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Programme Notes

A German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) - Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Saturday 23 June 2018, Malvern Theatres

For many years Brahms had been preoccupied with the idea of composing a Requiem, but he only began serious work on it in 1866 at the age of 33. It was completed the following year with the exception of the fifth movement. In its incomplete form Ein Deutsches Requiem was first heard in Bremen Cathedral on Good Friday 1868. The final version was performed the following year at Leipzig’s famous concert-hall, the Gewandhaus.

Brahms may have written the Requiem in memory of his mother who died in 1865; alternatively, it may have been a memorial to his great friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, whose madness and tragic death had profoundly affected him; or indeed to no single person. The composer himself gave no indication but, as with all great music, the universal message of its vision transcends the circumstances of its conception.

The work's title reflects Brahms's use of the Lutheran Bible rather than the customary Latin one. He compiled the text himself from both the Old and New Testaments and from the Apocrypha. It has little in common with the conventional Requiem Mass, omitting as it does the Last Judgement and any final plea for mercy or prayers for the dead. It also makes only a passing reference, in the last movement, to Christian redemption through the death of Jesus. Brahms's stated intention was to write a Requiem to comfort the living not one for the souls of the dead. Consequently the work focuses on faith in the Resurrection rather than fear of the Day of Judgement. Despite its unorthodox text, the German Requiem was immediately recognised as a masterpiece of exceptional vision and it finally confirmed Brahms's reputation as a composer of international stature.

John Bawden

Messiah - George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759)
Saturday 24 March 2018, Great Malvern Priory

When Handel settled in London in 1712 there was already a thriving Italian opera scene and he soon became its leading figure. However, making a profit on these costly ventures was difficult. Despite their critical acclaim, Handel’s Italian operas never attracted large audiences and public taste was changing quickly. By the 1730s people were becoming increasingly intolerant of the unfamiliar language, ridiculous plots, arrogant soloists and over-elaborate music. Box office revenues started to plummet. Handel had invested heavily in his own company and this alarming collapse seriously affected his finances. Faced with possible bankruptcy the ever-resourceful composer turned to oratorio as a potential solution. Though it has much in common with opera, oratorio is not staged and is consequently a great deal less costly to produce. It was a genre in which Handel had already experienced some modest success, beginning with his first English oratorio, Esther, composed in 1720. In February 1741 he staged his last Italian opera, which closed after just three performances.

Handel's oratorios were aimed at a new audience: the Protestant middle classes. The musical style was largely direct and straightforward and the librettos, in English, were generally based on passages from the Old Testament, a common literary heritage with which everyone was thoroughly familiar. In an era of increasing prosperity and expanding empire these vivid Biblical stories of larger than life heroes leading a people who, if they followed God’s law, were specially protected and given victory over their enemies, must have held particular resonance for the middle classes of eighteenth century London. Musically, Handel’s most significant innovation was his use of the chorus, which was given a much greater role and now enjoyed equal status with the soloists. His monumental style of choral writing, exemplified by the 1727 coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, was ideally suited to the task.

In 1741 Handel had already begun work on a new work, Messiah, when he received an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to visit Dublin. He accepted the invitation, taking his Messiah score with him. It was first performed at the New Music Hall, Dublin, in April 1742, and was an unqualified success. In addition to its musical impact, its success was also due to the donation of a large part of the proceeds to various Dublin charitable institutions, a pattern later repeated in London with Handel’s association with the Foundling Hospital.

Though Messiah shares many common characteristics with Handel’s other oratorios, it is the least typical in several respects: it has more choruses than any other except Israel in Egypt; it does not have a newly written libretto but one compiled from existing short passages from the Bible; and it has no named characters or overall narrative, presenting instead a series of contemplations on the life of Christ and Christian redemption. The success of Messiah owes much to the fine libretto by Charles Jennens, who had previously collaborated with Handel on his oratorio Saul.

The work is divided into three parts. Part One deals with the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth and is generally performed around Christmas.

Part Two is the dramatic heart of the work. It tells of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. It comprises a wide range of emotional expression, from the crowd’s derisive taunts in ‘He trusted in God’, to the heartbreaking alto aria, ‘He was despised’ and the bass soloist’s fierce rage in ‘Why do the nations’. This part ends, however, on a gloriously optimistic note, with trumpets, drums and chorus blazing out their triumphant ‘Hallelujah!’.

Part Three consists of commentary, principally on the resurrection and the theme of Christian redemption. This section contains some of Handel’s most inspired writing, includiing the soprano aria, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and the bass aria, ‘The trumpet shall sound’, with its spectacular trumpet solo. However, it is in the towering final choruses, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’, that Handel truly surpasses himself with music that carries all before it in an exultant affirmation of faith.

Handel composed Messiah in just 24 days, a remarkably short space of time but not exceptional by his extraordinary standards. More than 250 years have passed since its first performance, yet its status as one of the great icons of European music remains undiminished, and it continues to speak to millions of people of many cultures and faiths around the world.

John Bawden

Requiem in D minor K626 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Sunday 26 November 2017, Malvern Theatres

The background to Mozart’s much-loved Requiem, is shrouded in mystery.

Mozart composed part of it in Vienna in late 1791, but it was unfinished at the time of his death on 5 December of the same year. A completed version, apparently autographed by Mozart, was delivered to Count Franz von Walsegg some time in 1792. However, at around the same time Mozart’s widow, Constanze, appears to have sold the score to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia.

At the time of Mozart’s death, only the first two movements, Requiem Aeternam and Kyrie were completed in all of the orchestral and vocal parts. The Sequentia, including Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Recordare, Jesu pie, Confutatis, and Lacrymosa, and the Offertorium were completed in skeleton, with the exception of the Lacrymosa, which breaks off after the first eight bars. The vocal parts and the continuo were fully notated and occasionally, some of the prominent orchestral parts were briefly indicated.
Joseph von Eybler was one of the first composers to be asked by Mozart’s widow, Constanze, to complete the score. He worked on the movements from the Dies irae to the Lacrymosa and then passed the manuscript on to Mozart’s pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr borrowed some of Eybler's composition in completing the work, adding his own orchestration to the movements from the Kyrie onward, completing the Lacrymosa, and adding several new movements which a Requiem would normally include; Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. He then added a final section, Lux aeterna, by adapting the opening two movements, which Mozart had written, with words which end a Requiem mass. According to both Süssmayr and Constanze, this was done in accordance with Mozart's directions, which he left on "little scraps of paper." The extent to which Süssmayr's work may have been influenced by these "scraps", if they existed at all, remains a subject of speculation amongst musicologists to this day. It has also been suggested that other composers may have helped Süssmayr.

Further mystery surrounds the commission for the work which, again according to Constanze, was delivered by a mysterious “grey messenger” whose identity Mozart did not try to uncover. She suggested that Mozart came to believe he was writing the Requiem for his own funeral. The mysterious messenger came from the eccentric count, Franz von Walsegg, who commissioned the piece for a Requiem service to commemorate the anniversary of his wife's death on 14 February. An amateur chamber musician, the count routinely commissioned works by composers and passed them off as his own. This plan was frustrated when the completed Requiem received its first public performance on 2 January 1793, a little over a year after Mozart's death. The performance was organised by Baron van Swieten for the benefit of Constanze whose financial situation was difficult following Mozart’s death. It was held in the Jahn-Saal in Vienna and proceeds from the benefit were reported as amounting to over "300 gold ducats". However, controversy about the composition of the work, its actual initial recipient and its publication has never been completely resolved.

Te Deum - Franz Josef Haydn (1732 - 1809)
Sunday 26 November 2017, Malvern Theatres

This magnificent choral drama in three parts was commissioned by Empress Marie Therese, the wife of Franz 1 of Austria. Haydn was a frequent visitor to the imperial palace in Vienna. The Empress had a good voice and Haydn once accompanied her in a private performance of the soprano part of The Creation. The Empress repeatedly asked Haydn for some specially-composed church music but Prince Esterhazy was reluctant to allow his famous employee to write for anyone but himself. Evidently, Marie Therese finally got her way - we know not how! The Te Deum was composed around 1799 but its first recorded performance was not until 1800 in Eisenstadt, the home of the Esterhazy family, to celebrate the arrival there of Lord Nelson (and, inevitably, Lady Hamilton).

The Te Deum is a choral work throughout, without the solo sections that feature in Haydn's Masses and other sacred works. Two lengthy Allegro passages surround a central Adagio, effectively making the work a concerto for chorus and orchestra. Haydn uses the Gregorian Te Deum plain-chant from the eighth psalm-tone.

The opening theme in the Allegro, in the traditional festive key of C major, is sung in unison. The Adagio at Te ergo quaesumus opens with a thunderous unison C and proceeds, mysteriously, in C minor with the harmonies moving chromatically to stunning, if brief, effect. The final Allegro returns to the same cheerful mood as the first passage, concluding with a stirring double fugue on the words In te Domine speravi. A coda-like section, distinguished by overlapping instrumental and choral phrases with syncopated rhythms, brings the work to a glorious close.

© Aylesbury Choral Society, December 2003

Solemn Vespers of the Confessor (Vesperae solennes de Confessore) K339 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Sunday 26 November 2017, Malvern Theatres

Famed for the beauty of its solo soprano aria, Laudate Dominum (Psalm 116), the Vesperae solennes de Confessore (Solemn Vespers of the Confessor) is the second of two settings of the early evening Vespers service Mozart composed for use in Salzburg Cathedral. Both date from shortly after the composition of two important masses, "Coronation" Mass, K. 317 and the Mass in C, K. 337. The Solemn Vespers of the Confessor dates from 1780 and follows the standard Catholic liturgy in including the Magnificat and the five psalms used in the Vespers service, the concluding Laudate Dominum, Dixit Dominus (Ps. 109), Confitebur tibi (Ps. 110), Beatus vir (Ps. 111) and Laudate pueri (Ps. 112). It is scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists and chorus, with an orchestration including bassoon, two trumpets, three trombones, strings, and organ. The addition "de confessore" (not Mozart's own) suggests that the work may have been used for a saint's day, although no specific connection has been established. "Solennes" simply indicates that the work has orchestral accompaniment. Unlike the Salzburg masses, the settings of the Vesperae solennes de Confessore and its companion work composed the previous year, Vesperae solennes de Domenica, reveal a personal side of Mozart's approach to sacred music. Two years after he settled in Vienna in 1781, Mozart asked his father to send him the two Vespers settings so that he could perform them for Baron van Swieten, the eccentric nobleman who had introduced him to the works of Bach and Handel.