Performance Saturday, April 20, 2013 | 8 PM

National High School Choral Festival

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Mozart’s dramatic Requiem, spirituals, and music that spans the Renaissance to the present day is performed by three stellar high school choirs, a quartet of fine singers, and the renowned Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by John Nelson. It's truly a concert of ethereal choral music.
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The Program

Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre won a Grammy Award in 2012 for his album Light & Gold; after studying composition at The Juilliard School with John Corigliano, he formed a professional choir and began writing works for the BBC Proms, Chanticleer, The King's Singers, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, among others. In Whitacre's own words, "the music sounded in the air" as he read Octavio Paz's poem "Agua nocturna" (the Mexican writer Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990), translated as "Water Night" by American poet Muriel Rukeyser. This was one of Whitacre's earliest works, commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers during the composer's studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Here, Paz's words float in an ocean of mystical, slow-moving, ultra-rich harmonies.

Paul Caldwell, director of the Youth Choral Theater of Chicago, and Sean Ivory, director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses, began working together in the early 1990s; since then, their arrangements have become staples in the choral repertoire. In this thrilling version of a traditional song, "Ain't no grave can hold my body down," proclaiming defiance of death and trust in Jesus and the afterlife, we hear wonderfully tricky rhythms, death-defying altitudes for the first sopranos, and an ending that spans from the bottom of the grave to the heights of heaven.

Morten Lauridsen, professor of composition at the University of Southern California and composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994 to 2001, received the 2007 National Medal of Arts for his "composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide." Lauridsen has long been attracted to Rainer Maria Rilke's verse, and Rilke was fascinated by rose imagery: Scholar William Gass wrote, "Roses climb his life as if he were their trellis." In "En une seule fleur," what Lauridsen calls Rilke's "pastel colors in French … about roses and love" becomes an a cappella choral work of alternating block-chordal passages and choral polyphony, like a latter-day descendant of the French Renaissance chanson tradition.

Manuel Cardoso—Carmelite priest in Lisbon, organist, and composer during the "golden age" of Portuguese polyphony—wrote in a style similar to that of the better-known Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. Many of Cardoso's works were destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755, but three books of masses survive, including the Requiem for Six Voices, whose opening Introitus (from the Latin word for "entrance"—part of the opening of the Eucharist in the Roman rite) we hear this evening. Cardoso was a master of the subtlest intricacies of Renaissance counterpoint, as demonstrated by the complexly interwoven polyphony in this grave, extended movement.

We return to Eric Whitacre's music-this time a setting of another Spanish-language poet (the great Federico García Lorca) in English translation: "With a lily in your hand." After the solemn invocation "O my night love!" at the start, we hear the ingenious rhythmic juxtaposition of triplet "la la las" against a differently disposed melody. Listen to how Whitacre emphasizes "you" ("I find you") in this love poem: choral crooning at its best.

Daniel Read was an American composer of the so-called First New England School along with William Billings, Supply Belcher, and Oliver Holden; like Billings, he set hymn tunes in three- and four-part a cappella style, with simple, folk-like melodies and a non-European approach to harmony. A comb-maker and owner of a general store in New Haven, Connecticut, Read compiled and published The American Singing Book, a collection of his own music, in 1785 and followed it with various tune-books. Here, his famous tune "Windham" is arranged by Brad Holmes, the director of choral programs at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.

"Come, sweet death" is a choral arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach's song of the equivalent German name for solo voice and basso continuo from the 69 sacred songs and arias that Bach contributed to the Musicalisches Gesangbuch compiled by Georg Christian Schemelli in 1736. This aria melody is one of three tunes in the collection of 954 hymn texts and 69 melodies that are attributed to Bach-this one on stylistic grounds. In this arrangement by Rhonda Sandberg, we begin with Bach-era harmonies that evolve into dense, haunting, modern dissonances before all that darkness clears up at the very end.

One of England's greatest Renaissance-era composers was William Byrd, a Catholic recusant in a Protestant country. His staunch adherence to Catholicism did not prevent him from making memorable contributions to the Anglican sacred music repertory, including "Sing joyfully," similar in style to his 1611 Psalms, Songs, and Sonnets. For this six-part anthem, Byrd writes a new point of imitation for each new phrase of text, and the initial phrase is set with a single voice on each part-a technique similar to Catholic settings of chant incipits. "For Motets and musick of piety and devotion, … I prefer above all our Phoenix Master William Byrd, whom in that kind, I know not whether any may equall," wrote Henry Peacham in his 1622 The Compleat Gentleman; choirs who have sung his vast body of choral music might well second this praise. This exuberant anthem, perhaps Byrd's last surviving specimen of the genre, was sung at the christening of Mary, daughter of James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots.

Moses Hogan was a graduate of Oberlin who also trained at Juilliard and in Vienna before returning to New Orleans. He founded The Moses Hogan Singers and edited The Oxford Book of Spirituals (2002) before his tragically early death at age 46. He was best known for his arrangements of spirituals, including "My soul's been anchored in the Lord." After a brief introduction in a slower tempo, we hear Hogan's distinctive use of the traditional call-and-response mode of singing spirituals for the livelier body of the work, as well as irresistible syncopated rhythms and a thrilling conclusion.

—Susan Youens
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Requiem, K. 626

Mozart in Our Time

Jacques Barzun (who died last year at 104) said that when he was young, Mozart was regarded as a refined Rococo composer compared to the more original and profound Beethoven. Things have certainly turned around; Mozart is now commonly seen not only as one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition, but one of the greatest artists in any field, someone who died young but produced a huge body of work—some 600 compositions—that combines technical perfection with profound emotional depth, a creator in every genre who ideally summarized one era and forecast the next.

Mozart is idolized by modern composers, especially in late works such as the piece on this program. In his essay "At the Thought of Mozart," Aaron Copland wrote that Mozart fills composers with "awe and wonder, not unmixed with despair. The wonder we share with everyone; the despair comes from the realization that only this one man at this one moment in musical history could have created works that seem so effortless and close to perfection. The possession of any rare beauty, any perfect love, sets up a similar distress, no doubt."

Mozart's final choral-orchestral works, the exquisite choral miniature "Ave verum corpus" and the sublime though incomplete Requiem, represent two aspects of Mozart: One is a model of concision that sums up 18th-century Classicism—the "effortless" aspect cited by Copland; the other is a turbulent masterpiece—all the more moving because Mozart did not live to complete it—that ushers in the Romantic movement, setting the stage for the large-scale Requiems of Berlioz, Brahms, and Verdi.

Death and Transfiguration

Mozart died in December 1791 at age 35 in the middle of composing the Requiem. He took a few intermissions in the early stages to write La clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, and the Clarinet Concerto. There are fabulously dark stories about the composition of the piece, mostly centering on Mozart's supposed recognition that the Requiem would be his own. His wife Constanze maintained that her husband "could not be dissuaded from this idea; he worked, therefore, like Raphael on his Transfiguration, with the omnipresent feeling of his approaching death and delivered, like the latter, his own transfiguration." The most spurious (if entertaining) tale, perpetrated by the film Amadeus, involves Mozart's fear that he was being poisoned by his third-rate rival, Salieri.

A Shocking Voluptuousness

Whether or not one buys into these stories, nothing in Mozart's previous masses—not even the operatic (and also incomplete) C-Minor Mass—quite prepares us for this swan song, which combines a terrifying starkness with a Mozartean voluptuousness, a fusion found not so much in his choral pieces as in secular works like Don Giovanni and the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. As Charles Rosen points out in The Classical Style, Mozart's expressions of grief and finality have "something shockingly voluptuous. Nor does this detract from its power or effectiveness; the grief and the sensuality strengthen each other, and end by becoming indivisible, indistinguishable one from the other."

About the Music

So much controversy has swirled around Mozart's Requiem that we often forget what an awesome experience it offers simply as music. Forget for a moment the squabbles concerning performance practice, incomplete manuscript, and compositional circumstances: The brooding intensity of the opening, the stark power of the Dies irae and Confutatis, the lyricism of the Recordare, the searing despair of the Lacrimosa, the operatic vocal quartet in the Tuba mirum and Recordare, the spine-tingling trombone in the Tuba mirum, and the emotional charge in even highly contrapuntal sections (such as the double fugue in the Kyrie) indicate a new direction in Mozart's music that surely would have led to Romanticism and beyond had the Requiem  not turned out to be the composer's own. (Even the Bachian counterpoint is oddly forward-looking, as the back-to-Bach movement became a Romantic preoccupation when Mendelssohn began reviving Bach's works.)

An Arduous Reconstruction

The problem, of course, is that these sections are Mozart's, at least for the most part, and the rest—the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—were composed by Mozart's pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who also added voice and string parts to sections Mozart had not completed. Constanze, who had young children to worry about, was distressed that she might lose the commission fee for the Requiem if it were not finished. The family was in dire financial straights; La clemenza di Tito had flopped in Prague, and even Die Zauberflöte, despite good reviews in Vienna, was not proving lucrative. Costanze enlisted the help of Süssmayr, who fortunately had been Mozart's copyist. When Süssmayr finished the score, he recopied it so it would appear to be a single creation, faking Mozart's signature and moving the date up a year.

Süssmayr was resourceful and often self-effacing: for the final Cum sanctis tuis (at the end of the Lux aeterna), he cleverly recapitulated Mozart's magnificent Kyrie fugue; also in the Lux aeterna, he reused a Gregorian melody Mozart had adapted in the Te decet hymnus (near the beginning of the Introitus). He certainly had his work cut out for him. Mozart planned 12 movements, but completed only the Kyrie. He did write out the vocal parts for most of the movements, as well as a figured bass line.

The orchestration, however, was largely missing, though Mozart was able to indicate his intentions. Mozart had put off the Lacrimosa until the end, but was so ill that he managed only eight bars before succumbing to death. (According to one melodramatic story, he tried to sing the alto vocal part with three theater singers who came to his deathbed, but broke down in tears and died shortly after.) Astonishingly, Süssmayr had to write the final three remaining movements (the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) in their entirety, as Mozart died before beginning them.

Do the Süssmayr sections constitute a comedown or did Mozart's pupil do an elegant job with a near-impossible assignment? Only the listener can decide, but we must be grateful to Süssmayr for completing a treacherous task with high professionalism. Though his cause is not helped by those who say that Mozart regarded him as a second-rate composer, we might not have the Requiem at all were it not for his efforts. In any case, since new parts in Mozart's hand were discovered in 1962, it is not completely clear what Süssmayr contributed and how much authentic Mozart he merely copied. (Constanze originally entrusted the job to court composer Joseph Eybler, a Haydn student and friend of her husband, but he quickly-perhaps wisely-abandoned it.)

Myth and Reality

As for the Romantic legend of a spectral gray-clad stranger appearing mysteriously to commission a requiem Mozart feared would be his own, it is, alas, a story too good to be true. In the first place, the letter Mozart wrote documenting his terror of the stranger may well be a forgery.  ("I cannot remove from my mind the image of the stranger … I thus must finish my funeral song.") In the second, the commissioner turned out to be not a grand Death figure, but Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach, an amateur composer and frequent plagiarizer who was looking for a Requiem for his recently deceased wife that he could pass off as his own composition. He did just that, copying Süssmayr's copy, ascribing the premiere in December 1793, and later admitting that the work was not really his own. In this shabby case, myth is clearly preferable to reality.

—Jack Sullivan


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Carnegie Hall National High School Choral Festival is made possible, in part, by endowment gifts from S. Donald Sussman and the Citi Foundation.