Spiritual Romanticism

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The year 1848 marks a watershed in the history of nineteenth-century Europe. The first half of the century was characterized by the rapid rise of industry, urban life, and the crystallization of a reading public and therefore a public for culture. All this occurred after the fall of Napoleon, in a period of political reaction. Concurrent with this reaction were radical revisions to the conceits of the previous century’s Enlightenment, as well as the emergence of a kind of middle-class domesticity that assumed stylistic attributes known as Biedermeier. In everything but furniture design and architecture, that term is understood as pejorative. However, particularly in German-speaking Europe, beneath the expansion of an urban, educated middle class obsessed with respectability, there was after 1815 also a desire to find some way around the harsh strictures of political repression and dynamic economic change. This undercurrent of resistance can be sensed in the dreams and achievements of the young Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and in the entire first generation of musical Romantics. With political liberty denied, the subjective self and the limitless, cloaked world of the imagination afforded by music possessed few rival claims on the souls of artists, poets and writers who came of age after the fall of Napoleon.

As Romanticism developed as an aesthetic sensibility and personal credo during the first half of the nineteenth century, it co-existed with serious considerations of church and state in the revolutions of 1848. Indeed already during the Napoleonic era, the reaction to the Terror and the excesses of the French Revolution had inspired a revival of religious feeling. The nineteenth century turned out, in fact, to be a period of renewed religiosity and the creation of a sense of spiritual inwardness quite antithetical to the attitudes of artists and philosophers of the previous century. The skepticism of Voltaire was superseded by the religious ruminations of the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who felt music was integral to religious sensibility. With the revival of religious emotionalism, the nineteenth century also witnessed a spiritual redefinition of national identity. The universal was subordinated to the particular and the differentiated. Discussion of the universal rights of human kind was left almost exclusively to socialists and communists, as the educated middle classes of Europe increasingly found themselves drawn to an awareness of themselves as part of an indigenous community where land, language and history took on mythic proportions. The marriage of nationalism and religiosity that took shape in the nineteenth century eventually bequeathed to the twentieth that nightmarish replay of the bloody strife of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But, despite Karl Marx’s quip that history repeats itself as farce not tragedy, during the twentieth century the internal strife in Europe after 1914 far outstripped anything perpetrated by the Hundred Years’ War.

This is an admittedly simplified account of the historical context for today’s concert. But it is crucial to locating the connection between spirituality and Romanticism. The works on the program are not ordered in a precise chronological manner, since Wagner wrote Das Liebesmahl der Apostel three years before Mendelssohn completed Lauda Sion. But aside from that detail, the sequence is historically proper. Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 and died in 1847. He never wavered in his belief that reason and religion could be reconciled. Despite his enormous contribution to the expressive vocabulary of the personal self through music—primarily in his chamber music, piano music, and concert overtures—the spirituality that Mendelssohn possessed was, despite its aesthetic Romanticism, rooted in an allegiance to neoclassicism and eighteenth-century philosophical ideals. In this sense, Mendelssohn was the musical equivalent of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), the great architect of early nineteenth-century Berlin. Lauda Sion not only expresses the deep religiosity of Mendelssohn and his devout Christianity but the underlying universalism that for him rendered the distinction between Protestant and Catholic insignificant. A widely embraced tolerance also extended to the Jews for whom Mendelssohn never lost his sense of solidarity. That solidarity had special urgency for him precisely because of his awareness that a new form of German nationalism was on the horizon. It first made its appearance when he was a child in 1819 and grew in strength throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Mendelssohn abhorred this aggressive form of political and cultural nationalism. Both he and his sister Fanny died before they could witness its triumphant arrival in German politics and culture. Appropriately, therefore, the concert opens with a work for the Catholic liturgy written by a converted Jew, the most important contemporary composer of Protestant church music, and who was married to the daughter of a prominent Huguenot minister.

The concert then turns to an early work by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), rarely performed in the United States. The rage for Wagner has not abated over many years. Concert-goers all over the world travel to the remotest places to catch a Ring cycle, and the number of Wagner’s devotees seems never to diminish. Conventional wisdom holds that Wagner was a revolutionary both politically and aesthetically. Together with Liszt he became the acknowledged founder of what came to be known as the “new German school.” Wagner saw himself as the true heir of Beethoven; he extended the dramatic in classical music into a new form, the music drama, a total work of art that integrated sound, word, and picture.

Wagner also became one of the nineteenth century’s most articulate modern anti-Semites, a theoretician of race, and a rabid nationalist. He had an extremely bizarre and ambivalent relation to Christianity, which appears most strikingly in Tannhäuser and Parsifal. Wagner, like Berlioz, was also a compelling writer who used the power of the pen to control the reception of his own works and his place in history. Like most autobiographers, he wrote in order to cover tracks he hoped no one would find, to guide future commentators, critics, and audiences toward a preconceived conclusion that omitted something important but embarrassing in his personal and artistic development. Wagner’s hidden skeleton in this case is the enormous debt his music owes to Mendelssohn, whom Wagner hated and against whom he held a personal, ill-grounded grudge. Wagner claimed to have been snubbed by Mendelssohn when in all likelihood nothing of the sort ever happened. But Mendelssohn was everything Wagner wasn’t: rich, tremendously talented, naturally adept, and generous of spirit. The work on today’s program not only foreshadows the familiar Wagner, but also surprisingly sheds light on Wagner’s early ambition to rival Mendelssohn on Mendelssohn’s own terms. An 1836 performance of St. Paul deeply impressed the young Wagner, who became determined to try to set biblical scenes into music as Mendelssohn had done so brilliantly. Das Liebesmahl der Apostel thus evidences the continuities rather than the divergences between Wagner and Mendelssohn. At the same time, however, there is no question that the mature Wagner opened up new vistas of compositional technique, musical expression and sonority. In this early work, we can hear the echoes of the male choral tradition of the late 1830s and early 1840s that would blossom into a nationalist medium, and reappear prominently in Parsifal and in the male choral moments of Götterdammerung. Although written in 1843, this work prefigures the dominance of nationalist religion in musical aesthetic after 1848.

The last composer on today’s program, Franz Liszt (1811-1886), was one of the most protean, complex and contradictory figures in the history of music, owing to his long life and the distinct phases in his career. Liszt belongs both to Mendelssohn’s world and to Wagner’s. As a virtuoso and composer he participated in the admiration for Beethoven evinced by Schumann and Mendelssohn. He was a champion of Berlioz, Chopin, and Meyerbeer. He was, as many turn-of-the-century German writers on music noted, almost a French composer because of his close personal intellectual associations with Paris in the 1830s. The next phase of his career brought him to Weimar, where he presided over the most important musical theater in German-speaking Europe during the mid-century, the place where Lohengrin had its premiere. He became a champion of Wagner—and ultimately Wagner’s father-in-law. Wagner had at first been skeptical of Liszt as a composer, but he soon came to be an eloquent defender of the creation of symphonic music written along the lines of poetic narrative. The second phase of Liszt’s career therefore can be considered an integral part of the German tradition of music-making. It is not surprising that the most prolific Liszt scholar of the twentieth century, Peter Raabe, was an ardent Nazi.

At the same time, however, Liszt was Hungarian by birth and by lifelong allegiance. In the last phase of his life, despite his close association with Wagner, he became a devout Catholic and an outspoken defender of the Hungarian national revival. Indeed, the Academy of Music that Bela Bartók attended bears to this day the name Franz Liszt. Liszt was eager to become a Hungarian national hero as an artist, educator, and philanthropist. The Mass performed on today’s concert is not only a great innovative setting of the Catholic liturgy by a composer who renounced his past as a virtuoso and Lothario and entered the Church, but it was also a widely acknowledged act of Hungarian patriotism. He was the nineteenth century’s greatest Hungarian musician and the Mass was designed to celebrate the newly found stature of the distinctly Hungarian Catholic Church.

In Liszt, the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century and the aesthetic transformation associated with Wagner (that utilized Liszt’s own remarkable musical innovations) were turned to the service of the nationalist revival that became commonplace throughout Europe after 1848. But today’s program also offers an opportunity to hear Liszt as an innovator in musical compositions and aesthetic ideals. If Wagner was eager to hide what he learned from Mendelssohn, he was equally loathe to give credit to Liszt for finding ways to make music augment the visual and poetic. It is somehow apt, therefore, that of the three composers, Liszt had the longest life. He died nearly forty years after Mendelssohn and he survived his son-in-law by three years. Indeed, if any composer mirrors the entire nineteenth century, inclusive of its transformations from the classical and rationalist to the spiritual and nationalist, it is Franz Liszt.

Missa solemnis (1856)

By Morten Solvik, Institute of European Studies, Vienna

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“. . .it sprang from the truly fervent faith of my heart, such as I have felt since my childhood. Genitum non factum [begotten not made]. I can truly say that my mass has been more prayed than composed.”

Thus did Franz Liszt (1811-1886) describe the genesis of his Missa solemnis, written for the consecration of the basilica at Esztergom [Gran], Hungary in August 1856. The ceremony marked the long-awaited completion of the cathedral, whose opening was attended by not only the leading clergy of Hungary but also Emperor Franz Joseph himself. It was a grand occasion and an especially poignant one for Liszt who, returning to his native country for the first time after nearly a decade, was greeted like a national hero.

To many of his critics Liszt’s Missa solemnis represented a cynical attempt on the part of the composer to promote his popularity and, what was worse, to undermine sacred music with the chromatic confusions and far-too-worldly implications of the New German School, “to smuggle the Venusberg [of Wagner’s Tannhäuser] into church music,” as Liszt himself paraphrased it. Yet the objections surrounding this mass as an artistic-political event ignored a genuinely spiritual vein in the composer’s worldview. For all of his earthly passions, Liszt long nurtured a deep respect for Christianity and a mystical understanding of his mission as a composer. As he once wrote to Richard Wagner: “Everything is transitory except the Word of God, which is eternal—and the Word of God reveals itself in the creations of Genius.” Though it is difficult to separate the pious tones of this remark from the transcendental aspirations of the Romantic artist, there was clearly more to Liszt’s position than mere posturing. Not only did a number of his works touch on religious subjects (for instance, the Harmonies poétiques et religeuses), his life’s path took him directly into the folds of the Catholic Church. After joining the lower orders as a minor cleric in 1865, he reflected on his decision as follows: “Convinced as I was that this act would strengthen me on the right road, I accomplished it without effort, in all simplicity and uprightness of intention. Moreover it agrees with all the antecedents of my youth, as well as with the development that my work of musical composition has taken. . .”

Liszt, indeed, had embarked on a series of religious works during these years, focusing on the legends of St. Cecilia, St. Elizabeth, St. Francis and the massive oratorio, Christus. It was not, however, the first time he had considered compositions of this nature. Already in 1834 he had penned an essay “On the Future of Church Music” that called for a new kind of musical composition to “unite on a colossal scale the theater and the church.” Liszt emphasized not the dogmatic but rather the experiential rendering of religious content, a means of presentation capable of moving the audience. The Missa solemnis represented his first large-scale attempt at just such a work.

The Missa is divided into the traditional liturgical sections (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei), united by a number of important musical ideas that appear in various movements. The restless crossing motive at the opening of the Kyrie returns at the end of the Agnus Dei, closing off the form of the entire work in a cyclical gesture. More significant is the use of the “Christe” motive (a downward leap followed by rising intervals that end in a chromatic descent), first heard in the Kyrie and making a significant return at the opening of the Agnus Dei. The main idea of the Credo (“I believe”) is constructed from a combination of the Kyrie motive and the Christe motive, a symbolic rendering of the pillars of Christian faith. In all, the composer’s manipulation of thematic material shows a remarkable sensitivity to text and representation, as well as a knack for the dramatic effect that he had proclaimed had become a necessity for the future of sacred music. As he once wrote: “The church composer is also preacher and priest, and where the Word no longer suffices for the feeling, it is sound that takes it aloft and transfigures it.”

Lauda Sion, Op. 73 (1846)

By R. Larry Todd, Professor of Music, Duke University

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Grandson of the Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) was baptized at age seven, and for the remainder of his meteoric life observed the Lutheran faith. A fair amount of his music features familiar Protestant chorales (e.g. the Reformation Symphony, with its citation of Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, and St. Paul, which begins by quoting Wachet auf), and could be read as an avowal of musical Protestantism. Indeed, several of the composer’s instrumental works contain newly fashioned pseudo-chorales, as if he intended to invoke a spiritual element in his music for the concert hall. Yet the composer also produced a significant number of Catholic settings, including Lauda Sion, performed today, as well as works intended for the Anglican Church. There is even a short French hymn for the Huguenot Church (the composer’s wife, Cécile Jeanrenaud, was the daughter of a Huguenot minister); what is more, Mendelssohn was invited to compose some cantata-like psalm settings for the New Israelite Temple of Hamburg, which consecrated a new building in 1844 (nothing appears to have survived of this musical commission). Of overarching significance for Mendelssohn’s sacred music are the two focal points of the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah, the one symbolically commemorating the conversions to Christianity of the composer, his siblings and his parents, the other recalling the rationalist Judaism of Moses Mendelssohn.

Of the composer’s sizable and diverse body of sacred choral music, Lauda Sion, for four soloists, chorus, and orchestra, remains among the least well-known, though by no means the least significant. Commissioned for the six-hundredth anniversary of Corpus Christi, the work dates from 1846, when Mendelssohn was intensely engaged with Elijah, and was premiered on June 11 of that year at the Belgian Church of St. Martin in Liège. There, in the thirteenth century, the Feast had first been observed, after the nun Juliana urged the Bishop to set aside a special day to commemorate the Last Supper. In 1246 Pope Urban IV directed Thomas Aquinas to prepare a liturgy for the new service, subsequently adopted throughout the Church. Among Aquinas’s Latin texts were the twelve stanzas in rhyming couplets of Lauda Sion [Praise Sion], a sequence sung after the Alleluia during the Mass for that day. When the Council of Trent (1545-1563) decided to remove sequences from the liturgy, Lauda Sion was one of only four retained (among the others was the Dies irae, which, centuries later, would inspire composers such as Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff). Lauda Sion was sung syllabically (with one note per syllable) to an earlier, twelfth-century monophonic chant. By the time of the Renaissance and Counter Reformation the popularity of the sequence led several composers to write polyphonic motet-like settings, with quotations or paraphrases of the ancient melody. Whether Mendelssohn knew the sixteenth-century settings of Orlando di Lasso or Palestrina is unclear, though Mendelssohn did admit (to Robert Schumann) that old Italian church music wafted over him like incense. Though Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion is freely composed, he clearly had access to a Catholic chant book, for he cited the old melody three times in the central chorus of the composition, Docti sacris institutis [Those learned in the sacred institutions].

The text concerns the mysteries of the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that during Communion the Eucharistic elements are converted into the body and blood of Christ. In contrast to much of his Protestant sacred music that celebrates the chromatic austerities and complexities of J. S. Bach’s music, in Lauda Sion Mendelssohn sought to capture a melodious Italianate style. Thus the work begins with a choral movement of praise in a C major radiating euphonious warmth. A second chorus, linking the Eucharist to the Last Supper (Laudis thema specialis), and third movement, for chorus and soprano solo (Sit laus plena) reinforce the reverent tone of the music. The core of the composition (Nos. 4-6) turns to the “dogma given to Christians” (dogma datur christianis), and the ceremony of the Eucharist performed by priests, those “learned in the sacred institutions.” Here Mendelssohn turned to ritualistic counterpoint, for centuries associated with the high style of sacred Catholic polyphony. Thus, in No. 4 the New Covenant is allied with canons for pairings of four solo voices. In No. 5 the chant melody is intoned by the chorus in unison three times (a reference to the Trinity), as the bread and wine are consecrated, and then, in a fourth statement, inverted to the bass voice as Christ’s presence is felt through “different signs, not things” (sub diversis speciebus). The same text figures in for No. 6, a chorale fugue omitted when Lauda Sion was published posthumously in 1848 as Mendelssohn’s Op. 73, but restored in the twentieth century. The seventh movement, a soprano aria, reminds the communicants that the breaking of bread does not divide Christ but “accepts Him whole.” And the dramatic eighth movement begins with a vision of the multitudes taking Communion and awaiting the Final Judgment. The work concludes by invoking the calming music of the opening movement, and painting a vision of Christ as the Good Shepherd, the “bread of angels” (panis angelorum).

Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, Biblical Scene, Op. 69 (1843)

By Christopher Gibbs, Professor of Music, Bard College

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The triumphant Dresden premiere of Wagner’s Rienzi in October 1842 brought the 29-year-old composer wide public attention. In the same city just ten weeks later he conducted the premiere of his next opera, The Flying Dutchman, and in February was appointed Kapellmeister for the Saxon Royal Court. Among the many duties Wagner assumed was leading an amateur male choral society, the Dresden Liedertafel, a group that he complained was more interested in socializing than in music-making. Wagner was asked to write a half-hour work for a summer choral festival. He had recently completed the libretto of his next opera (then called Venusberg, later Tannhäuser), when he sketched the words for Liebesmahl der Apostel on April 21, 1843. In his memoirs, Wagner recalled, “I decided that the monotony of such choral singing, which the orchestra would only enliven to a slight extent, could be made bearable solely through the introduction of some dramatic elements.” He devised a “Biblical Scene,” depicting the first feast of the Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost appeared to the Apostles.

Wagner conducted the premiere in Dresden’s Frauenkirche on July 6, 1843 at the opening of a two-day festival that brought together male singing societies from all over Saxony. He recounted years later his disappointment with the “comparatively feeble effect” produced by the large orchestra and chorus of “so-called singers.” He had been more enthusiastic, however, in a letter written just after the event: “Picture to yourself a choir of 1200 men’s voices, all perfectly rehearsed, on a platform occupying almost the entire nave of the church and behind them an orchestra of 100 musicians, and you can imagine the impression it had! There has never been anything like it in any other church.”

Wagner’s dramatic sensibilities are clear from the presentation and structure of the piece, which foreshadows ideas he would develop in later operas. For the premiere, the orchestra was concealed behind the immense chorus, which was divided into three groups of tenors and basses in two parts to depict the Disciples. In addition, 12 basses represented the Apostles and another 40 singers were placed above in the cupola. Wagner deployed antiphonal effects between the Disciples and Apostles during the first two-thirds of the piece, which is sung entirely a capella (voices alone). A particularly effective moment comes when the “Voices from Above” intone the words: “Be consoled! I am near you.” Wagner wrote to his half-sister that this “passage depicting the descent of the Holy Ghost held everyone spellbound.”

At this point, some fifteen minutes into the composition, the pace speeds up and the orchestra enters for the first time, starting with a rumble in the drums and string tremolos. The Disciples exclaim: “What roaring fills the air! What sounds! What ringing!” The initial effect is of a giant crescendo that leads to moments reminiscent of Berlioz (whose music Wagner much admired) and anticipatory of his own impending Tannhäuser. Wagner would later return to other ideas first explored in this work, such as the hidden orchestra for the theater he designed in Bayreuth. And some 35 years later, in his last opera, Parsifal, he employed not only voices from on high, but also reused some melodic passages from this obscure early composition.