Seven composers, seven countries, five centuries -what an ideal concert for Hong Kong, crossroad of the world, where ancient and modern, East and Wet, meet, interact, and are transformed into something new. Motets and a Mass movement, all appropriate to the Christmas season, centered around an instrumental concerto by a cosmopolitan, Russian-born artist famous for mixing the styles of different eras in a crucible of sound, from which emerges a musical metaphor for our environmentally-conscious, recycling age.
Tomás Luis de Victoria was the great Spanish master of the Counter-Reformation. Trained in Italy as disciple of Palestrina following the Council of Trent, he returned to his homeland a leader in the Royal musical establishment. The motet O magnum mysterium (O Great Mystery) is an early work, published in 1572 for the Feast of the Circumcision, which falls on January 1st. Probably Victoria's best-known piece, it was later used as the basis for one of his many Mass settings. This technique of parody, in which pre-existent musical material is re-used, either as a whole or broken up into parts, was a common practice during the Renaissance, and is familiar even in Bach and Handel. Generally avoided from the late eighteenth century until recently, beginning in the 1970s it again became a potent ingredient for composers seeking to renew a relationship to the past, after two generations for whom, through both the devastation of war, exile and genocide, and the concurrent disruption of long-established means of musical stability, all connection to musical history seemed put into question.
Franz Liszt was a musician whose entire existence was a convergence of past and future, sacred and profane. A German-speaking Hungarian who never learned to speak Magyar, he was a cosmopolitan, at home everywhere in Europe except in his native country. One of the great child prodigies, he grew to become the first heroic virtuoso sex-symbol (Paganini's image being too devilish to inspire swooning adulation). He abruptly abandoned public performance in 1848, at the height of his fame as a touring pianist, to become Music Director to the Duke of Weimar, cultivating a circle of worshipful students and admirers, proclaiming the "Music of the Future", loyally encouraging progressives such as Berlioz and Wagner, and composing a series of programmatic symphonic poems - a term he invented. While living, unmarried, with a succession of aristocratic women, he ostentatiously embraced Catholicism, living for a time - alone - in a roman monastery (where the Pope called on him, rather than the other way around), eventually taking minor orders and moving piously through the world in a black cassock.
Toward the end of his Weimar period, in the late 1860s, as studies for the large-scale sacred oratorios he planned as a way of re-animating chant-based Catholic music, Liszt composed a number of motets, mostly with organ accompaniment. In their mix of old and new flavours, Ave Maria (Hail Mary) and Pater Noster (Our Father) - two of the most fundamental prayers in the Catholic canon - are reminiscent of the more familiar motets of Bruckner, and reveal an almost unknown side of this many-faceted master.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier was, until recently, comparatively unknown. Overshadowed in his lifetime by Lully, who held a royal monopoly on opera production in Paris and Versailles, Charpentier concentrated instead on sacred music, in which his supremacy was acknowledged by no less than Louis XIV. The rarefied world of the French Baroque, which its extreme stylization in accordance with the complex, formalized rituals of the Court, found in Charpentier an ideal exemplar. The delicacy and calculated proportions, in the succession of verses of an extended motet such as Beatus vir (Psalm 111: Blessed is the man who fears the Lord) - probably composed in 1694 or '95 - is audibly related to the earlier styles of such composers as Monteverdi or, indeed, Victoria, but those seem almost earthy and coarse in comparison, as a frittata is to an omelette: no less delicious, but which one is more appropriate for a formal occasion?
Arvo Pärt is another composer emblematic of transition and transformation. An Estonian, he grew up in the post-Stalinist world of Soviet music, in which Western modernism was finally allowed to spark fitfully. Responding to this opening at first in a flirtation with serialism, he later withdrew into a study of early music, emerging with a style which he calls "tintinnabulation", explaining it as follows: "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note... or a moment of silence, comforts me... The three notes of a triad are like bells".
The Beatitudes is Pärt's first composition to an English text, even though written for a German choir - that of Berlin Radio. Completed in 1990-91, it reflects the repetitious but evolving nature of the text with music built on a simple pattern, slowly but steadily spiraling upward in pitch and tension until it achieves an ecstatic catharsis in a closing organ cadenza, which unwinds in a gradually-slowing harmonic descent to the original point of stasis.
Alfred Schnittke's was a different response to the problems posed by post-Second World War musical trends, which seemed to alienate composers from their public. Another in a long line of culturally-displaced composers, on this mother's side he came from the community of Volga Germans, ethnically and linguistically Teutonic, residing in Russian territory since the time of Catherine the Great; his father was Jewish. Schnittke, whose childhood was spent partly in Russia, partly in Vienna, and who came to prominence as the leading Russian composer following the death of Shostakovich, emigrated eventually to Germany in 1989, living finally in Hamburg. From the age of fifty he suffered a series of disabling strokes, the final one of which caused his death earlier this year. Our performance or the Concerto grosso No. 3 is a memorial to him.
An important transitional style in the later twentieth century was collage, in which musical "found objects" are as if pasted onto an original backing, or discovered in the distance during silences in the foreground. Schnittke developed this into a autonomous poly-stylism; the juxtaposition of mutually-antagonistic modes of discourse itself becomes form-giving. The five-movement Concerto grosso No. 3, among the last pieces completed before this first attack in 1985 begins as though it might be a newly-discovered seventh Brandenburg Concerto of Bach, before decaying, as it were, in typical Schnittke fashion into something unquestionably off-kilter and thus contemporary. But Bach remains insistent, both stylistically and in musical spellings of his name (in German, our B-flat is B, B-natural is H): the bells use only the four notes B-flat, A, C and B-natural, and both the third and fourth movements begin with that four-note motto. The slow movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 is also parodied in Schnittke's third movement; the whole work becomes a confrontation in which the clash of old and new creates music that is whimsical, yet visionary.
This is the second time that Hong Kong composer Ip Kim Ho has used Biblical text in his work. The title of the piece signifies the great change that took place around the time of Christ, as from the Old to the New Testament in the Bible. The piece consists of three sections, played without pause. The text of the first section comes from one of the most famous verses in Ecclesiastes. The paraphrase from Bach's Christmas Oratorio in the second section hints at the coming of Jesus, the catalyst in bringing about change. The final section uses text from the Bible where Jesus talked about what will happen when the Son of Man comes. The piece reaches its climax in the final section. The a capella chorus, with its new tempo, brings in the epilogue of the piece. Here material from the first section is used again, illustrating the text "whatever is has already been, and what will has been before". Along with "what has been", the music looks forward to "what will be". The Millenium will be another great period of change in human history; "what has been" can facilitate "what will be".
Ip Kim Ho is presently a student at the Hochschule für Musik Würzburg, Germany, and studies composition with Professor Heinz Winbeck. Ip received a Master of Music degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1997, having graduated from the same University with first-class Honours in Music the precious year. He has received the Sir Edward Youde Overseas Fellowship since 1997 and in 1998 became the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Scholar. Ip is a member of the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong and of the Hong Kong Composers' Guild.
And, finally, Vivaldi. It is hard to realise, today, that fifty years ago he was almost forgotten. His emergence coincided with a general rediscovery of Baroque music amidst the explosion of Hi-Fi and Stereo in the 1950s. Vivaldi was perceived as a kind of "easy-listening" wallpaper: Classical music for people who hate Classical music. His instrumental concertos were the first to take hold; music with a sung text demands more attention, and among his more than 450 concertos there is an almost infinite variety of detail within a relatively fixed structure. But the facile Vivaldi, resident in Venice - in his time a centre of trade and banking similar to Hong Kong in ours - was distinctive enough to be an important influence on his contemporaries and successors, including Bach. The seemingly regular, mechanical surface of Vivaldi's music is deceptive; perhaps deliberately so: beneath it are concealed layers of sophisticated rhythmic variety. Nowhere is this contrast between simple foreground and richly-textured interior more evident than in this Gloria, his most frequently performed choral work, composed probably in 1716. In such movements as the opening Gloria and its recapitulation, the Quoniam, as well as the Domine Fili, the effortless virtuosity of Vivaldi's subtle metrical shifts is breathtaking; his complete mastery of fugue is exploited in the final Cum Sancto Spiritu. But the emotional heart of fugue is exploited in the final Cum Sancto Spiritu. But the emotional heart of the work is the second movement, Et in terra pax, in which the composer rises to a level of chromatic intensity matched only by Bach and Mozart. It would seem Vivaldi himself recognised this extraordinary achievement: unlike the other movements, all relatively brief, this one stretches on, almost, but not quite, to the breaking point.
- Jerome Hoberman -