Remarkable perspectives on Meyerbeer
Those thinking of Meyerbeer as a composer of the grand statement in dramatic confrontation will be surprised perhaps to experience the latest new offering in the slowly expanding repertoire of his recorded music. Meyerbeer wrote sacred choral music all his working life, from the days of his study in Darmstadt with the Abbé Vogler , until the last years of his life when he was completing ‘L'Africaine'. This delightful collection gives a sample of this music from across his life, and reflecting the diversity of the genres he composed in, as well as the encompassing generosity of his belief. The pieces include works for choir and organ, but mainly feature a cappella compositions for voices alone. They reveal preeminently the composer's knowledge of harmony and effortless skill in counterpoint—gifts manifested also in his operatic writing where they are obviously adapted to the specific and fast-moving exigencies of musical drama.
The earliest piece lends its name to the collection: ‘Halleluyah', the Hebrew exclamation of praise. This work was specifically written for the Reformed Synagogue in his parents home in the Tiergarten in Berlin (1813). After a strong organ prelude, it alternates between a dancelike joy in praise of God and a mysterious, almost whispered rapture. This is followed by the composer's most extended choral work, a setting of Psalm 91 ("He who dwells in the shadow of the Most High"), one of the longer examples of these great poems, a psalm of trust, that Meyerbeer was asked to compose for the Royal Friedrichskirche in Potsdam, for the visit of King Leopold of Belgium in 1853, when the composer was at the height of his fame. Verses 11-12 ("For he will give his angels charge of you" is quoted in Jesus' Temptation in the Wilderness, Matthew 4:6). The 8-part chorus adds extra vocal depth to the writing throughout. The varying sections are reflected in the changing moods and melodies of the various parts, underscored by separation of the vocal registers, changes of tempo and rhythm, chromatic runs. All is anchored by the recurrence of the opening melody. This majestic and serene piece reveals much imagination in the response to the text, and constant variation in the tones and textures of the changing harmonies. The arresting concerted forte singing contrasts with softly melodious blessing, especially the ‘dolce cantabile' at the passage "He will give his angels charge over you".
Meyerbeer's setting of the Our Father (1857), written for the Berliner Dom, is perhaps his most famous choral piece, comparatively short, rapturously restrained in addressing these well-known words, with sudden sforzandi passages emphasizing injunction, and softer tones the hope vested in the requests. This composition, full of intricate harmonies, is again most imaginative in responding to the seven petitions of this most famous prayer in the world.
Late in life, in 1859, Meyerbeer wrote his most mystical choral work, taken from Thomas à Kempis's (1379-1471) famous medieval classic of Christian discipleship, ‘The Imitation of Christ', in the free translation by the poet and dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606-1684). The words address the issue of the great suffering human beings must endure in life. Written for a bass solo and choir with organ, the canticle divides into three solo questions and three choral responses, a pattern of despair and doubt, answered by faithful reassurance of heavenly promise, with the rich organ part helping to sustain the serene and moving atmosphere.
The most striking work on this collection is the set of 'Sieben Geistliche Gesänge'. These were written in 1812, in the years of study in Darmstadt, and set a series of poems by the famous German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klostock (1724-1803). These poems cover various aspects of the spiritual life: 1) Morning Song, 2) To the Trinity, 3) Preparation for Divine Service, 4) Song of Thanksgiving, 5) After Holy Communion, 6) ‘Wake up my heart', and 7)‘Jesus Christ we are here'. This cycle was always special to the composer who revised and published them much later in life (1841). Now at last we can hear them, and appreciate their extraordinary range of mood and musical expressiveness. They are richly textured in 4-part harmony, and it takes many close listenings to begin to appreciate their subtle melodic grain and various beauties. There is another joyful ‘Halleujah' variant, but it is particularly the last song that impresses by its intense, ineffable melodic beauty. The theme would haunt the composer, and you might recognize it as the melody of Vasco's cabaletta in his great Act 4 aria in ‘L'Africaine'.
The last piece in this anthology is a testimony to Meyerbeer's love of Mozart (1858)—lifelong devotion he shared with many other great composers. He tellingly used one of his secular choral works for male voices ‘An Freundschaft' (1842) to testify to his own friendship for Wolfgang Amadeus. The song is hushed and reflective, an intensely felt and beautiful tribute.
The German choir Rheinische Kantorei sing throughout with clarity and full understanding of these works and their provenance. On could have wished for a slightly stronger bass voice in the soloist, but the conductor Hermann Max holds all together so well, and with consistently able direction. Do listen to this lovely peaceful music, and be surprised by this remarkable perspective on Meyerbeer's diverse creativity.