In the last of this series of blogs previewing our concert in Exeter College Chapel on 20th May, we come to the big iced beauty in the midst of our table of rich German fare: Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in E Flat Op.109 (Cantus Missae), sumptuously scored for double choir.
Rheinberger is almost certainly the least familiar of the composers whose works we are presenting in this concert, but don’t let that put you off. He is very recognisably in the Brahmsian tradition of formal classicism allied to the Romantic spirit. Born in Liechtenstein in 1839, he spent most of his life in Munich after entering the Conservatorium, holding posts there, in the Court Theatre and as Court Music Director.
The Mass in E Flat was written in 1878 and dedicated to Pope Leo XIII. Rheinberger was not in sympathy with the attempts of the conservative Cecilian movement to return Catholic liturgical music to Palestrina-like ideals (see my blog on Bruckner for more on this); though the antiphonal techniques used from the outset in the Mass undoubtedly gesture towards Renaissance Venice, Rheinberger marshals his forces with an inventiveness of harmony and word setting upon which a good Cecilian would have frowned.
The Gloria and Credo are, indeed, sparing of floridity; but judicious moments of word painting – eg. ‘et incarnatus est’ – suggest that his syllabic presentation is an artistic choice rather than obligation. The Kyrie is more melismatic, making a feature of rising and falling lines on ‘eleison’. A Sanctus that begins in celestial tranquillity before building to a triumphant, almost martial Osanna, is followed by a gently lilting Benedictus in compound time. Its Osanna recalls the martial figure from the Sanctus, but in hushed fashion over a delicate descending figure derived from its opening. As so often, the emotional heart of the Mass probably lies in its Agnus Dei, which is deeply felt and romantic. Here Rheinberger uses one choir to comment on, rather than answer, the other in a series of overlapping sequences, which leads to a more fluid and interactive dynamic. An extended and generally hushed quasi-instrumental ‘Dona nobis’ leads us via moments of sublime efflorescence to conclude, as one would expect, in unutterable peace.
We hope that you enjoy this feast of German Romantic music. As our musical director Mark quipped, we’ll probably all have to go on a diet of Medieval organum after this concert, as a kind of palate cleanser…
See you in June to explore the repertoire for our summer concert, Midsummer Night’s Dream.