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Hyperion Records

CDA67206 - Cornelius: The Three Kings & other choral works
Recording details: May 2000
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 2000
Total duration: 68 minutes 28 seconds


'An appealing collection of choral works from the composer of the celebrated carol, Three Kings from Persian lands afar. Polyphony are perfect advocates of this richly woven choral writing and the solo singing is very fine too' (Gramophone)

'These are superior performances, Layton’s group Polyphony offering refined tone and exceptional precision, together with a careful observation of Cornelius’s dynamics and fluent phrasing' (BBC Music Magazine)

‘Enthusiastically recommended’ (American Record Guide)

'Polyphony sing with solemn beauty. The sound is sumptuous and richly atmospheric' (The Guardian)

'This program offers an exciting trip into what for most listeners will be a world of happy discovery' (

The Three Kings & other choral works

Peter Cornelius was born to actor parents and destined from early life to have a career centred on words and music. He had early contact with the stage and dramatic literature, and like others of the time (such as Schumann), Cornelius immersed himself in German literature at an early age. At the same time he developed an interest in music. After early influences from Beethoven and Schubert, and studies of form and the composition of sacred music in Berlin, Cornelius's musical style matured under the tutelage of Liszt in Weimar. On their first meeting Liszt encouraged Cornelius to compose sacred music, however Cornelius then turned to the composition of opera and song whilst developing his natural gift in poetry. Choral works, however, remained an important part of Cornelius's compositions—many with sacred texts. Mention the name Cornelius to most music lovers and their immediate reaction will be 'Isn't he the man who wrote the song heard at Christmas—Three Kings?' Indeed he is and this piece can be heard on track 6 (Drei Könige). However, this disc also explores the other wonderful choral music written by Cornelius. All of these pieces deserve to be heard more!

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) was destined from early in his life to a career that centred on the word and the tone. His parents Carl Joseph Gerhard (1793-1843) and Friederike (1789-1867) were both actors in Mainz and Wiesbaden, which meant that he had early contact with the stage and with dramatic literature. Furthermore, like other young people of his era (for example, Robert Schumann), Cornelius immersed himself in German literature at an early age, including novels and short stories by Jean Paul and E T A Hoffmann and poetry and plays by Goethe and Schiller. At the same time, Cornelius developed an interest in music, primarily through opera. Thus he prepared for a double career as musician and actor, with his father overseeing the theatrical training and a local violinist teaching the boy violin and music theory. Given this dual talent, it was natural that some of his earliest compositions (in 1838 and 1842) would be lieder, and that he would come to dedicate his mature talent to vocal music, whether lieder, duets, sacred or secular choruses or operas. Indeed, other than some unpublished piano pieces and chamber music from the 1840s, Cornelius only composed and published music that used the human voice (the one notable exception being the overture to his opera The Barber of Bagdad).

After early influences from Beethoven and Schubert, and studies of form and the composition of sacred music with Siegfried Dehn in Berlin (1844-1849), Cornelius’s musical style matured under the tutelage of Liszt in Weimar. In fact, upon their first meeting, Liszt explicitly encouraged Cornelius to compose sacred music. Once there, however, Cornelius turned to the composition of opera and song, while he developed his natural literary gift in poetry. From Liszt he learned above all how to use new harmonic and melodic resources for expressive purposes, even though Cornelius by and large rejected Liszt’s more dramatic approach to song and choral composition in favour of simple yet highly personal and heartfelt musical composition of texts.

Both Liszt and Cornelius wrote important choral works towards the end of their lives. Liszt wrote for all possible choral settings, but he seemed to prefer the larger or more extended types of church music, including psalm settings (Psalms 13, 23, 129, 137), masses (notably the Missa solemnis or ‘Gran’ Mass and the Hungarian Coronation Mass) and oratorios (The Legend of St Elisabeth and Christus). In contrast, after an early period of composition in the larger, traditional sacred forms (Stabat Mater, Domine salvum fac regem, two masses), Cornelius abandoned sacred composition for well over a decade, returning to it only in the late years of his life. Those works from the 1870s took the form of more personal expressions of his faith, in shorter choral settings of devotional texts. Perhaps this renewed activity was inspired by Liszt. In any case, Liszt’s sacred works from the late 1860s gave Cornelius an opportunity to record his views about Liszt’s historical role as a composer of church music: ‘Liszt trod … the path of the thorough reform of church music, which had declined through secularism and unbelief’ (1867).

In his late choral works, Cornelius was obeying an inner voice rather than external motivation, since these pieces tended to be neither published nor performed during his lifetime. Like Liszt, Cornelius had a deep, lifelong belief in God, which undoubtedly influenced his choice of choral medium and texts. However, he cannot be accused of Liszt’s double standard with regard to moral issues – it is clear from documentary evidence that Cornelius did not appreciate Liszt’s ‘conversion’ in the 1860s, which resulted in his taking minor orders in the Catholic Church. Ironically, Cornelius (whom scholars have to this day viewed as a staunch Catholic and defender of the faith) never was a Catholic! He was born, married and buried as a Protestant, and there is no record that he ever converted.

Cornelius drew upon another influence in his choral music – the German tradition of amateur choral societies (Gesangvereine) and domestic music-making. Indeed, it was under the influence of the director of one ‘amateur’ choral group, Carl Riedel in Leipzig, that Cornelius wrote some of his best late secular choral works. The three large works of Op 11 were written specifically for Riedel’s chorus. However, the complexity of most of Cornelius’s choral compositions takes them beyond the realm of much of the simple choral music of the time, intended for the musical delectation of the amateur.

Much of the uniformly high quality of the choral works has to do with Cornelius’s taste in literature, as both a reader and a writer. Beyond the traditional texts for the sacred choral music, we would expect his choice of poetry for the secular choral works to reflect a refined taste, which they do to an exceptional degree. The choral music sets, almost without exception, texts by respected authors like Goethe, Schiller, Uhland, Heine, Rückert, Eichendorff, Heyse and Hebbel. He set these and the sacred texts with extreme care to principles of declamation, and avoided the pitfall of straightforward musical ‘illustrations’ of the words. Indeed, Cornelius’s musical settings often cause one to listen more closely and to ponder more deeply, since the relationships between the words and music are not so obvious as those in the works of his less distinguished contemporaries. Unlike those sacred-music composers of the time who believed in returning to the ‘pure’ style of the Renaissance and Palestrina, Cornelius tended to eschew learned counterpoint and clean modal harmonies in favour of a more homophonic, highly chromatic idiom, although textures can vary considerably. Nevertheless, the voices only occasionally engage in imitation, and then either for textual reasons or to build to a climax, as in ‘Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht’ (Op 11 No 1). Like his Renaissance predecessors, Cornelius did prefer an unaccompanied choral sound, but the voices are much closer together in register, and he exploits nuances of tempo and dynamics to help establish an expressive Romantic sound ideal. Other than Requiem, the choral pieces are relatively short, ranging from two to five minutes. Much like his lieder, these choral works are singers’ music and, despite their advanced harmonic and expressive aspects, they stand clearly in the tradition of singing societies.

The earliest work in this collection is the choral arrangement of Die Könige, No 3 from the song cycle for voice and piano titled Weihnachtslieder (Op 8). Cornelius himself wrote the texts, which so wonderfully retell the biblical Christmas narrative as seen through the eyes of an unquestioning child. At the same time, this is deeply spiritual and emotional music – it is no wonder that they were Cornelius’s most popular compositions and have attracted new choral settings. However, Cornelius himself revised the songs on the advice of Liszt and others and as a result of his own insecurities about his music. They were first composed in 1856, then revised in 1859, and revised once more in 1870 (the last version is the one usually performed). This compositional history is particularly interesting in the case of ‘Die Könige’: it was upon the suggestion of Liszt that Cornelius added the Lutheran chorale in the bass, ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’, which adds a level of commentary to the story of the Three Kings. The polyphonic combination of song melody above and chorale tune below creates a unique, beautiful sonority.

While he was in Vienna between 1859 and 1864, a friendship developed between Cornelius and the poet Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863). For Cornelius, the close relationship with Hebbel was as important for his years in Vienna as his friendship with Wagner. Upon Hebbel’s death, Cornelius set his poem Requiem (‘Seele, vergiß sie nicht’) to music, for SSATBB choir, thereby creating one of the composer’s most personal, profound and intense musical expressions. As with other compositions, Cornelius reworked it, putting it in final form in the summer of 1872. The final version is the most extended choral work of his mature years. Hebbel’s work is a brief poem about the importance of remembering the dead, which Cornelius extended by repetitions of each line. The opening in B flat minor, with its chromatically rising line in the sopranos and striking dissonances and chordal progressions, is one of Cornelius’s most radical passages, not unlike sections from some of Liszt’s late works. The varied treatments of the ‘gesture’ (one is hard pressed to call it a theme) in the first section are largely homophonic – this contrasts with a lively and imitative second section. The opening phrase returns at the end to round off the form and to end the composition in a calm, introspective mood.

Cornelius created an interesting collection of songs of mourning in his Trauerchöre, Op 9 (1869, revised 1870/71) for five voices (TTBBB or ATBBB), since there he put together five plaintive texts by four different poets: Michael Franck, Cornelius (twice, one after Thomas Moore), Martin Luther and Schiller. As varied as the authors are the poetic texts, which are united only to the extent that each illuminates some aspect of death and mourning. The musical settings also differ significantly, although most works of Op 9 show his desire to draw on the past to one extent or another. The extended five-voiced ‘Ach, wie nichtig, ach, wie flüchtig’ (No 1) refers to the chorale of Franck and Vopelius, which is repeated and varied in an ever-changing choral texture. In contrast, the brief four-voiced ‘Nicht die Träne kann es sagen’ (No 2) by Cornelius after Moore is strophic and homophonic, but the harmony is quite chromatic. No 3 (‘Mitten wir im Leben sind’ by Luther) is also strophic and homophonic, and here he creates musical interest through alternating duple and triple metres in the second half and through the use of a refrain, to the words ‘Kyrie eleison’. Cornelius’s own ‘Grablied’ is the shortest and simplest chorus of Op 9, yet even here he makes it interesting: he adapted the four-voiced texture from Schubert’s song Der Tod und das Mädchen (‘Death and the Maiden’) as presented in the String Quartet in D minor, D810. In ABA form, the final chorus ‘Von dem Dome, schwer und bang’ (Schiller) reintroduces varied textures, with the first tenor taking a leading role.

The Drei Psalmlieder, Op 13 (1872) is a collection of three choral songs for four-voiced mixed choir, with texts that Cornelius fashioned after Psalms. They are wonderful examples of his ability to set texts and to rework older music into something new and fresh (see also the Reitermarsch, derived from Schubert). Each of the pieces is based on a different instrumental movement by Bach: ‘Bußlied’ (after Psalm 88) draws on the Sarabande from the French Suite No 1 (BWV812), ‘An Babels Wasserflüssen’ (after Psalm 137) on the Sarabande from the English Suite No 3 (BWV808), and ‘Jerusalem’ (after Psalm 122) on the second Minuet from the Partita No 1 BWV825. Cornelius has retained the musical substance of Bach’s originals, distributed between the four voices (thus the sopranos usually carry the melody). The first two of these miniatures are dark and chromatic, in accordance with Bach’s sarabandes, whereas ‘Jerusalem’ is jubilant and diatonic, set in the manner of a chorale.

Goethe was the poet for Trost in Tränen, Op 14 (1872, revised in 1873), for baritone soloist, four solo voices (mezzo soprano, tenor and two basses) and optional piano accompaniment. (Cornelius indicated in the score that although he composed it as an a cappella work, as it is heard on this disc, the singers could opt to include the piano accompaniment, which doubles the voice parts.) Goethe wrote Trost in Tränen as a dialogue between an individual and a group, and Cornelius has maintained that distinction. The baritone has separate text from the other voices, and sings it after the soloists have presented their text once. Thus he gives us two different musical layers that are developed at the same time. Much of the writing for the four voices is homophonic, but there is a fugue-like texture in a quick middle section, and the baritone and the four voices occasionally engage in imitation between themselves. Although Cornelius does not use a traditional form to structure the whole, he does follow the narrative of the text, progressing from sorrow in an opening slow section through a fast march-like section to a calm ending, bespeaking solace. This is a beautiful work that like so much of his choral music expresses comfort over death.

His Op 18, called Liebe, a cycle of three choral ‘lieder’ for six- to eight-voiced mixed chorus, again reveals Cornelius’s desire not to take historical material literally, but to rework it. In this case he drew upon texts by Angelus Silesius (Johannes Scheffler) from 1657, but he significantly rewrote them – the texts generally express human love for the Saviour. The individual choruses count among Cornelius’s more extended published works for voice, each displaying a variety of moods as the texts unfold. Cornelius builds these larger structures in part through recurring musical ideas, such as the first phrase in ‘Liebe, dir ergeb’ ich mich!’ (No 1), which returns in some form for every line that begins with the word ‘Liebe’. ‘Ich will dich lieben, meine Krone!’ (No 2) falls into a large ABA form and ‘Thron der Liebe, Stern der Güte’ (No 3) alternates sections featuring a lively and a calm theme in a rondo-like form. However, Cornelius never repeats thematic ideas literally, since the texts themselves are always progressing. Striking details of his sensitivity to the text include the insertion of 3/2 measures for the word ‘Liebe’ in No 1 and the irregular, enharmonic modulations to help express regret in the middle section of No 2.

Drei Chorgesänge, Op 11, for six- or eight-voice mixed choir, were composed in 1871 and belong to his finest music in any genre. The words of Nos 2 (‘An den Sturmwind’) and 3 (‘Die drei Frühlingstage’) are by Friedrich Rückert, those of No 1 (‘Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht’) by Heinrich Heine. Despite the lack of a unifying title for the collection, these choruses do share a common theme – the transitoriness of earthly pleasures and life itself. Through sensitive musical settings, Cornelius is able to bring out the latent spiritual meanings of these ostensibly secular texts, much as he did for Hebbel’s Requiem. He creates longer choruses by repeating the short texts several times over. The choral writing and textures call to mind some of the best sacred choral music by Bach: all three feature double choral textures, for example, with the addition of a tenor soloist for a brief passage in No 1. The most striking features of No 1, in eight parts, are the modulations and dissonant harmonies used to create a sombre mood – they anticipate the harmonic language of Richard Strauss and other end-of-century innovators. The second chorus exploits dual four-voiced choirs by exchanging material between them (not necessarily audible to most listeners); here two contrasting sections alternate twice with each other. More continuous and homogeneous is the six-voiced final chorus, which gradually picks up speed to the reflective final bars.

The beautiful setting of Uhland’s ballade Die Vätergruft, Op 19, for bass or baritone and four-voiced mixed choir, was written in 1874, the year of Cornelius’s death. Liszt had already set the poem as a lied in 1844, and he would later orchestrate the song in 1886. As in Trost in Tränen, Cornelius allows the text to determine the texture: the bass or baritone soloist presents the lyrics of the song over an accompaniment of voices, but this time the voices do not participate in the poetic text but present the parallel responses and commentary which are alluded to only in Uhland’s poem. Liszt’s setting of the poem is sombre; Cornelius’s is warmer and almost nostalgic in tone. The soloist’s unaccompanied ten bars at the beginning introduce the narrative element that is so important for this poem, and except for a few choral bars towards the middle of the work, he carries the melodic interest, with the subdued yet very effective choral accompaniment supporting and echoing but never leading.

Cornelius’s last work was So weich und warm for four-part mixed choir, which he composed in the month of his death (October 1874). The autograph score reveals that the version in the second volume of his Musikalische Werke was not his work, at least in terms of several short sections of choral scoring and tempo markings (the published score was probably completed by Cornelius’s pupil Karl Hoffbauer). Cornelius had known Paul Heyse since his years in Berlin, and even though in the intervening years they had come to differ over Wagner, the composer still valued his poetry. The four-voiced, mixed choral piece represents a reworking of an earlier vocal duet. This alternately imitative and homophonic, strophic setting of Heyse’s poem is a fitting last work for the composer who often achieved his greatest effects with the simplest of means.

James Deaville © 2000

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