Saturday, October 12, 2013 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
Furloughed Employee Discount. Furloughed employees are eligible for $10 standard adult tickets to Saturday's concert. Present valid government ID at box office to redeem.
BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976)
FANFARE FOR ST. EDMUNDSBURY
Premiered: Bury St. Edmunds, England, 1959
This year – 2013 – is a busy one for composer centenaries. Benjamin Britten, Witold Lutosławski and Morton Gould were all born in 1913, while two of the indisputable pillars of Western music – Wagner and Verdi – were both born in 1813. This evening, we open our commemoration of Verdi with a short celebratory work by Benjamin Britten, whose operas have frequently been cited as the only credible English-language rivals of Verdi’s. Admirers of Walton, Tippett and even Rutland Boughton seem to have agreed to keep their objections to this statement muted during this special year’s worldwide Festival of Britten.
Benjamin Britten accepted many commissions for occasional works (indeed, most of his major works were written for specific events), but he usually refused those that were for very short pieces, feeling that they were unlikely to be performed again after the original event. It made no difference to him who was doing the asking: when asked for a fanfare for the Queen in 1956, he simply recycled a few measures from his opera Gloriana (and charged a small fortune). However, Britten, a lifelong Socialist, made a very interesting exception to this policy in the case of political commissions. His shortest published works (apart from a few songs) were all written for political events – Russian Funeral, Advance Democracy – and this one, the Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury, written for the Pageant of Magna Carta in 1959. The Pageant, held in the grounds of St. Edmundsbury’s Cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds, celebrated the city’s role in the creation of a document that marked the beginning of the end of feudalism.
The piece is scored for three trumpets. The score specifies that they should be as far apart as possible. At the first performance, they were so far apart that one trumpet’s part had to be transposed up a half-step to sound in tune with the others. The piece has one highly unusual property: although nobody has actually attempted it since the first performance, it is possible to play all three parts on natural trumpets in three different keys, as all the notes fall square on the harmonic series of C, D and F. This deliberate technical limitation (typically of Britten, a self-applied spur to invention) results in an oddly medieval sound, even though performers invariably play C trumpets and use the valves.
The three trumpets each play a solo section before the closing ensemble. One plays a folk-inflected tune (in Magna Carta terms, “the People”), one plays a more typical fanfare figure (“the King”), and the third plays a series of arpeggios (“Order”). Each section ends with a series of long notes. In the closing section, the People and the King are brought together in Order – though not without some strife on the way; indeed, the first measures of the reconciliation are downright hostile. Eventually, the long notes pull together into recognizable chords, and the piece ends in a blaze of unity.
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)
Premiered: Milan, Italy, 1874
When Gioachino Rossini died in 1868, his lifelong rival Giuseppe Verdi suggested that a Requiem Mass should be written for the great man by a committee of Italian composers, with himself supplying the climactic Libera Me. Fourteen other composers dutifully lined up to provide the other movements, which was scheduled for performance on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. However, barely a month before the scheduled premiere, the whole project was abandoned by its commissioning committee, and the performance was cancelled without explanation.
We might wonder what happened here. There were musical reasons. The list of fifteen composers, with the glaring exception of Verdi, now reads like not so much a Who’s Who of Italian music as a Who’s He, as hardly any of them are still performed; the more famous names are Boucheron, Rossi and Ricci, which gives some hint of how obscure the others are now. Also, there was no collaboration of any kind between the composers, so the Requiem is in eight different keys. That said, it really is not that bad a piece on the whole; Verdi was quite right to be furious with Angelo Mariani, the conductor whom he had persuaded to commission the Requiem. Mariani had conducted many of Verdi’s premieres, but they barely spoke again after this fiasco.
It should be said in the interests of historical transparency that the musical difficulties between Verdi and Mariani were not the whole story. The soprano Teresa Stolz was Mariani’s fiancée at the time. A month before the cancellation, she dumped him in a blaze of publicity – and a blaze of widely-believed rumor that she was having an affair with Verdi.
Verdi was particularly upset by the Rossini Requiem disaster because he believed he had written some of his best music for the Libera Me; unlike, arguably, some of the other composers, he had thought Rossini to be worth the effort. In the four years following its non-performance, Verdi tinkered with the Libera Me until it became the towering moment of the Verdi Requiem that we now know – a tour de force for the soprano. One soprano in particular, in fact - Teresa Stolz, who sang at the first performance. Of course.
Shortly before the death of Rossini, Verdi met the writer Allessandro Manzoni, whose books he had collected for most of his life. For Manzoni, it seems to have been a rather touching I-have-all-your-books encounter with a genuine fan; for Verdi, it was a major life event, and he was deeply distressed when Manzoni died in 1873. He now realized he had a home for the Libera Me; he would write the rest of the Requiem in Manzoni’s honor. And he would do it all himself.
Although it is now an undisputed cornerstone of the large-scale choral repertoire, the Requiem was patchily received after its first performance (conducted by Verdi himself) at the church of San Marco in Milan in 1874. Some critics thought that Verdi’s style was too operatic for a religious work. This was more than a conservative religious prejudice: the premiere’s soloists were simply the frontline cast of the premiere of Aida, then still very much in production at La Scala (five blocks away), and some thought the Requiem to be a gigantic promotion for the opera. The fact that the Lacrimosa is a recycled passage from Don Carlo only added to this suspicion, as did the presence on the platform of suspected scarlet woman Teresa Stolz. There were other issues. Roman Catholic ecclesiastical law explicitly forbade women singing in church (hence the existence of the fabled castrati), yet here were two female opera singers, not to mention forty more women in the chorus – a fact which cost the Bishop of Milan his job. After the first Italian performance, all the subsequent premieres were held in concert halls or opera houses. The first British performance, in the then brand-new Royal Albert Hall, attracted an audience of 27; for all of Verdi’s popularity at Covent Garden, attending what looked like a Catholic religious ceremony was social suicide in the deeply Protestant England of the young Victoria.
Almost incredibly, considering the fuss after the first performance, Verdi again employed Teresa Stolz at the London performance. She was greeted with a (presumably fairly quiet) barrage of booing. Her poor ex-fiancé Mariani had died in agony late in 1873, making it quite clear that he held Teresa responsible for his decline; meanwhile, her three sisters had been swamped in a wave of barely-credible scandal (all relating to composers) too gruesome to relate here. Teresa was the last person who should have been singing the Requiem in London.
Despite its strange origins and lurid early history, Verdi’s Requiem has taken its rightful place among Verdi’s masterpieces. The Requiem Aeternam has become a worldwide symbol of ritual grief – and, ironically, was reworded in England for Protestant use within two years of the Albert Hall fiasco. Where the Rossini Requiem had a timid Dies Irae by Antonio Bazzini, Verdi’s has scene of genuine eschatological horror – the Day of Wrath its very self, whose shattering off-beat bass drum strokes seem as likely to wake the dead as terrify them – or us. Before we can recover from this, we are assaulted by the Tuba Mirum; this features a passage, terrifyingly marked ffff, which includes some of the loudest music that can be played without amplification.
The mezzo’s gripping Liber Scriptus was originally much shorter; it was lengthened after Verdi began a brief relationship with the mezzo soloist of the first French performance (which did not include La Stolz, interestingly). The Ingemisco, to no-one’s surprise, is a reworded out-take from Aida, and is often cited as one of Verdi’s great operatic arias; it was the personal Verdian favourite of Beniamino Gigli. We come to occupy an emotional world somewhere between the opera house and the cathedral, sanctifying one and humanizing the other.
The Requiem also forms a strange bond between this evening’s two composers. After the first performance of his War Requiem in 1962, a couple of critics falteringly pointed out that there were, to put it mildly, similarities between Britten’s choral monolith and the Verdi Requiem; the Verdi had, in fact, very obviously been used as a template for the Britten, right down to choices of key and a couple of glaring moments of one work directly “inspiring” the other. Britten was legendarily touchy about this sort of thing, as, understandably, are most composers. On this one occasion, however, he put his hands up and admitted that he might not have “adequately digested” the Verdi. In fact, the two works stand like two mourning angels at either end of a century of mass horror, between the Franco-Prussian War and the Second World War. Verdi saw it coming; Britten wished he could see it leave.
About the Concert
Here's your chance to hear Verdi's monumental masterpiece performed live in his bicentennial year! The marvelous Choralis and a fantastic quartet of soloists join us for a season opener not to be missed. First, in celebration of the Benjamin Britten Bicentennial, a trio of trumpets herald his famous fanfare.
NOTE: This concert will be repeated on Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 4:00pm:
The Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center
Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria Campus
3001 N. Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA
Gretchen Kuhrmann, conductor
For more information or to purchase tickets for the Sunday performance, please visit the Choralis website.