Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn Bicentennial
March 29, 2009
First Congregational Church of Waterbury
Reverend Kenneth A. Frazier, Senior Minister

Dieu parmi nous
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Matt Sellier, organ

The Beatitudes
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
The College Choir
Laura Ouimette, organ

Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Combined choirs

Requiem
Theodore Dubois (1837-1924)
Edited by Ronald Ebrecht
Nicole Rodriguez, Ashley Wickham, soprano
Dana Sears, Rachel Marlak, alto
John Farias, Alden Ferro, Gennard Lombardozzi, tenor
Dan Ahrens, John Janeiro, baritone

The Lord is a mighty God
Felix Mendelssohn
Ashley Wickham, conductor

Jubilate Deo
William Walton (1902-1983)
First Choir

Sonata Opus 65, #3
Felix Mendelssohn
Laura Ouimette, organ

In deep despair I call to Thee
Felix Mendelssohn
Gennard Lombardozzi, tenor
Combined choirs

The composers of this afternoon’s music are linked by a common interest: the pipe organ. Mendelssohn was the first person after the death of J. S. Bach to master Bach’s greatest organ works, and wrote to his sister that the Bach pedal passages were so difficult that he walked the street thinking of the pedaling. This concert is offered to honor Felix Mendelssohn on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) Dieu parmi nous (God among us) is from the last of his nine meditations La Nativité du Seigneur composed in 1935. Messiaen discovered ‘deci-talas’ (complex rhythm patterns of India) and from the opening measure of Dieu parmi nous we see the new use of Indian techniques. Messiaen lacked mastery of the organ pedal, rather his organ works are infused with an ethereal quality, especially the quiet pieces. He achieves this with a technique derived from orchestral writing, by specifying exactly the organ-stops used in various passages. Dieu parmi nous is a toccata featuring cascading chords, rapidly exchanged between the hands. The trick of the pedal part is getting the rhythm precise. A jaunty, syncopated descending line worthy of Cole Porter, dear to many and perhaps the most well-known Messiaen theme. The middle section is mystical, with the upper melody line in a meditative mood. Then the final section leads us with powerful chords and a French toccata texture.

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Arvo Pärt (b.1935) graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory in 1963, having worked throughout his student years and afterward as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio. He composed several film scores, piano works, a serial piece for orchestra and many choral pieces. Pärt continued to compose music mainly in the serial vein throughout the 1960s, but received little recognition since that method of composition was generally anathema throughout the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Pärt studied the music of Renaissance era composers, and in 1976 began to compose using a tonal technique of his own called “tintinnabuli.”  The entire structure of a tintinnabuli work is predetermined either by a numerical pattern, or by the text, or both. The tintinnabuli technique starts with a two-part homophonic texture: a melodic voice moves mostly by step around a central pitch (often but not always the tonic), and the tintinnabuli voice sounds the notes of the tonic triad.

The Beatitudes was composed in 1990 and vividly sets the well known sermon from the Gospel of Matthew.  Pärt places a scalar melody in the bass and alto voices that slowly rises while the organ supports them with a rising bass.  The sopranos and tenors tintinnabulate with leaping intervals, alternately creating dissonances and pure triads pivoting on common tones.  The harmonies and dissonances vary to suit the text and propel the work towards a brilliant toccata-like organ solo which reverses the “melody” and returns to the home key of F minor.

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was born in Hamburg to a wealthy and educated family.  A child prodigy, Mendelssohn was a musical leader of the 1830s and 1840s as an outstanding conductor, composer, pianist, and organist.  His intense study of composers (Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart in particular) informs his compositional technique, creating Classical works that are colored with Baroque complexity and Romantic chromaticism.  He composed Verlieh uns Frieden and two other works in 1831 after a visit to the Vatican.  The text is from a prayer by Martin Luther.  The organ opens and closes the piece and introduces the choir for each text statement, increasing musical density by adding voices and re-harmonizing each iteration.

Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich,
Herr Gott, zu unsern Zeiten.
Es ist doch ja kein andrer nicht,
der für uns könnte streiten,
denn du, unser Gott, alleine.
Mercifully grant us peace,
Lord God, in our time.
It is sure, indeed, that no other
can fight for us,
no other than you, our God, alone.

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Théodore Dubois (1837-1924), a staunch conservative, resisted Wagnerian and, later, Impressionistic influence in France. After distinguishing himself in his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, he won the distinguished musical composition prize of the French Academy, the Grand Prix de Rome in 1861. While residing at the Villa Medicis, he was visited by Liszt who complimented his work. Upon return to Paris in 1866, he was appointed choirmaster at Saint-Clotilde, where he worked with the composer César Franck.

At Saint-Clotilde in 1867, Dubois wrote his ever-famous Seven Last Words. In 1868, he was appointed choirmaster at the fashionable and wealthy parish, La Madeleine. Here he works with the organist Camille Saint-Saëns. When Dubois was promoted to organist in 1877, Gabriel Fauré was appointed choirmaster. Dubois rose from Professor of Harmony to Director in his 34 years at the Conservatoire (1871-1905.) During that time, he was frequently critical of trends in modern French composition and resigned in the midst of controversy over his refusal to award the Grand Prix de Rome to Maurice Ravel. His friend Fauré was his successor.
Léon Ehrhart (1854-1875), a brilliant young musician, won his first prize in organ at the Conservatoire in 1870. He was also a harmony student of Dubois. Ehrhart won the  Grand Prix de Rome in 1874, but soon died in Italy near Florence on October 4, 1875. Dubois dedicates his Requiem to Ehrhart, his friend and student. Scored for choir, soloists, organ and double-bass, it is first sung at the Madeleine that year. Dubois musical colleagues follow with Requiems of their own: Saint-Saëns in 1878 and Fauré in 1886.

The Madeleine had two organs: a large four-manual organ in a balcony at the back of the church built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1846.  At the front of the church in the sanctuary, from which the choir sang was another Cavaillé-Coll organ of 1869. This small organ had only a limited pedal without dedicated pedal stops, therefore a double bass was used to reinforce the bass line. Here at First Church, the large concert organ offers ample pedal stops.
The Dubois Requiem was fairly well-known in France and in England in the nineteenth century. The composer often conducted in France and in Belgium. In the twentieth century, the piece was over-taken by the Seven Last Words and was long out of print. Ronald Ebrecht knew of it from musicological sources and produced this limited edition in 1987, now out of print, but not before several performances were held, including one in 1991 under Musica Sacra conductor Richard Westenberg at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.
The text follows the liturgy of the Mass for the Dead, with six movements removed so that the piece could be used in liturgical context. The style is straight-forward and economical, if conventional. That convention, however, is used with artistry and produces a very pleasant effect that has only one surprise other than brevity: depth. One hears a composer, who eschews sensation, and all the tonal and compositional cleverness of the “forward-looking” or “innovative” composers of his day. Dubois crafts a work that is supremely singable, listen-able and of profound, quiet beauty. Beyond his musical accomplishment, comes one of communication, for he sets the Latin text with utmost attention to its meaning, exceeding in effectiveness many much, much longer versions of this text.
I. Kyrie
The three part text, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison, is reinforced by the structure of the movement. The “Kyrie” is re-iterated four times, with a simple, imitative choral phrase, a second choral phrase, and repeats of each. The “Christe” section is set to a similar line for tenor solo. The closing “Kyrie” presents one iteration of each opening phrase and closes with a brief coda.
II. Domine Jesu Christe,
This offertory movement is set in close-harmony for eight-part male voices a capella. Dubois shows a marvelous sensitivity with limited carefully chosen and constructed compositional material.
III. Sanctus
Economy of notes reigns again in this movement, but, the effectiveness of such a spare style is similar to the Kyrie. The text has only two phrases, for which Dubois composes an AB form and closes with a quiet “Hosanna.”
IV. Pie Jesu
A melodious duet for tenor and baritone opens this movement. It is repeated in four-parts by the choir, and the pattern is thereby set: duet then chorus with a second statement of the opening couplet and a closing “sempiternam” (eternal).
V. Agnus Dei
Though the soloists and choir alternate in this movement too, the treatment of text and melody is different. The textual phrase is cut in half, and the musical one likewise. Soprano solo, choir; Baritone solo, choir; Tenor solo, choir; solo-quartet, choir, then an even more ethereal “sempiternam.”
VI. Libera me
By this movement, the listener, though moved by the beauty of the music, craves more development of the material. It is not known why Dubois was so exceedingly brief in the other sections, but, at last comes one with a bit more length to express his ideas. A male trio of solo voices opens in homophony similar to the offertory. The text is repeated in fugal style with each choral voice entering with the theme, from bass to treble. Then, rather another fugal treatment or an episode, suddenly the theme is dramatically stated in all voices and organ in octaves. This too is as powerful as it is brief: choral chords follow similar to the opening trio. The scene is now prepared for the drama of the next text, sung forte by the baritone solo and echoed by the choir. The fugue theme returns, and the counter-subject is inverted and developed with syncopated rhythm. Another short homophonic section gives a second climax to the movement and the coda closes the piece with an echo of the opening trio, this time for two sopranos and tenor.

I.
Kyrie eleison;
Christe eleison;
Kyrie eleison

Lord have mercy;
Christ have mercy;
Lord have mercy.

II.
Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriæ,
libera animas omnium fidelium
defunctorum de pœnis inferni
et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis,
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
sed signifer sanctus Michæl
repræsentet eas in lucem sanctam.

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
free the souls of all the faithful departed
from infernal punishment and the deep pit.

Free them from the mouth of the lion;
do not let hell swallow them,
nor let them fall into darkness;
but may the sign-bearer, Saint Michael,
lead them into the holy light.

III.
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth;
pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

IV.
Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.
Dona eis requiem sempiternam.

O sweet Lord Jesus, grant them rest;
grant them everlasting rest.

V.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem,
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem,
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest, eternal

VI.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda:
Quando caeli movendi sunt et terra.
Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.
Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo, dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Quando caeli movendi sunt et terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that fearful day,
when the heavens and the earth are moved,
when you come to judge the world with fire.

I am made to tremble and I fear, because of the judgment that will come, and also the coming wrath.
When the heavens and the earth are moved,
That day, day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness.
when you come to judge the world with fire.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

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The Lord is a mighty God is excerpted from Mendelssohn’s motet Psalm 95, Opus 46 of 1838.  Originally scored for SATB chorus with a classical-style orchestra (pairs of winds with string orchestra), the motet is a five movement parody of a baroque cantata and this particular excerpt is the finale of the second movement,  a two-part canon with chorale style accompaniment (“canon” is a round or contrapuntal technique of echo).  Mendelssohn sets the canon subject strictly as men versus women, with the tenors and basses first stating the subject alone, then altos and sopranos start and men follow after four beats at the unison.  A second, chromatic subject is exposed by the women and counterpointed by the men, whereupon the first subject returns and is presented in two more episodes.  The organ either supports the choir with a varied harmonization of the subjects, or plays colla voce, doubling one vocal part here and there; the organ never plays an independent statement of the theme.

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William Walton (1902-1983) and his Jubilate Deo make an interesting contrast with the others this afternoon. England has the best boy choirs, and supported by legacies and endowments as old as the crown, their musical abilities are unsurpassed. From Purcell and Handel to the present, English composers have written for them. The line follows through Wesley and Stanford and Vaughan Williams to Britten and Howells and up to Walton. We find in this Walton anthem for eight-part choir and organ a most refreshing, jaunty view of the ancient Psalm texts ‘O be joyful’, ‘O, go your way’ and the closing ‘Glory be’ while in the intermediary passages the more introspective couplets ‘be ye sure’ and ‘be thankful’ use layers of French impressionistic triads, moving like Monet clouds over a sun-drenched field.

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Mendelssohn’s Sonata III is the perfect companion piece to the Motet which follows;  both are based on the Lenten chorale Out of the depths, I call to you. The Sonata opens with a theme of great majesty, a descending line worthy to accompany the docking of the Queen Mary. As a performer and conductor, Mendelssohn was often in England and knew exactly what pomp was required in such circumstances. A pair of fugues follow the majestic Introduction, both with the choral theme on long-notes in the pedal. The first fugue has an angular subject derived from intervals in the choral theme, while the second, a fast fugue, is similarly based on these intervals but with many passing-tones filling in. He eventually combines the two in an accelerando and the pedal cadenza explodes from that climax. Following the cadenza, the grand introductory section returns, even grander, and at last the ship is at rest.
It was at one time the rumor among organists that the grand theme was used by Mendelssohn as the procession for his sister Fanny’s wedding. It surely has the necessary panache. Sonata III has only two movements while the other sonatas of this set of six all have many more. None of the single movements from the other sonatas is ever so triumphant as this opening, and Mendelssohn could not ‘top’ it with another allegro to close. So, he uses a careful pen to scribe many fewer notes onto the page: the Andante. Of all the sonata movements, this has been most re-arranged by other composers. The Andante is as eloquent as it is brief. A perfect chocolate truffle of a piece.

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In deep despair I call to thee is also built on the chorale “Out of the depths, I call to you” and was composed by Mendelssohn in 1830 along with two other sacred motets.  Mendelssohn’s intense study of the music of J.S. Bach is evident in this piece which comprises five movements:  an opening chorale, a chorale fugue, an aria with chorus, a soli fugue with soprano ripieno, and a final chorale.  Each movement uses one stanza from the hymn text by Martin Luther in a manner which recalls techniques and textures used by Bach in the motet Jesu meine Freude.  Mendelssohn’s second and fourth movements are very similar in technique to Bach’s motet especially when hearing how the text is split stile brisé between the voice parts.  The third movement is the most Romantic in style of the entire piece even as it is set upon a minuet dance pattern.  The use of the chorales to frame the outer boundaries is a Baroque conceit, but the chromatic alternatim harmony which Mendelssohn uses in the final stanza is most definitely Romantic.

Program notes by Ronald Ebrecht and Richard Gard
all rights reserved 2009

All rights reserved. Send comments to rg@richardgard.com
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