Opus Colorado

Ars Nova Singers provide peace and serenity

The Ars Nova Singers once again performed a truly outstanding program. Their performance at the St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral on Washington Street here in Denver on Friday, March 12, introduced the audience to three Requiem Masses, all of them very different. The first Requiem was composed by Jean Richafort (1480-1547), the second Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), and the third Requiem by the Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968).

A Requiem Mass is, of course, a funeral Mass, and in many periods of music history it has been proven to be more often performed than the regular Mass. It differs from the regular Mass in that the joyful portions are omitted, and the sequence Dies Irae followed by the Tuba Mirum is inserted. In addition, instead of the Ite Missa Est, which comes at the end of the Mass, the Requiescant in pace (rest in peace) is added. Composers throughout history have written requiem masses, and they can be extremely in content. For example, Gabriel Fauré wrote a huge Requiem for choir and orchestra, but omitted the Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum because he thought that the deceased individual should truly rest in peace. The Dies Irae is anything but restful, because it is, in truth, a warning that the Day of Judgment will arrive, and on that day the world will dissolve in ashes and everyone will be examined. In other words, it would be very advantageous if one has lived their life according to the word of God. The Tuba Mirum is the section of the Mass following the Dies Irae where the Day of Judgment is here, and no one who has lived less than a perfect life will ascend to heaven. It is usually, as the text implies, introduced by the sound of trumpets. As a matter of fact, the painter Hieronymus Bosch painted a triptych entitled “The Day of Judgment” depicting the opening of the earth and sinners being pulled into its bowels. Terrifying stuff indeed. Even the original medieval Mass which included the Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum attracted one’s attention because instead of a chant full of melismas (a lyrical section of music), the Dies Irae which was written by Thomas of Celano (the biographer of St. Francis) in the 13th century, contained motion by the interval of the third and whole and half steps in the melody, first going up, and then going down (F, E, F, D, E, C, D, for example).

The first Requiem on the program by Jean Richafort was beautifully done by Ars Nova. His Requiem was written for his teacher, Josquin Des Prez who died in 1521. It uses quotes from several of Josquin’s compositions as a tribute to his greatness (it also reminded me a little of the future composer, Thomas Tallis). Immediately when the Ars Nova began to sing, one was struck by the incredible blend of voices that typifies this organization, and the knowledge of the musical period possessed by its conductor Thomas Edward Morgan. The sound was incredibly pure without any bleat coming from any of the singers. And once again, one is struck by the remarkable dynamic range that these singers possess and which Mr. Morgan requires. I was also immediately struck by the fact that this group sang all of the Requiems in this performance without sounding morose or exaggerating any imagined sadness at the use of such a Mass. Morgan has a very precise beat as he conducts, and he asks for inflection and attacks on every single syllable the choir is singing. And this, of course, enables the choir to enunciate every word so that it can be understood, let alone emphasize musical nuance. Richafort, who is a very obscure composer, certainly needs to be heard much more often. He was highly regarded by his peers and his works were published in several anthologies between 1519 and 1583.

Herbert Howells, whose Requiem appeared next on the program, wrote his Requiem for his nine-year-old son, Michael, who died from polio, or according to other accounts, meningitis. As is the case with any parent who so tragically loses a child, his son’s death affected him throughout his entire life. As a matter of fact, in 1915, Howells himself was diagnosed with Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disease) and told that he was only to live another six months. However, he made the decision to accept some experimental radium treatments. These treatments were successful and he lived a full life. In this program, Morgan seems to have picked three Requiems, all of which can be typified by some of the most beautiful harmonic writing I have heard. In addition, the Howells work exemplifies great dignity which the Ars Nova singers seemed to have no difficulty in presenting. There were four soloists in this Requiem; Tana Cochran, soprano, Rhonda Wallen, contralto, Louis Warshawsky, tenor, and Philip Judge, baritone. This is the first time that I have heard Rhonda Wallen, and she has an absolutely beautiful voice, and like everybody else in the Ars Nova singers, her diction is beyond compare. She is amazingly sensitive as are the other three soloists who appeared with her. I think it is time to say that none of the soloists, and in fact, none of the members of the choir, seem to be afflicted with professional jealousy. They all simply (simply?) sing to the best of their ability, and they all seem to be very good friends. It reminds me very much of the Colorado Ballet in that regard. The entire corps de ballet could be soloists if they were called upon, and they do not seem to be encumbered by personal jealousies. Similarly, I am convinced that all the members of the Ars Nova Singers could be soloists if Morgan asked them. Every singer in this choir is an individual reason to attend their concerts.

After the intermission, the Ars Nova sang the difficult Messe de Requiem by Ildebrando Pizzetti. Pizzetti was a composer and a teacher and a critic whose Requiem was written on the death of his wife. Pizzetti’s Requiem does include the Dies Irae and the Tuba Mirum, unlike the other two Masses which were performed on the evening’s program. However, even though the Dies Irae is accented by rhythmic jabs and emphasis, it seems far less confrontational than the original Dies Irae from the 13th century, and certainly less threatening than the Berlioz, Verdi, Mozart, or Gouvy Requiems. There is far less repetition of the Dies Irae than in any of those Requiems, and the text proceeds into the Tuba Mirum almost unnoticed. As a matter of fact, Pizzetti’s Dies Irae section ends with a sign of hope because the harmony changes to a major key and has a quiet ending. The harmonic changes in this work truly set it apart from the other two masses performed on this program, which is a little surprising, as Pizzetti’s later works are typified by minimalism in the extreme. In fact, the harmony is so complicated in this work, that sometimes the choir was divided into multiple parts with only two or three voices singing the same note. This is another work that needs to be performed more often.

What a stellar program this was! The soloists were excellent and the choir truly beyond compare. It demonstrates such careful attention to detail on the part of Thomas Morgan. The choir members were given different standing positions for each Mass so as to achieve the proper balance among the sections. And I must say that it is so very rewarding to listen to the Ars Nova Singers because they are such a very willing instrument for Thomas Edward Morgan’s remarkable artistic abilities.

Mozart's Death

Every now and again a new theory comes to light concerning the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Since Mozart died the theories have encompassed all manner of death from accidental suicide, political assassination, a fractured skull due to a fall from a horse, medical errors, renal failure: the list goes on and on. Some individuals still believe that Mozart was poisoned. ABC News reported today, August 18, 2009, that a group of doctors in Europe headed by Dr. Andrew Steptoe, announced that it was their opinion that Mozart died of a strep infection. This is not the first time that theory has been put forward. They base their conclusion on the fact that his symptoms included swelling and back pain. They do offer the caveat that even though they have done some research, the result is speculation. Of course, it would have to be, since we have no body to deal with and of course, it has been two hundred and eighteen years since he died.

The doctors do not seem to know about a remarkable book which was published in 2004. It was written by Daniel Leeson, and published by Algora Publishing in New York. The name of the book is “Opus Ultimum: The Story of The Mozart Requiem.” Since Mozart’s Requiem Mass was left unfinished by his death, Mr. Leeson deals with the time of his death, the symptoms of his death, as well as considerable research as to how his Requiem was finished. It seems amazing to me that the doctors who theorized that Mozart died of a strep infection do not seem to know of this book. They have undoubtedly read some sources but they leave out one important symptom that Leeson mentions in his book. It is that Mozart’s body exuded such an incredibly foul odor that it was very difficult for anyone to enter his room. He was also sometimes delirious and sometimes unconscious. His body was indeed swollen, but it was swollen to such an extent that even the touch of his nightshirt caused pain. And as Leeson points out, and I quote, “Many years later, his older son Karl, then seven, would remember standing in a corner of the room, terrified at seeing his father’s swollen body, and unable to forget the appalling smell of decay.” Since I am not a doctor, I asked a friend who is a doctor to comment on the extreme swelling and the foul smell caused by Mozart’s disease. Of course, as I pointed out above, and as Dr. Steptoe and his team pointed out, it was a long time ago, but my friend said that such an odor would be most likely caused by some kind of anaerobic infection that might be similar to gangrene. There are two kinds of bacteria that cause infection. The first, is an aerobic bacterium which requires air to live. The second, is an anaerobic bacterium, and of this type does not require surface air in order to survive, and it often involves the decay of flesh. And I would like to point out that Karl Mozart’s account of the odor was not the only such account.

So, in the end we still don’t know what killed Mozart, but it seems that if Dr. Steptoe and his team were familiar with Daniel Leeson’s book they may have come to a different conclusion.

The cause of Mozart’s death and the manner of it is important, because it puts to rest much of the nonsense that was in the movie “Amadeus.” In the movie, Mozart died while dictating his Requiem Mass to Salieri. It may be good scene in the movie but it did not happen. Mozart’s friends simply could not enter his room because the odor was too strong, plus he was going in and out of consciousness and was often delirious. We also know that Salieri did not finish Mozart’s Requiem. It was finished by Franz Xavier Sussmayr, Mozart’s student, who had often discussed a Requiem Mass with his teacher, and even though a fairly mediocre composer, he rose to the occasion when he finished Mozart’s Requiem.

It should be pointed out, however, that the reason for Mozart’s composing his Requiem was surrounded by a bit of a mystery as the movie “Amadeus” depicted, but it was hardly all that sinister. Not far from Vienna there lived a minor Count named Franz Josef Anton von Wallsegg. The Count’s wife, Maria Anna Teresa Prenner Edlen von Flammberg died at a young age and her husband desired to honor her with a Requiem. However, Count Wallsegg was known to commission works from composers and then claim them for his own. And that was the reason Wallsegg asked that the commission be kept secret. Mozart, and his wife, Constanze, needed the money from the commission because they always spent lavishly. Mozart died without finishing the Requiem, and eventually it fell to Sussmayr to finish it at Constanze’s bidding because she was desperate for the money from the commission. Constanze Mozart suspected Wallsegg might be planning a fraud, and before she gave the completed score to him she had it performed in Vienna and sent a copy to Mozart’s publisher, therefore eliminating any chance that Count Wallsegg could claim it as his own.

This is a fascinating story which is true. I would encourage all of you to read Daniel Leeson’s book, as it is a very scholarly account written, surprisingly, not for fellow scholars, but for the public at large. Leeson goes to great lengths to prove that many of the stories surrounding Mozart’s death are myths. But for me, there is still a mystery caused by the fact that I am not a doctor, but from what I have heard, the strong odor that emanated from Mozart’s dying body would probably rule out any kind of a strep infection. I think that it is safe to say that he did not die of strep throat, as one newspaper almost playfully reported.

The movie, “Amadeus,” did portray Mozart’s personality accurately, and therefore he probably would be a bit amused by all the furor about the cause of his death. I am sure that he would much prefer that we all sit down and listen to one of his symphonies, a quartet, or a sonata.