Program Notes: Paulus Mass

Program Notes: Paulus Mass

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Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave. In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.

Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”

Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.

the first Brandenburg concerto

In both sound and form, the First is the most complex of the Brandenburgs. The violino piccolo, tuned a minor third higher than a normal violin, is the primary solo instrument. One oboe joins it in duet in the Adagio, but in general the wind players together form something like a secondary solo group. In the Adagio, the bass entrance of the melody leads to a famous harmonic collision, the most emphatic example of Bach’s expressive play with the magic of what music theorists used to call “false relations,” here the appearance of A-natural and A-flat in different voices and adjacent beats.

The orchestral possibilities frequently lead Bach into a nine-layered polyphony. Nowhere is his concern with color more explicitly manifest than in the Adagio’s last measures, with their separation on successive beats into bass, oboes and unsupported high strings. Bach’s original version consists of three movements in the normal manner, but in its final form the concerto gets an unexpected extension in the form of a minuet with three contrasting interludes: a true trio for oboes and bassoon; a polonaise for strings only and in a quicker tempo; and then, in a new meter, a virtuosic passage for two horns playing against all the oboes in unison. Thus the work crystallizes in this closing divertissement those fastidiously structured timbral sequences that are its most basic and serious compositional concern.

Instrumentation: violino piccolo, 2 horns, 3 oboes, bassoon, harpsichord and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.


Alberto Ginastera
Born: April 11, 1916, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Died: June 25, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland

Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, Opus 25

Argentina’s best-known composer, whose centenary is being observed this year, was born of an Italian mother and a father of Catalan descent. The latter accounted for Alberto Ginastera’s preference for pronouncing his name with a soft “G,” as in the Catalan language (“Jean-astera”), rather than with the standard hard “G.”

Ginastera was heavily involved with promoting Argentine music and in developing the musical life of his country. His contributions in this area include setting up a league of composers that became the Argentine section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, participation in numerous international festivals of new music, and teaching at several prestigious schools in Buenos Aires, including his own alma mater, the National Conservatory. Ginastera’s ballet scores Panambí (1937) and Estancia (1941) were early successes that remain among his most popular works.

A Guggenheim Fellowship to live and work in the U.S. during 1946-47 solidified Ginastera’s close association with this country; henceforth, many of his major works received their premieres here, including two concertos for piano and one each for violin, harp and cello; the operas Bomarzo and Beatrix Cenci; and the orchestral score Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals.

“a harder task”

The Harp Concerto was commissioned in 1956 by Edna Phillips—who had been principal harpist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1930 to 1946, and the first female member of that orchestra—and her husband Samuel R. Rosenbaum. They expected that the concerto would be ready for performance at the 1958 Inter-American Music Festival in Washington, D.C. Political events and other projects intervened: Ginastera was among those demanding civil liberties from an oppressive Argentine government that responded by withdrawing all his academic positions, and he was preoccupied with Bomarzo, an opera he was working on at the time.

Ginastera didn’t finish the concerto until late 1964, by which time Phillips was no longer performing. The composer has written that “writing for the harp [is] a harder task than writing for piano, violin or clarinet. My creative work was therefore slow and painful, since I wished to produce, as I did with my Piano and Violin Concertos, a virtuoso concerto with all the virtuoso display, for the soloist and for the orchestra, that real concertos must have.” Ginastera called it “the most difficult work I have ever written.”

The honor of the premiere went to a distinguished colleague of Phillips, Nicanor Zabaleta. Eugene Ormandy—the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director from 1931 to 1936—conducted Phillips’ former orchestra on February 18, 1965.

Listeners familiar with Ginastera’s concertos for piano and violin will find once again the composer’s delight in use of imaginative orchestral colors, his fondness for sharp-edged dissonances and predilection for virtuosic writing. The orchestral resources are modest except in the percussion department, which requires nearly 30 different instruments handled by four players, all in addition to timpani. The multifarious ways in which Ginastera uses this assemblage contribute significantly to the fascination of the score and to its highly rhythmic nature. “When it came to sheer technique and resource, to sonorous imagination, to brilliant and irresistible effect, he had few peers,” wrote the distinguished musicologist and author Michael Steinberg for a performance of this concerto by the San Francisco Symphony. “No surprise then,” he continues, “if this concerto is, among other things, a joyous kind of Baedeker to the harp and its possibilities.”

the music allegro

giusto. The first movement is in sonata form, with two well-defined and contrasting subjects, the first presented by the soloist against a busy and highly rhythmic orchestral background in the opening bars, the second a more relaxed affair for the harp alone.

molto moderato. The slow movement opens and closes with a quiet fugato for the strings. In between are two contrasting episodes. In the first, the harp writing is primarily chordal and clearly defined; in the second, the harp indulges in a misty dialogue with celesta and glockenspiel.

cadenza: liberamente capriccioso – vivace. A long cadenza exploits idiomatic harp writing—sweeping glissandos, arpeggios, powerful block chords, whistling effects (sons sifflés), scale figurations and pearly bell-tones. This leads directly into the finale, an exhilarating movement in simple rondo form (ABACA) and infused with energetic dance impulses of Argentine origin. The highly rhythmic nature of this movement is underscored by the percussion section, which at times nearly competes with the harp as a collective soloist and greatly helps carry the concerto to an exhilarating conclusion.

Instrumentation: solo harp with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, field drum, tenor drum, bass drum, antique cymbals, suspended cymbal, bongos, claves, high and low cowbells, guiro, maracas, slapstick, tambourine, tamtam, tom-toms, small triangle, wood block, xylophone, glockenspiel, celeste and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.


Stephen Paulus
Born: August 24, 1949, Summit, New Jersey
Died: October 19, 2014, Arden Hills,

Minnesota Mass for a Sacred Place

A bright, lyrical inventor whose music pulsates with a driving, kinetic energy,” says The New Yorker. “Exceptionally imaginative in textures and use of instruments....[a] lush and extravagant” musical style, the verdict of The New York Times. “To listen to his music is to know Stephen Paulus as a friend,” says the dean of Minnesota composers, Dominick Argento.

These and many other tributes attest to the enduring attraction audiences have to the music of Stephen Paulus. The shock of his death two years ago from complications following a stroke is still keenly felt by the American musical community, especially that of Minnesota, where Paulus lived for most of his life.

a singular partnership

It is difficult to think of any contemporary composer who has been better served by a single orchestra than Stephen Paulus has been by the Minnesota Orchestra. Between 1983, when Sir Neville Marriner conducted his Concerto for Orchestra, and this week, when we hear Mass for a Sacred Place at Orchestra Hall for the first time, the Minnesota Orchestra has performed no fewer than 13 different compositions by Paulus in fifteen different seasons. Several works have been played during more than one season. Marriner, at the time music director of the Orchestra, believed so strongly in the then-young composer that he programmed Paulus’ music in four consecutive seasons. Osmo Vänskä is an equally firm believer in Paulus’ music, and has led five of his compositions.

Paulus received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1978. Five years later, he became the Minnesota Orchestra’s first composer in residence (a position he shared with Libby Larsen), serving in that capacity for four years. Later he held this post with the orchestras of Tucson, Atlanta and Annapolis. Over the years, Paulus wrote numerous works for the Minnesota Orchestra, including the Concerto for Two Trumpets (2003), Symphony in Three Movements (1986), the Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn (2005) and TimePiece (2011), which was co-composed with his son Greg Paulus. Paulus’ catalogue of more than 600 compositions includes 55 orchestral works, including commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Dallas Symphony, among many other ensembles. His catalogue also boasts over 400 choral compositions and 12 operas. His Concerto for Two Trumpets and Band was a 2015 Grammy nominee for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Pilgrims’ Hymn was sung at the funerals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

“washes of sound”

Mass for a Sacred Place was commissioned by the Cathedral Choral Society of Washington, D.C., in remembrance of the concerts the Society gave during World War II. The first performance was given by the Society at Washington National Cathedral on March 16, 2003, conducted by J. Reilly Lewis. The composer wrote that “Mass for a Sacred Place was carefully written with particular awareness to the reverberant quality of the premiere performance space. Sound and words were organized so that they could often be distinguished, even in this vibrant edifice. I also decided to use the space to advantage by creating blocks of sound that would overlap, amounting to ‘washes of sound’ in some cases.”

Listeners will quickly realize that transparency of texture was foremost in the composer’s mind when composing this Mass for the highly reverberant “sacred place” of Washington National Cathedral. Most of the choral work is in “block writing”—that is, all the voices move together, as in a hymn. There are few overlapping entries, and there are no fugal passages, whose complex textures and continuously overlapping lines would have been inappropriate for the acoustics of this Cathedral. Paulus has set the entire text of the Ordinary, but to keep his Mass to about 25 minutes, he has avoided the text repetition that can spin Mass settings by other composers out to 70, 80 and even 90 minutes.

The orchestral forces are modest, and are for the most part used with restraint, but notable moments abound. In the opening Kyrie, a lovely trumpet solo links the central Christe eleison, whose arrival is heralded by percussion, with the return of the Kyrie eleison. There is no mistaking the entry of the organ, withheld until the Kyrie’s final chord, which swells to fortississimo.

The Gloria and Credo have by far the longest texts of the Mass Ordinary. To cover all this material in coherent fashion, Paulus varies his choral writing frequently: full chorus, women only, men only, and block writing versus dovetailed lines. Variations in tempo, dynamic contrasts and use of various percussion instruments also serve to indicate the arrival of each new sub-section.

Similar procedures inform the Credo, but this movement is distinguished by the fullest textures and the greatest use of the full chorus. Like the Gloria, the Credo ends with a mighty “Amen.”

The Sanctus is scored for voices alone, and includes a solo role for mezzo. This movement includes the most piquant harmony, but it is also the most lyrical and free-flowing of the five movements.

The Agnus Dei opens quietly, in a mood of deep introspection and austere gravity. So it remains for most of it length. The final words, the eternal plea for peace (“Dona nobis pacem”), float gently away to the threshold of audibility, carrying its message into the vast reaches of space.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tamtam, tom-toms, glockenspiel, chimes, organ and strings  

Program note by Robert Markow.

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