Simon Rattle conducts “Weltethos” by Jonathan Harvey and Hans Küng
15 Oct 2011
Sir Simon Rattle
Dale Duesing, Rundfunkchor Berlin
Weltethos for speaker, choir, children’s chorus and large orchestra.(première) (80 min.)
Dale Duesing Speaker, Kinderchor des Händel-Gymnasiums Berlin, Jan Olberg Chorus Master, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master and Co-Conductor, Hans Küng Concept and text
Simon Halsey on the premiere of Weltethos by Jonathan Harvey (9 min.)
“There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.” – This basic principle of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng also forms the basis of his libretto to the choral work Weltethos. The piece, set to music by Jonathan Harvey, was performed here for the first time in this concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle.
According to Küng, the political and ecological challenges of the future are to be mastered only with a basic consensus spanning all cultures. Weltethos is the vision of this arrangement, based on the common values of the world religions. These are conveyed in texts about Confucius, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha and Jesus as well as Hindu writings. The result should, according to Küng, be no “religious potpourri”, but a universal message of nonviolence, justice, truthfulness and partnership.
The composer Jonathan Harvey (1939–2012) was, in the words of Simon Rattle, “probably the most spiritual of our British composers”. Moreover, his knowledge of Indian, Chinese and Arabic music made him uniquely suited for this project. Harvey was a good friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Rundfunkchor Berlin ever since the musicians gave the German premiere of Harvey’s Madonna of Winter and Spring under Rattle’s direction in 2006. He was also a guest in the Philharmonie for the premiere of his choral work Messages in March 2008.
A Vision in Music
Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos
“One day in 2006,” recalls Jonathan Harvey, “I got a call from the manager of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Pamela Rosenberg. Would I write a 90-minute whole-evening work for them with choir?... It was an idea of the most famous theologian in the world, she went on. He had approached them with a project which Simon Rattle and the orchestra liked, and had asked them to find a suitable composer.”
The theologian was Hans Küng, who initiated and in 1995 became president of the Global Ethic Foundation (Stiftung Weltethos), which seeks to foster peace between the religions on the basis of common ethical principles and values. “These values”, says Küng, “can be found in all the great religious and philosophical traditions of humankind. They need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” An important example of this is the so-called Golden Rule, which can be found, though worded differently, in every one of the world’s great religions and philosophies. The Jewish sage Hillel wrote (Shabbat 31a): “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. In the words of Confucius (Analects XV.24), “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself”. Küng is not daunted by the reality that humanity remains a long way from exhibiting such behaviour: “Of course these norms are constantly being violated. Ethics is not an actual situation, it is a desired situation. Yet in spite of that, it is by no means a vague theory but rather a very practical matter.”
Harvey was entrusted with setting the visionary libretto for a number of reasons. The British composer has long been known to Berlin audiences. He was ideally suited to an ambitious project of this nature because he has always rejected the l’art pour l’art of music that is mechanistically constructed: “I think music has an important role to play in society because, in my opinion, it is the most spiritual of all the arts.”
In composing Weltethos to Küng’s libretto, Harvey has produced a choral-orchestral work of vast dimensions for mixed chorus, children’s chorus and organ, whose six movements are dedicated to different religious or philosophical teachings: Confucianism as well as the five great world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “Hans Küng’s text”, Harvey has said, “is in the form of a huge Lied with six similar strophes, each one a movement. Within a typical movement, first there is an orchestral prelude. Secondly follows the Speaker’s introduction to the culture and principal figure of the culture, also giving some background to the ethical ideas he expresses. Thirdly there is a shadowy whispered exploration of some of the sounds made by the Speaker’s words, for chorus and orchestra. Fourthly there is a subsidiary choral statement of some text from the culture. Fifthly there is a climactic choral statement of a principal text from the culture. Sixthly comes the Refrain, for children’s choir. As in the other movements, the orchestra is playing too.”
In the “Confucian” first movement (“Humanity”), which begins with a gradual build-up from a soft organ sound and culminates in an expansive foundation of string sonority, Harvey has composed music “with many mirror effects in the structure, to represent the theories of music in ancient China. Heaven was seen as an idealized reflection of earth, and music showed the harmony that could exist between them. This is a philosophical music, not a music of personal passions: it is usually concerned with repeated note figures and rising passages in different, but related, tempi.”
The second movement (“Golden Rule”), dedicated to the Jewish religion, is based on the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai, communing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments, “one of the most profound guides to ethical redemption ever delivered”. The emotional expression here clearly contrasts with the “objective” philosophy of Confucius, and the music – in spite of reminiscences from the first movement – changes correspondingly, for example when the passionate character of traditional Jewish klezmer is heard in extended woodwind glissandi.
The third movement (“Non-Violence”) was inspired by the god Nataraja, the depiction of Shiva performing his cosmic dance, symbolizing the creation, destruction and re-creation of the universe. He tells of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the central writings of Hinduism which, according to Harvey, represents another of the most profound guides to an ethical life. The movement, whose opening fugato is eventually dissolved by Indian glissandi, is not laid out monodically like traditional Indian music, although it strongly imitates the typical narrow oscillation around a melodic line by means of the most diverse shakes, trills and slides. But there are also passages of “extreme gentleness and inwardness” to represent Hinduism’s characteristic aspect of meditation and mantra.
The fourth movement (“Justice”) is also marked by the inflections of “Eastern” music. This is the first part to feature longer a cappella sections: excerpts from the Qur’an are sung in harmonies of sacred character, the texture at times being expanded to as many as 14 different parts. “The dangers of a Westerner meddling in cultures he does not deeply understand”, Harvey remarks, “become especially strong when setting the Qur’an...The Qur’an is inseparable from its recitation… the inspiration of the moment expressed by highly trained and devout people, following certain guidelines. But as I am setting it in German translation, these restrictions do not really apply, and I set the words for homophonic a cappella choir, very soft and slow, with no ‘musical devices’.”
The fifth movement (“Truth”) is dedicated to Buddhism, the path to salvation in which the individual seeks selflessness through casting off self-involvement, a religion preoccupied with compassion. Musically it is marked by greater activity, featuring chains of trills and percussive sounds on the string instruments that make reference to the “Confucian” first movement. “Later on”, the composer says, “this moves to a music which is boisterous in its joy, and fast. Buddhist liberation from suffering can be extremely exuberant.”
“The final movement, Christianity,” Harvey continues, “passes from a lyrical warm music which appears spasmodically in front of a cosmic continuum curtain of very slowly changing (‘eternal’) held high notes, like a night sky – to a sort of Bachian chorale prelude (fast music in the orchestra and the slow, strong lines of faith in chorus and children’s choir).” Following quotations from First Corinthians and the urgent affirmation “We children have a future if we always remain human – humans with mind and heart!”, passages are revisited from the second and third movements. Finally, in the nature of a coda, the music assumes a gently pulsating character. “All this”, says Harvey, “is pinned from underneath by a low pedal note. This unifying pedal note holds the music in calm stasis while texts and music from earlier movements float by in a final synthesis of universal Weltethos.”
Translation: Richard Evidon
Dale Duesing is from the U.S., where he initially studied piano in Milwaukee, before changing to singing at Lawrence University (Wisconsin). He is one of the leading baritone singers and has celebrated numerous successes in major opera houses (including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, La Scala in Milan, the state opera houses in Vienna, Munich and Berlin) and as a guest of leading orchestras all over world, such as those in New York, Chicago and Boston as well as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London. He has also regularly appeared at the festivals in Salzburg and Glyndebourne. A winner of numerous prizes, he has worked together with conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Bernard Haitink, Herbert von Karajan and Seiji Ozawa. His impressive repertoire ranges from Monteverdi (The Coronation of Poppea) to Trojahn (Was ihr wollt) and Widmann (Das Gesicht im Spiegel). Following his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in mid-June 2006 when he sang Alberich in a concert performance of Richard Wagner’s Rheingold conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, his most recent appearance, also conducted by Sir Simon, was in concerts at the end of 2006 when he sang the role of Faninal in the finale of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.
Simon Halsey, principal conductor of the Rundfunkchor Berlin since April 2001, enjoys an excellent reputation as a director of professional and amateur choral ensembles. Born in London in 1958, he attended traditional English choir schools (New College, Oxford; King’s College, Cambridge) and after studying conducting at the Royal College of Music (London) and an assistant conductorship at Scottish Opera (Glasgow), he became music director of the University of Warwick when he was 22. Simon Halsey first achieved international recognition when he started working together with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, which he has led since 1982 and is now one of the most prestigious British amateur vocal ensembles. On the initiative of Simon Rattle, Simon Halsey founded European Voices, a young professional choir, which has also already performed in several concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Between 1989 and 1994 he was artistic director of the Salisbury International Arts Festival and choirmaster of the Vlaamse Opera Antwerpen, and from 2002 to 2008, principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chorus in Hilversum. Since 2009 he has been a guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota. The University of Central England in Birmingham awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his services to the musical life of the city in June 2000, and for his outstanding contribution to choral music in Germany, he was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz in 2010.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2011 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle in works by Tallis and Lotti and Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.