An Eastertide program of two overwhelming and much-revered compositions, paired with two equally extraordinary but rather unknown compositions that could be beloved (though perhaps not so universally), were they only known. The darkness of this central moment is expected; less so is a confidence in, if not yet celebration of, the light toward which the Passion story leads. All four composer’s creations share a bluntness and concision that, at least in the case of Franz Liszt and for that matter, of Bach of his later years, are rare. Little within these four achievements offers a balm, but each composer’s stance, at once personal and dispassionate, allows the listener’s response a ferocious intensity perhaps less likely in the presence of more extravagant music.
- David Hoose
Program Notes by Charles Husbands
Demantius … Weissagung des Leidens und Sterben Jesu Christi
Liszt … Via Crucis — The Way of the Cross
When we think of music for Passiontide, our first thought is likely to be of J.S. Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew and its little brother John, but these complex works are fruits of more than a thousand years of evolution and experimentation in the ways that the scriptural story of the final days of the life of Jesus have been presented in music. The earliest form was a recitation in plainchant by a single priest simply commemorating the events as recounted by one or another of the evangelists. But the dramatic possibilities of the Gospel narratives were immediately recognized and eventually exploited by composers for nearly every combination of forces imaginable. It is the centrality of the Gospel narrative that we think of as identifying Passion music, but today’s program includes none of the many possible examples of this approach to telling the story.
Christoph Demantius (1567-1643), though little known today, was one of the most prominent musicians in Germany of the generation between Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) and Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). He worked during the period when Lutheran liturgical practice was shifting from Latin to German, and composed sacred and secular works for voices and/or for instruments. Chief among Demantius’s religious works is a Deutsche Passion, nach dem Evangelisten S. Johanne. It is considered a consummate example of a “motet passion,” using an abbreviated text sung by a six-voice chorus throughout, only at one unexpected instant employing fewer than three voices. Excellent as this twenty-three minute composition is, we have become so used to having the personae of the Passion narrative expressed by different singers that this motet-style Passion can today feel both distant and compressed.
When Demantius’s Deutsche Passion was published in 1631, the composer appended to it a second work about half as long, another six-voice motet, “Weissagung des Leidens und Sterbens Jesu Christi,” that is a reflection on the events of the Passion. Perhaps “preflection” would be a better word, because the text of this piece dates from the middle of the 6th century BCE. It is most of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, a famous prophecy later interpreted by Christians as foretelling the suffering and death of Jesus, identifying him as the redeemer, the suffering servant described in Isaiah’s poem. The words are familiar. We know them from the second act of Messiah, if from nowhere else.
Demantius’s motet is in three sections. The first employs all six voices and sets the scene: “Surely he hath borne our griefs…and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all.” In the second section detailing the redeemer’s patient suffering, the two lowest voices are silent, producing a subtle sensation of aural constriction. “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth…” The final section again uses the full six-voice choir to express the ultimate reward of the suffering servant, the redemption of the redeemer.
In contrast to the poetic and prophetic overview of Isaiah, the devotional observation of the Stations of the Cross focuses intently on a few specific moments of Good Friday. The “stations” are a sequence of locations, typically in the nave of a church, each marked by an image portraying a particular event, arranged so that the worshiper can pause at each in turn for meditation and prayer. This practice, arising in mediaeval times, had counted varying numbers of stations until, around 1600, fourteen became the standard number. Some of the customary stations depict events lacking scriptural attestation and derive from later legends; for example, the three times Jesus falls and the encounter with St. Veronica. There have been surprisingly few musical attempts to view the Passion through the microscopic perspective of the Stations, the Way of the Cross, the Via Crucis. Virtually the only choral example is the one on today’s program.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886), a devout Catholic, wrote a great deal of music for the Church, much of it in the later years of his life, a time when he also felt free to push harmonic experimentation to great lengths. Via Crucis , composed in 1878-79, is his most remarkable sacred creation of this per iod, perhaps the most remarkable of all his sacred works. In his biography, Liszt (Schirmer Books, 1989), Derek Watson sums up: “This profoundly affecting work is almost a compendium of the most unusual features of Liszt’s later style and is rich in the symbols of music and religion that meant the most to him.” Consider, for example, the opening three notes of Vexilla regis, the first sounds the chorus sings. The rising pattern, ascending first by a major second then by a minor third, is also the beginning of the Good Friday hymn Crux fidelis. Liszt refers to this as his Cross motive. It appears in various places in Via Crucis, as well as in numerous other compositions sacred and secular.
The work comprises an introduction followed by fourteen brief movements, each representing a station. The stations are not treated equally. They range from instrumental movements to thoroughly choral ones. For these, Liszt worked with texts assembled by Princess Carolyne Syne- Wittgenstein, his paramour for forty years. Besides employing apt Biblical quotations, she drew on Latin chants, Vexilla regis and Stabat mater, and German hymns, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and O Trauerigkeit. While the disparity of treatment seems puzzling at first, it offers the meditating worshipper a variety of ways to respond to the images at the successive stations. In fact, Liszt apparently considered the text secondary to the intimate emotional content of the music, for he made an arrangement of the piece for two pianos alone, deleting the voice parts. The original version employed piano as sole accompanying instrument, but Liszt soon added another version, for organ or harmonium. None of the three was published in his lifetime, because the piece was rejected by Liszt’s favored Catholic publisher. Whether it was deemed unsalable because of its daring chromaticism or its pearls-on-a-string form is unknown. The first performance of Via Crucis occurred in 1929. For the first Cantata Singers performance of the work, in Jordan Hall, March 2003, David Hoose orchestrated the keyboard part for string orchestra, harp,celesta, snare drum, and tam-tam. That is the orchestration we are hearing today.
Program Notes by John Harbison
Brahms … Warum ist das Licht gegeben
Bach … Christ lag in Todesbanden
Brahms composed his motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben in the village of Pörtschach in 1877, one year after the effortful completion of his First Symphony. He began the summer by quickly composing his Second Symphony, generally held to be his most cloudless, ebullient piece. He then proceeded immediately to this motet, a few phrases of which had actually been composed twenty years before. He dedicated it to the great Bach scholar Philipp Spitta, with whom he was collaborating on the first complete Bach edition. (The relationship of Brahms’s composing to the serial appearance of those volumes is a large and fascinating subject.)
When an admirer, Vincenz Lachner, wrote to Brahms about the strange shadows (trombones and timpani) in the sunny Second Symphony (he is among the first to notice them), Brahms responded:
I would have to confess that I am…a severely melancholic person. That black wings are constantly flapping above us, and that in my output—perhaps not entirely by chance—that symphony is followed by a little essay about the great ‘Why.’ If you don’t know this [motet] I will send it to you. It casts the necessary shadow on the serene symphony and perhaps accounts for those timpani and trombones.
So the motet, Warum, its powerful sequence of texts assembled by Brahms himself, is the ‘necessary’ response—almost as if he doesn’t want his listeners to ignore, ever, the complex ambiguous tone that makes his voice his own.
Not until 1951 did the Bach pundits face the music and grant BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, its rightful and amazingly early date of composition, 1708 (Bach at 23). It is either his first cantata or one of the first. It is stylistically at one with cantatas of the previous generation, very like the choral variation organ pieces Bach was writing at the time as part of his slow, hardly dazzling apprenticeship.
Confusing the earlier scholars was the consistently high quality of Cantata 4. Twice in Bach’s very early vocal writing masterpieces erupted, here and in BWV 106, the Actus Tragicus, with little around them to suggest this could be possible.
Why here? The variation subject is a powerful melody constructed by another from ancient sources—a Gregorian chant, Victimae paschali laudes, and an Easter Carol, Christ ist erstanden: it is sturdy, fervent and memorable. Luther’s text burn with fearless, graphic Passover images. We understand why a contemporary Jesuit credited Luther’s songs with “destroying more souls than
his writings and talks.” Bach gives each verse a distinct musical character. The tight constraint of the variation format curbs the young composer’s tendency to overelaborate, or completely digress. Each movement is in the same key, the instrumental participation is sober, but the piece has ample variety. It is so confidently and consistently composed that the theories that it was “touched up” later in Leipzig seem out of place.
Support for such theories? The final chorale is clearly from two decades later, in the language of the Leipzig intense cantata-writing period. Still it hardly seems discontinuous, since the final bass aria is so vivid, so eventful, so finely detailed, that it reaches a visionary level. It seems to join up bracingly with the great, mature harmonization that concludes.