completed the Requiem by adding a movement for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra, music that directly reflects his sorrow over the loss of his mother, who had died in 1865. It is unclear whether he had always planned to include this movement, but was waiting to compose it until the pain of his mother’s death had eased, or whether he composed this movement only after judging the six-movement version musically and emotionally incomplete.

Johannes Brahms is said to have thought that his German Requiem would be more aptly named a human Requiem. His knowledge of the Bible was exhaustive—he spent his life reading his childhood copy—but he had little interest in, and perhaps little knowledge of, traditional liturgical structures. Brahms was, in essence, a humanist Christian.

It was inevitable, then, that this largest work of Brahms’ output would look away from a day of judgment, away even from the blessing of a merciful death, and toward solace for those left behind. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) and “Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13) are the words that frame Brahms’s rich and literate compilation of Biblical passages for the Requiem.

Brahms’ music gives room for anyone who yearns for peace, regardless of religious belief. But the German Requiem does imagine a life beyond, and three times a vision shines through the clouds. We hear it for the first time soon after the Requiem has begun to unfold. Flowing smoothly in the home key of F major and gently dipping down into darker key areas, it pauses, and then the harmony lifts to an unexpected and transparent sphere, a major third above F major—A major. The chorus suspends mid-thought, listening as the most personal of instrumental voices, the oboe, reaches heavenward, the soul released from the body. The singers resume and the music settles back into F major. This wordless, ephemeral glimpse recurs near the end of the first movement, after the words “they that sow in tears” and “he that goeth forth and weepeth,” are sung in the dark key of D-flat, a major third below the home key. Listeners do not need to analyze these precious moments to feel like a ghost has floated by and for their breath to be taken away.

In the last movement, when resolution seems near, the music again lifts from F major into the gleam of A major: “Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their words do follow them.” This time, however, the chorus doesn’t just listen, the liberating key does not vaporize, and the music spins out an image of an ultimate destination. When it is time to slip comfortingly back to F major, it is clear that this is home for only a moment.

These moments are only the tiniest in the German Requiem’s nuanced world. Subtleties, musical and emotional, permeate the entire work, but with the Requiem’s poised, forthright face—as well as its familiarity—they can easily elude us. In those jewel-like moments that permeate the Requiem lie doors to the infinite.