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Award-winning choir Tenebrae performs a sumptuous selection of motets by Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner. A portion of the proceeds from sales of this recording will be donated to Macmillan Cancer Support.
Bruckner’s early output includes many short sacred compositions. His Aequale for three trombones were written in January 1847, probably in memory of his greataunt and godmother, Rosalia Mayrhofer. They belong to a tradition, long established in Upper Austria, of brief worksfor instruments of the same or ‘equal’ type. These were commonly associated with the Mass for the Dead and with All Souls’ Day: Beethoven, for example, wrote three aequale for performance at Linz Cathedral in 1812. Bruckner’s two contributions to the genre, the chorale-like nature of which anticipates the presence of trombone ‘choirs’ in his later symphonies, were probably conceived for performance at the Augustinian monastery of St Florian near Linz.
‘In his dealings with high ecclesiastical authorities,’ observed the Viennese polymath Friedrich Eckstein, ‘Bruckner…never displayed that strange submissive behaviour that one could see so often in his dealings with superior [public] officials or even with critics.’ The composer, a man of profound religious faith, clearly felt at ease among the clergy. He was raised as a chorister at St Florian and served there from 1845 to 1855 as schoolteacher and singing instructor. Bruckner moved to Linz in 1856 to become organist at the city’s Neuer Dom (New Cathedral) and soon after composed the first of three Ave Maria settings. He returned to the traditional Catholic prayer again in 1861, soon after the end of six years’ counterpoint studies with the Viennese theorist Simon Sechter. Bruckner’s Ave Maria for seven-part mixed choir, remarkable for its economy of means, textural richness and direct expression, marked the beginning of his artistic maturity. The piece was conceived to stand in company with a Mass by the seventeenth-century Italian composer Antonio Lotti. It was first performed by the malevoice chorus, the Liedertafel ‘Frohsinn’, under Bruckner’s direction on 12 May 1861 at the Old Cathedral in Linz.
The reviewer of the Linzer Zeitung praised the work for its religious sincerity, ‘strict contrapuntal execution’ and ‘glorious …repetition of 'Jesus' to solemn A-major chords’. Bruckner here adopts the austere polyphonic style perfected around three centuries earlier by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina while liberally interpreting its formal rules, gracing the work’s essentially simple harmonies with subtle chromatic shifts, raising its expressive temperature with potent suspensions, and generating expansive choral textures for the climactic setting of ‘Sancta Maria, mater Dei’.
Bruckner’s mature motets were written during a period of reform of music for the Catholic Church. The revisionist trend gathered pace in 1866 when the German priest and composer, Franz Xaver Witt, launched a journal devoted to the cause of ‘improving’ church music. The following year, he set out his manifesto and dealt with the practicalities of delivering it. Witt condemned the ‘trashy church music’ favoured by Catholic parochial choirs and suggested a ‘churchly’ alternative, one rooted in the ‘true’ music of such past masters as Palestrina and in the melodic purity of Gregorian chant. Witt’s words inspired the foundation of the Allgemeine Cäcilien-Verband (General Association of St Cecilia), or Cäcilien Verein (Cecilian Society) as it became known. His brainchild, named for music’s patron saint, soon grew in stature, leading one overenthusiastic cleric to describe it by the mid-1880s as ‘a small world power’.
In many ways Bruckner’s motets respect Cecilian ideals. They were informed by chant and Palestrinian polyphony; they also served to heighten the intensity of ritual worship without drawing attention to their composer’s ingenuity. Locus iste, written for the inauguration of the votive chapel of Linz’s New Cathedral, was first performed on 29 October 1869 under the direction of Johann Baptist Burgstaller, a driving force of the Cecilian Movement in Upper Austria. Bruckner’s predominantly homophonic gradual amounts to a study in simplicity. Its text, from Genesis 28:16-17, concerns Jacob’s reflections after waking from the dream in which he saw a ladder rising from earth to heaven. The work’s bass line, rarely silent, unfolds as a metaphor for a sacred building’s sure foundations.
Tota pulchra es was written to mark the silver jubilee of Franz Joseph Rudigier’s installation as Bishop of Linz. The antiphon received its first performance under J.B. Burgstaller’s direction on 4 June 1878 at the New Cathedral in Linz, Rudigier’s then unfinished building project. It arises naturally from the chant-like spirit of the precentor’s solo lines and makes sparing use of the organ, chiefly to enrich its choral textures. Bruckner cast the composition in the Phrygian mode, recalling his earlier work for Rudigier’s cathedral, the Mass in E minor. The harmonic progressions at the end of the motet clearly echo the conclusion of the Kyrie of his Mass.
Several sources suggest that Bruckner privately distanced himself from Cecilianism: for instance, he reportedly told the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague that, while the restoration of Palestrina’s music was timely, the Cecilians had nothing to say. Os justi, however, was conceived as a positive response to Cecilian norms. The gradual, a setting of Psalm 36: 30-31, was written for and dedicated to Ignaz Traumihler, music director at St Florian and a distinguished Cäcilien-Verein lecturer. Bruckner made changes to the motet’s fugal middle section after his old friend expressed reservations about its illicit combination of the Lydian and Mixolydian modes. The revised version was first performed under Traumihler’s direction and with Bruckner at the organ at St Florian on 28 August 1879, the Feast of St Augustine.
Popular depictions of Bruckner as a holy fool ignore his extensive knowledge of Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics. His third and final setting of Christus factus est, first performed on 9 November 1884 at the Hofburgkapelle in Vienna, represents a sophisticated musico-theological reflection on words from Philippians 2: 8-9. The work’s symbolism embraces everything from the major and minor seconds in its opening bars, redolent of Christ’s humility, to the terraced diminuendo from fff to ppp, which cultivates reverence for the ‘name which is above all names’. Bruckner also connects with archaic tradition through the venerable device of sequential repetition in his setting of ‘obediens’, before deploying a thoroughly modern modulation from D minor to D-flat major at ‘mortem autem crucis’, emblematic perhaps of the resurrection.
At the beginning of 1885 J.B. Burgstaller invited Bruckner to write a work for the centenary celebrations of the diocese of Linz, scheduled to take place that autumn. Ecce sacerdos, for eight-part mixed choir, three trombones and organ, was intended to accompany the bishop’s entry into the New Cathedral. The antiphon’s text contains quotes from the Bible concerning God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the promise of eternal protection made to ‘a great priest’. Its striking textural and harmonic contrasts evoke the tension inherent in the status of clerics as divinely ordained deputies for the ultimate high priest, Jesus Christ. Bruckner completed the piece a few weeks before the first performance of his Te Deum, traces of which appear in Ecce sacerdos, notably so in the bare fifths stated at its opening. It also contains mellifluous passages directly informed by Palestrina together with bold antiphonal exchanges, such as those at ‘Ideo jurejurando’, rooted in the soundworld of Giovanni Gabrieli. The motet’s planned premiere was abandoned; in fact, Ecce sacerdos remained unperformed during Bruckner’s lifetime.
Virga Jesse, like Ecce sacerdos, was written for the Linz diocesan centenary. Bruckner completed his setting of the Marian text in September 1885 following a short trip to St Florian. The composer conducted the work’s first performance at Vienna’s Hofburgkapelle on 8 December 1885, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Bruckner presents a convincing combination of old and new, alluding to ancient practices while exploring modern chromatic harmonies. As he had in his Ave Maria of 1861 and Locus iste, he incorporated the so-called Dresden Amen into Virga Jesse. Wagner had recently elevated this simple cadential figure, a familiar trope of Saxon church music, to become the solemn ‘Grail’ motif in his opera Parsifal. Bruckner here attaches it to the word ‘floruit’ before recalling it throughout ‘pacem Deus redidit’. The motet’s second half comprises a sonorous Alleluia setting, its gentle close heralded by a threefold succession of steeply descending tenor melodies.
Johannes Brahms was an avid collector of early music, in manuscript and print form, proud owner of a library that comprised works by, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach, Palestrina, Heinrich Isaac, Johannes Eccard and Heinrich Schütz. In the 1850s Brahms, recently hailed by Robert Schumann as ‘a chosen one’ among young German composers, set about the systematic study of advanced counterpoint and chorale harmonisation, techniques inherited from the past. In February 1856 he proposed an exchange of contrapuntal exercises with the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim. The following month Brahms sent Joachim a selection of canons, fugues and his Geistliches Lied. While the work began life as an exercise in canonic writing, impressively rising to the contrapuntal challenge of the double canon at the ninth, Brahms decided that it was worthy of publication. Its two canonic themes appear in the choir’s soprano and tenor parts and in the alto and bass. A gentle organ prelude and interludes articulate Brahms’s contemplative choral setting of three emotionally charged verses by the seventeenth-century German writer Paul Fleming.
The lyrical Ave Maria Op12, written for Brahms’s Hamburg Women’s Chorus in 1858, reflects the composer’s knowledge of Latin church repertoire; it also reveals his shrewd feeling for the capabilities of amateur choristers and understanding of the potentially lucrative market for accessible choral music. Brahms may have been inspired to set the ancient Marian prayer by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Kater Murr, a satirical novel which depicts a girls’ choir performing the fictional Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler’s Ave Maria. As an avid reader, Brahms maintained a special affection for the Bible in Martin Luther’s German translation. He underlined many passages in his copy and also made notes from it in a separate pocket book. Brahms turned to the Luther Bible and the Apocrypha when gathering the text for Ein deutsches Requiem, which he began in Vienna in the months after his mother’s death in February 1865. Brahms hoped to write a personal work of memorial for the dead; he therefore avoided setting anything rooted in Christian doctrine. He later defended his decision to omit direct reference to Christ in the work, stating in a letter to one of his colleagues: ‘As regard the title I will confess that I should gladly have left out “German” and substituted “Human”.’ Brahms gives eloquent expression to the compassionate Lutheran view of death in his German Requiem’s fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (‘How lovely are thy dwellings’). The work made rapid headway in Britain following its first full public performance in London in 1873, championed in English translation by Otto Goldschmidt’s recently formed Bach Choir.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 stirred Brahms’s sense of German national identity. At one point during the campaign, the composer even considered enlisting in the Prussian Army. He was also roused by the published speeches of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian Prime Minister soon to engineer the remarkable political feat of German unification. Brahms continued to lionise Bismarck until the end of his life. The Fest- und Gedenksprüche (‘Festal and Commemorative Sayings’) Op 109 convey the strength of the composer’s nationalism, conditioned here by his response to the Drei-Kaiser-Jahr of 1888. This year witnessed the deaths of the venerable Emperor Wilhelm I and his son and successor, Frederick III, and the accession of the young Wilhelm II to the German imperial throne. Brahms, deeply affected by the royal deaths, chose words from the Bible apt to a time of tension between the new German Empire’s ruling elite and its people.
Brahms was not unique among his middle-class contemporaries in harbouring doubts about God’s existence while holding fast to the belief that disorder would follow if the masses rejected religion. His Fest- und Gedenksprüche enlisted Old and New Testament texts to sound a warning against the perils of discontinuity and promote the rule of law. The composer reinforces his allegory by using archaic musical practices: for example, the juxtaposition and confrontation of music for two choirs, exploited with great energy in Unsere Väter hofften auf dich, offers a striking analogy for the upholders and breakers of God’s laws: the strong state and its disputatious people. He underlines the point with military precision in Wenn ein starker Gewappneter, commanding performers and listeners alike to contemplate the fate of ‘a kingdom divided against itself’ and reflect on the value of a ‘strong man armed’. Brahms appears to send a lightly coded message to Germany’s impetuous new Emperor: trust in Bismarck; accept the Iron Chancellor’s counsel. Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk delivers a prayer for union, explored at first by various combinations of voices, developed in the form of a double canon at the words ‘Hüte dich nur und bewahre deine Seele wohl’ (‘Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently’), and crowned by an ingenious canonic ‘Amen’.
The Three Motets Op 110, the last of Brahms’s works for a cappella choir, like the Fest- und Gedenksprüche were inspired by the music of Schütz. The composer first referred to his Op 110 in the summer of 1889, when he informed his publisher that he had written three new motets that were ‘better’ than those of his Op 109. Brahms chose words from Psalm 69 and the book of Exodus for Ich aber bin elend, treating them to a setting that combines the contrapuntal ingenuity present in Schütz’s Psalmen Davids of 1619 with rich chromatic harmonies. Ach, arme Welt and Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein are settings of ancient German sacred verse, first published in 1841 in the influential collection Das deutsche Kirchenlied. The second motet explores the rich sonorities of four-part chorale writing, while the third articulates the contrasts of mood—from earthly despair to eternal hope—in the stanzas of Paul Eber’s Lutheran chorale text.
Andrew Stewart © 2015
My love for the music of Brahms and Bruckner comes first and foremost from my experience as a cellist, having had the opportunity to play a number of their symphonies. Aside from their rivalry as symphonists, both composers wrote extensively for choirs throughout their life, I wanted to discover what Tenebrae would bring to this music. That this exploration could be done to jointly support and promote a charity like Macmillan Cancer Support, and the artistry of Tenebrae, has been a wonderful experience, and one which I hope to replicate in the future with other artists and good causes.
A number of people have given freely of their time and energy for this project, for which I’m extremely grateful. It is this generosity of spirit that pays tribute to those whom we remember with this recording.
Andrew Mellor © 2015