Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Music for All Souls Day

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

"Grant them eternal rest, O Lord"

I find great beauty in the propers for the Requiem Mass, and on All Souls I find myself drawn to the musical settings of these most important and final of words.

The idea of eternity is so profound, so unimaginable, that sublime musical writing from the genius of composers is necessary to even glimpse the beginning of the magnitude of the concept. There are the big heavy requiems like Mozart, Verdi, Bruckner, and the more ethereal compositions of Faure, Durufle, and Rutter. The Faure is my favorite—-you can hear the haunting original ancient chant in its lines—-and if you have never heard it I urge you to iTunes or YouTube.

I heard the Britten War Requiem last weekend, from the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Lincoln Center. Britten wrote it in 1961 as a nonliturgical setting of the Requiem Mass, interspersed with the poems of the War World One poet Wilfred Owen. It's a powerful, moving juxtaposition, with the import of so much history: it was first performed in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in World War Two. For me, the music is too "modern" inflected with the dissonances of that mode.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

I also heard the LSO under Sir Colin Davis perform the towering, overwhelming, Missa Solemnis. It was one of the most moving concert experiences I have ever had.

It is particularly difficult to capture the emotion, genius, joy, exuberance of this piece in words. In 2010 Anthony Tommasini called it "one of Beethoven’s most inspired, audacious and mystifying scores. . . . one of Beethoven's greatest compositions. It encapsulated his deepest thoughts, his profound humility in the face of adversity, his triumph over fate, the dignity of humanity as a part of God's design." (Recent review here)

My favorite writing on the mass is from the Bohemian-Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick. Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis between 1819 and 1823, Hanslick's review was first published in 1861. Our civil war was raging, but Austria was thriving as a music capital. The whole piece is worth reading, but here are some excerpts (from Barry Mitchell's excellent blog, The Theory of Music, where you can read the whole review.)

"There is no other work of Beethoven’s which crushes the unprepared listener with such gigantic strength, at the same time raising him up again, deafened, delighted, confused.

A work by Beethoven conceived in the full power of his imagination and fully characteristic of his utter lack of compromise, is not to be enjoyed as easily, as freely, as a symphony by Haydn. In the Mass in D, Beethoven set down everything he possessed in the way of sublime ideas and religious feelings; he gave to this music three years of his life then in its sunset and brilliantly aglow with its double majesty of genius and adversity."

The Kyrie is the original Phil Spector wall of sound, amped with the entreaty of "Lord, have mercy." To experience the piece with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra is to have a tide wave wash over you, and then raise you up in the water, just like Hanslick describes. The first downbeat of the first cry is like a sacred "Tristan Chord": riveting, emotional, profound, joyous and so very full of life.

Just perfect for All Souls Day.

This performance of Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann is sterling. If you listen to nothing else today, listen to the first 4 minutes: the grand orchestra downbeat, followed by the melody in the oboes, then the enormous choral downbeat, out of which the soloists intone, until the chorus builds on triumphant thirds an explosion of sound.