What is it that creates and carries our memories? Our experiences, our history, what we read, what we are told and taught? Probably all of these things and much more. I am not interested, here, in any kind of scientific answer but in the sensation, that most of us have, that history leaves memories all around us. No more so than when we enter an ancient building.
I was lucky enough when I was studying in Hungary to visit Salzburg Cathedral with the Hungarian Choir, Ars Nova. We brought with us a new setting of the Mass by György Selmeczi which we were to perform for the very first time. This first performance was to take place in the context of the celebration of the mass at the cathedral. The very same cathedral building which first heard the Mozart settings including the Missa Brevis K194, Mozart’s first work to appear in print.
How could we avoid the comparisons? My abiding memory is of the choir room, down below the cathedral, grey stone walls and a piano which looked like it may well have been there in Mozart’s day. It was an overwhelming feeling, knowing that Mozart used to spend much of his time in this same room, preparing new music, facing similar challenges to those we were facing, wondering what a conservative congregation would make of this new music and in his case, what Archbishop Colloredo would have to say afterwards.
Archbishop Colleredo was a demanding employer and one of these demands was for brevity and clarity in music designed for liturgical use. It’s the age old argument between priest and musician. Simple and clear (audible even) expression of the text versus the exigencies of musical argument, form and expression. The resulting tension has created many a masterpiece and this is no exception. Having to avoid expansive orchestral preludes, extended fugal writing and over repetition of text is not allowed to be a disadvantage, rather turned to advantage. Mozart may well have felt constrained and Colleredo may well not have been completely satisfied. Such is life! But we are left with great music which is practical in its application.
As to its ‘newness’, that is hard but not impossible to recreate. As ever our approach should be to recreate as if new, to try to understand the expectations and surprises found in the score, to put ourselves in the shoes of the congregation of the time without ever forgetting the experience of our modern audience. No one that I know of does this better than Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Listen, enjoy and wonder!
The Zêzere Arts choir will perform this great work in buildings which also store centuries of memories in their ancient and magnificent walls. If you think you might like to join us, click here, read more and get in touch!