Program Notes – Romantic Choral Music 1850 – 1916

 

Mass No. 2  – Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Schubert completed six masses – the second being one of the shorter ones – the others being 3 and 4. It was originally scored for soprano, tenor and bass soloists, a choir, strings and orchestra. However, he later revised the work to add oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and timpani. Schubert was known to treat liturgical texts with some freedom, and the same is apparent here with omissions of lines from the Credo – although recently it has been suggested that this was not unusual, at that time, of Catholic enlightenment.

Schubert wrote over 600 songs (mostly lieder) in his short life; there also were symphonies, string quartets and piano works in his prodigious output.

This particular work was a commission from the writer, Johann Philipp Neuman who had previously written a libretto for an opera for Schubert, Sakuntala, which was never completed. Neumann paid Schubert 100 guilden for the mass and he wanted the piece to effectively be a set of hymns for congregational use – which is how it is configured.

The result of this is that the work is well within the capabilities of a high school ensemble and a very useful introduction to the work of Schubert. Its popularity and gentle melodies have endeared it to choirs and congregations alike.

 

Ave Maria – Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896)

Written in 1861 for seven unaccompanied voices (SAATTBB), Bruckner’s sacred motet, Ave Maria, is exceptionally short (for him!) and is filled with a haunting tone; there is also a modal feel and Gregorian chant-like passages. The thickness of the scoring makes for big blocks of sound.

Best known for his orchestral works, especially his symphonies, Bruckner was also a devout Catholic.

The date of composition for his Ave Maria is important, as it comes immediately after five years of study with Simon Sechter. Having been an organist and teacher for over ten years, he spent the time with Sechter to improve his music theory and counterpoint. Bruckner eventually accepted his old master’s post as teacher of theory at the Vienna Conservatory after Sechter died in 1868; it was then that he started writing his symphonies.

 

Hear My Prayer – Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)

Written in Germany in 1844, this anthem was arranged for solo soprano, SATB chorus, orchestra and organ. The libretto, taken from Psalm 55, was written by William Bartholomew and was debuted in England, the following year at the Crosby Hall, London. Written in three distinct parts like a small cantata, it begins with a simple pleading solo from the soprano, ‘Hear My Prayer’.

Hear my prayer, O God, incline Thine ear!
Thyself from my petition do not hide.
Take heed of me! Hear how in prayer I mourn to Thee,
Without Thee all is dark, I have no guide.

This gives way to an Allegro middle movement with the choir accompanying the soloist which rises to a climax. As this dies away, a moments silence is followed by the beautiful, cherubic ‘Oh for the wings of a dove!’ Suggesting a far-away place of peace and rest, the soprano soloist is again accompanied by an SATB choir.

O for the wings, for the wings of a dove!
Far away, far away would I rove!
In the wilderness build me a nest,
and remain there for ever at rest.

Mendelssohn visited Great Britain on ten occasions and was well-loved by the audiences there. The premiere of his oratorio, Elijah, (the libretto for which was also partly written by William Bartholomew) was attended by 3,000 people and was seen as the equivalent of Handel’s Messiah. He even played for the Queen, Victoria. ‘Hear my Prayer’ has remained a favourite concert piece.

 

Bogoroditse Devo, Raduisya – Sergei Rachmaninoff  (1873 – 1943)

This beautiful Capella choral work was first performed in March 1915 in Moscow. Sometimes erroneously called simply ‘Vespers’, it was written for the Russian Orthodox all-night vigil service. There are fifteen movements in the work, and this is the sixth – the one after the Nunc Dimittis (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace) which Rachmaninoff requested to be sung at his funeral.

‘Rejoice, O Virgin’ is the hymn to the mother of God that occurs regularly in Orthodox worship. Set for four voices (SATB) – but, in some performances, only three – the movement is a poignant, haunting rendition of the prayer;

Rejoice, O virgin mother of God, Mary full of grace,

the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among

women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,

for thou hast borne the saviour of our souls.

 

Like many great music works, the ‘Vespers’ are deemed to have been written only as a consequence of great happenings in the world. They were originally written for a service of remembrance to the dead of the First World War, but were subsequently said to have been as a response to the end of an era; the beginning of the end of Russian life as he knew it with the rumblings of political upheaval and the social movements against the monarchy. Within two years, days after the beginning of the Revolution, Rachmaninoff had fled the country on an open sled through Finland; he was born of the aristocracy and knew he had no future in his beloved Russia. He was never to return.