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The Voice of Masters

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 as promising a rebirth of English opera.

Britten kept the promise with five new operas in the next nine years. And Grimes was only the most famous of a series of compositions in which he drew almost methodically on native poets and characteristic national topics: Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Smart, Crabbe, Tennyson, Auden, Purcell (many arrangements), medieval carols and mystery plays, Queen Elizabeth I, the English countryside and fishing coast, the Royal Navy, boy choirs.

The next milestone in Britten’s career was the Coventry commission. The War Requiem is scored for orchestra, chamber orchestra, chorus, soloists, boy chorus, and organ—bells are also prominent—and lasts for an hour and twenty minutes. For the text Britten reached back to the antiwar poems of Wilfred Owen to commemorate two world wars, and thus an infinity of wars, in a rhetoric of pacifism superimposed on the timeless, iconic sequence of prayers for the souls of the dead that is the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Owen himself died in World War I. The English poems are sung up against or together with the Latin texts; when the text of the Offertory seeks the intercession of the Archangel Michael, according to the promise he gave in Genesis to Abraham and his progeny, Owen tells his own Abraham and Isaac story:

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, thy son.

Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,

A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not do so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This makes for a rough cut—Steinberg’s terms are “sinister,” “shocking,” and “brutish-sounding”—across the grain of the Catholic liturgy, yet by using the liturgy Britten was able to acknowledge England’s core faith, which it had abandoned in the sixteenth century.1 In a further burst of symbolism, he presented the War Requiem to Coventry—to England—and dedicated it to the memory of friends who had died in World War II, and he wanted it sung by prominent singers from Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

Steinberg sees in Britten’s score the rather overt evocation of another setting of the requiem, the Messa da Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi, as a move by Britten “to establish a connection with the great tradition”—the masterwork tradition, the European tradition. It seems the composer was now truly at home in England and the world. The “English” pieces of his later years were outweighed by the opera Death in Venice after Thomas Mann, the dramatic cantata Phaedra after Racine, and an upsurge of untexted instrumental music. The Cello Symphony and several other pieces were written for Mstislav Rostropovich.2

My subject is War,” wrote Owen in a verse taken as an epigraph in the score, “and the pity of War. / The Poetry is in the pity. / All a poet can do is warn.” The Soviets would not allow Galina Vishnevskaya to sing at the première in 1961—a time of considerable tension, as Steinberg reminds us: the Bay of Pigs, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the beginning of escalation in Vietnam—and outside England it is hard to know how seriously Britten’s warning has been taken. The American Symphony Orchestra League keeps statistics of hundreds of orchestras and records no more than two or three performances a year of the War Requiem.

Nor is Luciano Berio’s beautiful elegy for Martin Luther King Jr., O King,3 played more than very occasionally—and the same must certainly be said for Roger Sessions’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, dedicated to the memory of King and Robert Kennedy, a work that receives high praise in Choral Masterworks.4 We have no musical Lincoln Memorial. The memorial that the New York Philharmonic commissioned so soon after September 11 is for chorus, orchestra, and amplified speaking voices on tape, reciting distraught words from placards posted around Ground Zero and names of victims. John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls registers trauma, twenty-five minutes of numbness and rage. It is one thing to respond, another to commemorate. Britten steps back from the event; Adams steps into it.

If Britten saw the Verdi Requiem as his gateway to the great tradition, he was also well aware that this work, too, was highly political and personally fraught. Written on the death in 1873 of Alessandro Manzoni, it incorporates a movement composed for a never-completed memorial for Rossini, who had died a few years earlier, thus becoming a monument to not one but two heroes of the nascent Italian state. Verdi had met Manzoni and revered him as an artist and a patriot. Verdi too was a prominent patriot, of course, an icon of Italian nationalism; only in Italy, no doubt, could opera choruses have been taken over as patriotic hymns, and a composer swept into the country’s brand new Senate.

Indeed, as Steinberg points out, the Requiem was seized on to celebrate a third national hero, Verdi himself. Its première was at a church service in Milan, but when it first traveled, to Venice, it played in an opera house, with the stage made up to look like a church. In Milan the individual movements came in their liturgical positions interspersed by plainchant, but in Venice some of them were applauded and encored. Above the stage altar, instead of an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary there were cartouches inscribed with the name “Verdi” and, in smaller letters, several of his operas.

This is noted in a recent article by the musicologist Laura Basini, locating the Requiem in the broader scene of Italian music after the unification of the country in 1861.5 A number of currents converged into a movement she calls “sacred revivalism.” First, the stranglehold of opera on the music of Italy began to yield under international pressure. As operas by French composers, and indeed Wagner, began to seep into Italian opera houses, a need was felt for Italian music in other serious, imposing genres. The newly unified country set about celebrating (or constructing) national myths; these tended to form around heroes of the past such as Dante, Petrarch, Palestrina, who saved church music from the Council of the Trent, or so it was thought, and even Guido d’Arezzo, the eleventh-century cleric who invented musical staff notation. Furthermore, the new secular state stimulated a powerful reaction from the Vatican. In music this entailed, once again, a turn to the past. Unlikely as it may seem for the nineteenth century, there was a serious call for the revival of a capella church music modeled on Palestrina. The decadence of modern music was to be countered by, as a Vatican commentary put it, a new “tranquillity, peace, order, regularity, variety in unity.”

The Requiem caused a problem for the revivalists, for while it followed scrupulously a Catholic text in a setting heard everywhere and acclaimed everywhere, it did so in a voice that is utterly secular—that is, operatic—at almost every moment. Donald Tovey, whom Steinberg has called “the patron saint of program note writers,” remarked that “the melody of the Lacrimosa is naive enough for Il Trovatore,” not knowing that the music for this section of the Requiem actually came from a duet left over from Don Carlos, one of several cuts taken before the first performance. The “Dies irae” movement feels like an opera that has been squeezed so hard to extrude its libretto that its rhetoric and lyricism are about to pop.

And yet, other sections of the Requiem can be heard as evocations of the pure music of the past, as we learn from a fascinating address given soon after the première by a leading Catholic spokesman, Father Guerrino Amelli, at the Italian Catholic Congress in 1874. After rejecting the Requiem’s emotionalism, romantic excess, “bellicose” instrumentation, and the like, Amelli lights upon one tranquil moment,

which, disdaining instrumental accompaniment almost entirely, seemed to recall with its ingenuous beauty the sublime simplicity of Gregorian Chant. Yes, the tone of that prayer [the Agnus Dei], breathing a calm melancholy, comforted by faith and hope, drew from us almost involuntarily a sigh of approval and made us exclaim: this is real church music. [Verdi] certainly knew the sublimity of liturgical sentiment, and also how to express it with the power of art and his genius; but perhaps he feared not being understood in a century indifferent to religion, a century which shows itself to be incapable of such high sentiment.

Steinberg has a point to make about the power of Verdi’s art in the Requiem, one that is technical but easy to grasp:

This [“Agnus Dei”] begins like plainsong, with thirteen measures for soprano and contralto, in octaves, unaccompanied, and famously feared for the difficulty of getting it in tune. The melody has a remarkable shape, natural and strange at the same time: a first part of seven bars (four plus three) and a subtly compressed second half of six bars (three and a half plus two and a half). What follows is a set of five variations, the last of them spinning itself out.

The variations are very natural, at least in one sense, and the irregular phrase lengths strange.

Amelli, yielding to none in regard for Italy’s most respected composer, found the message he wanted in an apothegm of Verdi’s that was quoted everywhere, “Let us go back to the past, it will be a step forward” (“Torniamo all’antico, sarà un progresso“). And what is even more fascinating is that Verdi tapped into “sacred revivalism” repeatedly and knowingly over the rest of his life, with choral settings of a number of sacred texts. Among them are an Ave Maria and a Pater Noster in (by very generous definition) the style of Palestrina.

In any case, Verdi could take great satisfaction in the success of his Requiem, so soon after the comparable success of Aida. It showed he could triumph in elevated realms of music far above opera; opera was an artistic ideal for Verdi in theory, but in practice a pit of skulduggery, tawdriness, and intrigue which almost drove him crazy. He writes in high spirits to a friend:

I feel as if I’ve become a solid citizen, no longer the public’s clown, with a big tambourine and a bass drum, who shouts come, come, step right up, etc., etc. As you can imagine, when I hear operas spoken of now, my conscience is scandalized and I immediately make the sign of the Cross!!… What do you say to that? Am I not an edifying example?

How satisfactory, too, that the soprano role could be written for the singer Teresa Stolz, his lover at the time, in fact the second great love of his life. They never lost touch after their affair was broken off a few years later.

If we want to think today about the religious or spiritual quality of the Verdi Requiem, we have to remember, first, that the composer was in private a freethinker and in public a scathing critic of organized religion, notably in his three preceding operas, Aida, Don Carlos, and La forza del destino. In two of these works priests are cast as villains, and in the other the characters undergo Christian religious experiences that do little or nothing to calm their souls. (It is true that Verdi softened things in his revised version of Forza, which is the one we know.) And second, we remember that Verdi was a dramatist and there was nothing he could not turn into magnificent theater. In the Requiem drama begins with the subdued choral utterance at the very opening. Steinberg writes:

Requiem aeternam” is ritual—these are words of an invisible chorus. With the pleas of “dona eis, Domine,” individual human creatures become visible as four solo soprano voices detach themselves…. Next comes the prayer for mercy—“Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison”—and now single voices, assertive and full of character, are heard for the first time. Tenor, bass, soprano, and contralto—they present themselves formally, one by one, and not without a sense of competitiveness…. Verdi’s correspondence makes clear that he was looking for singers with voices and taste, and beyond that, with the power and imagination to project character and situation. It is a glorious moment, this presentation of the four praying and singing men and women in the Kyrie; moreover, when these first few bars are past, we have a pretty good idea of the sort of evening we are in for.

Alerting listeners to “glorious moments” like this one is a characteristic Steinberg ploy.

And Mozart’s Requiem? Here Steinberg’s commentary goes past history, religion, and ideology into the heart of the score itself. The myth encrusted around this piece will doubtless survive all efforts to chip it away: the ominous commission, Mozart’s sudden illness, his conviction that he was writing his own requiem. In any case, he had every reason to make it as impressive as possible, since he was hoping to be appointed Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, a position that would have given him a much-needed source of steady income. He had produced no sacred compositions for some time but had been sketching at some as though in preparation. So he must have jumped at the commission for a requiem mass, even though it did not come from an emissary of the Church but from an anonymous patron. (Anonymous if not, pace Amadeus, all that mysterious. Gossip flowed in Vienna as freely as anywhere else and Mozart probably knew all about the patron and his quirks.) When he died with the job still unfinished, it fell to F.X. Süssmayr, an unremarkable young man in Mozart’s circle who may or may not have been his student, to bring it to completion. He had to fill in the orchestration and also add music of his own, with mixed results, to put it mildly. It is striking that Tovey never wrote one of his famous “essays in musical analysis” ona work he characterized elsewhere as “the most pathetic of unfinished monuments.”6

The ending section of the “Dies irae” movement, the “Lacrimosa,” a short, simple melody with chords in the chorus and an affecting accompaniment figure in the orchestra, poses a special problem. Inspection of the manuscript shows Süssmayr taking over after only eight bars in Mozart’s hand. Tovey thought the rest was so good it had to have been dictated by the composer on his deathbed, a typically high-handed piece of reasoning—and not everyone thinks as highly of Süssmayr’s continuation.7 The music is shot through with technical errors and ends with a two-chord “amen” that is excessively simple, indeed altogether vapid, and we know that tradition called for a fugue at this place, for the end of the “Lacrimosa” is also the end of the entire “Dies irae” movement and needs some weight. There is even a Mozart sketch for such a fugue.

Probably none of this would much bother the unmusicological listener of today; still, Steinberg goes out of his way to mention no fewer than four efforts that have been made to replace Süssmayr’s interventions with something more Mozartian and more in scale with the rest of the “Dies irae.” The “amen” fugue in one modern reconstruction strikes him as “an enjoyable movement, full of energy, with no departures from the language of the1790s, but it is in a voice that is not Mozart’s.” On another, more radical effort, by the Mozart scholar Richard Maunder, Steinberg does not choose to comment, but: “I vote for the fugal close.”

He also likes Maunder’s drastic solution for a movement Süssmayr wrote all on his own, the Sanctus: omit it and leave the Requiem a torso, like Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, the one other major composition for the Church that dates from his years in Vienna. Steinberg’s discussion of the history of this also unfinished piece—almost as tangled as the history of the Requiem—is one of his most deft. The C-Minor Mass has also been reconstructed, at least in part, by Helmut Eder, among others, and this solution Steinberg endorses.

Program notes for concerts go back to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique—admittedly, a special case—if not earlier. The writer of notes to be read before a concert performs a different function than the critic or the writer of reviews after a concert, of course. He draws prudently on musicology and cautiously on criticism. Tovey described his role as that of “counsel for the defense.” Steinberg’s mild manner does not and does not mean to obscure clear opinions and clear judgments. He puts in extra footnotes directing us to CDs of the various Mozart reconstructions, for example, and with certain clients, it’s clear that the case in hand is not as strong as the defense would like.

Michael Steinberg steers his own middle course in these amplified program notes between the usual writer of boilerplate and the great Tovey, whose undeniable insight into the works he addresses has to contend with his hectoring tone and donnish self-satisfaction. What you read here sounds as though you have just heard it from the obviously very knowledgeable gentleman occpying the next seat at the symphony, who tends to get quite talkative and even insistent during intermission. He has a way of adding personal touches to his commentary that somehow bridge the space between music and musicology, and he often seems to be enjoying the music even more than you do.

  1. 1

    The see of Coventry was moved to Lichfield in 1539, returning in 1918.

  2. 2

    The cellist was a close friend. Rostropovich left Russia (with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) in 1974 to become a major force not only for his playing but for eliciting music from a very wide range of composers from around the world, among them Shostakovich, Lutosl/awski, Boulez, Berio, Arthur Bliss, Arvo Pärt, and Augusta Read Thomas.

  3. 3

    O King, a chamber music work, was arranged for inclusion as the second movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, composed in 1968.

  4. 4

    It might have been good for Steinberg to have written more about Sessions, whom he knew, but he has done that before, and handsomely, in The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 524–532.

  5. 5

    Laura Basini, “Verdi and Sacred Revivalism in Post-Unification Italy,” 19th-Century Music, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2004), 133–159.

  6. 6

    Donald Francis Tovey, The Classics of Music, edited by Michael Tilmouth et al. (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 383.

  7. 7

    For detailed criticism, see Richard Maunder, Mozart’s Requiem: On Preparing a New Edition (Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 33–37.

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