Symphony #87 in A Major (1785)
Joseph Haydn (b. Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732; d. Vienna, 1809)
The New Grove Dictionary of Music asserts, while discussing Haydn’s symphonies: “there is no other genre in Western music for which the output of a single composer is at once so vast in extent, so historically important and of such high artistic quality.” Perhaps it is surprising, then, to learn that Haydn did not compose his first symphony until his later twenties; he himself later suggested that his early career might not have been a good predictor of his eventual success. It took the composer a long time to hit his stride.
Born into a family of tradesmen who were gifted amateur musicians in the small village of Rohrau, Haydn demonstrated his musical precocity and alertness early by earning a spot in the choirboy school at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Later, Haydn tried to eke out a living in Vienna by teaching, freelancing and composing. In his late twenties, though, he received an offer of employment from the Esterházy family that would change his life.
Haydn spent most of his career either directly or indirectly in the service of four successive Esterházy princes. He presided over a substantial musical establishment, but he felt isolated because of the family’s geographical distance from Vienna. He was “forced to become original,” as he himself put it. Haydn’s initial contract included stipulations that he could not allow his compositions to be copied or to be sent elsewhere, and that he should not accept any outside commissions without the consent of his employer. Despite his isolation, he did become familiar with new musical trends and styles by conducting concerts and producing operas of other composers as part of his job. The Empress Maria Theresa is reputed to have remarked, after a visit to the Esterházy family estate, that it was necessary to go to the country in order to see a good opera.
In 1779, a new contract gave Haydn permission to publish his works and to accept freelance commissions. He composed his six “Paris” Symphonies on commission, for the orchestra of the Olympic Masonic lodge, a large ensemble that included forty violins and gave him a chance to flex his symphonic muscles. A vigorous first movement, a lyrical slow movement, a gracious minuet that features the oboe in its trio, and a monothematic finale show the composer at the height of his symphonic powers.
Signature Soprano Arias
Antonín Dvořák (b. Nelahozeves, 1841; d. Prague, 1904) based his most famous opera on a fairy tale. Rusalka, a water sprite who has fallen in love with a human prince, accepts the fact that she will lose her power of speech when the prince claims her, and that both she and the prince will be eternally damned if he should ever desert her–which he eventually does. In Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon,” she asks the moon to tell the prince of her love.
Les nuits d’eté is a cycle of six songs by Hector Berlioz (b. La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, 1803; d. Paris, 1869) on texts by Théophile Gaultier. In “Le spectre de la rose” the ghost of the rose from last night’s ball returns with a message from a poet, “Here lies a rose of which all kings may be jealous.” Berlioz’ dreamy music recalls a gauzy scene from his opera Béatrice et Bénédict, where Hero and her attendant Ursula sing a gentle nocturne in anticipation of Hero’s upcoming wedding. “L’ile inconnue” is a song of love and of travel. There is a question, “Say, young beauty, where do you wish to go?” And there is an answer, “Lead me to the faithful shore where one loves always!”
The composer of the melody for “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (b. Wilton, Iowa, 1856; d. Hollywood, 1932) was a hymn-tune prodigy as a child and a prolific composer of gospel tunes as an adult. The author of the lyrics, Civilla Martin (1866-1948), was inspired by two severely disabled friends who attributed their mutual happiness to Jesus’ admonition, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26). The traditional spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” first appeared in print in 1927, in Spirituals Triumphant, Old and New, published by the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention. The powerful cumulative effect of its verses never fails to move.
Te Deum (1896)
Giuseppe Verdi (b. Roncole, 1813; d. Milan, 1901)
Verdi’s last composition consists of settings of four liturgically unrelated texts. Although he published the works together under the title Four Sacred Pieces, they were not conceived as a musical unit. However, this does not preclude the practice of performing them together as a group on the same concert. No two of the pieces require the same musical forces, which range from female chorus (Laudi alla Vergine Maria) to mixed chorus (Ave Maria), mixed chorus with orchestra (Stabat Mater) and the monumental forces of the Te Deum, double chorus and soloists with orchestra. By the time Verdi published his Four Sacred Pieces in 1898, he had long since rung down the curtain on his spectacularly successful operatic career.
The Te Deum has a rich history as part of the Catholic liturgy. It concludes the Divine Office service of Matins in most seasons of the church year, and its combination of praise and petition make it the text of choice for solemn occasions of church or state: the signing of a peace treaty, a coronation, the canonization of a saint or the consecration of a bishop. When Puccini famously set part of the Te Deum for Floria Tosca to sing offstage at the conclusion of Act I of Tosca, he had carefully calculated its stunning effect on Scarpia, who shouts, “Tosca, you make me forget even God!”
The words of the fourth-century hymn have been variously ascribed to Nicetas, Bishop of Remesiana and to Saints Ambrose, Augustine or Hilary. The last part of the text, starting with “Salvum fac populum tuum” (“O Lord, save Thy people”) is from the Psalms. The Te Deum begins with declarations of praise and proceeds to a profession of faith, the adoration of the Holy Trinity, and a statement of trust. It concludes with the prayer “Let me never be confounded.”
Te Deum joins the Mass (including the Requiem Mass) and the Magnificat as the liturgical texts most frequently set to music, from the Medieval time of Gregorian chant to the present day. Although Verdi usually composed for with a particular occasion in mind, such as an opera premiere or his Requiem in honor of the Italian literary giant Alessandro Manzoni, he did not design his Te Deum in this manner. Instead, it is his passionate statement of prayer and praise for the ages.
Der Rosenkavalier (excerpts) — 1911
Richard Strauss (b. Munich, 1864; d. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 1949)
Richard Strauss made his early career as a composer of orchestral symphonic poems and his later career as a composer of operas. Along the way he composed more than 200 songs for voice and piano, and many of these were first performed by Strauss (at the piano) and his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Thus Strauss’ fascination with the soprano voice should come as no surprise. Many of his finest operatic moments feature a soprano heroine, and several of his fifteen operas conclude with a scene for the soprano. Der Rosenkavalier outdoes them all for sheer exuberance: a trio for three sopranos of different voice types, followed by a duet. Here the music, ravishing as it might be, is deftly crafted to serve a dramatic purpose, to narrate the conclusion of a coming-of-age story.
Whose story is it? Perhaps it belongs to the composer, coming of musical age in his 47th year with an operatic success that would set the tone for the remainder of his career (nearly four more decades). Perhaps it is the librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, ten years younger, whose reputation now rests on his genius as one of the greatest of musical wordsmiths. Certainly it is the story of the title character, the bearer of the rose, Octavian, a 17-year-old youth cast as a “pants role” for (mezzo)-soprano. It is also the coming of age of Sophie, the young noblewoman whom Octavian rescues from dismal matrimonial prospects. But above all it is the story of the Marschallin, a member of the greatest Viennese nobility, who is married to the high-ranking military Field Marshall and is a princess by birthright. She is described as an “older woman,” but to Strauss and Hofmannsthal that meant thirty-something. In the final scene of the opera the three characters come to their separate realizations of their intertwined relationships. Octavian loses his amorous interest in the Marschallin, having discovered Sophie; Sophie and Octavian are aware only of one another; and the Marschallin attains a state of wise resignation, eventually making a gracious exit. Perhaps she herself says it best: “The majority of things in the world are such that one would not believe them if one were told about them.” Strauss’ music, however, makes believers of us all.
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.