BRUCKNER: Christus factus est
THE COMPOSER – ANTON BRUCKNER (1824-1896) – Bruckner’s devout Catholic faith is typically mentioned first among the attributes that made him the musician and person he was. He was surrounded by music and religion from the start in his provincial town, but too shy and unconfident to be a child prodigy. His father was an organist at the local church where his mother was a choir member, but little Anton didn’t begin to pursue music seriously until he was 11 (quite late by famous composer standards). Bruckner’s ensuing five years as a choirboy at St. Florian were formative, spiritually and compositionally, but the latter effect would not become obvious until much later, after he had spent many further years in service to his God as an organist. Just like dad.
THE HISTORY – Not surprisingly for such a faithful man, Bruckner composed some 40 motets over the course of his life. The first came during his early days at St. Florian when, as an 11-year-old, he set a portion of the Pange lingua (“Sing my tongue”) for a cappella choir. The last, the culmination of a lifetime of humble musical prayer, came in 1892 with Vexilla regis (“The Royal Banner”). Bruckner was nearly 70 at that point. In between those two cardinal points are sturdy list of chorales that trace the map of his travels as an organist and composer. Christus factus est (“Christ became obedient”) was written during Bruckner’s years in Vienna and provides the attentive listener with glimpses in his mature view of harmony and form. The text is based on Phillippians 2:8-9 in which “Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to the death, death on the cross. Therefore, God exalted him and gave him a name which is above all names.” Noble arches and vaulted ceilings of sound mark Bruckner’s version of the passage of the words, until the end when the music stills and leaves room for the name “above all names” to whisper itself right out of the mortal plane. To recall Bruckner only as an epic symphonist is to deny his gifts as a miniaturist. His quiet church music was every bit as important to his sense of religious place as the mighty orchestras he marshalled. Anton Bruckner was not simply a “person of faith”, he was, to the extent such a thing is possible and understandable, faith personified. Students of his recalled him dropping to his knees at the first sound of the Angelus bell, right in the middle of a sentence when necessary. The motets he composed for almost 60 years invoke that same kind of unwavering discipline and in Christus factus est, Bruckner’s own obedience to the cross is dutifully fulfilled.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1884, construction on the Washington Monument was completed, Germany took possession of Togoland in West Africa, the Siege of Khartoum began in Sudan and Edwin Abbot published Flatland.
THE CONNECTION – Bruckner’s Christus factus est has never been performed on a Utah Symphony Masterworks concert.
BERG: Act III from Wozzeck
THE COMPOSER – ALBAN BERG (1885-1935) – Like so many men of fighting age during the Great War, Berg did his part, even if his eternally frail constitution prevented him from ever experiencing combat. While he worked in the War Ministry of the Austro-Hungarian Army, Berg tried to maintain momentum on the projects he put on hold during the global conflict. He had made a pretty loud splash in 1913 with performances of two of the Five Orchestral Songs, and the ensuing riot involving both performers and listeners (1913 was big year for concert hall fisticuffs, just ask Stravinsky) did nothing to tamp his experimental instincts. Berg had a few more controversial things to say through music, with the most profound of these statements waiting patiently on the tip of his pen.
THE HISTORY – Berg’s first work for the opera stage was Wozzeck, based on an unfinished play by Georg Büchner called Woyzeck (the spelling discrepancy is commonly blamed on Büchner’s terrible handwriting). Büchner died of typhus in 1837 at the age of 23. Woyzeck was his final work and, though incomplete, the fragment that appeared many years later in 1879 predestined the fin de siècle fascination with downtrodden people and their humble, often tragic, lives. In the collection of scenes that would have made up the play, had Büchner been permitted by fate to finish, a poor Army barber (Woyzeck) endures humiliation at the hands of nearly everyone in his life and eventually suffers a mental breakdown that ends in the murder of his girlfriend (Marie). Berg saw the play in Vienna just before the war and began his conversion of the story into an opera immediately. Forced by circumstance to take his time, he didn’t finish the score until 1922. In the end, Berg chose 15 of Büchner’s mini scenes, placed them in order and organized them further into 3 acts. The success of Wozzeck, an unflinching gaze into the abyss of musical modernism and human depravity, baffled Berg, who had to be consoled after the 1925 Berlin premiere. He was reportedly concerned that the audience liked the opera more than they should and he found in their immediate acceptance of his grim verité reason to doubt the sincerity of his efforts. History, it should be said, has found nothing wanting in those efforts and Wozzeck remains one of the 20th century’s most influential works. In Act III, Wozzeck and Marie are enjoying a reflective walk by a pond when he has a fit of rage and stabs her to death. Wozzeck drowns when he attempts to dispose of his knife in the pond the next day and the opera ends with the children of the town making fun of Marie’s son, who is too young to realize what has happened when her body is found.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1925, Mussolini assumed dictatorial control of Italy, British Explorer Percy Fawcett sent his final telegram before disappearing into the Amazon, F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and The New Yorker magazine released its first issue.
THE CONNECTION – Music from Berg’s Wozzeck has never been performed in concert by Utah Symphony.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 “Choral”
THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – When nearing the completion of what was to be his final symphony, the 9th, Beethoven initially considered a premiere location outside of Vienna. At the time, he harbored significant displeasure with the Austrian capital’s lack of support for serious music in general, and his music in particular. No longer interested in his concerti, sonatas or symphonies, Beethoven believed, Viennese audiences were instead rushing to hear Rossini operas and other “light” populist fare. But he was wrong. When he made contact with promoters in Berlin regarding the 9th, word quickly spread in Vienna and his many admirers there presented him with letter of support that included a successful plea on behalf of the city and its audiences.
THE HISTORY – The 9th Symphony is difficult to define adequately, so massive was its scope and so indelible its historical importance. The work stood guard over the entirety of the 19th century, inspiring nearly every future composer to seek previously unknowable possibilities in the genre of the symphony. Beethoven ignored the limits of rhythm, harmony, structure and nearly every other Classical-era convention in this piece and the famous fourth movement defies even contemporary attempts at classification. That such disparate elements – from the Turkish March to Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to the fragmentary backward glances to the prior movements – could be so richly interwoven over its 24 minutes serves as final confirmation of Beethoven’s topmost place among the gods of our musical pantheon. Few have summed up this music better than author and scholar Jan Swafford, who said “The Ninth Symphony, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, is itself Beethoven’s embrace for the millions…” He’s referring to the millions (us) mentioned in Schiller’s text. The May 7, 1824 premiere at Vienna’s Karntnertortheatre surely ranks among the greatest public triumphs of his life. On the concert with the “Choral” Symphony were the Consecration of the House Overture and three sections of the Missa Solemnis. The sold-out house was incredibly enthusiastic and their ovation at the close of the symphony created one of the most poignant moments of the composer’s career. Beethoven, then fully deaf, continued to leaf through his score until one of the soloists got his attention and pointed to the cheering Viennese audience, to whom he politely bowed. It feels tragic now to recall the repeat performance which occurred a little over two weeks later – a poorly attended, financially disastrous affair that would be Beethoven’s last concert.
THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1824, the U.S. saw the creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Simon Bolivar was installed as dictator of Peru, New Holland was renamed Australia, Stonewall Jackson was born and Lord Byron died.
THE CONNECTION – Beethoven 9 has been programmed frequently over the years by Utah Symphony. The most recent performance was in September 2018 under Thierry Fischer.