Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams was not only one of the greatest English composers but was also one of the foremost symphonists of the 20th century. He was educated by some of England’s leading composers in Charles Stanford and Hubert Parry, both of whom were notable teachers and composers in their own right. Later, Vaughan Williams went on to study with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris.
One of the newest trends of traditional composers was to travel into the countryside and explore folk tunes. Béla Bartók, the Hungarian composer, was the leading composer in this new trend of ethnomusicology, but Vaughan Williams was also one of the first composers to travel to the countryside to collect folk songs and carols. He then notated them for himself and future generations to utilize in compositions. He was also a musical editor of The English Hymnal, which allowed him to compose several hymn tunes that are still used today.
The Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ is one such composition. The piece refers to the story of the rich man and the beggar, told by Jesus in Luke 16: 19-31. The poor man is named Lazarus, while Dives comes from the Latin word for rich. In this interpretation of the story, Dives refuses to offer food to Lazarus and instead orders his men to whip him and his dogs to bite him. As both men die, angels carry Lazarus to heaven, and the serpents drag Dives into hell. As the men cross paths once more, Dives asks Lazarus for a drop of water (which he is unable to give him), and he complains about his external punishment. Although the tune ‘Dives and Lazarus,’ also known as “Star of County Down,” dates to at least the 16th century, Vaughan Williams initially used the tune in his English Folk Song Suite from 1923 because of his love of Britain’s musical history. He then turned the tune into a hymn tune called KINGSFOLD or “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” Christ Church sings Psalm 22, “Be Not far Off for Grief Is Near” to this tune.
In 1939, the British Council commissioned Vaughan Williams to compose The Five Variants in 1939 for the World’s Fair in New York City. It premiered that year by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by fellow Englishman, Sir Adrian Boult.
The piece itself consists of six sections. The introduction is of a moderate tempo that establishes a somewhat melancholy atmosphere. From here, a series of variations of varying characters follows. Vaughan Williams even says, “These variants are not exact replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others.” Modality also plays a key role throughout the piece.
The first variation changes the meter and introduces a play on a dotted rhythm. The second variation then plays with the impulse of the beat. You’ll notice moments that alternate between two and three beats per measure, sometimes overlapping, sometimes colliding. The third variation centers around the harp and solo violin, creating a duet with orchestral accompaniment, possibly drawing direct influence from the story of the rich man and the beggar. The penultimate variation, Variation IV, drives the tension forward to be released in the final variation, which expands the harmony of the orchestra by splitting the individual parts into many, creating a fuller, larger orchestral sound, bringing the piece to a majestic conclusion.
Symphony No. 5 in D minor “Reformation”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Felix Bartholdy-Mendelssohn was not your typical Romantic composer. Where several his contemporaries struggled with finances, health, musical performance opportunities, and a number of other issues that plagued the Romantic-Era composer, Mendelssohn was an exception. His parents were supportive of a career in music, to the point that Mendelssohn’s father hired full orchestras for his son, so that Mendelssohn’s music could be performed. These opportunities aided in cultivating a love of art and music in particular. By the age of twenty, Mendelssohn had written his famous string Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Most important was his role in the resurrection of J.S. Bach’s music. In 1829, Mendelssohn conducted a performance the Baroque master’s St. Matthew Passion, which hadn’t been heard since its composer’s death in 1750. The performances of this composition led to a new interest in composers of previous generations. Fun Fact: Mendelssohn was also one of the earliest conductors to use a baton when he conducted.
In 1830, the Lutheran Church, and the Protestant Church in general, was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a fundamental document of the Protestant faith and a keystone to the Protestant Reformation of 1530. Felix Mendelssohn, who had converted from Judaism to Protestantism to avoid rising anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, decided to participate in the celebration by writing a symphony based upon Martin Luther’s chorale “Ein’ feste Burg” (A Might Fortress). The symphony was premiered in 1832 in Berlin, Germany, approximately seventy miles from where Luther posted his ninety-five theses, in Wittenberg, Germany.
The symphony opens with an antiquated approach to voice-part writing, where multiple melodic lines overlap, creating a sense of restlessness and wandering. It also happens to be the same four-note motive used in Mozart’s last symphony; a piece Mendelssohn would have known quite well. This motive leads to the first statement of the Dresden Amen, a six-note progression that has been in use since the beginning of the 19th century. This progression is played by the strings. The main section of the movement that follows is swift and energetic. Mendelssohn plays with the final section of the movement by having the orchestra play it quietly, creating a contrast between the opening and closing sections.
The second movement is quick and light-hearted. In standard scherzo & trio form, the first section is dominated by a dotted-rhythm figure, first played by the winds, and then joined by the strings. The second section, which is the Trio, contrasts the first with a lyrical melody, introduced by the oboe. The elegance and playfulness of the movement are quintessential of Mendelssohn’s compositional style.
The slow, third movement, marked andante, acts as a palate cleanser, so to speak, in that it allows the ensemble and audience to relax a little prior to the big finish. It resembles a vocal aria, where the first violins are given, what would be, the vocal line.
Originally, Mendelssohn wrote a short movement that linked the third and fourth movements, which led directly into the chorale melody. This was ultimately cut from the symphony. Instead, Mendelssohn joined the final two movements by the cello and bass sections holding a low “G”, overtop of which the flute introduces the Lutheran chorale melody. The chorale continues, accompanied by scattered entrances of the rest of the woodwind section and lower strings. Following the slow introduction is an energetic and robust finale. The strings lead the charge in a new direction with interjections of a small fugue, respectful of the influence by Bach. The chorale tune, “A Mighty Fortress” weaves in and out of the entire movement, hinting at the triumphant ending. It is then that the entire orchestra joins together to play the final statement of the chorale melody.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Cadenza for the first movement by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Cadenza for the third movement by Ferrucio Busoni (1866–1924), Moderato
“Virile and yet elegant, divinely merry concerto,” in the words of Eugen d’Albert, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is the most contemplative and intimate of the composer’s five piano concertos. Composed from 1805 to 1806 and first performed by Beethoven in 1807, the Fourth Concerto represents a significant milestone in the piano concerto genre. Never before had the piano begun at the opening of a concerto, instead of an orchestral introduction. In the first movement, Beethoven undergirds the formal outline of the concerto with restatements of the opening theme and its harmonic progression. The piano’s opening in the tonic—G major—is replied to by the orchestra in the tonically distant key of B major, a technique often found in Beethoven’s middle period. Improvisatory-like passages in the piano move from one idea to the next, with explorations of other remote keys throughout, yet concluding in the tonic key of G major.
With its ambiguous form, the second movement in the grave key of E minor has been interpreted by some as Orphically inspired: the Furies, represented by the aggressive opening strings, are replied to by Orpheus and his lyre, the piano, in calm four-voice harmony. The interplay between Orpheus and the Furies proceeds as the Furies’ strident tone recedes. Orpheus’ tragic failure to rescue his love, Euridice, from the underworld—by looking back at Euryidice while still in the underworld, contrary to Hades’ decree—is evoked by loud, crashing diminished chords, then finally by descending melismatic passages by the piano, in increasingly longer time values, as Eurydice sinks back into the abyss.
The third movement retains a traditional Rondo form (ABACA) and opens with a vigorous rhythmic theme played by the orchestra in the subdominant key, C major. The piano replies in like fashion, also bringing the opening passage to a G major cadence.
In this evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, not just one, but altogether four composers are represented: all of “The Three B’s”: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, plus Busoni. The cadenza played tonight for the first movement was composed by the Romantic composer Johannes Brahms, long after Beethoven’s death. In this cadenza Brahms explicitly states the B-A-C-H signature theme first composed by the Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (B-flat, A, C, B-natural), that is found in Beethoven’s third movement: first transposed to other pitch levels before being stated in the tonic in a chromatically ascending sequence; and also in the first movement, transposed and in different pitch order.
The cadenza played for the third movement was composed by the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century composer/pianist Ferrucio Busoni. Busoni’s self-described aesthetic of Junge Klassizität (“Young Classicism”), set in the context of early twentieth-century Modernism, provides a fitting pairing with a concerto from the Viennese Classical era. Ferrucio Busoni viewed Bach and Beethoven as sublime, primordial Ur-musik, from which new art should spring forth as from a beginning. Busoni, himself a late-Romantic superpianist, subordinated virtuoso technique and its often concomitant emotionalism (in the Romantic era esp.) to musical logic and formal order.
Missa pro defunctis
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
The authorship of very few pieces of music are as hotly debated as Mozart’s setting of the Missa pro defunctis–the mass for the dead–or more commonly, Requiem (rest).
In the summer of 1791, Mozart received the commission of a Requiem mass from Count Franz von Walsegg, a nobleman with great musical interest and ambition. Walsegg was known to ascribe the work of other composers as his own. He unsuccessfully tried to pull this off with the Requiem as well. Walsegg’s commission was to commemorate his wife who had died February 14, 1791.
1791 was a fruitful year for Mozart. He completed a piano concerto, two operas–including The Magic Flute–his clarinet concerto, numerous dances, and vocal music. By October, when Mozart began work on the Requiem, he was physically exhausted from work, particularly from composing his operas. La Clemenza di Tito was thought to have been composed only in eighteen strenuous days. payment at the time of the request. Rather than return the advance, Mozart’s widow Constanze sought the help of others to complete the work, hoping to collect the payment in full. Two other composers passed on the opportunity, and the completion of the work fell to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, one of Mozart’s students. Süssmayr completed the work around early March 1792. Its premier finally came on January 2, 1793.
Mozart’s habit was to compose the principal parts first and fill in supporting voices and other details afterwards. When he died, Mozart had completed the Introit, completely sketched out the Kyrie and most of the Sequence, and left the Offertory only partially sketched. As was customary in many settings of the Requiem text, he instructed that the Communion should be a musical repeat of the Introit and Kyrie. So effectively everything else–the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei–were left in the hands of Süssmayr to complete. This is where the fierce debate of who wrote what begins.
Compared to his teacher, Süssmayr was no great composer. His compositions lack the luster of inspiration, that stroke of mastery for which Mozart is remembered. Nevertheless, the Requiem would not enjoy its reputation as great musical work without Süssmayr’s contributions. Those portions Mozart completed may have been received as great and noteworthy, but left alone, a partially completed Requiem wouldn’t receive much attention. This point is overlooked by Süssmayr’s detractors.
We don’t actually know where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins. Süssmayr’s opponents determine that where the music is especially good, Mozart must have written it, Süssmayr merely assembling the music from sketches that apparently have been lost. On the other hand, where the music seems ordinary, we have only Süssmayr to blame. What we do have is a work of great drama and beauty, a beloved work and one that sets the standard for other settings of the same text. In this regard, we have Süssmayr to thank for leaving us a complete work rather than useless fragments.
The Requiem Mass has commonly been sung on All Souls Day (November 2), a day in the church year that commemorates the faithful departed consigned for a time in purgatory. This is in contrast to All Saints Day (November 1), which remembers the saints already in heaven. Although the ethos of the Requiem text–
Mozart’s setting in particular–focuses on the shock and awe aspects of Judgment Day, it is not a text that Protestants ought to outright reject. The classic trappings of Roman Catholicism are absent. Purgatory is not mentioned. Mary is not petitioned. No transubstantiation. No pope.
The Sequence takes center stage in most settings of the Requiem text. Liturgically the Sequence is a hymn sung just prior to the Gospel reading. Although thousands of Sequences were in use in Catholic Europe before the Reformation, Dies irae (Day of Wrath) was one of only five that remained after it and then was reserved only for the Requiem Mass.
The stunning imagery of the Dies irae has been a source of inspiration to many composers, influencing not only other settings of the Requiem mass, but non-liturgical pieces as well (e.g. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Lizst’s Totentanz). Although it conjures up frightening images, the mercies of Christ are still clearly in view. Although its text presents a worm theology, it is no more egregious than the self-descriptions of many well-meaning Protestant hymn writers.
In the Offertory, the references to Michael and to the “holy light” promised to Abraham sound strange, but need not trouble non-Catholics. Michael is a warrior-angel that contended for the body of Moses and stands as prince before the children of God as he fights the Dragon. He brings the faithful into “holy light” promised to Abraham: that is, they become the stars that represent Abraham’s innumerable seed.
With the Offertory we leave what music we know Mozart himself composed. Süssmayr claims the rest. The Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei are familiar texts from the Latin mass ordinary. Although Mozart apparently had no hand in writing the final pieces, they have received particular praise, especially in the early decades of the Requiem’s performance history. Though Mozartians use Süssmayr “as the doormat on which they wipe [their] feet as they enter the shrine to venerate the Requiem (Simon Keefe),” it is Süssmayr that they have to thank for bringing the work to light at all.