Friday, July 17, 2009

Text Painting

Last night I had a true privilege: I got to see Mozart's Requiem performed live by a local group of extremely talented musicians. The soprano soloist happened to be a friend of mine who was a co-worker at Opportunities Unlimited and she did a lovely job with some fairly difficult music.

In spite of studying Mozart, playing Mozart, breathing Mozart... I had never heard the Requiem and especially such a heartfelt performance. This was one of those moments when the love of the musicians for the piece they are performing comes through in every note they sing, from the chorus musicians, many of whom I know, to the orchestra and conductor.

Because the music flowed so seamlessly, I was able to sit back and enter the music in a way I never could with a more mediocre performance. In college, I studied the art of text painting, specifically with Bach, but tonight I felt as though I was watching the music through a rainbow of layered meaning and subtlety. Mozart, in his last, great unfinished work not only opened the way for the Romantics and Beethoven, he infused his Requiem with a transparency I seldom see so clearly, even in Classical music.

For those of you not versed in music from the earlier eras, text painting is a method of enhancing the meaning through subtle clues, codes or musical expression. The movie music of today does this in a grosser form: for example, if you hear a saxophone solo, you can tell with your eyes closed that it's a love scene on the screen and if the music turned darkly ominous and threatening the bad guy is probably lurking just off-camera.

Surprisingly to the modern music-lover, Mozart employed similar techniques, if a little harder to spot. Although anyone who has studied Romantic music knows that a good Dies Irae will use the trombones to symbolize Hell, this piece was not so forthright in its offerings, Mozart still hearkening back to the mathematical precision of the Baroque era rather than the later Romantic flamboyance employed by the emotional Victorians.

So I was surprised to hear some vivid examples such as these (English translation of the Latin text):

When the accursed are confounded, consigned to fierce flames;
Music grown loud and fierce, sung by the full choir of men, along with the deeper strings
call me to be with the blessed.
simple, sweet melodies sung only by the women

With that little contrast, Mozart makes his text so much clearer, painting a layer of extra emphasis over it as if to tell his listeners that the Blessed are safe, rising in angelic safety away from the flames of darkness.

Sacrifices and prayers of praise, O Lord, we offer to thee.
The entire choir contributes a peaceful melody rising in volume and pitch, higher and higher as though the many prayers rise to heaven from each voice.

Lux Aesterna
May light eternal shine on them, O Lord, in the company of thy saints forever and ever.
The introduction of this line is given by the pure voice of the soprano soloist, like a single, piercing ray of light.

Of course these three small examples do not begin to touch the constant ever-changing beauty of the music, but I hoped to convey to you the idea of using music, a rising note, a single voice, a certain instrument to give an even stronger impression than the words alone.

Knowing that the Requiem is a Mass for the dead, I was struck forcefully by the aspect of Hope that Mozart conveyed in it. To him, death was not a fearful descent into Purgatory but a humble confidence in the hope of glory. He took the words used by so many others and painted over them with the brilliant brush of his own musical genius and in doing so laid bare his own soul. Unknowingly so close to death himself, he wrote a ringing call of hope to the Faithful, a beautiful tribute to those passed before him and a forceful message to those behind. His music speaks of the Divine, the Everlasting.

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