June 2017

Music from 18th-century Austria

westminster school chapel

W.A. Mozart               Vesperae solennes de Confessore, K339
Schubert                     Mirjams Siegesgesang

with Jonathan Dods (organ and piano)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a prolific and groundbreaking Enlightenment composer. Born in Salzburg, he showed prodigious ability on the violin and keyboard from a very early age and was composing at five. Most of his sacred output – 16 masses and 30 or so other sacred works – was written during his time at the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, where he served as leader of the orchestra from the age of 13 and later, briefly, as organist.

The setting of the five Vespers psalms and a concluding Magnificat, written in 1780 for an unnamed saint’s day, is Mozart’s last church music for Salzburg; it dates from about the same time as the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola and the Coronation Mass. Scored for SATB (chorus and soloists) and a modest orchestra, it is much-loved for its mellifluous soprano solos and joyous choral writing and is a model of concise expressiveness. Although the six sections of the Vespers would not have been heard together in a liturgical context, Mozart shapes his sequence carefully: the first psalm, Dixit Dominus, is typically Austrian in its declamatory choral-writing and busy orchestral accompaniment; its lilting triple-time metre has room for a darkening of mood at the brief vision of the Last Judgement. Confitebor tibi Dominus continues in a similar way, although with more substantial and intricate contributions from the soloists, whilst a more urgent Beatus vir sees a florid, operatic-like ‘exaltabitur’ for solo soprano. Laudate pueri is entirely for choir and is reminiscent of church polyphony, although with an injection of 18th-century forward momentum and characteristic expressiveness, especially in the concluding Amens. The well-known Laudate Dominum follows, with its radiantly poised melody for solo soprano answered and supported by the chorus. The concluding Magnificat starts with a majestic adagio before moving into a celebratory final chorus brimming with conviction and energy.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer best known for lieder, although his output was prolific. Interest in his music during his lifetime was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased significantly in the decades following his death.

The pianist Graham Johnson has written extensively about Mirjams Siegesgesang in the sleeve notes accompanying his recording for Hyperion. He describes it as ‘an early fruit of Schubert’s new enthusiasm for the Handelian oratorio tradition…a biblical epic worthy of Cecil B de Mille: the raising of the waters of the Red Sea, the chase of Pharaoh’s hordes at full gallop, and his destruction, were all featured in that director’s The Ten Commandments’. It was written for solo soprano, SATB chorus and piano and, although Lachner orchestrated the piece in 1830, most agree that the pianistic effects are better on the intended instrument.

The poem, by Franz Grillparzer, is based on the episode in the Book of Exodus: ‘And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.’ Grillparzer frames the celebratory outer verses with a long central section telling the story of the flight from Egypt and the pursuit of Pharaoh; the words preserving ‘just that sort of narrative distance that distinguishes oratorio texts from either operatic libretto or song lyric’.

The opening Allegro giusto in C major proclaims its Handelian ancestry. After an introductory fanfare, the soprano begins her trumpet-like melody, with the piano accompaniment suggestive of cymbals, strings and percussion. The later interweaving of choral quavers, accompanied by rhythmically insistent crotchets in the piano, generates a mood of exuberant energy. The following F major Allegretto is in a pastoral 6/8; the first appearance of the sea (‘Und das Meer hört deine Stimme’) introduces a note of turbulence at the parting of the waters. The whispered fear and amazement of the chorus and slowly moving dotted crotchets in the piano are evocative of the sea held back by the shimmering of a miraculous wall. Low tremolos in G flat major underpin a slow and ominous pianistic underswell, conveying both fear and danger, before the return of the music of the Good Shepherd. The crossover into the Promised Land occasions a triumphant high C from Miriam at the final ‘das neue Land’.

An Allegro agitato in C minor portrays the panic and excitement of Pharoah’s chase, with the choral echoes of Miriam’s increasingly breathless descriptions adding to the tension. A succession of hammered C flats changes enharmonically to ominous triplets in B minor for ‘da horch’!’ The enemy is sent down into the abyss (‘Hinab, Hinunter in den Abgrund’) with an E minor Andantino descent into chest voice, with the gently rolling ‘Und das Meer hat nun vollzogen’ suggestive of soundless movement of water and the ‘eerie end of a once-powerful enemy’. A stirring return to the opening C major fanfare has Miriam singing a summary of the events before the music breaks into a moving choral fugue ‘Gross der Herr zu allen Zeiten, Heute gross vor aller Zeit’; the piece ends in an outburst of unanimous joy.