Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sacris Solemnis

Not long ago I heard a fascinating rendition of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony on the radio.  If you're not familiar with the original, here's a passable version from Youtube:



Obviously it's an intense piece, and very intricately constructed.  It's in A-Minor (the 7th Symphony as a whole is in A-Major), and it heavily relies upon the tonic to dominant and back movement that starts the piece.  More than the harmony, however, what makes this piece so effective is its rhythm.  The whole 7th Symphony feels like dance,* from the celebratory and springy first movement to the hectic races of the 3rd and 4th movements, dance rhythms are pervasive.  This movement is no different, and while it is certainly sedate and may even come across - especially on first listening - as profoundly sad, if it is a lamentation it's a dancing one.  The repeated rhythmic meme of One-Two-and-Three-Four gives it a measured, dancing feel, a driving force that pushes the movement onward.


* Indeed, Wagner called it "the apotheosis of the dance."

I could go on about the 7th Symphony, but that's not my object.  Rather, I want to introduce the fascinating rendition I heard on the radio.  Give it a listen:



Now some classical music people are not fond of this kind of pirating of a famous piece.  I, however, think that's a bit stuffy and closed-minded.  Beethoven would maybe be offended by a re-rendition of his work, but, then again, he also re-rendered some of Mozart's themes in his own variations.  If nothing else, Beethoven would appreciate the choice of lyrics Libera leader Robert Prizeman elected to set against Beethoven's work.

You see, the 2nd Movement of the 7th Symphony is easy to understand as a dour, overwhelmingly depressing display of emotion.  I don't believe, however, that such was Beethoven's intent.  Indeed, this movement strikes me as just as joyful as the remainder of the symphony.  If anything, the difference is that this movement is more reverential - or at least reverential in a different way.  Where the other movements are like whirling dervishes, showing their devotion to life, love, and happiness by swinging about wildly, this movement is a wiser, quieter, more intense and personal display.

What perhaps the Libera version loses most is the build-up.  Beethoven's version starts with just chords, and piece by piece introduces further harmonies and a wonderful contrapuntal (and highly chromatic) melody.  He then moves that melody up through the instruments until it reaches the violins, singing above the rest of the orchestra's pounding harmonic and rhythmic core.  Libera can't and doesn't try to recreate that effect, choosing rather to focus on the simple interplay of melody and harmony that a novice might lose sight of in Beethoven's work.

Adding in a percussion part and an original "bridge" in the middle of the piece only further brings out the power of Beethoven's harmonies and rhythms.  The added bits feel, to me anyway, very natural, especially because they are so-well situated in the piece.  They help the listener forget that the Beethoven original contains more themes and development that would be unwieldy - if not downright ugly - performed by voice.  Those orchestral developments become unnecessary against the dynamic crescendo employed by Prizeman in his rendition.

But the lyrics.  This is what fascinates me most.  Prizeman chooses a hymn - Sacris Solemnis - as his text.  Now, Beethoven is ironically famous for introducing lyrics to orchestral music in his 9th Symphony, but the recognition of Beethoven as an innovator for the voice comes despite his disinterest in writing for the voice throughout his life as a composer.  In a time when opera was still very much the rage, Beethoven composed one, better-known for its preludes and overtures than its arias.  It seems to me that Beethoven was concerned, generally, with matters to weighty for lyrics.  Or, rather, his work was always singing in a language more expressive than German or Latin or Italian already, so why spoil it with words?  In some sense, his 9th Symphony seems to me to be an effort to teach we listeners his language of joy, present throughout his musical oeuvre.

So what lyrics did Prizeman select for his setting of the 7th Symphony?  The Latin goes like this:*

Sacris solemnis, Juncta sint gaudia
Corda, et voces, et opera.
Recedant vitera, nova sint omnia.
Sacris solemnis, gaudia.
Te trina Deitas unique Poscimus:
Sacris solemnis, gaudia.

* The bridge is: "Lucem, lucem ad inhabitas," which translates as "The light wherein You dwell."

I'm no Latin scholar, so I have to rely on the translations of others and a little bit of guesswork, but roughly this means something like:

At this our solemn feast, let holy joys abound
In every heart, and voice, and act.
Let ancient rites depart,* and all be new around.
At this our solemn feast, let there be joy.
We implore Thee, God, the Trinity:
At this our solemn feast, let there be joy.

* Reminds me of the opening lyrics of the 9th: "Oh fruende, nicht diese tone."

Even if the translation isn't perfect, could there be a better set of lyrics?  They capture the solemnity and reverence of the piece, but also understand that the occasion is fundamentally a joyful one.

I think, with Beethoven in particular, but also with Chopin and Wagner and a great many other composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, it's easy to get lost in the emotional force of the music.  The Romantic era, in particular, earns its name for its desirous, pining melodies and its adventures far from the tonic, through streams of dominants, making us positively lust after some resolution.  But, even though we might call such music childish - or, worse, adolescent - it is not.  I believe it cheapens those musicians to call their music "angry" or "sad" when, in reality, the story is much more complicated than that, the emotional investment much more nuanced.

Beethoven's music is joyful, not because he was always joyful, but because the act of writing music was, to him, a divine one, and one which brought him joy.  Even his most tempestuous works have a streak of the kind of melancholic joy that comes with understanding one's sadness and frustration to be only a part - and a vital one - of the emotional canvass of a joyful life.  I would argue that Chopin's "sad" music, for example, may come from the heart of a depressed invalid, but that depressed invalid was truly joyful in his heart when he composed music.

The 7th Symphony - and in particular the 2nd movement - is more, however, than just melancholy written with joy, but expressing melancholy.  No, it's exactly how Prizeman describes, a solemn plea and prayer for joy.  That may seem paradoxical, but I don't think it has to be.  I think joy and solemnity often exist side-by-side, and, what's more, that joy is sometimes its most poignant in a minor key.   Listen again and see if you can hear it.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree, It's brilliant the way Beethoven presented it but it is also brilliant the way Robert Prizeman and Libera perform it! The two don't have to be mutually exclusive! I confes to being a great fan of Libera, it is possibly not choral music for purists, by why does it have to be? It IS however great fun and is sung and played with so much enthusiasm (and professionalism) by the boys of Libera. It is also a ''big'' presentation, and I am sorry again if this offends the purist, but it needs to be played REALLY LOUD!

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