|A monument to Rheinberger in Liechtenstein, photo by Anke Jana
This coming Friday, April 29, I'm singing with the Oahu Choral Society as we present a concert of two masses, Bruckner's Mass in E minor and Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat (see the Oahu Choral Society's webpage for more details about the performance). I wrote the program notes for the concert and am posting them here, also, so that even if you can't come to the performance, you can enjoy the notes. Besides a brief listening roadmap, there's a short history lesson about the direction of Catholic church music in the 19th century, which I find fascinating.
Masses are music set to fixed Latin lyrics, normally performed at weekly religious services. In Europe, the desire for new music for the frequent services led to an almost insatiable demand for more masses, especially in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many prominent composers registered their own submissions to the form, especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, France, and Austria. Even Bach, though a Lutheran, wrote his own mass. In a compositional arms race, some of these masses became so complicated and required such large ensembles that only a very small number of church choirs were equipped with the means to perform them, relegating these compositions almost entirely to the concert hall.
Both Anton Bruckner (1824–96) and Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901) made their livings as Roman Catholic church musicians, Bruckner in Austria and Rheinberger in largely Catholic Bavaria. They are two of only a few great Romantic musicians of the second half of the nineteenth century who wrote music for church services, as many churches looked to the old masters for their weekly services while other contemporary composers sought fame in the concert hall or opera house. Bruckner and Rheinberger each composed at least a dozen masses of varying sizes and types; those on the program tonight are two of their most highly regarded. Both of these masses are written for double choir, meaning that two full choirs are singing antiphonally.
Behind the resurgence of older church music during Bruckner and Rheinberger’s time was Cecilianism, a popular musical reform movement in the Catholic Church that frowned on contemporary compositional practices such as word painting (having the music mimic the words), musical complexity that overshadowed the words, and heavy chromaticism. As you will hear tonight, Rheinberger and Bruckner were not fans of Cecilianism and sometimes went out of their way to raise the ire of its proponents.
Rheinberger’s Mass in E-flat, op. 109, subtitled “Cantus Missae” (1878), was written shortly after Rheinberger was appointed the director of the court chapel for Ludwig II of Bavaria (of Neuschwanstein fame). What to listen for:
- The interplay of the choirs as they trade musical ideas
The fugal section at the end of the Gloria
- The drama in the Credo as Rheinberger paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music
- The danceable Benedictus, perhaps inspired by the popular Viennese waltz
- The Agnus Dei, which starts slow and plaintive but soon transitions to a florid, rejoicing finale
- The layered a cappella opening section of the Kyrie, first from the women and then from the men, which returns later in the movement.
- The fugal “Amen” section at the end of the Gloria
- Again, drama in the Credo as Bruckner paints the crucifixion and resurrection with music, with a return of the movement’s uptempo opening theme at the end
- The tightly contrapuntal a cappella opening of the Sanctus
- The interplay between the men and women in the Benedictus, as they pass melodic ideas back and forth
- The quiet, restrained Agnus Dei which caps the mass