I think one perceptible evolution in my study habits and interests over the last few years has been that I’ve gotten more and more interested in quotation in music.
Of course, I suppose I may be putting my neck on the block a bit admitting that, because implicit in the statement is the notion that at somepoint in the past I wasn’t as interested in quotation as I should have been. Perhaps as this blog hits cyberspace, smug conductors and musicologists around the world are stroking their black moustaches, muttering “See- Woods has just discovered quotation. I always had him pegged for a fraud!”
So, maybe I should make clear that I’m just finding more success and satisfaction studying with an eye and ear for quotation than in the past.
Anyway, on a purely practical level, knowing all the quotes in a piece of music for a conductor is a bit like loading a weapon that can never be fired. To put it in more practical terms: nothing is more likely to make an orchestra start rolling their eyes in rehearsal than some conductor telling them “this passage is a quote from the St Matthew Passion, but upside down and backwards in a bi-tonal context.” If you’re lucky, you might get off with a “ah Maestro, I see you read the program notes from the Bernstein recording too.” If you’re unlucky, they’ll just silently judge you.
Some quotes are too cool to keep to yourself- if you really think a quote is so killer, so awesome so amazing, that it’s worth risking the eye-rolls, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I told an orchestra the other night about the B-A-C-H quotes in Schumann 2. I hope the damage is not permanent- they took it pretty well. I even got an “oh- cool” from a violinist (who I won’t betray by identifying her in print).
Anyway, quotes are much on my mind, as the Mozart Requiem is full of quotations and references. The main “Requiem” theme, the DNA of which permeates the entire work, is, in fact, a quote. This melody (d-c#-d-e-f) is from a Lutheran hymn, “When My Final Hour is At Hand.” If you’re trying to figure out how much truth there is to the stories of Mozart’s reportedly saying that he was writing “my own Requiem,” the fact that the main theme of the entire piece is attached to the words “My Final Hour” rather than his, hers, ours or theirs is worth knowing.
Then, figure in the fact that Mozart was not the first to use that theme- Handel’s “The Way’s of Zion do Mourn” (which you can hear a short excerpt of here), written 54 years earlier. Mozart knew his Handel- he even made his own performing version of Messiah. Handel’s text (all taken from Lamentations) depicts a whole world overcome with sadness- “The ways of Zion do mourn and she is in bitterness; all her people sigh and hang down their heads to the ground.”
So, in this opening, Mozart is already combing the personal with the universal- the terror of the one facing “my final hour” with the grief of the nation in the face of incalculable loss.
I can still remember hearing this piece for the first time- it is one of the earliest musical memories of my childhood. This very opening appeared in a dramatization of Mozart’s life for radio I heard when I was about 5. I remember thinking it was the saddest music I’d ever heard. I still feel that way- knowing where Mozart took his building blocks from doesn’t change my understanding of or reaction to the music. Sad music sounds sad– you don’t need an owner’s manual to understand it.
But, I now think I could feel, even as a naïve child hearing the piece for the first time, the presence of these quotes and these levels of meaning. This is the mystery of music- piece affects you with of all the layers of meaning in contains, whether you have the knowledge or experience to identify them or not. This theme permeates and its extrapolations, derivations and evolutions permeate the entire Requiem (including the movements supposedly written by Sussmayr). That it is not simply the notes d-c#-d-e-f but a hymn with a text and a history means that when Mozart when Mozart brings it back in the last 5 bars of the Lacrimosa as the last melodic idea of the first half of the Requiem (don’t tell me that was Sussmayr’s idea) he’s not merely creating a kind of thematic unity, but something deeper and more personal.
In fact, the other main melodic idea of the first movement, first heard in the soprano solo in bar 21 (“Te decet hymnus Deus in Zion”) is also a quote. This melody (d-f-d-d-eb-d-c-bb) also has a history. It is another Lutheran hymn “Meine seele erhebet den Herren” or “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Bach used this melody, also called the German Magnificat, in his Cantata BWV 10, which shares the same title, but it also appears in several other Bach works. The history of this hymn goes all the way back to Gregorian chant and a family of chants known as “Pilgrim’s tones.” How appropriate then that when the chorus takes up this melody in bar 27 (when the sopranos sing “Ex audie orationem meam”), Mozart sets the text as a perfect imitation of a Bach-ian chorale prelude. I’ve even considered using a childrens chorus to double the women here for that very reason.
On top of this, Mozart was NOT the first composer to use this hymn for the “Te decet..” (the Latin here means “A hymn, O God, beckoneth Thee in Zion, And a vow shall be made to Thee in Jerusalem- “Hear My Payer…”). Michael Haydn did so in his Requiem, which Mozart sang as a chorister in his youth. You can hear the excerpt here. Haydn’s treatment is freer, but it’s definitely the same material. What does it mean? Is it a simple shout out to a fellow-Requiem master, a short-cut from a composer who was desperate to meet a deadline? I don’t think so, but to guess at the motivations of a genius like Mozart is foolish. All I can say with certainty is that there is more here than meets the eye, or the ear.
But, I won’t be telling the band this next week. Can’t face the eye rolls. That’s why I’ve got this blog.