Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide
by Michael Steinberg
Oxford University Press,321 pp., $30.00
In his recent book Classical Music in America, Joseph Horowitz devotes several chapters to “Offstage Participants,” his name for people who work away from the footlights and make up the support system of musical life, as he sees it, rather than in the spots as singers, players, or conductors. One from within this group who deserves our thanks, Michael Steinberg, first became known as a music critic for The Boston Globe and has since spent his time more peacefully as a program adviser (or “artistic adviser”) for several major symphony orchestras, a lecturer, and a prolific writer of program notes. They are program notes with a difference, admired for their relaxed manner and elegance as well as their warmth and authority; Steinberg is a man who wears a great deal of learning—learned from books, scores, and especially from wide musical experience—very lightly. He has recently been expanding his program notes and collecting them in books. Choral Masterworks rounds out a trilogy of “Listener’s Guides” with The Symphony and The Concerto. The book covers music from Bach’s Passions and the B-Minor Mass to John Adams’s Harmonium and Charles Wuorinen’s Genesis.
If everything played at symphony concerts counts as a “masterwork,” the term has no meaning whatsoever—which is what a moment’s thought would tell us anyway. Steinberg called his first book The Symphony, not Symphonic Masterworks. Choral Masterworks as a book title is an illocutionary command, like Masterpiece Theatre and Great Performances: bow down before this music! There has to be some other way of registering that the composers of many of these works—not all, but many—took extraordinary pains with them, gave of their best and their longest.
These are outsized works, works of high ambition, composed to celebrate important public occasions, or, if not, to answer pressing and explicit personal concerns. Extra orchestral forces are mustered in them as well as choruses and solo singers. When personal and public impulses con-verge the music can become highly charged, hyperbolic, almost volcanic, spilling a surplus of sonic reference beyond even the chorus-enhanced symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler and the Busoni Piano Concerto, its hour-and-a-quarter-long span relieved by the singing of bits of Goethe’s Faust.
The War Requiem by Benjamin Britten, commissioned for the consecration of the bombed and reconstructed Coventry Cathedral in 1961, is a striking case in point. Britten belonged to a generation convulsed by the Spanish Civil War, and at the beginning of World War II he left England as a pacifist protest, following Auden and Isherwood to the United States. Some never forgave him, but it says much for his homeland that when he returned a few years later, understanding that there was no other way to preserve his integrity as an artist, and not only as an artist, Sadler’s Wells ordered an opera from him for its postwar reopening in 1945. Audiences were so moved and so amazed by Peter Grimes that it was seen at once …