Program Notes

March 20th, 2015
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor

Program:

Ludwig van Beethoven: Elegischer Gesang, op. 118
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 86 in D Major
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Great Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a

Notes by David Hoose

To me, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven have always made awkward bedfellows. Their languages relate but their temperaments do not, and their voices, to my mind's ear, clash like adjacent saturated colors. Haydn's musical sophistication, Mozart's sonic suavity, and Beethoven's ideas made into sound do not always complement one another. Mozart's effortlessness may seem merely facile in the company of Haydn's adventurousness. Beethoven's conscious choices can appear self-conscious next to Mozart's finely proportioned phrases. And Haydn's singular beauty can be lost in the shadow of Beethoven's boldness and Mozart's warmth.

When these three are with each other, we easily play favorites, so I usually avoid programming them together. A concert of Brahms and Schoenberg invites connections; likewise, a program of Bach and Schumann, or Gesualdo and Stravinsky. But some seemingly natural partners resist pairing—Bach and Handel, Debussy and Ravel, Schumann and Brahms. Though Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart may diminish one another, they all stand at the summit as the only composers able to reveal the possibilities of this particular musical language.

However, these three works—Beethoven's inward Elegischer Gesang, Haydn's spacious 86th Symphony, and Mozart's edgy Mass in C minor—are unusual together: they converse more than argue. Their emotional differences and musical similarities still ring clear, but these compositions play off, reflect upon, complement and, finally, compliment each other.

Perhaps it is the Elegischer Gesang's fragile radiance that anticipates the reflective moments in the Mozart. And the 86th Symphony's emotional generosity that affirms and deepens the shine of the Mozart Gloria or Cum sancto fugue, and its more probing moments that echo the Beethoven. Or the tight coil of the C minor Mass that picks up on Haydn's fire. Although each composer calls up something of the other, it is an elusive conversation not easily pinned down. However, it can be felt.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Elegischer Gesang, op. 118
Composed in 1814, and published in 1824, Elegischer Gesang is based on a text by the poet and dramatist Ignaz Franz Castelli (1781-1862). Beethoven wrote this brief work for four voices and string quartet; this performance, for chorus and string orchestra, adds double basses to the sonority.

Few of us would assume that a landlord could inspire abiding affection, but in remembrance of the "transfigured" wife of his beloved landlord Baron Johann von Pasqualati, Beethoven composed a miraculous, endearing work that uncovers his heart as fully as some of his more ambitious music. Elegischer Gesang springs from a fertile time for Beethoven-1814 was the year he revised Fidelio—and the music strives for more than its humble dimensions suggest.

The key is E major, a transcendent one for composers from Bach (Cantata BWV 8) to Bruckner (Symphony No. 7), and one that Beethoven reserved for otherworldly, contemplative moments—the slow movement of his C minor Piano Concerto, the op. 109 Piano Sonata, and this gentle embrace of a lost friend. The strings patiently spin out two searching phrases that resist settling until the singers enter, their hymn full of hesitation. The expression begins to sustain and then expands dramatically ("für den Schmerz!"), rising to a precipice, and the music could be on the verge of returning to the home key. But Beethoven, choosing a much more unexpected resolution of the unstable harmony ("Schmerz"), plunges the music into darkness (D minor?), a lonely fugal section. After using A major ("himmlischen") to pull out of its gloom, this section winds toward the dominant of E major and, once reached, suspends for an uncommonly long stretch, both reaching for and refusing to return home. When it does nestle back into E major, the clouds have begun to fade, but not all is settled. As the energy wanes, the voices—like the strings at the beginning—enter in ascending order, now very still and reluctant to end. When they do touch on the resolution, the strings answer with a sigh that evades finality, and the music dissolves.

Many compositions this brief can sound tossed off or merely attractive. Nothing in the Elegischer Gesang is casual, however: every detail is beautifully etched, each phrase fresh, and the arch satisfyingly gauged. If this unassuming piece were the only evidence of any composer's music, we would know that someone of refined skill, powerful intellect, and deep feeling had composed it.

Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 86 in D
This symphony is the fifth of Haydn's six 'Paris' Symphonies, works he composed in 1785 and 1786. They were the result of a commission from the Concert de la Loge Olympique, a concert series designed to "cultivate music, and to give excellent concerts to replace those of amateurs." The `Paris' Symphonies mark the arrival of Haydn's most mature work, and with their publication, his reputation expanded to all of Europe and beyond. His pocketbook grew, too, since he secured (somewhat questionably) as many as three fees from different cities for their publication.

The 86th Symphony is scored for a large orchestra of one flute, pairs each of oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, and strings; exactly the same instrumentation Mozart, in 1788, would use in his "Jupiter" Symphony. The work lasts about 25 minutes.

Haydn was blessed with a fine orchestra, whether it was made up of the overworked musicians of Esterhazy or the finest virtuosi of Paris and London. His expectations of musical brilliance and understanding were uncompromising, and he pushed the orchestra in ways that, while not as obvious as Beethoven, Berlioz or Stravinsky, redefined professional music making. Still today, the mature symphonies of Haydn should be in the diets of all musicians, for they teach us how music breathes in ways that little other music does. Young and aspiring instrumentalists, too, should confront this music, but its depth and subtlety can fly right past those who are looking to Shostakovich and Mahler as models of emotional and musical complexity.

Haydn was also blessed with a fine audience—alert, eager, curious listeners hungry for challenges and excitement—and he expected as much from them as he did of his musicians. The private subtleties of his string quartets may push the players and listeners even more than the symphonies, but these ambitious and dazzling works show Haydn at his very best, marrying a popular style (it was, after all, the loudest music of the day) and dramatic innovation.

About a fourth of Haydn's more than 104 symphonies begin with slow introductions. Some flare up, some sneak in; some seem to stand alone, distinct from the body of the movement, and some flow smoothly into the quick music. This introduction of Symphony 86, with a beautiful surprise, does all those things.

The symphony enters quietly, nobly, the woodwinds perched above walking string pizzicatos. The entire orchestra leaps in, violins plummet, hammering repeated notes grip the orchestra, and the low instruments rush upward. When this eventful phrase ends, the repeated notes, quiet and insistent, reappear. Two delicate sighs pull inward, but the orchestra again interrupts, its repeated notes now four times faster. Stability appears (with calmer repetitions), as woodwind and brass fanfares point toward the introduction's end.

However, bypassing the expected last chord, the Allegro spiritoso takes off with an out-of-nowhere twist in the harmony and a quick shift of gears. The introduction's sighs, rushing scales and fanfares will play their part in this outgoing music, but it is the obsession with repeated figures that propels and shapes most of the first movement.

As startling as the kind of harmonic shift that undercuts the line between the Adagio and the Allegro spiritoso is, it is when things happen, as much as what happens, that energizes Haydn's music. He spent his life developing the full richness of a musical language that he had practically invented, and by the time he composed the 86th Symphony, he could pull off practically anything he wanted with great ease. Again and again, he builds expectations, small and large, only to thwart them, sometimes jolting the phrase with an unanticipated harmony, but more often giving exactly what's expected, just not when it's expected. I remember Craig Smith saying (of the last movement to the equally wonderful 88th Symphony) that Haydn toys so long with our thinking the main theme is going to return that we begin to doubt that it ever will, and then when it does, it feels too soon. Haydn's mature technique and imagination are so fluent and integrated that the surprises often leave us uncertain how they happened. In fact, we're often not even aware of the surprises as such, but if we are alert—as his audience must have been—we will feel their effect, whether in smiles or tears. Haydn was not only the greatest magician, but also a profound one. His sleights-of-ear delight, but they also penetrate, for his is music that chooses wit over humor.

The second movement, with the unusual name Capriccio, veers from one extreme to another. Long silences interrupt stealthy footsteps, soft dancing spins into arabesques, and fury meets abrupt exclamations. Eventually, grace and dismay inhabit the same moment. In another composer's hand, such extreme contrasts could be silly, but Haydn often turns most serious in his capriciousness. Lightness can carry sadness, and several quiet moments in this movement sink into forlorn despondency. The emotions provoked by Haydn's music are seldom simple or straightforward (how misleading is the image of the genial "Papa Haydn"!), and we can find ourselves weeping, even as we chuckle.

After this schizophrenic music, the confident Menuet comes as a reprieve. Its swinging melody and striding bass line, however, run into their own rhythmic twists and contrapuntal intrigue. The Trio, however, is the calm center of the Symphony, the solo woodwinds, doubled by the violins, swinging through an untroubled melody and buoyed by waltzing pizzicatos.

The Finale scampers in from high, untethered and launching a breathless drive that hardly ever lets up. Giddy, fuming, and sassy characters are in play, all different and, at the same time, drawn from the repeated notes that had driven the first movement. In the last movement's scintillating, inescapable exuberance, the bracing grandeur of the opening movement finds its counterweight.

Last movements of symphonies have often given composers difficulty, perhaps because the earlier movements have asked and answered the provocative questions, and there is little for the finale to achieve. Mozart solved the imbalance only in his last two symphonies, the G minor and the "Jupiter"; Beethoven struggled with it in the Eroica. Likewise, Haydn did not always create fully satisfying finales, but his success rate was extraordinarily high, and many of his last movements define the work's aspirations as vividly as the first. The Finale of the 86th, even as it giddily hurtles to the end, confirms and deepens the whole symphony's nobility, weight, and emotional breadth.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mass in C minor, K. 427
Mozart intended his C minor Mass as a gift to his bride, Constanze. He began work on it in 1782, and conceived it in the vein of Bach's Mass in B minor and Haydn's Missa St. Caeciliae. In the following year, the work was performed in Salzburg, with Constanze singing one of the demanding soprano solos, but it remained incomplete. Though there was a commanding torso—the Kyrie, Gloria, two parts of the Credo (Credo in unum Deum and Et incarnatus est), Sanctus and Benedictus—numbers of the inner sections of the Credo and the Agnus Dei had not been composed. Mozart never finished the work.

Only a shorthand score that includes most of the vocal parts, the instrumental violin and bass parts, and the exquisite woodwind parts for the Et incarnatus est, along with individual parts for the organ and trombones, survive. Most efforts to create a performing edition of this powerful music have centered on making orchestration decisions where there is little or no evidence of what Mozart intended. More ambitious attempts have ranged from retrofitting other Mozart works with the texts of the missing sections to the wholesale composition of missing movements. This performance presents the movements that Mozart composed, in a version created by the Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon and with some alterations made by this music director. Although the extant music does not represent a complete setting of the mass text, it has a musical and emotional wholeness that may prevail over completeness or attempts to match Mozart's imagination.

The Mass in C minor is scored for four or five soloists, chorus (configured variously in four, five and eight parts), and an orchestra of one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, three trombones (which often double the alto, tenor and bass choral parts), organ, and strings. Even in its incomplete form, the work is grand, lasting about 55 minutes.

All of Mozart's religious music dances a fine line between piety and gallantry. Something in his entire musical thinking, found no less in the sacred works of Haydn and Beethoven—the peculiar interaction of harmony and rhythm, the way style assumes ascendancy, the need for art to express—conspires to make a sometimes awkward relationship between religion and music.

For long stretches of the C minor Mass, however, any discomfort evaporates. The most obviously integrated moments are those movements that mirror some of the characteristics of Baroque music: the Kyrie, which recalls the dotted rhythms of a Handel overture, and the Qui tollis, whose tortured chromaticism could be at home in Israel in Egypt. Even the high flying soprano duet, Domine, is intricately designed with the close weave of imitative contrapuntal lines that look like (if don't sound like) Bach or Handel.

In the fully operatic Laudamus te and Et incarnatus est, however, the rub between sacred and profane might be imagined. Such flowery vocal lines and gyrations could seem out of place in the context of modest religious practice. But it is here that Mozart's expression becomes even more impassioned. Instead of letting the schism between style and substance reduce the emotion to mere manner (as a lesser composer might), he uses the conflict to expressive and musical advantage, reaching further in every way, emotionally and spiritually. The more personal the text's emotion, the more he flows into an operatic style, and the more powerful the fervor becomes. At this level of skill and inspiration, contradictions evaporate. Instead, there is a shift of perspective: the spirit is made incarnate and—"Neige deine Ohren zu mir"—God bends down his ear to us.

-David Hoose