June 2014

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Summer music in the garden

Mozart Missa brevis in D minor, K65
Schütz Psalm 100
Mendelssohn Am Himmelfahrtstage; Psalm 43
Handel Utrecht Te Deum

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was 13 when he composed the Missa Brevis in D minor, in response to a commission by the Archbishop of Salzburg for a commemorative mass.  The Archbishop, Hieronymous von Collerado, was a proponent of a more modest musical style, as demonstrated by the very brevity of this Missa Brevis.  Influences of J.C. Bach and the Galante style can be heard.  The choral writing is mostly homophonic, with the alto, tenor and bass parts doubled by trombones and with violins providing lively and idiomatic accompaniment; the vocal solos are brief interjections within movements.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was recognised early as a musical prodigy, although his family did not seek to capitalise on his talent.  He revived an interest in the music of J.S. Bach and was responsible for the re-discovery of the St Matthew Passion. He was particularly well-received in Britain as well as in Germany.  Am Himmelsfahrtstage (‘On Ascension Day’) is the third of Sechs Sprüche (six anthems), each set for a different liturgical event and composed for the Berlin Cathedral Choir.  Written in eight parts, it begins with a joyously optimistic melody and demonstrates a clear sense of architecture and fine choral sonorities.  Richter mich, Gott, a setting of Psalm 43 dating from 1844, is one of the composer’s finest works in the genre. It begins with men’s voices in unison interspersed with plaintive women’s voices in four parts, possibly inspired by Bach, before fanning into rich 8-part harmony.  The dialogue continues, recalling the anxieties of the opening before a comforting modulation to D major and an 8-part affirmation of the trustworthiness of the Lord.

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was the first German-speaking composer of international repute and the greatest of his century.  He studied with Gabrieli in Venice but otherwise spent most of his long life in and around Dresden.   His extensive output consists almost entirely of sacred choral music.  Psalm 100 comes from the Psalmen Davids of 1619 and is for SATB double choir and continuo.  It blends Venetian polychoral ‘coro spezzati’ writing with a more Germanic style of text-setting, creating an effect that is more austere and personal.

In 1713 Britain, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Utrecht, the first peace achieved through diplomacy, which brought to an end the War of Spanish Succession.  Queen Anne asked George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) to compose commemorative settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate, which some contemporary reports suggest he may have already begun to write. It was first heard at a public rehearsal in St Paul’s Cathedral in March 1713, when a newspaper reported that ‘many Persons of Quality of both Sexes’ attended, and that the music was ‘much commended by all that have heard the same, and are competent Judges therein’.  Handel’s work was extremely well-received and, although an ill-timed attack of gout prevented her from coming to the service, the queen consequently awarded him an annual pension of £200.  There are ten movements of varying length and indeed keys, which range through F sharp minor, A minor, F major, D minor, C major and G minor as well as the expected ceremonial D major; a surprising amount of it is introspective in mood.