A “Rexing” Question Forces Woods to Make a Decision

People often think that a conductor’s job is to make decisions- she or he, after all, appears to decide whether or not to take the repeats, how fast the pieces are played, what are the articulations, what language to sing in and on.

My approach is always to try to eliminate decisions- if you do enough research and enough study, you often no longer have to choose between option a and option b, because one becomes obviously the correct one. For instance- I no longer have any question in my mind whether to conduct the march that begins the coda of the finale of Shostakovich 5 in 2 or in 5. In spite of the depressing fact that far more than half the conductors I’ve seen do the piece take it in two, the evidence in score is clear, and they are wrong. I would be just as wrong if I “decided” to take it in two. I’d go so far to say that in a lot of pieces, if you catch yourself making a decision (for instance “I don’t think it helps to take this repeat that Brahms wrote here because it makes things a little too long), you’ve probably made a mistake. You don’t “decide” to play an f-sharp as an f-sharp and not as a d. Most “interpretive” issues should, if you’ve done your homework, be just as easy to resolve.

But sometimes, when the necessity of putting on a concert gets out in front of one’s quest for aesthetic clarity and certainty, you have to risk making decisions.

I’d say the textual question I’ve wrestled with the most in the Mozart Requiem is whether and when to “double-dot” in the Rex Tremendae. 30 years ago, I think everyone pretty played all the rhythms in this movement as written (and, in general, slower). However, as modern conductors and scholars began to look at it in stylistic and performance practice terms, many came to see compelling arguments for double-dotting all the dotted-8th/16th rhythms.

Writers have pointed out that dotted rhythms, typical of French Overture style (a style in which dotted rhythms are always double-dotted), have long been used in processional music associated with kings and princes. It surely cannot be a coincidence that this movement, with the text “King of Terrible Majesty,” is permeated with dotted rhythms, they postulate. Therefore, we should treat those dotted rhythms as we would in a French Overture- a noble procession, in this case, a terrifying one.

The argument seems irrefutable, and the effect is striking- particularly when you first hear the choir singing in double dots- “Rex Tremendae Majestatis” in the 6th bar. It’s quite electrifying.

However, accepting this stylistic approach quickly begins to create what I think are problems- relationships thaat are fascinating in the score cease to exist in performance.

Throughout the movement, until the last three bars, the strings maintain a near constant cascade of dotted-16h/32nd notes. When the choir has their first declaration in dotted notes in bar 6, they have dotted8th/16th’s. Then, in bar 7, Mozart begins one of the most interesting and intense contrapuntal passages in all of music. After taking a bar off for the choir, the strings return to their dotted 16th/32nds, but now in imitative pairs, with the violins in 3rds answered a beat later by the cellos, basses and violas, also in 3rds.

On top of this, we have the women of the chorale singing a canon 2 beats apart at the fourth. This canon is all built around dotted rhythms- dotted 8th/16th’s

So, here, many modern performers render those dotted 8th/16th’s as double-dotted 8th/32nds. Not only is this in keeping with the French Overture style, it means the quick notes now “fit” with the faster dotted rhythms in the strings- instead of 16ths “clashing” with 32nds, everyone sings or plays 32nds as the “quick” notes of their dotted rhythms. I find this all plausible.

However, the tenor and bass parts cause me to question whether or not double-dotting is what Mozart had in mind here. Beginning one beat after the canon in the Altos and Sopranos (so, in between their entrances!) we have another canon, again separated by 2 beats between the tenors and basses (singing at the 5th). Their entrances all begin with dotted rhythms, but in their case, the first dotted rhythm is twice as slow as the dotted 8th/16th’s in the women (Mozart actually writes this as quarter/8th rest/8th). Then, in their next gesture, they continue on in diminution- doubling their speed to the same dotted 8th/16ths as the other canon.

What Mozart has written here is fascinating- 3 sets of imitative pairs of ideas, each built on dotted rhythms, but each set functioning at a different metric level. Then, within the material, he uses diminution to reduce back from the slowest version of the dotted rhythm (in the men’s canon) to faster and faster values. At the end of the second episode (when the role of the men and women is reversed) of this music (bar 16), he’s reduced all the voices down to the dotted16th/32nds of the strings.

If the women double dot their canon, it ceases to be perceptible that they are singing a rhythm that is twice as fast as that in the men, unless the men change their dotted quarter/8th to double-dotted quarter/16th, which again restores the clash of 16th and 32nd that double dotting was supposed to remove. In fact, I’ve never heard that done. If the men’s canon continues with the diminution double dotted to match the women’s, the listener can no longer perceive the diminution in their line. Mozart’s amazing rhythmic tapestry is reduced to agreeable mush (especially since many conductors don’t insist on proper dotted rhythms from the strings, settling for a lazy, tripletized version).

In fact, if you play the 3 levels of dotted rhythms very precisely, there is no clash between the 16th and 32nd– that is only a problem if the strings are sloppy. If they no to place their 32nd after the 16th.

Interestingly, the 3rd level of rhythm and the separate category of cannon was a late addition of Mozart’s. His sketch for this movement shows only the beginnings of a 4 part canon, not the 2 pairs of ideas he ended up with, pairs he was able to make more distinct by beginning them with different “levels’ of the dotted rhythm.

However, in other places, particularly bar 6 and similar places, I feel like the ferocity of the double-dotted rhythms is more appropriate, and more organically connected to what precedes it.

I’ve spent many hours agonizing over this- perhaps Mozart didn’t intend us to make a big deal out of the difference between and 8th and 16th? Perhaps style trumps all- but what style is the Requiem in? It’s not really a piece of “Classical” music like the Sinfonia Concertante or the Haffner Symphony. It’s a strange mixture of Baroque and Romantic- but that’s the subject for a future post. I’ve even emailed a number of Mozart scholars, to no avail. Those I’ve heard from offer opinions but no clarifying insights. 

By Monday night, I’ll have to decide.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “A “Rexing” Question Forces Woods to Make a Decision”

  1. Jane Owings-Schaefermeyer

    These posts about the Mozart Requiem have been fascinating, especially this one. Please blog about your decision. If you decide to double dot, could you post the Rex Tremendae portion of your performance so your readers can hear it? Thanks for some interesting reading.

  2. Ed Carwithen

    OK Ken:

    I have one more rehearsal with my folks. I have to know by Monday night how to have the sop/altos, and ten/basses do their dotted eighths-sixteenths..

    I am really looking forward to singing this with you. Not only because it is such glorious music, but because it will bring to a close a working relationship that has meant a great deal to me. I will miss you.


  3. Paul H. Muller

    To what extent do you take extenuating circumstances into account? We have all seen “Amadeus” and even if it is an exaggeration perhaps Mozart simply lost track of these sort of details while under the combined pressures of his illness and needing to complete the work.

    Surely there are cases where a number of internal contradictions crop up in a score. Mozart was no doubt a meticulous workman but do you think was he immune from overlooking something on this level? For a piece without his name on it?

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