Mozart’s final moments are reflected through this masterpiece of drama, intensity, and depth — a work that surrounds itself with mystery and was completed by Mozart’s colleague Süssmayr. Handel’s Dixit Dominus, with its baroque effervescence, could not be more different. Mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, whose voice is described as “lustrous and expressive” by the Seattle Times, makes her Society debut. This unique musical pairing of Mozart and Handel touches all emotions, creating an unforgettable close to the season. This concert will be recorded live for commercial release on the CORO label in September 2011.
Early Music America’s 25th Anniversary.
Harry Christophers, conductor
Elizabeth Watts, soprano
Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-soprano
Andrew Kennedy, tenor
Eric Owens, bass-baritone
Rob Nairn, double bass obbligato
Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus
- Mozart: Ave verum corpus, K. 618
- Mozart: Per questa bella mano, K. 612
- Handel: Dixit Dominus
- Mozart: Requiem, K. 626
One hour before the start of each performance in Symphony Hall's Cabot-Cahners Room. Please note: lecture seating is limited.
Post-Concert Party, immediately following the Sunday 5/1 performance of Requiem.
Orchestra & Chorus
Christina Day Martinson
Krista Buckland Reisner
Sonja DuToit Tengblad
Dixit Dominus by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) and Requiem by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756–1791) mark the beginning and end of the eighteenth century. Both are extended works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra; the former marks the beginning of Handel’s illustrious compositional career and the latter was left unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death.
As a young musician, Handel traveled from his native Halle to Hamburg where he gained invaluable experience with opera. His first opera, Almira, premiered there in 1705. While in Hamburg, Handel met Gian Gastone de’ Medici, Prince of Tuscany, who suggested that Handel visit Italy. Although the precise date of his arrival in Italy cannot be determined, Handel was in Rome in January 1707. He was young (in his twenties), understood his abilities and potential as a composer, and was eager to make his mark in this important musical center. He immediately gained the attention of patrons such as Cardinal Carlo Colonna, who may have commissioned Dixit Dominus and settings of two other psalms for Vespers (evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic Church).
The text for Dixit Dominus comes from Psalm 110; it describes God’s strength and faithfulness to his people and has been associated with Simon Maccabee, a story that Handel set as an oratorio in 1746. Handel’s treatment of this psalm, from its large-scale structure to the details of text painting, is a bold, imaginative blend of vocal and instrumental writing. Handel expands the common division of four vocal parts plus four string parts into five vocal parts (two soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) accompanied by five string parts (two violin, two viola, cello, and bass).
The instrumental introduction, reminiscent of Handel’s Italian contemporary Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), pulsates with energy; the lower strings keep a steady pace while the upper strings play a descending line. The chorus declaims “Dixit Dominus” (“The Lord has spoken”) first together and then in imitation. With the next phrase, individual lines are featured like the soloist of a concerto, with the rest of the chorus proclaiming the opening lines like a ritornello. Further on, at the line “I shall make of your enemies a footstool for you,” Handel sets the soprano line in long note values while the lower voices move more quickly in support. This resembles an older compositional technique known as “cantus firmus” in which one line, often borrowed from another work, becomes the foundational material of a movement.
The next two movements feature soloists, alto and soprano, respectively. In Virgam virtutis, for alto and cello, a melisma highlights the word “Domini” (“Lord”) and the intricate melody continues into the next text phrase. A musical conversation occurs in the third movement (Tecum principium) as the soloist and orchestra exchange melodic lines. The next chorus (Juravit Dominus) begins with a declamation, “The Lord has sworn,” which then alternates between sections of imitation and homophony.
Handel returns to a cantus firmus inspired setting of one sustained voice and three faster-moving lines in the fifth movement (Tu es sacredos), while the next chorus begins with voice pairs in imitation and concludes with all the parts joining in a tour de force of choral writing. In De torrente, Handel uses two different techniques to set two different lines of text. For the first line, sung by sopranos, Handel uses imitation and counterpoint; the tenors and basses intone the second line while the strings provide a rich accompaniment to both.
Handel weaves melismas, voice pairings, imitation, and cantus firmus techniques into the final movement, the Doxology. In this monumental summation of the previous movements, Handel refers to music from the first movement.
Handel combined numerous compositional techniques in his setting of Dixit Dominus and with the luxury of hindsight we can hear the foreshadowing of the great choral writing of his later years. Dixit Dominus was a departure for Handel; he had come from Hamburg where his work centered on opera productions and now undertook the task of writing large-scale sacred music with Latin texts. Similarly, Mozart returned to sacred composition while also writing opera; he also used a variety of compositional techniques in his Requiem (1791), for chorus, soloists and orchestra.
A requiem is a musical setting of the texts of the Mass for the Dead. Originally sung in chant, these funeral texts have been set by many composers throughout history. Mozart received his commission for a requiem in the summer of 1791. The person who delivered the offer did not identify himself or the source of the commission. Constanze, Mozart's wife, said that she did not discover the identity of this patron until 1800. The mysterious patron was actually a wealthy nobleman, Franz Count Walsegg (1763–1827), who was in the habit of commissioning works anonymously. When sponsoring a private performance of a musical composition he commissioned, Count Walsegg often copied it out in his own handwriting and removed the composer’s name, becoming the “composer” of the work himself. The specific commission of a requiem was in honor of the count’s wife who had died earlier that year.
Mozart died on December 5, 1791, leaving the work unfinished. In order to satisfy the terms of the commission, Mozart’s widow asked Joseph Eybler to complete the work; he returned it to Constanze incomplete. She then asked Franz Süssmayr (1766–1803) to undertake the task of completing the Requiem. Just ten years younger than Mozart, Süssmayr, who had also studied law and philosophy, moved to Vienna in July 1788 and became a private music teacher. He probably met Mozart in 1790 or 1791 and began studying composition with him. In 1792, Süssmayr was appointed acting Kapellmeister at the National Theater in Vienna and became well known for his operas. Beethoven, and later Nicolo Paganini, used themes by Süssmayr in their variations. Two years later, he was appointed Kapellmeister for German opera at the National Theater.
Mozart had completed the opening movements of the Requiem (through the Kyrie plus eight measures of the Lacrymosa) and sketched vocal and instrumental parts for the rest of the work. Working from Mozart’s sketches, Süssmayr completed the Requiem in February 1792. It was premiered at a benefit concert sponsored by the Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavalerie (Society of Associated Gentlemen) on January 2, 1793. This group of noblemen, led by Gottfried Baron van Swieten, paid for all performance-related expenses and Constanze Mozart received all of the profits from the performance. Count Walsegg held a private performance of the completed Requiem as part of a memorial service for his wife on December 14, 1793; the score was written in his handwriting and named him as the composer. Portions of the Requiem were performed at a memorial liturgy for Mozart on December 10, 1791.
Mozart had studied and arranged Handel oratorios in the late 1780s as part of a commission from the same society that sponsored the premiere of the completed Requiem in 1793. Handel’s influence can be heard in the choral sections of the Requiem, infused with Mozart’s own sense of drama and solemnity. We hear this in the first movement as Mozart layers the sounds of the winds, strings, and voices into a supplication for the deceased. The use of chant in the second section and then the combining of the first two sections in the final part intertwine old and new into a prayer for eternal rest.
The Kyrie is a fugue in which the imitation in the voices can be heard in the melding of the text so that “Kyrie” and “eleison” often sound simultaneously. Mozart’s dramatic choral writing continues in movements such as Dies irae and Rex tremendae. In the latter movement, layers of voices, strings, and winds flow from a homophonic opening; however, at “Salve me” the vocal and orchestral layers are separated to release the tension, musically underscoring this text.
One of the most recognizable movements, Lacrymosa, opens as a lyrical aria for chorus. The Lux aeterna musically unites the prayer for eternal rest (“requiem”) and perpetual light (“lux aeterna”). This final movement was composed by Süssmayr; he brought back the music of the first movement, rounding out the Requiem with a direct reference to the only movement completed by Mozart.
Incorporating chant, using older styles of writing, and suffusing both with his own compositional style, Mozart’s Requiem is stunningly beautiful. The same can be said of Handel’s Dixit Dominus; both are masterpieces of old and new and offer us a picture of sorrow mixed with hope and endings combined with beginnings.
Program notes prepared by Teresa M. Neff, Ph.D.
2010–2011 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.