Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Sadness—The Cantata Singers and More

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Maurice Duruflé
Maurice Duruflé

The Cantata Singers
conductor, David Hoose

John Harbison:
“We do not live to ourselves”
“My little children, let us not love in word”

Heinrich Schütz:
Psalm 116, “Das ist mir lieb”
So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ, SWV 379
from Geistliche Chormusik 1648

Maurice Duruflé:

Last Friday, January 15th, the Cantata Singers under Music Director David Hoose continued their season centered around the music of Heinrich Schütz, on this occasion performing at the First Church, Cambridge. This can be a problematic venue, with blurry sound, especially for solo voices. But Friday there were no solo voices, and the a capella mixed choir and eventually a small orchestra sounded fine—well balanced and clear enough, at least where I was sitting, which was fairly close. The audience was large and enthusiastic. The fine concert deserved their appreciation.

In their previous concert Cantata Singers gave us Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien (1636), a sizable and complex funeral mass in German that is one of the composer’s most powerful and original works, a piece of many moods—fear, despair, consolation, transcendence—where words and meaning come to the fore with great primacy and seem to dictate the music that embodies them. In this second concert we got a short motet about dying from the mature period, “So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ,” and the much earlier setting of Psalm 116, “Das ist mir lieb” (“I love the Lord because he hath heard my voice and my supplications,” 1616). This piece is one of the first markers of Schütz’s genius, though it has about it something of the florid and mellifluous Italian style in which Schütz was trained. We listen more to melody than to words. It is very beautiful, and has variety. And the choir achieved some crisp and emphatic moments, which the church’s acoustics unfortunately softened.

Between the two Schütz pieces came two short John Harbison motets: “We Do Not Live to Ourselves,” written to memorialize a friend, showing Harbison’s absorption in the plainness and intensity of Schütz and Bach; and “My Little children, Let Us Not Love in Word,” which has this quality, but also evokes Negro Spiritual of the livelier kind. The Cantata Singers this year are surrounding Schütz with Monteverdi and Bach, but also with 20th-century (and 21st-century) music that makes some connection with Schütz. We get to know him better by seeing him with his siblings and cousins, even distant cousins (as Walter Benjamin once put it talking about the study of writers). The Cantata Singers’ March concert will include the Stravinsky Mass and Poulenc Mass.

The main event of this concert was presentation of the Requiem of Maurice Duruflé (1947). Any Requiem has something in common with Schütz, with his perpetual theme of facing death. And like Schütz and Bach, Duruflé looks back to Gregorian Chant and brings its spirit and substance into his music. This piece, in fact, has a wonderful winding quality that overcomes steady beats and measures. One has the sense of hearing spiritual voices singing on and on in the recesses of cathedrals. But it is all done in a very French way. The sound world is close to Fauré and Ravel, as well as to medieval Chant; and there is a French classical elegance about the shaping of the movements. It is terribly sad music and very beautiful, and, for me, not particularly religious, despite Duruflé’s having been a lifelong church organist and music director (like his contemporary Messiaen). The Requiem seems mainly a lament for loss, for the dead that are gone, with some expression of hope that they may not be facing a worse fate in the afterlife than they faced in dying. Surely this piece was written as a reaction to the slaughter of World War II, and perhaps to the catastrophe of the First World War that the Second seemed to compound—here again Duruflé would connect to Schütz, writing his music out of the experience of the Thirty Years War and visitations of plague. As T.S. Eliot liked to point out, the twentieth century had much in common with the seventeenth (will the twenty-first be different?). The Duruflé becomes tough and scary at moments, setting words from the Domine Jesu Christe and the Libera Me, and it feels as if the piece talks about life and death in the world, the world of endless war:

Deliver them from the lion’s mouth,
Lest the abyss swallow them up,
Lest they fall into darkness.
Deliver me, Lord,
From eternal death
On that dreadful day,
When heavens and earth shall move,
When you come to judge
The world through fire.

The feeling of the music is that there has been no deliverance and that there may well be none. The performance was magnificent, with the fine orchestra of strings, trumpets, and organ underpinning the gorgeous voices. Hoose led the group so as to make clear the many subtle distinctions in the prevailing mood of lamentation, and he built wonderful climaxes in the more vibrant parts. The audience knew it had heard something special.


Speaking of sadness, Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts last week provided more versions, which set the Duruflé in an interesting perspective. Sir Colin Davis led the Elgar Violin Concerto (1910), with brilliant playing by the young Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider. This work is enormous and rather awkwardly constructed, but in a touching way. As in so much Elgar, there is a deep sadness that the composer seems to try to overcome—with heroics, with jollity—but finally cannot. It is a Victorian sadness, like that of Tennyson or Thomas Hardy, a vague and large sadness at the loss of meaning in the world. The world just cannot come fully to life and be happy. A few days earlier, guest conductor Ton Koopman led a very alert, caring small-orchestra performance of the Schubert Unfinished Symphony, the supreme exemplar of Romantic sadness, a sadness that can sometimes seem deliberate or self-indulgent, the individual feeling apart from all the world and rather relishing the feeling. But the Schubert is more than that. It is a truly tragic piece, bringing together what seems centuries of tragic experience of all kinds in its sighing repeated phrases, its descents into fury and darkness and stasis, all worked into perfectly crafted, though highly original, sonata form, an intellectual affirmation. Some antidote to sadness was given in advance by Koopman and the orchestra’s warm, spirited rendering of Haydn’s Symphony No. 98, and then, joined by the great Yo-Yo Ma, Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C-Major. But Ma also gave us the Sarabande from Bach’s Sixth Suite. The Elgar, Schubert, and Bach, for me, made all the clearer Duruflé’s modernity. Despite his somewhat retrograde sound world, he is chaste and chastened and knowing, speaking after an apocalyptic experience the nineteenth century did not know, though Schütz did.

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