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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
May 5-6-7, 2017
91st Season / Subscription Concert No. 8
Michael Allsen

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Our closing concert features two works, beginning with the rarely-heard Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra or by Charles Villiers Stanford. Playing the Overture Concert Organ is Nathan Laube, who last performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2014, as soloist in Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante. We then turn to Brahms’s most profound choral work, the German Requiem. Joining the MSO and the Madison Symphony Chorus are two soloists making their MSO debuts at these concerts: soprano Devon Guthrie and bass-baritone Timothy Jones. The German Requiem is an uplifting meditation on death, redemption, and comfort for the living.

 

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1925)

Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra, Op.181

 

Stanford completed this work on April 15, 1921. It was not performed until 1990, when it was premiered and recorded by organist Gillian Weir and the Ulster Orchestra. This is our first performance of the work. Duration 21:00.

 

Charles Villiers Stanford was one of the leading figures in what has sometimes been called the “Second English Musical Renaissance”—a move in the late 19th century by British composers to create a distinctly English musical style, distinct from the German Romantic works that dominated England’s concerts in this period. Stanford and his colleagues—particularly his most important contemporary Hubert Parry—exerted influence both as successful composers and conductors, but also as teachers: both taught at the Royal College of Music, and both held professorships, Stanford at Cambridge University, and Parry at Oxford. Stanford’s students included many of the most important English composers of the next two generations, most notably Herbert Howells, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

 

Born in Dublin, Stanford was raised in a music-loving family—his father was one of the city’s most prominent lawyers, and hosted regular private concerts. Their home was also a regular stop for prominent soloists from throughout Europe who performed in Dublin. Stanford studied music at Cambridge, and while still a student in 1874, he was appointed organist of Cambridge’s Trinity College, a position he would hold for nearly 20 years. He would become a prolific composer, writing seven symphonies, several operas, dozens of orchestral and chamber works, and a host of vocal pieces—including many works for the Anglican service that are still very much in use today. Stanford remained fiercely proud of his of his Irish heritage, and many of his works, including his six Irish Rhapsodies for orchestra, use Irish settings and folk music. Musically, he was a staunch and outspoken conservative—supporting the music of Brahms and Dvorák and his more conservative English contemporaries, but railing against the music of Wagner, and despising the more modernist music of the early 20th century.

 

By the time he composed his Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra in 1921, Stanford was a deeply respected figure in British music, but his heyday as a popular composer was decades past. He continued to compose in all genres, but was particularly devoted to the organ, composing a several substantial organ works during the years around the first world war. Though Stanford gave his Concert Piece an opus number, it was never performed or published during his lifetime—in fact a later note from his agent indicates that it was rejected by eight different publishers. It was not resurrected until 1990, when organist Gillian Weir recorded it for the first time.

 

The Concert Piece is score for brass, percussion and strings. There are several distinct sections, beginning with a compelling minor-key Allegro moderato, with a bold statement from the organ punctuated by the brass. This tragic mood subsides for a more lyrical hymn from the organ (Andante con moto)—the beginning of a long central slow section. After a stormy transition Stanford introduces a rather chromatic and questing new idea. After extensive development of this idea, the mood changes again with a strident statement from the brass, and this new idea is forcefully worked out by organ and brass. The piece ends with a grand reworking of the opening music, and a blazing coda.

 

 Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

A German Requiem, Op.45

 

Brahms worked on his Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) between 1857 and 1868. There were incomplete performances in 1867 and 1868, but the first complete performance was at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on February 18, 1869. This is our sixth performance of the work: the first was in 1952, and the most recent, in 1994, was part of the farewell concert of the late Maestro Roland Johnson—Music Director of the MSO from 1961-1994. Duration 68:00.

 

Requiem” is a Latin word meaning “rest” or “repose.” In Catholic tradition, the Requiem is the funeral Mass or Mass for the Dead, a powerful collection of Latin texts from the 13th century and earlier, filled with terrifying visions of the Last Judgement and pleas for intercession on behalf of the souls of the dead and the living. This Latin text served as a source of inspiration to composers for centuries, and there are hundreds of settings by composers such as Ockeghem, Palestrina, Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and many others. When a young Johannes Brahms began work on his own Requiem in 1857, he broke with this venerable tradition by abandoning the Latin text in favor of a collection of texts drawn from Luther’s German translation of the Bible. It took four years of work to complete a four-movement cantata that was a prototype for the larger work. He set this cantata aside for another four years before taking it up again in 1865. After three more years of composition, Brahms completed this large work for chorus and orchestra, giving it the title Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift (“A German Requiem, from Words of the Holy Scripture”). More than any other work, his German Requiem, which was first performed in its entirety in 1869, served to bring Brahms to the attention of the wider musical community in Europe—it is the Requiem that marks the end of Brahms’s long musical apprenticeship.

 

For whom did Brahms compose this masterwork? There is no dedication in the score, but in his classic biography of the composer, Karl Geiringer suggests that it was the death of Brahms’s mother Johanna in 1865 that spurred him to complete the Requiem. The original inspiration seems to have come from the death of his beloved mentor, Robert Schumann, however. The Schumanns, Robert and Clara, had been important figures in Brahms’s early development as a composers, offering friendship, patronage, and criticism. When Robert Schumann died in 1856, Brahms sketched out a symphony in D minor in Schumann’s honor. He never completed it, but he later reworked two of its movements: one became the opening movement of his D minor piano concerto, and the other became the second movement of the German Requiem. A few years after the German Requiem was completed, Brahms wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim to complain that the Requiem was not included on a program in honor of Schumann’s memory, saying: “I felt in my utmost heart that it would be quite natural that it be sung for him.”

 

The texts chosen by Brahms tell us a great deal about his spirituality. In its seven movements, the German Requiem sets sixteen excerpts from both Old and New Testaments, and the Apocrypha. (Most editions of Luther’s translation included the Apocrypha, texts appended to the end of the Old Testament.) Where the text of the Latin Requiem focuses upon the souls of the dead, the scripture passages chosen by Brahms put death in different light, emphasizing comfort and fulfillment for the living. Brahms’s selections from the Bible reflect a deep religious feeling that is not specifically Christian: for Brahms, God’s salvation is all-inclusive, rather than exclusive—he once remarked that his work should really be called A “Human” Requiem, This inclusive, ecumenical spirit bothered some listeners: in one early performance, the conductor inserted the aria “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah to “correct” Brahms’s omission of Christian doctrine. It is clear that Brahms meant to say exactly what he did, however. An example of Brahms’s careful editing of texts is heard in the sixth movement, which details the Last Judgement. Rather than using the terrifying imagery presented in the Dies irae (“Day of wrath”) from the Latin Requiem, he sets the more gentle vision from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. However, he carefully leaves out the final passage in this chapter, which would be necessary to a Christian interpretation—“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15: 56-57)—substituting a less specific passage from the Book of Revelation.

 

The German Requiem is an immense musical arch, with its foundations firmly planted in the first and seventh movements. These outer movements trace a circle from life (“Blessed are they that mourn”) to death (“Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord”), and the connection between these anchor-points made apparent by musical connections between the movements. In the second and sixth movements, there is a progression from despair to exaltation, again with close musical connections between the two movements. The parallels between the third and fifth movement are even more striking: each begins with a solo voice, the baritone of the third movement expressing grief and the soprano of the fifth promising consolation. The keystone of this arch is the sublime fourth movement. This may be the most intensely personal moment in the German Requiem: Brahms’s prayer for both his mother, and his musical father, Schumann.

 

The musical style of this work is clearly Brahms’s own: his characteristic rhythmic vitality, his impeccable tonal and formal planning, and his painstaking orchestration all come through in this work. But the most noticeably “Brahmsian” feature of the German Requiem is its wonderful counterpoint. Brahms spent many hours copying and studying the works of older masters like Palestrina, Frescobaldi, and J.S. Bach, and this careful study shows in amazing contrapuntal feats like the 38-bar pedal point that concludes the third movement, or the magnificent double fugue at the close of the sixth.

 

When Brahms showed the nearly-completed score of the German Requiem to Clara Schumann in 1867, she responded with a letter that sums up its impact: “I must tell you that my mind is quite full of your Requiem—it is a really powerful work, and takes hold of me as few other things have. The way in which deep seriousness is combined with all the charms of poetry is extraordinarily effective, at once striking and moving. As you know, I always have trouble putting things into words, but I know from the bottom of my heart that rich treasure is to be found in this work—the inspiration which lights up each movement moves me so profoundly that I cannot help but speak of it.”

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program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen


updated 6/22/16