Artistic director: Fred Lokken
March 2006: Viva ,Mozart!
A Celebration of the 250th Birthday Year of
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
With tonight's program, Bellevue Chamber Chorus is excited to
make our contribution to the musical world's year-long celebration of
the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, certainly
one of the greatest geniuses in Western musical history. The
general outline of his life - from child keyboard prodigy, to inspired
young church composer in his hometown of Salzburg, to brilliant creator
of opera, concerti, and chamber music in Vienna, to his tragic death at
age 35 - is well known. What is sometimes overlooked is just
how stunningly prolific Mozart was as a composer, and how few of his
works are heard in our day. In his brief life, he wrote over eight
hundred compositions, but less than one hundred are still performed with
any regularity; in terms of choral music, of his more than fifty sacred
works alone, probably no more than ten are well-known to contemporary
audiences. Our celebratory program tries to redress that balance a
bit by covering some well-trod musical ground as well as exploring less
We open our program with a work from Mozart’s youth: his energetic Te Deum, in C major (K.141), written in Salzburg in 1769. Modeled closely on a similar work by Michael Haydn (for which reason its authenticity had long been questioned), the piece divides the lengthy liturgical text into three contrasting sections, including a final rousing double fugue. Famous musicologist Alfred Einstein has described the work as “sure in construction, thrilling in its choral declamation, and having a certain rustic South-German grandeur.”
Another early work is the antiphon Quaerite primum regnum Dei (K.86). Written by the fourteen-year-old Mozart on his first trip to Italy with his father in 1770, it was part of his application for membership into the esteemed Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna. Only 22 bars in total length, the piece is composed in the strict quasi-Renaissance style favored by the academy and is based on a slow-moving, pre existing cantus firmus in the bass line. Still, it exhibits some wonderful contrapuntal interweaving, striking harmonies, and a sure feel for the creation and release of musical tension. Whether it was ever performed at any occasion during Mozart’s lifetime is an open question.
Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,
And all things shall be added unto you. Alleluia.
Throughout his life, Mozart wrote numerous canons, or rounds, some as early pedagogical exercises, and many others for personal use at social gatherings in Vienna. (Several of this latter type are infamous for their bawdy scatological humor.) His four-voice canon Ave Maria (K.554), dating from around 1788, uses only the first two words of the sacred text in a 24-bar theme to form a simple but lovely musical treat.
As a result of his friendship with the famous botanist Nicolaus Josef von Jacquin, whose son and daughter were both very musical, in 1787 Mozart composed a series of five nocturnes for three solo voices and the unusual accompaniment of clarinets and basset horns (performed tonight with piano). Mi lagnerò tacendo (K.437) is based on a text by Metastasio, the most important librettist of the 18th century, and approaches the style of an operatic terzetto.
Quietly will I now complain of my bitter fate;
But that I should not love you, O dearest, do not expect of me.
Cruel one, do I offend you, if within my heart
remains the misery and pleasure to sigh for you?
"Play is something so lofty and demanding that it requires great mastery; and in Mozart we hear an art of play as in no one else."
At some point in 1780, Mozart received a commission to compose an opera for the carnival season in Munich in the following year. The result, Idomeneo, rè di Creta [King of Crete] (K.366), was a work that proved to be a turning point in his operatic career, bursting the boundaries of conventional serious opera of the period, investing its standard mythological characters with real emotion and individual features, and paving the way for his more famous operas of the following decade. It also features a prominent role for the chorus, as can be heard in the extracts (a few of the opera’s many choral numbers) performed tonight.
The story concerns King Idomeneus of Crete, who, while returning by sea from a victorious war against Troy, promises Neptune that if spared from a terrible storm he will sacrifice the first person he sees upon landing, which turns out to be his son Idamante. Upon his safe return, the citizens of Crete celebrate in the chorus “Nettuno s’onori”. In order to avoid carrying out his vow, which he has kept secret, Idomeneus directs his son to leave the island with Princess Electra, prompting the chorus and Electra to wish for a safe journey in “Placido è il mar”. Neptune thwarts the plan by sending another storm and a voracious sea monster, causing Idomeneus to confess his awful vow, to which the people and the high priest respond in “O voto tremendo”. Only by renouncing his throne can Idomeneus assuage the gods and prevent Idamante’s death, who will now reign in his stead with his new queen Ilia. Idomeneus’ relief and the people’s joy are expressed in the final two numbers “Torna la pace” and “Scenda Amor”.
"It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. But I am sure that when they are together as a family, they play Mozart, and then, too, God listens with special pleasure."
The sacramental offertory Venite populi (K.260) was composed for an Ascension Day service in 1776, and is a rare example of Mozart's writing for double chorus. It features several stylistic traits dating back to the Italian Baroque, including highly contrasted rapid-fire counterpoint tossed back and forth between the two choruses, and antiphonal echo effects, all in service of the rather unusual, rarely set, and anonymous text.
Mozart’s final year was a difficult one, as his employment was precarious, his financial situation usually quite desperate, and his wife Constanze frequently in ill health and at the spa in Baden, near Vienna, for treatments. On one occasion in June of 1791, Mozart visited her and while there composed a short sacramental anthem for his friend Anton Stoll, organist and choirmaster of the Baden parish church. The exquisite Ave verum corpus (K.618) was the first piece of sacred music he had written in over eight years (and the last before his unfinished Requiem), and has proven to be one of his most beloved compositions. Within six months of its writing, Mozart himself had fallen seriously ill, and died in December of that year.
Hail, true body of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary;
On the cross thy sacred body was crucified for all,
Blood and water streaming from thy wounded side.
Be for us a foretaste of heaven at death’s final hour.
Vesperae solennes de Confessore (K.339), or “Solemn Vespers”, was Mozart’s final composition for the Salzburg Cathedral in 1780, before his permanent departure from his hometown in search of greater artistic opportunities of Vienna. One of two settings Mozart made of this service, K.339 was intended for the special celebration of an undisclosed saint's day (the "confessor" of the title). Its six movements would have been interspersed with readings and other formalities appropriate for a festive religious occasion.
The text consists of five Psalms and the Magnificat canticle which concludes every Vespers service. As required by Mozart's conservative employer, Archbishop Colloredo, each Psalm is set as a continuous movement, as opposed to being divided into separate arias, ensembles, and choruses in the operatic style invading church music at that time. Except for the radiant soprano aria in the well-known "Laudate Dominum", the vocal solos also are treated in a more reserved ensemble style.
Despite these restrictions, and in contrast to the rather somber title (which only indicates the high church occasion), Mozart's music abounds in joyous exuberance. Every movement extols the praise and virtues of God, further emphasized by the doxology ("Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…") which concludes each section. Throughout, Mozart utilizes energetic rhythms, a bold harmonic palette, inner vocal lines full of musical interest, and sparkling instrumental lines. Of special interest is the elaborate and rather archaic fugal setting of “Laudate pueri”, whose traditional Baroque-style theme returns in modified form in the “Kyrie” of Mozart’s Requiem. Clearly, here is a composer in full command of his fully matured artistic resources. Though less well known today than some other major works in the Mozart choral repertoire, the “Solemn Vespers” surely stands as one of the high points of his sacred output, and provides a fitting conclusion to our commemorative concert.
Happy Birthday, Wolfgang!
"Mozart translated into music real life in all its beauty and discord…the right and the left hands of existence…but he always moves from left to right."