Bach Cantata No.191 Gloria

Much of Bach’s prodigious output consists of re-workings of previous compositions.

This is true of Cantata 191. It is described by Bach as a Christmas Cantata, and it is entirely a reworking of parts of the Gloria from his Mass in B minor. For the first movement he has used the chorus Gloria in excelsis – et in terra pax from the Mass unchanged, and the following duet is the Domine Deus from the Mass sung to the words ‘Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui sancto’. The cantata concludes with the chorus Sicut erat in principio.The music for this is the chorus Cum sancto spiritu which concludes the Gloria in the Mass. The words Sicut erat don’t fit the original, so he has modified the beginning so that they do.

So we get a small insight into the way Bach worked. There are many more examples of reworkings to hand, since all the Mass in B minor apart from the Kyrie and the Gloria consists of reworkings of previous cantatas.

Charpentier’s Filius prodigus

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704) lived and worked under the rule of Louis XIV.

For a composer of his stature it is perhaps surprising that he was never a member of the Chapel Royal. But there were excellent opportunities elsewhere in Paris, such as the court of Mademoiselle de Guise, for whom he composed Filius Prodigus in 1680.

Ten years previously he had returned home to Paris from a 3-year stay in Rome, imbibing all that was Italian in musical practice. Mademoiselle de Guise, being very much an italophile, immediately appointed him her court composer and resident counter-tenor.
During the next 17 years he composed a huge amount of music for her and her friends and relations, including the ‘motet dramatique’, Filius prodigus. In 1680 Mademoiselle de Guise enlarged her group of musicians, making it one of the largest and best private musical establishments in France. His scope thus widened, Charpentier produced, in Filius prodigus, a work on the scale of a small oratorio. He cast the rôle of the prodigal son as a counter-tenor, so Charpentier himself will have been the first to perform the rôle.

Michael Haydn’s Run, ye shepherds

Michael Haydn (1737 – 1806)

Run ye shepherds was probably composed in 1775, in Salzburg. Michael Haydn worked for the Archbishops of Salzburg for most of his professional life. This was early in the reign of Archbishop Colloredo who was famous for favouring simplicity in church music (causing problems for some of his composers). Michael Haydn had already been working towards a simpler style of composition and he flourished under this new Archbishop.

The words of Run ye shepherds are simple and direct. Haydn sets them to music of a näive charm which perfectly matches their simplicity. The centre-piece of the work is a contemplative soprano solo ‘O happy shepherds’. This is framed by two short choruses: first the excited shepherds hurrying to the stable; then a lullaby which ends with the baby asleep.

Haydn’s Kleine Orgelmesse (Missa Brevis Sancti Johannis de Deo)

Joseph Haydn’s employer, Count Nicolaus I of Esterhazy, was a keen amateur musician and made huge demands on Haydn. This meant the greater part of Haydn’s output took the shape of symphonies and chamber music written for the Court. But he was called upon at times to compose music for the Church.

Haydn presenting the Mass to the brothers in 1775

In Eisenstadt, just down the road from the Esterhazy Palace was the Abbey of the Brothers of Mercy (Barmherziger Brüder) – it is now the hospital. Haydn (who also lived in the same street) had a great liking for the Brotherhood, and this lovely little Mass is one of a number of works he wrote for them.  It is deliberately modest both in the musical resources needed to perform it and in its dimensions.  To keep it short, Haydn used the common practice in the Gloria and the Credo of having four lines of text sung simultaneously by different voices; tricky if you’re trying to follow the words, but it does eat up the text!

The interior of the Brothers’ chapel, with the organ Haydn played at the first performance


Brahms’ Requiem

First impulse

It is thought by some that he was first prompted to compose a requiem by the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856. There is little likelihood that he could have undertaken this at the time since he had been supporting Schumann’s wife Clara during her husband’s last two years of illness and when Schumann died Brahms was in the middle of a crisis in the creativity department. The idea of an unfulfilled desire to write a requiem seems quite plausible, though.

Choice of text

Since his early years Brahms had been an avid reader and deeply interested in literature. So he was in the habit of choosing works of literary weight to set to music, rather than more obvious lyric poetry (which would have been easier to set).

Brahms’ German Requiem

Brahms composed the German Requiem between 1865 and 1868, when he was in his mid-30s

and in full flow with works such as the Piano Quintet, String Sextets, the Horn Trio, the Handel-and Paganini Variations. It was a time of passionate involvement with a number of young ladies, at one point almost ending in marriage. But in February 1865 he was devastated by the death of his mother, an event which triggered the composition of the Requiem.

For his text he turned to Luther’s wonderful, resonant translation of the Bible, choosing parts which had things to say to the grieving living, rather than being focussed on the dead (as in the Catholic Mass for the Dead). The result is a work with deeply dark moments, but which is ultimately comforting and greatly uplifting. His careful naming of it as ‘A German Requiem’ signals the fact that it has nothing to do with the Christian liturgy. It is written specifically for the concert hall, and Brahms commented that it could be called a Human Requiem.

Read more     or return to Brahms’ German Requiem

Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion

Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was commissioned to write his setting of this text by the authorities in Liège to mark the 600th anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi on June 11th 1846.

At the time of this commission, Mendelssohn was working on his oratorio Elijah for the 1846 Birmingham Festival, which was in August. He interrupted his work on that to compose Lauda Sion and to conduct the first performance in St. Martin’s Church, Liège. He must have worked at great speed, because in May and June 1846 he was also directing music festivals in Aachen and Cologne. Elijah was of course completed on time, but with such work-pressure it is not surprising that a year hence he would be recovering from a nervous break-down; indeed thereafter he had only a few months to live.

Beethoven’s Mass in C, op 86

The Mass in C was composed in 1807, a period of prodigious output when Beethoven was in his mid-30s.

He had slowly become adjusted to his deafness, and a protracted, unhappy love-affair had been finished and buried. In 1806, Beethoven composed his 4th Piano Concerto, the 4th symphony, the violin concerto, the Appassionata Sonata and the 3 Rasumovsky quartets. Nearly all his music was received ecstatically and his fame and reputation blossomed across Europe.

On the strength of this, Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy commissioned Beethoven to write a Mass for his wife’s name’s-day on 13th September 1807. Given that Haydn had written six masterpieces marking this occasion in previous years, and Beethoven had not written a single mass until now, this caused him some consternation. Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Hummel had succeeded Haydn as the Esterhazys’ Kappellmeister and had written slightly less distinguished works for the occasion, but Beethoven was, rightly, nervous of comparison with Haydn.

The Mass he produced proved inventive, novel and striking – quite different from anything Haydn or Hummel could have written. Although Beethoven was pleased with his work it did not find favour with the Prince. The Prince, indeed made a barbed comment about it; to make matters worse, Hummel laughed, so ending a long friendship. But there was no stopping the flow of masterpieces from Beethoven’s pen: his next work was to complete the 5th Symphony.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

The music for the Christmas Oratorio was not originally written for the Church but for  the name-day of Friedrich August II, the new Elector of Saxony – 3rdAugust,1733.

Bach, in his position as Director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, began a series of celebratory secular cantatas to mark the occasion.

Three of these are lost, including 215a (for the Elector’s coronation as King of Poland on 19th February 1734), but cantata no. 213, written for the Elector’s heir, does remain, along with 214 (for the Electress) and 215 (for the Elector). The music is festive and virtuosic; most was performed al fresco to complement the fireworks!

The Christmas Oratorio is a parody work based on these secular cantatas. It consists of six cantatas, the first of which was performed on Christmas Day 1734, and the last at Epiphany 1735.