David Hill, conductor
Johannes Brahms, Shicksalslied, Op. 54
Brahms, Alto Rhapsodie, Op. 53
Karolina Wojteczko mezzo-soprano
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem, K. 626 (Süssmayr completion)
Adrienne Lotto soprano
Karolina Wojteczko mezzo-soprano
Corey Shotwell tenor
Harrison Hintzsche baritone
THIS CONCERT WILL BE LIVE STREAMED. Visit the ISM Live Stream page to watch. The stream typically begins 15 minutes before the performance.
In a note to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, Brahms referred to the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) as “my heart’s blood” and a “poor little piece of soul.” Even allowing for the composer’s customary obliqueness when discussing his own work, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the choral setting of Friedrich Hölderlin’s rumination on the abyss between the divine and human realms held special significance for him. Brahms came across the “Schicksalslied” in the library of his composer friend Albert Dietrich on a visit to Oldenburg in the summer of 1868. According to Dietrich, the composer was so moved by Hölderlin’s poem that he stole away to make some preliminary musical sketches while his fellow vacationers enjoyed a siesta by the seaside. The successful premiere of the German Requiem that spring had solidified Brahms’s reputation as a choral composer. Preoccupied with other projects, he set the Schicksalslied aside and completed the score in the summer of 1871, the same year that produced the jubilant paean to his newly united homeland, the Triumphlied.
On the surface, the intimate, personal tone of the Schicksalslied appears to have little in common with the very public, patriotic ardor of the Song of Triumph. Yet a thread of resilient optimism runs through both works. The first two sections of the Schicksalslied faithfully mirror Hölderlin’s three verses in contrasting the immortals’ blissful, “schicksallos” (literally, destiny-less) existence—represented by a noble, long-breathed melody in E-flat major—with the blindness and suffering of humankind. After the chorus softly intones the words “ewiger Klarheit” (eternal clarity), the orchestra reprises the opening theme a third lower, setting up a dramatic modulation to C minor. Turbulent string tremolos, portentous chords in the brass and winds, and the voices’ sharp syllabic outbursts depict the anguish of mortals fated to be “like water flung from cliff to cliff” as they descend into the depths of the unknown. Hölderlin ends his poem there, but Brahms declined to leave God’s creatures mired in despair. Bringing the opening music back once more, he gives the orchestra the last word in an Adagio postlude couched in consolatory C major. “I’m certainly saying something that the poet doesn’t say,” he commented to a friend, “and indeed it would have been better if this missing element had been his chief point.”
Like the Schicksalslied, the Alto Rhapsodie dates from the fruitful period between Brahms’s short stints as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie in 1863–1864 and music director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde from 1872 to 1875. His duties naturally included the composition of vocal music, ranging from part-songs to choral pieces. The genesis of the Alto Rhapsodie, however, was only tangentially related to his professional life. In the spring of 1869, Clara Schumann informed Brahms that her twenty-four-year-old daughter Julie—for whom he had long carried a slow-burning torch—was engaged to an Italian count. Distraught, the composer stormed out of the house and plunged into a prolonged sulk. Clara, unaware of his infatuation, puzzled the situation out in her diary: “Did he really love her? But he has never thought of marrying, and Julie has never had an inclination toward him.” A few months later Brahms made his feelings abundantly clear in the Alto Rhapsodie, a short ode for contralto, men’s chorus, and orchestra. What he described as a “bridal song” for Julie was, as Clara instantly intuited, “neither more nor less than the expression of his own heart’s anguish.”
A lifelong bachelor, Brahms craved female love and companionship, but recognized that he was constitutionally “incapable of bearing fetters.” That ambivalence, distilled into a volatile compound of idealistic yearning and bitter, even cynical regret, permeates every bar of the Alto Rhapsodie. Nursing his self-inflicted wounds, the reluctant celibate confided to his publisher that he had written the piece “in anger—and even fury!” Brahms all too clearly identified with the lonely outcast depicted in Goethe’s poem “Harzreise” (Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains), from which he culled the text of the Alto Rhapsodie. The opening recitative calls attention to a man “standing apart,” his mute anguish made audible in a series of shuddering dissonances. The ensuing aria gives voice to Brahms’s as well as the poet’s pain: the repeated octave leaps on the word “Menschenhaß” (hatred of mankind) are equally expressive of his own misanthropic tendencies. Nevertheless, in the work’s final section the contralto is joined by the four-part male choir in a rapturous C-major hymn to the healing power of music that achieves resolution in a quietly affirmative “Amen” cadence.
Like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and a handful of other iconic works, Mozart’s Requiem has achieved immortality in the political as well as the cultural realm. The recording I grew up with, for example, was made by Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at a mass celebrated in memory of President John F. Kennedy a few weeks after his assassination in 1963. Part of the Requiem’s secular mystique derives from the legends—long since debunked—surrounding its origins in the final months of the composer’s life: the commission supposedly tendered on behalf of an anonymous patron, the fatal poisoning that prevented Mozart from completing his masterpiece, his ignominious burial in a pauper’s grave. Yet the special status of the Requiem owes something as well to the discordant facets of Mozart’s personality. As difficult as it is to reconcile the composer of such sublimely spiritual music with the author of scurrilous and often scatological letters to family and friends—the petulant, foul-mouthed man-child of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus—the contradiction is part and parcel of Mozart’s genius. It helps explain the capacious, humanistic spirit that animates even his most overtly religious works, and why he is one of the few composers in history who excelled in all the musical genres of his time, both sacred and secular.
We owe the existence of the Requiem to a music-loving Austrian aristocrat named Franz von Walsegg. After the death of his young wife in February 1791, Walsegg approached Mozart through an intermediary with a proposal to create a musical memorial. Apparently unfazed by the stipulation that the count would retain sole ownership of the resulting work, Mozart readily accepted the lucrative commission in July. However, the imminent premieres of his operas The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito—the latter necessitating an extended trip to Prague—prevented him from getting down to work until early October. Later that month the composer’s wife, Constanze, reported that he “began to speak of death” and “maintained that he was writing the Requiem for himself.” On November 20 he took to his bed, mortally ill, and on December 5 he died. Five days later the Introit of the mass—the only movement that Mozart lived to complete—was performed at a funeral service held at St. Michael’s Church in Vienna. In due course Constanze invited the composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who had assisted Mozart on his last two operas, to fulfill the terms of the commission.
Süssmayr composed a fair number of popular Singspiele, ballets, and other stage works, but the “Mozart” Requiem is his main claim to fame. (The Mozarts were fond enough of “Sauermayr,” as Wolfgang impishly nicknamed him, to christen their first-born child Franz Xaver.) His daunting task included fleshing out Mozart’s sketchy-to-nonexistent orchestration for the Kyrie, Sequence, and Offertory and composing the last four movements virtually from scratch. Perhaps inevitably, Süssmayr’s completion—the first of several made over the years—has garnered mixed scholarly reviews. Brahms, who edited the Requiem in the mid-1870s for the first complete edition of Mozart’s works, took pains to distinguish every note of Süssmayr’s from Mozart’s own. Yet despite the younger composer’s “errors in orchestration and voice-leading and other musical weaknesses,” the musicologist Christoph Wolff argues that “we have no choice but to regard and indeed to use Süssmayr’s arrangement as a historical source, as it may possibly contain traces of Mozart’s ideas here and there.” Simon Keefe offers a less grudging assessment, praising Süssmayr for being both “true to Mozart’s intentions (in so far as he was aware of them) and unafraid to allow his own voice to emerge.” (Later this season, the Yale Glee Club and Yale Symphony Orchestra will perform a modern reconstruction of the Mozart Requiem by pianist and musicologist Robert Levin.)
As experienced men of the theater, Mozart and Süssmayr were keenly attentive to the dramatic qualities of the Latin Mass for the Dead. Thus in the Introit the soft, sighing phrases of the orchestral prelude are abruptly transformed into a trudging funeral march at the entrance of the chorus, and the D-minor gloom of the opening prayer is dispelled by the bright major-key setting of the words “et lux perpetua” (and perpetual light). The Sequence—the dramatic heart of the Requiem—offers numerous examples of inspired text-painting, such as the “wondrous sound” of the obbligato trombone in the “Tuba mirum” and the jagged string figures that awaken us to God’s awesome majesty in the “Rex tremendae majestatis.” Following Mozart’s lead, Süssmayr alternated Baroque-style counterpoint with the lighter, homophonic idiom of the contemporary galant style; in the words of Georg Nikolaus Nissen, Mozart’s early biographer (and Constanze’s second husband), the Requiem “combines the power, the sacred dignity of early music with the rich ornamentation of the newer music.” From the Sanctus on, Süssmayr systematically recapitulates Mozart’s and his own themes in what he explained as an attempt “to give more unity to the work.” Indeed, the final Communion begins as a mirror image of the Introit and ends with a vigorous fugue based on the second-movement Kyrie, as the souls of the dead take their places among the saints forevermore.
Notes © by Harry Haskell
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.