Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn (St. Anthony)
Lewisham Choral Society
Conductor Mark Shanahan
7.30pm Tuesday 10th March 2015
Royal Festival Hall
Tickets £32 £28 £24 £18 £12
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Mozart’s Requiem is sung by a 300-strong choir, uniting voices from North and South London.
One of the most enigmatic pieces of music ever composed, it is performed by the choir alongside one of the UK’s leading community orchestras led by renowned opera conductor Mark Shanahan.
The Requiem is paired with Brahms’s rarely-performed Nänie (from the Latin nenia, ‘a funeral song’) alongside his St. Anthony variations, said to be the first stand-alone set of variations for orchestra.
The two choirs performed Handel’s Messiah together at Royal Festival Hall in 2012, and also sang in the Paralympic Games opening ceremony.
REQUIEM, KV626 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
No piece of music is so bound up in its own mythology as Mozart’s Requiem. The elements are familiar to anyone who has seen the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer’s play of the same name: the 35-year-old Mozart, already ill and with serious money troubles, is visited by an ominous lack-clad figure, whose sepulchral appearance and diabolical tricorn suggest a visitor from the infernal regions to which Mozart had once consigned Don Giovanni; the mysterious stranger bears a lucrative anonymous commission to write a Mass for the Dead; Mozart is up to the eyes in other work, but he needs the money, so he accepts; he battles against failing health to meet the deadline, harried by repeated visits from the man in black and dictating scraps of music to his great rival Salieri when he becomes too weak to write, but eventually he dies before he can finish the Mass; it is later completed, in workmanlike fashion, by his friend and pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803).
Not all the details of the conception and completion of the Requiem are known for certain, by any means, but once the accretions of legend and pantomime have been stripped away, and pieces fitted into the jigsaw that have only been discovered in recent years, we can get a fair idea of what really happened.
It was in 1791, while he was working on what was to be his final opera, The Magic Flute, that Mozart received the commission for a Requiem Mass. It was delivered by Dr Johann Nepomuk Sortschan, the business representative of Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach. This nobleman was a keen amateur musician who was known not to be above claiming authorship of musical compositions he had commissioned from others. His wife had died in February, and it is fairly clear from the secrecy in which he shrouded his proxy dealings with Mozart that he had the same idea in mind for his wife’s Requiem.
Mozart had been ill in Prague in the summer, and when he returned to Vienna his condition did not improve, but he pressed ahead feverishly with work on the Mass. He seemed to be urged on in his labours by a premonition of his own death; it was almost as if he was composing his own Requiem. By the end of November he was confined to bed, being nursed by his wife Constanze and her sister Sophia. On 4 December some friends gathered round his bed to sing parts of the unfinished Mass, but later that evening his condition worsened, and at 1 a.m. on 5 December he died. (There is no evidence that his death was not natural, despite many rumours to the contrary.)
There is no doubt that Süssmayr was responsible for the final version of the Requiem as we now have it and as it is being performed this evening. What is not clear is exactly which bits he wrote himself. The Introit and Kyrie, Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum, Rex Tremendae, Recordare, Confutatis, and Hostias are incontestably solely the work of Mozart. It is also established that he was the originator of the Lacrimosa and Domine Jesu, although elements of their orchestration were filled in by others after his death. It is over the last three sections, the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, that the real doubt arises. Süssmayr claimed that they were wholly his. Constanze denied this (but it was obviously in her interest that as much of the work should be accepted as ‘genuine Mozart’ as possible).
The comparative quality of the movements which Süssmayr said he wrote might be said to support his claim: one modern editor of the Requiem has referred to the fugues in the Sanctus as ‘perfunctory’ and detected ‘harmonic stagnation’ in the central part of the Benedictus, and it can be no accident that the most successful of the three, the Agnus Dei, contains adaptations of music from the earlier, ‘Mozart’ part of the Requiem.
Overall, however much of it he was personally responsible for, Süssmayr’s work has not been kindly received by the critics. Musicians such as Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter have accused it of being clumsy and unMozartian. But who else but Mozart could have been Mozartian? Whatever its imperfections, the Requiem has over the past two hundred years established itself as one of the best loved of his works. The majestic opening movement, the turbulent Dies Irae, the dramatic Confutatis, the gravely beautiful Hostias, all are the product of inimitable genius, and as we listen to them, niceties of musicological attribution fade quickly into the background.
© John Ayto
Nänie, Op 82 – Johannes Brahms
Brahms was an avid reader. In 1853 he wrote: “I spend all my money on books. Since boyhood I have read anything I could get my hands on and, without any guidance, I found my way from the worst towards the best”. For his lieder Brahms chose words ranging from the deeply sentimental to the exquisite. But in the choice of lyrics for his choral works he almost always aimed high and Nänie is no exception to this rule. Its words form a poetic lamentation on the inevitability of death, written in 1799 by the great German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), whose Ode to Joy Beethoven had famously set as the final movement of his ninth symphony, completed in 1824.
In his poem Schiller does not meekly bow to the inevitable and merely despair. There is a tension between the finality of death and the eternity of beauty, also reflected in Brahms’s music. The title is the German form of the Latin word nenia, meaning funeral song. Traditionally, such a song was believed to have been sung by professional mourners at funerals in ancient Rome to assist the living relatives to accept separation from their dead loved one. The poem draws from three legends of antiquity to tell its story: firstly, that of Orpheus who, distraught at the death of his wife Eurydice, pleads with Pluto, the god of the underworld (referred to as the stygian Zeus and Lord of the shadows in the poem) to allow her to return to the living. Unfortunately Orpheus cannot help breaking his undertaking not to look back at Eurydice as they ascend to the upper world and Eurydice is lost to him for ever.
The second myth which Nänie refers to is that of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and her lover Adonis. The goddess is powerless when her love is killed by a wild boar.
And the last story is that of Achilles, hero of the Trojan Wars and son of the nymph Thetis, who was herself one of the fifty daughters of the sea god Nereus. Despite being descended from the gods, she too failed to save her son from his destiny at the gates of Troy (the Scaean Gate in the poem) to be killed by an arrow shot into his unprotected heel, as predicted with his dying breath by Hector, the son of the Trojan king Priam.
These three stories serve to illustrate the impotence of even the gods against death. But the poet ends by suggesting that although the beautiful will surely die, beauty itself can live on through the art of a lament, whilst the ordinary perishes in descending to the depths of Orcus, the underworld of Hades.
Brahms completed his musical setting of Nänie in August 1881 at his summer retreat in Pressbaum, now a suburb of Vienna, where he had set to work not only on this piece but also on a second piano concerto. He had written the setting of Schiller in memory of a friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach and dedicated it to Feuerbach’s mother Henriette. The composer had probably first met the artist when the latter and his mother visited Clara Schumann at her home in Baden-Baden. Feuerbach often painted scenes from classical antiquity, perhaps one reason why Brahms chose this particular poem with its classical references. Feuerbach had died the previous year in Venice at the age of 50; Brahms dedicated his musical hommage to Henriette. The theme of the poem may also have attracted the agnostic Brahms through its message that all flesh is mortal. The composer was much attracted to choral music and had conducted choirs since his early teens. He had already amply demonstrated his prowess in this field some thirteen years before Nänie with the completion of his masterpiece A German Requiem and then in the 1870s with his Alto Rhapsody and Song of Destiny. Nänie however proved to be his penultimate choral work, following only by his Song of the Fates in 1882.
The first performance of the piece was postponed because of delays by Brahms’s copyist but eventually it received a triumphant première in Zurich on 6 December 1881. Indeed so successful was the concert, both artistically and financially, that the local music committee had a silver cup specially designed which was treasured by the composer.
© Martin Bull
Auch das Schöne muß sterben! Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget, Nicht die eherne Brust rührt es dem stygischen Zeus.
Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schattenbeherrscher,
Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
Siehe! Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle,
Auch ein Klagelied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich;
Even the beautiful must die! Beauty overcomes Man and the gods but does not move the brazen chest of the stygian Zeus.
Only once did Love move the Lord of the Shadows and then, on the threshold [of his realm], he sharply withdrew his gift [of life].
Aphrodite did not staunch the wound of the beautiful boy whose delicate body the boar had cruelly torn.
The immortal mother did not save the divine hero when, by falling at the Scaean Gate, he fulfilled his destiny.
But she rises out of the sea with all the daughters of Nereus and laments her glorified son.
Look! The gods and all the goddesses are weeping because the beautiful must pass away, because the perfect die.
But it is all the same marvelous to be a song of lament on the lips of the beloved. For the tawdry descend in silence to Orcus…