Music about music has a rich tradition. The ancient Greeks conceived of music as a “moral law” that “gives a soul to the universe” (a quote frequently, and erroneously, attributed to Plato): who can forget the myth of Orpheus, whose music nearly conquered Death? Even in more recent times, music about the power of music remains a potent creative force.
Charles Gounod: Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile (Composed in 1855)
While Gounod is chiefly remembered today as a man of the theater — his operas Roméo et Juliette and Faust remain well within the active repertory, as well as the ubiquitous Ave Maria — his first major successes came in the realm of sacred music, specifically with this Messe solennelle of 1855. A devout Catholic whose piano featured a rack with the face of Jesus carved on it, Gounod wrote no fewer than fifteen settings of the Mass, two Requiems, six oratorios and countless smaller liturgical works (one of which, the Marche pontificale, was later adopted as the national anthem of the Vatican City).
Although Berlioz, the major French composer of the previous generation, had composed two major sacred works (the Grande messe des morts in 1837 and the Te Deum in 1855) in the decades before the premiere of the Messe solennelle, their extravagant demands on both performers and audience made them unsuitable for liturgical use. Gounod’s Messe solennelle , on the other hand, wedded operatic sensibility and classical restraint in a more manageable way. After winning the coveted Prix de Rome in 1839, Gounod had journeyed to Italy, where he became immersed in the polyphonic, or multi-melodic, works of Palestrina and other sacred composers of the Renaissance, still sung at that time in the Sistine Chapel. While the Messe solennelle is largely homophonic, there are numerous allusions to Gregorian chant in the melodic material of the mass. In a similar vein, Gounod’s harmonic palette is less ambitious than some of his contemporaries, such as Liszt and Wagner. Despite Gounod’s frequent use of mediant harmony (harmony based around the melodic interval of a third, such as the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), a trademark of romantic-era composers, the regularity of the phrase lengths and the musical forms hearken back to classical composers such as Mozart. That said, the sensuous orchestration — two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, as well as six harps, strings and an organ — and Gounod’s theatrical deployment of instrumental timbres immediately recall the grandeur of contemporary French opera.
The Messe solenelle’s combination of operatic lyricism and classical moderation immediately provided a model for French sacred music to the era of Gabriel Fauré. After attending the work’s first performance at the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris on November 22, 1855 (the name day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music),* Saint-Saëns reported:
“The appearance of the Messe Sainte-Cécile caused a kind of shock. This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people enormously . . . at first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered.”
*The elevation of St. Cecilia as patron saint of music and musicians occurred somewhat by mistake. A Roman martyr whose life story became more embellished with each passing century, she was eventually believed to have been an organist. When she was made patroness of the Academy of Music in Rome in 1585 by papal decree, it was too late to find a substitute.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music (composed in 1938)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
One of Vaughan Williams’s most famous pieces, Serenade to Music was written in 1938 in celebration of Sir Henry Wood’s golden jubilee as a conductor. (Wood is perhaps best remembered today as the founder of London’s annual summer series of concerts, informally known as “the Proms.”) While Vaughan Williams initially suggested to Wood that the two men ask John Masefield, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, for a text, Wood — one of the composer's earliest and most ardent champions — replied that he wanted a choral work for "any time and for any occasion," later adding that he wanted a piece that featured sixteen soloists with whom he had collaborated frequently. Given these instructions, Vaughan Williams decided to set the Jessica and Lorenzo scene (Act V, Scene 1) from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, in which Lorenzo muses upon the music of the spheres. What resulted was a piece regarded as one of the finest settings of Shakespeare in the repertoire, fully commensurate to the text.
Perhaps an anecdote from the premiere can serve to illustrate the immediate impact of the piece and its enduring popularity. The pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who performed his Second Concerto in the first half of the concert, reportedly wept as he listened to the Serenade to Music in the second half.
Later, Rachmaninoff remarked to Wood that music had never moved him so much as in that performance. For a man famous for his emotional reticence (Stravinsky reputedly described Rachmaninoff as a “six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl”), such words were high praise indeed. Fortunately for posterity, the original performers were recorded a few days later, allowing us to marvel at the fruits of the unique musical collaboration.
Franz Schubert: “An die Musik” (Composed in 1817)
Composed to a poem by Franz von Schober in 1817 when Schubert was just twenty, An die Musik (To Music) extols music’s matchless ability to lift one’s soul beyond drab reality. While written originally for solo voice and piano, the song’s melodic simplicity and harmonic directness remain undiminished in this transcription for chorus.
Notes prepared by
BCCO Assistant Conductor
Michael Schachter, Oseh Shalom Bimromav
The text for Oseh Shalom Bimromav is a well-known Hebrew prayer from the Jewish liturgy.It is recited in several different places during a typical Shabbat (Sabbath) service, but it most poignantly concludes the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer used for remembrance of those who have passed on. The text serves as lyrics for many folk and liturgical musical settings as well. To me, its great expressive power comes from its profundity through simplicity and directness, qualities I tried to preserve in my musical rendering.
Michael Schachter, January 2013
Loretta K. Notareschi, Arranger of Schubert's An die Musik
About the arrangement:
Franz Schubert's charming Lied An die Musik combines a soaring lyrical line with a simple, yet imaginative, piano accompaniment. In my arrangement for chorus and orchestra, I have highlighted the direct melodic and harmonic features of the original while reimagining the instrumental and contrapuntal setting.
Loretta K. Notareschi