What gives us hope in troubled times? The answer is different for each person. For some, the support of family and friends helps get one’s bearings, while for others, it is faith that keeps them going. This may be faith in God, or in a hopeful future or in the meaning of life. The great composers of the past and today also faced numerous setbacks and often worked their darker moments in life into their musical works.
The compositions on the programme of this concert are striking examples. For instance, the composer Carlos Simon drew inspiration for his Fate Now Conquers from Beethoven’s philosophically inspired belief in music, while the hope found in religious belief is reflected in the instrumental and vocal music of Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.
The words written by Ludwig van Beethoven in his journal for 1815 are heroic in tone. This quotation from Homer’s classic epic expresses the way Beethoven dealt with his deafness, the greatest misfortune of his life. The words also served as inspiration for the American composer Carlos Simon, who in 2020 based his orchestral work Fate Now Conquers on it. The fact that Beethoven cites Homer is no coincidence. Composing had become, for Beethoven, the meaning of his life. By 1815, he was almost completely deaf, and he found in the supernatural calling and actions of the great heroes of Homer’s writings a model for his passion for writing music. In letters to his loved ones, he regularly quoted the philosopher Immanuel Kant: he considered composing to be a ‘categorical imperative’ that gave him the strength to persevere. Art made it possible for him to achieve ‘higher levels of perfection’ in his life. This explains Beethoven’s constant drive to improve his music and to innovate.
In his one-movement orchestral work, Fate Now Conquers, Carlos Simon includes numerous references to the music of Beethoven. Thus, the harmonies and modulations in the work are indebted to the second movement of the Seventh Symphony Op. 92 of his famous predecessor. The neo-Romantic work of Carlos Simon, which sometimes also draws inspiration from jazz, gives musical expression to the unpredictable ways of fate: the music is at times frenzied and agitated, at others ambiguous and moody. These contrasts depict “the uncertainty of life that hovers over us”. Thanks to music, Beethoven was able to “seize fate by the throat”, as he wrote in a letter in 1800. Carlos Simon echoes this message in Fate Now Conquers, which symbolically ends on a triumphant note.
The uncertainties of life are also a central theme in the music of the late Romantic German composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Yet, Mahler handled it in a completely different manner. At the centre of his oeuvre is the relationship between life and death. He weaves this relationship impressively into Totenfeier, a symphonic poem written in 1888, the same year as his First Symphony, ‘Titan’. The title “Totenfeier” evokes the poetic drama of the same name by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) about an ancient Slavic and Lithuanian feast commemorating the forefathers. Totenfeier is an “enormous symphonic funeral march” – as Mahler himself described it – which he reworked in 1894 (with subtle changes to the modulations, deleting various measures, adding wind instruments and percussion, etc.) to become the first movement of his Second Symphony, ‘Auferstehung’ (‘Resurrection’).
In 1889, Mahler’s circumstances had changed dramatically. He suffered several emotional blows in that year due to the death of both his parents and of his younger sister. They were most certainly in the back of his mind when in 1894 he added an explanatory note to Totenfeier: “At the grave of a beloved person. His struggle, his suffering and desire pass before the mind’s eye. Questions obtrude: what does Death mean? – is there a continuation?" Mahler’s uncertainty about this religiously-inspired idea of the afterlife is reflected in Totenfeier in the contrasting alternation between the stately rhythms of the funeral march and the broad lyrical melodies. The music is permeated by references to the Gregorian chant Dies Irae and to Baroque chorales. Ultimately, it is only when Totenfeier was incorporated as the first movement of his Second Symphony that Mahler finds an answer through his faith in God: the final movement of the symphony gives musical expression to the comforting idea of the resurrection.
The severe blows that Mahler experienced throughout his lifetime were for the most part absent from the life of the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847). When Mendelssohn died unexpectedly in 1847, he was only 38 years old and was in the midst of a flourishing career as composer and conductor. Thanks to his prosperous background, Mendelssohn received a broad education that familiarized him with his great precursors of the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Classical periods. As a result, his music constantly evokes to his great models and indeed often adopts their style and techniques. This is the case with the Drei Psalmen Op. 78 which he wrote in 1843 and 1844. He composed the works for the choir of the Berlin cathedral and the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Warum toben die Heiden (Why do the nations rage), the first of the three Psalms in this series, was written for double a cappella choir. The text of Psalm 2 calls for the weapons in the struggle among peoples to be laid down and for faith in God that will bring a better future. Mendelssohn used many different ancient compositional techniques to make the music as expressive as possible, including textual accents, the alternation of antiphonal passages (in which the two nearly independent choirs sing in turns) and solo passages, glorious tutti (to the words ‘’Du bist mein Sohn” [You are my son]), and a sublime four-part canon in the Gloria finale (“Ehre sei dem Vater” [Glory be to the Father]).
Writing choral works was one of Mendelssohn’s greatest passions. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that for the 1830 celebration in Berlin of the 300th anniversary of the “Augsburg Confession” – the Protestant profession of faith presented to Emperor Charles V in June 1530 – he opted to write an instrumental symphony rather than a vocal work. Presumably, he had in mind the symphonies of Beethoven, who had died in 1828, when making this choice. He began writing the symphony in 1829, just after the death of his great idol, but due to illness the symphony was not ready in time. The premiere took place two years later, and the symphony would be published only in 1868, 21 years after Mendelssohn’s death, as his Fifth Symphony, dubbed the Reformation Symphony. The symphony evokes both Mendelssohn’s Protestant faith and his boundless admiration for Johann Sebastian Bach. He thus includes references in the first, ceremonial movement to the Protestant “Dresden Amen” motif and uses many polyphonic techniques borrowed from the music of Bach. The festivities in Berlin sought to highlight the hope that faith inspires. It is for this reason that Mendelssohn gave the key movements of the symphony a particularly heroic tone and incorporated into the final movement the melody of the famous Lutheran chorale Ein Feste Burg (A mighty fortress is our God). As in his Psalm setting Warum toben die Heiden, so in this purely instrumental work Mendelssohn emphasizes how religious faith is the ‘safe haven’ in which people can feel secure and emerge triumphant and carefree from any adversity or misfortune
Commentary by Waldo Geuns