It has been said that greatness in art is marked by the impossibility of imagining alteration. The story that could only have come right that way, the sculpture of which every contour begs contemplation, the music whose melody would fall flat were any one of its notes missing or moved—it is a quality that we recognize in such works as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, or Michelangelo’s Pieta, or the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Famed from his childhood as a prodigy who performed in courts across Europe and composed over one hundred fifty symphonies, quartets, operas, and other pieces before he was eighteen—a number that grew to nearly six hundred by his death at age thirty-five—Mozart (1756-1791) stands among the most iconic classical composers. Not only his music, but his life itself (albeit reinterpreted) has been regarded as a work of art, as the stage-play-turned-film Amadeus testifies.
The philosophical and political transition of the Western world formed the backdrop of his life, and its cultural movement from an inherited alliance of Christianity and feudalism to a new order of reason and self-government is reflected in his personal journey: groomed by his father for a patronage position in one of Europe’s royal courts, where his compositions would be under the service and the regulations of the court and the Church, Mozart eventually chose to make his way by freelancing in order to pursue his own musical interests, chiefly opera and instrumental composition. Moreover, his mature compositions epitomize the burgeoning “common culture” of Europe: the fruit of Mozart’s childhood concert tours was a flawless synthesis of the finest musical elements of distinct music styles from across Western European. “In every kind of composition,” comments one critic, “he achieved an extraordinary synthesis of form and content, of the galant and earned styles, of polish and charm with emotional depth” (from A History of Western Music, ed. Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca).
But, as astonishing as are his talent and productivity, it is that quality of crystalline perfection, the consistent impossibility of alteration throughout his works, that continually awes music critic and first-time hearer alike. Listen for it in Laudate Dominum, one of Mozart’s most exquisite vocal solos, presented here by the Academy of Ancient Music with the inimitable Emma Kirkby as soloist and Christopher Hogwood as conductor:
Though often performed as a stand-alone work, Laudate Dominum forms a single movement of Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K. 339 (full performance can be heard here). Vespers, celebrated at twilight, is the seventh of eight services in the Divine Office, a daily liturgy of prayer, song, and Scripture by which the church historically measured its hours, and for which many of the greatest works of sacred music have been composed. While a Vespers service would include prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, its musical center in Mozart’s day was the setting of five Psalms and the Magnificat, each concluding with the Gloria Patri.
Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore progresses through settings of Psalms 110 (“The LORD said unto to my Lord, ‘Sit Thou at my right hand . . .’”), 111 (“Praise ye the LORD. I will praise the LORD with my whole heart . . .”), 112 (“Praise ye the LORD. Blessed is the man that feareth the LORD . . .”), and 113 (“Praise ye the LORD. Praise, O ye servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD . . .”), before arriving at Laudate Dominum, a setting of Scripture’s shortest Psalm, 117:
O praise the LORD, all ye nations:
praise Him, all ye people.
For His merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the LORD endureth for ever.
Praise ye the LORD.
In each piece, the Latin text of the Psalm is sung out by a choir and four soloists (a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), accompanied by a small orchestra of violins, trumpets, trombones, timpani, cello, bass, organ, and bassoon. This combination allows for much movement and variety in each setting, as the choir, soloists, and instruments variously take the lead or come together; moreover, the alternation of soloists and choir aurally depicts the call to “praise the LORD” (which opens four of the five psalms) and its response by the servants of the Lord and all the nations.
Though all movements of the work share the same combination of instruments and voices, Laudate Dominum stands distinct from the rest. The musical settings of the first three Psalms and the Magnificat are melodically energetic and harmonically dense, while the fourth Psalm is set as a classic fugue, a musical genre perfected by J.S. Bach in which different lines of melody are interwoven in intricate patterns.
This is music that should be taken into our ears, hearts, and memories, so that it may ultimately be taken into our souls
From its first notes, Laudate Dominum sets a different tone. A soft surging-and-falling violin pattern grounds the ethereal melody that is begun by the brass instruments before melting into a soprano solo. The soprano sings straight through the Psalm text; then, her melody is gently echoed by the choir, singing the Gloria Patri; and finally, the soprano re-enters to sing a richly ornamented final “Amen” that rests on top of the choir’s more subdued one, the only moment in which all voices join.
The brief setting displays no virtuosic technique of composition or performance; upon analysis, it proves surprisingly simple.The melody is contoured in a balance of stepwise motion, in which consecutive notes rise or fall as in a scale (pictured on a piano keyboard as each note being right next to the one previous to it), and a few perfectly poised leaps, in which consecutive notes skip several notes between them on a piano keyboard. Balancing steps and leaps is key to a strong melody, as anyone knows who has tried to sing an unfamiliar tune in church: a melody made of all stepwise motion proves dull, since leaps are what often communicate strong emotion or longing in music—but a melody with too many leaps can barely be followed and loses its emotional depth. There is, however, no formula for getting these two melodic elements “right.” The genius of Laudate Dominum lies in the sheer wonder and simplicity of its beauty, transcending any formula, a marvel of musical intuition.
What uses a work like this could have to renew and inspire Psalm-singing in our churches or to ignite a love of language in Latin class! (Incidentally, could there be any better way to wake students to the enduring beauty and continuing vitality of Latin than by spending class time taking in the great canon of Latin church music?)
But supremely, this is, I believe, the kind of melody which might fulfill Plato’s austere requirements for the education of the young in the Republic, in which Socrates claims that “rearing in music is most sovereign” because “rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them,” causing the student to become graceful “if reared properly,” and instilling “the sharpest sense for what’s been left out and what isn’t a fine product of craft or what isn’t a fine product of nature” (Book III, 401e). This is music that should be taken into our own and our students’ ears, hearts, and memories, so that it may ultimately be taken into our souls.
And this is music which enriches our senses with a tangible, aural “image” of God’s work in this world, in our lives. For the great Artist also is writing a story that, when we know the ending, we will declare to have come out right; coloring a painting in which the light and dark hues will finally be seen as essential to the beauty of the whole; spinning a melody of which every note, though meaningless on its own, joins in a whole that is sheer, inexpressible, unalterable Beauty.
Other posts in this series:
- “Help Me Lament”: Grieving Good Friday through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
- 3 Mistaken Assumptions About Classical Music
- Summons to the Sacred: On Palestrina’s “Kyrie
- The Music in the Water: How Biedrich Smetana’s “The Moldeau” Makes Us More Human
- The Colorful Music of Maurice Ravel
- Play That Old-time Music
- Incarnation as Alarum: Benjamin Britten’s “This Little Babe”
- Living in Light of Fantasy: On Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy”