Musica Sacra

From the Ardent Pen

October 25, 2014

Choral music of the Romantic Era

From the Ardent Pen

Featuring Stanford's Magnificat in B-flat for Double Choir, Op. 164; Elgar's Weary Wind of the West and Evening Scene; Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine; Saint-Saëns' Calme des Nuits; Brahms' 5 Lieder, Op. 105 and others.

Venue

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Concert Program Notes

There is something about autumn that inspires me to explore music of the Romantic era. Be it the leaves turning their exquisite colors, bare branches clawing at the sky during an autumn storm, or nature's season of growth coming to an end, the emotion and drama of Romantic music seems particularly suited to the season. And so we present tonight's concert From the ardent pen.

I have defined the boundaries of the era a bit liberally perhaps, since some of the composers represented tonight lived into the 20th century, when the musical styles of Impressionism and Serialism gradually superseded that of the Romantic style. But certainly the works of Elgar and Stanford, while written in the 20th century, adhere stylistically more to the Romantic tradition. In that tradition, masterfully defined by the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

Composers were hence committed to music that would fashion its own forms more freely than in past ages and according to the emotional demands placed on it, while the new importance of sensation as a structural guide naturally meant not only a greater reliance on instrumental color but also, more crucially, on a subtly extending harmonic language. Though tonal harmony remained the supreme harmonic principle of the 19th century, it was of the essence of Romanticism to extend this as far as possible without causing it to break down.

In other words, the emphasis of the Romantic era on the supremacy of the emotions over the intellect allowed composers great freedom to bend and even break rules of form and substance. Other, non-musical, characteristics of the era included a fascination with nature and with the supernatural (think of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein!). Hence the preoccupation with the seasons and the times of day represented in nearly all of the secular works on tonight's program and the cautionary tale of Rheinberger's Die Wasserfee.

If Romantic composers could revel in Sturm und Drang, a movement that ushered in Romanticism in the late 18th century, they could also give exquisite utterance to moments of calm, as represented in tonight's works by Elgar, Sullivan's The long day closes and Saint-Saëns' Calme des Nuits. In these works, rather than compressing and hastening harmonic progressions, the composers elongate the duration of a single harmony to create a feeling of blissful stasis. Arthur Sullivan collaborated on many operettas with W.S. Gilbert, and, even if some might find this particular work overly sentimental, that kind of sentimentality was very much a part of English culture during the Victorian era.

In contrast Coleridge-Taylor's Summer is Gone embodies all the drama that the Romantic compositional style could muster. Suspensions, where a note is held after the harmony has otherwise changed, thus creating a dissonance; appoggiaturas, the leap to a dissonance in a chord; the movement of vocal lines chromatically, by half-steps rather than the usual major or minor scale; all these tools had been at the disposal of composers since the Baroque era. But through Coleridge-Taylor's use of these devices, the listener hears the reluctance of the narrator to leave the bliss of summer for the cold of winter as the melody sequences incrementally down and down. These turbid harmonies are relieved at the very end, when Coleridge-Taylor changes the tonality from minor to major as he reiterates Summer is gone with all its roses to represent a faint nostalgic memory of that beloved time. Coleridge-Taylor was an Englishman of African descent most notable for the writing of the oratorio Hiawatha. In that work, his use of the motif in which open fifths in the rhythm of long short short are reiterated as a bass accompaniment to a melody is recognizable to any one who took beginning piano and played any work whose title referenced the activities of Native Americans.

The honor of most programmatic piece of the night must go to Rheinberger's Die Wasserfee; programmatic music of the Romantic era depicted a story or an idea. Rheinberger is hardly known as a composer to any one outside of organists; he aspired to write an organ sonata for each of the 12 major and minor keys, similar to Bach's Preludes and Fugues that make up his Well-Tempered Clavier, but fell four short. However, Rheinberger was a prolific composer for chorus as well, especially in ecclesiastical compositions. Abendlied represents a beautiful example of his sacred compositions; the juxtaposition of women and men creates antiphonal moments that Rheinberger alternates with imitative polyphony, where each voice acts independently of the other. Die Wasserfee well deserves to be called a little known gem of the choral repertory. The brooding minor key, in which the arpeggiated piano accompaniment represents the movement of the waves, sets the scene for the supernatural cautionary tale. The listener can hear the riding of the gulls on the airstream in the sequenced falling line Möven aus der Woge tauchen, while the line setting the text "The waves rush this way and that" is not only interwoven between the men and women but visually as well as aurally depicts the swell of the water. Rheinberger sets "Listen, in the sea, the mermaid" four times in the identical manner, and each time you hear "Listen," you can imagine the narrator cocking his head and holding up a finger to call your attention to what you should be listening for. Sometimes this piano injunction stays quiet, as though he dare not name the temptation, and sometimes there is a large crescendo to transmit the full horror of the fate of those who heed her call.

The most extensive work on tonight's program is also one of the latest: Stanford's Magnificat for double chorus. It was the last of his nine settings of that same text, a song of social justice sung by the Virgin Mary upon learning she is pregnant with the Son of God. Most British composers set this text often, since it was part of the Anglican service of Evensong. Interestingly, Stanford composed an opening melodic motif that is extremely similar to that which Bach uses in his setting of the Magnificat. Whether this was intentional on Stanford's part or subconscious I don't know, but, if you are familiar with Bach's work, you will most likely notice the strong resemblance. Opening motifs in each piece begin with a rising fourth and then have a florid melody in shorter note values that rise and then fall. In addition, the first harmonic progression for each work moves from the tonic to its relative minor. Unlike Bach and many other composers, however, Stanford does not reprise the opening thematic material to musically call attention to the line "As it was in the beginning;" instead, he waits for the Gloria Patri to do so. Perhaps it stems from his wanting to use a dramatic harmonic sequence to set "Abraham and his seed forever," thereby musically depicting the successive generations. Other wonderful moments in Stanford's piece abound. He sets "and holy is His name" in a piano dynamic and vocal texture of all eight voices in homophony, moving together as they would in a hymn; in combination the two emphasize the sanctity of God's name. To set "He hath showed strength with his arm" he has the two choruses call back and forth antiphonally with the same homophonic thematic material in a dotted rhythm, thereby musically illustrating that strength with the martial rhythm and robust sound resulting from that treatment. His melodic line "He hath put down the mighty" rises an octave and then descends by step down a fifth: a musical putting down. His use of changing meters (number and groupings of beats in each bar) and tonalities (keys) serves to allow each segment of the poem its own space in the same way Bach achieved it by separating each segment into separate movements.

The songs comprising Brahms opus 104 are some of my favorite works of the Romantic era. The falling leaves spoken of in the third song can be heard in the successive falling thirds of the women's parts echoed in succession by the men before the women have even finished their two note line. The second piece is my favorite, although only 21 bars in length, because its melodic arpeggios (the melodic sequence of the tones in a chord) in imitation among the voices imitate the harmonics of a natural horn. The question, "Do they rest?" is set polyphonically, with the voices in dense overlapping imitation, as though calling to one another across vast distances. The answer, "They rest," is sung in homophony, creating an emphatic and peaceful reply. In these few bars Brahms masterfully contrasts the business and robustness of life with the calm and peace of death. In each of the five works Brahms revels in moving from slow tempi and stable harmonies to agitated sections with disjointed harmonies and dramatic crescendi and diminuendi.

I hope that our sampling of the Romantic era's treasures resonates with you as we enter the waning of the year. My one consolation, as one who struggles with both the dark and the cold, is the thought so eloquently expressed by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Ode to the West Wind: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

© 2014 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.