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Jane Ellen talks with Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles about Beethoven's
Jane Ellen: Most people are aware that his third symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte but at the point where Bonaparte declared himself an emperor, basically a dictator, Beethoven lost all emotion or admiration for the man. He was very angry with Napoleon and he tore up the dedicatory page, re-titled the symphony the Eroica or the heroic symphony.
But then I found that at the same time he was working on the Ninth Symphony he was actually working on his last great Mass. They call it the Missa Solemnis or the Solemn Mass. It’s set to the catholic mass, the Ordinary of the Mass, so many great classical works are, and in this, at the very end where the prayer enters dona nobis pacem or grant us peace, you find that the movement is unsettling. Some critics have accused him of failing to finish the work properly saying that it feels unfinished, but going to the original score I found that Beethoven had written some notations in the vernacular in German and in one place in particular he had notated that this was a prayer for inner and outer peace and as the dona nobis pacem is explored by the soloists and the choir and the orchestra, there are these unsettling moments and everything seems to begin to fall apart.
My interpretation is that he was beginning to reflect the chaos of humanity and we’re saying well we want peace, but we’re spending our time in war trying to find some sort of justification for this.
And to figure out the end of the piece I finally turned to Robert Shaw, the great choral conductor, and I found an interview where he was quoted as saying, “There is no answer to those who feel the mass is unfinished other than to say that the extraordinary variety and repetition of the prayers for peace from simple childlike songs to shouts of despair and frustration add up to the truth as Beethoven saw it.” Shaw continues saying, “There’s no assurance, not even for God himself that peace will come as a quiet end.” He finished the interview by saying, “War may continue to exist. We will continue to sing.” And I think he has a grasp on this idea that Beethoven, in a sense, left the peace unfulfilled without a satisfying conclusion because he didn’t feel that there was a conclusion to the great prayer for peace in his time and this was in 1824.
Jane Ellen talks with Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles about Vaughan Williams
Ellen: The Pastoral Symphony was premiered in 1922 just a few years after the war ended. In 1936, the world would begin to see the inevitability of yet another great war and it’s at this time that Vaughan Williams wrote his famous dona nobis pacem.
As England faced the threat of war, Vaughn Williams turned, I think surprisingly, to the poetry of an American poet Walt Whitman, who also worked as a volunteer in the medical corps during the American Civil War, and he chose selections from Walt Whitman’s poetry to be woven into his masterpiece.
The excerpt that I thought was the most interesting is the third movement of the dona nobis pacem. We begin an Agnus Dei taken with the Latin text from the Roman Catholic Mass and then the first Whitman poem is called “Beat! Beat! Drums!”
But the third poem is stark and leaves us wondering where the ultimate direction of the work will take us. It uses the entire poem by Whitman and just listening to the first few lines takes us to another place emotionally. The first lines in Whitman’s poem are as follows: “Word over all, beautiful as the sky! Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost; That the hand of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world.”
Jane Ellen talks with Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles about Britten's War Requiem
Ellen: Many people thought that when Britten began to compose a War Requiem it would be jingoistic, nationalistic if you will. It would be a glorification of Britain and whatever was left of her empire; a justification of war, but instead it had everything to do with his antiwar convictions.
He set the piece up so that it would have three soloists and he wanted them to be specifically of different nationalities. He wrote for a German, for a Russian and for an Englishman. Unfortunately the Soviet Ministry of Culture would interfere and while the premier was supposed to feature Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, they revoked her travel permit and a stand-in had to learn the role in only two weeks.
Another interesting thing about the Requiem that’s reinforced by his desire to use people of three different nationalities, when Britten wrote the dedication he made it very clear that it was not simply in honor of the reconstruction of the this cathedral but that it was in memory of all those from every nation who had lost their lives during the war making it truly an antiwar statement.
Ingles: Well it strikes me as a reconstruction as well by involving all those nationalities in some sense of coming together and putting behind the past and working together for a future.
Ellen: I think it’s curious that within the context of the Mass, he chose to insert text by a World War I poet named Wilfred Owen. Owen was famous for writing poetry during the war. Having been injured, returned to action and then being killed only a week before the Armistice was signed.
In one of Owen’s letters he wrote: “… I’m not concerned with poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. … All a poet can do today is warn and that is why true poets must be truthful.”
I often wonder if Britten was familiar with this comment and if he saw his urgent need for pacifism, his need to take a stand against war; if he saw the need for composers and artists to take social and political stands with their work so that their artistic work would make a difference.
Jane Ellen talks with Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles about Tippett's A Child of Our Time
Ellen: And then we move to yet another British composer, Michael Tippett who would serve jail time for his stand on pacifism during World War II. He had lifelong humanitarian and pacifist beliefs which were simply unshakeable and it led him to make a personal statement during 1943 saying that no artist should ever be conscripted or forced to serve any sort of military time. Part of this was as a way of declaring his status as a conscientious objector. He was 38 years old at the time and really not due to be called up for military service, but to accept that official statement, he would have had to give up his current teaching job as well as have other things taken away from him by taking this lower status as a conscientious objector. Friends of his encouraged him not to do this, that it was silly, it was senseless, he was too old to serve anyway, but he insisted on making the statement and because of this he was actually thrown into jail and served three months.
Tippett was also the first openly gay composer, so he was very much a controversial figure both socially and musically.
He would push the boundaries a bit further when he decided to write an oratorio in which he would musically make his statements about the need for peace by using African American spirituals in the context of 20th century classical music being written by an Englishman.
The piece he chose to write he would title, “A Child of Our Time,” and it was influenced by actual political events. A polish teenager who was only 17 years old had been sent to Paris by his Jewish family in 1938 hoping to keep him safe. When he found that his family had been deported by the Nazis to Poland, fearing for their safety and in anger over the entire situation, this teenager shot a German diplomat. All of this set in motion a terrible event called Kristallnacht in which Nazis tore apart Jewish shops and the homes of Jews in protest for the murder of one of their own. Not many people recognized that this refuge teenager was actually the child of our time about whom Tippett was going to write.
Ingles: So from “A Child of Our Time,” what would like us to hear?
Ellen: I can’t resist choosing one of the spirituals that he used in the piece. Although the work would be a critical and commercial success, there were people who felt that jazz and spiritual elements had no place in a work of this type. I’ve chosen one from the second movement which should be familiar to most listeners called “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”
Jane Ellen talks with Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles about George Crumb's Black Angels
Ellen: What’s interesting about the composer George Crumb is that he tended to write works which would often be taken in different ways from his original intention. He was commissioned to write a string quartet by the Stanley Quartet which was as the time in residence at the University of Michigan.
And already being rather an eccentric composer, his manuscript scores are phenomenal. They’re like pieces of artwork rather than printed scores. He had decided he wanted to reinvent the string quartet and he wanted to mix it with electronics and percussion and he wasn’t exactly sure what sort of piece he wanted to write.
Ingles: What year was this work composed?
Ellen: He began writing it in the late ‘60s. I believe the commission was actually in ’68. George Crumb later said that he was deep in the compositional process before he found out that people were already assuming that it had something to do with the Vietnam War. He had only been vaguely aware that there might be something in the piece which would cause people to react in that way. In an interview he gave he said, “My thinking was good versus evil. The devil’s music is for the violin and the cello is for the voice of God.”
Ingles: How did violinists feel about that?
Ellen: That probably goes way back to people like Paganini. It was rumored that they had sold their soul to the devil to be able to play so well. In fact John Philip Susa wrote a Victorian novel called “The Fifth String,” in which a violinist sells his soul and the result is he’s given this magic violin with five strings.
Ingles: Well that’s "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"with the Charlie Daniels Band as well.
Ellen: Yes it is. You can’t get away from it. If you’re a great violinist, obviously you’ve sold out something.
Ingles: They say this about great guitarists as well, but I digress. Well from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton. Anyway, so of course maybe just planting my consciousness in 1968 has me making these associations.
Ellen: By the time the idea was suggested to him, Crumb began to realize there was something that was evocative of the period and at that point he actually put a subtitle on the piece calling it “Music in Time of War.” In everyone’s mind it will always be that string quartet about the Vietnam War even though it didn’t start that way. It’s strikingly harsh and painful music. It can be almost described as frightening music and in fact, it’s all of these qualities that will lead this piece to inspire someone else to form a music group that is, in my opinion, a tremendous driving force for not only international music, but for peace via music in particular. The Kronos Quartet.
Jane Ellen talks with Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles about Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace
Ellen: Karl Jenkins is a Welsh composer and unless you’re familiar with the set of recordings under the title of “Adiemus,” his name may not be immediately recognizable and yet he is one of the foremost composers of the 20th and now the 21st century. He has been involved in an eclectic mix of music, but with “The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace,” he has returned from his faux world music, if you will, into a solid orchestral and choral world. He received a commission to write this Mass for the millennium, the turning of the thousand years. At this time he again was given free reign as to how he should write it, but they did request that he write something that dealt with peace and hopefully now a new millennium of peace. We haven’t seen any evidence of that yet, but that’s certainly what he set out to write.
To write the Mass, he went back to a famous medieval tune called “L'homme armé” or “The Armed Man.” The tune was so popular in the late middle ages that literally dozens, if not perhaps over a hundred different Masses were written using this particular song as the theme behind the liturgical music. This was a common practice. It was often done so that the common man who didn’t understand Latin would at least have some idea of the music and find something to which they could relate.
Ingles: Something familiar, yeah.
Ellen: Exactly. By going back to this original tune, he used it as a bookmark. He would begin his Mass with the tune but then end the Mass with the tune totally transformed in a completely different way, but it took a while to get there.
He would use texts by Rudyard Kipling. He would use the Muslim Call to Prayer, perhaps the first time we’ve ever had that used in a work of this sort, and in the middle of the piece he would use a poem by a Japanese poet who had survived Hiroshima, but in the ‘50s he was dying of leukemia due to radiation poisoning.
So you have a work that’s overall mixing different languages, different time periods, different ethnicities, ending up in this great cry for peace. I thought it would be fun simply to listen to the book ending fragments rather than trying to get into the middle of the piece.
He sets the medieval tune in the beginning to footsteps. It’s as if footsteps are marching off in the distance and then a piccolo comes in emulating a medieval flute playing the tune. Eventually the singers sing the original medieval French words.
At the end of the work, he’s taken this, but he’s put new words to it. Instead of singing about The Armed Man, the choir is now singing better than war is peace and it’s turned into a dance number. No longer do we have the sense of the medieval call to war, but we have a sense of medieval rejoicing, a dance in honor of peace instead of something celebrating war.