Kyrie eleison Op posth. [1'23]
Richte mich, Gott Op 78 No 2 [3'51]
Whereas most of the music contained on this disc dates from the years immediately preceding Mendelssohn’s untimely death, Verleih’ uns Frieden was composed, along with the Opus 23 Sacred Choruses, during the period that followed the composer’s first flush of public success with such undisputed masterpieces as the String Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Between May 1830 and October 1831, Mendelssohn undertook a gruelling tour which included stops at Munich, Salzburg, Linz, Vienna, Pressburg, Graz, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Genoa, Milan and Geneva. By far the longest stay was spent in Rome between 12 November 1830 and 10 April 1831, and it was then that he composed this prayer for peace, dated on the manuscript 10 February 1831. This magical piece is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, strings, four-part chorus and organ, and is composed as a continuous, three-verse setting (the same text is heard three times). The warmly expressive divided cellos at the beginning, premonitory of the woodwind figurations which open the Schöne Melusine overture of 1833, lead into the quietly contemplative first verse set for basses alone. Only the last verse utilizes the full forces available, and does so with a generous warmth of expression that leaves one in no doubt that the ultimate peace cannot be too far away.
As is the case with all of Mendelssohn’s short choral works of this period, the wonderful Kyrie eleison of 1846 (the last and best of four settings he composed) was written for the choir of the Domkirche in Berlin. The sense of inner peace and warmth which characterizes this setting is really quite remarkable from a man who was close to a total physical breakdown. As with so many of the great composers of the past, Mendelssohn repeatedly demonstrated throughout his lifetime the transcendental ability to overcome worldly concerns, and elevate his music to a spiritual level of human experience.
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe is the first of Three Sacred Pieces, composed towards the end of 1846—at the same time as sections iii and v of the Sechs Sprüche and the Kyrie eleison. Mendelssohn was never physically the most robust of men, and the years of constant travelling, performing, composing and conducting were now taking their toll upon his fragile frame—he was to pass away the following year, totally burnt out. His letters of the period are brimful of references to his state of exhaustion, and by the time he came to compose these short choral works, he had already pulled out of the Gewandhaus Winter Concert season, leaving Gade to cover most of his conducting engagements. His work at the Conservatory was kindly taken on by his old friend, Ignaz Moscheles.
These perfectly conceived miniatures are typical both in terms of their sheer mastery of choral writing and effortless control of detailed musical expression and structure. The uplifting Ehre sei Gott is the more intricate of the two pieces from this set included on this disc (see also Heilig, heilig ist Gott 6), making great use of the contrasts available between unison, antiphonal and solo textures. Mendelssohn also demands an unusually wide dynamic range, and resorts to several pronounced changes of tempo to help facilitate textual comprehension. As is the case with virtually all of Mendelssohn’s music (and all too rarely in the music of many other composers), there is a profound understanding and insight displayed throughout for the performers’ as well as the listeners’ needs.
The Three Sacred Choruses, Op 23, of which the Ave Maria is No 2, were composed shortly after Mendelssohn’s arrival in Rome in November 1830 and directly in response to one of his first visits to the Vatican City. The twenty-one-year-old composer wrote enthusiastically at the time: ‘After breakfast I play, sing, and compose until about noon. Then Rome in all her splendour awaits me’. Musically, he had some reservations though: ‘The orchestras are worse than anyone could possibly imagine. Nobody seems to care, so there is no hope whatsoever of improvement. If only the singing were a shade better.’ The accompaniment on this recording is of the full version for organ, clarinets, bassoons, cellos and double basses.
Despite his Protestant orientation, this did not prevent Mendelssohn from composing one of the most beautiful settings of this favourite Latin text. It is in three parts, the devotional simplicity of the outer sections (which share the same basic musical material) contrasting most effectively with the exhilarating contrapuntal textures of the central section. The very opening is recalled, incidentally, in the final coda of the ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Heinrich Dorn wrote enthusiastically in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik: ‘The music speaks so convincingly of Mary’s sanctity that it could lead a non-Catholic to her. The sacredly joyous A major ensemble resembles a golden platter upon which the master has laid down this pure hymn. Here we find the tenderest tonal colours, of edification, worship, and religious thought directed towards Heaven and reflected in the eye’.
The ‘archaic’ austerity and raw emotional power of Mitten wir im Leben sind sets it apart from Mendelssohn’s characteristic vocal idiom. This is derived directly from Samuel Scheidt and Johann Sebastian Bach, whom Mendelssohn considered the greatest of all composers and whose modern reputation he effectively secured with a historic performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. Mitten wir is divided into three verses, each concluded by a ‘Kyrie eleison’, and characterized by the textural contrasts achieved by setting plaintive chorales against energized, contrapuntal vivaces. Most memorable of all is the way Mendelssohn resolves the intensity of the opening pair of ‘Kyries’ with the floated closing phrases.
The relatively brief Heilig, heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth is an extrovert call to rejoice. The opening, in particular, is unforgettable in its exemplary harmonic control, the overlapping entries combining to produce a glorious suspension at the antepenultimate exhortation of ‘Heilig’. The dotted rhythms which dominate the remainder of this setting help to create the necessary forward momentum, inexorably moving towards the final joyous cadence.
The Six Anthems for the different times of year, Op 79 (titled Sechs Sprüche—Six Motets), were not published until 1848, the year after the composer’s death, having been composed as three pairs between 1843 and 1846—i and ii (1843), iv and vi (1844) and iii and v (1846).
In the summer of 1843 Mendelssohn became director of the Berlin Male Voice Cathedral Choir and, after the first private performance of the complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that October, finally decided to settle in Berlin in November. Shortly afterwards, on Christmas Day 1843, he composed the first two of the Sechs Sprüche miniatures. Two months later, on 14 and 18 February 1844 respectively, Mendelssohn composed a further two settings (iv and vi). This was an increasingly restless period in the composer’s life as he was becoming convinced by degrees that Berlin, his new home, was impossible to endure any longer. His relations with those in authority were stretched to breaking point as his natural exuberance was forcibly contained by local bureaucratic restrictions. The last two sections to be composed (iii and v) were written on 9 and 5 October 1846 respectively, at a time when Mendelssohn was feeling increasingly tired and unable to cope any longer with his exhaustingly hectic schedule. As he remarked in a letter: ‘After the exertions of this summer, and all the travelling I had to do, I’m now leading a vegetable existence.’ Listening to these wonderful settings it would seem, despite almost apocryphal assertions to the contrary, that his compositional flame was undimmed.
The influence of the Italian ‘a capella’ style is paramount, expressed through Mendelssohn’s total mastery of textual intensification, achieved by a series of archetypal harmonic suspensions. This style of writing was to dominate virtually all choral composition of the late nineteenth-century English Renaissance, notably Stanford’s (e.g. ‘Beatus vir’ from the Three Latin Motets).
The first of Three Psalms, Op 78, Warum toben die Heiden? (Psalm 2, composed in 1843) divides into several musically differentiated sub-sections. After the imposing opening declaration (verses 1–5) with its characteristic dotted rhythms and highly effective antiphonal writing for the male voices of both choirs, a sense of spiritual calm is beautifully conveyed by the use of solo voices, until the gloriously full tutti at the words ‘Du bist mein Sohn’. The music moves into triple metre (3/2) at verse 9 for a suitably tempestuous ‘Du sollst sie mit’, followed by a withdrawn, awe-inspired ‘So lasset euch nun weisen’. The passage which follows (‘Küsset den Sohn’) shows Mendelssohn’s inspiration running at white heat, culminating in a series of ecstatic harmonic suspensions of surpassing beauty. The brief final Gloria (‘Ehre sei dem Vater’) conceals within its apparent simplicity of utterance, a supremely crafted four-part canon.
This setting of Richte mich, Gott (Psalm 43) exchanges the double chorus of Warum toben? for a single four-voice choir, and is noticeably simpler in outline. Following the stern contours of the D minor opening section, characterized by the male voices in unison alternating with the female choir in four-part harmony, the move to the relative major (F) at the words ‘Sende dein Licht’ soars away to uplifting effect. The following 3/8 andante reverts to the atmosphere and textures of the opening section before the final verses resolve former tensions in the warm glow of a D major chorale.
As is the case with virtually all of Mendelssohn’s church music, the setting of Psalm 22, Mein Gott, warum hast du? (composed in 1844 and the longest of the Three Psalms Op 78), was very popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly in England where his music was eventually superseded by the composers of the late nineteenth-century English Renaissance. The imposing opening section derives its dramatic effect from the alternation of solo tenor recitativo—sung here by John Bowen—with a series of chorale settings for the full choir. The section beginning ‘Ich bin ausgeschüttet’, continues the emphasis on textural contrast by offsetting a solo quartet against the main choir, and includes a wonderful moment where the music moves into the tonic major (E) perfectly reflecting the gentle appeal to the Lord to ‘be not thou far from me’. Returning to the textural exchanges encountered in the opening section, the final bars conclude the piece in the gentle radiance of a warmly expressed E major.
Known throughout the English-speaking world in its Mendelssohn-approved English version, Hör mein Bitten is the most popular of his small-scale choral works. It was composed during Mendelssohn’s eighth visit to England between May and July 1844, just before he began putting the finishing touches to his E minor Violin Concerto. In addition to the usual round of social engagements, Mendelssohn conducted six Philharmonic Society concerts, including celebrated performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Joseph Joachim and the fourth Piano Concerto by Mendelssohn himself. He described his time in England as ‘crazy, absolutely crazy’, and little wonder. He rarely got to bed until half past one in the morning, having spent each day in a feverish whirlwind of musical and social engagements, and later reckoned that he’d got through more music during his two months in London than he did the rest of the year put together.
Hör mein Bitten shows none of the sense of fatigue that afflicted Mendelssohn throughout his visit. On the contrary he seems to have taken the opportunity to conjure up the feelings of peace and contentment in the opening section that he so desperately sought in his personal life. As the choir joins the soprano (or treble) soloist, the music moves into 3/8 (E minor) and becomes considerably more agitated. After a brief and dramatic recitative, the contented final section resolves any tension in the flowing melodic lines of the inimitable ‘O for the wings, for the wings of a dove’.
Julian Haylock © 1989