Beethoven’s Mass in C Major: Gentleness, Cheerfulness, and Humanity

Completed in 1807, Beethoven’s Mass in C Major came seventeen years before the premiere of the monumental Missa solemnis. In its way, it is a work which is equally mould-shattering. Beethoven, who seldom attended church, considered music to be “the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life…the one spiritual entrance into the higher world.” His Mass in C Major moves away from dogma to embrace the free, all-encompassing sanctity of the individual. A serene, …

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Bach’s “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein,” BWV 641: Evolution of a Chorale

The young J.S. Bach was employed as court organist in Weimar when he composed the tender and intimate chorale prelude, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV 641 (“When we are in utmost need”). The brief liturgical interlude is part of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) BWV 599−644, a compilation of 46 chorale preludes, written between 1712 and 1717. Albert Schweitzer commented that the soprano line, heard below as a pastorale reed voice, flows “like a …

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Mozart’s Kyrie in D Minor: An Enigma

The impetus for Mozart’s Kyrie in D minor, K.341 remains a fascinating enigma. Initially, it was believed that Mozart completed this sublime choral fragment in Munich in early 1781. The occasion for which it would have been composed remains unclear. The full instrumentation (which includes two clarinets) suggests that the Kyrie may have been intended for a large-scale Mass which remained unfinished. Sketches from the composer’s final years (1787-91) show that he was …

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Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor: Mysterious and Monumental

Mystery and intrigue have long surrounded the genesis of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor. In early July of 1791, an “unknown, gray stranger” visited the composer, bearing a commission for a Requiem from an anonymous patron. At the time, Mozart was working tirelessly to complete two operas, The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito. By the time he turned his attention to the Requiem the following September, his health was in terminal decline. He …

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Samuel Barber’s “Let Down the Bars, O Death”: Conspirare

It was during the summer of 1936 that Samuel Barber composed the String Quartet that would give rise to the iconic Adagio for Strings. During the same summer, Barber created an a cappella choral setting of Emily Dickinson’s 1891 poem, Let Down the Bars, O Death. It unfolds as a somber, homophonic chorale. As with the Adagio, it reaches upwards in search of a searing climax. When the poem’s first line returns, the hushed opening phrase is transformed …

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Jacobus Gallus’ “Mirabile Mysterium”: A Late Renaissance Christmas Motet

The late Renaissance composer, Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591), also known as Jacob Händl, was born in what is now Slovenia and traveled throughout the Bohemian lands of the Holy Roman Empire. His prolific output included more than 500 works, both sacred and secular. Gallus’ five-voice motet, Mirabile mysterium, was first printed in 1586. The text describes a mystical alchemy which is expressed in the motet’s wild dissonances and wandering chromaticism. It is “a …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Sancta Civitas”: An Oratorio of Revelation

In a 1988 biography, Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote that her husband “was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.” Ironically, it was Ralph Vaughan Williams who helped the Anglican Church to compile, through the The English Hymnal of 1906, “a collection of the best hymns in the English language.” For Vaughan Williams, music inhabited the …

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