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Programme Notes

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.

Belshazzar's Feast - William Walton (1902 - 1983)
Saturday 24 June 2017, Malvern Theatres

William Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire. He was a chorister at Christchurch, Oxford, and later as an undergraduate became very friendly with Sacheverell Sitwell, who then introduced him to his siblings, Edith and Osbert. After leaving Oxford Walton went to live with the Sitwells, where the exhilarating artistic environment provided exactly the kind of stimulus he needed for his creative development and greatly assisted in the promotion of his career. He had just turned twenty when he acquired fame and some notoriety with the outrageous Façade, a collaboration with Edith Sitwell in which her eccentric poems were recited through a megaphone from behind a screen, to the accompaniment of Walton’s witty, sophisticated music.A

In 1929 the BBC commissioned Walton, who by now was widely regarded as the young star of English music, to write a small choral work. Osbert Sitwell suggested a cantata on the Biblical story concerning the lavish feast thrown by the Babylonian king, Belshazzar. The libretto that Sitwell compiled is almost entirely from the Bible - mainly from Daniel, with extracts from Isaiah, Psalm 137 and the Book of Revelations.

Quite apart from the fact that the BBC’s commission was very welcome both financially and professionally, Walton’s motivation for the composition of Belshazzar’s Feast was twofold. He had been living as part of the Sitwell family for ten years and was by now very aware of the need to become independent and not known simply as their talented acolyte. He was also prompted by the great success of Constant Lambert’s jazz-inspired cantata Rio Grande, composed in 1929 to words by Sacheverell Sitwell. Progress on Belshazzar was slow and arduous, and Walton struggled with it throughout 1930, experiencing frequent blocks. ‘I got landed on the word ‘gold’, he said later. ‘I was there from May to December, perched, unable to move either right or left or up or down.’

The BBC had asked for a short work requiring no more than fifteen or so instruments, but by the time Walton eventually completed Belshazzar it had become a fully-fledged oratorio scored for huge forces comprising a very large orchestra, including a battery of percussion needing four players, a big chorus frequently divided into eight parts, a baritone soloist and an organ. Such an undertaking was beyond the BBC’s resources and so it was passed to the Leeds Festival, whose Musical Director was Sir Thomas Beecham. He casually remarked to Walton, ‘As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?’ Brass players happened to be available for a festival performance of the Berlioz Requiem so Walton wrote into the score additional parts for two bands, each of seven players. Beecham showed little interest in the new work and gave it to his younger colleague, Malcolm Sargent, to conduct.

Though the Leeds Festival Chorus had considerable experience of performing large works, the choir found Walton’s unfamiliar, dissonant harmony and jazzy cross-rhythms exceptionally demanding, and some of the sopranos and altos objected to singing the word ‘concubines’, much to the composer’s amusement. However, the first performance in 1931 caused a sensation and was a huge critical and public success. Not everyone viewed it favourably, though. Despite its impeccable biblical credentials, the Church of England considered it unsuitable for performance in cathedrals, and The Times music critic declared that it ‘culminates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy - the utter negation of Christianity’. The organizers of the Three Choirs Festival forbade it until 1957 and it was not performed at Worcester until 1975. Elsewhere it enjoyed enthusiastic popular acclaim and quickly became an established feature of the choral repertoire. It provided a further boost to Walton’s already glittering career. During the next few years he produced his remarkable First Symphony, the Violin Concerto and several major film scores.

Belshazzar’s Feast is cast in one continuous movement divided into three sections, each linked by an unaccompanied solo baritone recitative. The first section deals with Elijah’s prophecy concerning the enslavement of the Jews, and laments the loss of Jerusalem. A baritone recitative then describes the splendour of Babylon, whilst hinting also at its decadence. The second section is a wonderfully colourful portrayal of the lavish feast and parade of gods, and the outrage of the Jews at the desecration of their holy vessels. The second recitative is one of the most dramatic parts of the whole work, with a spine-chilling depiction of the writing on the wall, which is followed by the sudden death of Belshazzar, reinforced by the famous choral shout, ‘Slain!’ – a Walton masterstroke. The final section is a song of praise celebrating the fall of Babylon, with nevertheless a brief lament for its passing. The work culminates in a triumphant final ‘Alleluia’.

Belshazzar’s Feast deals with several important socio-political themes: the tribulations of a nation in exile, the impermanence of civilisation, and the downfall of a decadent empire. Musically, it follows in the tradition of the great 18th and 19th century English oratorios. Like them it employs a classic Old Testament story, it features the chorus in a major role, and it uses that trusted oratorio technique - recitative. It also takes from Elgar’s oratorios the Wagnerian model of a continuous music drama rather than the separate recitatives, arias and choruses of earlier works. But what gives Belshazzar’s Feast such an overwhelming impact is its earthy portrayal of pagan revels, violent retribution and triumphant jubilation, realised with astonishing vividness through the colourful choral and orchestral writing, edgy rhythms and sparkling harmony. All this was something completely new in 1931, and it is no wonder that the work quickly established itself as one of the pinnacles of the twentieth century choral repertoire.

John Bawden

Ebb and Immortality - Richard Knight, Musical Director of Malvern Festival Chorus
Saturday 24 June 2017, Malvern Theatres

Ebb, written by Worcestershire composer Richard Knight, is a 45-minute opera that attempts to explore issues of life and death, science and religion, by focussing on the thoughts of a woman involved in a hit-and-run incident. The music moves from accident to acceptance, trauma to tranquillity.

Norman Welch's fascinating libretto considers what it is to die, and conjectures on the thoughts of a young woman who is caught in a road accident. As time all but stands still for her, seconds become minutes as she reflects on influences of her childhood - a video made by her terminally ill father, a physicist, and memories of her uncle, a priest, singing at her father's requiem.

In looking for a text for a new choral piece to precede 'Ebb', the composer came across a speech made by the American orator, Robert G Ingersoll. Its focus on the idea of immortality seemed well suited to the intended context with its opening words, 'Immortality, an idea which, like the sea, has ebbed and flowed'; however, it is the final line, 'It is the rainbow - hope shining upon the tears of grief' that makes the passage ideal.