A Verdi evening with Christian Thielemann
08 Dec 2012
Quattro pezzi sacri (43 min.)
Sibylla Rubens Soprano, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Michael Gläser Chorus Master
Ballet music from Macbeth, Don Carlo and Otello (41 min.)
Christian Thielemann in conversation with Eva-Maria Tomasi (17 min.)
“You fortunate people who are still the sons of Bach,” wrote Giuseppe Verdi to Hans von Bülow on 14 April 1892. “And we? We too, the sons of Palestrina, used to have a grand tradition... our own!” The Quattro pezzi sacri are testimony to Verdi’s intense engagement with the polyphony of the old Italian masters, on the basis of which he ultimately found a very “modern” musical language.
The four compositions, originally written independently of each other, were assembled as a cycle by Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s loyal collaborator on Otello and Falstaff: an Ave Maria for mixed choir, and the Laudi alla Vergine for unaccompanied four-part female choir. In the other two “pezzi”, the choir is accompanied by a full orchestra, while in the Te Deum, with its massive blocks of sound, a double choir and a short, ethereal soprano solo are also required. In all four works, the composer succeeded in refining the reflection of the meaning of the text in the harmonies to new levels – an aspect Christian Thielemann very much pays attention to.
In sharp contrast to the sacred choral works that consciously diverge from the musical conventions of their time, works by Verdi the opera composer are also included in the programme: among others, the spirited ballet music “Ballo della Regina” from the opera Don Carlos, premiered in Paris in 1867, which Verdi had composed as an interlude in the 3rd act in accordance with French practice.
Wisdom, Doubt, Trust
Old Verdi’s Puzzles
The Last Word
We perhaps don’t need to take Giuseppe Verdi at his word when in a letter to his wife Giuseppina he confessed to being an atheist. But a trusted colleague and connoisseur like Arrigo Boito described him as at least an agnostic. Only in his young years did Verdi feel a need for sacred music, writing polyphony in the style of Palestrina as a student exercise. Then not again until the last third of his life, first with the Requiem (1874), which however leaves open the question of whether it corresponds more closely to something liturgical or to something dramatic and secular. He did not conceive the Quattro pezzi sacri as the four-part cycle suggested by the collective heading “Four Sacred Pieces” and perpetuated in concert performances and recordings.
The two shorter pieces, Ave Maria and Laudi alla vergine Maria (1889–90), were created after his penultimate opera Otello (1887). Still later, after the very last opera Falstaff (1893), there followed the Te Deum and Stabat Mater (1895–97): to his two secular legacies, a melodramma tragico and a commedia umana, Verdi now appended two sacred postludes. The grizzled maestro considered that these pieces could safely “be left to sleep”, as his contemporaries wouldn’t understand them anyway. Only after the insistent blandishments of his publisher Giulio Ricordi and his last opera librettist Boito did he finally agree to the publication of all four parts.
In the now customary performing sequence, two short vocal movements are each followed by a longer and more complex movement for chorus and orchestra. An “enigmatic scale” is how Verdi characterized to Boito the cantus firmus that forms a melodic support for the Ave Maria’s structure. Four voices a cappella, soloists and chorus without orchestral accompaniment, are organized in changing harmonizations of a rising scale made up of chromatic, diatonic and augmented intervals: C – D flat – E – F sharp – G sharp – A sharp – B. Descending, the F sharp in the scale is replaced by F. This intellectual puzzle was inspired by a competition appearing in Ricordi’s publication Gazzetta musicale di Milano: Bologna Conservatory professor Adolfo Crescentini challenged readers to harmonize a “scala enigmatica”. Verdi, with self-irony, wanted his experiment – in which he explores distant harmonic regions – to be understood as only a “musical joke”, “not proper music, but a tour de force, even a charade”.
Of the four “sacred pieces”, the other “small” and the two “large” ones are widely contrasting stylistically and in their performing forces. Two massively scored works frame a lyrical prayer for four solo female voices. Verdi sketched its outline in a letter to Boito from January 1898: “A Stabat mater for four-part chorus and large orchestra.” Then the Laudi: “A prayer in Italian after the opening lines of the last canto from Dante’s Paradiso” (Divina Commedia). The Te Deum is conceived “for two choirs and large orchestra”. The word “Italian” in conjunction with the Laudi is underscored, while the allusion to Dante is meant as a reference the polyphonic practice of the 16th-century motet and madrigal composers as Verdi believed he understood them.
At the premiere it was the Laudi that corresponded closest to the tastes of the time, and it had to be encored. The Stabat mater sets a poem formerly ascribed to the late medieval hymn author Jacopone da Todi (and, more recently, identified with his Franciscan brother St. Bonaventura). Human suffering, a lifelong theme for variation by Verdi in his operas, he now transferred to the example of the Mother at her Son’s Cross.
The concluding Te Deum is a reminiscing evocation of paeans of praise from earlier centuries and, at the same time, an avant-garde glimpse of things to come. In a last dramatic test of tensile strength, Verdi overstretches the separation between the ecstatic certainty of salvation and the terror of falling into eternal damnation. In the last bars there emerges, unexpectedly, the voice of an individual. With all of God’s glory, the human is left alone before the orchestra dies away speechless. Verdi asked to take the Te Deum with him to the grave.
Verdi was a man of the theatre. If you count the reworked version of some of his operas, the number of his contributions to the stage repertoire is at least 30 – almost exclusively on tragic and often gruesomely bloody subjects. The celebrated hero of opera since the decades of the Risorgimento (the national unification movement), Verdi held the ambition of also making his name in Paris, the “world musical capital”, but, in that city’s hallowed operatic tradition, inserting a ballet into the third act was considered de rigueur for the “serious” genre.
The director of the Théâtre Lyrique thus made this added ballet a condition when he ordered a French version of Macbeth. For the Paris version of 1865, Verdi incorporated a plausible dance episode into his 1847 original: Hecate, the “Goddess of Night”, appears in the cave with her “weird sisters”, the witches, to prepare them for their visit to the perplexed regicide and usurper Macbeth. Hecate makes her majestically menacing entrance framed by two whirling dances of demonic spirits.
An insertion that summons up the benign spirits of Rossini and Meyerbeer can be found in the third act of the original French version of Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867), composed for the Paris Opéra. This divertissement, called “Ballet de la Reine”, forms the festive climax of a masked ball in the gardens of Elisabeth, Queen of Spain.
When Verdi received the Opéra’s commission to adapt his Otello (1887) to the Parisian conventions, he had reservations about interrupting Shakespeare’s tragedy with a decorative flourish. What could possibly be the point of a ballet on Cyprus, a military outpost of the Venetian Republic in the eastern Mediterranean? But then he came up with a pretext: the arrival on Cyprus of the ambassadors from Venice, which provides an excuse for a revue of Turks, Arabs, Cypriots and Venetians. Reflecting that folk music – authentic or alleged – was becoming increasingly fashionable, he and his publisher Ricordi requested musicologists to send him specimens of “something Turkish, something Greek-Cypriot, something Venetian”.
The results were not satisfactory, so Verdi relied on his own imagination. For the Canzone araba, he borrowed from the “Call of the Muezzin” from Félicien David’s “ode symphonique” Le Désert (1844). All the other dances are of his own invention. He drafted a minutely detailed scenario for the sequence of group and solo numbers, as well as for tempo gradations and dramatic build-ups. He prescribed a performing time of exactly 5 minutes and 59 seconds and concluded his draft with an “Amen”. Verdi’s “French” Otello had its premiere at the Opéra in October 1894. The ballet he composed for it, aged 81, was his last music for the stage.
Karl Dietrich Gräwe
Translation: Richard Evidon
Christian Thielemann is principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since this autumn 2012 and will be artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival from 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic. He has been a regular conductor at the Bayreuth Festival since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger), and was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently with two concert programmes in March 2012.
Sibylla Rubens studied concert and opera singing at the Trossingen University of Music and Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts. She attended master classes in lied interpretation held by Irwin Gage, and completed her education in numerous master classes with, among others, Edith Mathis and Elsa Cavelti. Much in demand as a performer at home in Germany and abroad, Sibylla Rubens has sung with orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, the Munich Philharmonic with Christian Thielemann, in Montreal under Kent Nagano and at Carnegie Hall in New York. Other conductors the soprano has worked with include Iván Fischer , Hartmut Haenchen, Roger Norrington, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Gielen, Marek Janowski, Helmuth Rilling and Riccardo Chailly. As a singer of lieder, she has appeared at the Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele, the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, and in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Cologne. Numerous recordings testify to the diversity of her work. In addition to her concert activities, Sibylla Rubens gives master classes, and has been a board member of the Neue Bachgesellschaft in Leipzig since 2007. With these concerts, she performs together with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.
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 November 2012 in works by Rachmaninov and Stravinsky conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.