Bruckner Mass in F Minor

Canterbury Festival closing concert
Bruckner Mass in F Minor
Beethoven Symphony No.3 Eroica

Saturday 29 October 2012  |  7.30pm  |  Canterbury Cathedral

Richard Cooke: Conductor
Mary Bevan: soprano, Anna Huntley: mezzo-soprano, Anthony Gregory: tenor, Edward Price: baritone
Canterbury Choral Society, Canterbury Choral Society Youth Choir
Canterbury Philharmonic Orchestra (Leader: Florence Cooke)


Beethoven Symphony No.3 in E flat, op. 86 ‘The Eroica’ – Beethoven

1. Allegro con brio
2. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
4. Finale: Allegro molto – Poco andante – Presto

Beethoven cannot be said to have been the first Romantic, any more than the last Classical, composer; yet he stands as a towering figure at the beginning of what we regard as the age of Romanticism in music, and the Eroica as a landmark in the development of the Romantic symphony. The direction of the Romantic movement was towards an increase in emotional expressiveness with less importance being placed upon beauty of form, and for the subject matter to be concerned with immediate experience rather than with the stylised themes and characters of classical mythology. Beethoven’s concerns were the humanist ones of Reason, Brotherhood, Heroism, Justice and Freedom. While the expression of such ideas could be explicit through the medium of opera (in Fidelio for example), in purely instrumental music such directness was not possible. Ideas could be conveyed by symbolism, as for example a funeral march to represent the death of a hero, but were much more often communicated through tonal and structural tensions within the music, and this necessitated a change in the nature of musical language. It was here that Beethoven, in 1804, painting a portrait of a great man in his Third Symphony, broke new ground.

His most obvious innovation was in the matter of scale; a heroic theme required heroic proportions. Beethoven stated that because of its great length “it should be played nearer the beginning than the end of a concert”, that is to say “after an overture, an aria and a concerto”(!), and a London critic wrote “if this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse”. The first movement is indeed longer than some complete Haydn symphonies; its first few notes establish the key, E flat, but the introduction of a C sharp in the seventh bar opens up a multitude of tonal perspectives thereby giving a hint of its expanded scale. These first notes too form a theme of great simplicity which he was able to develop in many different ways. The realisation of these possibilities and the introduction of an important new melody later on during the “development section” made an extended movement inevitable. Sonata form with its opportunities for imaginative treatment was a good vehicle for Romantic ideas.

The Funeral March, which is the main subject of the second movement, must by its nature be spacious, and when it has been twice repeated with two episodes between, we have a movement which balances the first.

Beethoven replaced the customary title of Minuet for the third movement of his second and subsequent symphonies by the word Scherzo (a word derived from the Italian and meaning ‘joke’), giving himself the freedom to write music which was less constrained and of greater brilliance than was permitted by the Classical minuet, though in general he retained its 3/4 rhythm and binary form. Some have questioned the appropriateness of such music after a funeral march, but it seems intended to represent the continuing of normal life even in the face of death.

The Finale would seem at first to be a Theme and Variations, but it is something more. The material had already appeared during the preceding years in two compositions – the finale of the ‘Ballet music to Prometheus’ and the ‘Variations in E flat’ for Piano. In this symphony the bass is introduced first as if it were the theme, and the melody as its third variation; and this melody in turn is subject to further development while the bass provides the subject for some linear development, or “fugato”. The design of the movement takes on a climactic role. In the ‘Eroica’ we have a symphony whose finale is as substantial as its first movement. Mozart’s last ‘Jupiter’ symphony finale may have pointed the way, but in the ‘Eroica’ the scope of the symphony was dramatically expanded at a stroke.

Where, however, does Napoleon come into all this? Beethoven’s dedication of the symphony to him and his subsequent tearing of Napoleon’s name from the score on learning that he had made himself Emperor, have gone into legend; but the truth is more complicated. His attitude to Napoleon was a mixture of admiration and disillusion – admiration for him for having risen from humble origins and disillusionment because of his thirst for power; both these elements were present for some time before and after the writing of the Eroica Symphony. Had it been written for Napoleon alone Beethoven could have torn up the whole score! The story therefore says more about Beethoven’s temperament than his relation to Napoleon and in no way affects the greatness of the symphony.

Bruckner Mass in F minor – Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Bruckner’s composing, as indeed every aspect of his life, was governed by his faith. Two other composers, Bach and Elgar, spring to mind as having had a similarly strong religious impulse behind their music, but Bruckner’s commitment went beyond even theirs. From his early teens, when he was learning the organ, his music was almost entirely written for the church. His unaccompanied motets have a beauty of their own; they look back to the renaissance composers but contain sudden shifts of key, giving them moments of great radiance. These harmonic changes are a characteristic of his style and are carried on into the masses and later larger works.

His composing life falls into two periods – the liturgical and the symphonic. The Mass No. 3 in F minor (1867-8), his last, was written but two years after the first of his symphonies (of which a further eight were to follow). All Bruckner’s music, however, has to be viewed from the standpoint of his religion; the shape of his masses is determined by the words and by the requirements of the liturgy, not by purely musical form. His symphonies can be seen as following the artistic course set by these masses and sometimes contain quotations from them. Whether his technique of harmonic progressions can sustain their larger structures has remained a subject for argument.

The masses owe much, not only to the traditions of Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven, but also to the polyphonic style of the Renaissance; he wrote seven in all, although only the last three acquired numbers and remained in the repertoire, the E minor and the F Minor being the finest. The F minor follows the customary format for a large-scale choral and orchestral mass with a ‘baroque’ fugue at the end of the Gloria, and another at the end of the Credo to the words ‘Et vitam venturi sæculi. Amen.’ using a melody based on the plainsong which opens the movement. This mass differs from the others in that the words ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ and ‘Credo in unum Deum’ are not intoned by a priest as they would have been in a service but sung by the choir, suggesting that Bruckner might have had half an eye on the concert hall. He had already entered upon his symphonic phase, so we see characteristics of a new style creeping in; the orchestral texture of the passage ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, for example, has a strong similarity to that of sections of his Fifth Symphony.

Bruckner’s lack of confidence in the ‘rightness’ of what he had written and willingness to be influenced by the advice of others, led to continual revision. Practically all his major works exist in many versions and more than five of this mass. This has provided musicologists with much pleasure and editors with employment. Prof. Leopold Nowak is generally considered the most scholarly of these, based on Bruckner’s own thoughts, it is his version that is used tonight.

© John Andrewes

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