by Dr. Michael Driscoll
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. He was introduced to music early by his father, who was an innkeeper and a double bassist in the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. The young Brahms began playing piano at the age of seven, becoming an accomplished pianist by his early teens. At the age of 20, Brahms met the German composer and music critic Robert Schumann, who quickly became a close friend and public champion of the younger musician.
One of the most significant composers of the nineteenth century, Brahms spent most of his musical career in Vienna, Austria, where he was artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music). Although he was a friend and contemporary of Liszt and Wagner, leaders of the “New German School” of musical theory, Brahms did not fully embrace their more organic, modernist style. His works combine the warm feeling of the Romantic period with the control of classical influences such as Bach and Beethoven.
Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny)
Written shortly after the first triumphant performances of A German Requiem in 1868, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), was inspired by a poem of the same name by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Harking back to the writings of the ancient Greeks, Hölderlin’s poem contrasts the blissful lives of the gods in Elysium with the doomed lives of mortals on earth who are caught in a miserable and ultimately futile struggle against Fate and Destiny.
Brahms opens the work with an extended instrumental introduction featuring exquisite melodies and harmonies that capture the happy rapture of the Elysian spirits of the poem’s first two verses. The sufferings of earthbound mortals in the third verse of Hölderlin’s poem are depicted with disjointed melodic lines that are underpinned by a relentlessly driving triple meter rhythm. While Brahms set the music for these three verses fairly quickly, he struggled for another three years with how to end the piece. He was loath to leave audiences in the state of melancholy that the poem’s ending of gloomy resignation would have dictated, yet he did not want to betray Hölderlin’s tragic vision completely. Ultimately, Brahms decided to end the work with an instrumental epilogue that quotes the music from the instrumental opening but plays it in a major key rather than a minor key. The quiet orchestral ending, with its upward-shifting horns, clarinets, and flutes, serves to gently contradict the conclusions of the morose poet, moving beyond them to suggest an essential optimism. The final result is one of Brahms’ most original and profound compositions.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born in Le Roncole, a small community near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma, now the northern part of Italy. His father, an innkeeper, and mother, a spinner, recognized their son’s musical talent early on. Of moderate means, they encouraged his talent by providing him with organ lessons, buying him a spinet piano and having him study music composition with a local patron. By age eight, Verdi had become the official organist of his church.
Verdi applied to the Milan Conservatory at age 18, but was rejected because he was four years older than most students, he was not a resident of the region, and because of his unorthodox piano technique. After that rejection, he began a private course of study with Milanese composer Vincenzo Lavigna, who for many years was maestro concertatore at La Scala, a position that involved preparing singers and leading rehearsals for opera productions. At 22 Verdi was hired to conduct the Philharmonic Society in his hometown of Busseto. He stayed in Busseto for three years before returning to Milan. His first opera, Oberto, was premiered in Milan’s La Scala in November of 1839. Over the span of his career, he wrote 26 operas, many of which remain popular today. He also wrote numerous other works, including marches, serenades, concertos, variations for piano, and cantatas, and his Messa da Requiem, which was first performed in May 1874.
Verdi’s music is dramatic with distinctive melodies and a tendency toward the theatrical. The majority of his works were intended for the stage, with the exception of the Messa da Requiem and a limited number of other compositions written especially for the church.
Messa da Requiem
Composed toward the end of
Verdi’s career, the Messa da Requiem
was a memorial for the influential Italian poet and novelist, Alessandro
Manzoni, who died in May 1873. The Requiem
was debuted in Milan on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, with Verdi
himself conducting. Today’s performance includes three movements from the Requiem: the Ingemisco movement for
tenor soloist, the Confutatis movement for baritone soloist, and a shortened
repetition of the Dies Irae for chorus.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy in 1858 to a musical family that had provided Lucca with composers and organists for many generations. In 1874, he entered the Istituto Musicale Pacini, where he began to compose and perform music under the guidance of director Carlo Angeloni, a composer of masses and motets. While at the Istituto, Puccini made plans with friends to attend a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida at the Teatro Novo in Pisa, 19 miles away. At the last minute, the specially-scheduled train to Pisa was cancelled, and Puccini and his friends walked the full 19 miles to attend the Aida performance. Later in his life, Puccini recalled that the Aida performance had opened a musical window for him, inspiring him to compose music for theater.
Puccini went on to study at the Milan Conservatory, where he began to build his musical reputation. Today he is best known as a successful composer of Italian operas, including world-famous works such as La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot, although his works also include orchestral pieces and a Mass for four parts, the Messa di Gloria. Puccini enjoyed acclaim and wealth in his later years before dying of heart failure at age 66.
Puccini composed the Messa di Gloria, the last piece on our program, at the age of 22. This Mass, officially entitled Messa a quattro voci, was his graduation exercise for the Istituto Musicale Pacini. First performed at a church service in July 1880, it received a positive reception by critics as well as the public. However, Puccini set the Mass aside to focus his artistic energy on secular works. The Mass was not published until 1951, at which time it was renamed Messa di Gloria, presumably because the Gloria movement of Puccini’s Mass is the most substantial portion of the work. The work’s revival was performed in 1952 in Chicago, 72 years to the day after its premiere.
Messa di Gloria
Although this is a sacred work, the dramatic melodies and harmonies of Italian opera are evident throughout. Furthermore, for a young composer, the music is remarkably well conceived, colorful, and inventive. Puccini follows many of the structures and traditions of the musical settings of the Mass, including setting each section of the Mass Ordinary – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei – as a separate movement.
The Kyrie is set in a traditional ABA form that follows the structure of the text. Somewhat less traditional is the extended instrumental introduction, which also prefigures the two main motives: an ascending lyrical motive for the outer Kyrie sections and a forceful accented motive for the inner Christe section. Of all of the movements of the Mass, the Kyrie most clearly harkens back to the sacred style of Italian Renaissance composers like Palestrina.
The Credo, composed and premiered two years prior to the rest of the Mass, consists of several sections, beginning with an emphatic unison statement of belief. The conception of the Virgin Mary via the Holy Spirit is one of the most important tenets of the Catholic faith. Puccini signals the importance of this portion of the text (“et incarnates est…”) by introducing the tenor soloist, who represents the Holy Spirit, and by removing all instruments. This is the only passage in the Mass where the choir sings a cappella. The crucifixion of Jesus (“crucifixus…”) is sung by the bass soloist who is joined by the upper strings playing an incessant pulsating figure that suggests hammers nailing Jesus to the cross. The exuberant resurrection of the Lord (“et resurrexit…”) is preceded by an energetic, ascending instrumental passage. The movement closes with a lilting passage that joyfully anticipates life in heaven.
The Sanctus and Agnus Dei are relatively short movements. Following tradition, the choir sings the prayerful opening of the Sanctus, which is followed by a lively “Hosanna in excelsis” passage. The contrasting “Benedictus” section is sung by the bass soloist, and the movement closes with a return of the choir’s “Hosanna” passage, though this time shifting to a triple meter from the duple meter of the first ‘Hosanna’ passage. The Agnus Dei features the two soloists, with the chorus interjecting “miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us”).
Puccini’s dramatic Gloria is a tour de force. It is the longest movement of the work and it also exhibits Puccini’s compositional skill, which is likely the reason why the 1951 publication was given the new title Messa di Gloria. In a liturgical setting, and in Puccini’s score, the Gloria normally follows the Kyrie. Today’s performance, however, is not part of a religious service, so it is not necessary to perform the work in liturgical order. Because the final two movements of the Mass, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, are quite brief and rather subdued, today’s performance will conclude with the Gloria movement, providing a more musically satisfying conclusion to the work. As with the Credo, Puccini splits the extended Gloria text into several sections. One of the compositional challenges of setting long texts such as the Gloria is creating a musically cohesive whole. Puccini solves this compositional problem in a somewhat unusual manner by using the opening “gloria in excelsis” passage as a type of refrain. (Verdi used a similar technique in the Dies Irae section of his Messa da Requiem.) Puccini brings the “gloria in excelsis” melody and text back at about the middle of the main portion of the movement, and again in the extended fugal section that concludes the work. Some of the most dramatic and clearly operatic portions of the Mass are found in this movement, particularly the “gratias agimus” tenor solo. Puccini’s skill as a composer of counterpoint is clearly evident in the closing “cum Sancto Spiritu” fugue, which is introduced by the basses, and followed in succession by the tenors, altos, and sopranos. After a brief homophonic section, the fugue returns, this time brilliantly combining the fugue subject with the “gloria in excelsis” melody that opened the movement.