Chiara Bertoglio's latest CD constitutes the first instalment of a new CD project for Da Vinci Classics, and dedicated to oratorios performed at the piano. In this first volume we find two world premieres. One regards Carl Czerny's piano version of Haydn's "Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross", whilst the other is that of Carl Reinecke's "Biblische Bilder" ("Biblical Images").
The CD also includes a testimony by Reinecke's great-grandson, and a dedication to the famous biblical scholar Card. Ravasi, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The liner notes were written by Chiara Bertoglio, who also authored the cover picture. It represents a thorn crown made of barbed wire by an unknown soldier of World War I on the Italian Dolomites.
The Bible is not only the sacred text for countless believers in history, but also the source of innumerable works of art, and a literary masterpiece in its own right. Stories, characters and episodes from the Bible inspired many of the greatest examples of visual art in Western history, but also musical masterpieces such as Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Passions, as well as novels, poetry, drama and – in more recent times – films.
This Da Vinci Classics album presents two such works, mirroring two different views on Bible-inspired music. Franz Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words are inspired and actually shaped, as we will see, by seven sentences found in the Gospels – in fact, the last seven sentences uttered by the dying Christ on the Cross. Carl Reinecke’s Biblische Bilder represent, instead, fourteen episodes freely excerpted from both the Old and the New Testament.
Haydn’s work was conceived for public performance, and was the result of a precise commission. The Austrian composer had been requested by a canon of the Cathedral Church of Cádiz, in Spain, to write the music for a fascinating devotion which usually took place in Cádiz on Good Friday. The whole setting was highly dramatic, as Haydn himself had been informed. In his own words, “The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits”.
Haydn originally composed an orchestral score, which was performed on Good Friday 1786; the following year, versions for string quartet (by the composer) and for keyboard (approved by him) were published. In 1796, Haydn himself arranged the work as an oratorio with sung parts. The variety of these adaptations bears witness to the great success enjoyed by this work; a success which is fully justified by the cycle’s musical beauty and spiritual depth.
A solemn Introduzione, with the dotted rhythm typical for French Overtures, opens the series; it invites the listeners to a composed, serious and focused attitude, corresponding to the meditation of Christ’s Passion and of the last words he left to his disciples. The Sonatas setting to music the seven “Words” proper follow. They are built using a plurality of musico-rhetorical strategies. For instance, the first theme of each Sonata is directly derived from the Latin form of the sentence it depicts. Each sentence, therefore, could be actually sung, in Latin, over the notes of the first theme. Moreover, Haydn interprets the spiritual content of each sentence, employing both descriptive elements and symbolic atmospheres.
The first Sonata refers to Jesus’ prayer to his Father, interceding for those who crucified him. Jesus’ plea for mercy on their behalf is rendered through a music of exquisite sweetness, with a long, broad melody of generous breadth. As Christ’s Passion will progress, sentences will become more contracted both in length and in scope. The tenderness of Christ’s compassion is evoked through the copious use of appoggiaturas.
The second “Word” was addressed by Jesus to the “good thief”, who had asked the Saviour to remember him upon reaching his kingdom. Jesus responds by promising him salvation: that same day they would be in heaven together. Haydn’s use of marked, repeated chords manages to convey a double musical symbolism. On the one hand, it may allude to the harshness of their suffering, their condition as people fixed on the crosses through nails (possibly evoked by the hammering chords). On the other, it might signify the authoritativeness and solemnity of Christ’s promise to the thief. The same theme presented in the minor mode at the piece’s beginning is later transfigured when played in the major mode and with a rippling accompaniment of arpeggios: the terrible condition of the agonizing men will be radically changed when they will enter the gates of paradise. The piece’s Coda seems to depict heaven as a place of childlike happiness, with a certain dose of irony and goodhearted laughter.
The third Sonata focuses on the Virgin Mary, to whom her Son entrusts his favourite disciple, John, and who is in turn entrusted to John’s care. Haydn’s music is permeated by elegance and gentleness, as if depicting Mary’s femininity and “grace”. By way of contrast, the following Sonata is tragic and almost desperate, at loss. It renders Christ’s pained cry, when he felt forsaken by his Father. This feeling of abandonment is musically rendered through tonally uncertain passages, where no accompaniment is provided, leaving the melody precariously suspended and the listener searching for reference elements.
A second Introduzione breaks the cycle into two parts. Rich in contrasts of volume and sound, it prepares the listener for the fifth “Word”, Sitio – I thirst. The copious use of staccato quavers, obsessively repeated throughout the piece, seems once more to convey a double symbolic impression. It suggests the much-desired raindrops, and, at the same time, the biting cruelty of the thirst felt by Jesus on the cross.
The accomplishment of the Passion is represented in the sixth Sonata. Its motto, setting to music the words “Consummatum est”, “it is done”, is employed once again in a twofold fashion by Haydn. At the piece’s beginning, it is solemn, grave, priestly: it seals the accomplishment of Christ’s redemptive suffering and mission. Later, it becomes the background for a joyful, serene and almost playful melody, upon which a triumph is built. In a typically Johannine fashion, the cross is Christ’s royal throne and his death is his victory.
The last Word mirrors the first, inasmuch as both are prayers to the Father. In this case, Christ abandons his spirit in the Father’s hands. This Sonata is characterized by peaceful serenity and light; it closes on the increasingly rarefied beats of the dying Christ’s heart.
Yet, his death is a highly dramatic moment: if many of the bystanders ignored it, Earth herself was deeply shaken, as the Gospels report. The last piece of the series is the thundering earthquake, which leaves a deep impression on the listeners.
Haydn’s Seven Words are recorded here in the piano version realized by Carl Czerny, a great piano pedagogue who had been Beethoven’s student. In comparison with the version “authorized” by Haydn, this one renders more faithfully the rich orchestral texture of Haydn’s original, and allows for more pianistic effects. It includes both Introduzioni but has no repeats.
Czerny’s version was arguably intended for home or salon performance; the new bourgeois society could therefore practise both religion “proper”, and the religion of art at the same time, when playing such spiritual works. The same destination had probably been in Carl Reinecke’s mind when, approximately a century after Haydn’s Seven Last Words, he wrote his Biblische Bilder op. 220 (1893). This cycle is recorded here for the first time, as testified by Stefan Schönknecht, a direct descendant of Reinecke who kindly wrote the statement reported below.
The fourteen pieces constituting the cycle were probably conceived as the ideal Christmas present, as can be inferred by the richly decorated published score and by the fact that four pieces refer to Christmastide. An intended female readership can also be assumed, considering the high percentage of female characters (Ruth, Hagar, Rebekah, and of course the Virgin Mary).
Still, Reinecke poured his deep knowledge of the Bible and his own faith in his work. The fourteen pieces are divided into four volumes, comprising respectively four, three, four and three pieces. There are parallels among the corresponding pieces in the series: Ruth (no. 1) and the shepherds (no. 8) experience transcendence while attending to their daily work in the fields; Hagar and Ishmael in the desert (no. 2) correspond to Mary and Joseph getting to Bethlehem (no. 9); David quietens Saul with his lyre (no. 3), and the Holy Family’s rest during their flight is comforted by a music-making angel (no. 10). In Jacob’s dream (no. 4) a stair leads to heaven, and in the Magi’s journey (no. 11) a star indicates where heaven and earth become one, in Jesus’ incarnation. Judas Maccabeus’ self-denying heroism (n. 5) is mirrored by the generous deeds of the Good Samaritan (no. 12). Rebekah found her future husband by a well (no. 6), and Jesus turned water into wine at the Wedding of Cana (no. 13); the frantic and idolatrous dance by the Golden Calf (no. 7) is counterbalanced by the paralytic’s immobility, healed by the One Saviour (no. 14).
Exotic elements are found throughout the first three parts, together with aural depictions (David’s harp, the shepherds’ bagpipes, and the evocations of water in nos. 6 and 14). Three pieces display quotations after works by German poets. The lyrics cited in nos. 2 and 14 are excerpted from Karl Gerok’s (1815-1890) Palmblätter, a very successful and beautifully decorated publication collecting the sacred poetry of this Romantic author and pastor. The poem illustrating the Holy Family’s flight, instead, is by the great Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857).
This combination of music, theology, visual art and Biblical inspiration thus constitutes a multisensorial and spiritually stimulating achievement by Carl Reinecke: a collection deserving to be better known, and offering plenty of aesthetic beauty, narrative imagery, and religious contemplation at the same time.