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CD Review

Symphonic Masses

  • Nicolas Flagello: Missa Sinfonica (1957)
  • Arnold Rosner: Symphony #5 "Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina"
National Radio Symphony of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
Naxos 8.559347 74:45
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Two powerful symphonies: one a meditation on the self, the other a sermon for the world.

One of the byways of the symphony meanders into the territory of the symphonic mass – that is, a symphony, with or without singers, that takes its structure or its inspiration, at least in part, not from classical forms like sonata-allegro, but from the Roman Catholic Ordinary mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The mass, of course, with its mix of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew elements, is one of the great (as well as one of the oldest) intellectual objects of European civilization, and no small part of its fascination for artists, poets, and symphonists stems from the great body of musical settings from Machaut onwards.

The CD offers two approaches to this genre – one from Italian-American composer Nicolas Flagello, the other from the contemporary Arnold Rosner. Both men have been called Neo-Romantics, which just lets you feel the inadequacy of the term. For me, it suits Flagello more than Rosner.

Flagello came from a musical family. His brother Ezio had a successful operatic career. He came into prominence during the Fifties – that is, at exactly the wrong time. The Second Viennese School, and Webern in particular, occupied the catbird seat in contemporary music, at least as far as contributing to new notions of harmony and structure. Other avant-gardistes were extending rhythm and phrase away from traditional bases in song and dance. Even others, like John Cage, were busy redefining what exactly music was. Nevertheless, traditional composers still received commissions and even academic appointments. However, Flagello seemed to run with the wrong crowd: tonal, but not Barber, Menotti, or Schuman. I suspect as well a rather difficult personality that put off those he couldn't afford to offend. However, he had strong loyalty from his colleagues at the Manhattan School of Music, and indeed he owes his revival to some of them. By the time the musical pendulum had swung Flagello's way again, he was dying of a degenerative brain disorder. He could no longer carry out the simplest musical task. Many of his works remain in short score.

Of the Neo-Romantics, I think he comes closest to Barber, although, as you might expect, his personality is strong and distinct. I had encountered some of his music back in the Sixties through recordings, and nothing particularly impressed me then. I blame the luck of the draw as to what got recorded. I owe my enthusiasm for Flagello's music to Walter Simmons – musicologist, critic, producer, and one of the motivating powers behind this CD – who kept me at it. I think of Flagello's music as passionate and dark. He seemed drawn especially to melancholy texts but occasionally could also exercise great wit. As his career progressed, however, the moodiness tended to dominate.

I mentioned that Flagello's approach to the symphonic mass differs from Rosner's, and I think it comes down to the difference between insider and outsider, the difference between the Catholic-raised Flagello and the Jewish Rosner. Flagello's Missa Sinfonica, while it occasionally quotes from chant, nevertheless doesn't make chant its raison d'être. Flagello's idiom has far more in common with Barber than with Vaughan Williams, Hovhaness, or even the Rokstro-influenced Edwardians. Many symphonies based on the mass are, to some extent, sermons criticizing the culture at large: Honegger's Third Symphony "Liturgique" or Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, for example. Flagello avoids this. The symphony's five movements – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei – correspond to a moderato, scherzo, slow movement, second scherzo, and slow finale, respectively. The proximity to the structure of the mass comes and goes. Sometimes, as in the Kyrie and Gloria, Flagello mainly gives you a mood. Sometimes, you can practically fit the words of the mass to Flagello's music, as in the Credo, with its repetitions of "Patrem omnipotentem." Above all, however, we get really something personal. Flagello is so comfortable with the mass, it's so much a part of him (even though he may not have been a practicing Catholic), that he relates the mass to himself, rather than the other way around. The Credo particularly interests me for its rhetoric, its drama, and its keystone position in the symphony. This is hardly, as in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Christendom's march to faith or even, as in the mass itself, an affirmation of communal belief. The inwardness of the music, the rising desperation of repeated calls to the "Almighty Father," suggests a spiritual crisis. I admit that by the end of the movement, Flagello restores calm, but that seems to me a resort to the conventional. The Gloria, celebrating divine wonders, is appropriately dance-like. However, the Sanctus-Benedictus – on the other side of the Credo divide – works against expectations, to the grotesque. Something dark goes on here, not at all the assurance and calm of, say, Schubert's corresponding movements in the E-flat Mass. Flagello's symphony overall gives me the impression of the composer exploring his psyche through the structure of the mass.

On the other hand, the Jewish Arnold Rosner keeps closer to outward forms. In his liner notes, Rosner defends himself from the charge of "This is a Jewish occupation, writing a mass?" It makes as much sense to me as a white guy apologizing for playing jazz. Jazz and the mass – like Christmas, incidentally – are the common intellectual property of anybody with an artistic or historical imagination. I admit that Rosner probably doesn't get out of a mass what a practicing Catholic does, but so what? As long as he produces something wonderful. And not every faithful Catholic necessarily comes up with a great work of art.

I'll say right now that I loved Rosner's music when I first encountered it, and repetition has only strengthened my attachment to it. Rosner began to produce serious work as a teen (although he's revised some of those scores). He studied with avant-garde lights like Lejaren Hiller but claims he learned practically nothing from them. I hesitate to call him a neo-Romantic or a neo-Classic, although he has more in common with pre-World War II composers than with those who came after. Mainly, I've heard chamber music, because that's less expensive to record, but the rare orchestral work that came my way impressed the hell out of me. His string quartets made me want to hear his symphonies. Born in 1945, he wrote the Fifth Symphony in 1973, the height of the post-Webernian serialists as well as of the Viet Nam War. Rosner admits to writing the symphony as partly a protest against that war and dedicated the score to George McGovern. I don't know whether the symphony had ever been performed before this recording. In the meantime, what other symphonies has he written and when will anybody record them? This one's a knock-out.

As shown by his subtitle, "Mass without singers on Salve Regina," Rosner updates an old Renaissance practice – the mass based on plainchant. This comes in three styles – early, middle, and late. The early Renaissance tended to quote the chants, with skeletal contrapuntal support. The middle (in my opinion, the height of the genre) used the chant more abstractly, as an architectural frame which supported an efflorescence of counterpoint, as in Josquin's Missa Pange lingua. The late Renaissance tended to use the chant as modern composers use themes. Rosner, it seems to me, does all three. There is a very abstract element in this symphony, as if the composer were working out a complicated chess or bridge problem. In the liner notes, Rosner writes that what aroused him in the first place was the harmonic ambiguity (to modern ears) of modal music. He seems to have approached it, at least in part, as a way to reinvigorate tonality. It works for me. In addition, it's also powerful, even beautiful music.

However, a composer working with modes, rather than harmonies (and there's a difference), faces some special problems. In fact, few modern composers – other than those trying to prove a point – work with the modal strictness of their Renaissance ancestors for the simple reason that harmony and harmonic progression have become one of the main ways of moving music forward. Harmonic progression leads you somewhere. Modal music is a bit like a cup that never tips over. It's hard for us to conceive of a piece of real length that never moves from a particular tonal center, but that's pure modality for you. The Renaissance composer created movement – a sense of going from here to there – in other ways: changing the matter of discussion, the rhythm, or the choral "orchestration," for example. The modern composer can get a strong sense of movement simply by changing the key. Indeed, that's probably the main way tonal composers do it. Surely, it's the main way we distinguish the big pieces of a symphonic movement – first- and second-subject groups, for example. Even the modern composer who takes much of his sound from the modes – Vaughan Williams or Hovhaness, for example – "harmonically cheats" a bit. Rosner does what I'd call "overreaching the mode," arriving at a new tonal place by grabbing a note outside the mode and harmonically "slipping in" to a new key center. It strikes me as a strategy similar to Hovhaness in his symphonies, although Rosner writes far more tightly than Hovhaness.

In five movements (again, corresponding to Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), this symphony emphasizes counterpoint. The plainchant isn't always in obvious evidence, or even as half-hidden as the Tallis theme in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia. However, the "Salve Regina" is a pretty long chant. Rosner may be using parts of it unfamiliar to me. In any case, he also chops it into parts and riffs on the pieces. The Kyrie proceeds in rhythms that seem closely related to the text of the mass (a feature that seems to me to carry through the whole work). The music matches the mood "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy), and the main theme, although not directly imitative of the plainchant, nevertheless seems influenced in its shape by that chant. Slightly more than halfway through, the opening phrase of the "Salve Regina" chant bursts forth as a climax, which also signals a brief change in mood, and the movement closes with a quick dance, based more strongly on the chant. The drama of the movement becomes a plea for mercy, answered by the Queen of Mercy.

The Gloria is both a kind of scherzo and an homage to fugal techniques. After the incipit of the well-known Gloria plainchant, we get a dance-like prelude, based on a version of a Salve Regina phrase, although I doubt most listeners (including me) would get this right away. Indeed, the Salve Regina chant seems to retreat underground. We then get a fugue on the Gloria incipit, including a great stretto section, with successive entries in distantly-related keys. After this comes another fugal exposition, this time using the bit from the Salve Regina that formed the little prelude. The incipit occasionally asserts itself against the fugal texture to build a climax, with the interpenetration of the two ideas, and we end on a massive restatement of the incipit. The mood of the movement resembles the Flagello: generally bright. It threatens to become manic, kept in check mainly by the clarity of its imitative counterpoint.

The Credo, like the Gloria, begins with the appropriate chant, familiar to listeners who know the Credo movement in Bach's Mass in b-minor. However, Salve Regina works in the background, shaping musical materials and determining how the movement proceeds. In this, Rosner seems to combine his methods of the first and second movements.

Rosner puts the chant front and center in the Sanctus. He makes it the topic of the movement, which announces it at the very beginning. It starts as a kind of ritual dance, which gradually becomes more exciting, perhaps as God's glory fills the heavens and the angels sing hosanna. Halfway through, the mood once again gets subdued. We hear the chant again and go through a similar process. This may correspond to the point where Rosner introduces his Benedictus and hosannas.

In a symphony of beautiful and powerful argument, Rosner saves, to me, the best for last. The Agnus Dei begins with one lovely tune, cast like a flyfisher's line out over the water. The chant peeks out here and there amid the many lines, moving in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Again, a climax builds to a phrase with the rhythm of "Dona nobis pacem" / "Miserere nobis," appropriate to a "war symphony." Whether the composer actually intended this, I can't say. Perhaps I've seen a cloud in the shape of Lincoln's face. However, once I have seen it, I find it difficult to shake the impression. After this, the composer ends with a dance that makes me think of the innocence of heaven, much like the "bim-bom" movement in Mahler's Third. It's the end that really makes it for me. Rather than pound in a message or try to tug our heartstrings, Rosner gives us an image of play and peace – an impossible peace, as it turns out, but one well worth working for.

In a way, the social implications of the symphony have fallen away, in the sense that if you didn't know Rosner's stimulus from Viet Nam, you wouldn't have guessed it. It has become something more universal: a work which challenges us to be serious and noble, and to keep our sense of fun. Not many works of art do this.

John McLaughlin Williams and his Ukrainians have come up with another winner, although I find them more purposeful in the Rosner than in the Flagello. Nevertheless, they play the Flagello with commitment. Still, they have made me hungry to hear someone else tackle it. Rosner should have no complaints. In fact, he should shoot another symphony over to these folks as soon as he can. An outstanding release in the Naxos American Classics series.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz