Dies irae

All three works on this program quote the Dies irae (Day of wrath) within the fabric of the music. Attributed to Thomas of Celano (c.1250), the sequence Dies irae was a late addition to the Catholic liturgy but quickly became the centerpiece of the Mass for the Dead. In the Catholic mass, the sequence began as a newly composed chant for particularly important feast days. Many composers have been unable to pass up this dramatic nugget, whose first eight notes have become universally recognized. Example 1 Others, like Mozart and Verdi, created their own melodies to the text.

The Dies irae is a long strophic poem with a pronounced trochaic pulse. Mozart established a tradition of dividing the Dies irae into several musical sections that correspond to the meaning of the text. Nearly a hundred years later, Verdi’s setting of the text was never surpassed as the expression of sheer terror on the Day of Judgment, as the soul awaits eternal salvation or damnation. Fauré and Duruflé simply did away with the poem altogether, deeming it insensitive to the feelings of mourners.
Brent Lee b. 1964
Brent Lee
b. 1964
Brent Lee
voca me cum benedictis (Call me among the blessed)

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Canadian composer Brent Lee studied music composition at McGill University in Montreal and received his doctorate in composition from the University of British Columbia. He is currently Professor of Music Composition at the University of Windsor.

Lee is interested in electroacoustic music and his compositions and improvisations often explore the relationship between acoustic instruments and digital sound processing. He is a member of improvising ensembles, including his own Noiseborder Ensemble.

Lee composed voca me cum benedictis in 2003 on commission from the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, to complete a program of works that incorporate the Dies irae chant. The chant has its origin in the Gregorian Requiem Mass, opening with a description of the terrors of the “Day of Wrath,” and gradually moving to a prayer of supplication. Lee has used this idea of a desperate prayer and its merciful answer as a central metaphor in this work.

Lee writes: “The work begins with a fanfare whose opening motive is taken from the Dies irae theme. This is followed by an extended passage comprising a number of musical elements: a series of canonic melodies in the violins, shifting chords in the woodwinds, and repeating gestures in the timpani and other percussion. As the passage becomes more agitated and insistent, the Dies irae theme appears in the trombones (albeit somewhat disguised); the passage culminates in a tumultuous climax. After this is heard the “call”; individual instruments answer the call one by one.”
Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergey Rachmaninov
Sergey Rachmaninov
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a musical family, middle-class but under strained economic conditions. His gifts as a pianist were recognized early, but he had always wanted to compose and considered himself a composer first, pianist second. Already established as a performer, he gained instant fame as a composer at age 19 with his Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work that haunted him all his life because audiences always expected – and demanded – it as an encore to his concerts.

The premiere performance of Rachmaninov's First Symphony took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. It was a dismal failure, in large part due to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov, who was drunk. The disappointment brought on a severe depression, and for three years Rachmaninov was unable to do any significant composing. Finally in 1900 he went for therapy and hypnosis to Dr. Nikolay Dahl. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. In 1901 Rachmaninov was consequently able to return to creative work on his Second Piano Concerto, dedicated to Dahl. Relapses into depression dogged Rachmaninov, however, for the rest of his life. And significantly, all his large instrumental compositions, as well as most of the rest of his oeuvre, are in minor keys.

For nearly two decades Rachmaninov managed to divide his time comfortably among composing, conducting and performing, with composing having priority. But this idyllic life was changed drastically in 1917 by the Russian Revolution which, as a conservative and traditionalist, he viewed with horror. That year, Rachmaninov left the country with his family never to return, eventually settling in the United States. His sources of income having dried up, he became a full-time pianist for the rest of his life, leaving him little time to compose.

One of Rachmaninov’s late works was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, composed in 1934, a set of variations based on the 24th Caprice from Niccoló Paganini’s Caprices for Violin Solo, Op. 1. This Caprice – itself a set of bravura variations – has also served such diverse composers as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Schnittke and Lutoslawski. Example 1 Rachmaninov played the premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Baltimore under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.

The piece opens with an introduction that hints at the theme to come, Example 2 followed by the first variation (which he labeled “precedente”), a skeletal version of the theme itself, using only the first note of each of Paganini’s measures Example 3 – Beethoven had used a similar device to open the set of variation in the Finale of the Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), a stunningly novel approach for the time. Only afterwards does Rachmaninoff present the theme in full, following it with 23 more variations and a mischievous two-measure coda. The Variations give the pianist the same kind of virtuosic workout as its model did for showman Paganini.

In the Rhapsody, Rachmaninov reveals an inventiveness – and even an uncharacteristic sense of humor – that rendered it an instant success with audiences and pianists alike. While the Paganini Variations concentrate on virtuosic pyrotechnics, Rachmaninov imbues the little tune with a wide array of eccentric rhythms Example 4 (Var. 2), clever harmonizations Example 5 (Var. 15) and changing moods. Example 6 (Var. 8) Yet however much a variation appears to stray from the theme, the underlying harmonic structure remains constant.

Rachmaninov provides two surprises that save the work from unrelenting repetitiveness so common with long sets of variations. One is in Variation 7 with the appearance of a second theme, the Dies irae chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead that reminds mourners of the terrors of the Day of Judgment. It is a theme that recurs frequently in Rachmaninov’s music, usually in the most somber contexts, but here it has a decidedly tongue-in-cheek flavor: while the piano plays the Dies irae, the orchestra continues to play the Paganini theme, with which it conveniently harmonizes perfectly Example 7. The Dies irae recurs in later variations, but always balanced by the main theme and never imposing its lugubrious atmosphere on the composition.

The second highlight occurs in Variation 18. Nearly all of Rachmaninov’s music is in minor keys. Yet, “compelled” by tradition to compose at least one variation in the opposite mode, he accentuated the contrast by not only composing Variation 18 in the major mode, but inverting the theme as well. Example 8 Listeners often think of this variation as a totally new theme. And indeed, it bears a striking similarity to the composer's romantic second themes in his symphonies and piano concerti.

Hector Berlioz 1805-1869
Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Being a rebel without independent means makes life difficult for an artist. Hector Berlioz, the son of a physician, was sent by his family to Paris to study medicine, but at 21 gave it up to become a musician. To make ends meet as a composer, he became a prolific writer on music, musicians, conducting and orchestration, as well as a sharp-tongued music critic for Paris newspapers.

Berlioz was a master of orchestration. He freed the brass, making it the equal of the other orchestral sections. He experimented with new instruments, including the bass clarinet and valve trumpet, and pioneered the use of the English horn as one of the orchestra’s most expressive solo instruments. He paid only lip service to conventional musical form and was the foremost advocate of program music. Every one of his compositions is narrative, related in some way to a story or literary text. This approach to art was the natural outcome of his belief in the inseparability of music and ideas. For Berlioz, music and literature were inextricably connected as the quintessential expression of human imagination and emotion.

As if Romantic literature didn’t present enough Sturm ind Drang, Berlioz’s personal life added a subsequent entanglement. Around 1827, he attended productions in Paris of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, performed by the great British actor, David Garrick, and the apparently somewhat less talented actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite the fact that the young composer didn’t know English, he fell madly in love with Smithson, developed an obsessive fixation on her that inspired the Symphonie fantastique, and married her six years later, ultimately making both of them miserable.

The Symphonie fantastique is the first example of a narrative symphony. Berlioz composed it in 1830 as a musical testament to his infatuation. The symphony is united by an Idée fixe, a theme meant to depict the obsession with the beloved, which is introduced in the first movement Example 1 and recurs in all the others. The accompaniment on the strings of this first appearance of the Idée fixe gives the effect of a gradually increasing, and even irregular, heartbeat. The movement describes a young musician seeing his ideal woman for the first time. His fervor is so great that by the end of the movement the theme turns religious. Example 2

In the second movement, a lilting waltz, the artist attends a ball, where his beloved is dancing and frolicking. Example 3 Amidst the hubbub, he becomes conscious of her presence, with the sudden reappearance of the Idée fixe in a completely incongruous key. Example 4

In the third movement the artist goes for an outing in the pastoral countryside, in the midst of which he suddenly remembers his beloved. There is a violent storm, with the thunder symbolizing and foreshadowing the disastrous denouement of the affair. Is it an inner or real storm? This movement provides the first orchestral solo opportunity for the English horn, an instrument that Berlioz championed and which, through his direct and indirect influence, became the quintessential expression of languid melancholy. In this passage, the English horn is echoed by its sister double reed, the oboe. Example 5

By the fourth movement the artist's desperation grows, as does his irrationality. In an opium fantasy, he kills his beloved and is condemned to the guillotine, whence he is quick-marched in a parody of the solemnity of the occasion. Example 6 Before the knife falls, the Idée fixe is imprinted on his memory. Example 7

The finale describes an after-death experience, the Witches’ Sabbath, the spirits portayed by the upper woodwinds. The Idée fixe comes in grotesquely, the beloved becoming an object of scorn. Example 8 At this point the Dies irae, the Catholic chant for the dead, makes its appearance in the low brass. Example 9 Following a fugue on the witches' theme Example 10 – at one point in which the string players beat the wood of their bows above the bridge of their instruments – Berlioz's lets loose with one of his favorite contrapuntal tricks, the outcome of his literal combination of music with program or text. He called it “The reunion of two themes,” where two themes are heard first separately and then combined, no matter how musically incompatible they may be. Example 11 In the last movement the witches’ dance is combined with the Dies irae and the work ends in a wild orchestral extravaganza.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015