The Sacred and the Secular
On the heels of Halloween and All Saint's Day, the Charlotte Master Chorale explores the sacred, the secular—and the sacred versus the secular—in the main chorus's opening concert this season.
Haydn: Te Deum
Joseph Haydn wrote two settings of the Te Deum, both in the key of C. He composed the first, for chorus, soloists and orchestra, around 1765. The second, which we sing today, was commissioned in 1799 by Empress Marie Therese, wife of Emperor Franz I of Austria. One of his most effervescent smaller works, it received its premiere in September 1800 at Eisenstadt, the home of the Esterházy family, Haydn’s former employer.
One of Haydn's most effervescent smaller works, Te Deum received its premiere in September 1800 at Eisenstadt.
This Te Deum is divided into three continuous sections. Haydn creates two ebullient outer sections, contrasting with a calm middle. The energetic first section begins with unison singing of Haydn’s variation of the traditional chant melody. Dif-ferent phrases in the first section are set with equally sparkling melodies. The main theme of this section returns with the text Tu Rex gloriae Christe. The shorter second part, Te ergo quaesumus, a prayer asking for help, is appropriately slower, more contemplative. Joy reigns again in the exuberant third section, beginning with Aeterna fac. Haydn expresses exaltation in the power and protection of the Almighty. He uses both full chorus and duets in this section. Haydn sets the music calmly at Miserere nostri Domini (Lord have mercy), and completes the work with a magnificent double fugue on the texts In te, Domine speravi and Non confundar in aeternum.
Brahms: Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny)
When Johannes Brahms completed his choral masterpiece, Ein deutsches Requiem, in 1868, he had labored on its seven movements for more than a decade; indeed, some of its musical ideas had roots extending as far back as 1854.
During the next half-dozen years, a stream of splendid choral works flowed from his pen. First was Rinaldo, Op. 50, a cantata for tenor and male chorus. Then in short order followed the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, Schicksalslied, Op. 54, and Triumphlied, Op. 55. Clearly, Brahms’s German Requiem had loosed a fount of ideas. In Schicksalslied, Brahms focused on one of his favorite themes: the futility of man's destiny in a storm-tossed world.
Brahms came across the Friedrich Hölderlin poem in 1686 while visiting his friends, the Dietrichs, at Oldenburg. Albert Dietrich later published a memoir of the composer, in which he reported that Brahms was uncharacteristically serious during his stay.
Brahms focused on one of his favorite themes: the futility of man's destiny in a storm-tossed world.
Generally when Brahms was so taken by a text, work proceeded rapidly, and such was the case with this new piece. But a satisfactory conclusion eluded him, and he did not finalize the ending until 1871. The problem lay in the structure of the poem. Hölderlin's text is bipartite. The two opening stanzas relate man's envy of the blissful state in which heaven's blessed spirits exist. When man’s earthly situation is introduced in the third stanza, the tone changes dramatically. The cruelty of Fate is exposed as a relentless force driving man to endless suffering in his search to escape darkness and turmoil in favor of peace and everlasting light. The formalist in Brahms was inherently inimical to the two-part structure of the poem. He solved this by adding a third instrumental section, closing the work without chorus.
Schicksalslied opens with a tranquil Adagio in E-flat major depicting the idyllic retreat of the divinities. Only the quiet and insistent pulse of the timpani hints at the havoc and distress of mortal life. After the celestial opening prelude, the altos introduce the first choral segment; they are joined by the balance of the chorus in music of exquisite serenity. When the second section interrupts in storm-tossed C minor, the contrast is riveting. Brahms's music explodes in an expression of humanity's earthbound agony. The sheer force of his compound choral and orchestral walls of sound has colossal drama. Brahms, however, cannot end on a gloomy note.
Schicksalslied closes with a repeat of the orchestral prelude, transposed to C major. Brahms thereby eases the pain of the depressing ending implied by the text. Brahms leaves a measure of suspense and mystery by means of the timpani, whose inexorable, driving rumble persists even through the quiet final measures.
The Sacred vs. the Secular
Mendelssohn: Die erste Walpurgisnacht
Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night) is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, telling of the attempts of Druids in the Harz mountains to practice their pagan rituals in the face of new and dominating Christian forces. Goethe wrote this text to be set to music, intending it for his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter, who tried twice, but did not complete a setting. Mendelssohn, who knew Goethe, first took it up in 1830 and completed it thirteen years later.
The story tells of how a prank allows for a local tradition to take place in spite of opposition. The Druids and heathen celebrated May Day, but this practice has now been forbidden by the Christians. The Druid priests counter that those who fear to sacrifice deserve their chains. A solution emerges as a Druid watchman suggests a masquerade of the Devil, spirits, and demons to frighten the occupying Christians. The Christians are scared away, and the Druids and heathen are left to celebrate Spring and the Sun.
Mendelssohn was likely attracted to Goethe's poem because it tells the story the triumph of an oppressed group in an occupied land.
Mendelssohn was probably attracted to this story because of the ghost scene (compare his incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream) and more significantly, by the triumph of an oppressed group in an occupied land. Not only was this an important Enlightenment idea, it’s quite possible that Mendelssohn was reflecting on his own Jewish background and what he must have felt was a lack of full acceptance into Christian society. The final verses of the oratorio emphasize an abstract divinity (“dein Licht”) over a threatened earthly ritual (“den alten Brauch”).