Full programme

  • Fauré, Pavane  (8mins)
  • Saint-Saëns, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso  (10mins)
  • Ravel, Tzigane  (11mins)
  • Fauré, Requiem  (38mins)

Performers

Introduction

What does one think of when one sings a Requiem? They demand engagement, because they are considering the big questions in life, such as “what happens when we die?” A lot of the piece translates into the Chorus imprecating Jesus to intervene on the behalf of departed souls to ease their way into heaven.

Some might be drawn by the cataclysmic lyrics of the Libera Me which translate as “The day of wrath, that day, will dissolve the world in ashes”. Lots to choose from these days I’m afraid – take your pick from the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, or closer to home the devastating 100% cut to the arts budget by Birmingham Council. I’m sure all donations to the CBSO will be very welcome.

It is also a chance to reflect on the people we’ve lost over the years. Personally, I’ll be thinking of my father, John, who died three years ago. He was a chorister as a boy, and it’s thanks to his prompts and encouragement for me to follow the same path that I am singing with the CBSO Chorus today. He was also very supportive of my singing during his life and came to concerts when he could.

Happily, I am also passing on the baton, as my daughter Maddy is singing with the CBSO Children’s Chorus, who are taking on the exquisite Pie Jesu movement, normally sung by a Soprano soloist. There won’t be a dry eye in the house. I will be a very proud Dad listening to her – and I’d like to think there’s a mildly proud Dad / grandfather looking down on us continuing the family choral tradition!


Programme Notes

Eternal light: the CBSO Chorus sings Fauré’s haunting Requiem. In paradise, angels sing. Gabriel Fauré was a quiet soul, and there’s not much rage or fury in his Requiem – just some of the most beautiful choral music ever written. In the first half, two fizzing French showpieces, played with panache by the flawless Rosanne Philippens.

Pavane

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

After writing his Pavane in 1887 Fauré described it as ‘elegant, but otherwise not important.’ Whether important or not it is certainly one of his most well-known works, partly because of its endless capacity for adaptation. It was commissioned as an orchestral work by Fauré’s wealthy patron Elisabeth Comtesse Greffulhe. Fauré later added a chorus (with the author of the text, Robert de Montesquiou, having to fit words to an existing melody) and it was subsequently expanded for a ballet. In the early twentieth century, choreographer Leonid Massine used the Pavane in a sequence for the Ballet Russes; while at the other end of the century it found itself adapted for the BBC World Cup theme (a good luck charm, perhaps, for France’s victory that year).

The Pavane is constructed from a series of elements, each more refined than the last. It opens in a stately manner with a rise-andfall figure on plucked strings setting the courtly, dance-like mood. On top of that, a wistful, yearning tune is heard on the flute, followed by responses from the clarinet and oboe gently harmonising in thirds, and later joined by strings. A more dramatic middle section unsettles the mood briefly, with a starring role for the horn. But the irresistible earworm from the first section returns to close this ‘elegant,’ melancholy work.

Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

When Saint-Saëns wrote his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso he was very much in solo violin mode. Only a few years earlier he had composed two violin concertos, the second of which was inspired by and dedicated to the teenage virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Saint-Saëns would go on to gift Sarasate the Concerto no. 3, as well as the shorter Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (originally intended as a movement for the third concerto). Sarasate’s Spanish heritage as well his lively character undoubtedly influenced the rhythms and colours of this spirited piece, particularly in the 36-bar melody of the ‘Introduction’ section, and the scampering, dance-like mood of the rest. (The melodies of the latter half, over a marching bass accompaniment, are not unlike another Spanish-flavoured French work, Bizet’s Carmen, composed around 10 years later.) The forward momentum of what is effectively a mini-concerto slows in the final third. The music segues beautifully into a deeply lyrical section, one of Saint- Saëns’ finest and most sentimental, before switching the ignition back on for the final section, including a brief ‘cadenza’ for the soloist. In the version for violin and piano, the increasingly fiendish finale appears at a poignant moment in the manga/anime series about teenage musicians, Your Lie in April – both performers whirling themselves into a frenzy.

Tzigane

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

As Saint-Saëns wrote his Introduction for Sarasate, so Ravel composed his Tzigane for the ability and performing personality of a virtuoso. He heard the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi perform his sonata for violin and cello in 1922; after the concert, Ravel asked her to play him some Hungarian folk melodies, and she willingly obliged – reportedly playing until dawn. Two years later, he produced Tzigane for her. It begins unaccompanied, resembling an extended concerto cadenza and is based on the melodic lines and expressive, improvisatory qualities he had heard in 1922. The accompaniment, which does not arrive until more than a third of the way through, was initially conceived for piano with an optional luthéal device (a series of ‘stops’ which could alter the sound of the piano strings, generating a series of ‘effects’). The luthéal did not particularly catch on and, as with so many of his other works, Ravel orchestrated the accompaniment resulting in a concertolike movement in which the violin certainly dominates but occasionally converses with another solo instrument (such as a luthéallike solo for harp, and a soulful countermelody for clarinet). After the opening section, violin and orchestra bat Hungarian-style melodies and variations back and forth; and in for the finale the violin initiates a hectic race to the finish line, marked ‘sempre accelerando’ - always speeding up.

Requiem

I. Introit and Kyrie
II. Offertorium
III. Sanctus
IV. Pie Jesu
V. Agnus Dei
VI. Libera me
VII. In paradisium

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Fauré claimed that he did not compose his Requiem for any particular reason other than the ‘plaisir’ of it (despite the solemn subject-matter), although many have speculated that it was connected to the death of his parents in the mid 1880s. Yet even if it was purposeless, as it were, it was surely influenced by his lifelong immersion in religious music. He was trained from the age of nine in church and organ music at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris (where he was later taught piano by Saint-Saëns). After leaving school he frequently worked as a church organist, rising to posts at the prestigious Saint-Sulpice and Madeleine churches in Paris. There are discernible traces of Gregorian chant, a style he would have been very familiar with, notably in the ‘Te decet hymnus’.

The bulk of the Requiem was composed in the late 1880s, around the same time as the Pavane, although the famous ‘Libera me’ had been written ten years earlier in 1877 as a solo piece for baritone. Further movements accumulated over years until the Requiem’s final form in 1890, and the instrumental accompaniment was expanded from organ to orchestra in 1900. It is, overall, unlike many of the earlier or contemporary works of the same genre – Verdi’s, for example, or Mozart’s. The difference is most striking in its general air of serenity, and the lack of the fiery ‘Dies Irae’ text (day of wrath), which in other requiems give composers the chance to turn up the brass and percussion volume. This was a deliberate move by Fauré, who wrote that he saw death not as a ‘painful experience’ but a ‘happy deliverance’, reflecting on his ‘years of accompanying burial services on the organ’ and wanting to write ‘something different.’ His Requiem is, as Aaron Copland later put it, a ‘profound meditation’; the overall progression, as well as the shape of several movements, is from reflective solemnity to spiritual uplift.

The Requiem also exemplifies Fauré’s gift for lengthy, memorable melodies which sound – somehow – as if they have always existed. After the somewhat grave, D minor introduction, the ‘Introit and Kyrie eleison’ enters this rich, melodic territory. The ‘Offertoire,’ similarly, opens with solemn strings and austere altos and tenors; but, after a warm baritone solo, concludes in a serene, major key resting place. In the famous ‘Sanctus’ upper and lower voices trade musical phrases, each with beautifully subtle nuances – such as the high voices leaning towards the minor, while the tenors and basses reclaim the major. Running throughout is an elegant, twining countermelody on the violin.

The even more famous ‘Pie Jesu’ is a long, prayerful solo for – originally – treble voice (women singers would not have been permitted to sing at the Madeleine church premiere) but generally a soprano sings it today. The ‘Agnus Dei’ contains an unsettling return to the opening music, but again resolves into a sweet coda. The ‘Libera me’, composed ten years earlier, is the darkest movement. It is once more in D minor, with an ominous pulsing in the bass as the baritone soars – somewhat operatically – ever upwards. The sunny uplands of D major welcome listeners to ‘In Paradisum’, the clearest statement of Fauré’s aspiration towards ‘happy deliverance,’ rather than terror, of death.

© Lucy Walker


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