Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2019 Program Notes

Welcome to Sacred Music for a Sacred Space. All of the works on tonight’s program come from the 20th century, the first half from France and Switzerland, the second half from eastern Europe and Russia, with the exception of Healey Willan’s masterpiece which concludes the evening.

In earlier periods of European musical history, sacred music was often written by composers who essentially earned their living from the church, and one cannot really know how much the composer was writing from a position of deeply held faith, or writing what was required, often brilliantly, much as an opera composer has to be able to create music which is suitable to many situations or characters. As the influence of the church as employer diminished in the late Baroque and Classical periods, less sacred music was written, and the 19th century sees much more emphasis on symphony, opera and chamber music than on sacred music. There are not many Romantic composers whose chief claim to renown is their sacred music, and it is not by chance that the greatest works of 19th century sacred music are Requiems (Verdi, Berlioz, Brahms), in which one muses on death, a human condition not restricted to people of faith.

So by the 20th century it is a decided choice for a composer to write sacred music, and many of the composers represented tonight write from a position of faith, if not always entirely orthodox. We start with Olivier Messiaen’s wondrous motet O sacrum convivium, a perfect example of Messiaen’s preoccupation with the suspension of the perception of time in music by the use of extremely slow tempos and subtle changes in length of notes, all designed to bring us closer to something outside of time, eternal. Francis Poulenc sometimes has a reputation for writing cheeky irreverent music, but when he was 37 he experienced a series of events (including the death of a friend in a car crash) which led to him returning to the faith of his childhood, and an outpouring of sacred works, including his Salve Regina. Frank Martin was a Swiss composer who came from a Calvinist background. His Mass for Double Choir is full of deeply felt and unique touches. For instance, where many mass settings start the Gloria full of exultant and lively music, Martin starts softly and almost mystically as he depicts the phrase “Glory to God in the highest”. Similarly, the “Et resurrexit” in the Credo is usually captured by triumphant lively music (like in the Haydn Mass in the time of War the Mendelssohn Choir recently performed), but Martin chooses to write a skipping little melody which gets passed from voice to voice, as if the resurrection was as simple and joyous as children playing.

In the second half we hear examples of Orthodox church music, including two settings of the Cherubic Hymn sung at the Grand Entrance in Byzantine liturgy. The Rachmaninoff setting is what we have come to associate with Russian church music – rich harmonies and flowing melodies. It is interesting to compare it to the setting by Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer who once said he was “saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition”. It was written as a birthday gift for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich on his 60th birthday. Alfred Schnittke is a composer whose works deserve a wider audience. He wrote in a great variety of styles and many of his works display a deep spirituality. The son of a German Jew, he studied in Vienna, and for much of his career his music was viewed suspiciously by the Soviet bureaucracy.  “Complete this work” is the final movement in his Concerto for Choir and is a setting of a Russian translation of words by the 10th-century Armenian mystic Gregory of Narek.

We begin the second half with Zoltan Kodaly’s masterpiece Jesus and the Traders. It is the only work on the program that we are performing in translation. I trust that if the Mendelssohn Choir can manage works in English, Latin, Church Slavonic and Russian, we could have done a reputable job with Hungarian, but in this case the music tells a definite story (of Jesus turning the money-traders out of the temple) and I felt that a version by an extremely musical translator like Edward Dent would help our audience directly appreciate the drama and power of Kodaly’s setting.

The final work on the program, Willan’s An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts was written for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1921, and recorded by them in 1968. It is a setting of words taken from eastern liturgies and shows the profound influence eastern orthodox music had on Willan. We are pleased to present this important work in the TMC heritage as part of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 125th Anniversary Season.

David Fallis
TMC Interim Conductor and Artistic Advisor