Marguerite L. Brooks, conductor
Concerto for Two Oboes in F, Op. 9 no. 3
Der Stern von Bethlehem, Op. 164
Johann Sebastian Bach
Dona nobis pacem
David Willcocks, arr.
See, amid the winter’s snow
Josef Rheinberger, Abendlied
An authentically conservative voice in an age mesmerized by the Wagnerian “artwork of the future,” Josef Rheinberger is at best a peripheral figure in most accounts of late-nineteenth-century German music. Yet his influence as a teacher, if not as a composer, was far from negligible. The Romantic era’s paradoxical embrace of the musical past, manifest in Mendelssohn’s 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Passion and the plainchant-cum-Palestrina aesthetic of the Cecilian reform movement in the Catholic Church, placed a premium on Rheinberger’s comprehensive knowledge of counterpoint and vocal polyphony. Bach and Mozart were his idols, and he made it his mission to instill a reverence for time-honored styles and compositional techniques in the hundreds of students who passed through his classroom, including such budding musical luminaries as Engelbert Humperdinck, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, as well as the physicist Max Planck.
Rheinberger embodied tradition and continuity. A child prodigy, he enrolled at the Munich Conservatory at age twelve, stayed on after graduation to teach piano, organ, and composition, and never left. In due course, he signed on to coach singers at the Munich Court Opera, where he helped prepare the premiere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1865. The experience deepened his respect for Wagner’s long-suffering patron, King Ludwig II, who would elevate him to the post of court capellmeister a few years later, and kindled a lifelong friendship with the conductor Hans van Bülow. But it left a lingering ambivalence toward Tristan’s brilliant, egotistical, self-promoting creator and his music. Wagner repaid him in kind, complaining to King Ludwig that “it is to be regretted that the Munich School had to end up in the hands of a man like Rheinberger, who considers it his duty to oblige his listeners at every hour of the day and night with some insulting joke or other at my expense.”
A committed Catholic, Rheinberger exerted a strong influence on German church music in the late 1800s. Although he never fully subscribed to the Cecilian movement’s program for restoring true religious feeling to liturgical song, he incorporated many of its principles in his sacred choral works. Abendlied (Evening Song), composed when he was just fifteen and revised a decade or so later, exemplifies the Cecilian ideals of a cappella polyphony, purity of expression, and clear, mostly syllabic word setting. “Stay with us,” the hospitable disciples urge the stranger they meet on the road to Emmaus (in Martin Luther’s artful German translation of the Gospel of Luke). The harmonies flicker between major and minor as “evening shadows darken,” the six unaccompanied voices overlapping in short imitative phrases that convey a sense of serene entreaty. The opening rhythmic pattern repeats itself on the words “und der Tag hat sich geneiget” (and the day will soon be over), but in shorter note values, as the travelers quicken their steps toward the supper that awaits them at their destination.
Tomaso Albinoni, Concerto in F Major for Two Oboes, Op. 9, no. 3
For sheer contrapuntal exuberance, it’s hard to top the music of Tomaso Albinoni and his better-known contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi. As practitioners of the brilliantly extroverted Italian style of instrumental music, they helped transform the concerto into a vehicle for soloistic bravura, as well as a medium of unprecedented expressive and coloristic range. Albinoni shot to fame in 1694, when the first of his fifty-odd operas was produced in his native Venice and a publisher in Amsterdam brought out his dozen Op. 1 Trio Sonatas. Unlike Vivaldi, Albinoni was neither a renowned virtuoso nor a career-conscious professional musician. (As a well-heeled dilettante, or amateur, he didn’t depend on a regular paycheck.) Perhaps as a result, his posthumous reputation suffered, with a standard nineteenth-century reference book dismissing his style as “dry” and his ideas as “dull or trivial.” That judgment wasn’t shared by Bach, who cribbed from Albinoni’s Op. 1 in several of his keyboard fugues, or by the influential eighteenth-century theorist Johann Joachim Quantz, who gave Albinoni and Vivaldi joint credit for creating a “better form” for the instrumental concerto.
In fact, Albinoni apparently recognized the potential of the three-movement, fast-slow-fast concerto structure rather earlier than Vivaldi. This characteristically Baroque design was firmly established by the time Albinoni published his Concerto in F Major for Two Oboes in 1722. The piece is dedicated to the elector of Bavaria, Max Emanuel, who was transforming his court in Munich into a showplace of Baroque architecture. Albinoni visited Munich that year to supervise the staging of two of his works as part of the wedding festivities for the elector’s son, and it seems likely that the double concerto was written for the top-flight oboists in the court orchestra. The two propulsive Allegros are built around orchestral ritornelli, or refrains, that return throughout the movements and help set off the solo sections. Both movements are in F major, a key traditionally associated with outdoor music, and feature vigorous, triadic melodies suggestive of hunting horns. (A portrait of Max Emanuel outfitted in colorful hunt regalia hangs in Munich’s Hunting and Fishing Museum.) Here and in the central Adagio, a plaintive D-minor essay in lilting siciliana rhythm, Albinoni uses sequences and echo effects to offset the homogeneity of the thematic material.
Josef Rheinberger, Der Stern von Bethlehem
Rheinberger’s Christmas cantata Der Stern von Bethlehem (The Star of Bethlehem) owes much of its charm to the verse libretto by his wife Fanny, a multitalented linguist, pianist, and singer. Born to wealth and privilege, she grew up in a highly cultured environment and counted among her friends such celebrities as the painter Moritz von Schwind, the composer Ferdinand Hiller, and the pianists Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. Fanny’s poetry inspired much of Rheinberger’s vocal music, including his hugely popular oratorio Cristoforus, based on the legend of St. Christopher. Considering their twenty-five-year marriage an “ideal partnership,” he was devastated when their collaboration on Der Stern was cut short by Fanny’s death in 1892. The cantata soon became an audience favorite and a staple of the choral repertory, in Germany and abroad. But the grief-stricken composer, haunted by “the sense of longing for happiness which always recedes before us,” never could bring himself to attend a performance.
In Rheinberger’s warmly lyrical depiction of the Christmas story, the star of Bethlehem serves as a unifying element of both music and text. The luminous A-major melody associated with the star—four stair-stepped notes ascending heavenward—permeates the first of the cantata’s nine movements, “Erwartung” (Expectation). Soft patterings of violins and harp suggest starlight streaming from on high, like a gentle rain, and the star motive returns at the end as a brassy fanfare. Rheinberger shifts to pastoral mode in “Die Hirten” (The Shepherds), a simple strophic carol for solo soprano and four-part chorus, interspersed with dulcet sinfonias for flute, English horn, clarinet, and strings. The angel announces Christ’s birth in a declamatory recitative punctuated with joyous choral exclamations of “Alleluia” (“Erscheinung des Engels”), after which a short, turbulent bass aria (“Bethlehem”) transports us to the holy city, where the guiding star, now swathed in D-major radiance, shines overhead.
Gathered around the manger, the shepherds sing the baby Jesus to sleep in a lightly syncopated lullaby. A hymnlike chorale in rich six-part harmony, “Die Hirten an der Krippe” nestles snugly in F major, in contrast to “Der Stern” (The Star), whose wayward harmonies evoke the wanderings of the three Wise Men. As they approach Jerusalem, the star ominously vanishes behind clouds, only to reappear providentially in the form of high, piercing tremolos in the violins. The Magi adore the Christ child in a virile trio for men’s voices (“Anbetung der Weisen”), modeled on a traditional German part-song, that ends with another reminiscence of the star motive. After they depart, a lone soprano describes the intimate scene between mother and child in a tenderly caressing aria (“Maria”). “Erfüllung” (Fulfillment) brings the cantata full circle: after a reprise of the first movement’s quietly expectant opening, the chorus launches into a jubilant fugue celebrating Christ the Redeemer, and Rheinberger leaves us with the musical image of the star of Bethlehem ringing in the air.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Dona nobis pacem, from Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
By the time he put the finishing touches on his “Great Catholic Mass” in the late 1740s, Bach was methodically setting his musical affairs in order. In its artful amalgam of styles, techniques, and traditions, the B-Minor Mass summed up his life’s work in the realm of sacred music, just as the Art of Fugue encapsulated his encyclopedic mastery of counterpoint. The last of the Mass’s twenty-seven movements, the “Dona nobis pacem” stands as both valediction and testament. Bach had used the same radiantly uplifting music before, in the “Gratias agimus tibi” from the Gloria of the Mass, composed in 1733 and itself based on the opening chorus of his 1731 cantata Wir danken dir, Gott (We thank you, God). Thus, even as he looked ahead to meeting his maker, Bach seems to have reached back over the years and drawn strength from his creative prime. The music exudes a palpable sense of grace, the sturdy D-major melody welling softly out of the lower voices. At first consolatory, the Latin prayer for peace gains urgency and confidence as Bach adds layer upon layer of contrapuntal complexity until both the “Dona nobis pacem” and the Mass culminate in a full-throated climax.
John Goss, See, amid the Winter’s Snow (arr. Willcocks)
One of Victorian England’s foremost church composers, John Goss is remembered as Arthur Sullivan’s harmony teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and the author of numerous well-made hymns, glees, and anthems. The tune “Humility,” to which this affecting carol is set, illustrates the “union of solidity and grace” that a nineteenth-century commentator discerned in his music. Composed in 1871, See, amid the winter’s snow quickly established itself as a seasonal standard. Percy Dearmer deemed it worthy of inclusion in the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, but his caveat that “little perhaps, except the tune by Sir John Goss, deserves to survive” does an injustice to the eminently singable lyrics by the Anglican-turned-Catholic priest Edward Caswall, which have a sweet-tempered charm of their own. In the modern arrangement by David Willcocks to be heard tonight, each of the carol’s six stanzas has a distinctive timbre, texture, and weight.
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.