This is the seventh in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.
Hence 5&1 from 600!
How do you articulate to others an experience so searing, so crushing that one is left gasping and flattened? For many of us, our own words are simply too puny, too ephemeral. That’s why so often we resort to those of true wordsmiths, those who, with the pen, refine, sharpen and pinpoint. But even the greatest of these fall short, tumbling into incomprehensibility, into grunts rather than words. Which is why, when words fail, music takes their place; or perhaps more commonly, serves to ignite or amplify those words that seem fruitless without it.
So, like so many, music has uniquely sustained me during the pandemic and previous dark times. And I’m all too aware of those who suffer physically, mentally and spiritually, not least because of loved ones lost to Covid-19. Now I’m not picky when it comes to musical genre or era or forces. I just search out music that combines excellence with beauty, integrity and reality, whether from ancient choirs, singer-songwriters at open-mic nights or 120-piece orchestras. But since this is specifically a classical playlist, here are some works that have evoked the pain of grief when I’ve most needed them, expressing the inexpressible (or, as the late English philosopher Roger Scruton put it, they serve to ‘eff the ineffable’!).
Mélisande’s Death from Pelléas et Mélisande (Op. 46, JS 147)
—Jean Sibelius (1865-1957, Finnish) Herbert von Karajan (conductor), Berliner Philharmonker
Pelléas et Mélisande, an 1892 play by the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck (who won the 1911 Nobel for Literature), profoundly affected a number of composers. It depicts the classic trope of the love triangle and would inspire Debussy’s famous opera, symphonic music by Schoenberg and then one William Wallace (a Scottish composer, but not Mel Gibson’s revolutionary), as well as incidental music for the play by Gabriel Fauré. But I’ve got a real passion for Sibelius. He plumbs extraordinary depths—and this, the final movement from his suite, is subtle but unfailingly moving. We’re in a similar sound world to Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite (from which we heard an extract for Halloween). But this really does it for me (like pretty much anything Sibelius wrote). Just astonishing.
‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ (Act 2 Sc. 4, The Magic Flute, K. 620)
—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austrian) Sandrine Piau (soprano), Gottfried von der Goltz (conductor), Freiburger Barockorchester
Pamina pours out her broken heart because her true love, Tamino, has spurned her. We saw them earlier on stage full of love’s ecstasies, but now, he stubbornly refuses even to acknowledge her. What a cad! Mozart is at his most tender and empathetic, the orchestra lending her a musical arm round the shoulder as it gently strokes her searing, sinuous lament. Listen out for the wind instruments that weave in and out of her melody from time to time. Just glorious but deeply affecting.
Now, as so often in opera (especially Mozart’s), nothing is what it seems. I was first taken to see The Magic Flute aged 8 or 9 and it’s the perfect immersion for a kid. The plot is completely and utterly bonkers, involving magic, goodies who are actually baddies (and vice-versa), wicked queens, giant serpents, high priests and bird-catchers. Oh, and, Freemasonry. So naturally, Tamino is undergoing some dumb initiation trials, one of which is silence. All is not lost; he still loves Pamina; they can end up happily. But Mozart’s genius is such that even for a comic opera, he can come up with the most poignant and heart-breaking music. Lesser composers would have reserved such a masterpiece as this for a context far more weighty. But then they’re not Mozart. (Click here for the text in translation, scrolling down to #17.)
Dido’s Lament “When I Am Laid In Earth” (from Dido & Aeneas Z. 626)
—Henry Purcell (1659-1695, English) Véronique Gens (soprano), William Christie (conductor), Les Arts Florissants
Purcell was perhaps England’s first truly great composer, and his Dido & Aeneas perhaps his greatest masterpiece. The story is from Virgil’s Aeneid Book 4 (by the way, if you want to save a bit of time reading the whole Aeneid, a top tip is to leave out the odd-numbered books!). Aeneas dumps poor Queen Dido of Carthage because of his determination to fulfil his fate of founding Rome (could that be a justification for being a rat?). Of course, Virgil is writing a political Just-So story to explain the centuries-old hostility between Rome and Carthage (remember Hannibal and his elephants?).
In this aria, Dido also pours out her heart, broken by grief and betrayal. Purcell’s melody is so simple—essentially going up and down scales. But the artistry is stunning, both in word-setting and harmonies. Follow the text here.
When David Heard
—Eric Whitacre (1970- , American) Eric Whitacre (conductor), Eric Whitacre Singers
When Henry, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King James (I of England, VI of Scotland)–yes, he of King James Bible fame—died from typhoid in 1612, there was national mourning. Two contemporary musicians composed settings of King David’s reaction to hearing of his son Absalom’s death (2 Samuel 18:32-33): Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes. Both are beautiful.
But to my mind, they have been eclipsed by a new setting by the rock star of choral music, Eric Whitacre. I personally do not find myself drawn to everything he writes (which says more about me than him probably). However, this is choral gold. He employs all kinds of musical and vocal effects that send shivers down the spine. The first time I heard it was an overwhelming experience. And it hasn’t palled. This truly is mourning with those who mourn.
Parce Mihi Domine
—Cristóbal De Morales (1500-1553, Spanish) Jan Garbarek (saxophone), Hilliard Ensemble
Who knew that some plainsong settings of the office (the Catholic cycle of daily prayers) would become one of the biggest selling records of 1994, a disc of ecclesiastical music transformed into a uniquely arresting sound-world through the addition of a solo saxophone? But that’s precisely what happened when the renowned Hilliard Ensemble (an English all-male singing quartet) joined forces with Jan Garbarek (a Norwegian jazz saxophonist). This was aural alchemy.
This track is not lament for a lost loved one; it is a lament for our sin, with the text crying to God for forgiveness. But the extraordinary effect created by four singers and one saxophonist is overpowering—somehow creating hope in the midst of grief. It does not play down the darkness; but nor does it indulge in wishful thinking. To my mind and heart, it conveys a sense of both realism and expectation in the very presence of God.
Stabat Mater (1736)
—Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736, Italian Papal States) Julia Lezhneva (soprano), Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor) & I Barocchisti
Pergolesi wrote his 12-part Stabat Mater just a year before TB robbed him of life at only 26. Who knows what wonders could have resulted had he lived longer?
This is a stunning work, scored for orchestra, choir and two soloists, one of whom is a soprano or boy treble, the other a (female) contralto or (male) counter-tenor depending on preference. It narrates the crucifixion story from the perspective of the Lord’s mother, Mary, initially as she was standing (‘stabat’) at Golgotha. The piece was controversial initially, accused of scandalously transporting forms and styles from the operatic stage into church, which was deemed entirely inappropriate. But part of its wonder is that it brings the pathos and agony of that scene to dramatic life, while using words and music alone. The chilling dissonances and long-sustained suspensions (especially between the two singers) pierce right to the marrow. It fully deserves the 30 minutes of full attention it demands. Follow the translation from the Latin here.