E allora cominciamo

After a gorgeous performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, the Chorale is beginning to rehearse another work which has been often criticized for being too operatic: Verdi’s magnificent Messa da Requiem. We are excited to present this on Saturday April 23, 8pm – save the date!


“WHETHER AFFECTING indignation or simply delighting in the outrageous comparison, pundits have long gibed at Verdi’s Requiem as one of the composer’s greatest operas. Yet it is a bit unfair to focus pious criticism on Verdi’s setting of the Mass for the Dead, splendorous as it is. Spectacle seems an intrinsic element, or at least an invariable dramatic byproduct, of any musical requiem.

The dread and terror of eternal damnation, and the fervent supplication for divine protection from such a fate, cry out (quite literally) for extreme expressive resources. And the composers who have answered that spiritual and musical challenge in the most compelling terms — Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi — all used quasi-operatic means just as surely as they adopted the traditional Latin text.

But…the experience of a requiem has something else in common with opera: It is better seen than merely heard. Irrespective of whether one believes in the religious precept, the profound urgency of the requiem’s message, especially as it is heightened by music, bears a specifically communal weight.

To experience a choral requiem as it was meant to be, one should be able to look into the faces of the singing hosts, behold the assembled orchestra — the very trumpets of the Tuba Mirum — and sense the solemnity of the occasion, the place and the fellow travelers gathered there.” (Lawrence B. Johnson, nytimes.com)

Program notes for January 16 2016

It is much easier to write program notes for concerts presenting works by a variety of composers, or works by lesser-known composers. With the former one can use a lot of ink explaining who everyone was (or is); with the latter there is some room for individual explication (aka ‘guessing’) as the annotator’s work comes down to describing the music, with little fear of being caught out by a musicologist. Tonight, though, we have two works by one of the most revered, most listened-to, and most-written-about composers, Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (Amadè was the composer’s favored replacement for Theophilus). There is no lack of scholarship to be found – I have re-waded through books from my college years and read from more recent books and articles in an effort to distill bits of information about these pieces in order to: a) pass along interesting facts, b) explain what you’re about to hear, and c) express why we are so passionately eager to sing and play these pieces for you.


The Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503) and the Great Mass in C Minor (K. 427) are both works that take the listener in two or more directions and back again. The concerto (1786) oscillates between a “military style” grandeur and the light, dancing Mozart that we adore. We hear a typically-Classical theme – symmetrical, repetitive, balanced – and then a storm breaks loose with a series of rapid figures and military brass. And often the music begins in a melodic, graceful major key only to have it shift to the minor, upsetting any comfortable dozing we may have been contemplating.


The Mass, composed in 1782, spends a great deal of time as well surprising us with its tonalities and harmonies, but its fundamental contrast is between two compositional styles, one derived from the Baroque, and the other being the composer’s budding operatic style. So we are presented with a work in which the outer sections of the Kyrie are reminiscent of Bach’s B Minor Mass in their serious tone while the “Christe” section of the Kyrie is warm, lyrical and operatic; similarly, the Baroque French Overture that is the “Qui tollis” is followed by the “Quoniam” trio, which sounds like an ensemble piece from Don Giovanni (1787).

Piano Concerto No. 25, K.503

K 503 was composed in 1786, the year that brought us The Marriage of Figaro, two other piano concerti, a lot of chamber music, and, two days after Concerto No. 25, the “Prague”Symphony. The opening movement contains several melodic themes heard throughout the piece:

  • Grandiose chords, and energetic scale passages;
  • The dominant motif – short short short long, used with variety and inventiveness;
  • The second theme, a little marching melody – think “La Marseillaise”. This is instantly lifted out of the routine by Mozart’s presenting it in the minor and then (in the winds) in the major.

The solo piano entrance is delicate, almost tentative, until it takes charge with the scale passages. As the piano embarks upon the first of its many long decorative passages, the harmonies move from major to minor and the strings return to the dominant motif. And eventually we hear a new, completely Mozartean theme, graceful and symmetrical, answered by the oboe, bassoon, and flute.

The development contains more traveling harmonies, more shifting from major to minor, the return of the dominant motif, virtuosic decoration by the soloist, themes combining and recombining. Then a cadenza (in tonight’s performance Shawn will play a cadenza by the pianist Andreas Schiff), and the triumphant end.

The second movement is a beautiful, spare slow movement filled with murmuring strings and tender woodwinds responding to the feather-light piano melodies. This is followed by a concluding movement which is a rondo (a form where one melody returns again and again in the midst of other melodies). Often a rondo is merely jolly; here Mozart takes it into a more serious realm. A wonderful description of this section is by Michael Steinberg:

“For the finale, Mozart goes back to adapt a gavotte from his then five-year-old opera Idomeneo. In its courtly and witty measures, there is nothing to prepare us for the epiphany of the episode in which the piano, accompanied by cellos and basses alone (a sound that occurs nowhere else in Mozart), begins a smiling and melancholy song that is continued by the oboe, the flute, the bassoon, and in which the cellos cannot resist joining. Lovely in itself, the melody grows into a music whose richness of texture and whose poignancy and passion astonish us even in the context of the mature Mozart. From that joy and pain Mozart redeems us by leading us back to his gavotte and from there into an exuberantly inventive, brilliant ending.”


Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427

What we will sing tonight is a complete setting of two movements of the Ordinary of the Mass (the Kyrie and the Gloria), along with a chunk of the Credo – one of the jolliest settings of “Credo in unum Deum” I have heard, followed by an Italianate “Et incarnatus est”, written for Mozart’s wife Constanze. Helmut Eder has reconstructed and completed Mozart’s Credo sections, along with the Sanctus and Benedictus and the fantastic Hosanna fugue.

The Mass was begun late in 1782, after Mozart’s marriage (in August, in Vienna) to Constanze Weber. A big influence in the work was the music of Bach and Handel, and the work contains two long fugues (the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” at the end of the Gloria, and at the end of the Sanctus, the “Hosanna”, which returns at the end). Regarding his forays into composing fugues, Mozart wrote to his father, Leopold:

My dear Constanze is really the cause of this fugue’s coming into the world.
Baron van Swieten, to whom I go every Sunday, gave me all the works of Handel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me (after I had played them to him). When Constanze heard the fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Handel and Bach. Well, as she has often heard me play fugues out of my head, she asked me if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me roundly for not recording some of my compositions in this most artistically beautiful of all musical forms and never ceased to entreat me until I wrote down a fugue for her.

Such a wonderful quote, and if true, one of the few hints we have as to Constanze’s character. But Leopold disapproved of his son’s marriage, and it is quite likely that Mozart was trying to pave the way for a cordial visit by the couple to visit Leopold in Salzburg. Mozart may have exaggerated Constanze’s love of counterpoint with the aim of placating his father, who was himself an accomplished composer.


There is certainly a sense that Mozart, after working out the technical details of writing counterpoint, felt no need to complete the Mass – he had no commission to write it, no planned concert. He may have begun it as a wedding present to Constanze; he may have wanted to have a piece to present to Leopold as a kind of apology for his marriage; he may have wanted to write something as monumental as the B Minor Mass. A version of the work was sung in Salzburg in October 1783, though it is unclear whether other Mass settings by the composer were used to fill in the missing parts. Over the years many editors and composers have “finished” the Mass by adding the rest of the text to the Credo movement and adding an Agnus Dei, using other Mass movements by Mozart. I have not found any of these versions particularly satisfying, though it is true that it feels a little odd to end the work with the reprise of the “Hosanna” fugue. The sublime solo sections – the exuberant “Laudamus Te”, the pastoral siciliana that is the “Et incarnatus” and the operatic ensemble pieces – the “Quoniam” and the serious and gorgeous “Benedictus” – give the piece an intimate, sensual feeling balanced against the quasi-Baroque splendor. The Mass reveals the delight Mozart felt in exploring the works of Bach and Handel as well as his genius in writing for the solo voice in the operatic language of his day.

For the Chorale, it is simply a blast to sing. The brilliantly majestic choruses are filled with grandeur (“Qui tollis”), tender moments (“suscipe, suscipe”) and finally, with jubilant cadences tossed back and forth between our two choirs (“Hosanna in excelsis”). What Mozart left us in the Great Mass in C Minor is music that is profound, joyful and exciting – enjoy!