Tuesday, August 21, 2007


From a very young age, I have been much affected by religious music, even though paradoxically, I would not describe myself as a profound believer. It is only recently that I have given any real thought to this dichotomy, but that’s what age does to you.

It’s not difficult to see the impact and power of Religion on the Human race in today’s World, although today, in most of this country, you’d be very hard pressed to say that this power is on the general increase. But whenever you see the great set pieces of Religious music being played, you always get a full house. And, in my experience, even for an ecclesiastical fence-sitter, attending these occasions can be hugely intense experiences.

When you track how the sung Mass, in its varied forms, has developed over the centuries, it is not difficult to understand its position, centre stage, in the musical life of the Western World. Starting out around the 14th Century, the sung Mass developed from Gregorian Chant via composers like Palestrina, William Byrd and Josquin des Pres, who brought it into being an art form of its own. Originally sung as part of normal religious services, the genre developed through the Renaissance into secular performances of works written by most of the great composers.

Most of them were settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy, although the Anglican and the Lutheran Church versions were also used. Most were set in Latin because that was the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional language, although later ones were sometimes in other languages.

It is probably easier to list those Division One composers who did not write them, but almost all the Greats put their minds to the art-form at some time. Bach, Mozart, Listz, Schubert, Bruckner, Rossini, Verdi, all stepped up to the mark to create their settings, although in Mozart’s case, there is still controversy about the degree to which his Requiem, the last work he wrote, was completed by others, notably Sussmayr.

It is however strange how, in all cases, when you listen to these pieces of music, you always find yourself listening to a composer baring his soul musically, in a way you don’t find to the same degree in their other works. Although some of them wrote more than one Mass, there is usually one, and one only which stands as their final statement - almost a Monument.

None of those mentioned above, however, have burnt their way into my own personal list of immortal works. That list is much shorter.

Firstly Haydn, who wrote 12 Masses over a period of 52 years, the last 6, in my humble opinion being a series of quite remarkable works. Written at the end of the 18th Century, they are not scored with the power of the Great romantic Composers, but they are all magnificent settings, particularly the last – the Harmoniemesse – an absolute jewel.

Secondly, the greatest composer the world has ever seen, Beethoven, who wrote two masses. The first, written 5 years after Haydn’s last Mass and rarely played, sits in the shadow of the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Written at the end of his life, its power, its beauty and the passion which underpins the whole work is a unique experience if you ever hear it sung in a concert hall.

And yet there is another work, which few people would set in comparison with the Missa Solemnis, that I listen to most – Brahms German Requiem. I was introduced to this piece at school by a friend, who is now a European Member of Parliament. The music has been part of me for 45 years, and whenever I need to listen to something of this ilk, the Brahms Requiem gets it right for me. I’m not saying it’s a greater piece of writing than the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, it’s just more appropriate to me.

Classical Music performance has seen some major changes since 1960, with a much lighter touch, faster tempi, a drive for detail and the use of original instruments all having an impact. But I still feel that many pieces of music are not improved by these changes, and none more so than here.
The work is different in a number of ways from others mentioned so far. It’s sung in German and based on the Lutheran translation of the Bible, It seeks more to address the comfort and feelings of those left to pick up the pieces when a person dies, rather than being a requiem for the dead. It’s about hope, solace and consolation on the Human scale.

Brahms was not a particularly religious man, and you get the feeling that he wasn’t trying to align the work with any particular religious belief. The texts he chose are all almost religiously non specific, and in fact the words “Jesus Christ” never appear anywhere in the text.

Brahms himself described it as a “Humane” Requiem, probably instigated by the deaths of his mother a few months before its composition, as well as the loss of his great friend Robert Schumann some ten years previous.

The work is in seven movements, with the outer movements being quite sombre, meditative and dark, and the central movement, sung by a soprano, being the lightest and most tranquil.

The recording I have worn a groove in was made in 1961 by Otto Klemperer, with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I’ve listened to later versions, but Klemperer’s measured tempi, and the “hewn from granite” feel to the interpretation seem to suit the piece to perfection. Schwarzkopf’s singing is as pure and perfect as any human voice could be, and Fischer-Dieskau is also at the top of his huge form. A very moving recording.

I think it’s one of the greatest Classical Records of all time.

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