The Art of the Psalm

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Romanticism in the nineteenth century followed the so-called Age of Enlightenment, in which reason was celebrated and religion was tarnished as superstition, rigid doctrine, and the blind acceptance of authority. Romanticism championed the wondrous diversity of nature rather than its Newtonian predictability and regularity. A revival of religion accompanied romanticism. The art of music benefited from this revival. Music seemed to invoke the boundless and the mysterious, even the mystical, and certainly the spiritual. The religious revival that spread throughout Europe before 1848 among Protestants and Catholics alike reveled in man’s capacity to sense the divine and live in awe of it. Perhaps no vehicle is more appropriate to express the compatibility between the avowal of the distinctly human and the humble acknowledgement of God than music. Among Lutherans, the power of music was privileged, for in Luther’s claim that faith within the individual was the goal of the religious experience, music seemed to be the natural and most effective means of access and confirmation. Following the moral of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, man’s ambition to understand the divine through language and logic was replaced, curiously, by the celebration of something distinctly human but not necessarily divine: the ability to make music. The great achievements of music-making were not viewed as competitive with divine truth in the same way that made philosophy and science, by contrast, consistently suspect. Rather, the greater the music, the more it mirrored human respect for and love of God. In keeping with the Romantic idea that great art was a matter of inspiration, music could be perceived to be the inspiration from God granted to the individual’s religious sentiment, a communication of His grace and divine nature.

For Catholic Europe, the role of music in religious devotion and its connection to secular romanticism was a bit more complicated because of the influence of medieval church traditions, Papal authority, and varying disputes about the “right” music to accompany the liturgy. As the criticism, even in the late-eighteenth century, of the Mass settings by Mozart and Haydn by church representatives reveals, the Catholic clergy was suspicious of the use in sacred works of secular musical styles that were linked to the everyday and the sensual. Consequently, the practice of borrowing from Protestant models during the nineteenth century, as the music of Liszt, Bruckner, and Reger suggests, flourished. This practice aimed to reconcile liturgical traditions and counter-Reformation orthodoxies with trends in contemporary music-making outside of the church. Catholics, like Protestants, sought to fashion musical religious expression into something desirable in the context of the church service, so that the communal awareness of the body faithful could be deepened. Hymn-singing in the Protestant tradition created a natural bridge to the secular choral tradition. The Catholic communities of Bavaria and Austria adapted this Protestant model in a manner compatible with Catholic doctrine and canonical stricture.

Concurrent with this historical process spanning the nineteenth century within Europe’s Christian communities, was the gradual social, cultural, and economic emancipation of Europe’s Jewish population, particularly in German-speaking regions. Legal emancipation began first in the 1780s and it led to a powerful movement of reform and modernization among Jews that sought to reconcile Jewish traditions with secular life outside of the ghetto. The pioneer in this integration of Jews into European society as Jews was Moses Mendelssohn. The irony, of course, is that his famous grandson was converted and became the most significant composer of Protestant church music in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, the appropriation of traditions of secular concert music and even Christian religious music by Jews was not always connected to conversion and the abandonment of Jewish faith and identity. Felix Mendelssohn and the musical practices of early romanticism resulted in the development of a modernized music for the Jewish service and liturgy. The most famous practitioners of this movement were Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) in Berlin and Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890) in Vienna. Sulzer was the chief cantor and overseer of music for the Jewish community of Vienna. Liszt and Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’s advocate and an arch-critic of Liszt, were both great admirers of Sulzer’s prowess as a singer and musician. The sounds and practices of secular music therefore made their mark in the modernized expression of Jewish faith among acculturated Jews in the major cities of German-speaking Europe.

There is no part of the Old Testament that has functioned more effectively as a bridge between Jews and Christians than the 150 Psalms. In the Jewish tradition, these were the work of David, not a prophet but a king and a musician. Music has always been a central part of the manner in which Jews have expressed their faith. The Levites were second only to the priestly Kohanim, and were the musicians of the Temple. None other than Arnold Schoenberg would mirror this long link between music and faith among Jews in his opera fragment Moses und Aron (1932). Its central subject is the inadequacy of language as the communicative medium of divine truth. Moses stuttered, and Aaron, his fluent brother, was inadequate to the true understanding of the divine. But in Schoenberg’s hands, Moses spoke through music, like King David.

Among Christians, Jesus was said to have descended from David, and therefore the Psalms were easily interpreted as compatible with Christ’s teachings. That is the cosmopolitan aspect that links all four works on today’s program. Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was a devout provincial Austrian Catholic, a nearly fanatical believer in the universal legitimacy of the Church and its liturgy. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who took minor orders in middle age, was a truly Romantic Catholic, immune to doctrinal rigidity, but devoted to the authority of Rome. Max Reger (1873-1916) represents a bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism. His compositional ideal was none other than J.S. Bach, and he appropriated Protestant musical traditions for his sacred work. Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was born into the Sephardic Jewish community of Vienna and would, like Schoenberg, convert as an adult to Protestantism. Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was born and raised as a Catholic, but had sufficient Jewish heritage to qualify him under the Nazis, much to his horror, as an object of discrimination, and, had he lived longer, as a candidate for extermination.

This strange and poignant amalgam of religious heritages encouraged each of these composers to turn to the common ground of the psalm for the expression of their musical ambitions. Liszt’s Psalm 13 focuses on a text that theologically is the most challenging of the five psalms presented here. It picks up a theme articulated by Job: the fear of God’s abandonment. Liszt sets, with nearly operatic gestures, the plea of the psalmist for God’s grace. What attracted Liszt was the last line of Psalm 13, in which the musician promises God that in return for salvation, he will sing unto the Lord. Bruckner, in a work written late in his career, turned appropriately to the last Psalm, which is a psalm of praise. Fittingly enough, the highest praise humanity can provide God from the humble station of a mortal yet articulate creature is the unique praise of musical sound. The breath of humanity for the psalmist takes shape in trumpets, harps, stringed instruments, cymbals and organ. The young Franz Schreker, with characteristic ambition, chose a psalm of thanksgiving, Psalm 116. The account of faith and gratitude is marked by its emphasis on the consciousness of being the servant of God through a public demonstration of fidelity. What better medium for that public rather than private expression of faith than music? Zemlinsky turned to possibly the most famous psalm of all, the one familiar to individuals of all faiths, Psalm 23. Although this psalm celebrates the confidence that true faith brings despite the trials of mortal life, it curiously has become the psalm read at funerals, both among Jews and Christians. Since faith is an attribute of the soul and not the body, for Christians, Psalm 23 can represent the immortality of the soul and the triumph of faith over death. For Jews the psalm can signal the faith of the living faced with the finality of the death of those fellow humans closest to them, whom the living are chosen to survive. The last psalm on this program, Psalm 100, is a psalm of joy that celebrates the human debt to the divine, the acknowledgement of God’s presence, God’s power, and immortality. Once again music itself becomes the medium of reflection, for as Reger’s setting makes evident to the ear, the praise of God takes the form of a joyful noise that expresses happiness and gratitude for God’s everlasting truth. Psalm 100 evokes God’s merciful and triumphant nature.

The connecting musical attributes audible in each of these composers’ works adapted to each setting of the psalms are an emphasis on counterpoint and the employment of fugal writing. Through the density and multiplicity of simultaneous individual voices, human ingenuity is displayed. Imitative counterpoint becomes a sign of respect for the brilliance and complexity of God’s creation. The unique character of extensive counterpoint is not only located in its dynamic logic but in its inevitable drive to dramatic and affirmative resolution. Dramatic counterpoint leads to a musical representation not only of the power of faith but an affirmation of the clarity and rightness of divine justice.

The works on this concert date from the second half of the nineteenth century, when, as in the mid-eighteenth century, human confidence in rationality and science reached new heights, pushing mysticism and the irrational dimensions of spirituality somewhat to the margins. Yet, at the same time, these overtly tradition-bound works that reflect a debt to conservative practices both musical and intellectual, possess uncanny suggestions of twentieth-century modernism, a movement that would flourish as a secular rebellion during the first decades of the twentieth century. In each of these works, one can find the suggestion of the innovative music of the twentieth century. Music, that unique human gift used to communicate the affirmation of humility in the presence of the divine, becomes wittingly in the hands of these masters a means to express individuality and originality, the inexhaustible power of the human imagination, the freedom of the spirit that for all of these composers was God’s greatest gift to humanity.

Anton Bruckner, Psalm 150

By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler, who as a boy studied theory with Bruckner in Vienna, remarked that the composer was a “combination of genius and simpleton. He had two coordinates—music and religion. Beyond that he knew almost nothing.” Beginning in the composer’s own time, such an assessment is fairly typical of Bruckner’s biographical image and has proved difficult to dispel. Given his intense faith and remarkable musical gifts it is hardly surprising that he wrote a large quantity of religious music, although its chronology is more curious. (Chronology is a difficult topic generally with respect to Bruckner because of the many revisions and versions of his works.)

Most of Bruckner’s sacred works, including the three large-scale masses, date from the early part of his compositional career, which for him began at quite an advanced age. In various respects his monumental symphonies—with their rich organ sonorities, chorales, and gothic grandeur—might also be considered religious. They are certainly spiritual statements and in some instances literally quote from his earlier masses. Once Bruckner began writing them he largely withdrew from composing explicitly religious music.

There are two particularly noteworthy exceptions: Te Deum (1881-84), a work closely allied to the Seventh Symphony, and Psalm 150, Bruckner’s last sacred composition, which dates from 1892, while he was working on his final Ninth Symphony. Bruckner had set various psalms over the course of his career before finally turning to the last of the Book of Psalms, No. 150. It is one of the most musical, enjoining everyone to praise God with music and dance. The text invokes a veritable temple orchestra of percussion, wind, and string instruments.

Richard Heuberger, a composer, writer, and conductor active in Vienna, commissioned Bruckner to write a hymn or cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra that was intended for the opening concert of a music festival in May 1892. (Although Bruckner did not know it, it appears that Brahms had been approached first.) In the end the work was only premiered on November 13, 1892 in Vienna’s Musikverein with Wilhelm Gericke conducting. It earned mixed praise from the powerful Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who concluded that “Bruckner’s new composition does not lack for outward effect, but it cannot be compared in its artistic substance to his Te Deum.”

Bruckner was much drawn to the “special ceremoniousness” of this psalm. The brief, tightly constructed composition opens with a loud, festive exclamation of “Halleluja!” for full orchestra and chorus, music that will return near the end before an elaborate closing fugue. Bruckner warned the conductor that “the final fugue is hard to sing.” Its theme bears a great similarity to the fugue subject of the finale of his Fifth Symphony.

Franz Schreker, Psalm 116, Op. 6

By Christopher Hailey, Director, Franz Schreker Foundation

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is best known as an opera composer, but he had a long and close association with choral music. In his youth he was a church organist (although his father was Jewish, Schreker was raised in the Catholic religion of his mother) and sang in various choral groups. As founder and director of Vienna’s Philharmonic Chorus (1908-1920) he led numerous world premieres and Viennese first performances, including works by Delius, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Zemlinsky. And as director of the Berlin Musikhochschule (1920-1932), he helped build its chorus into one of the finest student ensembles in the world. It is surprising, therefore, that Schreker wrote relatively few independent choral works and virtually all of these in his youth.

Schreker’s Psalm 116 for three-part women’s chorus, orchestra, and organ was written and premiered in 1900 as his graduation piece from the Vienna Conservatory. It is dedicated to his teacher Robert Fuchs, who had also taught Mahler, Wolf, and Zemlinsky. Because it is a student work, it is unclear whether the composer had a free hand in selecting his text or choosing his performance forces. The music is, in any event, more self-consciously “conservative” than other works of his from this period, being written in the kind of Brahmsian classicism then very much in favor in academic circles.

For his setting, Schreker selects verses 1, 3-5, 7, and 9 and arranged his work in three large sections. Following a majestic orchestral introduction in A-flat major and 6/4 meter, the composer treats the first verse (“I love the Lord”) in a three-part song form. The contrasting second section in 3/4 meter begins with an energetic and somewhat melodramatic three-part treatment of verse 3 in C minor (“Sorrows of Death”). Verse 4 (“But then I called”) serves as a brief transition to a 4/4 Maestoso setting of verses 5 and 7 (“Gracious is the Lord”/”Return unto thy rest”) in which the texture brightens considerably. The last section, setting verse 9 (“I will walk before the Lord”), is a choral fugue in A-flat major based on the theme associated with the first verse, followed by a blazing Halleluja. The score used in this afternoon’s performance is from a new edition of Schreker’s complete choral works.

In this and other early choral compositions, Schreker’s primary concern seems to be formal balance and polished surface beauty. There is little of the Wagnerian chromaticism that one finds in the music of Zemlinsky or Schoenberg during these same years; on the contrary, Schreker’s harmonic language is generally one of gently shifting tonal centers and modal inflection. His proclivity for textural beauty is an early indication of that preoccupation with Klang [sound] that would emerge as his most revolutionary contribution to musical syntax. With time he would learn to heighten his Klangeffekte with a harmonic vocabulary and finely differentiated orchestral mastery that were uniquely his own. In his operas, beginning with Der ferne Klang [The Distant Sound], which will be heard later this season, the very fragility of those sounds becomes a central metaphor of the human condition.

Franz Liszt, Psalm 13

By Dana Gooley, Brown University

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

If Franz Liszt had done nothing after retiring from the concert stage in 1847, his place in history would have been assured. He had vastly extended the expressive range of the piano and had logged a solid decade of unparalleled concert triumphs all over Europe. Yet instead of resting on his laurels, the 36-year-old virtuoso re-channeled his creative energies. He accepted an appointment as court music director in Weimar in 1848 and became a helmsman of the modern music scene. With an orchestra and assistants at his disposal, he set about realizing compositional ambitions that were kept on hold during the hectic virtuoso years, resulting in the “Faust” and “Dante” Symphonies, most of the symphonic poems, the Missa Solennis, the Legend of St. Elizabeth, and Psalm 13.

Liszt did not perform Psalm 13 often, but it served as an outlet for genuine religious feelings he had harbored since his youth. As he wrote to his friend Franz Brendel, “The tenor-part is very important; with it I have let my self sing and have drunk in the offspring of King David in flesh and blood.” Throughout the piece the tenor gives leading phrases and the choir echoes them, forming a dramatic tableau of the psalmist David leading his people in prayer. Liszt’s setting is a progressive, “new German” composition through and through. At a time when most composers in Germany looked to Bach and Handel as models for religious music, it leaves tradition behind and mobilizes all the resources of modern dramatic and symphonic music.

The six verses of the psalm follow an emotional journey Liszt favored: lamentation leading to heroic affirmation. The first two verses, with their plangent repetitions of “How long, O Lord?” express the suffering occasioned by the mysterious inscrutability of God’s ways. Tenor and choir render this existential weariness in pleading, dramatic recitative. The impatience intensifies until the third verse, “Look upon and hear me,” where a gorgeous melody, caressed by the orchestra’s strings, introduces a tone of hope and the promise of consolation. The bliss is dispelled briefly in verse 4, as thoughts of the enemy return in agitated music. The turning point is verse 5, where the psalmist reaffirms his faith. Here Liszt presents a new, hymn-like melody, and extends it with a reprise of the “Look upon and hear me” music. This transitions into the celebratory fugal finale, launched by the final verse, “I will sing unto the Lord.”

Liszt’s technique of “thematic transformation,” through which he sought to extend the Beethovenian symphonic legacy, is also in full evidence in Psalm 13. The work’s opening theme, an intense lamentoso melody in the strings, gets a softer, lyrical transformation for the phrase “Look upon and hear me,” and it later metamorphoses into the optimistic fugue subject of the finale. Hints of sonata form further contribute to the fascinating blend of opera, oratorio, and symphony that came together in Liszt’s first large-scale religious work.

Alexander Zemlinsky, Psalm 23, Op. 14

By Christopher Hailey, Director, Franz Schreker Foundation

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As a teenager Zemlinsky had served as an organist in his synagogue in Vienna and thus, like Schreker, had early experience working with choirs and liturgical music. Though he, too, composed relatively little sacred music, his settings of Psalms 13, 23, and 83 rank among his finest works. Psalm 23, commissioned by Schreker for the concerts of his Philharmonic Chorus, was composed during the summer of 1910 and given its premiere in Vienna in December of that year.

Whereas Schreker’s setting, with its relative austerity and drive toward the final fugue, is clearly within a tradition of Austro-German sacred music that includes the two works by Bruckner and Reger heard on this concert, Zemlinsky’s setting stakes out very different terrain. Zemlinsky had converted to Protestantism around 1899, but this setting owes little debt to either Jewish or Protestant stylistic precedents. Rudolf Stephan has described the work as a “vocal symphonic poem” and indeed the composition seems closer to the kind of supra-denominational Weltanschauungsmusik [world view music] that characterizes such early twentieth-century works as Delius’s Mass of Life and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. There are even direct echoes of Gurre-Lieder here, as well as a close relationship to Schreker’s opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin [The Carillon and the Princess, 1909-1912], but Psalm 23 is vintage Zemlinsky, very much a companion piece to his roughly contemporaneous opera Traumgörge [Görge, the Dreamer] and Maeterlinck songs.

The large, unusually bright orchestra, which includes triangle, glockenspiel, celesta, and two harps, plays a central integrative role, beginning with an extended introduction that establishes two of the work’s principal themes. This G-major opening, featuring solo oboe, paired woodwinds, and gently rocking accompaniment, underscores the Psalm’s pastoral conceit. There is even a discrete use of tone painting to suggest the waters of the second verse. The first two verses (“The Lord is my shepherd”/“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”) are stated simply, while the third (“He restoreth my soul”), after a brief interlude, brings an elaborate re-statement of the opening with rich choral polyphony, chromatic inflections, and sensuous enharmonic shifts.

A broad orchestral interlude introduces new material and a more agitated, chromatically tortured, and harmonically unstable language for verses 4 and 5 (“Und Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”/“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies”). Churning waves of sound, surging harmonic sequences, and a series of climactic gestures lead at last to a triumphant E-flat statement of verse 6 (“Gutes und Barmherzigkeit werden mir folgen”), before returning to G major for a recapitulation of the opening verse and a gentle orchestral postlude.

It would be inappropriate to compare the work of a student with that of a mature master, but between Schreker’s promising compositional debut and Zemlinsky’s assured, if idiosyncratic setting of Psalm 23 lies a momentous decade in Viennese music history in which a generation of composers moved out of the shadows of the nineteenth century and into the bright sunlight of stylistic independence—reason enough for singing praise and giving thanks.

Max Reger, Psalm 100, Op. 106

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Outside of the arcane world of the organ, the works of Max Reger are not generally known. This is odd because in the early years of the last century, many musicologists predicted certain immortality for the Bavarian composer. A representative textbook of the period states that Reger and Arnold Schoenberg are the future of Germanic music. Gustav Mahler, by contrast, does not even receive a mention.

Density in music is not discussed that often, but there is definitely something about the organ which makes its adherents who turn to composition for other combinations of sonorities fill each measure with as much activity as possible. Perhaps it is all of that counterpoint which permeates the great literature for the queen of instruments. More elementally, however, it is the overtonal ceiling created by the air emerging from the conflatorium which results in a constant drone interacting with the individual musical moment to produce at least an expectation of harmonic thickness. Whatever the root cause, there is no doubt that the mature music of Max Reger is some of the most chockablock in history.

Like the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms, Reger’s setting of Psalm 100 was written as an acknowledgement of an honorary doctorate, in this case from Jena University. The work is structured as a full-scale choral symphony in four movements.

The first line of the psalm is “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” and the composer follows the suggestion literally. After the initial orchestral explosion, the vocal writing is highly contrapuntal. Reger would have been considered a Brahmsian in the Brahms-Wagner feud that carried over into his generation, and relied very heavily in many of his mature compositions on the fugue to develop his ideas.

The Andante second movement, on the words “Know ye that the Lord he is God,” begins mysteriously, almost spectrally, and contains echoes of the third movement of Brahms’s A German Requiem. The solo violin at the conclusion of the second movement, during the description of “the sheep of his pasture,” leads into the gentler, pastoral introduction of “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,” which in turn develops into the triumphant blessing of the holy name.

The most complex part of this essay is the finale, containing a full-scale double vocal fugue reinforced in the orchestra by a grandiloquent intonation of Bach’s “Ein’ feste Burg,” a fitting quotation to explicate the last line of the psalm “and his truth endureth to all generations.” Some composers, notably Paul Hindemith, have endeavored to revise this piece in order to make it sound more clearly defined, but the American Symphony Orchestra has chosen to present it in its original, gloriously polychromatic form.

Reger also made an important academic contribution and was a teacher of the great George Szell. But as a newspaper critic, I most admire the man for his response to a bothersome notice. He wrote, “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your review is before me. Soon it will be behind me.”

The Art of the Psalm

10/22/2006 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes