Romantic Era

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The sequence Dies Irae (mp3source
Gregorian Chant - Sequences
Gregorian Chant – Sequences. By: Capella Antiqua München; Konrad Ruhland (Sony SBK 61868)
)
is part of the Requiem Mass, which is celebrated for the departed. In threatening words, the Dies Irae announces the final judgment: “Day of wrath! O day of mourning! See fulfilled the prophets’ warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning!”. On that day, when history will end, creation will have to give an account of itself to God. Who could exist in such a judgment? It, therefore, is no surprise that the last part of the text is a prayer for the soul’s eternal rest.

This text has been set to music very often; in most cases as part of a Requiem. The earliest Requiem that includes the Dies Irae, is the one by Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512/3) (mp3source
Antoine Brumel - Missa 'Et ecce terrae motus', Sequentia 'Dies Irae'
Antoine Brumel – Missa ‘Et ecce terrae motus’, Sequentia ‘Dies Irae’. By: Huelgas Ensemble; Paul van Nevel (Sony SK 46348)

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)
. In the course of music history, the binding with the original gregorian melody declines. The Italian composer Antonio Lotti (1660-1740) provided completely new music for the Dies Irae: (mp3source
Antonio Lotti - Requiem
Antonio Lotti – Requiem. By: Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Ensemble; Thomas Hengelbrock (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77507 2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. A few decades later, Mozart composed his a Dies Irae as part of his Requiem, which is a personal document rather than liturgical music. He used more expressive means than his predecessors to display the overwhelming character of the Dies Irae (mp3source
W.A. Mozart - Requiem
W.A. Mozart – Requiem. By: Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi France HMX 2901620)

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)
. This development was carried on further in the nineteenth century, in which the approach became more and more megalomaniac. An impressive climax is the Dies Irae (1874) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in which the final judgement is announced with thundering violence (here in a performance conducted by Claudio Abbado):

Thus, the text of the Dies Irae was widely used without its original melody. The opposite also happened often: the gregorian melody has been included in many instrumental works, especially the opening motif: (mp3source
Gregorian Chant - Sequences
Gregorian Chant – Sequences. By: Capella Antiqua München; Konrad Ruhland (Sony SBK 61868)
)
. Within the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, in which artists were fascinated by such notions as transiency, lunacy, morbidity, ruins, night and death, this melody became a symbol for threath, darkness and decease. One of the earliest examples can be found in the fifth movement of the Symphonie Fantastique (1830) by Hector Berlioz, which depicts a witches’ sabath (mp3source
Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique. By: New York Philharmonic; Zubin Mehta (Decca 448 987-2)
)
. Another famous example is the Dance Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, a symphonic poem that has a poem by Henri Cazalis about death as its program (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. Also the composer Sergej Rachmaninoff was obsessed by the theme. In numerous of his instrumental works the characteristic motif is cited. For instance in the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (1909), which is related to the painting Die Toteninsel by Arnold Böcklin. After a climax, a passage follows in which one by one various instruments play the Dies Irae theme (mp3source
Rachmaninov - Symphony No.1 - Isle of the Dead
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.1 – Isle of the Dead. By: The Philharmonia; Jacek Kaspszyk (Collins 12132)
)
.

Böcklin - Toteninsel (third version, 1883)
Böcklin – Toteninsel (third version, 1883)

Recommended cd’s

Antoine Brumel - Missa 'Et ecce terrae motus', Sequentia 'Dies Irae'
Antoine Brumel – Missa ‘Et ecce terrae motus’, Sequentia ‘Dies Irae’. By: Huelgas Ensemble; Paul van Nevel (Sony SK 46348)

Details: Amazon.com

Antonio Lotti - Requiem
Antonio Lotti – Requiem. By: Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Ensemble; Thomas Hengelbrock (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77507 2)

Details: Amazon.com

W.A. Mozart - Requiem
W.A. Mozart – Requiem. By: Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi France HMX 2901620)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com

Verdi - Messa da Requiem
Verdi – Messa da Requiem. By: Claudio Abbado (EMI CDC 5 57168 2)

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DVD Verdi Requiem
DVD Verdi Requiem. By: Claudio Abbado (EMI 926949)

Details: Amazon.com


Program Music

The symphonic poem Phaéton by Camille Saint-Saëns, which was discussed in the previous article (Phaéton by Camille Saint-Saëns), is an example of program music. These are compositions to which the composer adds a ‘program’. Both the genre of the symphonic poem and the term program music have been introduced by Franz Liszt (1811-1868). Liszt defined the program as a

preface added to an instrumental composition in which the composer saves the listener from a wrong poetic interpretation of the work, and aims to focus the listener’s attention to the poetic idea of the whole work, or of a specific part of it.

Basically, this means that the composer gives the listener a clue in advance to be able to understand the composition. The program Saint-Saëns added to Phaéton reads:

Phaéton gets control over the sun chariot. But his unable hands lead the horses off the trail. Getting out of its course, the burning chariot approaches the earth. The entire world breaks down in flames, until Jupiter hits the reckless Phaéton with his lightning.

In this symphonic poem, Saint-Saëns follows the story line quite closely. Even the lightning of the king of the gods is identifiable (measure 247 (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
). But, this is not always the case. Liszt, for example, wrote more contemplative programs. In the symphonic poem Orpheus (1854) he presents Orpheus as a symbol for Art itself. According to Liszt, the purpose of art is to overcome passions and instincts, and thus to lift humanity to a higher level. In this symphonic poem, it is not possible to find the story line of the myth of Orpheus. It rather is a musical representation of Liszt’s conception of art. We, therefore, must be aware not to take the relation between the music and the program too simplistic. The program is not a ‘literal translation’ of the music, but rather a kind of allegory or parable about the same subject as the music.

Program music as intended by Liszt came to an end in the beginning of the twentieth century. For example, Gustav Mahler was not able to cope with it anymore. His objective was to express ideas in music without needing a text to explain them. The careful listener would understand the meaning of the music anyway. His first symphony (1888) was initially presented as a symphonic poem, but without a program. When the public asked for the meaning of the music, Mahler named the symphony Titan and attached descriptions to the movements. For example, the first movement he called “Das Erwachten der Natur” (The Awakening of Nature). (mp3source
Liszt: Les Preludes, Orpheus, Tasso, Festklänge
Liszt: Les Preludes, Orpheus, Tasso, Festklänge. By: Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (BIS BIS-CD-1117)

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)
. But when the public took this description too literally and thought that the symphony merely was about an enjoyable spring scene with hunting horns and bird songs, Mahler removed the descriptions again and gave the movements purely musical names. Thus, he let the music speak for itself, and assumed that the right listener would understand the meaning of the music anyway.

Recommended cd’s

Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com

Liszt: Les Preludes, Orpheus, Tasso, Festklänge
Liszt: Les Preludes, Orpheus, Tasso, Festklänge. By: Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (BIS BIS-CD-1117)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. By: San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony 821936-0002-2-9)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com


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The symphonic poem Phaéton (1873) by Camille Saint-Saëns is based on the ancient Greek myth with the same title. To prove to his critics that he is truly the son of Helios, Phaéton asks his father permission to drive the sun chariot for one day. Because of certain former promises, Helios has to grant Phaéton the requested permission, which he does reluctantly, because it is a major task to control the sun. Phaéton soon experiences the consequences of his youthful audacity. He is unable to hold the wild horses, carrying the sun too close to the earth. Thus, as a side note in this story, the origination of the Sahara and the skin color of the Ethiopians is explained. Finally, Zeus intervenes. The king of the gods brings Phaéton’s unfortunate ride to an end by hitting him with his lightning, causing Phaéton to crash down into the river Eridanus. His passing away is lamented by the nymphs of the river, who bury him.

It is of course interesting to examine the way Saint-Saëns used the elements of this myth to compose his symphonic poem.

After a short introduction, the strings start a rhythmic motif that clearly relates to the gallop of the horses: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. The trumpets burst into a theme full of bravery and splendor: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. After a while, frightening sounds arise and the music gets more and more restless: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. Then, Saint-Saëns steps back for a while. It seems like the spectators who are watching the scene lament because of the approaching disaster. A second theme appears in the horns: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. But soon we are back in middle of the tumultuous events, with as climax the lightning of Zeus, played by the flutes, after which the inevitable fall of Phaéton, represented by a series of descending lines, leads to his inglorious end: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. Again, we hear the second theme. Now it is the lament of the river nymphs: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
. Finally, the first theme is played once more, but now all bravery and magnificence is gone: (mp3source
Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com
)
.

Recommended cd’s

Saint-Saëns - Dance Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Dance Macabre. By: Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyung Wha Chung (Decca 425 021-2)

Details: Amazon.com


Recommended sheet music

De complete score of Phaéton can freely be downloaded from the Petrucci Library: Phaéton.