The 33rd Season concludes with a bombastic set of works featuring The Symphony Orchestra & Chorus in full, led by our new Principal Conductor Guillermo Figueroa. The afternoon begins with one of the most popular works by one of today’s great living choral composers, Morten Lauridsen: his Lux Aeterna for chorus and chamber orchestra. Mendelssohn’s complex setting of Psalm 114, “Da Israel aus Ägypten zog,” for double chorus and orchestra, will be sure to astound. Finally, the season comes to a grand finale with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, likely the very best loved work by that perpetually astounding composer.
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SATURDAY, MAY 20, 2017, AT 7:00 PM
SUNDAY, MAY 21, 2017, AT 4:00 PM
Morten Lauridsen grew up in the Pacific Northwest and studied composition at the University of Southern California with Ingolf Dahl, Halsey Stevens, and Robert Linn. For the last three decades he has taught composition at USC, and from 1990 until 2002 he served as chairman of the composition faculty of the USC Thornton School of Music. Lauridsen composed Lux Aeterna in 1995–1997, and it was first performed on April 13, 1997, by Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia. Lux Aeterna has become something of a sensation in choral music: over the past decades it has had numerous performances and has been recorded on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the most striking features of Lux Aeterna is that it seems to exist outside of time. It is a mixture of the ancient and the contemporary, somewhat in the manner of such twentieth-century scores as the Maurice Duruflé Requiem, which is based on Gregorian chant, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor, which makes use of Renaissance techniques. Lauridsen’s use of a Latin text, cantus firmus melodies, and close canonic writing places Lux Aeterna in the tradition of the polyphonic choral music of the Renaissance, but his use of a full symphony orchestra and—at moments—a dissonant harmonic language makes this music feel “modern.” That diverse fusion has proven attractive to both performers and audiences.
Lux Aeterna is in five movements that are played without pause, and formally these take the shape of an arch: the opening and closing movements use some of the same text and music, and at the center of the arc is an a cappella movement. Lauridsen assembled his text from diverse sources. The texts of the outer movements come from the Requiem Mass: the opening movement from the Introit, the concluding movement from the Agnus Dei and Communion. The text of the second movement comes from the Te Deum, while the third and fourth movements are from old Latin hymns. Throughout, the emphasis is on light: in the title, in the recurring conception of illumination and salvation, and in the music itself, which often seems to cast a luminous glow.
Music so instantly attractive requires little “explanation,” and commentary may be kept to a minimum. It should be noted, though, that the outer movements—which are drawn from the Requiem Mass—specifically emphasize salvation rather than damnation; Lauridsen frames this work with movements that evoke light and eternal rest, and these will be recurring themes throughout. Further, this music does without the conflict that lies at the heart of sonata-form structures: Lux Aeterna is peaceful from its first instant—it seems to grow out of nothing at the beginning, and at the end it fades into rapt silence. There are moments of intensity along the way, but at no point does this music strive for the violence of the Verdi Requiem or the ringing triumph of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem. Rather, its restrained manner sings with a confidence and peace that reassure rather than assault. Lauridsen has noted that the second movement is based on the seventeenth-century cantus firmus melody Herzliebster Jesu and has called the fourth movement “a spirited, jubilant canticle.” The final movement, longest of the five, employs the text of the closing sections of the Requiem Mass, but Lauridsen presses beyond these to conclude with an Alleluia and an Amen that draw Lux Aeterna to its serene conclusion.
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, opus 67
Ludwig van Beethoven
No one can remember hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the first time—this music is so much a part of us that we seem to be born knowing it. The Fifth surrounds us: as background music for chocolate and motor oil commercials, as the symbol for Victory in World War II, as the stuff of jokes. Even children who know nothing about classical music sing its opening four notes on playgrounds. Those four notes are the most famous in classical music, and Beethoven’s Fifth is certainly the most famous symphony ever written.
Music so white-hot in intensity, so universal in appeal, cries out for interpretation, and over the last two centuries many have been ready to tell us what this symphony “means.” To some, it is Fate knocking at the door. To one nineteenth-century critic, it told the story of a failed love affair. Others see it as the triumph of reason over chaos and evil. Still others have advanced quite different explanations. But engaging as such interpretations are, they tell us more about the people who make them than about the music itself. The sad truth is that this music is so over-familiar that we have almost stopped listening to it: the opening rings out, and our minds go on automatic pilot for the next thirty minutes—we have lost the capacity to listen to the Fifth purely as music, to comprehend it as the astonishing and original musical achievement that it is.
Beethoven made the first sketches for his Fifth Symphony in 1804, soon after completing the “Eroica,” but did not begin work in earnest until after finishing the Fourth in 1806. Most of the composition took place in the summer of 1807, and he completed the score that fall. The Fifth was first performed on December 22, 1808, six days after Beethoven’s thirty-eighth birthday.
The stark opening of the Allegro con brio, both very simple and charged with volcanic fury, provides the musical content for the entire movement. That (seemingly) simple figure saturates the first movement, giving it extraordinary unity. Those four notes shape the main theme, generate the rhythms, and pulse insistently in the background—they even become the horn fanfare that announces the second theme. One of the most impressive features of this movement is how short it is: of Beethoven’s symphonies, only the Haydnesque First has a shorter first movement. The power unleashed at the beginning is unrelenting, and this movement hammers to a close with the issues it raises still unresolved.
The Andante con moto contrasts two themes. Violas and cellos sing the broad opening melody in A-flat major; Beethoven reportedly made eleven different versions of this theme before he got the one he wanted. The second subject, in heroic C major, blazes out in the brass, and Beethoven simply alternates these two themes, varying each as the movement proceeds.
The third movement returns to the C-minor urgency of the beginning. It seems at first to be in scherzo-and-trio form, with lower strings introducing the sinuous opening idea. But horns quickly sound the symphony’s opening motto, and the movement never quite regains its equilibrium: the trio, with lumbering fugal entries in the strings, subtly incorporates the opening rhythm as well.
At just the point where one anticipates a return to the scherzo comes one of the most famous—and original—moments in music. Instead of going back, Beethoven pushes ahead. Bits of the scherzo flit quietly over an ominous pedal, and suddenly the final movement, a triumphant march in C major, bursts to life: this dramatic moment has invariably been compared to sunlight breaking through dark clouds. Beethoven’s scoring here reminds us of something easy to overlook—his concern with instrumental color. The march theme is announced by a full orchestra that includes three trombones (their first use in a symphony), and Beethoven employs a piccolo and contrabassoon to good effect here as well. Near the middle of this movement, Beethoven brings back some of the scherzo, which briefly—and darkly—slows progress before the triumphant march bursts out again to drive the symphony to its close. The coda itself is extremely long, and the final cadence, extended almost beyond reason, is overpowering.
No matter how familiar this symphony is, no matter how overlain it has become with extra-musical associations, the music remains extraordinary. Heard for itself, free of the cultural baggage it has acquired over the years, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is as original and powerful and furious today as it was when it burst upon an unsuspecting audience on a cold winter night in Vienna two centuries ago.
The Symphony acknowledges with thanks our season program notes contributor, Eric Bromberger.