Dona Nobis Pacem: Six Musical Invocations of Peace

candlelight-hope

The phrase Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us Peace”) comes from the Agnus Dei section of the Roman Catholic mass. It’s a simple, yet eternally powerful, invocation which has come to life in countless musical settings, from the serene simplicity of the traditional canon to the melodic perfection of Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E-flat MajorAt the end of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Massit emerges as a triumphant celebration. In the twentieth century, it becomes a joyfully exuberant dance in Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and a mysterious, meditative prayer in this 1996 setting by Estonian composer Peteris Vasks.

Here are six additional musical invocations of peace:

Bach’s Mass in B minor

J.S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor concludes with this powerful setting of Dona nobis pacem. Bach’s music transcends the quiet, meditative prayer we might expect. Instead, it’s a soaring, almost defiant musical statement. As it develops, reaching increasingly higher, we hear a single musical subject appear in one voice and then another. This persistent musical line seems to be communicating a message which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Dona nobis pacem appears in the final movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. In the score Beethoven wrote the words, “Prayer for inner and outer peace.” In the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (written a year after the completion of Missa Solemnis), this is music which seems to be trying to wrap its arms around the universe. You’ll hear sudden, earth-shattering changes of direction and the occasional martial sounds of drums and bugles. This excerpt gives us a sense of Missa Solemnis’ vast, cathedral-like musical architecture; but as the work nears an end, it melts into something more intimate and contemplative. (Listen to the joyful, sparkling string and woodwind lines and the quietly contented passages which follow here).

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets begins with Mars, the Bringer of Wara demonic, mechanical march locked into the irregular meter of 5/4 time. But the movement which follows evokes the serene peace of Venus. Opening with a solo horn line, Venus, the Bringer of Peace draws us into its colorful, placid, almost static world. As the movement ends, a momentary hint of something dark and ominous gives way to sparkling bells and innocent woodwind voices.

Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata, Dona nobis pacem was written in 1936 as a new World War loomed on the horizon. Its text alternates between the traditional Roman Catholic Mass and other biblical excerpts and poems of Walt Whitman: Beat! Beat! Drums!, Reconciliation (below), and Dirge for Two Veterans. 

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again

and ever again, this soiled world;

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

At moments, Vaughan Williams’ music suggests the trumpet calls and drums of battle. A solemn, numb funeral dirge trudges on. Half way through, the words, “Dona nobis pacem” become an ear-splitting shriek of pain. But throughout the cantata, we also hear exuberant splashes of color and some of the most lushly beautiful music imaginable…the sonic equivalent of England’s “green and pleasant” countryside.

(Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem ends at the 33:30 mark, below).

Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique

Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” can be heard as a wordless mass. Here is the final movement, which concludes with a reference to Dona nobis pacem. At moments, the music suggests the roaring steam of Honegger’s locomotive-inspired Pacific 231In its final moments, as earlier conflict fades, the music enters a colorful and mysterious new world, seeming to fade into eternity:

Fauré’s Requiem

And what better way to finish than with the sparkling, childlike innocence of In paradisum, the final movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem:

  • Find Robert Shaw’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Gustav Holst’s The Planets at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem at iTunes, Amazon.

Through the Looking-Glass: Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte”

composer Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) -photo by Dashon Burton/Courtesy of the artist
composer Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) -photo by Dashon Burton/Courtesy of the artist

 

You might not expect a contemporary American composer in her early 30s to be influenced by the music of Franz Joseph Haydn. But the Menuet of Haydn’s Op. 77, No. 2 String Quartet was the key that unlocked Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, a 2011 work for string quartet. Shaw explains,

Entracte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.

Entr’acte doesn’t overtly sound like Haydn (Listen to the Op. 77, No. 2 Menuet here. The “soulful shift” to D-flat major takes place at 2:10. Also notice the slyly comic way Haydn returns to the “A” section between 3:34 and 3:44). Throughout the piece we get subtle glimpses of classical and baroque music that has suddenly found itself in the wrong century. At moments, these fragments from an earlier time get a little unruly (the unchained baroque sequences around 6:22).

The opening is built on a descending ostinato bass line which breaks down into irregularity at the end of the phrase. The instruments seem to be sighing, mournfully and perhaps with exhaustion, foreshadowing later “sighs” which sound surprisingly vocal.

Here is the Calidore String Quartet playing Caroline Shaw’s Entracte:

A native of Greenville, North Carolina, Caroline Shaw began writing music at the age of ten. She studied the violin through the Suzuki method, later earning degrees in violin performance from Rice and Yale universities. In 2010, she entered a PhD program in composition at Princeton. At the age of 30, she became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music after writing the a cappella composition, Partita for 8 Voices.

Marie Antoinette’s Favorite Symphony

It began with a stunningly lucrative commission. In 1785, Franz Joseph Haydn, who had spent 25 years employed by the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in an isolated backwater of the Austrian Empire, was asked to write six symphonies for the orchestra of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris. The patron was the Olympic Lodge, one of the wealthiest Masonic lodges in Paris. Haydn was promised an orchestra of 67 musicians (three times the size of his Esterházy court orchestra) and a salary that exceeded what he earned in a year.

Alexander Kucharski’s portrait of Marie Antoinette from around 1790
Alexander Kucharski’s portrait of Marie Antoinette from around 1790

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was in attendance when Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies (No. 82-87) were performed. She became especially fond of Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, resulting in its nickname,  “La Reine” (The Queen). During her imprisonment, less than ten years later, the score of Haydn’s 85th lay near the harpsichord in her cell. “Times have changed,” she is said to have noted with sadness.

When Haydn was writing the “Paris” Symphonies, Beethoven, his student, was sixteen years away from publishing his own First Symphony. But amazingly, there are fleeting, momentary glimpses of Beethoven-to-come throughout Symphony No. 85. This passage in the finale movement may remind you of the jarring, off-balance rhythmic energy of Beethoven’s EroicaIt’s a moment where the forward motion is shockingly halted by emphasis on the “wrong” beats. (We get a hint of these accents in the first movement of Haydn’s 85th around 2:23). Throughout the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, this kind of conflict plays out on a larger, more ferocious scale. A minute or so earlier in the last movement we hear this string passage, which might remind you vaguely of a similar passage in Beethoven’s First (and most Haydnesque) Symphony. In Haydn’s second movement, listen to the drumbeat-like repetition of the bass line in this passage and compare it with similar moments in Beethoven. Listen to the way the answering “drumbeats” are out of sync with the bass, causing us to lose sense of where the downbeat lies.

The opening bars of the first movement seem to be a musical “announcement” or proclamation, preparing us for the symphony which follows. It’s as if Haydn felt it necessary to grab the attention of his audience before moving forward around the 0:10 mark. In the second movement, we hear a series of variations on the romantic French folk song, La gentille et jeune Lisette. For the third movement, we might expect a fun-loving peasant minuet. Instead, Haydn gives us something more courtly and refined…an elegant galant minute. At the end of the movement’s middle section, there’s an interesting moment (beginning around 16:25), where the musical idea is suddenly extended in a way we could never have predicted. Suspended on the harmonic dominant, a series of woodwind voices enters in succession.

This recording features the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen:

  1. Adagio – Vivace 0:00
  2. Romance: Allegretto 7:32
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto 14:16
  4. Finale: Presto 18:31

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

The Yings Play Beethoven

The Ying Quartet (ying4.com)
The Ying Quartet (ying4.com)

 

The finest professional string quartets exhibit an almost scary sense of chemistry. This cohesiveness, almost like a sixth sense, develops when the right combination of people spend hours a day performing together. The Ying Quartet, formed at the Eastman School of Music in 1988, enjoys an additional advantage: the founding members are siblings. Only the first violin position has changed in recent years with the departure of Timothy Ying in 2009. Beginning next season, Robin Scott will join the group, replacing current first violinist, Ayano Ninomiya.

Here are the Yings performing two Beethoven quartets in 2012. String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 is one of Beethoven’s earliest string quartets, composed around 1801. We hear some of the “C minor fire” that I wrote about in my previous post, Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor. With the string quartet, Beethoven expanded on a form already developed by Haydn and Mozart. But the stormy drama and continuous surprises in this music must have been a shock to audiences at the time:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
  2. Scherzo. Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto 8:53
  3. Menuetto. Allegretto 15:27
  4. Allegro 19:08

With String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, we enter the strange world of late Beethoven. Beethoven’s music often plunges us into Romanticism. At moments, this quartet sounds as if it could have been written in the twentieth century. But the most unusual aspect of this music is the way it seems to take us beyond time and style. Occasionally, the music seems suspended in time. This is especially evident in the third movement, which Beethoven subtitled, Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. 

This quartet was written after the Ninth Symphony in 1825, two years before Beethoven’s death. Just before the final movement begins, we hear a strange, passionate opera recitative without words. Similar allusions to opera occur in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony.

  1. Assai sostenuto – Allegro 0:00
  2. Allegro ma non tanto 9:56
  3. Molto adagio 18:38
  4. Alla marcia, assai vivace 34:19
  5. Allegro appassionato 36:33

Music Fit for an Emperor

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Violinist Mark Sokol passed away last week. He was a founding member of the Concord String Quartet. Between 1971 and its disbanding in 1987, the Concord String Quartet championed music by American composers including Charles Ives, George Crumb, Jacob Druckman and Morton Feldman. Mark Sokol later joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Here is the Concord’s recording of Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3. This quartet earned the nickname “The Emperor” because the second movement is made up of variations on the melody, “God Save Emperor Francis.” Today we know this theme as the German national anthem.

Haydn composed the theme after returning from England, where he heard “God Save the Queen.” The theme quickly gained popularity and inspired patriotism at a time when Napoleon was threatening the Austrian Empire.

Composer Samuel Adler offers a technical analysis of the second movement’s progression of variations:

This is a wonderful lesson in orchestration, for too often the extremes in the range are wasted too early in a work, and the final buildup is, as a result, anticlimactic. The other formal factor to notice is that the entire structure is an accumulation of the elements which have slowly entered the harmonic and contrapuntal scheme in the course of the variations and have become a natural part of the statement.

Here are the second, third and fourth movements.

Music and Humor

images-6Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.

To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.

Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Joke and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians quickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.

Haydn’s Jokes

Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’s long, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:

Comic Voices in Early Beethoven

Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.

Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).

Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…

In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.

Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo (14:33)
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando (25:11)

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.

Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:

Burlesque Copland

Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…

Remembering Christopher Hogwood

conductor Christopher Hogwood
conductor Christopher Hogwood

Conductor, harpsichordist, and early music scholar Christopher Hogwood passed away last week at the age of 73. He was an influential advocate of authentic performance practice and the use of period instruments. He helped pioneer a movement which attempted to recreate the original sound and style of baroque and classical music. In 1973 he founded the Cambridge, England-based Academy of Ancient Music. You can explore a collection of his lectures here and view a catalogue of his extensive writing and recordings here. His approach to music, which emphasized musicology, is summed up in the follow quote:

Every piece of music should be looked at as a painting that dissolved off the wall when you closed the gallery door. If all the colors dripped down into a huge pot and you took this pot, along with a recipe of how to reassemble the colors back into Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers,’ you would be very careful to get all the reds and the yellows in the right places, and not to paint it bigger or smaller than it was. I think music carries with it this responsibility.

A comparison of Hogwood’s period performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Romantic 1954 interpretation of Wilhelm Furtwängler demonstrates how different the same music can sound, depending on the philosophy of the performer. 

Youthful Beethoven

Let’s listen to Christopher Hogwood’s sparkling and stylish recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 with the Academy of Ancient Music. The performance features harpsichord and period instruments tuned to a slightly lower “A” than we’re used to.

Beethoven’s first two symphonies are his most youthful and classical, but listen carefully and you’ll hear hints of explosive, revolutionary sounds to come. The music was shocking enough to elicit the following description from a Viennese critic following the premiere:

“a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.

You may also notice the kind of humor we rarely associate with Beethoven. While the symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn commonly featured stately minuets for the third movement, Beethoven began writing scherzos. The word “scherzo” literally translates as “joke.” Notice the musical cat and mouse games and sudden interruptions which occur between instruments in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony.

The comically boisterous opening of the final movement is like a loud guest who attracts attention at a party for all the wrong reasons. It’s an outburst which opens the door to a spirited and simultaneously ferocious romp. As the motives are tossed around and developed, notice the way they become increasingly compressed between 29:11 and 29:25. Strangely, this movement contains subtle premonitions of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony (31:55). Then there’s the eerie intensity of that moment in the coda where everything drops out except for the string tremolo. What  follows may be the biggest joke of all.

  1. Adagio molto-Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Larghetto (12:50)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (22:45)
  4. Allegro molto (27:10)

Haydn’s Final Symphony

Franz Joseph Haydn was employed in London during the final years of his life. Symphony No. 104 in D major is the last of twelve “London Symphonies”. Here is a live performance with Christopher Hogwood:

  1. Adagio — Allegro (0:00)
  2. Andante (8:56:
  3. Menuetto and Trio: Allegro (17:10)
  4. Finale: Spiritoso (21:33)