Monday, 16 July 2012

A Tale Of Two Concerts - The Beatitudes Now and Then

The concert to be performed in Coventry Cathedral on 22nd September is surely one for the contemporary connoisseur and popular classicist alike.

Here are some notes on the three pieces to be performed by the BBC Philharmonic with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus:

In alarming remembrance of the Warsaw death camps:

The weighty unknown Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951): A Survivor from Warsaw Op 46

It is first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us…the miracle of the story is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.”  Arnold Schöenberg 1947

Left: Jan Komski (1915 - 2002 - 'Hanging and Eating' (Auschwitz Museum, Poland).

‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ is arguably a landmark composition about spiritual resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, written in a ten-day burst of inspiration during August 1947. The inspiration was the horrific news of the atrocities that the Nazis had inflicted upon the Jews in the ghettos of Warsaw.

The extraordinary resonance of this piece shows there to be no time limit to the power of the musical message. Schöenberg takes just 7 minutes to alarm, astound, still an audience to shocking acknowledgement of an unforgivable period of human desolation.

For popular toe-tapping di di di daah entertainment:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Symphony No. 5 in C Minor Op 67

‘Beethoven’s romanticism … that tears the listener irresistibly away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.’  E T A Hoffman (1808)

How best to write about what is probably the most well-known work in the entire classical music repertoire?  That difficulty can also affect the listener, since the sheer familiarity of the piece can sometimes in itself be a barrier to the full appreciation of what is, despite everything, still one of the great masterpieces of the early nineteenth century. 

Perhaps the answer is to listen, as it were, with fresh ears, as if in the audience at the first performance in December 1808, even if they were familiar with the Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, must surely have been astonished at the force and compressed power of this awesome vision of triumph over tragedy.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C minor, op. 67 is rightly considered a natural continuation of  Symphony No. 3, "Eroica", because it approaches the same themes and it expresses the relationship between particular and general. The name under which it sometimes circulated, " The Symphony of Destiny ", is linked to the words of Anton Felix Schindler, his biographer, who, invoking an explanation given by the composer referring to the first bars in Part I of the fifth symphony, stated: " So pocht das Schicksal an die Pforte! " (That’s how destiny knocks on your door).

The first four notes subsequently became synonymous with the sound of Victory in Europe – VE Day, their forming the letter V  -

dot dot dot dash - in Morse code.

Share this moment of music history. The Beatitudes – home, finally:

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss, CH, KT, KCVO; 2 August 1891 – 27 March 1975
In collaboration with the librettist:
Christopher Vernon Hassall (24 March 1912 – 25 April 1963):       The Beatitudes

The assertion of faith, healing and serenity that underlies The Beatitudes acquires meaning for Bliss precisely because it emerges victor in that very protest and struggle against 'the cruelty, misery and evil in this world’’.

Bliss suffered a creative block after being told his was no longer the only commission for the Festival of Consecration in May ’62 (although it was known ‘internally’ he was not told the work would not even be performed in the Cathedral until just 4 weeks before the premiere).

Bliss was concerned that in setting the Beatitudes there was the danger of monotony. Hassall suggested the idea of the Beatitudes as the subject of the work and conceived the choice of texts, which would act as interludes and commentaries on them.

Bliss wrote in his autobiography As I Remember: ' ... each Beatitude shines with the same clear silver gleam, and little contrast of light is possible without deliberately using a distorted mirror’.

The work has many high spots: for example, the anguished orchestral prelude that depicts ‘A troubled world', and the disturbing outburst of hate of the 'Voices of the mob' ending on their shout of 'Kill!' Such intrusions of violence contrast with the setting of Herbert's 'Easter', with its exultant, melismatic 'alleluias' of the soloists, and effective musical imagery at 'Awake my lute', scored for soprano and harp, followed by the lyrical tenderness of 'I got me flowers to strew thy way' into which Bliss introduces the Easter antiphon 'Haec dies quam fecit Dominus'. Particularly memorable is the defiant mood of Thomas' 'And death shall have no dominion', Bliss's rapt response to Taylor's 'O Blessed Jesu', and the majestic, glorious 'Amen' with which The Beatitudes ends.

...and the concert THEN:

Bliss - 8:15 p.m. on Friday, 25 May 1962

At 8:15 p.m. on Friday, 25 May 1962, the opening concert for the Festival's "Days of Consecration" began with the National Anthem, followed by Bliss's The Beatitudes, with soprano Jennifer Vyvyan and tenor Richard Lewis, the Festival Choir, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted not by Sir Malcolm Sargent, as the printed programme states, but by the composer himself.

This change had only been agreed two weeks earlier at the request of the artistic director. As such it may be seen as a placatory measure towards the somewhat devastated composer. Elgar's "Enigma" Variations followed the interval, and the evening concluded with the "Hallelujah Chorus" and "Amen" from Handel's Messiah.

The following day The Times printed its review of the premiere beneath the headline:

"Sacred music, but in a secular atmosphere." The Times' music critic wrote: "Some account of the work's contents was given in my music article of a week ago. The premiere tonight confirmed the regret there expressed that The Beatitudes was not able to be performed in the cathedral for which it was composed. One might even claim that the new work cannot yet be justly appraised, on the basis of this performance in the utterly secular ambience of the Coventry Theatre”. The critic praises the "celestial rapture of the settings for two solo voices," but suggests that "the orchestral movements sounded cramped, in the wrong sense".

Bliss's own recollection of the event, from his autobiography, is similar to the tone of parts of The Times article suggesting that he quietly incorporated into his remembrance, is worth considering:

As the day for the premiere in May drew near, I realised I was in for a major disappointment I had been led to believe that the performance was to take place in the majestic surroundings of the new Cathedral, but alas! the Cathedral was needed for services and the concert was relegated to the Coventry Theatre, a maladjustment most unfortunate to me.

Instead of the ecclesiastical grandeur which I had imagined, there was the ugly theatre whose stage could not properly contain both large orchestra and chorus. The latter could not be placed where their voices would tell, and some of them acknowledged that from where they were wedged in they could not see my beat.

Also I had written an important part for the Cathedral organ. What effect could one possibly obtain from an imported small Hammond organ? We had to do the best we could'.

Bliss came with rank and of the establishment, ‘by Royal Appointment’ one might say.

When Bliss was first invited and commissioned to write a musical celebration to be performed after the Consecration of Coventry Cathedral, he was at the peak of his prolific career.

A Cambridge classicist, Bliss cut short his formal training at the Royal College of Music at the outbreak of WWI. He served with distinction as officer with the Fusiliers and then The Grenadier Guards – twice shot and once gassed; mentioned in dispatches. His successful musical portfolio grew with rapidity reflecting his hunger for work. He was an approved part of the establishment having spent a number of war time years as Assistant Director of Music at the BBC. And in 1953 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music.

He might be said to have come ‘by Royal Appointment’ and was certainly befitting the importance of the global spotlight that was to shine on the occasion in May 1962.


For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)

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