Program Notes

December 16th and 17th, 2016
Cary Hall, Lexington; David Hoose, conductor
St. Paul Church, Cambridge; David Hoose, conductor


Orlande de Lassus: "Sibylla Persica" from Prophetiae Sibyllarum
Claudio Monteverdi: "Laetatus sum"
Hugo Distler: "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" from Weihnachtsgeschichte, op. 10
Tomás Luis de Victoria: "O magnum mysterium”
Heinrich Schütz: "Nun danket alle Gott,” SWV 418 from Symphoniae sacrae III (1650)
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: "The Annunication" from Rosary Sonatas
Monteverdi: Gloria a 7
Schütz: “Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding,” Madrigal spirituale, SWV 450
Lassus: "Sibylla Europæa" from Prophetiae Sibyllarum
Arnold Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden, op. 13

Notes by David Hoose

No time of year, season, or event has generated as much music as has Christmas. And its range, from awful to awe-full, is overwhelming. Today, commercial music dominates the background, itself reaching from irrepressibly tawdry songs to ones that evoke heartfelt sentiment. (Hugh Martin’s 1944 “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” and Walter Kent’s 1943 “I’ll be home for Christmas” are my favorites.) More sophisticated and involved music, usually by composers of concert music, like Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Finzi (all British), can connect to a deeper place. These and other composers let the season shine through works nobly straddling the commercial, the concert hall, and the church.

But the music that knows and makes known the now often lost-in-the-fray heart of this day—the birth of Jesus—is in a special world. Created by composers who are both masterful and probing (and who never imagined the season’s cheapening potential), this music has been inspired by an outrageous idea: that of a world-changing miracle, and of the promise of inner and outer peace.

It is one thing to capture the sound of sleigh bells or to stir a touching feeling. But to capture an idea, or something of this day’s implications, is an altogether different matter. No matter how challenging, expressing an idea may be achieved most powerfully with music, not because music is vague, but because it is—to use Felix Mendelssohn’s word—precise. The music on this evening’s concert draws us into its precision and, at the same time, opens the door to the inexplicable.

Lassus (1532-1594) and Victoria (1548-1611)

Born in Belgium, Orlande de Lassus (also called Orlando di Lasso) traveled widely and, in his day, was well known and highly revered across Europe. He was extraordinarily prolific: a list of his compositions, which include madrigals, masses, magnificat settings (101 of them!), offices, lessons, hymns, lamentations, hymns, responsories, motets, and songs, is so long that it requires nine pages—each with two columns of very small type—in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Such abundant creation makes placing all of his music in chronological order difficult, and it is not easy to trace the curve of his musical growth.

We could easily imagine that the extreme, chromatic and sometimes disconcerting Prophetiae Sibyllarum were from Lassus’s last years, since we often have the idea that music tends to evolve toward greater complexity. In fact, Lassus composed the Prophetiae, comprising a prologue and twelve four-voice motets, when he was twenty-eight. He never again composed music quite as (quietly) wild as this, and many musicians in recent times have attributed to these motets a kind of forward-looking, twentieth-century “triadic atonality” whose gravitational center is utterly lost. In 1961, Edward Lowinsky, in Tonality and Atonality in Sixteenth-Century Music, wrote that Lassus “uses all twelve tones; he builds triads on ten different degrees, six of which result in harmonies foreign to the mode…The young genius probably implied that chromaticism was the music of the future.” However, assigning today’s values to yesterday’s thinking is misleading, and this interpretation does not take into account the motets’ clear tonal structure that the startling smaller events serve.

Instead of creating some avant-garde musical idea, Lassus was more likely searching for a precise and evocative response to enigmatic texts that, in the words of different oracles of the ancient world (Libyca, Delphica, Phrygia, etc.), prophesy the coming of Christ. The motets’ flow of seemingly unrelated triads can leave the listener momentarily at sea, a mirror of the bafflement that such an astonishing prediction would inspire. Lassus never again used this kind of chromaticism, and these motets are of a moment in his compositional life. But they fit perfectly into the musical creativity of a composer who continually sought the spirit behind the words. This mysterious music gives feeling to those mysterious words and together, they imagine the unseen.

While the motets of Prophetiae Sibyllarum are for unaccompanied voices, there is something about their otherworldly tone that perhaps even a purely instrumental reading, as in this evening’s performance of Sibylla Europæa, cannot obscure.

Tomás Luis de Victoria, the greatest Spanish composer of his era, composed far less music than Lassus, and less than Palestrina, whose refined music he absorbed more perfectly than anyone else in his day. Victoria’s reputation, which was large during his lifetime and has flowered again in our day, is based on relatively few works, including mass settings, lamentations, and motets. (Most expansive and far-reaching is his Officium defunctorum, an extraordinarily moving work that Cantata Singers will present in its 2017-18 season.) Despite the influence of Palestrina’s smooth counterpoint, Victoria’s voice is unmistakable in its poignant invention, flowing elegance, and mystical intensity.

If there is a perfectly conceived work on this program, it could be O magnum mysterium. In its mere four minutes, the unknowable at once gleams with confidence and hides among clouds, and a prescient sadness hovers even over the joyful “Alleluia.”

Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Schütz (1585-1672)

It is possible that Heinrich Schütz studied with Claudio Monteverdi when the younger composer was in his forties, during his second trip to Venice. It is also possible that they only knew each other’s music and that their contact was only indirect. Although Monteverdi was older, music history—from the distance of 400 years—now sees him as the more forward-looking composer, the creator of music as groundbreaking as Stravinsky’s. Monteverdi’s originality shows obviously in his operas and madrigals, but his sacred music also acts with an abandon that little German music—by any composer, of any time—ever dared. Schütz, on the other hand, was, and remains, unmatched in his ability to set a text in such a way that the music captures, in most nuanced ways, small and large ideas. He is one of the very few composers whose music is fully on the level of J.S. Bach’s.

Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum is the Bolero of the 17th century, music that, like Ravel’s, fixates on one small idea. In Monteverdi’s Laetatus, lacy fabric of duets and trios—sopranos, tenors, basses, and pairs of violins and trombones, as well as a single bassoon—glides over a four-note bass line that repeats, unchanging (and astoundingly) for 106 times. The duets resist the bass line’s squareness, though, never trapped by its immobility. Even the shift to a swinging triple meter doesn’t dislodge the bass line, for it persists simply in a different rhythm. Without warning, the Doxology halts everything—you’ve begun to think a change may never come, and when it does, it’s too soon—and we are catapulted into a new world. Not surprisingly, but quite satisfyingly, the obsessive bass line returns, and all gather to join in a spine-tingling close.

Monteverdi composed his Gloria a 7 for a mass that was celebrated in St. Mark’s, in November 1631, for relief from a Venetian plague that had killed at least 40,000 people. The remainder of the mass cannot be identified, but this splendid song of praise is so thrilling that other movements needn’t be imagined; like the Gloria from Bach’s Mass in B minor, it stands easily on its own.

The Gloria’s design flows naturally from the text’s structure and responds to its details of rhythm, emotions, and imagery. The “Et in terra pax”—and on earth peace—startles us into wonder, and the “Gratias agimus tibi”—thanks we give to Thee—invites a humble lowering of our gaze. The litany, “Qui tollis peccata mundi” creates its own three-part structure, with a trio of two sopranos and a bass, a tenor duet, and a bass duet following each other with similar material, each set off by calming violin duets. Even though the music falls into clearly articulated smaller sections, the entire work unfolds in a sure arch. The meditations repeatedly give into liveliness, and when the music’s thrust becomes unstoppable, the Gloria closes in magnificent exultation.

The twenty-one concertato settings for voices and instruments of Heinrich Schütz’s Symphoniae sacrae III (1650) could have arisen only from his admiration for Monteverdi’s virtuosic music. In this collection, Schütz seems to have received a kind of permission to praise God with vivid colors, which he probably would have previously thought disrespectful. The polychoral writing in “Nun danket alle Gott,” as well as in others of the collection, comes not from Monteverdi, but from his studies with Giovanni Gabrieli. Above its various influences, the Symphoniae sacrae III is the result of Schütz’s musical, emotional, and theological sophistication, as well as his profound imagination.

“Nun danket all Gott”—Now thank we all our God—pleads for peace with unusual grace and lightness. Two violins lead the way in a sinfonia both Monteverdian and Schützian, and a brief, swinging tutti that will become the refrain initiates the verses. Details in the solo vocal writing are free and fresh, and the easy confidence of the large design allows its intricacies to shine.

Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding” belongs to no larger collection of works, is known mainly to devotees of Schütz’s music, and lasts only three minutes. But no music could more beautifully inhabit these four lines of text that expresses Martin Luther’s awe in the face of the Lord’s manifestation as a humble infant. Bittersweet madrigalisms—unanticipated chromatics and aching dissonances—may suggest Monteverdi or even Schütz’s earlier music, but the motet likely originated as a madrigal by Luca Marenzio (c. 1533-1477). It is ultimately Schütz’s hand that transformed this five-voice music into a miraculous “spiritual madrigal.”

Biber (1644-1704)

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was the greatest violin virtuoso of the 1600s, and although he composed operas, sacred works, and ensemble music, his inventive violin sonatas secure his revered position in music history. These works demand high virtuosity, and their freedom of instrumental writing, as well as their spontaneous musical construction, sets them apart from the more tightly controlled works of Corelli and other contemporaries.

The Rosary Sonatas, sometimes called “Mystery Sonatas,” are a group of short works for violin and bass that correspond to a Rosary procession, a practice reaching back to the 13th century, in which congregants, at fifteen stations, pray and meditate on the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Biber’s fifteen sonatas are divided into three groups of five each: Joyful Mysteries, Sorrowful Mysteries, and Glorious Mysteries.

The first of the five Joyful Mysteries, “The Annunciation,” is in three parts. The Praeludium launches with a fanfare that immediately spills into a rushing fantasy. When it begins to settle, the gestures fall like leaves from a tree. The second section begins with a plain, four-bar bass line that becomes the unchanging ground for a series of eight variations. The Finale returns to the virtuosic scales of the opening, all over an immobile bass. When the violin finally slows, the sonata comes to a half close.

One of the distinguishing features of Biber’s violin music is his frequent use of scordatura, the retuning of the violin strings to allow varying colors and a variety of multiple stops not available with the normal, perfect fifth tuning. Most of the Rosary Sonatas require scordatura, some of them quite extreme. The concluding music and the first sonata, “The Annunciation,” however, use the normal violin tuning.

Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Distler (1908-1942)

John Ferris, Cantata Singers music director from 1976 to 1980, wrote of Hugo Distler in the Music Educators Journal that “...we might be presumptuous enough to compare him with the supreme master, Heinrich Schütz, in his uncanny knack for finding just the right melodic shape and the perfect rhythmic inflection to give musical life to every word and phrase of the text. His concern is not for illustrating the text through devices of tone coloring or descriptive word painting, but as Larry Palmer has quoted Oskar Soehngen, ‘Distler’s musical language dematerializes the words in order to liberate the Word, and thereby to explain it at the same time. And Distler is a preacher of impressive earnestness and consuming witness.’”

Distler began his formal music studies in piano and conducting, but in 1927, his teacher urged him to change direction to pursue composition and organ. Traditional counterpoint and the Protestant chorale guided his studies, and even though Distler knew J.S. Bach’s music from performances at Thomaskirche, his strongest influence was Heinrich Schütz.

Like other artists who lived and worked in Germany during the Nazi regime, Distler’s life was a complex and difficult one. At twenty-five, he joined the National Socialist Party, thinking its rise would bring new support to the arts and, in particular, Protestant church music. In 1937, he was made a regional examiner with the Reich Ministry for People’s Clarification and Propaganda, where he hoped he could protect vulnerable friends and colleagues, even though the organization was designed to ensure that teachers’ work supported the Party.

Distler was a devout Lutheran whose beliefs mirrored those of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men who opposed the state’s appropriation of the church. Soon he found his own music derided, especially by the Nazi Youth, which was particularly antagonistic toward religious music. Increasing hostility toward his own music, the threat of the draft, the loss of friends through emigration and death, and the general assault of the war itself led Distler into a deep depression; in 1942, at thirty-four years old, he took his own life.

Distler’s music displays none of the gloominess that came to overwhelm him. Much of it is shot with fresh and inventive joy, and Die Weihnachtsgeschichte—The Christmas Story—is no exception. In this small, unaccompanied oratorio, recitatives, choruses and chorales form the large structure, and it suggests something of Schütz’s Christmas Story. From this larger work, a set of variations is drawn on “Es ist ein Ros ensprungen,” Distler’s simple setting of the familiar tune that first appeared in the Speyer Hymnal in 1599, and that was harmonized by Michael Praetorius in 1609.

Distler’s variations never lose sight of the originating harmony, but each variation brings a new idea. The first variation is a loose double canon, the women paired and the men answering, all coming together at the end of each line. This variation identifies Mary as the ‘rose,’ and she appears in the voice of an alto in the next, weaving thoughts of her blessings inside and around the chorus’s anticipation of Christ’s prophesized crucifixion. A fragile lullaby follows, with the basses giving a comforting hand. The next variation suggests the shepherds’ following each other in their travels, the chorus dividing into two equal parts and one trailing behind the other. Finally, a breathlessly excited variation sings the Lord’s praise. When this music relaxes and folds inward, the theme, with new words, returns, the music miraculously transformed by its journey.

Arnold Schoenberg, thirty-four years older than Distler, came to the United States in 1934, where he lived until his death at the age of seventy-six. In 1938, the Nazis declared his music ‘degenerate,’ which they would have done regardless of the radical nature of his music simply because he was Jewish.

Schoenberg composed Friede auf Erden during a more peaceful time, in 1907, before the First War. Its text, an 1886 poem by the Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898), unveils the angelic proclamation of the first Christmas. This is really the last music that Schoenberg composed before he made his virtual, if not formal, break with functional harmony. Although the harmony of this late tonal music is often complex, its gravitational center is seldom far away, and no matter where the music travels, its connections to the surroundings, both near and far, are always clear.

Friede auf Erden’s journey from mysterious darkness to its uplifting close is a complex and tumultuous one, not the least because of the words’ sometimes nationalistic tone. But the text’s limitations, not conceiving what would engulf Germany within twenty years, dissolve in the face of the composer’s broader idea, one even he doubted was possible—a passion for the idea of eternal peace. The vision seems to have taken over and persuaded even this skeptical composer, however, for Friede auf Erden works its way through its own uncertainties and emerges with powerful conviction. In the presence of this impassioned music, it is difficult for us, too, not to trust.

Cantata Singers has turned to Friede auf Erden a number of times, and we will likely turn to it again, both because we wish to and because we must. Tonight, Friede is in its most appropriate home—in this time, in this year—a moment of collective hope for inner and outer peace.