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The Spectrum Singers

John W. Ehrlich
Music Director


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Laudate Dominum
Haydn and Mozart Masterworks

Saturday, November 18, 2000 at 8:00 pm.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
      Vesperae solennes de Dominica, KV 321 (1779)
Franz Joseph Haydn
      Mass # 12 in B-flat, Theresienmesse

Texts and Translations       Performing Artists       Review from The Boston Globe


Program Notes

Mozart's years in Salzburg produced some of this miraculous composer's most memorable compositions. Even at age 15, this remarkable individual was creating works of genius far beyond that of any of his peers -- works which today still astonish for their precociousness, ingenuity, and almost impertinent mastery

This is music of a manic intensity -- so highly charged that Colin Davis once referred to it as having "appalling adolescent energy." Why may this be so?

This was among the very last music for the church that Mozart wrote while in residence at Salzburg. Archbishop Colloredo had required that Mozart not repeat text, keep his church music free from unnecessary effects, and always be subservient to the liturgy. For a composer of Mozart's gifts of expression, this must have been extremely difficult. There was precious little room for his creative imagination to take flight. Perhaps as a result of these constraints, he focused all of his energies straight forward, and attempted to project all his pent-up energy toward rapid declamation of the text. It must have rankled him sorely, and I firmly believe that some of that frustration is audible in the impassioned excitement of much of this work. This is not to say that these works ever veer into coarseness or mere nervous energy. That rarely if ever occurs in this composer's music. There is palpable pressure, but always concentrated in a firmly muscular and life-affirming direction.

The Dominican Solemn Vespers is such a forbidding sounding title that many lovers of exuberant choral music by Mozart may be put off from sampling this most delicious of Mozartean feasts. But behind this title awaits one of the sunniest and most highly concentrated of Mozart's Salzburg choral works and one of this composer's most spectacular soprano "concert" arias. The title may actually be a misnomer according to Thomas Dunn, who has written that the correct title should be Vesperae Solennes de Confessore non Pontifice. He also suggests that the presently accepted title is actually from Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, presumably to help distinguish between the two sets of Solemn Vespers. Names notwithstanding, this extraordinary work, which unfairly languishes in the shadow of its better-known later twin -- The Solemn Vespers of the Confessor-- provides the model for the subsequent setting, yet yields nothing in spectacular choral energy and dramatic effect. One might argue that the later setting of Laudate Dominum offers greater sublimity than the joyous and festive setting it is accorded here. But once heard, the Dominican Vespers rightly demands "equal time" from its performers and audiences.

The work begins without introduction, and plunges headlong in medias res. The first Psalm (109) begins in a radiant C-major and is distinguished by vigorous declamations from both orchestra and chorus. Two fermate provide dramatic though brief respite at key points in the text, and with abundant word painting and an admirable economy of means we're energetically carried to the end of the first chorus.

Again without introduction, the second Psalm (110) set in e-minor begins at a more deliberate tempo with soprano solo answered by a very interesting triadic choral crescendo, complemented shortly by sequential falling 16ths from the strings. Solo voices provide a calm moment near the middle, only to be interrupted by a forte/fortissimo choral interjection reminding us in a frightening unison of the "...terribile nomen ejus." The movement closes quietly, but retains its pervasive agitato feeling to the last note. The third Psalm (111) takes off with unflagging energy in B-flat major and throughout is filled with the most extraordinary variety of dramatic and dynamic contrasts. Soloists regularly engage in animated dialogue with the chorus, but it's left to the chorus and orchestra to bring the movement to its affirmative "Amen."

Laudate Pueri, the next Psalm (112), is set in a sunny, bright F-major stile antico imitative counterpoint, unlike its subsequent setting in Mozart's Solemn Vespers of the Confessor which is set in d-minor, quasi-modal harmony, and distinguished by intervals of a falling seventh. Here the mood is palpably more upbeat, yet no less effective. Key phrases of the text are illuminated and underscored by powerful choral homophony.

Psalm 116, Laudate Dominum, is set in A-major as a brilliant Neapolitan-style concert aria for soprano solo, its high-spiritedness enhanced with a frisky organ obbligato.

The bold and festive Magnificat in C-major begins in slow tempo with themes and orchestration reminiscent of the much later Die Zauberflöte. Extrovert subito pianissimi for both chorus and orchestra twice interrupt the first word of the text, an effect which surely must have raised not a few Salzburgian ecclesiastical eyebrows! A vigorous interjection by trumpets and timpani brings us briskly back to earth, and we embark upon an extraordinary finale which, with its bustling strings and heightened dramatic writing for chorus and solo voices, could just as well be the close of an Opera Buffa. The action is soon interrupted by powerful unisons which lead to the Gloria, which is highlighted by further buffa effects such as sudden string fortepiani and playful downward violin arpeggi. And as in the best of opera finales, everything begins to converge, and with brilliant unisons for orchestra and chorus combined at the text "Amen," this marvelous work comes to an emphatic and life-affirming close.

To suggest that the Theresienmesse abounds with "typical Haydn" felicities is not meant to be demeaning in any way. Rather it is meant as the highest of praise. Yet what is "typical" of Haydn? A musical and creative force whose impact was and is felt centuries later, Haydn's all-encompassing catalogue of works for instruments and voices in seemingly endless combinations is one of the monuments of Western musical culture. Musicians worldwide love Haydn, eagerly anticipating the intellectual challenges and musical surprises which constantly enrich this composer's repertoire. Audiences, too, have embraced Haydn's music from the very beginning. His power to entertain, enlighten, and transport a listener remains potent to this day, and has inspired societies to spring up and regularly promulgate his music -- Boston's own Handel and Haydn Society is but one of many such organizations. But what is it that makes Haydn's music so special, so overall appealing?

Perhaps one can point to the composer's "universality" -- the astonishing ease with which he skillfully crafts music that musicians wish to play and audiences wish to hear. This is an oversimplification, of course. Much the same could be said for Mozart, certainly, and Schubert, Bach, and perhaps Brahms. In the case of Haydn, though, the enormous spread of musical riches -- quartets and trios, oratorios, masses, piano sonatas, concerti, operas -- significantly enhances the catholicity of appreciative auditors and performers. There is also Haydn's total lack of musical "predictability." One of the composer's most significant gifts is his unerring ability to surprise -- cadences are approached and often delayed with an almost delicious relish, harmonic progressions often astonish with their audacity, melodic sequences turn unexpected curves at just the point we may expect them to stay the same, soft or loud music is often interrupted with its opposite...all of this endears Haydn to us, and all of this is heard in abundance in the composer's Theresienmesse.

In his excellent introductory essay prefacing the Haydn score The Spectrum Singers are singing from tonight, William Herrmann, Haydn scholar and former Chair of the Music Department at Wellesley College, has written:

It is an interesting fact that the great choral works of Haydn were, with only a few exceptions, composed between 1796 and 1802. The twelve symphonies for London were all behind him and he was never to write another. Perhaps, as H. C. Robbins Landon has suggested, he was now searching for a new means of expression -- in which, however, the symphonic element would still play a major part.

...An immediate stimulus came in the form of a commission from Nicholas II, the fourth of the Esterházy princes whom the composer had served, to write a Mass each year in celebration of the name day of his wife, Princess Maria Hermenegild. A total of six Masses, each given its first performance in the Prince's chapel at Eisenstadt, resulted from this commission.

...The Theresienmesse, the fourth mass of the series, was composed between Haydn's two great oratories, The Creation and The Seasons. The autograph score bears the simple title of Missa, and the source of the nickname "Theresa Mass" is a mystery. The supposed attribution is to Marie Therese, the wife of the Emperor Franz II; but Carl Maria Brand, in his 1941 study of the Haydn Masses, emphatically refutes this theory, and suggest that the work might more properly be titled Hermenegildmesse, in honor of the Princess Esterházy for whom it, together with the other five late Masses, was really composed. Brand has also furnished the probable date of the first performance, September 8, 1799.

The Mass is scored for solo quartet, chorus, strings, two clarinets, two trumpets, timpani and organ continuo. The drastic reduction of the wind choir -- only clarinets and trumpets and no oboes and horns -- is unusual. Again, we are indebted to Brand for an explanation: a shortage of wind players at Eisenstadt in 1798 and 1799. This is why the Nelsonmesse, in its original version, also lacks winds. But Haydn has turned this lack into a virtue, the ensemble in each case imparting to the work a unique aura or personality that sets it off from its neighbors: in the Nelsonmesse the hard, metallic, fiery brilliance of D trumpets and solo organ; in the Theresienmesse the mellow glow and at times darkish hues of the B-flat instruments.

The Kyrie surprises a listener several times right off the bat. The opening Adagio and overall sense of calm are violated by forte chorus basses, trumpets, and timpani, a harsh and martial effect which occurs in different form several times later, each time interruptive, each time disquieting. An ensuing Allegro leads to a return to the Adagio of the beginning, it too interrupted twice at its close. Haydn has created the first of several dichotomies in the Theresienmesse: how are we meant to reconcile the harsh martial interruptions of a text which is an entreaty for mercy?

The Gloria begins spiritedly for chorus and orchestra. A notable feature is Haydn's dramatic choral reiteration of the Latin word Te (Thee). A calm Moderato ushers in the solo quartet's Gratias, which is shortly interrupted by an agitated ostinato triplet figure preparing the chorus's powerful Qui Tollis and haunting a cappella Miserere nobis. A sprightly Quoniam for soloists gives way to the chorus's optimistic Cum Sancto, it embellished with sparkling string melismas.

The Credo begins powerfully and energetically, with particularly toothsome text painting for the chorus basses whose text "descendit de coelis" is spiked with alternating up and down F-f E-e octave leaps. Note also the dramatic subito pianissimo asked of the entire chorus when it repeats the text "et invisibilium omnium." The solo quartet continues with a particularly poignant Et incarnatus est, with solo alto dramatically underscoring the words "sub Pontio Pilato." The drama is further enhanced by the very quiet and harmonically disquieting setting of et sepultus est. The ensuing forte g-minor chorus entrance sounds miles away harmonically from the b-flat-minor which ended the prior section -- another Haydn surprise. The solo quartet is heard in dialogue with the chorus -- an idea Haydn had just used to great effect in The Creation -- and leads to the vigorous fugue on Et vitam venturi which affirmatively ends this most marvelous of Credos.

The Sanctus begins nobly and quietly, only to be interrupted subito forte on the text "Dominus Deus Sabaoth." The soloists answer, and a joyful yet subdued Osanna follows. The Benedictus, as with several of the late Haydn masses, is unusual in its length and overall "mood," which seems quite light on the surface until trumpets and drums forcefully interrupt its somewhat naïve progression.

The almost "operatically" dramatic Agnus begins strongly with powerful chorus unisons, subito fortes following hushed pianos -- a gamut of dramatic effects. Trumpets and drums introduce the solo quartet which begins the Dona nobis pacem in lyric fashion, only to pass the music to the chorus which runs with it thereafter. Two more delightful subsequent handoffs between chorus and quartet ensue, and this extraordinary work ends with optimistic and affirmative pleas for peace.

John W. Ehrlich

Program notes Copyright (c) 2000 by John W. Ehrlich


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Created: Octpber 30, 2000   |   Modified: Feb 5, 2013