Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme (De Profundis)

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Rodrigo Orviz Pevida

The Composer
Marie-Juliette Olga “Lili” Boulanger finished her setting of the penitential Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme, in 1917, on the cusp of World War I. The dense and thick orchestration that Boulanger chose for this work could easily depict the deadly tussles related to the European conflict of the time. At the time, the 24-year-old composer was at the peak of her suffering from a pulmonary illness that made her very vulnerable throughout her career. She finished this piece, which she dedicated to the memory of her father, from bed with the help of her sister, Nadia Boulanger. Du fond de l’abîme reflects this composer’s troubled life, pained with the memories of a father whose death would leave no relief from grief in the youngest of his daughters.

The Music
Although it is rarely performed, this is a great orchestral work. Performing this piece is difficult, given the magnitude of instrumentalists and singers required. Boulanger uses the organ and choir as representatives of her Catholic faith. The piece also makes use of the sarrusophone, which was used for outdoor military band concerts at the time. Her compositional mastery is made clear by her combination of dense harmonies articulated by horizontal juxtaposed lines. Beautiful melodies richly ornamented in chromaticism can be found in contrast with melodies that bring to mind early Gregorian Chants. Toward the end of the piece, the beautiful interaction between the contralto and the tenor narrates what could be if the composer met her father in heaven.

An Emotional Journey
In my opinion, this masterwork is a beautiful way to express a personal connection between the real world and the divine in a very emotional journey. Even though the orchestration suggests a very religious background, I feel it represents in a very versatile manner the human philosophy between life and death. The pace of the choral lines seems to lead to emotional processes back and forth between strength and weakness. It is extremely impressive and admirable how a very young composer at the beginning of the 20th century had the marked maturity to compose her own Requiem dedicated to the loss of her father.

Lera Auerbach’s De Profundis (Violin Concerto No. 3)

In lieu of concert notes, Ms. Auerbach has requested that the following poem accompany her music.

It is always there, waiting, waiting.
As I wake, as I walk my dog in the morning
or re-read my favorite poem
(the one which struck me as true in adolescence)
the Abyss is always just a step away.

If you stare at anything with burning intensity –
you can see the edge of its bottomless mouth.
Keep on looking through your tears and sweat,
without turning your gaze even once –
soon you will notice nothing else.

The Abyss tempts you to lean even closer.
Others may think you must have gone blind,
but you start distinguishing black on black,
you start seeing the distant valleys.

Once you’ve managed to really focus,
so much that the noisy light can’t disturb
your full concentration – at last – you see
deep within the Abyss – the Sun,
and stars of another great Universe,
calling to you with their flickering dance.

Now you may take this final step,
one step that still keeps you away.
As you stand on the edge, leaning ever closer
to the great expanse – the empty wow of nothing-ness –

you see how the Abyss, with its wrinkled topography
of a world alien to comprehension,
rearranges its valleys and mountains –
to form your own face.

Joachim Raff’s Psalm 130: De Profundis

Notes by TŌN horn player Emily Buehler

De Profundis
Written for soprano, small choir, and orchestra, Joachim Raff’s 1868 De Profundis, Op. 141 is a setting of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths, Oh Lord, have I cried unto thee.” Raff had multiple notable compositions including the patriotic Germany’s Resurrection and his version of Sleeping Beauty, which was, in the opinion of Franz Liszt, some of his best musical writing.

Raff’s Relationship with Liszt
Raff left Weimar for Wiesbaden in 1856, creating a somewhat bitter rift between him and Liszt, amidst an already complicated relationship. The two composers had blurred lines between roles of apprentice and partner. Raff was unclear of his position with Liszt, while Liszt was clear on the idea that Raff was his protégé. After spending time working with Liszt, Raff decided to leave and successfully established his own career as a composer. Even after the split, Liszt always approached discussions of Raff with supportive, fatherly intent. De Profundis seems to have played a role in mild reconciliation between the two composers, highlighting a change in Raff after the war—a tip of the hat to Liszt’s wish for him to explore and write in a more religious style. In the words of his daughter, Helene Raff:

It is “worshipfully dedicated to Franz Liszt.” Since Vienna (1862) Raff overcame his nature, his distrustful bitterness that had grown in him . . . Liszt with his familiar personality is supposed to have made certain remarks regarding Raff in 1856 or 1857 which Raff discovered . . . Through the dedication of the De Profundis, Raff showed that the old personal devotion survived despite everyday disagreements . . . Liszt took pleasure in the dedication and in the work; in a letter to the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (Liszt’s long-time companion) he mentions it as an important work.

A Re-discovery
Once popular among festivals and orchestras, Raff’s De Profundis is no longer widely performed. According to Helene, one of the last performances of its time was after Raff’s death, at the city church of Weimar. This piece has since been performed in Europe, but today will be the U.S premiere.

Virgil Thomson’s De Profundis

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Guillermo García Cuesta

A Religious Beginning
Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in a religious environment and was very familiar with the Latter-day Saint movement. He learned piano with the organist of the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, and went on to play organ there himself. All this would eventually influence his style, since hymns were in his DNA.

From Paris to New York
Thomson lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940 and studied for a while with Nadia Boulanger. He was acquainted with the group of influential composers there known as Les Six. When he returned to the U.S. he established himself in New York City and stayed there for the rest of his life. He lived with his partner, Maurice Grosser, in the Chelsea Hotel, a center of cultural activity.

An American Style
Thomson was key in the development of an American style of classical music. His use of hymns is a characteristic trait, as it is in the music of Charles Ives, but Thomson stayed as close to tonality as possible. He wrote music for movies and documentaries, perhaps most famously Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936). His style utilized popular songs, hymns, and a new way of orchestrating. Thomson could also be a controversial author, writing about hot topics like the suffragette Susan B. Anthony in his opera The Mother of Us All, and including a tango ballet in Four Saints in Three Acts, which premiered with an all-black cast.

De Profundis
Tonight, we will listen to his choral work De Profundis, the Psalm 130. I don’t know this as a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had chosen this Psalm after the famous letter “De Profundis,” which Oscar Wilde wrote while imprisoned for being homosexual. Thomson received a copy of that letter as a birthday gift when he was 17 years old and he kept it for the rest of his life.

OperaWire: An Immaculate Presentation of Verdi’s Requiem

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“Having heard the work a number of times (as well as having so many recordings in my head), this clearly was one of  the most memorable and moving Verdi Requiems I have heard.

Conductor Botstein consistently demonstrated an ability to bring the massive forces together, with a precision that had the array of forces cohere with great, controlled power. And, as usual for Botstein, he brought out details and shadings in the work that, well, seemed entirely new.

And with a graduate student orchestra, that youth and exuberance meant that – with all that detail and attention in place – the performance was, at many times, earthshakingly exciting. The “Tuba Mirum,” with trumpets placed in the upper balcony, produced a tidal wave of sound, and yet always remained musical, always controlled, as if that hurricane rattling outside your front door could be controlled.

As to “Requiem’s” quieter moments, the shading that Botstein elicited from the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists — in sections like the “Liber scriptus” or the “Ingemisco” — brought both a clear beauty of sound and a solemn peace amidst the Requiem’s stormy moments, always with fierce “judgement,” of course pending.

And when the audience – and I do not exaggerate here — shot to their feet as one, we perhaps all well knew there might not have been a better place to hear this great music, performed at this level of excellence, on this day just about anywhere.” —Matt Costello

Photo by Matt Dine

Verdi’s Requiem

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Ye Hu

A Failed Start
When composer Gioachino Rossini died in 1868, Giuseppe Verdi proposed to other Italian composers (including himself, a total of 13 people) that they jointly produce the Massa Per of Rossini. At that time, a special committee was organized which set the premiere date as the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. The plan for the venue was at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bologna, where Rossini grew up. Verdi himself decided to write the “Libera me” section, and was able to finish on time. However, due to the slow progress of other composers, and the lack of support from the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the plan to create the Massa Per of Rossini was unsuccessful.

In Memory of Manzoni
The Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, who had a great influence on Italian Romanticism, was greatly admired by Verdi. When Manzoni died in 1873, Verdi had the idea to compose the Requiem in memory of Manzoni. That summer, Verdi completed more than half of the work in Paris, and in April of the following year, the Requiem was nearly finished. Verdi adopted the “Libera me” section that he composed for the Massa Per of Rossini for his new Requiem. On May 22, 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, the Messa da Requiem had its premiere in the San Marco Church in Milan, conducted by Verdi himself.

Success and Criticism
The Requiem was quickly noticed around the world, which was unusual for religious music. The piece soon premiered in the United States, was conducted by Verdi seven times in Paris, and had three performances in London with a chorus of over 1,200. It was not met without controversy, though. The day after the premiere, Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bülow commented in a newspaper that the piece was “Verdi’s latest opera in ecclesiastical garb.” When Johannes Brahms heard Bülow’s criticism, he said, “Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work.” Years later, Bülow retracted his criticism and asked Verdi for his forgiveness. Verdi responded, “There is no trace of sin in you. Besides, who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!”