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Prelates and preachers

April 11, 2015

So, it’s confirmed that Sir Simon Rattle, currently artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, will be winging it to London in 2017 to take up the post of music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Reporters have been at pains to ask, and Rattle has taken every opportunity to deny, that his acceptance of the post was dependent on the building of a shiny new concert hall, another of our veritable temples to music, often kitted out with a mammoth organ to reinforce the solemnity and spirituality of the whole musical experience.

As with most ensembles nowadays, ‘outreach’ is the buzzword that keeps orchestras as busy as worker bees, laying the foundations for the next generation of audiences to fill all those concert venues. During an interview with The Guardian, Rattle expressed the obligation neatly and memorably as follows: “We have to be evangelists, not just high priests.”

That quote, plus this month’s spate of musical Passions during the re-telling of the Easter Story, got me thinking: not about Rattle’s evangelists and high priests who now promote and perform music as part of their job, but the compositions in which those character roles are part of the fixtures and fittings. I did a quick trawl through some relatively unknown works to find new reference points for those “evangelists and high priests”.

Johann Friedrich Fasch may have been slightly hobbled by being a direct contemporary of J. S. Bach. He lived from 1688 to 1758, was a prolific composer and became widely respected in his native Germany. Fasch was a student at Leipzig University, where he founded a highly active collegium musicum that often played his own works. The group was so successful that it is this ensemble, and not that directed by Georg Philipp Telemann, that is now considered by some as the ancestor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. To give an idea of that pedigree, here are a couple of extracts from Fasch’s Passio Jesu Christi (8.570326): a recitative featuring the Evangelist and Jesus, followed by an aria for the Daughter of Zion.

Charles Wood

Spooling forward two centuries, we find the St Mark Passion (8.570561) by Charles Wood (1866-1926), who was Professor of Music at Cambridge University for the last two years of his life and an important contributor to the Anglican church music scene. The work, commissioned by the then Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, was first performed in the college chapel on Good Friday, 1921. The Dean also saw another opportunity in his commission, adding that ‘it is about time that the bigger parish churches superseded Stainer’s Crucifixion – or at least had an alternative’. I’m sure you’ll agree that that intention never gained traction, but here’s an extract featuring both the Evangelist and the High Priest, with the organ providing accompaniment, both functional and colourful.

Antonio Sacchini
Source: Wikipedia

Ancient Greece provides the religious setting for Oedipe à Colone(8.660196-97), a 3-act opera based on the doom-laden story of Oedipus by Antonio Sacchini (1730-1786), the Italian composer who certainly put himself about – both in his native Italy, in London (where he was beset by scheming cabals and financial problems) and in Paris (where he met intrigue and opposition from the musical establishment). Sacchini died shortly after he completed Oedipe à Colone, reckoned to be his finest work and one which found great popularity in its era. Here’s an extract from Act I, Scene 5, for which the synopsis tells us:

The High Priest and people join in a hymn, seeking mercy; a prayer offered by Theseus and Polynice, seeking to appease the goddesses. The High Priest announces their displeasure, to general consternation.

And who wouldn’t be in dread amazement with all those thunderbolts flying around?!

George Enescu

The opera Oedipe (8.660163-64) by the Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) occupies a completely different sound world and comes from the pen of a musician whose talents seemed to know no bounds. Collectively, they marked him off as one of the most fascinating musical personalities of the early twentieth century, the accolade arising not only from his skills as a composer, but also as a conductor, pianist and chamber musician, as well as an acclaimed violin virtuoso. He was also a renowned violin teacher, who could count the likes of Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel and Yehudi Menuhin amongst his pupils.

Completed in 1931 and premièred 5 years later, Enescu’s Oedipe opens at the birth of Oedipus; the music sounds contented, a far cry from the plague-ridden atmosphere that holds sway later on.Here’s the opening of Act I (Prologue), set in the sculptured marble halls of King Laius, where the High Priest commands women to crown the waters of Dirce with olive, and men to plunge torches into the sacred water and to pour it on the head of the child.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

To end, let’s sneak back to familiar friends and one of the most memorable of all religious officiants: Sarastro, High Priest of Isis and Osiris in Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute (8.660030-31). After listening to his aria O Isis und Osiris, it’s difficult to resist thinking one has just been given a glimpse into music’s holiest of holies by one of the highest of music’s high priests.

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