Fall 2016 Concert Notes

Luigi Cherubini: Requiem
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem

Music director: Ming Luke

Concert Soloists:

Ariana Strahl, soprano »
Silvie Jensen, mezzo soprano »
Kirk Dougherty, tenor »
Matt Hanscom, baritone »

 Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842): Requiem

Cherubini’s Missa pro defunctis was described by Beethoven as a “model requiem,” by Schumann as “unequalled,” and by Brahms as “marvelous.” At the time of the completion of this work, Cherubini was serving as superintendent of music to King Louis XVIII. He was highly regarded, so much so that other royal courts tried to lure him away.

This was an ideal post for a composer, as he had ample musical forces at his disposal at the Royal Chapel: a full complement of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trombones, drums, two harps, two pianists, and two organists. This requiem, the first of two that Cherubini wrote, was written for the re-entombment of relics of Louis XVI, which had been removed by revolutionaries. It is marked by supreme clarity of form, cohesion, and profound beauty.

Whereas Mozart divided the “Dies irae” into several short movements, Cherubini here presents the sequence in one long movement, taking us from the terrors of the day of wrath to the unequalled sadness of the “Lacrymosa.”

The climax of this work comes to us in the “Offertorium,” a generally joyous and glorious movement. We arrive at a tremendously exciting fugue on “quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus”; we have the fortune of hearing it reprised after the contrasting “Hostias” section, reinforcing God’s promise to save his people.

Whereas many composers decide to distinguish the “Agnus Dei” from the “Lux aeterna” (and to include the “Libera me,” which Cherubini omitted), in this piece the two are simply combined into one movement. The ending is nothing short of chilling: the orchestra reprises the opening motive of the “Agnus Dei” in a hollow, four-bar ostinato; above that, the chorus, through overlapping entrances in octaves, creates waves of sound, all meditating on the final text, “requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis” (Give to them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Requiem

While the play Amadeus is not an accurate portrayal of this juicy piece of history, the real story of the creation of Mozart’s Requiem is just as scandalous. We can thank the dishonesty of Count Walsegg of Stuppach for this stunning piece of music, having commissioned it anonymously for his deceased wife, but with the intention of passing it off as his own work. Mozart was usually eager to accept commissions, even ones as dubious as this, to pay off his frequent debts as a result of his fondness for gambling. Mozart died before finishing the work, but his wife, Constanze, arranged for Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart’s copyist, to complete the Requiem so she could collect the commissioning fees. In order to do this, she also had to claim that the work was entirely Mozart’s, even forging his signature and inventing a date of completion that was before his death. Though the work is a religious one, none of the motives behind it seem to be out of piety. Nevertheless, it is held up as one of the greatest works in its genre and frequently used today in both concert and religious settings.

At the time of his passing, Mozart had completed only the “Requiem and Kyrie” movement. Much of the rest of the work included only vocal parts and basso continuo, or even mere sketches. While other composers and scholars have made various completions over the centuries, Süssmayr’s is most often performed, and is the version you are hearing today.

By the 18th century, contrapuntal music such as fugues and imitative polyphony had fallen out of style. Instead, melody with accompaniment was the popular texture. However, for sacred music, Mozart looked backward to “old-fashioned” forms and textures that would have been used by Bach and even Schütz. The work begins with pervasive imitative polyphonic textures. He flirts with fugal material throughout the “Requiem” movement, but it isn’t until the “Kyrie” that we hear a bona fide double fugue. Typically, composers might observe the more obvious ABA form for the text: Kyrie eleison / Christe eleison / Kyrie eleison. Mozart brilliantly constructs a double fugue in which the subject for the text “Kyrie eleison” is dramatic and heavy, whereas “Christe eleison” is light, staccato, and chock-full of coloratura (passages of rapidly moving notes on one long, drawn-out syllable).

Immediately, the work moves into “Dies irae.” This is a very long sequence, often done in one long movement. Mozart chooses to break up the stanzas of this sequence into seven movements, performed without any break between them. As one might expect, the “Dies irae” stanza is aggressive, frightful, and angry. One can even imagine an earthquake when the basses sing “quantus tremor est futurus” on a jagged alteration of two adjacent notes. Immediately, Mozart moves into the famous trombone solo introducing the “Tuba mirum” quartet. The next choral entrance is the “Rex tremendae.” Typical of French royal music, this plea to the King of Kings is driven by dotted rhythms. Ultimately, we end up at the “Lacrymosa,” some of the saddest music in the Western canon. Mozart completed only the first eight measures of this movement, which rounds out the entire “Dies irae” sequence.

The remainder of the piece should probably be attributed more to Süssmayr, as Mozart left us with only sketches. Süssmayr brilliantly finished the work with a verbatim repetition of that glorious double fugue from the “Kyrie,” this time on the words “cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es” (with thy saints forever, for Thou art kind).


ERIC CHOATE, Assistant Conductor