March 2020

Rex tremendae

Schütz                   Selig sind die Toten
Mendelssohn        Richte mich, Gott
Brahms                 Geistliches Lied op 30
Mozart                  Requiem

with Martin Ford, Jonathan Dods (piano and organ)

Guards’ Chapel

The text of Selig sind die Toten, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’, is from Revelation 14 and forms part of the Burial Service in both Lutheran and Anglican liturgy.  The setting by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), from the Geistliche Chormusik of 1648, is one of the best known.  It is in six parts, dignified and consolatory, and represents a move away from the Venetian extravagance of the composer’s earlier work, placing more emphasis on traditional imitative polyphony.  There is strong expressive contrast between sections and some lovely word-painting at ‘und ihrer Werke folgen ihnen nach’ (‘and their works follow them’), where each part imitatively ‘follows’ another.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was recognised early as a musical prodigy.  Particularly well-received in Britain as well as in Germany, he revived interest in the music of J.S. Bach and was responsible for the re-discovery of the St Matthew Passion.  Richte mich, Gott, a setting of Psalm 43 dating from 1844, is one of his 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.

Geistliches Lied (Sacred Song), by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) dates from 1856 and is the composer’s earliest accompanied choral work. Set to a poem by Paul Flemming about the acceptance of fate and trust in God, it began as an exercise in counterpoint.  It is set as an impressive double canon, with the tenor imitating the soprano part four beats later at the ninth; alto and bass have a similar canonical relationship as do the imitative organ interludes.  Its archaic 4/2 meter evokes the Renaissance.  All of the canonical complexities come together in a piece of exceptional beauty, especially in the final Amen.

The Requiem K. 626, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was started in late 1791 but remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s death.  A completed version by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, dated 1792, was delivered to Count Franz von Walsegg, who had commissioned the piece for a Requiem service to commemorate the anniversary of his wife’s death.  Walsegg probably intended to pass the Requiem off as his own composition, as he is known to have done with other works, but his plan was frustrated by a public benefit performance for Mozart’s widow Constanze. She was responsible for a number of stories surrounding the composition of the work, including the claims that Mozart received the commission from a mysterious messenger who did not reveal the commissioner’s identity, and that Mozart came to believe that he was writing the requiem for his own funeral.  The autograph manuscript shows the finished and orchestrated Introit in Mozart’s hand, along with detailed drafts of the Kyrie and the sequence from Dies irae as far as the first eight bars of the Lacrymosa, and the Offertory (Domine Jesu Christe and Hostias). It cannot be shown to what extent Süssmayr may have depended on now lost sketches for the remainder; he later claimed the Sanctus and Benedictus and the Agnus Dei as his own.

The opening D minor theme is based on Handel’s The ways of Zion do mourn and many parts of the work reference this passage.  The S solo is set to the tonus peregrinus with a Bach chorale-like underlay for ATB chorus.  The ‘Kyrie’ features a double fugue also on Handelian themes: the subject on ‘And with his stripes’ from Messiah and the countersubject from the Dettinghem Anthem.

The Dies irae is an almost terrifying portrayal of the Last Judgment.  It is followed by the Tuba miram for SATB before a descending dotted-note melody announces the ‘Rex tremendae majestatis’, called by powerful cries from the choir on the second beats of the bar (traditionally a ‘weak’ beat).  Another double canon leads to quasi-unaccompanied section and choral cadence.  The Recordare, for SATB soli, is the longest movement; its opening phrase is based on a sinfonia by W.F Bach.  Confutatis maledictus vividly depicts the flickering flames that face the accursed, intermingled with prayers of supplication, furthered by the gentle mourning motifs in the Lacrymosa.  it is thought that Mozart might here have intended an Amen fugue, which would maintain an overall pattern that closes each large section with a fugue (many modern completions provide one although Sussmayer did not).

Domine Jesu Christe begins chorally and leads to a section of solo canon (Sed signifier sanctus Michael) as well as two great choral fugues, Ne absorbeat and Quam olim Abrahae, the latter reappearing at the end of the Hostias.  The Sanctus is in D major; it and the following ‘Benedictus’ (for SATB soli) end in a triple-time Osanna.  The Agnus Dei is thought to reference Mozart’s Sparrow Mass.  The piece ends with the Communio, almost identical musically to Mozart’s opening movements.

Tonight’s performance is given in the transcription for piano duet by Carl Czerny (1791-1857)