A masterwork can be any size: large, small, in between. A masterwork can occur in any craft: music, sculpture, painting, quilt making, woodworking, ballet. A masterwork can appear in any genre: jazz, classical, popular and theatrical music. It is, quite simply, a piece of outstanding work, of consummate skill, no matter its source, size or complexity; a thing to be enjoyed, marveled at, and prized for what it reveals about human creativity.
Master Chorus Eastside has gathered together a sparkling collection of miniature masterworks for our upcoming concert on March 16, small gems of the musical world. We begin with truly petite sparklers, the spare, ethereal, unembellished unison-line prayers of Gregorian chant. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the First, the Great (540?-604), received plainsong, or plainchant, directly from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove that alighted on his head and dictated them by placing its beak directly in his mouth.
In reality, Gregory did not write the chants, but he did standardize worship music for the European church, which had been dominated by regional traditions. Over the centuries these tiny masterworks blossomed into the rich liturgical and choral tradition of the Christian church, and those roots can be traced in the larger Haydn, Mozart and Vivaldi masterpieces featured in our concert.
By the 1790s Haydn was the grand old man of Catholic Austria, world-famous and secure in his position as a renowned composer, and a sense of ease, good cheer, and even playfulness pervades his Te Deum. It praises the Triune God, and Haydn used a tripartite sonata structure and other “threes,” such as the three-times-repeated cries of “Sanctus,” as musical manifestations of the Trinity. He ends with a jubilant fugue that repeats over and over, “In te Domine, speravi” (I trust in you, Lord, let me never be confounded). It is evident from the music that this is more than a request; it is a confident statement of faith.
Mozart, on the other hand, was only twenty-three years old in 1779 when he composed his exuberant Regina coeli K. 267.
Instead of the Trinity it praises the Virgin Mary as the “Queen of Heaven,” but like Haydn’s Te Deum it has a three-part sonata structure, and contains a bit of “three” symbolism: three-times-repeated cries of “alleluia” that sound uncannily like Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus. Whether he actually knew Messiah at that point is debatable, so it may be purely coincidental! By contrast, his serene and much loved Ave verum Corpus is a product of the end of his life, his last completed sacred work. A Eucharistic hymn, it was first sung on June 17, 1791 during the feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), its time-honored liturgical place. Six months later, December 5, just thirty-five years old, he was dead.
This brings us to a gem of the Lutheran Church, Heinrich Schütz’s powerful Ich bin die Auferstehung, and a gem of the secular world, the first movement of Bach’s sparkling Italian Concerto, played by our accomplished accompanist, Cori Belle. Although staunch German Lutherans, both men were greatly influenced by the Italian style, which was all the rage of the European musical world. For Schütz it was the polychoral tradition of the great cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice.
For Bach, it was the concertos of the red-headed Italian priest, composer, teacher and impresario, Antonio Vivaldi. In fact, he transcribed ten of them for various instruments, mostly for keyboard. In his Italian Concerto, which he originally wrote for two-manual harpsichord and titled “Concerto after the Italian Taste,” he contrasts extremes of dynamics, expressed through the loud and soft manuals of the harpsichord. A modern piano can handle those contrasts very well indeed.
And now we come to the crown jewel of our concert, Vivaldi’s sprightly, Italian-to-the-core, Gloria. The Gloria text constitutes a major section of the Mass, but in Venice the text was sometimes broken off and set separately for festive occasions. This mid-length masterwork is divided into twelve independent sections, several quite short, but all lyrical and expressive. Vivaldi composed his Gloria for the renowned, all-female choir and orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietá, the charitable institution where he spent much of his working life, and the music is so youthful in spirit that it is easy to imagine these highly trained girls—and women, not all of them were young— playing and singing with verve, grace and superb musicality, and captivating all with a kind of mystery, for they performed in an upper gallery behind iron grilles, unseen by their audience!
We close, in a kind of musical benediction, with one last tiny sparkler, Fauré’s brief but lovely Cantique de Jean Racine. It praises the God of light, asks for His mercy and then sends us out in peace, our souls fed by the beauty of these miniature masterworks.
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside