During the 2011 City of London Festival, Tenebrae joined a chamber ensemble from the LSO at St Paul’s Cathedral for a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. The Requiem was preceded by a selection of Bach’s Chorales interspersed with his Partitia in D minor, performed by Gordan Nikolitch, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Fauré’s Requiem favours serenity, joy and liberation over the dread and terror employed by most composers in settings of the Mass of the Dead. By adopting a more comforting approach, he crafted music of astonishing beauty, in particular the Pie Jesu. Bach’s Partita for Violin No 2, with chorales interspersed, culminates in a reconstruction of the Ciaconna, highlighting the hidden chorale themes within this fascinating work.
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Gabriel Fauré: Requiem (1893 version)
In 1887, Fauré began work on a Requiem, for perhaps no more reason than to count himself amongst the composers who had written one. He said afterwards ‘My requiem wasn’t written for anything … for pleasure, if I may call it that’; a sad coincidence, therefore, that in 1888 Fauré found himself making the finishing touches to his Requiem just as his mother passed away so suddenly that he was not able to see her again.
The work is quite unlike anything in the rest of his output, and indeed unlike any of the religious choral music by which he was surrounded. It seems Fauré was deliberately avoiding contemporary styles of church music: he declared once that the church should have ‘no music but plainsong’, and this simplicity is detectable in the extended, modally inflected ‘arias’ for sections of the choir; a defining feature of Fauré’s Requiem. The church music of Fauré’s time comprised both contemporary compositions and works from earlier eras, but it was often chosen for reasons other than quality or spirituality. At L’église de la Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré directed the first performance, the church’s standard repertoire included ‘Latinized’ extracts from Gounod’s Faust, and arrangements of Liszt pieces and Schumann songs, calculated to please their fashionable clientele. This music impressed Fauré just as scarcely as its alternative, the academic ‘neo-Palestrina’ approach of Vincent d’Indy. ‘Perhaps my instinct led me to stray from the established path after all those years of accompanying funerals! I wanted to do something different’, Fauré recounted in 1902.
Fauré’s Requiem was accused of a swathe of musical and liturgical sins, most significantly that its emphasis did not fall on the Day of Judgment and the horrors of hell (themes central to the Roman Catholic attitude towards the fate of the soul); this omission from a requiem was unacceptably radical to the clergy. The Requiem heard in 1888 was not as we hear it here: that version had only five sections, and by 1893 Fauré had completed his most representative version of the Requiem, now in seven sections after adding the Offertoire and the Libera me. The latter of these movements includes the only reference to the Dies irae, which Fauré perhaps would, after all, have preferred to omit.
Fauré’s 1893 orchestration is dominated by low-register instruments: an unusual combination of two horns, organ, harp, violas, cellos and double basses, with the addition of a single violin. The opening Introit is a sombre Molto largo (very slowly), with the chorus stating their prayer in homophonic harmonies. The first choral ‘aria’ is sung by the tenors, with the sopranos taking over with their own at ‘Te decet hymnus’. The Offertoire begins with a duet for the altos and tenors: two simple contrapuntal lines, using only a few notes each, gently interweaving, imitating each other in canon. The baritone solo introduces the Hostias, and a brief coda spins the movement quietly to a close.
The harp joins for the first time in the Sanctus, accompanying the solo violin, floating in ecstasy high above the sopranos. Of the Pie Jesu which follows, Saint-Saëns declared: ‘Just as Mozart’s is the only Ave Verum Corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu’. Although it is a melody of breathtaking simplicity, its long legato phrases and delicate shaping require tremendous control. Although a boy treble would have performed it at its first performance in La Madeleine (because women were not permitted in their music making), at every performance thereafter Fauré chose a female soprano, by whom the piece’s challenges are generally better served. Mlle Torrès, who performed it at the first public concert performance, had to repeat it immediately as an encore, so enthusiastic were the audience.
The real gem of the Requiem, though, is the Agnus Dei. Every note of the soaring opening melody is unmistakably Fauré. Then, a heart-stopping moment, as the sopranos hold a single unaccompanied C, on ‘Lux’ (‘light’), and the harmony sinks into a glowing A flat major. The mood darkens, harmonies roam further afield as the urgency increases before the orchestra engulfs the choir with the only prolonged fortissimo in the work, followed by deafening silence. The darkness of the opening Requiem aeternam returns, but the final moments are soothed by the return of the magical melody which began the movement, this time in a subtly brighter D major.
Fauré had written the Libera me as a stand-alone work for baritone and organ in 1877, and was able to recycle it as part of his Requiem. An anxious heartbeat in the orchestral bass accompanies the baritone’s plea, laden with gravitas. For a brief moment the horns herald the dreaded vision of hell, as the Dies irae is invoked, but this is far-removed from the theatrical treatments of Verdi and Berlioz. As it passes, the choir, in chilling unison, intone their solemn prayer once more. Also setting Fauré’s Requiem apart from tradition is its inclusion of the text In paradisum, words which are not part of the Mass for the Dead at all, but an antiphon from the burial service. The immediacy is heightened by the text’s reference to the dead not as ‘they’ but as ‘you’: It is you being laid to rest at the end of Fauré’s Requiem, not simply an anonymous soul. Above the peacefully rippling ostinato organ part, this extended aria for the soprano section is punctuated by the full choir for only a few bars to murmur a final ‘aeternam habeas requiem’ (‘may you have eternal rest’).
The Requiem, today so widely celebrated for its spiritual sincerity, remains as fresh and as moving as ever, and its personal emotive power still finds great significance more than a hundred years on.
Lee Reynolds © 2011
A Secret Language—Hidden chorale quotations in J S Bach’s Sei Solo a Violino
Sei Solo. / ã / Violino / senza / Basso accompagnato. / Libro primo. / da / Joh. Seb. Bach. / ao. 1720.
Bach was court kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, the only period in his career when he had no official duties at church. The six pieces for solo violin BWV1001–1006 were written in two separate genres: three of them are four-movement sonatas in the style of the Italian Sonata da chiesa, and three are partitas—multi-movement suites of dance pieces. The sonatas and partitas are grouped in pairs:
Sonata in G minor / Partia in B minor
Despite this arrangement, however, there is reason to believe that the three sonatas were originally conceived and performed as an independent cycle, for they form a larger unity with a common architectural design. Bach’s encrypted date in the third Sonata suggests that they were already completed by 1718. Recent research has revealed that this self-contained cycle of church sonatas relates to the three high feasts of the liturgical year: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.
Each of the three works is based on an inaudible cantus firmus consisting of one or more lines from church chorales. The first, in G minor, is associated with a hymn by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt: ‘Herr Jesu Christ, Du höchstes Gut, Du Brunnquell aller Gnaden’ (Lord Jesus Christ, thou highest good, thou wellspring of all mercy). The second, in A minor, contains in its opening movement (Grave) the first four lines of the Passion chorale ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ (O head of blood and wounding), while the third, in C major, is governed by Luther’s Pentecostal hymn ‘Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’ (Come, Holy Spirit, God the Lord). The two sonatas in the minor mode probably relate to Christ’s earthly existence—his incarnation, passion and resurrection—while the third, in the major mode, points to Heaven, to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
These chorale quotations and their relation to the high church feasts are complemented by excerpts from the liturgy in gematrical encryption, where numbers are assigned to letters of the alphabet, and by numerological references to the Old and New Testaments. The chorale melodies employed as cantus firmi can be made audible by prolonging the notes of the violin part with the aid of additional instruments or voices. In order to blend into the musical fabric, the rhythm and meter of the hymns have been freely manipulated. This becomes particularly evident when the chorale quotation has the same pitch sequence as a fugue subject but has been subordinated to its rhythm (see the C major Fugue). With their rhythms altered and their musical caesuras ignored, even familiar chorale melodies become impossible to perceive. Are we dealing with musical cryptograms?
Frequently we can identify two or even three lines of a chorale in interlocking counterpoint and discover that they define the harmonic progression of a phrase, or even of an entire movement. Often the secret chorale quotations are embellished in the contrapuntal texture with broken chords containing the notes of the melody, sometimes in alternating registers. The quotations are also highlighted by musico-rhetorical figures that reflect the unstated words or emotional contents (‘affects’) of the chorale. These pieces contain many arpeggiated chords conveying the affect of joy, as when they supply a figurative harmonisation for ‘Jesu meine Freude’ (Jesus, my true pleasure) and ‘Drauf kann ich fröhlich sein’ (That I may take delight). In contrast, six-note ascending or descending segments of the chromatic scale symbolise the affectus tristitiae, the affect of sorrow associated with grief, death, or sin. Thus, the abstract figures in this wordless music speak a specific but clandestine language that can be made intelligible through decryption.
Chorale Quotations in the Ciaccona
The title page of the autograph of the ‘Sei solo’ is dated 1720. The manuscript paper was made at a mill located in Joachimstal near Karlsbad, which would suggest that Bach brought the paper home with him from his journey. Judging from the watermark, this type of paper is unique in Bach’s output. We may therefore assume that his final fair copy of the six violin pieces originated after the death of Maria Barbara, and that only then were the three church sonatas augmented with the three partitas.
The Second Partita, in D minor BWV1004, ends with the Ciaccona as its final movement and was paired with the Second Sonata in A minor, the so-called ‘Passion Sonata’ BWV1003. Both works are based on inaudible chorale quotations. The secret subject common to both the A minor Sonata and the Ciaccona is death and resurrection. The death of Maria Barbara must have given Bach the immediate impetus to compose this extraordinary movement. Bach has engraved her name in cryptographic form at the opening of the Ciaccona. Many compositional devices and extra-musical constructs suggest that this ‘dance’ was written as a ‘tombeau’—an epitaph in music—for Maria Barbara Bach, dedicated to her memory.
The Christian virtues of the deceased are highlighted with quotations from the liturgy and by numerological references to the Old and New Testaments, accompanied by prayers that she might intercede at the Last Judgment on behalf of her surviving relatives. From the first note to the last, all the variations in this tripartite piece embellish chorale melodies. Martin Luther’s Easter hymn ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ frames the entire movement, ending with the two-fold ‘Hallelujah’ that concludes each stanza of the chorale as an expression of hope in the resurrection and life everlasting.
It is easy to descry ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ (Christ lay to death in bondage) in the first four bars of the Ciaccona: thirty-seven pitches contain the hidden cantus firmus and, at the same time, a reference to Christ’s monogram XP, the sum of whose letters is 37 (X = 22 and P = 15, using the order of the Latin alphabet). In this case, the chorale quotation relates to the number of pitches. The next four-bar group opens in the same way as the first and reveals, in whole-bar units, the melody of the final line of the same stanza, the ‘Hallelujah’.
The eight bars that conclude the first section embellish these same lines from the chorale, this time in an altered sequence of chords. The lower voice states the name of B-A-C-H (in German letter notation for the pitches B flat, A, C, B natural) in chromatic descent, accompanied by a six-note progression in the upper voice, likewise in chromatic descent. The two outside voices thus reflect the affectus tristitiae (the affect of sorrow).
‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ and the two-fold ‘Hallelujah’ also form a chorale cantus firmus at the end of the third section of the Ciaccona.
The second stanza of the Easter hymn, ‘Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt’ (That death no one could subdue), forms a cantus firmus marked in the opening variations by crisp dotted rhythms, probably in reference in the inexorability of death:
That death no one could subdue
Here, too, the letters of Bach’s name occur in this same symbol of suffering, the descending chromatic figure D–C sharp–C–B–B flat–A, and unite with the words ‘death, death’ (den Tod, den Tod), now split into motivic subunits D–C sharp–B flat–A (mm. 1-48). Bach treated these words of the chorale in the same way in a duet for soprano and alto from his early cantata ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ BWV4.
‘Wo soll ich fliehen hin’ (Where shall I refuge find) alternates with ‘Befiehl Du Deine Wege’ (Commend thou all my pathways). The rapid motion of fleeing (fliehen) is depicted in 32nd-note runs, which convey an impression of sudden haste at the change of articulation from legato to non-legato.
A clear change of affective character occurs at the beginning of the great arpeggio passage in bar 88. The first quotation, the melody of ‘Jesu, meine Freude’, is recognizable in the high descant, harmonized by arpeggiated chords to depict the affect of joy. Within the space of a single bar, the word ‘Freude’ (joy) is transformed into figuration in shorter note-values.
The affect of joy also dominates the next two-line chorale quotation, ‘Auf meinen lieben Gott trau ich in Angst und Not’ (In my beloved God I trust in fear and need), followed by the plea ‘Gib uns Geduld in Leidenszeit’ (Grant us patience in times of sorrow). The word ‘Geduld’ (patience) is accompanied by the ascending pitches A–B flat–B–C, the word ‘Leidenszeit’ (times of sorrow) by the descending form C–B–B flat–A. In this way even inaudible words are ‘implied’ by the figuration in this wordless, purely instrumental music, which also contains Bach’s ubiquitous ‘signature’.
The two D minor sections flank a middle section in D major. This section is dominated, at its core, by variations in which bugle-like fanfares are heard in bright D major triads, accompanied by repeated percussive effects. Here the violin is made to imitate trumpets and drums. This may be a reference to the realm of heaven; it may also refer to Him who will come to judge the living and the dead, and whose reign, like the Last Judgment, will also be announced by fanfares.
Our attention is now turned away from the ‘times of sorrow’ and directed to Christ’s suffering: ‘Jesu, Deine Passion will ich jetzt bedenken’ (Jesus, this thy passion, let me now regard) and ‘In meines Herzens Grunde Dein Nam’ und Kreuz allein funkelt all’ Zeit und Stunde, drauf kann ich fröhlich sein’ (Within my hearts foundation, Thy name and cross alone, shine forth each day and hour, for which I can rejoice). The final chorale verse in the maggiore section is in turn transformed into a figuration of arpeggiated four-voice chords, heightening the affect of joy and ‘delight’.
As a final doxology we hear ‘Dem Höchsten sei Lob, Ehr’ und Preis’ (Praise, honor and glory be to the highest). The third and final section of the Ciaccona, once again in D minor, opens with the verse ‘Nun lob, mein Seel’, den Herren’ (Now praise my soul, the Lord) and a repeat of the chorale quotation from the first section: ‘Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich auf Erden wie im Himmelreich’ (Thy will be done, Lord God, alike on earth as even in heaven). Finally, Bach returns to the Easter hymn that brackets the entire Ciaccona, his ‘tombeau’ for the death of Maria Barbara Bach:
Christ lay to death in bondage,
Helga Thoene © 2011