Magnificat in D major - Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres
In May 1723 Bach was appointed Kantor of St Thomas, Leipzig, where he remained until his death in 1750. It was a hugely demanding post, but despite this enormous workload and recurrent disputes with the city authorities, Bach composed some of his greatest music during this period. His choral compositions alone include such towering masterpieces as the St John and St Matthew Passions, the Magnificat and the Mass in B minor, as well as the Christmas Oratorio and some 250 church cantatas.
The Magnificat - the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke I: 46-55) - traditionally formed part of the Roman Catholic service of Vespers. After the Reformation it was incorporated into the evening services of the Lutheran and Anglican churches, in which it was linked with the Nunc Dimittis. The Magnificat has been set to music more often than any liturgical text other than the Mass itself, in settings that vary enormously in style, from the purity of Palestrina’s exquisite four-part unaccompanied compositions to Monteverdi’s grand, dramatic settings written for St Mark’s, Venice, and the almost symphonic conception of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore with the Magnificat forming the final movement.
Bach’s Magnificat was written in Leipzig for the 1723 Christmas Vespers. The original version was in E-flat and included several additional Christmas texts. Some years later he revised it, removing the Christmas insertions to make the work suitable for use throughout the year and transposing it into D, a much brighter and more satisfactory key for the trumpets in particular. The extraordinary impact of Bach’s great choral works derives essentially from his remarkable ability to balance, yet at the same time to exploit to the full, the spiritual and dramatic elements of each text, whether it be one as concise as the Magnificat or as monumental as the St Matthew Passion. In its splendour and jubilation the work anticipates the great choruses of the later Mass in B minor.
Coronation Mass, Mass in C Major (K317) - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres
Of the sacred works that Mozart composed in Salzburg, none is as well known or as popular as the Mass in C K317. In 1779 Mozart returned from his disastrous trip to Paris and, partly out of material necessity and also to please his father, he took up a position in the Archbishop's service in Salzburg. His duties included “to provide the court and church with new compositions of his own creation". At the first opportunity Mozart fulfilled this demand, composing the mass for the Easter Day service on 4th April 1779. The composition’s use of wind instruments suggests a "Solemn Mass", and its length suggests a "Short Mass" as demanded by the requirement that, even for the most solemn occasions, a mass had to last no more than 45 minutes. The mass therefore had to have a grand ceremonial setting but a compact structure so Mozart omits formal closing fugues for the Gloria and Credo, the Credo with its problematic, vast text is in a tight rondo form, and the Dona nobis pacem recalls the music of the Kyrie.
Even as early as the 19th Century the mass was already popularly referred to as the "Coronation Mass". The nickname grew out of the misguided belief that Mozart had written the mass for Salzburg's annual celebration of the anniversary of the crowning of the Shrine of the Virgin. The more likely explanation is that it was one of the works that was performed during the coronation festivities in Prague, either as early as August 1791 for Leopold II, or certainly for Leopold's successor Francis I in August 1792. It seems that Mozart must have seen the chance to be represented at the coronation festivities in 1791, not only with La clemenza di Tito, but also with a mass composition. He was held in very high regard in Prague so it seems likely that the city would have taken on the mass as its own and the nickname would have grown from there.
Certainly the music itself is celebratory in nature, and would have fitted a coronation or Easter Day service perfectly. The soloists are continually employed either as a quartet, in pairs or in solo lines that contrast with the larger forces of the choir. Perhaps the most obvious reason for the mass's popularity in Prague in 1791/2 was the uncanny similarity between the soprano solo Agnus Dei and the Countess's aria Dove sono from Figaro which had been so successful there in the 1780s.
Ave Verum Corpus - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres
Mozart composed Ave Verum Corpus in 1791 in the middle of writing his opera Die Zauberflöte. He wrote it while visiting his wife, Constanze, who was pregnant with their sixth child and was staying in the spa, Baden bei Wien. Mozart set the 14th century Eucharistic hymn "Ave verum corpus" for Anton Stoll, the musical director of the parish of St. Stephan, Baden, who was a friend of his and of Joseph Haydn. The motet was composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, the autograph being dated 17 June 1791, less than six months before Mozart's death. It is only 46 bars long and is scored for SATB choir, string instruments, and organ. Mozart's manuscript contains minimal directions, with only a single sotto voce marking at the beginning. In contrast to the dramatic composition of his Requiem, aspects of which it foreshadows, the motet expresses the essence of the Eucharist with simple means suited for the church choir in a small town.
Exsultate Jubilate - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Sunday 25 November 2018, Malvern Theatres
This glorious solo motet was composed in January 1773, when Mozart was staying in Milan during the production of his opera ‘Lucio Silla’, and he wrote it for the castrato soloist in that opera. It will be performed by our soprano soloist. Although nominally for liturgical use, the motet has many features in common with Mozart's concert arias. The first three movements call on the souls of the blessed to celebrate the dawn and the defeat of darkness, and implore the Crown of Virgins (Mary) to grant us peace. The final virtuoso Alleluias show Mozart at his most brilliant.
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.
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.