This evening's programme is very dynamic in terms of style, sonority, artistic expression and, perhaps, interest. These two great works of musical art present two completely different idioms: a more-or-less standard eighteenth-century Classical style, and a sharp twentieth-century sound in a very unusual instrumentation. Before attempting to confront these two pieces let us have in mind a maxim of Hector Berlioz, that great nineteenth-century iconoclast: "It is not enough that the artist should be well prepared for the public. The public must be well prepared for what it is going to hear".
The musical commonality between Mozart and Stravinsky is vague, or at least speculative. However, it is well known that Stravinsky revered Mozart, even composing an opera (The Rake's Progress) on a Mozartian model.
The music of Mozart is often acclaimed for its delightful character, but this character is not always present in his "Great" Mass in C minor. The first movement, Kyrie eleison, opens in a solemn, almost tragic manner. Listening only to this movement, who would guess that this is the work that Mozart composed to celebrate his marriage? Is it some sort of musical joke, or an ironic expression of Mozart's deeper feelings regarding his marriage to Constanza rather than to her sister Aloysia, his previous favorite, who had rejected him?
Another mystery about the work is its unfinished state. The Mass is obviously composed on a grand scale, much greater than any other of his sacred works. Following the solemn Kyrie is a seven-movement Gloria. Throughout the seven sections, Mozart demonstrates his mature compositional skills as well as his new-found mastery of old forms, especially of Baroque-inspired counterpoint. At the same time, since the entire Gloria is divided into subunits, various sentiments about the text can be reflected in great detail: the truly glorious, C-major Gloria (Glory to God in the highest), the joyful Laudamus te (Praise to the Lord), the heartfelt Gratias (Thanks for Thy great glory), the intimate Domine (O Lord God, heavenly King), the swelling, proclamatory Qui tollis (He who takest away the sins of the world), the flowery Quoniam (Four Thou only art holy), the grandiose Jesu Christe (Jesus Christ), the energetic Cum Sancto Spirito (Together with the Holy Spirit). These well-tailored musical materials fit together magnificently, with much greater variety than would be possible in a Mass composed on the usual scale.
Mozart constantly varied the dimensions of the performing forces, while mixing archaic (though traditional) and more modern (that is, Classical) forms of expression. Following the Kyrie and Gloria, which are in the by-then standard four choral parts, the Gratias is in give-part (something more expected of Bach than of Mozart), the Qui tollis an eight-part double chorus. The Cum Sancto Spirito, as was traditional, is a fugue, here in four choral parts; but a fugue on a much more elaborate scale than Mozart had previously been capable of.
Mozart did not complete the Credo, setting only the initial Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God) movement itself, again in five choral parts, and the Et incarnatus est (And He was made man), in the form of a Siciliana, a slow dance in 6/8 time, for solo soprano.
The "incomplete" Credo proceeds directly to the Sanctus-complex (Sanctus-Osanna-Benedictus-Osanna); the usual, expected, Agnus Dei movement is absent. An eight-part double chorus is again employed in the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), heightening its grandeur.
In addition to choral sections, handsome solo movements and ensembles are interspersed for balance and to ease the weight of the entire work (but mainly to display new bride Constanza's silvery soprano). Two such solo sections are particularly noteworthy: the Laudamus te in the Gloria, and the Et incarnatus est in the Credo. They demand equally beautiful voices yet completely different temperaments, and are often given to two different sopranos. Perhaps Mozart was thinking of his former lover Aloysia, the finer singer of the two Weber sisters.
Musicologists have proposed a variety of conjectural explanations, but this is one enigma that has never been solved. The Mass was performed at least once in Mozart's lifetime, but it is not known if the completed movements were supplemented by others' settings of the remaining sections. At times, the work has been performed with movements from other Mozart masses to fill in the gaps. The enormous difference in scale between this Mass and any other of Mozart's masses ensures that this will not be a convincing solution. Tonight we perform the "Great" Mass in C minor as written, believing that, much like that other famous "unfinished" piece by Schubert, whatever the composer's original intentions were, the work as it stands is as complete as it needs to be.
The première of the Symphony of Psalms brought forth a milestone of twentieth-century music. The individual psalms that Stravinsky selected for this choral symphony possess particular flavours: First movement - obscure and raw; Second movement - mysterious and tense; Third movement - energetic and transcendent. This masterpiece demonstrates the mature style of Stravinsky admirably. As he himself said, rhythm and motion, not the element of feeling, are the foundation of musical art. The motoric energy of the first movement and the rhythmic game in the treatment of the words "Laudate Dominum" (praise God) in the third movement are good exemplars of this idea. The momentum of the sound shifts unexpectedly, triggering a unique excitement characteristic of Stravinsky.
The tonal language of this work is also pervaded by genius. Though Stravinsky structured the sound with many unusual intervallic leaps, these are so continuously present that they form themselves into easily-recognisable patterns, amounting almost to traditional motifs. To audiences used to the standard major and minor modes, experiencing the Symphony of Psalms in akin to exploring the boundaries of tonality, since two or even three different keys often seem to be present at the same time. Stravinsky conceives of melodies which have the potential to move in several different possible tonal directions; with such a rich palate, one can easily imagine the brilliance of the work's colours. In particular, the initial chord (the "Psalms Chord") and the final sonority have acquired almost mythical stature among musicians. The luminous colours are highlighted by the Symphony's unusual orchestration: no violins or violas, but a huge wind section (though without clarinets), two pianos and harp.
- Andrew Cheng -