Our music for this week is Libera Me from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.
Gabriel Faure was a popular French composer in the late 19th century who composed many small-scale works for solo piano and gained international renown as a piano pedagogue. His most famous pupil is a composer that we hear from quite regularly here at TWM: Maurice Ravel.
As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Faure’s musical style was substantially influenced by the French music of his time. For instance, if you listen to the earlier portions of this Requiem, you will hear harmonic textures that sound like they could have been written by Debussy.
Unlike the other monumental choral works of his time, Faure’s Requiem is relatively soft-spoken. Where Brahms’ Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem raise the roof with their staggering volume, Faure’s Requiem is more likely to inspire reflection through its subtlety. He wrote of the work, “Everything . . . is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”
The Libera Me is a perfect example of this meditative aspect of Faure’s music. It opens with a mournful solo that introduces the primary theme. The rhythmic foundation of the pizzicato strings provides momentum and tension. The choir then merges into a layered exploration of the thematic material provided by the opening solo, rising to a dramatic peak complete with winds and brass. The initial melody returns at the end of the piece, accompanied again by the pizzicato strings. However, this time it is sung by the whole choir rather than a solo voice, which creates a spine-tingling atmosphere of power and intensity. Then, just as soon as it appeared, the choir fades into the background and we are left with the same solo voice that we started with, a reminder of the introspective beauty of Faure’s “eternal rest.”
Our music for this week continues our series on the music of contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan. We will be listening to “A Child’s Prayer,” sung by the Laurens Collegium Rotterdam and conducted by Wiecher Mandemaker.
This is a powerful, deeply moving piece of music. MacMillan dedicated it to the memory of the children who were killed in a 1996 attack on a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. MacMillan personalizes the youthful aspect of the music through the lyrics, which are taken from a prayer he used to say during his childhood in northern Scotland. He also orchestrates the piece, which is written for four-voice choir, so that two solo treble parts overlay the ponderous, lamenting chords sung by the rest of the ensemble. The high-pitched treble parts, which weave in and out of each other throughout the entire piece, represent the children who were lost in the tragedy.
Notice the simplicity of the lyrics. The chords in the choir focus almost exclusively on one word: “Welcome.” This word, pulsing over and over in the lower voices, creates a rocking, relaxed atmosphere. Near the end of the piece, the entire ensemble rises to a climax based on the word “Joy,” which quickly resolves into a duet between the two treble voices. I find it interesting and moving that MacMillan chose to finish this piece, which commemorates such a terrible tragedy, with the word “Joy.” Perhaps he means to point the audience toward a redemption of sorts, or maybe he is evoking joyful childhood memories. Regardless of his aim, MacMillan has done a masterful job of creating a beautiful musical picture of grief, comfort, and hope. And he’s done it in only four minutes of music.
Our music for today comes from Carl Orff’s opera Carmina Burana. Carmina Burana is the most frequently performed choral work of the 21st century. The opening chorus is one of the most popular lines in all of classical music. It became famous through an Old Spice commercial in the United Kingdom.
The name means “The Songs of Beuren,” and it comes from the combination of two words. The first is the Latin “carmina,” meaning “songs.” The second is “beuren,” which represents the Beuren region of Bavaria, where Carl Orff lived and is now buried. The Songs of Beuren were a collection of 13th-century poems discovered in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren. Orff’s opera was his effort to set these poems to music. If you are interested in seeing what the words are, they are conveniently displayed as a subscript in the video above.
As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.
Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.
many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation
for composing the Psalms.
“For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”
most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words,
the piece is “the
most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also
adamant that the Psalms be sung in
the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical
tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian
church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating
for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.
Here’s a quick rundown of
things to listen for:
First movement: This movement is based on
Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly,
this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an
almost unheard-of meter.
Second movement: listen for the boy soprano
solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied
by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in
the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the
piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued
chorus without instrumentation.