Music of 1816

MAY 17, 2014 CONCERT — Music of 1816 from Paris & Vienna / Loann Scarpato

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842): Requiem Mass in C Minor
On January 21, 1815, a solemn procession wound through the snowy streets of Paris. Dozens of foot-soldiers and cavalry escorted a huge black funeral carriage emblazoned with the Bourbon coat of arms and drawn by six elaborately caparisoned black horses. Towering above the troops and bystanders, the carriage bore two richly draped caskets surmounted by a crown. It was twenty-two years to the day after the death by guillotine of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. The scanty remains of the ruler and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were being conveyed from unmarked graves to the abbey church of St-Denis, the traditional resting place of French kings, there to be reburied with proper ceremony. For in the intervening years, the Revolution had run its course, Europe had been convulsed by the Napoleonic Wars, that leader had been conclusively defeated at Waterloo and dispatched to his final exile, and the Bourbon monarchy had been restored in the person of Louis XVIII, younger brother of the beheaded king. (Louis XVII never ruled: he was the young son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and became titular king of France at his father’s death, but died himself while imprisoned, all of ten years old.

In 1816, Louis XVIII commissioned a Requiem Mass to commemorate the next anniversary of his brother’s death, and he chose the Florentine expatriate Luigi Carlo Zenobi Salvadore Maria Cherubini to compose it. Cherubini had lived in Paris since 1786, producing operas and liturgical music both before and after the Revolution (although he wisely absented himself from the city during the tumultuous year 1793). He was politically nimble enough to have received commissions both from the Bourbon monarchy and from Napoleon, and he was one of the earliest faculty members of the French National Conservatory of Music when it was founded in 1795. (He became its director in 1822, occupying a position of great prestige and cultural influence for the next twenty years until his death.)

So on January 21, 1817, Cherubini conducted the first performance of his Requiem Mass in C Minor in the crypt beneath St-Denis, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lie to this day. In that rock-ribbed space, with its massive pillars, blind arcades, and low, barrel-vaulted ceiling paved in rough blocks, the dark sonorities of the cellos, basses, and bassoons and the choral voices singing in mid- and low registers at the beginning of the Introit must have sounded as if they were arising from the very stones themselves. (Musicologists believe that the opening passages of the Brahms and the Verdi Requiems may well have been influenced by Cherubini’s setting – both of these later composers knew and greatly admired it.) The crash of the tam-tam (a kind of gong not hitherto used in sacred music) in the opening of the Dies Irae must have been unearthly in that reverberant space. The overlapping lines of the triple fugue (“Quam olim Abrahae”) in the Offertorium must have produced an overwhelming cascade of sound in such close quarters. And the long, slow diminuendo that closes the work must have sounded as if it were being gradually swallowed up in the shadows. The composition looks back to the Baroque era of Bach and Handel in its contrapuntal passages, and it pays tribute to Mozart (Cherubini conducted the first Paris performance of Mozart’s Requiem in 1804), but it also hints at the gathering tide of Romanticism. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and became the “go-to” musical choice for the funerals and memorial services of eminent Parisians (as well as for Beethoven) in the first half of the 19th century, so much so that Berlioz complained of its monopoly on such occasions. (He struggled to get his own massive Requiem performed in the 1830s.) Economy may have had something to do with it: Cherubini’s Requiem is of an appropriate length for liturgical use, requires no soloists, and uses a modest-sized orchestra. It was held in such esteem by Cherubini’s contemporaries and by the Romantic composers that its influence can be found in nearly all of the important Requiem settings that followed it.

Franz Schubert (1797—1828): Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, D.485
At the ripe old age of nineteen, Schubert was approaching the end of his apprenticeship as a composer. According to the chronological catalog of his works compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch (which admittedly includes fragments and other partial works), by 1816 Schubert had already written between three and four hundred pieces of music in nearly every vocal and instrumental form. This would be remarkable output even for a full-time composer. But ever since Schubert’s student days had ended in 1814, he had been teaching in his father’s primary school; maintaining an active social life; taking twice-weekly lessons from Anton Salieri, his composition tutor since childhood; attending musical performances; engaging in some private teaching; and participating in the rehearsals and concerts of an orchestral society that met regularly in private houses. Amateur musical salons were a prominent feature of middle-class Viennese cultural life, and Schubert’s first six symphonies were written specifically for this group. His facility and speed of composition were legendary: reportedly, he often composed a song from start to finish in half an hour. But in 1816 Schubert gave up his teaching post at his father’s school, moved out of the family home, and ceased his regular studies with Salieri. From then on, he lived as a free-lance composer.

Of the six early symphonies, No. 5 is the shortest and uses the smallest orchestra: strings, one flute, two oboes, and two horns. The clarinets, trumpets, and timpani typical of a Classical orchestra are lacking. Perhaps this scoring reflects the makeup at the time of the private orchestra society for which Schubert wrote in September and October of 1816. The Schubert scholar Maurice J. E. Brown says, “…to call this work Mozartian is to pay Mozart a compliment.” It is quintessential pre-Beethoven Viennese Classicism. It was performed shortly after its completion at one of the regular meetings of the musical salon, and then not again in Schubert’s brief lifetime. He died at 31, having produced nearly a thousand works. His memorial stone reads: “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes. Franz Schubert lies here.”