Requiem for An Angel Program Notes

Sinfonia da Requiem, Opus 20

Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on November 22, 1913, and died in Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976. He composed the Sinfonia da Requiem while living in the United States in 1940. The first performance took place in Carnegie Hall with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic on March 30, 1941. The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, saxophone in E-flat, six horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, two harps, xylophone, snare drum, tambourine, whip, piano, and strings. Duration is about 20 minutes.

The Sinfonia da Requiem is the most significant early orchestral work by the twenty-seven-year-old Benjamin Britten. Moreover its performances under Serge Koussevitzky’s baton in Symphony Hall in January 1942 had far-reaching consequences for the young composer. After performing this vivid and gripping work, Koussevitzky asked Britten why a composer with such a clear theatrical flair had not written an opera. Britten had, in fact, recently come across a poem that strongly appealed to him as the potential basis for an opera, but–ever practical–he asked, “Who would perform it?” Koussevitzky replied, “You write. I perform.” This conversation was eventually formalized into a commission for an opera which became Peter Grimes, generally recognized as the beginning of a rich modern tradition of British opera and, of course, one of the most important turning-points in the life of its composer, because Britten went on to become the most prolific and widely-performed composer of opera in English in our century.

The composer’s ability to conceive bold theatrical strokes and to project them musically, one of the great strengths of Peter Grimes, is already apparent in the Sinfonia da Requiem. Even though it lacks a text or a specific dramatic impetus, the work cannot help but evoke the time in which it was written and the composer’s personal situation at that time. The layout in multiple movements and the seriousness of its construction might have suggested the simple term “symphony” for the work. The less generic and more specific title Sinfonia da Requiem, which might be translated “symphony after the manner of a requiem,” turns the listener’s thoughts to ultimate issues. The composer said at the time of the premiere that mood and scheme derived “from the Catholic Requiem Mass, though the relation of the Sinfonia to the Catholic ceremony, avowedly, is emotional rather than liturgical.”

The first impulse in writing a large and serious score—and no doubt the one that suggested the word “requiem” for its title—had been the death of the composer’s mother early in 1937 (his father had died several years earlier). But the political situation worldwide no doubt played a part as well. The situation intensified with the Munich crisis of September 1938 and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in the hope of finding “peace in our time.” By the following spring Hitler had annexed Czechoslovakia, and on September 1, with the surprise Nazi attack on Poland, a new world war began in earnest. Early in 1939 two of Britten’s close friends, poet W.H. Auden and writer Christopher Isherwood, had emigrated to the United States. He was tempted to follow, largely out of his determined pacifism (and the hope that the United States would remain out of a European war), and partly because of his realization that his music was better appreciated abroad than at home. The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge had been a sensational success at a contemporary music festival in Salzburg, but the leading English critics condescended to call it merely “clever,” full of “strikingly original effects” but “lacking in originality.”

In May 1939, Britten and his lifelong companion and musical partner Peter Pears left England for Canada and later New York. After hearing the first New York performance of the Bridge Variations in a New York Philharmonic concert, they were invited for a weekend visit to the Long Island home of a psychiatrist, Dr. William Mayer, and his wife Elizabeth, a firm devotee of the arts who became a kind of second mother to the young composer. The Mayers’ home became both regular residence and refuge, as well as a sick ward, because Britten was often seriously ill during this time, and Elizabeth nursed him devotedly back to health, during his entire three-year stay in the country.

The actual starting point of his Sinfonia da Requiem came when the British Council asked him if he would write a substantial piece for some celebration dealing with “the reigning dynasty of a foreign power”–not identified at first. Britten agreed, with the stipulation that “no form of musical jingoism” was necessary. The foreign power turned out to be Japan, then planning a celebration for the 2600th anniversary of the emperor’s dynasty. Britten submitted the outline of the three-movement symphony with its movement headings (Lacrymosa, Dies irae, and Requiem aeternam) for approval from the Japanese. Having received that, he composed the work and sent the score to Tokyo. Only then did the planners of the celebration decide–in an outraged protest–that the Christian theme of the work was an insult to the Emperor.

Once the Japanese had refused the work, Britten was at liberty to offer it anywhere else, and both the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony performed it within a period of nine months. Once Britten began to make a name for himself as an opera composer, much of his earlier instrumental music was rather cast into a shadow for a time, with relatively few performances. But in recent years the Sinfonia da Requiem in particular has emerged as one of the composer’s most powerful and affecting scores. It was, after all, composed in the middle of a war that was gradually to become truly another world war (the United States entered the conflict during the period between the New York and Boston performances).

The Sinfonia da Requiem is one of those pieces that feels big, even though it is remarkably taut and compact, the three movements together lasting only about twenty minutes. The opening movement, entitled Lacrymosa (“full of tears”) is filled almost single-mindedly with the mood of lamentation at the dominance of Death (the thundering blows on the pitch D became symbolic for Britten of Death’s power–it is a musical reference that he employed in several scores of this period). The movement builds, in a long arch constructed almost entirely from the syncopated sighing figures heard at the outset against a dark marching pulse in the bass. Over a tonic D, we can expect to hear either the major key’s F-sharp or the minor key’s F-natural, which could be symbolic of peace and war respectively. The struggle between these two realms is played out in a first movement of great harmonic tension.

Dies irae (“day of wrath”) describes the Last Judgment in a Requiem Mass; here it symbolizes the full outbreak of war, described by the composer in his first program note as “a form of Dance of Death, with occasional moments of quiet marching rhythm.” It is a frenzied movement, filled with arresting orchestral color, given an impression of disjointed fragments, though these are in fact arranged in what is essentially a da capo form. Britten’s emphasis on the tritone sonority as a baleful sound symbolizing war foreshadows its similar use two decades later in the War Requiem. When the scherzo returns after the saxophone’s eerily lyrical treatment of the Lacrymosa theme, the entire movement disintegrates into fragments and nothingness.

Out of the collapse—and, indeed, running directly on from it—comes the ultimate consolation of the final movement, headed Requiem aeternam (“eternal rest”). With a turn toward D major and spacious open sonorities, Britten gives the flutes a gentle song that has grown out of a passage heard in a quite different way in the second movement; the strings have their part to play in the middle of the movement, and the ending becomes more luminous as it progresses. The symphony closes in peace–though surely, in 1940, it was peace hoped-for, not peace achieved.

It is easy to hear hints of the composers Britten especially admired—Mahler, Berg, Stravinsky—at different points in this score. But it has become increasingly clear, as our familiarity with Britten’s work as a whole increases, that the Sinfonia da Requiem is one of the major expressive high points of his career.

Violin Concerto

Albano Maria Joannes Berg was born in Vienna on February 9, 1885, and died there on December 23, 1935. He began work on the concerto in April 1935, had completed a short score by July, and the full score on August 11. Louis Krasner, the American violinist who commissioned the score, had private run-throughs with piano in New York and Vienna, then gave the firs t performance on April 19, 1936, as the opening item on the festival of the International Society for Conteporary Music, which took place in Barcelona that year. Hermann Scherchen conducted. The score is dedicated to Louis Krasner and also “To the Memory of an Angel.” In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling alto saxophone) and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, one tenor and one bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, low tam-tam, high gong, triangle, and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.

In February 1935, when the American violinist Louis Krasner approached Berg with a request for a violin concerto, the fifty-year old composer temporized, largely because he was concerned about completing his opera Lulu. He told Krasner that he was not the sort of composer to follow in the footsteps of such writers of virtuosic showpieces as Wieniawsky and Vieuxtemps. Krasner had the good sense to point out that Mozart and Beethoven had also written violin concertos, and he could be following in their footsteps.

Much as he wanted to devote himself to Lulu, Berg was in financial straits. He had been quite well off for a number of years after the success of Wozzeck had provided him with a stream of royalties. But the takeover of German politics by the National Socialists (which had driven his teacher Schoenberg out of Berlin) and their ensuing action labeling Wozzeck as “degenerate” and banning it from performances in Germany had ended that particular stream of income, and there was little else to be had. Not only was Germany off-limits to his music now, even his native Austria was moving dramatically to the right, echoing the political changes in Germany.

Then, in April, an event occurred that moved Berg to accept Krasner’s $1500 offer. Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler (the composer’s widow) and the architect Walter Gropius, suddenly died at eighteen. She had been a beautiful, lively talented girl who was just about to be part of the cast of a Salzburg production of Everyman when she took ill. She was to play the role of an angel.

Suddenly Berg accepted the commission. That June, Krasner visited the composer, who wanted to hear him play the violin in order to get a sense of the kind of musician he was. I was fortunate enough to know Krasner in the last decade or so of his long life, and he described that day to me. He offered to play any of the concertos that were in his tour repertory at the time. “The Beethoven?” he suggested. Berg hastily shot back, “Nur keine Konzerte! Nur spielen!” (“No concertos at all—just play.”)  So Krasner simply, as he put it, “noodled” on the violin for an extended period, while Berg listened. I would love to think that he began—as violinists commonly do—by checking the tuning of his instrument, running the bow over each of the strings, from lowest to highest, then back again. It would be delightful to imagine this scenario, because in fact, that is exactly how the violin part of Berg’s concerto begins!

In any case, Berg set to work. Generally he was a composer who worked slowly and painstakingly. But in this case he seemed like a man possessed, as if he somehow knew his time was short. That was, in fact, the case, but he can hardly have known in June or July that a wasp would sting him on August 11 (he had developed an allergy from another sting in 1909) and that he would develop a septicemia that carried him off two days before Christmas.

Whatever was in his mind as he composed, it clearly involved the ultra-romantic complications that he managed to create for himself in his real life, and he composed out in the music elements that symbolized his own life and loves. He wrote the concerto with a gold pen that was ostensibly a gift from the author Franz Werfel, but in fact it was from Werfel’s sister, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, with whom Berg had fallen madly in love in 1925—a passionate relationship on both sides that lasted until the end of his life, though (according to Hanna’s daughter) it was never consummated. Another, earlier love affair is also recalled during the course of the work—Berg’s youthful relationship with a chambermaid in his family’s home in Carinthia, Marie Scheuchl, which had resulted in the birth of a daughter.

In any case, Berg finished the concerto at white heat, and the result is, in the minds of many listeners, the most intense and moving composition ever written by a composer who wrote in the twelve-tone style.

Berg laid out the work in two movements, each of which is subdivided into two parts of contrasting moods.  The first starts rather slowly, then gets faster. The second half moves in the opposite direction, beginning rather quickly, but ending in a very slow second part. As with many of his other works, Berg lays out phrases and sections in groups of bars according to a number theory—a kind of symbolic mysticism—that he followed consistently. He had read a book by one Wilhelm Fleiss that maintained that the natural rhythms of a man’s life—supposedly discovered in nature—related to the number 23, while the feminine number was 28 (presumably linked to days in the menstrual cycle). Somehow (we don’t know how they arrived at it) he and Hanna considered 10 to be “their” number. These numbers are worked out all through the concerto—though that is a fact of greater interest to musical analysts than to concert listeners.

The solo violin begins by running quietly up over the four open strings of the instrument, then down again, in an introduction that Berg identifies as “10 measures”—in other words, a private message to Hanna. After the introduction is over, the soloist plays out the entire 12-note row that forms the basis of the piece. Berg made a point of building it up with four overlapping triads (G minor, D major, A minor, E major) making up the first nine notes. Then, beginning with the ninth, he presents four notes moving up in whole steps: B, C-sharp, E-flat, F. The significance of these four notes will appear later in the piece.

This very carefully shaped tone row provides the raw material for the movement, and it indicates from the beginning that traditional harmonies may be admitted to this very new theoretical world. He thought of this beginning as a kind of prelude. When it moves into the Allegretto, it does so with characteristically “Viennese” sonorities (thirds in the violin, for example, or the suggestion of a yodel).  In the middle of this music there appears a folk-like tune in 3/8 time that Berg identified in the score as a “Carinthian folk melody,” evidently a reference to the daughter that he did not officially acknowledge.

Up until now, the work has been surprisingly sweet in character (at least for those with little experience of atonal music, who expect the worst). The second movement begins with a much more violent explosion of dissonance, a stormy, rhythmically driven passage that only gradually quiets down for the last phase of the concerto.

I mentioned earlier the last four notes of the tone-row, which comprise four steps of a whole-tone scale. This is rarely found in tonal music, but it does occur in one very significant place—as the opening of the melody of a chorale tune that Bach had harmonized in his Cantata 60 two-hundred years earlier, with a 17th-century text that represents a farewell to life:

Es ist genug!
Herr, wenn es dir gefällt,
So spanne mich doch aus!
Mein Jesus kommt:
Nun gute Nacht, o Welt!
Ich fahr’ ins Himmelshaus,
Ich fahre sicher hin mit Frieden,
Mein grosser Jammer bleibt darnieden.
Es ist genug! Es ist genug!

It is enough!
Lord, if it please you,
then unyoke me at last.
My Jesus comes;
Now good night, O world!
I travel hence to my heavenly home,
I travel surely, and in peace,
My great torment stays here below.
It is enough! It is enough!

Berg knew that he wanted to quote the chorale melody here, and he cleverly made the last four notes of the row correspond to the opening of the tune. He quotes Bach’s own harmonization, too, though quietly adds his own comments. As is so often the case in his music, he intertwines the ongoing musical idea with private symbols, including his own “signature” (made up of the letters of his name that are also the names of musical pitches), and repeating ten (!) times the term “amoroso” in the score—surely another reference to Hanna.

The more we have learned about Berg and his passion for puzzles and hidden messages in recent years, the more it is possible to “decode” passages from the Violin Concerto. But in listening to a performance, that completely misses the point. Even before anything was known beyond the dedication to Manon Gropius, audiences who heard the work were gripped by the expressive power of the music, as they still are today.

Symphony No. 1 in A‑flat major, Opus 55

Edward Elgar was born at Broadheath, near Worcester, England, on June 2, 1857, and died in Worcester on February 23, 1934. The motto theme of the symphony came to Elgar in June of 1907, but it was not until December of that year, while staying in Rome, that he actually sketched the first movement; working hard in England the following summer, he finished the score on September 25, 1908. The symphony’s dedicatee, Hans Richter, conducted the first performance at a Halle concert in Manchester on December 3 of that year. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, side drum, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 50 minutes.

Elgar was in almost every respect an outsider: self‑taught in a day when only strict academic training at Oxford or Cambridge was considered essential; Roman Catholic in a country officially Protestant. But most galling was the fact that he was the son of a shopkeeper in a class‑ridden society that looked down on people “in trade.” And yet, ironically, it is the very things that made him feel ever the outsider that also allowed him to develop his musical talents as a composer of marked originality.

Elgar spent his formative years in Worcester, where he lived with his family over the Elgar Brothers music shop, where he spent as much time as possible absorbing the scores in stock. With all that music at hand, he was able to pursue his musical enthusiasms without having his talents dampened by the incredible stodginess of the academic instruction at the official schools. This blessing in disguise forced him to follow his own, original course.

The most unlikely experience proved to be the most valuable. For five years, to 1884, he conducted an “orchestra” made up of staff members of the County Lunatic Asylum in nearby Powick. For this ensemble he composed original music and rescored the classics to include whatever instruments were available from week to week. Thus he gained a first‑hand knowledge of instrumental technique and orchestration such as few composers have ever had. His unsurpassed ability to balance the sonorities and to ring the most delicate and subtle changes of color on his scores aroused universal admiration and respect.

But Elgar remained a purely local celebrity until he was forty. The work that brought him sudden and lasting national prominence was Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), performed in 1899 under Hans Richter. From that point, despite the momentary (though severe) setback of the failure of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius at its premiere, Elgar was at last widely recognized as the long‑awaited great and original English composer. Even after Gerontius was recognized as a masterpiece, he held back from the task of writing a symphony; yet he had been considering one for several years.

In 1898 he had proposed a commemorative symphony, a kind of English Eroica, on the subject of General Gordon, who had died in the massacre at Khartoum (in north Africa) in 1885. By 1899 he was “making a shot at it,” but sketches either came to nothing or were, in the end, used for his Second Symphony. The first real hint of the A‑flat symphony comes from the summer of 1907, when Elgar’s wife noted in her diary for June 27 that Elgar had played her a “great, beautiful tune.” This was the motto theme of the symphony, the stately march that opens the proceedings and recurs in various guises throughout. The first movement was largely composed during the Elgars’ visit to Rome from December l907 to May 1908.

Elgar completed the score on September 25, dedicating it to Hans Richter, whom he called (on the title page) “true artist and true friend.” The premiere on December 3, under Richter’s direction, was one of the great triumphs of the composer’s life. To Walford Davies, who wrote an analysis for the premiere, Elgar confided this view: “There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.”

He sent an arrangement of the score to his old friend August Jaeger, who responded with a letter calling the slow movement “not only one of the very greatest slow movements since Beethoven, but I consider it worthy of that master. How original, how pure, noble, etc….It’s the greatest thing you have done.” After attending the London performance, the mortally ailing Jaeger wrote to a friend with a description of the enthusiasm the new work engendered:

How I wish you had been there. I never in all my experience saw the like. The Hall was packed….The atmosphere was electric…. I never heard such frantic applause after any novelty nor such shouting. Five times [Elgar] had to appear before they were pacified. People stood up and even on their seats to get a view…

Even before the advent of broadcasting to help spread the fame of a new work rapidly, the Elgar First achieved an extraordinary record almost at once. The hundredth performance of the work took place only a little more than a year after the premiere, and by then it had been heard in Austria, Germany, Russian, Australia, and the United States, and seventeen times (!) in London. When he began the first rehearsal with the orchestra for the first London performance, Richter had said, “Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, and not only in this country!

The first movement begins, after two introductory drumrolls, with a solemn march of noble simplicity, accompanied by a staccato stalking bass line. The march theme recurs many times, at least in part, during the symphony, and suggestions of the march (especially the first three notes, mi re do, or hints of the stalking bass line) occur even more frequently. Nothing could be more clearly or solidly in A‑flat, the home key of the symphony, but this is in fact a misleading impression, because Elgar is preparing a tense and powerful contrast with the first Allegro, which is in D minor‑‑the farthest key possible from the tonic! Elgar has thus turned normal symphonic practice inside‑out. Instead of presenting the slower introduction as a means of gradually clarifying the tonality from doubt to certainty ( marked by the arrival of the main Allegro theme), he begins in calm confidence which is drastically eroded once the movement gets underway. The remainder is a continuing struggle between many diverse musical ideas and tonalities in a discourse made still more complex by the composer’s tendency to elaborate his material at each restatement. The exposition functions for all the world as if the movement were in D minor (with its secondary theme in F major), as if the opening motto had never been heard. And yet we cannot forget its warm nobility. A brief reference to the motto in muted horns leads into the extended development, which deals with the most energetic thematic ideas. The recapitulation begins with the Allegro theme again in D minor, but the ensuing material comes round to A‑flat, once again posing explicitly the question of these two very distant keys. The motto sneaks in (by way of the rear stands of strings) to introduce the coda, which builds to a powerful climax, but then dies away in a final magical phrase that encompasses both D minor and A‑flat major before closing on the latter.

The second and third movements are played without pause, a sustained F‑sharp in the strings serving as a link between them. Yet they are so different in character few people (or even performers) realize that the principal theme in each movement consists of precisely the same notes! The bustling perpetuo moto of the scherzo turns into a theme of lavish lyricism by being played in longer note values and reharmonized in D major instead of F‑sharp minor. The pitches are absolutely identical, yet no two themes could sound more sharply differentiated! The Scherzo of the second movement is a shade demonic, with brassy marches intruding into the rushing strings, though there is an episode of lighter, more lyrical character featuring flutes and solo violin. After the last return of the fast string passage, the main theme begins to go through a transformation, gradually slowing down to end on the long‑held F‑sharp.

This, in turn, leads to one of the most magically expressive slow movements in all of music, with melodic flourishes blossoming out on all sides. The delicacy of the scoring is unsurpassed even in Elgar. At the very end we hear something that just might be a delicate hint of the motto theme (at least it starts mi re, but the expected do appears an octave higher, giving the melody an entirely different physiognomy). Jaeger, in his appreciative letter to Elgar, noted that at this passage, “We are brought near Heaven.” This new, heavenly, theme is the last thing we hear at the end of the movement.

The finale returns to the fundamental argument between the battling tonalities of the first movement. Tense, hushed tremolos introduce a somber funeral march theme in D minor. The back stands of violins and violas vainly attempt to introduce the motto theme in the same key, but in spite of several efforts, it is temporarily routed by a vigorous new Allegro. The funeral march theme recurs, now fortissimo in the full orchestra, and it undergoes an even more surprising change when the persistent last stands of strings try to bring back the motto theme in a minor key. Now the funeral march presents itself in a sustained legato that reveals an unexpected affinity with the motto. Following a recapitulation of the Allegro material, the somber character of the march is reiterated and Elgar brings back echoes of earlier themes in a coda that culminates in the most grandiose possible affirmation in a statement of the motto once again firmly established in the home key.

For a time Elgar’s symphony was played almost to excess, but then, especially in the years following World War II, it fell from the repertory, especially outside of England. The ripe plumpness of his orchestral sound, his obvious connections with the “pomp and circumstance” of Edwardian England, with the last glories of the Empire before the horrors of the Great War, have often caused listeners or performers to feel that he was passé, that we could never return to the simple unthinking patriotic fervor that many people found in his work once the character of the twentieth century became apparent. Gradually, though, Elgar’s music is becoming recognized again not only as the superbly sonorous creation of a bygone day but also as the intensely personal outpouring of a man whose character and psychology had little in common with the unthinking “glories” that so soon turned to brutalities. The emotional spectrum of Elgar’s music encompasses doubt as well as confidence, anger as well as joy, humor as well as sobriety. Just as Mahler’s music has come into its own in recent years, we have begun to find a new Elgar, a composer whose preoccupations are strikingly akin to our own. And in doing so, we can perhaps find consolation in the powerful final pages of this symphony, which affirm those values that the composer summed up as “a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.”

© Steven Ledbetter (