Welcome to the next instalment of OPMS’s blog, where we take you through the repertoire for our next concert, held in the luscious surrounds of Exeter College Chapel on 20th May. The chapel’s opulence is well suited to the rich harmonies of our next programme: our last concert there, in March, celebrated the rumbustious tradition of the English Anthem, but Brexit or no, we now turn our attentions to the school of nineteenth-century German Romanticism. It might be worth going on a diet in preparation, as listening to this feast of Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Rheinberger will be somewhat akin to eating an entire Black Forest Gateau in one sitting…
In this week’s edition I begin with works by Brahms, of which one is relatively well-known and the other undeservedly more obscure. Geistliches Lied – the somewhat unadventurously named Sacred Song, setting a seventeenth–century text by Paul Fleming – dates from 1856, though was not published until 1864. The most remarkable thing about this piece is that it is effectively an accomplished exercise in counterpoint whilst retaining an austere emotional power. It operates as a double canon between both sopranos and tenors, and altos and basses, at a distance of a ninth, gradually interweaving both themes until the basses take a lusty lead into the final Amen. This offers a welcome emotional catharsis after the almost Classical restraint that has preceded it, swelling ecstatically over delicious suspensions to come to a close of serene confidence – it definitely has the ‘tingle factor’!
The three Fest- und Gedenksprüche – Festival and Commemoration Sentences – are more rarely heard. The work dates from the late 1880s on the occasion of Brahms being made a Freeman of the City of Hamburg and effectively comprises three motets (although not named as such) for double choir. The selection of texts from both Old and New Testaments reflects Brahms’s burgeoning sense of his German national identity in the wake of political unification, and his response to the deaths of two of Germany’s imperial rulers in 1888, by promoting faith in continuity and unity through the upholding of law. The archaic, antiphonal Venetian style Brahms employs offers a musical reinforcement of this message, whilst enabling him to play off the forces of disruption and division against each other in dramatic style. The final motet counters the militaristic tendencies of the second with a prayer for unity, urging in his favourite canonic style that the godly decrees of a great nation be passed on to its children and its children’s children.
See you next week for the Bruckner course of this great feast!