We’re excited to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Drei Motetten, Op. 39 for you this Christmas concert (Dec. 2, 3, 2017). It is a beautiful, luxurious piece of music perfectly suited to the rich, full tones of the organ played by our guest organist, Dr. Curt Sather. It is a collection of three “motets” or small, religious songs and though not overtly Christmas-y, fits well in our program.
The first motet, Veni Domine (Come, Lord) is as plantiff a call to God as is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The words are translated as follows:
Come, Lord, and do not delay!
Forgive the transgressions of your people, and call back the dispersed to your land.
Stir up, Lord, your power and come to save us.
Though the melody is solemn, it’s not heavy or dreary, but full of lilt and danceful rhythms.
The second motet, Laudate Pueri (Praise the Lord) begins with musical references to Gregorian chants with the rather thoughtful melody line given to each voice part in succession. The choir quotes from Psalm 113:1-2, translated as: “Praise the Lord ye servants: O praise the Name of the Lord. Blessed be the Name of the Lord: from this time forth for evermore.” The melody is quickly stacked and reworked by each part into an interweaving polyphonic texture, broken in the middle by soloists who enjoin the listener with a quote from Psalm 128:1, “Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: and walk in his ways”. The melody is firm and absorbed rather than a wild and exuberant Baroque-type quality you might expect from a “Praise the Lord” song which lends a sense of strength and command to an otherwise joyful lyric.
The third motet, Surrexit Pastor Bonus (Good Shepherd), softens into a very pastoral, sentimental sensibility. The soloists and choir pass lyrics back and forth with rising cheer and zeal. The composition plays with elements of Baroque-style fugue, but ultimately blossoms into full-textured polyphony–each voice part singing independently, yet synergistically with each other. The lyrics center around Christ’s death and resurrection, which we think is a wonderful counterpoint to the Christmas story. Especially since the piece ends with sincerely enthusiastic runs of celebratory ‘alleluias!’
The good shepherd who laid down his life for his flock has risen, alleluia. And it was fitting that he should die for his flock, alleluia. [based on John 10:11-18]
They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. If you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away. [John 20: 13 & 15]
Christ, my hope, is risen; he will go before you into Galilee, alleluia. [from the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes]
Mendelssohn’s three part Op. 39 is absolutely a child of the Romantic era. Composed in 1830, it is influenced by Romantic ideals of the time. Composers in the previous Classical period were focused on exploring the rules and ideal forms of music while the Romanticists began to explore art’s ability to invoke rich and multi-layered feelings in the viewer or listener. Composers and artists explored the boundaries of emotion from the sublime, to abject desperation. They frequently used polyphony to build up layers of textured emotion. Mendelssohn, in particular, will often deliver you a theme, and then pass it around and around, changing bits here and there.
As you listen to this Romantic-era piece, listen for a) the depth and colors of emotion which Mendelssohn is playing with as he attempts to relate humanity to God. And b) the musical texture which is created by multiple melodies being woven together like lace.