The Music

Notes on Music at “Transcendent”

Posted by SoundBox

February 19, 2016

VELJO TORMIS  “Raua needmine
MONTEVERDI  “Ardo, avvampo, mi struggo
MAHLER, ARR. GOTTWALD  “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz"
MAHLER, ARR. GOTTWALD  "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"



VELJO TORMIS Raua needmine (Curse upon iron) 1972  |  11 mins

“I do not use folk song. It is folk song that uses me.”

Veljo Tormis (b.1930) grew up just outside the Estonian capital of Tallinn. He has established himself as one of the world’s most successful composers of choral music, and in Estonia he is the father figure of what is considered the truest expression of that nation’s musical culture—singing in choir.

Behind Estonia’s choral tradition is a deep-rooted engagement with the national folklore heritage and the Estonian mother tongue. But Tormis’s expeditions go further than others—down to pre-Christian times, back to the linguistic and cultural remains of Livonians, Votians, Izhorians, and Karelians. “I do not use folk song,” Tormis has said. “It is folk song that uses me. To me, folk music is not a means of self-expression; on the contrary, I feel the need to express the essence of folk music, its spirit, meaning, and form.”

With that other great Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt (featured later on this program), Veljo Tormis shares a striving for simplicity and clarity. The aspect of repetition is also a common feature, but Tormis does not use it in an introspective manner. In his rhythmic patterns we often find a shamanistic quality.


HILDEGARD VON BINGEN  Columba aspexit (The Dove Peered In)  1175  |  3 mins

The dove peered in through the latticed window, where before her face a balm emanated from the brightness of Maximinus.
The sun’s heat shone into the darkness; a gem sprang forth in the building of the pure and generous heart’s temple.

The Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen was a major figure in medieval Germany, a charismatic polymath, mystic, authoress, prophetess, scientist, philosopher, theologian, healer—and a prolific, self-taught composer. Her highly individual and complex works are recognized for their distinctly meditative character; the depth of her beliefs is to be found beautifully distilled in her music. Columba aspexit presents a vision of Saint Maximinus as a celebrant at Mass.




ARVO PÄRT  Te Deum (1985/1992) |  25 mins

“I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”

With his stark, meditative, and largely sacred compositions, Arvo Pärt (b.1935) may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of a “popular” composer. But according to Bachtrack, a website that tabulates performances of composers’ works, Pärt ranks number one among living composers. Why this surge of popularity for the quiet Estonian composer? Some of it is shrewd marketing by Pärt’s record company, ECM, which has released a slew of moody records featuring leading performers such as the Hilliard Ensemble and Gidon Kremer. But part of Pärt’s appeal is the directness of his message: Pärt’s music speaks to those overstimulated by modern life. To enter Pärt’s world is to commit oneself to stillness, and to a place where time is, if not transcended, suspended. Gestures unfold on a leisurely scale, and sound mixes with silence to gradually build a sacred emotional climate. Ecstatic bursts of praise pierce the texture and we find ourselves swept away on the tide of Pärt’s own profound faith.

Following earlier forays into serialism and neo-Classicism, Pärt began to immerse himself in medieval and Renaissance music in the 1970s. By 1976 he seized the essence of the style that has served him ever since: a tonal technique he dubbed “tintinnabuli,” referring to bell-like resonances—sometimes involving actual bells but more commonly conveyed in his music by orchestral, chamber, or choral groupings. In this music, the tintinnabulation parts are sounded while the melody part moves slowly in simple patterns that gravitate around the home pitch.

The Te Deum is a fifth-century Christian hymn of praise and is still in use today. Pärt’s Te Deum, from 1984-85, eschews Romantic bombast for a sound that is more in line with its Gregorian chant origins. As the composer noted in 1993, he sought to create a mood “that could be infinite in time, by delicately removing one piece—one particle of time—out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”

Each of the poem’s twenty-nine verses is set antiphonally, being first introduced by the female or male chorus in a chant-like setting. The verse is then repeated, either in a harmonized version by the mixed chorus, or as a related meditation for string orchestra. The sections flow seamlessly from one to another with the ever-present drone providing continuity and reinforcing a feeling of D minor. Pärt plays with light and darkness through brief excursions to D major, but inevitably we are drawn back to D minor. Later, the drone temporarily moves to another note (A), creating a sense of tension as the tonality longs to return to the home key.

Pärt is judicious in shaping the texture, alternating between the distinct instrumental and vocal groupings. The massed forces only come together at three points in the piece, underscoring dramatic textural moments at “Pleni sunt caeli et terra majestatis gloriae tuae,” (Heaven and earth are full of your glory’s majesty”); “Judex crederis esse venturus,” (“We believe that you will come to judge us”); and “Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos quemadmodum speravimus in te” (“Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have trusted in you”). The effect is stunning.

In contrast to the work’s solemn and mysterious opening, the ending evokes a sense of tranquility as the mixed chorus repeats the word “Sanctus” at ever-softer dynamics. As the conductor Paul Hillier notes in his book on Pärt, “Works such as the Te Deum… begin almost imperceptibly, seeping into our consciousness like ink into blotting paper, but then miraculously draining away again, leaving the page blank.”




MONTEVERDI  “Ardo, avvampo, mi struggo” (I burn, I blaze, I am consumed) 1638 | 3 mins

Is the arsonist who flung the evil torches
Into my heart’s fortress.

Depending on whom you ask, Claudio Monteverdi was either a maverick eagerly embracing the latest innovations to create music of heretofore unexplored expressiveness, or he was the last flowering of an older style exemplified by masters such as Palestrina. As in any debate of artistic provenance, the truth contains aspects of both viewpoints. It is only fitting then that Monteverdi’s first opera explores a myth that is itself concerned with looking forward and backwards, that of the poet-composer Orpheus. Monteverdi cut his teeth as a dramatist in nine books of madrigals that exhaustively explore the relationship between music and text. Even a cursory listen to Monteverdi’s madrigals reveals startling uses of harmony, abrupt changes in character, varying combinations of voices, and suavely constructed vocal lines. Monteverdi’s madrigals take us through the whole realm of human experience, sometimes within the course of just a few bars.


MAHLER, ARR. GOTTWALD  “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" (The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved) from Songs of a Wayfarer  1883  |  5 mins

“The songs are planned as though a traveling journeyman who has suffered some sort of fate sets out into the world and wanders musingly and alone.”

Mahler left his Songs of a Wayfarer as a marker to an infatuation with an attractive soprano. Gustav and Johanna seem to have been the sort of lovers who spend much of their time down in the dumps, New Year's Eve 1883 being a particularly fraught occasion. The next day Mahler wrote a friend saying that he had spent the night in tears but also that he had written a cycle of songs dedicated to Johanna, Songs of a Wayfarer. “She does not know them. What could they tell her beyond what she knows already? . . . The songs are planned as though a traveling journeyman who has suffered some sort of fate sets out into the world and wanders musingly and alone.”

In “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,” the last song of the Wayfarer cycle, we encounter one of Mahler’s first funeral marches, a kind of music he would write all his life. Mahler knew—oh, he knew—how to use pathos in his music. The injunction “Ohne Sentimentalitat”—without sentimentality—at the beginning of the song, and repeated twice more as “Nicht sentimental,” is of extreme importance. The writing is unforgettably beautiful. The words at the end speak of consolation in nature. The music concludes on a question mark. Ah, love...


MAHLER, ARR. GOTTWALD  "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I Am Lost to the World) from Rückert Songs  1901  |  8 mins

“It’s I myself.”

After writing the Songs of a Wayfarer to verses of his own, Mahler discovered, or more probably rediscovered, the poems of German writer/newspaper editor/translator/professor of Eastern languages Friedrich Rückert. Rückert was vastly prolific—“I never think without making poems,” he once said—and much of his work consists of virtuosic and fantastical translations from Sanskrit, Hebrew, Persian, Coptic, and Arabic.

Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Lost to the World) opens with a sense of not ending—making it, well, a perfect beginning. After its famously hesitant, upbeating start, the pace remains extremely slow and tends always to hold back still more. The sense of removal is uncanny. Mahler spoke of “the feeling that rises to the tip of one’s tongue but goes no further,” but still more significantly he said of the music, “It’s I myself.”